50: The Acceptance Letter

50: The Acceptance Letter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

The Acceptance Letter

Necessity has no law.

~Benjamin Franklin

There’s a scene burned into our brains from movies and television. A fresh-faced teen, perhaps long-haired, but in a good and studious kind of way, runs to the family mailbox to receive the parcel that bears either his acceptance or denial (or waiting list, though this third dramatic option is seldom used in Hollywood for reasons of pace) into the college of his dreams. The destiny to finally leave where he grew up, the little house on whose grassy front yard he now stands, is in the piece of paper in his hands.

The scene is an obvious choice for filmmakers, for its suspense, poignancy and ability to push the narrative. Plus, it’s what happens in real life. To high school seniors applying to college, the mail is a very big deal. Monitoring its contents on a daily basis is not uncommon. Any envelope with university stationery can stop your breath.

In the movies I’ve seen, if the parent, while sifting through the bills and fliers, encounters the envelope first, he or she waits and gives it to the son or daughter, to whom it is rightly addressed, to open. The parent then sits patiently and reads the letter simply by reading the child’s face.

Having been exposed to this cinematic scene so many times, I was of course awaiting “my scene” the year I applied to college. I was applying to Washington & Lee University, a small liberal arts institution in Virginia. I was applying early decision, which supposedly meant three things:

1. It’s where I wanted to go most.

2. If accepted, I was fully committed to going there, and nowhere else.

3. It reflected a specific desire to attend that boosted my chances of getting in by about 15%.

I would find out in late December, not in the spring as one would for regular decision, so if I got in, I could spend the last five months of my senior year slouching off, within reason. There were suburban legends about A- students getting Ds the spring semester of their senior year and colleges reneging their admission, but it had never happened to anyone I knew.

Weighing all the formulas for getting in; SATs, grades, sports, awards and honors, community service hours (in this last category I was lacking), my father said he was 85 to 90% certain I’d get in.

A businessman by nature and trade, I remember him quoting this figure to me over breakfast. Sitting in the dusty morning sunlight of our kitchen, his glasses on a string around his neck, he had about him eggs, bacon, heavily-buttered toast, coffee, and a pack of Lucky Strikes. The college rankings issue of U.S. News & World Report, the big fat dictionary-like guide to colleges, was open to the Ws.

“85 to 90% certain,” my father said again. “I’d be very shocked if you didn’t get in.”

Both my older brothers had attended fancy schools, and now that I, the youngest, was due up, my father had the swagger of a baseball batter who’s going to hit three-for-three. Not that getting into a good college wasn’t important to me, it was, but to my father it justified every endeavor of childhood, from wrestling tournaments to guitar lessons, in a strange, though harmlessly obsessed way.

Some days after that breakfast, I came home from school at the usual time after wrestling practice, and found the mail as it typically was, in a somewhat neat pile on the corner of the table. Sure enough, there was something from Washington & Lee. It was a normal, letter-sized envelope. Both sides were covered with translucent grease spots and the under-skin of the flap was bumpy and coated with a congealed white substance.

My mom was unloading the dishwasher. My father had just appeared from the living room at the sound of my arrival.

“What the heck happened here?” I said, holding up the battered envelope.

At first, the envelope wouldn’t really rip. I tore harder and the lid just kind of separated slowly, like a mouth full of peanut butter. Right then, in the corner of my eye, I noticed the Elmer’s Glue bottle on the windowsill above the sink.

“I think it’s glued,” I said.

“Sorry sweetie,” my mom said, and set down a stack of plates and came nearer to put her hands on my shoulders. “Your father had to open it. When he saw it was a small envelope his face turned purple. He looked like he was about to have a heart attack and so he just had to open it.”

That was the other great theory our family entertained about college mail. A big envelope meant you were in, as it would be stuffed with accompanying forms and brochures about dorms and meal-plans and such. A small envelope meant a single sheet of paper whose basic message was, “Sorry, but...”

For whatever reason, the good folks at Washington & Lee admissions sent me their congratulations with a simple two paragraph letter. According to my mom, this had almost killed my father.

“You should have seen the color of his face,” she went on. “It was like all the blood in his body just rushed to his head when he thought you didn’t get in. Your father had me boil a kettle of water and we sat there holding the envelope over the steam to get it to separate.”

So as a victim of petty mail fraud, I didn’t get to experience my acceptance letter in the traditional cinematic way. By the same token, my father, a proud and supportive man who deserved to feel a sense of triumph at the last of his sons making good, had a rather anti-climactic moment as well. Whenever I feel the need for a fond memory, I just think of the old man sitting at the table with the glue and the scissors like a kid in art class, trying to do the best job he can.

~Max Adler

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