The admissions mistake

Since I’ve gotten to Swarthmore, the idea of the so-called “admissions mistake” has never been far from mind. From the Orientation Play in September, which had a plot centered around finding such a mistake until realizing that the mistake was the judgmental college official, to the Celebration of Failure happening this Friday, the concept has stayed on my mind all year. Since my own acceptance to Swat, which came earlier than expected due to being selected as a McCabe applicant, I’ve worried that I’m the admissions mistake. I doubted the validity of the results and worried that the Admissions Office would figure out what they had done. After I realized that I really was in, I thought, “They haven’t even seen my final first semester grades yet! I’m practically failing calculus!” At the time, I had a B in calculus. When I got rejected from half a dozen other schools later that spring, I was nearly convinced that my admission to Swarthmore had been a particularly dramatic clerical error. When I got a call months after my initial acceptance informing me of my selection as a McCabe scholar, I had initially assumed the phone call was to tell me that my calculus grade was too low, and that I would have to find another institution to attend. I still had a B in calculus.
I’ve spent some time reflecting on the idea of the admissions mistake, and I’ve come to two conclusions. The first is that in the traditional sense of the term—that is, if the admissions office does mistakenly accept people—it couldn’t happen just once every admissions cycle. If there is a possibility of someone being here by mistake, there must be more than one person here by mistake, so even if people are admitted here by mistake, they aren’t alone. But I highly doubt that to be true. What I do think is true, however, is that there is no single thing that makes a person destined to belong at Swarthmore, and that we’ve all had a unique set of circumstances that led us here. There was some degree of chance that played a role in each of my important accomplishments, whether it was a teacher helping me find an internship or the right person graduating at just the right time for me to fill their vacant leadership position; nothing happened entirely and solely because I was smart or worked hard. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re all admissions mistakes—not because we aren’t qualified to be here but because there is no one way to become a Swattie. All of our journeys are marked by the fact that we didn’t always do everything right, yet we’re still here.
The concept of an admissions mistake stems from the feeling that one doesn’t belong or isn’t qualified enough. These feelings are common and valid, and they deserve both recognition and addressing. In my own experience, redefining the idea of the admissions mistake has allowed me to focus less on my doubts and more on the beauty of the way in which our community comes together. There is not any one way to get here nor any one trait that makes anyone more qualified to be a Swattie than another. Sure, our applications could be quantified and ranked by high school GPA and SAT scores, and the admissions office certainly includes that in their process, but there is no way to measure how much someone fits into this community. None of the stuff that goes into a college application is what makes any of us Swatties; rather, it is what we do, how we treat people, and the experiences we have while here that make us a part of this community. We are all admissions mistakes because we are all the result of our flaws and mishaps that carved the path that led us here, not some error on the part of the admissions office. Mistakes and failure are a part of life and are rightly celebrated as part of the human experience, but the concept of of the admissions mistake can be revamped to spread the idea that not only does every member of the Swarthmore community have unique gifts to share, but each of us ended up here not because any one of us was destined to come here.
Each one of us made the same decisions to apply and matriculate for reasons that may be entirely different than each other. We hold different experiences and are from different places, yet somehow, we all ended up here together. This conceptualization of the admissions mistake is not to imply that any of us are here by mistake, but rather that it was the mistakes we made, the chances we took, the people who believed in us even if we didn’t always deserve it, that got us here; that is what makes our community special.

Laura Wagner

Laura '20 is from Dover, Delaware. She is in the honors program studying political science and economics. Outside of the classroom and the newsroom, her interests include running, politics, and really good books.

1 Comment

  1. Laura
    Thanks for writing this. I graduated in ’76. I also considered myself an “admissions mistake”. I’m thinking of returning to campus for the first time since graduation day in 1976 to confront my fears. Thanks for sharing yours. Niley

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