the sellout's dilemma

January 20239 min read

parody of lungs by maggie o'farrell.

It’s after school, late afternoon, and a group of teenagers wait at the 925 bus stop. They compare who slept latest last night (Emma wins, at 4am). They fill the air with how it’s her third time drinking coffee this week, how he fumbled the linear algebra test yesterday, how she has a data presentation tomorrow. They are stressed, yet bored; busy, yet not moving forward, in that mind-shriveling way peculiar to this stage in life.

They are waiting. They’re waiting for Ms. Elamad to finish marking their induction tests, waiting for the night before their physics presentation to cram all 17 slides, waiting for university application season to be over. They’re waiting for the wave of HYPSM deadlines on January 1st, for the COMC honor roll, for the school admin to decide if they’ll have a graduation trip, for Ms. Lau to reply to their email. They’re waiting for winter break; that’s when they can pursue their goals full time.

Some want to be doctors, some programmers. Some want to buy a house and settle down with a partner, some want to make the world better, some just want to prove to their parents that they can be successful. Some want to move far from this city. They are, all of them, waiting, because that’s what teenagers who grow up in Chinese immigrant families do. They wait. For the day they leave the assembly line that is school, each day a conveyor belt from one class to the next. For the day they graduate, go out into the real world, and do something meaningful with their lives. They’re waiting for the day they no longer have to wait, when they stop sacrificing today for an imagined tomorrow.

One of these teenagers is me. I’m thinking about my MIT essay, how programming would have lush brown hair billowing around her as I stare into her eyes. My secret lover, a guilty indulgence, an education system that pushes us apart.

Three more weeks, I tell myself. Three more weeks, and then I submit. Then, I don’t have to spend 3 hours each evening and 8 hours each weekend writing. Then, I can spend as much time with her as I want.

Now, though, I have to clamp down. Make the MIT admissions officer feel my joy as I run out the door with her, my surroundings blurring around me.


On the outside, we’re the top 60 in Toronto, selected out of 800 applicants. 50% of us will go to University of Waterloo; a few of us will go to the Harvards and UC Berkeleys.

On the inside, we’re trapped in a castle of our own expectations. It’s the way your fists clench when a Stanford friend tells you he had great standings with his high school teachers, because he’s one of the only kids that did all the assignments. It’s how a mark out of 100 is really a mark out of 10, in the range from 90-100. 95 is a pass.

As Peter Thiel says about the prestigious law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, On the outside, everybody wanted to get in. On the inside, everybody wanted to get out.

You thought you made it after you got into TOPS. Then,

People told you Grade 11 marks would matter the most. You’d better work harder, because it’d be much more difficult than Grade 10. it wasn’t.

Then, you thought your life would be complete after you got a $50,000 scholarship. Then, after you self-studied the French fluency-certification exam. Then, you said you’d travel and live in SF after application season. Girl you worked 4 years of high school to culminate in getting into university! What a shame if you cop out now.

Next year, you’ll say you’ll party hard after you graduate college. Then, you’ll create that animated documentary after you get a job. Then, after you’re financially free. Then, after you get married. Then, after you retire.

Then, you’ll start living your life.

In the rat race for happiness, you don’t break free when you attain any amount of money or status. You can only break free from the inside. When you decide to stop wanting more and be happy where you are now.

It isn’t after any exam is over, or after any application. It is whenever you decide you’ll stop making excuses.

But what if writing college apps, arguably the most important thing you’ll do all year and what will decide the people you spend the next 4 years with, is not the time to question your unyielding discipline?

You decide to suck it up. You’ll work on applications, and nothing but applications, from September to December. But this really is the last one. Nothing after will be as important as applications. Then, you will start living your life.

Talking about Lungs by Maggie O’Farell in my English seminar, I realize, good writing makes you feel. You never tell the reader you feel angsty, that you’re bored, that you’re confined. You tell a story that makes the reader feel how confined you are.

Without telepathy or brain computer interfaces, you write to transmit your mental state into someone else’s head. Editing is the task of picking the metaphors, adjectives that wrap around your feelings like a soft blanket. Words you want to reach out and grab them and tuck them next to your heart.

I bring this approach to my applications.

I’m meticulous about it. My base chance for MIT is 2% because I don’t have US citizenship, which means I need to be radical. After the admissions officer reads her 50 allocated applications for the day, she’ll go to sleep thinking about mine.

At the bus stop now, I think about my English assignment, an argumentative essay. I want to form an opinion about sex—read some papers about your brain’s neurochemistry, explore what philosophies other than Buddhism and Stoicism say. I have a boyfriend now, so it’s no longer rainbow theory philosophy that will never be thought about outside debates.

But last year, you’re angry that your favourite coding projects were the game and website you made for your CS class. While your paper on quantum optimization algorithms sits unpublished, your personal website unupdated since last year. How your Laura Complex prevents you from working on a project without devoting all of yourself to it. A website with a car that drives down as you scroll forward because you think you know the javascript to make that happen, and you won’t be able to live with yourself if you didn’t try.

"Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

You’d rather have good MIT essays than a good English essay. You have to learn to make sacrifices in accordance with your own values, or else the world will choose them for you.

You hit submit. Your back against your chair as Common App’s confetti rolls down. Your chest doesn’t untighten.

From the front of the room, Ms. Brennan calls out. “Laura, come up here.”

Before I stand up, I already know what this is about.

She gestures to the computer. “Laura Gao,” next to a blank document.”Laura, what’s up? This is not like you.”

There’s a reason she’s not scolding me for not handing in the assignment on time, asking if I need help, telling me to stop misbehaving. I sense it in the way she doesn’t say anything more. How she looks at me, her eyes, searching for an explanation.

The same blue eyes you stared into when she said your Common App essay showed her how obsessed you are with filmmaking and

“Uh… I don’t know. I didn’t do it.” Any explanation I give will sound like an excuse, so I try not to give one. Inevitably, a lame one slips out. “busy with applications, I guess.”

There’s a reason she tells me to focus on the summative now, and how afterwards, I wordlessly go back to my desk.

What I should’ve said was: you’re right, it’s not like me. I should’ve said: It hurts me more to do a task mediocrely than not at all. I have this sickness that I’m putting off my art, a sickness that grows every time I say, “I have the rest of my life to code, after this deadline,” or “I’ll write my yearly reflection after exams.” American university applications was the last straw: a 4 month coding hiatus, my days filled with “How does Maggie O’Farrell write Lungs such that we experience the sexual harassment with her,” “how do I make MIT admissions officers feel a hole in their heart after I leave Atlas,” forced to master a foreign craft. I can’t stand waiting another second before I code my 2022 into a game: a project that hones my skills, that would pay dividends in my future career, that makes me excited to wake up and seize my life in my own hands. Even if it’s for English, a course that pulled me through applications, that showed me how to live the lives of others through literature, that makes me want to get on the 925 bus every morning. C’mon Laura, you promised you would live your life after you submit applications. I didn’t expect to take so long to recover, just a few days a break from writing, I’m sorry, I really am. I’m sorry I broke the unwritten code of integrity with the one teacher who makes me see ideas in the air, the one teacher whose respect I want more than the grade, the one teacher who makes it worth it to preserve the bits of Laura left. I have to concentrate everything on staying true to myself, in this school that prefers me as a rule-following robot, with these classmates who take computer engineering because it’s a “free 100.” I have to get away. I have to work and work so that I can leave, and only then can I create a life that will be liveable for me. I cannot bear for anything to slow me down, distract me; I vowed that nothing would, not after T20 applications. I also should have said: thank you.

Thank you, thank you.