“What challenges you?”
The question hit me like a very obvious, and very sudden wall. I took a deep breath, and let the many challenges I have everyday come back to me.
First of all, there’s parking. Each time I turn into a fresh lot, I suddenly feel like a hopelessly inexperienced ship captain maneuvering a huge freighter. Besides parking, I struggle with opening bags of chips, not accidentally staring at people, tying my shoes (I only ever learned the bunny ear method), and finding the right granola-to-yogurt ratio.
There, I breathed a sigh of relief– I had quickly remembered at least five things that challenged me. But staring at my interviewer from Yale, a neurosurgeon wearing a yupster vest and an interested, smart smile, I realized that my challenges would hardly suffice.
Here I was, sitting across from a clearly exceptional man in a cafe in west Austin– a man whose mind was almost certainly scoring me on my ‘Yale-ness’. As 60s music bopped in the background and a young family discussed dessert next to us, I realized, with painful clarity, how uninteresting, how average, how completely unexceptional I seemed.
“What do you do for fun?” The surgeon asked, charitably shifting topics. My eyes focused on the lukewarm hot chocolate in front of me. What do people do for fun? What do I do for fun? Do I ever have fun?
I looked back up at my interviewer, smiling as best I could. “Well, I love to draw… and… uhh… hang out with friends.”
“Besides that,” he said, taking a sip of his sparking water with lemon. Besides that? What did he mean, besides that?
I stared at the waitress across the room and the huge burger she was parading through the cafe. Yum. I thought about dinner… food… grocery stores. That’s it.
“Well, I go to the grocery store a lot.” I said. Oh no. Bad move. The Yale man laughed quietly. Not good. I made a dive to save my answer, “And I play with my dog a lot too.”
The interviewer shifted in his seat. My heart sank as I took a tiny sip of hot chocolate. Oh god. What am I doing? Grocery store? Dog? Am I retired?
For the rest of the interview I tried to answer the surgeon’s well meaning questions as best I could with a dry mouth and jumpy mind. When the interview was over, we parted with a firm handshake. “Great to talk to you,” the interviewer said snappily.
Walking to my car, I wondered, briefly, who the other kids he interviewed for Yale were? A girl who wrote symphonies for fun? A boy whose daily challenge was raising his ten siblings from a one room shack on the side of the highway? A future astrophysicist who had modeled for Gucci?
I got into my car, and let my head fall back against the seat. The sun was in my eyes, and my face felt hot and sweaty. God. I’m probably the most boring high school senior to ever have existed.
But as I drove home, I realized that there were a lot of things I hadn’t told the Yale man. Like how I’ve watched every PBS ‘American Experience’ available for viewing on Netflix, how I have an affinity for 70s pop hits, how I doodle on all of my papers. Sure, these aren’t extremely remarkable things, but tossed together, they make me who I am– As much as my interests may seem like those of a retired person, I’m proud of the way they shape me. Boom! Take that Yale.
As luck would have it, I had another college interview at the very same cafe just a few hours later. Tired and hungry, I drove back to the cafe. It was dark outside when I pulled into the parking lot. I stared at my intended spot and took a deep breath. Queen’s song ‘Under Pressure’ played quietly on the radio. I swallowed hard, gripped the steering wheel, and slid in between those white lines in one perfect, extraordinary swish.
A moment later, I swaggered into the cafe and sat down across from my Brown University interviewer, a snappy young lawyer in a stylish suit. “So,” she said. “What challenges you?”
I grinned and took a generous gulp of hot chocolate. “Well…”