‘Nonanswers’: How much of it is luck?

April 9, 2023, 6:55 p.m.

Growing up, my parents had a nickname for me: xiao fo, which roughly translates to “little luck.” Every vacation we’ve ever taken? Perfect weather. The year I was born, my parents were promoted at work. We often find ourselves snagging the last available seats on the train, winning sweepstakes and finding ourselves in the right places at the right times. My mom and dad say lucky things seem to happen when I’m around.

The day that Restrictive Early Action decisions came out for Stanford’s class of 2026, I was in the middle of an evening shift at Rite Aid. I’d been worrying for the entire day (let’s be real — the entire month), and when the clock struck 7 PM, I could barely keep my hands from shaking too much to log into the application portal. 

“Oh my god.”

“What happened?” my coworker Mike asked as he was clocking out for the night. A 60-year-old heavyset man with the voice of a lifelong smoker, he didn’t sound like he cared what the answer was.

“I just got into Stanford.”

Standing at the cash register, my vision blurred, and my entire worldview shifted. When I called my parents, breathless and bordering on hilarity from all the adrenaline, neither of them seemed very surprised. 

Xiao fo,” my dad would say later that night when I got home, “I never doubted that you would get in.”

On Friday, March 31, Stanford released regular decision admission offers to this year’s applicants, welcoming the prospective Class of 2027 to The Farm. Even though it’s been over a year since my own admission, I still remember the surrealness of the moment like it was yesterday: the feeling of excitement and gratitude and disbelief. 

At the same time, I remember the days prior to decision day: picking mercilessly at my nails, anxiously shaking my leg in class, praying that my essays and extracurriculars were enough to validate me in the eyes of an application reader. Praying, most of all, that my good luck would come in handy. They say that for every admitted Stanford student, there are three other applicants who were equally qualified to fill their spot. I was just another good student in a sea of thousands, not someone with any automatic “in” at any university. 

Basically, I was praying that my admissions officer had eaten a good breakfast and was in a cheery mood on the day they read my application. So when I got in, I felt like I’d finally lived up to my nickname. I really did have great luck.

I don’t think it fully set in for me that I was going to Stanford until my first week on campus. Before then, even as I was meeting people online and setting up my student ID; even when I visited for Admit Weekend; even when I was on the airplane from JFK to SFO in September, Stanford felt like an idea, more like a badge that I had earned than an experience I was going to live. It wasn’t until I started making friends and talking to my dormmates in the second floor hallway that the switch finally flipped. I actually go here, and so do my friends. 

My peers are dynamic, intelligent and insanely accomplished, but they’re also real, funny and sometimes, stupid. I can’t help but feel like a lot of us share something, despite our varied backgrounds. Among many of my classmates who I admire most, there’s this kind of undefined quality, some sort of essence that exists alongside being smart and capable. It shimmers when you hear people talk about their passions. Maybe it’s that we all have some sort of good luck on our side; we take risks because we trust them to pay off. I assume that’s how most of us have gotten this far.

We talk a lot about privilege around here. Even though our differences in upbringing seem to be minimized in the classroom, they appear in subtle ways, like how some students are better prepared for higher level classes; more confident in raising their hand to answer a question or sending out applications to summer internships. The luckiest of us grew up with better resources, and are consequently more knowledgeable about ways to advocate for ourselves in our educational and professional journeys. These students are luckier than others in the conventional sense: in terms of upbringing and opportunities. But on the other hand, some of us are luckier in the sense of actual luck: in terms of jumping through hoops and defying greater odds. 

Landing a pair of aces in a round of poker is luck. Playing those cards right is a matter of skill, from calculating probabilities to reading the body language of your competitors. Luck is looking up at the night sky and catching a shooting star. Once you make your wish, the rest is up to you and your self-belief. 

Life is too short for me not to believe in miracles and fated events. I think luck helps make every day exciting, helps make risks worth taking. Testing your luck is how a startup goes from an idea in a dorm room to changing people’s lives. Life is too precious for us to not try for what we want, to sometimes bet against what others think we’re destined for. Hard work is the driving force behind concrete steps toward better outcomes — but luck might be the seed that gets it started.

Admissions is a crapshoot, and in the next universe over, it’s very likely that I got rejected from Stanford on Dec. 15, 2021. Yet I still think that in such a universe I would have ended up somewhere that made me happy, that I would still have tried to find success through my character: something that isn’t up to chance. These days, I try not to stress about imposter syndrome and whether I deserve to be here. It’s a grounding thing to remember that this is the only time in our lives when we will ever be this young, surrounded by so many other young people with big dreams and ideas. Should we waste our luck by boxing ourselves in and pummeling through classes on autopilot? Or should we roll the dice again and see where it takes us?

I don’t want this essay to sound like blind praise of Stanford, because while I’m incredibly lucky to be here, I’m certainly not lucky enough to have had all my problems go away once I got in. But the world outside of this campus is a scary place, and we are all fortunate enough to be in a position to make a difference. The way I see it, we all got a little lucky with earning an acceptance letter. But we’re most lucky to be meeting one another, at such an exciting time, in such an inviting space. We’ve been brought together to listen to and learn from each other. The question is: what will we do with all that fortune?

Erin Ye '26 is the Managing Editor for The Grind. She also writes in Sports and Arts & Life. Erin enjoys black coffee, exploring the Stanford experience, and live music.

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