It all started with a question: Why can’t I?
As an active-duty officer in the United States Army, I had a fully funded opportunity to attend any graduate school between my seventh and 11th years of service. As a young lieutenant, a wild thought popped in my brain: Why don’t I make the most of this opportunity and apply to an Ivy League school? I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud initially at the lunacy of the thought. Yeah, right.
But then I allowed it to sink in. No really — why can’t I?
As I experienced repeatedly throughout my graduate school journey, that hopeful thought was quickly invaded by self-doubt. My inner voice offered ample reasons why I wasn’t Ivy League material — not being smart enough chief among them. But despite relentless internal reminders of my inadequacies, I persevered anyway. I was at least going to try.
Over the course of three years, I studied for and took the Graduate Record Exam four times. My first score was devastating: I scored within the 30th percentile in the quantitative section — 70% of the people who took the quant section scored better than me! (Let it be known that my inner critic is very confident with math—particularly odds, which at that time she determined to be 0.) The Wharton class profile stats are clear: the average admit scores in the 90th percentile. I was nowhere near where I needed to be.
STUDY MARATHONS REPLACE VACATIONS
Deflated, I reminded myself that learning is work, not magic. It was going to take effort, and a lot of it. When others went on vacation, I instead used most of my leave (vacation) days for study marathons. Even more discouraging, my attempts at the GRE did not get better each time (2nd was better than 1st, but 3rd was worse than 2nd). It was easy to get discouraged, but I had to remind myself, again for the umpteenth time, learning is science. I just need to try a different approach. I couldn’t quit. Now looking back, I can say that its more than science, it is large part resilience. I finally got a respectable score and applied to The Wharton School.
Fast forward a few months and I got the call. Philly area code. OMG, I got in! But my admission came with a catch.
Because of my (lack of) formal mathematic background, my admission was conditional on achieving the minimum score on Wharton’s own entrance math exam. I perused the list of tested concepts: logarithms, derivatives, polynomial functions. Apart from the statistical concepts I vaguely remembered from a single undergrad stats class, I literally did not know these mathematical concepts. What was a derivative? As a liberal arts undergrad, I had not taken anything higher than algebra!
There was another serious issue. In the army’s eyes, my conditional admission didn’t count as fully admitted, a distinction that would thwart the Army administrative green light to attend school. I had to have a “full admission” to the Army by April, but the entrance exam was in June. It would be too late. Knowing full well I’d have to learn all those concepts on a truncated timeline, I negotiated to take the exam two months early in April. As if I needed any more pressure, if didn’t pass, I wouldn’t be attending ANY graduate school. I could only move forward with one university and all my eggs were in Wharton’s basket. It was too late to change. It seemed like a cruel twist of fate — torturous to come so far with a real possibility of failing. My inner voice chastised me for choosing one of the most competitive business schools in the world because my graduate school opportunity was in jeopardy.
NOTHING WAS EASY
I studied like my life depended on it, because, it did. When I took the entrance exam in April, I was so nervous I could barely write my name. I needed to score around 70%. When my final score showed 85%, I don’t think I had ever felt so relieved. It was a great feeling to finally be admitted to Wharton. I bought a PENN sweater and everything to commemorate the momentous occasion. (I was superstitious that celebrating too early would be bad juju…who wants a sweater from a university you didn’t get into?). I let out a long breath of relief — I was in! Officially.
As a Wharton student, the next two years were much of the same struggle, and it is emotional to reflect on the growth I’ve experienced. Nothing was easy. Nearly every class gave way to a new wave of self-doubt of not being smart enough, not belonging. It always seemed like I put in more effort than others. This “less than” perception perpetuated more self-doubt. I leaned on my friends and family for objectivity and encouragement. And, as much as I wanted to, I didn’t avoid challenge. I focused on developing myself and leaning into my weaker areas instead of defaulting to my strengths. I was continually encouraged and surrounded by a cohort of Wharton peers pushing themselves all the same as me. We even have a shared euphemism – we call it “stretching.” In dialogue with other Wharton students, I found I was not alone. Everyone is pursuing growth of their own and dealing with their own shortcomings. At Wharton, I chose one of the hardest academic concentrations. I double-majored in Statistics and Business Analytics, both of which are STEM, emphasis on the M. (Take that, GRE.)
I sacrificed at Wharton too — it wasn’t just during the matriculation phase. For me, this opportunity was about proving to myself I had what it takes academically and the broader goal of proving that my identity was not solidified in its 18-year-old form. I could grow and become a better me. And, to come to know this “other self,” like other parts of my story, it required sacrifice. I was selective in how I spent my free time. I made deliberate choices regarding social and professional clubs and events. I selectively chose relationships with people who exuded “good energy,” compassion, and kindness. I even quit drinking entirely for the first year (yes, you read that right) — all as part an effort to focus on academics, myself, and my closest relationships. Not everyone always understood my choices, but I did.
KEEP THE FAITH. TRUST THE PROCESS
I walked across that stage (figuratively, thanks Covid-19) knowing full well I earned every bit of that degree. No one gave me anything, except admissions — they gave me a chance. A chance to grow and change and learn about myself and meet some of the most amazing people on the planet. They gave me a chance to question my potential and how I can leverage it to help others. Aside from this chance and the incredible Wharton faculty, pretty much everything else was hard won by me and those closest to me who held me up along the way. My success is theirs too. Today, graduation, makes it all worth it. It’s everything.
While it’s disappointing that we, Wharton MBA Class of 2020, didn’t walk the stage triumphantly to receive our diplomas, I try to remind myself that graduation was not our singular triumphant moment. No, the triumphant moments were all those micro-moments along the way when we each chose deliberately to push forward, to not quit, to connect. Those are the triumphant moments I’m celebrating on my graduation day.
Morals of my story: Don’t count yourself out. Silence the inner critic. If it’s worth it, put in the work and sacrifice. Comparison is the devil — do what’s best FOR YOU. Check your attitude. Find your tribe. If you aren’t the smartest person in the room, be the hardest working. Cut out the people and things in your life that are holding you back. Keep the faith. Trust the process. Believe.
I hope my story will help inspire someone who is striving for something crazy. You can do it!
Bethany Dumas is a U.S. Army major currently stationed at The Research and Analysis Center at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. As an operations research and systems analyst, she applies data analytics to military studies. Bethany enjoys hiking, spending time at the bark park with her two pups, and dancing to a good ’90s playlist.