Today, half the seniors at Claflin Academy will die.
On the inside, that is.
A hundred kids will obsessively refresh their emails and portals so a dancing bulldog, or a tiger, or whatever mascot represents all their hopes and dreams for the future can tell them:
Welcome to Harvard, class of 2025!
We regret to inform you that we must crush all your hopes and dreams. . . .
Or at least that’s what we interpret. It’s early decision day, and hearts are going to break.
Then heads will roll.
College admissions is always a heady mix of longing, desperation, and rage. Claflin kids are quick to the rage part. How dare they reject me?! Don’t they know who I am?!
Me? I am nobody. My mother isn’t a senator; my dad isn’t a high-priced corporate lawyer. No one in my family has won a Pulitzer or an Oscar. And I’m certainly no prodigious math or music scholar. Nice SAT word, though, right?
I had to take the test three times, but I finally cracked 1400. I lied about my score, of course, pretending my first try had netted a comfortable 1520, and the other two times were to get a perfect score. The Ivies think I landed a 1550 and called it a day--more than good enough for Penn. My real score is my secret shame.
But at least I know I’m not the only kid at Claflin lying about their application. You can’t doctor test scores--colleges get them directly from the testing companies. But everything else?
My peers lie about the stuff that colleges don’t bother to check. Like the clubs they founded and are president of, awards and honors won, that sort of thing. Last year a Claflin senior, Chelsea Cunningham, copied another girl’s résumé down to the letter. She got away with it because the student she copied was accepted to Dartmouth early decision. So when Chelsea’s app showed up, Princeton didn’t have two applications from two different girls both claiming to be the president of Model UN, and a summer intern for the Boston Globe newspaper, and the recipient of a Scholastic Gold Key Award for Novel Writing. Sloppiness gives colleges a reason to make phone calls to high school counselors. It’s how you get caught.
Or, you know, committing a federal crime. When celebrities and CEOs got caught in that huge college admissions scandal a couple years back, I laughed. The prevailing view at Claflin was restrained relief that none of the academy’s parents were indicted. Students here had long ago learned far more subtle, and legal, ways to cheat. Really, money is the ultimate cheat--rich kids get all sorts of advantage in the admissions process, no lawbreaking required. Anyway, Chelsea got into Princeton on her fake credentials, and the world keeps turning. She’s lucky she wasn’t in our graduating class. The Ivies would have turned Chelsea’s ass in and gotten her expelled for good measure. Karma is a bitch.
I guess I’m a bitch, too. It’s an unfortunate side effect of being an Ivy.
But the Ivies get results. I look across the table at Margot surreptitiously scrolling through the Princeton clubs and organizations page on her phone. She got in three days ago, early action. The elites start sending their ED--early decision--results the second week of December. It’s like blackjack: What day will the decisions for your dream school land? The vast majority drop on December 15, though, so Claflin calls it ED day.
“Because no one eats all day,” Avery jokes almost every time someone says it. And today, the words ED day are slipping past our lips a lot as we all count down the seconds and minutes to 5:00 p.m. ET, when most schools will pull the trigger. Then tonight we’ll let loose at Claflin’s infamous ED day party. Accepted or rejected, every senior gets drunk off their face.
“ED day is so much worse than I thought it would be.” Emma Russo, aka Brown University, shoves her iPhone into her bag so she can’t look anymore. I give her a minute before she pulls it out again.
On cue, Avery makes her tasteless eating disorder joke. Normally, I let her barbs slide, because calling her out isn’t worth it. She always turns it back around on me, like a jellyfish: you step on her and she stings. Today, though, I’m practically vibrating from nerves and could use a diversion.
“I fucking hate that joke,” I snap, stabbing my fork into a piece of grilled chicken before deliberately chewing and swallowing it. I wait for Avery’s eyes to flash cold as she delivers an oblique threat, but instead she throws back her head, blond curls swinging in a perfect arc over her shoulder, and laughs.
“I guess it is getting a bit old,” she concedes.
“Is that all it takes to get you to back down when you’re being a bitch? Wow, Olivia, you have a superpower or something.” Emma’s tone is spun sugar, but it lands like an anvil on the table, though the tension is hardly new. Usually, Emma’s the only one among us with the stones to bite back at Avery. They’ve known each other since first grade, when they met at a fancy-ass private grade school in Wellesley. They wrestle back and forth for queen bee dominance.
Margot Kim and Sierra Watson--Princeton and Yale, respectively--are looking anywhere but at Emma or Avery, refusing to wade into this conflict. I catch Sierra’s eye briefly, and we exchange a knowing glance. This has to be about Tyler, Emma’s boyfriend and Avery’s stepbrother of a year. He’s supposed to be off-limits to the Ivies--Don’t shit where you eat, Aves said, cruder than her WASPy exterior hinted. But Emma started going out with Tyler anyway, and Avery takes every chance she gets to jab the knife under Emma’s rib cage and simply . . . wriggle it around. Having a weakness is dangerous where Avery Montfort is concerned.
The confrontation fizzles as we all dive back into our phones. We’ve fallen into what might be termed companionable silence, though we all know it’s more of a détente. I scan the room, taking in my fellow students who are assigned to lunch slot B. It was Sierra’s job to ensure that all the Ivies got a class schedule that put us in the same lunch period. That’s her hook.
In a school of elites, Avery has a way of attracting the very best to stand by her side. President of the Girls Who Code club, Claflin chapter, Sierra had figured out how to hack into the school’s administrative system before spring semester freshman year, and it remains her most useful asset as an Ivy. Margot is the school’s premiere actress, surely Broadway bound; she can charm (i.e., deceive) teachers and students alike. Emma’s the social Renaissance woman, in with every conceivable group. As captain of FIRST Robotics, first-chair flute in band, butterfly champion on the swim team, and tech director for the drama club, Emma’s got a finger in every pie.
I’m not technologically or socially gifted, but as one of the few scholarship students at Claflin, I offer Avery a bit of social-proofing. How open-minded and gracious of her to hang with me. Although I am editor in chief of the Claflin Ledger. Well, co-editor. And it’s my access as a work-study student in the main office that gave Sierra the edge to hack the scheduling system. I’m just as valuable as anyone else.
I meet eyes with Ethan Kendall, who throws me a wave from four tables over, even though I’m going to see him next period. Hasn’t he learned yet that I never acknowledge him outside of journalism class? I can’t, because that would mean--
“Olivia Caroline Winters!” Emma scolds me as if she were my mother. Though as my roommate and the neater of the two of us, it’s not the first time. “Are you flirting with Canadian Ken?”
This is why I couldn’t wave at Ethan even if I wanted to, and the microsmile I let slip was a mistake. I opened myself up as the next social sacrifice, and Emma seized the opportunity. I don’t really blame her. Any of us would do the same. No Ivy is exempt from being terrible. These are my best friends, but sometimes I hate them.
“I wasn’t flirting,” I mumble. “Don’t be an asshole.” I smack Emma playfully in the shoulder. Unfazed, she merely shrugs and checks her phone again. It sets us all off. We check our phones, too, even though it’s only quarter to one, and everyone knows that the magic hour is yet to come. Anxiety is contagious.
I steal a glance back at Ethan. His unruly dark hair is an inch too long to be fashionable. Freckles dust his light brown cheeks, his face offset by chunky plastic-framed glasses. He’s what defensive suburban moms would call “husky.” The opposite of a Ken doll. Emma really is an asshole. But I can’t help the way my whole body flushes at the sight of him. He’s perfect.
He’s also a walking Canadian stereotype, which means he’s far too nice for the likes of me. I don’t deserve him.
“Hey, babe, budge over.” Tyler appears, and Emma does as he says, scooting over in her chair until half her butt hangs off, so he can share her seat. Now, this is the kind of boy who is acceptable for me to be attracted to, according to Ivy standards: tall, with an aquiline nose and chiseled cheekbones, a dimpled smile that can--and does--literally charm the pants off people. Tyler looks like he should be on the CW. If he weren’t going to major in engineering at Cornell next year, I’m sure that’s precisely where he’d be.
A plate with the largest slice of cake I have ever seen clatters onto the table in front of him, and me, since I’m next to Emma. I can see thin slivers of carrot poking out from the doughy layers, cream cheese frosting standing tall atop it, at least a half inch thick on all sides. My mouth begins to water, but Coach will kill me if I indulge. Even though I’m pretty sure the cream cheese frosting counts as protein, and that’s what matters, right?
“That looks like half a cake,” Sierra says, licking her lips. She can’t have any, either. We’re on the crew team together.
“Susan gave me an extra-large slice. A congratulations gift.” He grins.
Most of the stations at the dining hall are self-serve, but not dessert. Once upon a time, it was, too, but last year a boy walked out with an entire pie. Dining employees started staffing the station shortly after that.
Avery glares at her newly minted stepbrother, and her nostrils flare. “Does Cornell know they accepted a total douchebag? You don’t see Margot rubbing it in.”
Margot nearly drops her phone. I know for a fact that she almost wore her Princeton hoodie today, but Sierra talked her out of it.
“Don’t hate me because I’m stress-free until April.” Tyler flashes Avery a shit-eating grin, then spears a giant forkful of cake into his mouth. “And you should chill, sis. You’ll be out of your misery in a few hours. Mommy’s legacy is going to get you into Harvard.”
“Like your daddy’s money got you into Cornell?” Avery simpers.
I see Tyler’s jaw flex hard, his eyes suddenly flint. I’ll never stop marveling at rich kids getting upset about other people calling them rich. They’re so sensitive.
“So, what happens if you lot don’t get in?” He points a finger at all of us still in school limbo--everyone except for Margot, basically. “Do we have to change your nicknames? Brown.” He nudges Emma. “Yale.” Indicates Sierra. “Penn.” Pushes his slice of cake toward me. “And brilliant Harvard.” He grins across at Avery. “What are your safety schools again?”
“Fuck you, Ty,” Aves spits.
“The nicknames are stupid,” Margot says. “I might not even go to Princeton.”
“What?” Avery is horrified. “Of course you’re going to Princeton! You got in!”
“It’s not binding.” Margot squirms, staring intently at the table. “I might apply to a few more places regular decision. See where I get in.”
I try to imagine feeling so nonchalant about getting into my dream school. Harvard. My dream school is Harvard, not Penn.
My mom always told me: no one hands anything to a kid from a working-class neighborhood in Maryland. You have to scratch and fight your way to the top, prove you deserve a shot. She was the first in her family to go to college, ended up teaching at a really good school. She got her feet onto the first rung of the ladder so that I could climb. Dream big, Olivia, my mom always said. Keep one foot on the ground, though: dreams are useless without a practical plan of action.
So here I am at Claflin. If I’m going to prove I am worthy of the top, that means gunning for it. And Harvard is synonymous with the best. It also has, hands down, one of the most highly regarded college newspapers. Claflin Ledger, then Harvard Crimson, then the New York Times. That’s what I want. Penn is fine, but have you heard of Penn’s student paper? I didn’t think so. Harvard Crimson or bust. It is my best shot at my dream career.
But soon after I transferred to Claflin and fell in with my friends, I learned about Avery’s rule and the school quotas. One school per girl. Because friends don’t compete with each other for spots. Heck, Avery was so intense about it that none of us have the same academic strengths, hobbies, or interests. Sierra and I are an exception, both being “allowed” to row.
Why all this Machiavellian meddling? Because it’s an unspoken rule that every college has a quota. Not official, and no one can say precisely what it is. But we do know what it isn’t. Harvard isn’t going to accept four seniors from Claflin. It’s never taken more than three. Yale typically takes two. Princeton, two. And so on. Every student at your school becomes your direct competition, even your friends. So I wanted to go to Harvard, but Avery was having none of it. Avery’s school is Harvard, and she is a legacy, so I shut up about how it’s been my dream school since I was eight.
Deep down, I know why. I’m a coward. I want my friends to like me. Because it’s better to have these friends than none.
My first week at Claflin, I was unmoored. Transferring in as a sophomore, already sure social suicide, was bad enough, but I was a scholarship kid, to boot. I sat in the back of Honors European History with my head down, willing myself to blend in, maybe disappear, and hoped the teacher wouldn’t make me stand up to introduce myself. But before that horror could begin, a girl sitting diagonally in front of me snickered. “Is it true you have to work in the office as part of your scholarship? How sad.”