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Colleges are even less perfect than you think

One of my closest friends had the unlucky experience of going to a college that he thought would be perfect. It ended up wreaking havoc on his social and emotional health and not at all living up to what he thought it would be.

Some people might not have been able to admit their school was a bad match (possibly including myself, but I won’t know because I was lucky enough to find a great school on the first try (or at least, that’s what cognitive dissonance would have me believe). Because you’re supposed to suck it up and go to college and cope with the ups and downs.

But he admitted it to himself, and he dropped out. His parents were freaking out. His grandparents were freaking out. His friends were freaking out. Dropping out of college is a huge, huge deal! Isn’t it?

Well, after a semester of recovering he entered a community college near the University of Michigan, hoping to transfer there after two semesters. He realized that this was unlikely, and was fine with waiting until the end of his third semester at community college to transfer.

But after achieving a 4.0 two semesters in a row and with glowing recommendations from his professors, he was denied from the University of Michigan. He knew that he had only been attending community college as a stepping stone to U of M, and that he didn’t know if he could stand another semester there.

So he started thinking. He looked up ways to get German citizenship and take advantage of some of the free education offered there. He looked into submitting applications to other colleges that hadn’t been his first choice. He thought about just giving up on it all and traveling the world on a dime instead.

He said that he was relieved. Relieved to have an answer, relieved to be able to have a starting point from which to begin the rest of his life. He was happy that he wouldn’t be stuck in academia any longer; in a way, he said, it was freeing.

But the next day a representative from the University of Michigan called him, apologizing that they had processed his application materials before they’d received his transcript, and ultimately congratulating him on being accepted to the school.

He called me, overjoyed, relieved in a much different way from his relief the previous day. This was the option that would make his parents proud, would (probably – he hadn’t looked too much into the alternatives) make the most financial success, and would (probably, because you can never be sure) land him the most secure and lucrative job in the shortest amount of time.

Nothing but good news.

And that’s true. It is good news. Great news. I’d never advise anyone to ignore an acceptance from a top-tier school just so they could follow some new-ager-unhinged-fairy fantasy like “exploring other options.”

(Are there really options?)

But it is too bad that that’s the case. That exploring other options is something I wouldn’t advise, not because I don’t believe in that path (especially for some people more than others), but because the culture that you’re metaphorically born into once you reach a certain age is very unfriendly to that idea.

And not on purpose. The social system is built to allow you to “want what’s best for yourself” and to equip you to achieve it – of course there’s going to be a bit of conflict of interest around the influence that very system has on the concept of what actually is best for you. But it’s fine. It’ll keep you fed and content.

I’m not sure if I’m contractually permitted to be this honest, but I’m going to try. And in trying I’m going to tell you that academia is no picnic. It’s not for everyone, and maybe that’s a good thing. The culture of academia is really, really powerful, and potential members should be made aware of that.

I mean, no matter how many jokes I make about college and careerism on Twitter I’m still beholden to it. That’s how powerful it is. The network of societal support around the college experience pretty much guarantees its existence indefinitely. You reading this article and preparing to enter that world perpetuates that world.

Why doesn’t a similar support system exist anywhere else in the new and bright world in which high school graduates (and even high school juniors and seniors) find themselves as they grow older? Why is it a non-option to pursue a path other than immediately entering college or the workforce?

Those who take gap years are “lucky,” “free spirits,” or, depending on your worldview, “bums.” Those who pursue careers in the liberal arts might not be explicitly condescended, but they’re definitely going to be asked how they feel about the low hiring rates and salaries in their fields.

Not for lack of “trying”… sort of…

But there doesn’t immediately appear to be a scarcity of encouragement for students who want to pursue alternate paths. Parents, teachers, pop culture icons, and even famous brands in their advertisements all express a conviction that every person should do what is in their heart.

My dad tells me, “Travel now. Because you might not have the money but you do have the time and in a few short years you’ll have the money and not the time and there’s nothing more bittersweet than that.”

One of my friends told me, “If you give up on your dream I’ll literally punch you in the face.” But her dream of being a wedding photographer is being superseded by the teaching degree she thinks will land her in a secure job.

College is a great place to convince yourself that the status quo is right for you just like it’s right for everyone else. It’s also a great place to rise above the status quo. It’s not college that’s inherently bad, it’s the culture surrounding it and our treatment of it as a necessity.

I remember thinking that my life would be over if I got denied from a good school. I kept telling myself what I rationally knew: that actually, it would be okay, life would go on, and I’d probably just get a job with which I could make enough money to road-trip every once in a while.

But why was it so hard for me to accept what I knew was true? Why and how had I grown convinced that my life could end with a college rejection letter? Who was responsible for disseminating that sentiment?

We have nothing to fear but fear itself but there’s plenty of fear so that’s not really helpful

Whoever or whatever was responsible, that belief has shaped my life and the lives of my friends for at least the past four years (since I was a junior in high school), and sooner for many other people who took it even more seriously than I did.

Departing from the system, even in small ways, isn’t going to not keep you fed and content. There are plenty of people who fail in the current system. There are plenty who would fail without it. It’s about you, about what you want, and about what you are capable of.

So as you fill out your college applications, I won’t tell you that “you’ll live” or that it’s “not a big deal” if you don’t get accepted to a great school. If it’s important to you, it’s a big deal. But be sure that what’s important to you is decided by you, and not the world around you.

I will say that there are infinitely more possibilities than you can imagine. They aren’t for everyone, but neither is college. Keep your options and your mind open. (And try to reflect your open-mindedness in your essays. Admissions committees love that stuff.)

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is a junior at Cornell University studying Performing and Media Arts and Psychology.As much as she loves writing for CollegeVine, she'd rather be astral projecting or watching The Office. She has too much fun writing bios like these for her own good.