Feature image from ivyleaguelifestyle.com


 

Once, at the dinner table of a host family that was kind enough to take me in while I was volunteering, I did a very bad thing.

Both the host parents were talking to me about their children, who were also college-aged. Out of curiosity I asked where both of them went to school. The answer came back: SUNY Cortland and Penn State.

Immediately, I heard the voice in the back of my head go: Hah. What losers.

Which is very mean and not true. But the fact was that I was here, making judgments about people that I haven’t ever met (I’ve still never met them) based on only one thing: the college they go to. Doesn’t that sound a little bit unfair?

Pulling rank.

I’ll be very honest: in my college choosing, “prestige” (or whatever) played an important role. To high school senior me, I would rather walk to class uphill both ways in subzero temperatures plus windchill (thanks, Cornell) than give up that Ivy League status. Which is fine — I can freeze to death at my own discretion. My choices, my consequences.

An accurate depiction of my roommate greeting me after I get home from class. (comicvine.com)

An accurate depiction of my roommate greeting me after I get home from class. (comicvine.com)

 

But not everyone makes their college decisions this way; different people value different things and come from different backgrounds. Just because I chose to go after the “eliteness” of a college, doesn’t mean I get to judge other people for evaluating colleges differently than I did.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that perfectly intelligent and talented people can choose to not go to “intelligent” colleges. And sometimes, these college choices that they make are arguably smarter decisions than what I did: jumping at the most “elite” college that took me.

By doing that, I overlooked a lot of these equally-valid reasons to pick a college. For instance:

 

Location

Anybody who’s applying to (or is attending) Dartmouth College for its location is either lying through their teeth or really, really, really likes the outdoors. It’s further north than Toronto, which means it gets egregiously cold. There is also only one grocery store located within the city limits of Hanover, New Hampshire, which is probably a human rights violation in some jurisdictions.

What if I told you that there was a college with a river running by it that’s infamous for the number of corpses that mysteriously wash up along its shore?

What if I told you that the river in question was the Charles, and the college in question was Harvard? What then?

(You think I’m making this up?)

And I mean, with things like seasonal affective disorder, location can really play an important part in your college experience. As an example, in Ithaca, New York, we don’t get much sun from November to about April. I also find that I’m the most stressed during that time. It’s not because of workload, because the ends of my spring semesters have also been ridiculously heavy — it’s because seeing nothing but overcast skies for weeks on end really puts a damper on just about everything. At least in April I can be stressed under sunlight and blue skies.

2014_1021_219.CR2

You can hardly tell that he’s barely pulling a C- in Differential Equations with this lighting. (news.cornell.edu)

 

Honestly, if I cared less about prestige I probably would have gone to UC San Diego; the campus opens up to the beach, it’s never too hot or too cold, there’s an incredibly diverse surrounding neighborhood, it’s close to amusement parks, there’s easy transportation, and it’s a nice mix between city and suburb. Most of all, it was just far enough from where I used to live that if I got into trouble my parents wouldn’t drive down to lecture me in person.

I mean, you do only do college once. Nobody should be judged for wanting to spend four years of their life in their ideal location.

 

Tuition

As a favor to our high school, our local California State college offered the top 1% of our graduating class a full ride to their institution. We wouldn’t pay a single cent for anything.

(For those of you confused: California has two state school systems for whatever reason. The California State colleges are meant to be lower-cost, geared towards job training, but also more middling in terms of rank. The UCs are more expensive, geared towards academia, and more prestigious. Don’t get the two mixed up — Cal State LA is very, very different from UCLA.)

Me, after learning this lesson the hard way. (tenor.co)

Me, after learning this lesson the hard way. (tenor.co)

 

There was a girl in the top 1% of our class — rank eight out of our graduating class of over 800. And when we all applied to the UCs like good little Californian high schoolers, she did too. Lo and behold, UCLA wanted her. On UCLA’s decision day, she was crowing with happiness to all of us; we all thought for sure that she’d go there.

It came as a surprise to all of us when she announced her decision to commit to Cal State San Bernardino.

Of course we were curious. We drilled her with questions. We had all thought that UCLA was one of her dream schools. Eventually she meekly admitted that her family was going through a tough time financially, and UCLA’s financial aid package was nowhere near enough to justify the cost.

(And then we all felt bad for prying.)

Not everyone has the luxury to choose colleges without taking cost into consideration. Even for the people who can be a little more lax about tuition in college choice, cost can definitely still be an important factor. Right now I’m looking at graduating with roughly a small house’s worth of student debt — our rank eight will graduate debt-free. That’s a very tangible monetary difference that exists, regardless of the prestige of our respective alma maters.

Plus, it’s not really fair to judge people for their financial situation. Or for wanting to save money in general — most of us do, don’t we?

Specialized Majors

It was a huge deal for the University of Pennsylvania when they finally introduced the nutritional science major. From the Daily Pennsylvanian article that covered it, it sounds like Penn was the first college ever to introduce such a revolutionary idea.

I'm aware that I just made a bad pun. I don't care. (tenor.co)

I’m aware that I just made a bad pun. I don’t care. (tenor.co)

Except many other colleges already had nutritional science programs — some of them much more established than Penn’s. According to a survey of experts in the nutrition field, Penn’s nutritional science major doesn’t even make their list of top undergrad programs. Instead, schools like Baylor University, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, and UNC Chapel Hill top the list.

To be frank, I still have no idea what I want to do after I graduate. I have inklings and directions and possibilities, but no actual plan. I could become an academic. I could work. I could go to law school. I could take a gap year. I could donate my time to a nonprofit. And this indecision was even worse back in high school, so it would’ve been impossible for me to pare down a college list based on any true passion.

I was that kid who wanted to be a mermaid in kindergarten. (oakhalli.com)

At my kindergarten graduation, I had wanted to be a mermaid. (oakhalli.com)

 

But I have met people who were dead set on an occupation since their sophomore year of high school and never looked back — and I don’t mean things like “doctor” or “engineer.” These were people with 5-year-plans: they knew not just doctor, but what type. They knew that they really, really wanted to be an aerospace engineer for NASA.

I sat in on an informational meeting for China and Asia-Pacific Studies at Cornell once (it’s one of my majors). Present among many undecided undergraduates was a twelve-year-old girl from Virginia and her mother. She was absolutely certain she wanted to study Sino-American relations, and heard that Cornell was one of the best places to do it. So she dragged her mother all the way up to New York just so she can visit the department in person — that’s the kind of determination I’m talking about.

There is no college that offers every possible field of academic study, and there is no college that is the best at everything. For these people with detailed plans of how to turn their highly specific passions into worldly contributions, it’s probably more beneficial to evaluate different programs instead of colleges.

And hey — who am I to judge? Their lives are already infinitely more planned out than mine ever will be.

Mea culpa

As much as I hate myself for judging people based on alma mater, I also understand that it’s probably something that won’t go away overnight. It comes from a tendency to think that everyone evaluates things the way I do — which just isn’t true.

Plus, there’s been this toxic norm in college admissions where people value the eliteness of a college over everything else. I was also a victim of this mentality — as long as a college had “prestige,” I could deceive myself into thinking that it was perfect for me. I could tell myself that it fit me, it was me. I got very, very lucky; I’ve found my closest friends at Cornell, I’ve refined my passions, and I’ve been given an environment where I can try new and ridiculous things.

But for some of my friends who chose my school for the same reason, this wasn’t the case. A few of them ended up transferring out. Some of them graduated, but ended up hating their college experience. Many were saddled with debt from a degree they may have been happier obtaining from a cheaper, less-prestigious university.

Clearly, to these people, eliteness didn’t equal happiness.

While I don’t mean that all colleges are the same and shouldn’t be ranked, I do think that there’s more to evaluating a person’s alma mater than just rank — and that’s often very arbitrary, too, based on a lot of factors that evaluate faculty research over student experience. Things like how easy it is to get tenure and highest degree offered. And there is no objective, uniform standard either; there’s a reason why rankings vary widely among different publications.

"What do you mean, Duke is better than UChicago?" (iandelacruz.ca)

“What do you mean, USC is better than UCLA?” (iandelacruz.ca)

 

As I’ve realized now, college is a highly personal decision, and I can never really know the story behind a person’s decision just by looking at the end results alone. Depending on who you are, attending a highly-ranked college isn’t always a smart decision, so people who don’t go to highly-ranked colleges aren’t necessarily “dumber.” In fact, being able to set aside your ego and choose practicality over prestige is, in many ways, “smarter.”

I never learned the college decision stories of my host family’s children because back then, I hadn’t bothered to ask. But if I could do things over, I’d definitely start with doing that first.

After all, I’d like to believe that people are too complex to be defined by any one thing alone — and even if I had to pick one thing, I don’t think it should be something so one-dimensional as the rank of their alma mater.

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is part of the class of 2018 at Cornell University, double majoring in Information Science and China Studies. She hails from a public high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California, and enjoys geocaching, skiing, and gaming in her spare time. Admissions season has given her humility, resilience, and the ability to answer ten different prompts with one personal statement.