Feature image from sarahcunningham.org.
It was easy enough telling myself that I didn’t want to apply to most of the Ivy League schools. Granted, I might not have had the best reasons (and I’m sure someone out there has better ones), but they were my reasons and I have to own up to them.
Just for fun, here’s why high school me didn’t apply to each of the following esteemed institutions:
Not a fan of New England, and especially not a fan of Boston. I remember going there when I was nine for a family trip. I had wandered apart from my parents at Copley Square, and was accosted by an overweight middle-aged man in a Red Sox cap who had yelled at me about lions tearing people apart from limb to limb. As a small Chinese girl raised in a non-Christian family, I had little to no idea what he was talking about at the time and came back to my parents very visibly shaken up. They had a lot of explaining to do that night.
I haven’t wanted to set foot in Boston since, but in my defense, Boston hadn’t exactly made a good first impression either.
Also, Harvard was practically the bastion of the Establishment. And it wasn’t fun to always color within the lines. So.
I couldn’t find Connecticut on a map. Also, New England.
I actually visited the campus during summer camp one year, and remembered the campus being relatively small for a college. I figured that I’d kind of like a more expansive campus where I wouldn’t have to look over a fence only to immediately have the surrounding city shoved against my face. It’s rather constricting.
They did have a beautiful art museum though.
Dartmouth, huh. That’s where? *Googles* Oh. Oh no. I’d freeze to death. They’d have to pay me to go there.
They weren’t too strong in STEM fields and I didn’t want to study international relations. Emma Watson’s cool and all, but she’ll have graduated by the time I got on campus.
Not a fan of New York City. Some people can’t get enough of it, and I respect that. But it’s definitely not for me. I’ve almost gotten run over by Manhattan drivers too many times to count. The metro is confusing and reeks of urine. The air is terrible. It’s never quiet. There’s always tourists.
Since someone else out there probably loves New York City as much as I hate it, our net happiness as a species would be greatly improved if I didn’t try to take away precious sidewalk space from someone else who’d kill for it.
See also: Brown.
Seventy-something/eighty-dollar application fees? My parents aren’t made of money! That’s a disappointing ROI if I don’t get in, which will most likely happen. I am not paying this much just to be a statistic.
Astute readers will have deduced by now that of all the Ivies, I only applied to the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell: Penn because of VIPER (back when I thought science was for sure what I wanted to do) and Cornell because of its strong STEM programs and beautiful campus. There was also something about the plain English motto and the overall attitude of the place that I really liked – the elite institution, sans pretense.
So, yeah. Just like that, the easy part was out of the way, and for better or for worse, high school me knew what I wanted.
Back in high school, I had been third in my class of 810. There was actually a tie for valedictorian, so technically I was fourth, but that didn’t stop people from wanting to make a big deal about my college choices. I mean, I wasn’t as scrutinized as the valedictorian(s) and salutatorian were, but my personal decisions were still being treated as a matter of public interest nonetheless.
I could smell one of these conversations from a mile away – though calling it a conversation is a stretch, really. The other person just wanted to tease out the answers from me: where I was applying, how high I scored on the SAT, how many AP tests I had under my belt, what I wrote my personal statement on. They’re not my friends. Most of these people were strangers with whom I’ve never spoken before, and will never speak to again. But they knew that I was number three and because I was number three, I was temporarily a person of interest.
An interrogation would perhaps be a better word.
These people typically opened up their interrogation in one of a few ways:
The principle of equivalent exchange, right? If they shared something with you, you’d be obligated to reciprocate as a matter of social propriety, or so goes the idea. But here’s the catch: what they share won’t ever be about themselves.
“Hey, did you hear that Hannah was applying to Notre Dame? She said that her mom’s friend works in admissions, so she has an in. So what’s been going on with you? Applying anywhere?”
Thank you, Meghan. As a matter of fact, I did know that. This is at least a day old: where have you been? Get with the program, Meghan-who’s-applying-to-UCLA. Yeah, I know. Carlos ratted you out yesterday.
Before you start, nothing against self-conscious people because that’s actually been me on many occasions. But this…isn’t quite that. Unlike the Gossips, these people do use themselves as conversation fodder, but without offering you anything substantial. They’ll vaguely lament about selective colleges as a way to namedrop those colleges into the conversation, and then butter you up a little so that you feel good enough about yourself to answer.
“Oh, man. I only wish I had a shot at somewhere like Claremont McKenna. They’d never take me. But I’m sure someone like you could do it – you’re so smart! Are you going to apply there? It’d be a waste if you didn’t – you’ll definitely get in.”
Geoffrey, you’re applying to Pomona College. Shut up. Yeah, Carlos told me that too. You guys need to stop telling him things or something.
The Straight Shooter:
I adore these people for their honesty.
“Hey, where are you applying?”
Cornell and UPenn. Where are you applying, Carlos?
It doesn’t really matter how they start off though, as it ultimately ends in more or less the same response when they notice where I’m not applying.
“Huh, not to Harvard or anything like that? But Victoria and Colin and Tiffany are totally applying there.”
The last sentence would be inflected almost like a question, a politer version of “what’s wrong with you?” I mean, it’s a completely valid question; the three people ranked before me all have their sights set high, so why shouldn’t I do the same, right?
After that point in the interrogation, it wouldn’t matter what I said to defend myself or what reasons I gave these people for not wanting to apply – their perception of me would be tainted (at least slightly) with the idea that “She probably thinks she’s not good enough for HYP.” While I did always acknowledge internally that this might have been true, it always hurt a little to see someone else taking the fact and throwing it back at you. You could hear it in the sudden lift of their voice and see it in the straightening of their posture, knowing that perhaps the Gamma of their graduating class wasn’t so deserving after all.
(Once in a while, I’d also be hit with the “Cornell? What’s that?” response. Some people were genuinely curious, but some others were asking it to be annoying. That also took some getting used to.)
Of course, I’m writing as a junior in college, and there is no way that I could summon back now the exact emotions that I experienced in high school. Things always look easier from the other side, and it’s easy to handwave it and say that I got through this by just remembering the fact that my own happiness matters first and what other people think shouldn’t matter. But that wouldn’t be true at all. I did know that fact, in principle, but it still bothered me. I could’ve probably chanted that as a motto daily back then and it still would’ve hurt.
However, there were some things that helped the process hurt less. Friends were one of them – the people I knew who’d have my back even if I decided not to go to college at all. Just knowing that I had them around helped me, and my conversations with them helped remind me that I am after all, a person first and a student second. That I have value regardless of where I decided to apply or not apply, and that I’m not defined by my college decisions. And I guess the other thing is, when you’re with your friends, everyone else kind of seems less significant and more distant, and their voices in your head get quieter too.
Another thought that I held onto like a teddy bear was the undeniable truth that it will all be over, eventually. And if I didn’t go to grad school, I’d never, ever have to deal with another college admissions season again.
Gossip has a short lifespan, and it’s only getting shorter – just look at your trending hashtags on Twitter every day. This applies to college stuff as well, as I found out; people typically stop asking about where you’re applying around winter break (because that’s when most applications get turned in). They’ll ask again about where you got accepted, but it’s more socially acceptable not to answer and less socially acceptable to ask. And the obsession over college results ends around May or June, because that’s when summer kicks in. Once you’re in college, you can rest easy – no sane person would ever ask you anything like that again, at least not for another four years. And by the time grad school rolls around, people are at least a little more mature and understanding about the whole process, not in the least because grad school is inherently more of a personal choice than college was. At least from what I’ve seen, it seems that way.
Looking back, I still don’t regret the decisions I made when applying for schools. I’m happy now where I am, even if some of the reasons that helped me get there were a little arbitrary. But hey, colleges are just as arbitrary when picking their applicants, so really – why shouldn’t I be able to do the same?
All names have been changed to protect privacy.
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