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A few weekends ago, as my little sister’s friend, Josie, was leaving our house after a play date, my mom marveled yet again at how bright Josie is. I nodded in agreement, only half paying attention; I’d heard all this before, a few too many times for my liking. It’s not that I had any problem with my mom complimenting my sister’s friends, but sometimes she would follow it up by comparing Josie to my sister. I felt that was completely unnecessary, especially for two seven-year-olds who were just trying to have fun, and I wasn’t exactly eager to hear something like that yet again.

On this particular day, my mom didn’t make the usual comparison between Josie and my sister; instead, she made a comment that disgruntled me even more. After gushing over how intelligent and outgoing Josie was, my mom chuckled and said, “You know what I’d really like to know, I wonder what college Josie will end up going to.”

I immediately felt a twinge of annoyance and shot back, “Why does it matter?”

My mom replied, “Well I’m just curious; she’s so smart. I bet she’ll attend a top school for sure. Maybe even Harvard?”

That last part was too much for me, and I shook my head and decided to disengage myself from the conversation. I couldn’t see this discussion going anywhere productive.

The thing I found most frustrating when I first heard my mom’s comment was that my mom and I could both see Josie was clearly destined for great things, but why did my mom have to pinpoint the college Josie will eventually attend as the culmination of all her potential? After all, she’s only a seven-year-old. I think any musings about college are a bit early, not to mention contrived, especially considering Josie is a friend, and as such, not someone my mom needed to spend a lot of thought on when it came to academics.

Perhaps I overreacted initially; my mom has every right to wonder about things such as college, as every parent is prone to do at some point. However, her mentality behind that comment still bothers me, as I know many other parents think the same way. Having gone through the college admissions process and now being on the other side of it, I see how small comments such as the one above can build up and start to wear down students.

When you constantly have people commenting on how smart you are and how exceptional your grades must be and the Ivy League school you’re sure to attend, you feel like expectations, some of which you blatantly disagree with, are being set for you without your consent, but you must somehow live up to them anyway. To think that these comments started when Josie had barely entered elementary school painted a pretty bleak picture for me in terms of what she’ll probably have to put up with come high school.

I wished my mom, along with multitudes of other parents, would stop assuming that if you are a smart individual, you are bound to attend certain prestigious universities, or a prestigious university at all. In the spring of my senior year, as the time to choose a college approached, I had more than one family friend ask me if I was going to University X (the college in question being an Ivy League school in the neighboring city). When I responded no, they naturally asked me why not, and I had to come up with countless variations of “I got waitlisted at University X, so I’m choosing to attend one of the other (great) schools that I got accepted into.” The responses I got after that were always positive, though I couldn’t help but feel irked that people assumed that I had gotten accepted into school so-and-so and would be attending said school, when in fact that was not the case.

Sometimes I even felt ashamed that I hadn’t gotten in, because so many people expected me to. My shame made me feel uneasy, as it seemed completely unjustified. No one should be making these assumptions about my outcome in a process that is hardly transparent nor easily predicted. These assumptions only contributed to my own sense of self-doubt during admissions season, which was already plentiful before outside voices decided to chime in.

If Josie eventually ends up choosing to attend a college not widely considered to be prestigious, will she feel like she’s let down those around her who expected more, even though the people around her had no right to make her feel that way in the first place? I certainly hope not, but more than that, it disheartens me that I have to even consider this given how young Josie is.  

This conversation brought me back to the realization that hit me almost as soon as I stepped foot on campus freshman year: college is a means to an end, not the ultimate goal. All throughout high school, and especially as a stressed senior applying to college, college seemed like what I had been working up to for eighteen years, and I could finally breathe after I saw the fruits of my labor in the form of admission to a top university.

As I’ve come to learn, there’s so much beyond (and even before!) college to look forward to that it’d be a pity to think getting into a top school is everything. No one should judge a person’s success based on the college name attached to that person. I’ve made that mistake in the past (but have since learned better, thankfully), and it’s taught me that the most important person not to judge is yourself. Regardless of what school you end up going to, that does not define you. What you make out of the experience and the relationships you establish will, more likely than not, stay with you far longer than your school’s name will.

June Xia

June is a junior at Cornell University studying biology. She attended public high school in the Philly suburbs, where she ate lots of water ice and hoagies. June enjoys watching TV, playing candy crush, and reading the New York Times. Writing poetry and knitting kept her sane during admissions season, plus a lot of chocolate and hugs; she made it out alive, and is all the more introspective and aware thanks to the experience.