Feature image from andpop.com.


From time to time the Zen writers get together and have conversations. This time, we talk about some of the unforeseen downsides of going to a top-ranked school, gathered from our own experiences.


Social class (and all its implications)

“Old money. Lots of it. You’ll brush shoulders with people who come from literal dynasties of wealth. Some of these people have never had to touch a washing machine in their lives because they’ve always had people do laundry for them. Like, to me, that’s something crazy.

Also, conspicuous consumption is definitely another really big thing. People are driving around campus in their BMWs, their Audis — I’ve even seen a Maserati or two. Some of the girls’ daily outfits are more expensive than my monthly rent. And if you’re one for keeping up with appearances, there’s always this pressure to fit in and do as the rich kids do; you have to have that Canada Goose jacket, those Birkenstocks (even though they’re so ugly), those Bean boots.”


“I mean, the heir to the Marriott Hotel chain goes to our school, and it’s difficult to really comprehend the privilege of the student body if you’ve never really been that privileged yourself. When you make friends and you’re the only one who can’t afford to split a $4,000 per month apartment that they all want to move into next year, it’s easy to start to feel alienated.”



Social pressure

“In the heart of the Bay Area with Silicon Valley close by, there’s a huge tech and startup culture that creates this pressure to be the next person featured SharkTank or Forbes ‘30 under 30’. Sometimes it can feel like there’s this homogeneous definition of success, in which money and social class in particular industries are more valued. It makes me wonder if my aspirations in focusing on cultivating positive change in communities and addressing social issues aren’t practical enough.”


“I’m an engineer — well, half an engineer — at a school that’s famous for the rigor of its engineering program (shameless plug: we’re the best engineering school in the Ivy League). So it can be hard watching everyone around you get offers from places like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Uber, Snapchat — all these big tech companies — and feeling like you’re not good enough.”

— Jeanette

“At Northwestern, it’s an incredibly pre-professional environment. You’re already behind if you’re not hitting the ground running as soon as you set foot on campus. Even the pre-orientation parties (that are technically not supposed to be happening) are breeding grounds for freshman to begin networking, wheedling their way into clubs and others’ good graces in order to cash in the favors later.

As someone who’s always preferred to take it easy and go where my passions lead, that hypercompetitive environment was really jarring. Like, no, I don’t have an internship with Goldman Sachs next summer, nor do I want to. But it’s hard not to want to after a while – it’s really easy to lose yourself and what you stand for.”

— Erika



“Yeah so my dad and I somehow screwed up the CSS application last year for financial aid, so this year we’re paying 10K more than what we’re already paying for school. And we’re not making any more money. At some schools, tuition isn’t even 10K, do you know what I mean?”

— Jeanette

“Even going to a University of California as a California resident is expensive, especially if you’re part of the middle class and aren’t eligible for financial aid. I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time applying to scholarships, and even with the scholarships paying for tuition is taxing. UCs are known for terrible administration, and I’ve spent my entire semester trying to get one of my scholarships applied to my account and am still waiting. Basically, UC Berkeley took my scholarship money and still hasn’t given it to me, even though I visited the office, called them, and emailed every person possible. :(”

— Sara

“Um, so, yeah. Northwestern is one of the most – if not the most – expensive schools to attend in the entire U.S., and tuition still grows like, 15% each year. Even though I’m only attending for three years, and I received a nice financial aid package my first year, they retracted that my second and third years (for some mysterious reason). It’s hard not to feel jipped, because if I’d known that offer wouldn’t be renewed, I honestly probably wouldn’t have attended.”

— Erika



“Imagine all the valedictorians from all the high schools. Ever. Put them into all the same classes where they’re directly competing against each other. Can you imagine the kind of disaster our classes are now? Good.”

— Jeanette

“I totally agree with that; it’s like the Hunger Games. And a valedictorian from one school isn’t the same as a valedictorian from another school. So, like – I was valedictorian of mine but it was a small school that wasn’t super competitive and I maintain a good GPA at college but it’s not a 4.0. And I have people in my classes who are having nervous breakdowns because they’re getting an A- or something, and I just think, ‘Wow, so many people have to come here not accustomed to failure or underperformance and they just have to deal with that reality.’ It’s tough on a lot of people.”


“Oddly enough, I’m actually doing better in college than in high school. Because I went to a hyper competitive pressure-cooker high school, my classes there were very intensive and we learned a lot of material. However, if you show that you’re doing okay during class, people on the other side of the curve will somehow rope you into doing free tutoring and end up leeching off you for everything. That happened in one of my classes, and it was a bit…terrifying/overwhelming.”

— Sara 

“Honestly, grades and competition have as much power over me as I let them have. I never really bought into the whole class-rank GPA shindig, so I think it’s easier for me to ignore the academic aspect of it. However, it’s incredibly competitive to get into research labs, get letters of rec, get internships, etc. etc. And these are things that your future career is depending on, so it honestly sucks. Like, at a state school, I might have been nominated to receive a certain grant, fellowship, or award, but at Northwestern, there are a thousand other candidates just like me who want it just as badly. So the competition for that is really fierce.”

— Erika 



“As someone in a more creative-artsy major, going to an elite school has at times threatened to suck the soul out of my body like a dementor. Even my major, Performing and Media Arts, is really theory-heavy; lots of reading, lots of writing, and only a bit of practical knowledge in specific classes.

You do get great career insights, too, as faculty and alumni are constantly trying to initiate you into the entertainment industry through various opportunities. But one of the things that was hardest for me was that I literally got a paper back this semester with the comment that it was “too philosophical.” And, while the criticism was justified, I was also a little peeved – if I wanted to be less philosophical I’d be in the hard sciences and not trying to make movies!

Profs can just tend to be very strait-laced, and this particular professor has actually had a lot of success in the industry, and therefore puts a lot of stock in his own opinions and ways of doing things. He deserves to, but I do wish that professors were more accepting of alternative ways of thinking.”

— Sarah

“The good thing about ‘prestigious’ schools are the rockstar professors. The bad thing about ‘prestigious’ schools are…also the rockstar professors. Don’t get me wrong; most of our professors are pretty great, but there’s always a few cranky ones.

Some of them don’t have time for undergrads and are quick to denounce any ‘stupid’ questions. At Cornell, some of the computer science Piazza forums are absolute trainwrecks — we all know which ones to watch for the professor v. student drama. But I’ll admit it’s pretty entertaining when you’re not the one being shredded.

Oh, and the best part? These professors are tenured. They will outlast you, and they will win. Don’t believe the movies.”

— Jeanette 


Major Elitism

“Yep. I tell people I’m going to Cornell and they’re like, ‘Cool great awesome good for you woohoo’ and then I say I’m studying Performing and Media Arts and it’s like they literally cannot comprehend that this is true. Why go to an Ivy League school if you aren’t going to be an ‘academic,’ right?”

— Sarah

“Yeah, adding onto that. I’m pretty sure like, half our school is premed and the other half is computer science. Oh, you’re not either of those two majors? What even are you?”

— Jeanette

“There is something known as the ‘EECS master race’. AKA people who applied to and were accepted into the Berkeley Electrical Engineer & Computer Science major. How do you know they’re an EECS major? They will remind you, and everyone around them, an excess amount of times. The STEM majors (actually most majors) also heavily look down on the ‘easier’ majors, such as Media Studies.”

— Sara

“It’s not even just the elitism regarding majors within the school (although there definitely is that), but it’s also elitism regarding the expectation that when you tell people, ‘I go to Northwestern,’ or ‘I’m HPME,’ they’ll gasp and go ‘Omigoodness that’s so impressive.’ I’ve run into other Northwestern students who don’t know I’m one as well in downtown Chicago, and when I’m speaking with them or ask them where they go to school, they’ll go, ‘Oh, I go to Northwestern’ in the most nauseatingly I’m-a-special-snowflake tone of voice. Like, so what?”

— Erika


Arrogant people

“Ultimately, I realize that arrogance is either a form of extreme narcissism or incredible insecurity. I know I’ve displayed it myself a time or two, so I try hard to contextualize it in my interactions with others. But honestly, it makes me want to tear my freaking hair out because like – come on, yes you’ve told me about all the cool stuff you’re doing, but does our conversation really have to always center around you?

This isn’t just the case with people I’m casually chatting with – it’s the case with quite a few of my friends. Everyone thinks they’re the best, everyone wants to feel validated, everyone is an attention grabber, and it gets so old so quickly.”

— Erika

“Oh gosh — this is especially a thing with engineers and STEM in general. There’s always that obnoxious person who scored the highest, and after the curve comes out for every test you can bet he’ll be rubbing it in everyone’s faces.

Like algorithms is a notoriously hard class where I’m at. Some math major who took it for fun was nonchalantly like ‘oh, algo was sooooo easy,’ and the rest of us were like, ‘okay good to know thanks.’ It’s not…quite a lie when they say some STEM people are socially oblivious, me included. Sometimes.

I think this comes from a mentality where a lot of people were super good at what they do in high school, and that just kind of carried over into college. Like, a lot of these people come off as super arrogant, but I don’t think they’re aware that what they’re saying is actually really off-putting since they’ve been around similar people their whole lives. They’ve just evolved into permanently arrogant people.”

— Jeanette

“I went to office hours in a computer lab to ask for help on setting up a group email and a website for my club. No, I am not well versed in anything tech-y, and the officer/volunteer who ‘helped’ me was very condescending because of that. He treated me like a complete idiot and intentionally used a lot of unnecessary CS jargon to assert his dominance. Unfortunately, many CS/EECS people are like that. :’(”

— Sara

“This is even the case for people in the Performing Arts major, because many of the people in that major… how do I put this delicately… they can afford to have that major. Like, they don’t have to go into engineering to pay the bills; that’s covered for them. They can pursue their ‘passions.’ And not only that, but their parents have sometimes secured internships in the industry for them, so they come in as a freshman with experience a normal student would be lucky to have as a graduating senior.

And somehow, without fail, every single one of these people (the types who refuse to say the word ‘movie’ and only say ‘film,’ or have ‘film buff’ written in their Instagram bios) is a huge Woody Allen fan. It’s the most peculiar correlation I’ve ever seen.

Although isn’t Woody Allen kinda arrogant, too?”

— Sarah


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.