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Getting a gleaming letter of acceptance to an Ivy League is a tremendous boost of self-esteem and sign of validation for practically any high school student; years of polishing your resume and dreadful weeks spent trying to craft a flawless essay paid off. It’s as if anyone accepted to a distinguished university is guaranteed prosperity and triumph.
However the mindset that in order to be successful in life you must go to a prestigious college is being even more frequently questioned in the past several years. The idealized image of a top tier college as a ravishing center of learning and innovation is diluted in an ocean of student debt and suspicious admission decisions favoring the wealthy applicants (despite calling themselves ‘need-blind’).
Racial minorities, like Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, have a significant advantage in admissions; an equally qualified Caucasian applicant would be rejected because colleges want to promote an image of diversity. Similarly, out of state students are favored at universities with high in-state percentages; for instance at UCLA the acceptance rate for OOS students is almost 10% higher than for California residents. At what point will an applicant be judged based purely on merit, and not on uncontrollable factors like race, geographic location, and social class? The issue is especially prominent in the most well-known institutions because they have to maintain a an impeccable image to ensure high ranking.
I had the privilege of spending the past week at a summer program at Stanford University – living in the dorms, attending journalism classes and experiencing a college lifestyle. Luckily, I got three very likable roommates and had plenty of spare time after classes to explore the vast campus which completely re-shaped my perceptions of my “dream college”. Alluring autumn trees with endless beams of sunlight glaring through the branches, proud students flaunting ‘Stanford’ t-shirts and carelessly racing their bikes through the blossoming parks – at first glance it might even seem as if college isn’t as stressful as my parents led me to believe. However behind the welcoming smiles and polished appearances are people who spend restless hours studying every night, participating in a multitude of clubs and athletics and burying themselves in test prep books to ensure a high SAT/ACT score. Many were forced to give up the classes they enjoyed to replace them with what they believe colleges are looking for and prioritize subjects they fundamentally disliked to increase their grade point average, knowing that in the future they won’t be pursuing a career in that field.
If I learned anything that week, it’s that going to a prestigious college isn’t about the bragging rights, and not even about impressing your future employer, but rather about surrounding yourself with other ambitious, intelligent, committed students – those who will challenge you and, at times even make you feel like you are under accomplished, but most importantly push you to become a more independent and empowered individual. A top ranked college might be full of ambitious students, but also people who were admitted based on their financial standing, legacy status, or the fact that they came from an underrepresented region of the country. There are countless Ivy League graduates who, after finishing post-secondary education, have difficulty finding employment or putting their skills to practice. Abraham Lincoln was just one of the nine US presidents who never went to college, yet can you imagine how vastly different the country would’ve been if, instead of pursuing his wildly successful career in politics, he spent four years being forced to study subjects he has no interest in.
The popularity of the college you go to doesn’t at all define you, and no one should be putting their self-esteem into the hands of an admissions officer who flips through dozens of applications on a weekly basis, often forgetting to acknowledge that there are real people behind the unadorned folders whose faith is being determined. Likewise, picking a college purely based on its high ranking to impress your peers is an enormous (though unfortunately frequent) mistake.
Graduates of reputable colleges are inherently looked up upon, thus defying expectations when they don’t achieve the level of success expected from such a diligent student. Excelling academically has little to do with the impact one will make on their community and the planet, and more to do with how well they can follow the strictly defined academic system. Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to education, and not one college would fit every passion and aspiration; so it shouldn’t be a surprise when a valedictorian and student body president announces she’s turning down an offer from Princeton to go to a state school, just like it shouldn’t be a surprise when a Harvard alum finds themselves broke and unemployed.
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write by Williamson