By Rachel Chen ’18
If I had a penny for every article or piece of advice I’ve heard about getting into college, I’d be rich enough to actually pay my college tuition.
And what I’ve gleaned from them is this:
- Good grades and test scores are a must, supplemented by
- extracurriculars, leadership, and service, along with
- interpersonal skills, preferably practiced on teachers who you can charm into writing great recommendations.
It’s as if everyone and their dentist agrees that these are the ingredients for an Ivy League pie—serving size: 1, best served without sleep or social life. And to be sure, there is definitely some truth to these prerequisites. But in my opinion, they’re all simply symptoms of what colleges are really looking for: passion. Passion for learning, for meaningful activities, and for connecting with and serving other people.
But the problem is, college prep becomes a kind of fake process. We start believing we need to show colleges a certain persona, even when we’re not that person at all. Colleges want extracurriculars? Sure, I’ll join Extracurricular Club. They like leadership? Let me check if Leadership Club needs help. They expect community service? I heard Community Service Club is running a fundraiser this month.
So in the process of turning passion into little boxes on a checklist, we start to think of college less as a four-year opportunity to learn and grow, and more of a “prize.” It becomes the ultimate measure of our character and careers and something that we can and should “earn.”
But if there’s anything I’ve learned this year, it’s that the system is not fair. It’s not a machine where you input your accomplishments and it spits out a college you “deserve.” Any troll with the time to browse College Confidential will realize that brilliant people—geniuses who post outstanding resumes and flawless scores—get rejected all the time.
So what’s the point of changing your character into someone fake and different when the system is flawed anyway? Why devote your time to things you may not even care about when another troll out there is doing the same things to create the same fake persona to show colleges?
In my opinion, the only way you can really win in this often zero-sum game is to actually be passionate. To find things that you really, truly love, and study and practice those instead. Love hiking? Outing Club is looking for leaders. Enjoy cartoons or astrophysics or video games? Join a club and turn it into something meaningful. In short, be real.
I am lucky enough to say that I have really, truly loved most of what I’ve done at Pingry. This school allowed me to break from my parents’ idea of college prep activities and pursue things I really enjoyed. When I quit piano after years of competition and picked up squash, they didn’t even think squash was a real sport. Squash became a source of confidence; my vegetable sport brought fitness into my life and taught me that I can push myself just as hard as everyone else. Instead of the math and Science Olympiad competitions they thought I needed to participate in, I chose journalism and feminist poetry.
However, there were also things I applied for simply because of their prestige or the pressure I felt to pursue them. One that comes to mind is iRT. Don’t get me wrong, I have grown to love the team and the big picture of our project even when I want to scream from the frustration of constant failure. But sometimes I wonder if I would have applied in the first place if I hadn’t thought that iRT was the most elite institution to join to demonstrate interest in science to colleges. Nevermind that I hated analyzing data and troubleshooting experiments; research felt like a necessity for my college resume which, in retrospect, I had to actively choose to enjoy.
Sidenote: as many classes and clubs Pingry offered me, it gave me tenfold in faculty support. A huge factor in developing my appreciation for science research (alongside other passions) was Dr. Kirkhart. Besides keeping the Ladies of the Lateral Line on track, she discusses books about feminism with me and reminds me that life exists beyond high school. Listen up: your teachers are so much more than a grade-arbiter or a rec letter. They are your friends, and they will ground you in the tumultuous journey of high school.
Making the decision to actively love what I did made me ultimately so much happier. Some of the most rewarding and defining experiences of my life have come out of things that were not planned for “success”; those CP talks with teachers and a casual rant turned Lebow speech are just a few that come to mind. When you choose to actively, earnestly give your all to something you care about, suddenly life is not just about getting into college anymore. It’s meaningful. It’s fun. It’s good.
We worry about how colleges perceive us, but if we are truly what we say we are, then I doubt our characters will get lost in translation. Ultimately, this concept stretches far beyond college admissions—to meeting people, making friends, and forming real relationships—because college is such a short blip in the timeline in your life. Be a real person. Don’t fake love, but feel it—deeply, generously, with an open mind and ready heart. Why go through life trying to create a different image of yourself when you can make the real thing so much better?