Starting around the end of my freshmen year, I have been able to predict the premise of every conversation I will have with an adult at any social gathering. It goes something like this:
“How’s school going? Have you started to think about college, Mary Pat? Where are you thinking about applying? What are your top schools? What are your backup colleges?”
Now, I get it. The range of topics an adult can discuss with a high school student is limited — so some of these adults are just trying to make small talk. However, it’s amazing to me how many adults seem to hold their breath as they wait for my answer. It’s as if the outcome of their night depends on my college choice.
I must admit, I’ve gotten my response down to a science. I gracefully weave my way out of the question by saying a lot without actually giving any real information. And after I give my generic yet seemingly detailed answer, I watch as these nosy adults swig their wine as if the weight of the world has been lifted off their shoulders. I always imagine them thinking, “Thank God, one less person my precious child will have to beat out for that place at Harvard.”
In my experience with this type of adult, I learned quickly to avoid giving too much information on the schools I am considering. On too many occasions, I found myself feeling self-conscious and embarrassed as these adults looked at me with disgust or pity upon hearing my college options. I imagined them thinking “You don’t have aspirations to go to an Ivy? Where did your parents go wrong?”
I’ve come to recognize some flaws in the way people in our society think about college admissions. In my opinion, it truly doesn’t matter where someone goes to college. I think the college craze and the desire to be accepted at a highly selective school represents a simple yearning for a false sense of security.
Perhaps I came to this radical conclusion because of my parents. My parents, first-generation college graduates, paid their way through undergraduate and then graduate school. Their attitude toward the college admission process encouraged me to find a school that (1) I can afford; (2) I actually like, and (3) will give me the tools and the knowledge to help achieve my professional goals. I have been raised to understand that my college choice is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.
Now I’m not denying that schools like Harvard provide students with a fabulous education and an impressive list of connections upon graduation. But even without a $240,000 degree from Harvard, it makes logical sense that the most intelligent, ambitious and richest 2,000 students in the nation would go on to be successful. The drive to make important connections and to earn good grades comes from students’ own ambition — not from the school they chose at age 17.
In the last month, I have watched as many of my older friends receive acceptance letters, or in some cases rejections, from their “dream schools.” And through all of the congratulations and consolations that I have offered, I’ve realized this pressure to find the perfect college doesn’t just come from students’ desire to impress the adults in their lives; it comes from students’ desire to impress their peers as well.
To me, this reason for picking a college appears pretty dumb. Think about it, what happens to students after they are accepted at a highly selective school? They are able to wear a sweatshirt from their highly respected, $60,000-a-year college to school on decision day in May. People will congratulate and applaud them at their graduation party. And that’s it. Everyone will go on and live their life, and they will be forced to live theirs. People should go to a school where they will be happy and where they can thrive academically.
So as this holiday season comes around, I’m prepared for the typical college interrogation at family gatherings. But as always, I’ll smile, give a long-winded, yet generic answer and remind myself that where I choose to go will be the best choice for me.
Mary Patricia Ross is a junior at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School.