Share Your Thoughts

It’s that time of year again. I’m sure many of you are fretting over a few fat or thin envelopes that may be coming in the mail anytime.

I’m caught up in the craze too, and I’m only 15. I’ve memorized the U.S. News and World Report’s list of America’s best colleges. Holding first place is Harvard. Harvard received about 27,000 applications for the Class of 2009. Out of the 4,000 early-action applicants, it accepted less than 900. Then Harvard took in just 2,000 students from the pool of 22,000 regular applicants. That’s a total of 3,000 students from 27,000 eager applicants. Two years down the road I would love to be one of those 3,000. But let’s look at all the things I’m up against.

Take “smarts.” Just who isn’t smart? When looking at one student versus another, it’s hard to see the differences. Student A has received numerous awards in various extra-curricular activities. She’s editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, co-president of the National Honors Society, and is taking every A.P. and Honors class possible. Student B is all that, has a perfect score on the SAT, and is a stellar athlete. So what can I do to stand out from the other 27,000 applicants?

Everyone here has the basic minimum. Living in this valley where everyone is smart, hardworking, and innovative, I have to set my standards even higher. I’m constantly reminded that a good college can buy me job satisfaction, success, money, and fame.

Then consider what I like to call the complication package. I find that students and parents are so competitive that they will pay thousands of dollars just to have a professional dress them up for those college applications. But I believe that instead of looking to the student as an individual, these counseling programs look to please a college. They drive home the point that it’s not who you are that matters—it’s whether or not you fit the requirements of a perfect package. How can some outfit teach me to adopt a different voice for a college? I am who I am.

Take the drama at school. I find that most students take rigorous classes not so much to learn. It’s really about getting an A and that extra point for taking an Honors class. I’m guilty of it too. Students are so nervous about getting that one B+ that they’ll even resort to cheating. Two years ago, several smart kids at a Bay Area high school tweaked numbers on a computer so their grades would look even better on the application.

There’s also what I call the “I did that too” syndrome. How many students do community service to actual benefit the community? We need it on our application! Kids get on the school newspaper staff just to say that they too wrote for their newspaper. Recently my mother told me that I should not drop one of my hundred after-school activities. Her logic was quite simple. “What about the application?”

Mom, you too?

How often we forget that many of today’s big stars went to ordinary colleges and that college wasn’t a factor in their careers. Oprah, who grew up in harrowing circumstances, is now the first African-American woman to have become a billionaire and one of the most famous women in the entertainment industry. She went to Tennessee State University. No, it doesn’t quite figure in the top-100 list.

What about second-grade teacher Victoria Knight-McDowell? She said it herself: Ordinary people like her—“those without Harvard degrees”—are not encouraged to start businesses. But after getting sick of … well, getting sick, she came up with the perfect preventive formula—vitamin A, C, E, seven herbal extracts, antioxidants, electrolytes, and amino acids. Her product, Airborne, now makes over $150 million per year.

Please don’t get me wrong. College is important. But like Deborah Stipek, the Dean of Education at Stanford University, says in her article, “The Culture of College Pressure,” there is the right college for every one of us. And I’d like you to think for a second about those who go to big-name colleges and then make nothing of their lives. Like Finley Peter Dunne said, “You can lead a man up to the university but you can’t make him think.”

When I get my package in the mail, I hope I’ll have the maturity to realize that inside it is the name of the college tailored just for me, the unique individual, and not the other way around.

Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker, explains the logic behind Ivy League admissions in a recent article titled “Getting In.” There is no foolproof method of making it into an Ivy League. They don’t want students that are just “intelligent” as in having good grades. They want students whose personality and character will make them successful even after college. The best counseling program cannot guarantee a path to Harvard’s doors. As Gladwell says, the Ivy League process seems subjective and opaque. It’s not very fair or straightforward. In the 1980s, when Harvard was investigated by the federal Department of Education, there were notes scribbled on many applicants’ files with comments like “seems a tad frothy” or “short, with big ears.”

Of late I’m beginning to think of college more as yet another milestone in life, a gateway between high school and the real world. And yes, college will also be a getaway from home, a place where I will become an individual in control of my life.

But let me be honest. I’ll never give up on my Harvard dreams. That’s asking a bit much of me—and my mom. I already see one big problem, though. At 5’3″, I’m short. I have huge elephant-like ears. And right now my forehead is erupting with pimples the size of Mount Fuji.

Getting into an Ivy League? My chances may be slim.

Pavithra Mohan is a sophomore at Saratoga High School.