My high school graduation cap sits on the top shelf of the bookcase in my room. The glitter-strewn fabric delineates a serif "D" and perches gently on a square divided into equal sections of green and white. A couple certificates and awards from college hide it from sight, save for the tassel's green and white tips that peek out from below.
Five years ago, I was a better person than I am today. "Better" clearly being a subjective term, but for all intents and purposes I wish that I could be that 18-year old version of myself again: the dreamer who wore that green and white cap and saw the world through inquisitive eyes. Paraphrasing William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep, coming into college I was "idealistic and curious...hungry for purpose and meaning." But somewhere along the way, something changed.
I graduated from Dartmouth College last spring during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. As my postgraduate plans fell apart before my eyes, I started to question whether the past four years had been worth anything at all; maybe I should have listened to my parents and gone to Berkeley, or maybe the environment at UCLA would have suited me more. Maybe I should have just followed along and found a job in consulting or computer science like the majority of my peers. I spent the summer trying to make sense of my fragmented world, and one day I came across this passage:
“The system manufactures students who are smart, talented, and driven - but also anxious, timid, and lost - with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
I was shocked. Never have I ever had a passage characterize my thoughts so appropriately. I found comfort in the fact that my internal struggle and disillusionment wasn’t my fault, but rather a byproduct of the system that envelopes us. While this feeling may be more apparent in college students, I think that now more than ever high school students should be aware of the system they’re a part of; in high school we’re enamored with the idea of a dream school, and in college we’re captured by the allure of finance, consulting, and other similarly high paying jobs. But is this really all there is to an education?
A few chapters later, another passage reads:
“The problem is that students have been taught that that is all that education is: doing your homework, getting the answers, acing the test. Nothing in their training has endowed them with the sense that something larger is at stake. They've learned to "be a student," not to use their minds … The purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars. Hence the relentless extracurricular busyness, the neglect of learning as an end in itself, the inability to imagine doing something that you can't put on your resume. Hence the constant sense of competition.”
I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way. You can still have academic success without sacrificing your interests.
I grew up in the Bay Area and went to Homestead High School - a decent high school in Cupertino constantly overshadowed by its more high-profile siblings: Lynbrook and Monta Vista. Looking back, no one really talked openly about colleges or grades but it was there - in the back of our minds: this expectation of a 4.0, taking at least 10 APs, scoring perfectly on the SAT, and also volunteering while juggling various extracurriculars. We had to show “dedication” and “perseverance” by never quitting anything - as stressful as they may be - and the more leadership positions we had the better. An all-too-familiar narrative I’m sure, and I just didn’t see the point of it all.
Coming into my Junior year of high school, I hadn’t even heard of Dartmouth - much less knew where I wanted to go for college. To make matters worse, I had just quit my main extracurricular activity and had only taken a total of two AP classes. Everyone else was winning competitions for FBLA, DECA, Speech & Debate; finished with 7 AP tests; and settling into leadership positions for the clubs that they had joined way back in Freshman year. I was nowhere near the standard set by the “admissions checklist” that everyone else was scrambling to finish. Instead, while my peers were stressing over their various classes and extracurriculars, I spent my time developing my thoughts and interests. I picked up photography during my Junior spring semester and taught myself concepts of lighting and composition. As I became more and more interested, I began to research and purchase equipment to support my newfound hobby. I picked up jobs coaching volleyball, tutoring, and doing photoshoots to pay for all my equipment. Coming into Senior year, I quit another one of my extracurriculars and took three AP classes - bringing my count to a whopping total of 5 - opting to simply spend the rest of my time learning photography, working, and mentoring other students. Really, there’s nothing wrong with quitting something as long as you learn from it and use that experience to shape your trajectory.
When it came time to apply to colleges I was pretty hard-headed; I didn’t apply anywhere for early admission because I wanted to “earn my spot in school.” In my essays, I wrote about the lessons I’d learned from my extracurriculars and how those played a role in shaping my independent pursuits and in the end things worked out; I’m a graduate of Dartmouth College and today (after navigating through college and postgraduate disillusionment), I turned down offers from Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley for graduate school - opting to attend Yale instead.
In truth, I had a secret advantage over other students that contributed to my success: my parents never tried to manage my life; they never set a curfew, never asked about my grades, and never pushed me to do certain extracurriculars. With my parents’ support, or lack thereof, I learned to self-motivate, be independent, and understand that I am truly in charge of my own learning.
I hope that my story demonstrates that the college checklist is not all-powerful. I’m not saying you should take the easy way out and only take easy classes - rather, instead of success, make the work itself the goal. Pursuing passion projects as an avenue for exploration is just as important as academic achievement, and this is why I joined Path Mentors. I just wish this existed when I was in high school so that maybe other students would have been spared from the failures of the current system.
There’s a quote that I love from a TV show called Mozart in the Jungle.
"I'm just an amateur.
"Amateur." You say that as if it was a dirty word or something, but "amateur" comes from the Latin word "amare," which means love, love.
To do things for the love of it."
If you aim high and do things for the love of it, everything you do will be worthwhile. And if there’s anything you take away from my story --
“The only real grade is this: how well you’ve lived your life.”
By Mentor Kevin, Yale University M.Arch 1 Candidate, Dartmouth College BA/BE.