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What You Make of It

First choice college does not equal success

By The Crimson Staff

Last week, fewer than 1300 students received admission to Harvard College. Tens of thousands more did not. With near universal declines in admission rates, students are receiving more rejection letters than at any point in history. Concurrently, societal trends have raised the perceived stakes of every college decision, particularly at “elite” institutions, perpetuating the notion that an application decision amounts to a defining moment in one’s life. It does not.

We congratulate the recently accepted applicants, and hope for their continued success at whichever institution they choose to matriculate. Nonetheless, the continuing trend of obsessing over specific schools is a worrying one that propagates false realities about higher education. While it may seem cliché, the old adage is inexorably true—it is not where you go, but what you do, that matters. College rankings, many based on little more than name recognition, cannot predict the personal fulfillment gained from attending a specific school.

The primary reason for lower acceptance rates is beyond anyone’s control. Rising application numbers, and correspondingly lower acceptance rates, are primarily the result of a level of accessibility in the college application process never seen before. With the advent of the Common Application, increased digitization of document submission, and the general streamlining of applications, it is cheaper and simpler to apply to a large number of schools. These are undoubtedly positive changes, and an unintended but not unforeseeable consequence is that students are now applying to more universities to increase their number of available choices. Overall, these developments are a net gain, one that helps level the socioeconomic playing field in an America at times defined by wide socio-economic divisions.

However, the astronomical hype associated with attending certain schools that turns the college application process into an existential struggle is exclusively our own doing. Websites like College Confidential reveal the manufactured hysteria over being accepted to particular schools, with students showcasing mental breakdowns over insignificant life developments. Little illustrates this phenomenon more brazenly than the success of Amy Chua’s bestseller “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” The memoir, as well as the public spectacle that surrounded it prior to publication, showcase the abnormal obsession many American parents display with getting their children into specific schools. The idea that adolescence is little more than an audition for college is an inherently problematic philosophy. Parents do their children a disservice by placing this emphasis on college admission; these notions about the significance of specific admissions only exacerbate the emotionally exhausting nature of the college application process.

Much of this hype is particularly pronounced in the Ivy League. There undoubtedly exists a mystique surrounding Harvard and several of its peer institutions. Cultural perceptions about the privilege afforded to students exaggerate the benefits of a Harvard education—it is not a golden ticket. Ultimately, admission to Harvard is no more a guarantee of success in life than a rejection is condemnation to failure. A degree from an “elite” institution will not mitigate laziness or lack of initiative when searching for a job just as a degree from a lesser-known school will not obscure a standout performance or positive character traits.

None of this is to say that students should forego the college application process, or eschew the value of an education. Every student should pursue, whether at Harvard or any of the thousands of other institutions in the United States, a college education or vocational training.

There is little doubt that the vast majority of students here at Harvard are thankful for and humbled by the combination of talent and luck that gained them admission. In the end, however, their future is determined, like everyone else’s, by the decisions they make, and not by the institution that seals their diplomas. Perhaps a more salient lesson than any learned in the lecture hall is the understanding that Harvard does not define one’s identity, but only enables its discovery.

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