Apples and Orangutans

“I don’t know why I’m here.”

I have only heard this statement in a few settings at Harvard. I’ve heard it said in philosophy courses, as students try to comprehend the upper limitations of their cognitive abilities. I’ve heard it said at the Hong Kong, as students try to comprehend the lower limitations of their cognitive abilities. And I’ve heard it said in Annenberg, as students try to compare their cognitive abilities to those of others.

The first two make some sense to me: One is a very sobering thought we all probably have at one point or another. The other is much less sober, but still understandable. The third situation though is something I’ve come to realize, personally, can be harmful and debilitating—the notion of comparing talents in college.

Healthy comparisons are everywhere. Historians draw comparisons with the past to talk about the future. Politicians compare and weigh policies. Our economics—the competition of products, job applications, and prices—is based in the realm of comparison. Even this sentence is being used in a comparative fashion.


And comparisons are nowhere more prevalent than in our schools. Students, even if not graded on a curve, compete for grades on relative scales. They try to impress their professors among their peers for recommendations. They make arguments in their papers and exams by weighing sources and logic. They compete to earn spots in performance, writing, and social groups. And these comparisons, while sometimes harsh, can often lead to personal growth.

Probably the main source of comparison in the college experience, however, stems from its birth—the admissions office. Admissions is an institution based solely in comparison: Among a batch of high-school kids who could be deserving of attending a university, the office only selects a certain portion whose presence on campus, comparatively, will contribute most to the university’s well-being. But, especially at private colleges, this comparison can be extremely difficult. When schools like Harvard are committed to building classes based, at least in part, on economic, ethnic, and geographic diversity, the process is like comparing apples to orangutans. Sure, they both taste great. But beyond that, there aren’t many similarities between them to evaluate on the similar scales, making some admissions decisions seem arbitrary.

And this leads to the root of the problem at Harvard—that one weird speech at Visitas. Even though I, like this year’s class, skipped out on Harvard’s visiting weekend, I’ve heard about the infamous speech given every year to the admitted students, which welcomes them by bragging about the attributes of their peers. It apparently goes something like this: “Among your class of 2,024 students, there are 2,400 valedictorians, 50 debate champions, 12 former clowns, five of the original cast of High School Musical 2, Batman (which one of you he is, we still don’t know), and a rubber ducky with a surprisingly high GPA.”

The speech basically amounts to a statement of, “Look at all the apples and orangutans we have compared and compiled for you.” Later on, you find out that among those 50 debate team champions there can be an opera singer; that among those clowns, there is a card-counter; that the rubber ducky has high aspirations for her (didn’t know what the PGP was here) acting career. And, for me at least, it was hard not to feel a bit envious.

Historians, politics, economics, and schooling had pushed me to compare. For some reason, when the zeal of freshman fall wore off, I felt I wasn’t good enough. I wrote for some publications, but didn’t do much else. I began trying hard activities I knew I didn’t like in a test of self-worth. A lot of things began to matter less than they used to, and I got less and less happy. Soon, I felt that there was no community for me to be a part of. I was merely one of the admissions office’s arbitrary mistakes—one of those in Annenberg who questioned their seats at its tables. Although I probably would not have admitted it (or admitted myself), I felt I could never be good enough.

And I was right. I can never be good enough. That’s because there is no such thing as “good enough.” The reason that any college gives admission to students is because they stand out. They’re different in some way that makes them valuable to a university. How they succeeded in their own lives depended on their own definition of success, which was different from many others’. I realized that I was applying the competitive drive that helped me get here in the wrong way—I had to test myself again and pursue my own goals, without worrying about the rest.

At some point, I finally let go. It all fell back into place. I enjoyed the differences more in those around me rather than envied them, and I enjoyed more of the activities I already knew I liked doing or discovered. The pressure subsided, and I finally felt more of a belonging—I was being myself again, which was the same self that the admissions office first selected to “belong” in the class of 2016.

As strange as it seems, differences are what bring students together. And it can be only through embracing and learning from those differences, rather than comparing them, that students will remain together. I’ve tried both ways, and trust me—it doesn’t even compare.

Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Grays Hall.