College advice is a lot like good parenting advice:
- You have to take it for what’s it’s worth,
- There are just as many approaches and theories as there are quacks professing them,
- It all seems so obvious in retrospect (retrospect here being once you graduate from college or become a parent).
It is the very special time of year when college acceptance letters come a-fluttering in. Hopes are dashed, dreams are buoyed, and some life plans seem irrevocably derailed. I imagine there a kind of novel finality about them that to many of high schoolers comes for the first time as a reality of “odds”.
For the record, I do not remember exactly what I felt when I opened mine 14 years ago. Chances are 14 years from now you won’t either.
When I applied to undergrad it was a very different world, and I was pretty sure that I would get into Georgia Tech. I also wasn’t smart enough to really worry about what would happen if I didn’t. I do remember the hype propped up by people who were applying to more serious schools. You know, Ivy League and such. You know, the kind of people who joined silly clubs and built schools in some God-forsaken, sad country far away.
Those other schools were way out of my league (pun most definitely intended). Applying to them was a stupid idea, and I could think of many other uses for that $60 application fee. So instead I went to what seemed like a perfectly good state school. You probably know the rest. If you don’t, you can still look me up on LinkedIn.
What I am trying to say is that the hype is just hype. 80% of people who go to Ivy League schools don’t amount to anything when they graduate. 95% of people who go to a regular school don’t amount to anything when they graduate. Given the benefit of hindsight (and advance old age), academically and professionally college is a waste of time for at least 80% of student body. Let that number sink in because I just made it up. Still I am convinced that I can’t be that far off.
You can make your time count at any school. You can make your time matter at any university. But let me be perfectly clear, I am not drawing a distinction between making it count and dropping out in the traditional sense. I am talking about dropping out mentally, socially and physically — disengaging from your own success (define it as you wish) to become a kind of bum on the doorstep of the proverbial “middle class” the rest of us are careful to step over on our way through life.
It’s not the lack of opportunity that supplies that doorstep with bodies. It’s the lack of interest, ambition, and initiative. It’s a heady thing to ponder — the fact that the day you emerge from your parents’ “protective custody” is the same day you are at the reins for the first time in your life. On that day, too many just release the horses…
I didn’t get lucky with my undergrad choice. I didn’t take SAT prep classes to tilt the odds in my favor. I didn’t hire expensive tutors to dot my i’s and cross my t’s. I had a ton of ambition but I also somehow managed to know my place. I was content with where I fell in the pecking order. In this respect my relative oblivion might have been my only asset.
And yes, I made my undergrad matter in the only way my ignorant self knew how — by excelling at academics and nerding out. Later on when I got into Berkeley for graduate school I realized that I wasn’t the only person who spent the last four years “making it matter”. I felt like I was surrounded by geniuses. Moreover, many of them came from obscure tiny little schools, which were at best backwaters to Georgia Tech, which itself was backwaters to Berkeley. They all just worked incredibly hard to make it count wherever they were. They were smarter than me too.
That’s all I am going to say about this. If you don’t care to make it matter, it doesn’t matter where you go to school.
I know I said this was free advice, but it comes under one condition. You can take it as long as you believe in the importance of going to a “good” school. If you don’t (and I tend not to), forget everything you just read.
In the end, it’s far more important to meet the right people, or be the kind of person that other people want to meet. It’s far more important to do what you love than to jump on the bandwagon with the latest major de jour. Incidentally, these are much better predictors of success and happiness in life than what school you went to, or what’s in that envelop you are about to open.