Deconstructing My Dream of the “Elite” University


I go to my dream school. And I did what I had to do in order to get here. By that, I mean I did everything that an applicant vying for admission to a selective university is supposed to do: AP courses, subject tests, carefully chosen extracurriculars relating to a specific area of interest—and not too many of them, either, because you are, of course, not supposed to do random things just to do them. I’m saying this with a little bit of bitterness, because most of those things were done out of deep insecurity, a nagging feeling that I was never really doing enough. Those emotions have followed me all the way to Atlanta. 

My upbringing was focused on very little besides getting into college, and a “good” one at that. I remember being nine years old, watching my teenage sisters flip feverishly through SAT vocabulary flashcards. Both of them ultimately attended Ivy League universities, and after their graduations, it was my time to be molded into the perfect college candidate. There were test-prep classes and math tutors, long conversations about Naviance statistics and the latest U.S. News rankings. Whenever I mentioned colleges I was interested in, I was immediately met with questions from my parents: What’s it ranked? What’s the acceptance rate? Colleges touting a national rank below 30 might be scoffed at; colleges with acceptance rates above 45% were “too easy.” I was often told that I could do better, that I needed to strive for more, and I learned to believe it. After all, I had been given big shoes to fill.

During my sophomore year of high school, I started visiting online forums dedicated to college admissions, where past admittees posted their “stats”—extracurricular activities, test scores, and the like. In a Google Doc, I obsessively pored over my own activities and grades, noting where I paled in comparison to the people whose lives I had read about online. He was waitlisted, even though he had perfect stats—what does that mean for you? She was accepted with a low GPA, but she also did really cool lab research—and you haven’t. Never mind the fact that I was completely uninterested in doing lab research of any kind; the point was that I simply wasn’t doing enough of anything. 

And so I tried my best to become the person who did it all, and did it well. I tried to become more like my Ivy League sisters, more like the accepted kids on College Confidential. Soon, I was looking at a near-picture-perfect Common Application. Academic achievement? I was an AP Scholar with Distinction, on track to graduate Magna Cum Laude. Standardized testing? My ACT score was in the 99th percentile. Extracurricular involvement? I logged volunteer hours at a museum and a therapeutic horseback riding facility; I served as the managing editor of Lithium Magazine, won national awards for my poetry, and had said poetry published in a literary journal. 

I sent my college applications out, crossing my fingers for Emory University. It was perfect. It boasted a beautiful campus just outside of a bustling city, a diverse student body, a celebrated creative writing program. Moreover, its #21-in-the-nation ranking and 19% acceptance rate gave it all the trappings of a parent-pleasing university. When my early admission came in December, it felt like an affirmation, one letter holding all of the validation I had been craving for years. Finally, I knew that I was enough.

By every possible measure of pre-college success, I belonged at an elite university. So being here was fine at first. I mean, I had taken all those classes! Done all that stuff for magazines! 

No amount of extracurricular activities, though, could have prepared me for what everyone else was doing. 

It’s a tale as old as time, really. Kid who was smart in high school goes to college and realizes that everyone around them was also smart in high school. Naive college freshman realizes that, wow, nothing you do at the age of fifteen actually holds any weight in the real world. However, I still couldn’t help but notice that so many studentsfirst-semester freshmen included!—seemed to have high-ranking leadership positions. I had joined a handful of clubs, but I wasn’t on any executive councils. My friends were somehow constantly busy with club meetings, interviews for board positions, fundraising for their charity work. And I was doing nothing.

The thing is, I knew that opportunities wouldn’t just fall into my lap. I knew that I had to actively search for them. I saw everyone else working harder than me, and I knew that I had it in me to catch up. I could have applied for an executive board, run for a hall council position. But I didn’t, and I couldn’t figure out what was holding me back from doing the things I thought I loved.

Then I realized it. Most of my high school involvement had been empty. I had interviewed filmmakers and writers, penned pieces about inclusion. And I was passionate about this, sure; I loved to write. But at the end of the day, it had all been so performative. I loved this thing so much, but I did it only opportunistically. Everything was calculated and purely chosen for impressiveness.

I put in little work to become the writer I actually wanted to be, and used “writer” only as an identity for college admissions essays, as an area under which all my extracurricular activities could fall. 

The campus newspaper offers press passes so its Arts & Entertainment writers can attend film screenings. Showing times are sent in a group chat, and anyone can take them. This was right up my alley, and yet I never took a single pass or went to any screenings. And why? Because the article I would write for the paper would no longer be written with the goal of college in mind. I had no idea how to write if not for payment or for boasting purposes. Meanwhile, the other people on staff at the paper wrote because they loved it, not because they were applying for something.

With this writing-specific realization came a larger one, too. I realized that I had been using college as a remedy for all of my insecurity. It existed in my mind as a faraway place that I was constantly working toward, a single purpose for all my actions. Once the goal of admission disappeared, so did my reason to do things. I had constructed a hollow profile of a person—accomplished and digestible enough to get into college, but devoid of much else. I was great on paper, and awful off of it. 

I need to disclaim that I am incredibly grateful to attend Emory. My classes and professors are intriguing; my friends are wonderful; the city of Atlanta is absolutely unmatched. And I also need to disclaim that I place no blame for my college obsessions on my parents or siblings. My parents pushed me to pursue an elite dream because they wanted the best possible future for me. (Also, the idea of Chinese immigrant parents making personal sacrifices so their kids can attend college and secure good futures is a whole different piece for me to write.)

Where do I go from here? How do I address these weighty—and frankly embarrassing—realizations about myself?

The answer is unclear to me, but I’m trying my best to work on it. A few weeks ago, I pushed myself to do something, and I ended up being a speaker at an on-campus TEDx event. I wrote a ten-minute talk, took the stage, and spoke about something I was passionate about—really passionate about—for a crowd of students, not because I had to get into something, but just because I wanted to. I applied to become an editorial intern for the campus newspaper, and every Tuesday, I sit in the office and learn the basics of layout and design. 

It might not be much, but I’m starting somewhere.


By Julianna Chen

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