the one thing to know when you enter an elite university

There will always be someone smarter than you.

Think about it– the type of people who congregate to these elite colleges are people who were valedictorians of their high schools, or close to it. They are people who are driven and have been constantly busy with ambitions and pursuits for four plus years. Those amazing undergraduates who do cutting-edge research and found companies on the side that you read about on the Harvard or MIT news? These types of people are going to be your classmates. In the 300-level class I took at MIT, the professor asked us if any of us had started our own company. No one had, and the professor was genuinely surprised. Surprised. In my own college, I am constantly impressed by the caliber of people around me, and flabbergasted that yes, she is the same girl who falls asleep in our math class.

a joke that I've come to understand.

a joke that I’ve come to understand.

To get a flavor of the people in your elite college, stalk the accepted threads in College Confidential. Do you fit the general mold of those accepted? If you do not– by that, I mean, you fall short— know that you have a lot of catching up to do. I do not doubt that you are a capable person that has distinguished yourself in your own way (unless you relied heavily on sports recruiting, the power of money, and your relatives are alums); you will need to apply this tenacity to making up for what your high school has failed to teach you. Mostly, because most of us cannot self-teach, this means attending the remedial classes in college. It may be embarrassing and mortifying, but trust me, underestimating is way better than overestimating your abilities. In the long run, you will suffer less if you grit your teeth and admit that you know close to nothing. After all, in an elite college, you are pitted against people who know everything and are not afraid to show it.

The easiest (laziest) solution is to not attend the elite college. I have many friends who did worse than me academically who are pulling 4.0 GPA’s in state college while in my elite college, only 3-4 people graduate per year with a GPA above a 3.90. Those in state college have much less stress about trying to catch up because everyone is relatively on the same playing field and they learn together at a pace better for them. They also have more time to devote to other subjects besides academics. In high school, one of my acquaintances was scouted by Columbia University, but he eventually ended up going to Penn State. I applaud his courage, because he simply was not a good student and earned poor grades, and thriving in an elite university would be a daily uphill struggle for him, especially as he would have to balance a demanding sport and demanding academics. Do not be swayed by the prestige. Think about you and your own sanity.

Hard as it is, acknowledge your weaknesses. Acknowledge there is always going to be someone smarter than you. Acknowledge that there are some things you cannot do no matter how hard you try. For example, learning four years’ worth of what you were supposed to be taught in high school in the space of a semester. Acknowledge that sometimes the costs exceed the benefits. Go into your elite university with your eyes wide open.


4 thoughts on “the one thing to know when you enter an elite university

  1. You probably didn’t intend it, but the post, as a whole, came off to me as somewhat pessimistic. There are a lot of good things to be said about the fishbowl you find yourself in. For one thing, being around smart people makes you smarter – you develop an automatic habit of looking more deeply into things, sometimes simply in order to be prepared for the discussion that may arise among “the smart”.

    But, you know, even after all this time and the very common use of the words, no one really knows or can define what it means to be “smart” or “intelligent”. “Intelligent” comes from Latin that implies choosing, making the right choice among alternatives. This simple idea can be expanded to choices of lines in a syllogism or theories of physics, or most anything else, to imply making the correct turn at intellectual intersections. I like that definition if for nothing more than its simplicity.

    But the point I want to make about “smart” is that it is something that exhibits unequal growth, growing fast in some areas and slower than others. Each person is unique in what the results of that growth are. Rather than thinking of the others as being “smarter”, I think it’s more productive to think of them having grown more in some areas than you have. You were still growing in other areas, however, and no matter how smart anyone else becomes, there will always be something that you know or understand that they do not. You may want to grow some aspect of yourself to equal that same part of someone else, but this discrepant development has made you unique among all people who ever existed. That means that you can have ideas, create theories, and see the world in ways that others are not even capable under any circumstances of doing. Your “smartness” exists, too, even if not tied statistically with greater future income (like IQ). The wonderful thing about being at an “elite” school is that you have the chance to grow in many ways simultaneously. And as part of the collective, to contribute to human knowledge and absorb it, so that we stop sacrificing human beings, for with knowledge comes the abrogation of prejudice and contradiction, and that may be the ultimate goal of philosophy (for those who see it as having made no progress, which I do not, and being arbitrary, which I do not believe, and feel that all activity must be goal-driven, which I hope is not true, or at least that “goal” be broadly defined). The more we know, the fewer virgins get tossed into volcanoes. Learn all you can because ultimately you will save the innocent.

    Sorry for the ramble. But you are not “behind” – you are simply running in a different track in the same race, and that means adapting to your particular circumstances.

    • I just wanted to clarify– I am not making a case for ‘smart’ being ‘book smart’ necessarily, but that kind of intelligence at these elite institutions is what predominates, and it can be a very harrowing and isolating experience if you don’t possess that kind of knowledge. I believe recognizing that and admitting yes, you are “running a different track in the same race” is essential to thriving in such an environment. That’s the whole point of the post. Recognize that perhaps you aren’t up to snuff and work on ways to mitigate or correct that, in your fashion. In this case of college, take the intro/remedial courses, don’t immediately jump into the advanced courses.

      Not pointing at you or anyone in particular, but some people find it very hard to hear that they can’t do this or are behind. It is the ugly truth and that’s all there is to it. A lot of the times, mollifying someone by saying, “oh we all learn at our own pace, it’s nothing to be ashamed of” are just a load of empty words. Of course we all learn differently– we’ve all been taught that we’re ‘unique’– but using that as a crutch to justify why you cannot do this or that is just a sham.


  2. Hm… while I agree with some of this post and I can see your intent in publishing it, I disagree with parts of it as well. Mostly for the reason that I feel like in this post you state that elite institutions house the most intelligent, most successful, and the best of the best. I disagree with this notion entirely. Maybe because for me, character and emotional intelligence are just as important as IQ or GPA or starting your own company. I know people who have cheated their way into schools like Georgetown or Cornell, even if there are others like me (not saying I am a paragon of intellect and morals or anything) and others have struggled and climbed our way to schools like UPenn. And I don’t think that just going to a smaller institution with less prestige means you’ve sentenced yourself to a lifetime of mediocrity or that you’re lazy. It just means that that institution had value to it, whether it be academic, financial, etc. that made you accept its offer as opposed to the offer of another school.

    I chose William and Mary over UPenn not just because of cost, but because WM felt like somewhere I could call home for the next four years. Despite UPenn’s prestige, WM offered a smaller student body and a close-knit community. I would hate for someone to judge me later on in life and say “well, he went to William and Mary, so he’s obviously less intelligent or less ambitious than that girl who went to UPenn.” Because, really, that’s not true at all – it’s what you make of your college experience that matters.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. However, I never do actually state that elite institutions have the most intelligent and successful people– rather, I said that the type of people who congregate at these colleges are intelligent and ambitious. Type confers a large generalization and certainly does not limit other intelligent people going to other great institutions. I also make allowances for those who got in solely via connections, athletics, etc.

      Also, I know many amazing people who chose to go to ‘non-elite’ universities and are thriving there. By no means do I say they are being sentenced to mediocrity or laziness, I am sure that they will have a great career and future life. However, you cannot deny that there are some people who’d rather be a big fish in a small pond rather than a small fish in a large ocean. Those are the people who are lazy; I am sorry I did not clarify that. I am not unilaterally declaring people who go to non-elite institutions as lazy– rather those people who’d rather schlep easy A’s disproportionate to their mental abilities.

      Moreover, I’d like to dispel that notion that I am all for elite institutions. Yes, I suppose I am attending one of them, but I turned down offers from more prestigious institutions to attend my college, for very much the same reasons that you outlined. Yet, I think the view that your college experience is what you make of it to be very naive. The college also has a large hand in shaping your opportunities and your limitations. I’d always like to think you can do anything you set your mind to, but for the vast majority of people, that isn’t an option.. I’m also including myself on that. No matter how you shape your college experience, there are some things that you can’t do. Yes, you can ‘make the best of it’, but again, you’re just deluding yourself.

      I realize I sound highly pessimistic about these issues, but you rarely see this side in talking about college. I am the type of person who likes seeing both sides before making a decision. It might be painful now, but it will help you in the future.


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