“In life, certain defining, almost metaphysical events divide history into before and after. When I was a high schooler, I had such a moment that came to define my life for two years: I realized I was unhappy and needed a change. I came to chafe at the sprawling and oppressive suburbia of Raleigh, North Carolina, and yearned to trade in the banal hallways of the public high school I attended for something much loftier; I decided I wanted to go to Harvard, and would dedicate the remainder of my high school career to reaching this goal.
This goal, however, required a considerable sacrifice and psychological burden on my behalf. I invested all my energy in maintaining a spotless academic record and preparing myself to score high on standardized tests; I needed to make myself as palatable as possible. The inexhaustible work ethic I developed also served as a double-pronged anesthesia: I dedicated so much energy to my aspiration that I became numb to the world surrounding me, and, in turn, constantly reassured myself that the eventual letter I would receive from Harvard would atone for all that I was missing out on in high school.
It was this simple yet powerful logic that governed my life for two years. In my eyes, only admission and thereafter matriculation at Harvard could validate my purgatorial high school experience. The admission rate was miserably low, so the reward would be proportionately great, I reasoned to myself. In the same vein, I had seen valedictorians in classes before mine apply to no avail, and yearned to be the one who seemingly violated the laws of statistics by receiving the golden ticket to Harvard.
On the surface, it may seem that it was merely petty megalomania that drove my efforts in high school. This interpretation, however, disregards the deeper psychological dynamics that underlay my determination. In the words of David Foster Wallace in his famous “This is Water” speech, “there is actually no such thing as atheism,” since “everybody worships.” This supposition is not about religion so much as the way in which we humans approach our lives; we have a constant tendency to cast our marbles with some sort of higher entity that will enable us to construct some meaning out of our mundane lives, a higher entity that serves as an existential lens whose diffraction dictates our perceptions and day to day experiences.
I chose, perhaps not even consciously, the desire to go to Harvard as my existential lens. This lens, however, served most of all as a shutter. It exempted me from having to make an effort to find friends or to show much regard for my parents, since I had convinced myself that in two years’ time I would be shipping up to Cambridge. It enabled me to spurn the world surrounding me for my hypothetical conception of myself as a Harvard undergraduate.
My far-off aspirations, however, were more than detrimental to my appreciation of the world that surrounded me; they were a delusion. Contrary to my expectations, the stardust in Harvard’s rarefied halls fades after a few months. I do not wake up each morning and pinch myself in order to make sure I am living a Harvard reality rather than a Harvard dream. Granted, I now have 20/20 hindsight, but it was only my admission to and matriculation at Harvard that removed my shutters and allowed me to see past the myopic notion that attending the right college could gratify me on a deep, existential level as nothing ever had before.
Despite the subjectivity of the narrative I present, I think that my story is not uncommon, especially in an age of unprecedented deflation in college admission rates and competition among high schoolers. These factors make it all too tempting for high schoolers to choose admission to an elite college as their existential lens, a choice that both deludes and numbs them.
All of this is not to deny Harvard’s many merits as an elite college. It is truly a place steeped in bright undergraduates and world-class scholars. The benefits of attending Harvard, however, do not go beyond that scope. It is a just school, admittedly a very good one. Nevertheless, it is not and never will be what I hoped it would be for two years: a true raison d’être.”