I hate high school. I hate the food and the bathroom doors don’t shut. I hate the flickering fluorescent lights and it’s always cold. Most of all, though, I hate the people who claim high school is the best time of your life.
Since freshman year, I’ve been looking at colleges. Instead of going to volleyball practice or debate team meetings after school as my peers do, I go straight to my computer and scour the internet for everything from virtual tours of campuses to stores that sell “essential” dorm accessories like lava lamps and mini-fridges. In tenth grade, I stopped putting up new posters in my room, figuring that it isn’t worth the effort because I’ll have to take them down in three years when I finally leave for college. In eleventh grade, I memorized most of the U.S. News and World Report’s controversial college rankings. College research is such a significant hobby for me, I’ve considered listing it as an activity on my applications. Compared to mundane high school life, college seems like a more intellectual version of summer camp. I started with the only school I’d ever heard of, Harvard. From there, I strategically worked my way down the Ivies until I got to Columbia, which is currently my favorite school.
When Spring Break rolls around, my parents suggest we drive out east to visit colleges. Usually I consistently reject my parents’ advice in order to assert my role as the rebellious teenager, but this time I eagerly give in and go along with them. My parents do little to hide their excitement of having a child considering an Ivy League college. My dad immediately calls the admissions offices of all ten schools I want to visit, convinced that becoming buddies with the admissions officers will help my chances of getting in. It takes an hour of exaggerated eye rolling and aggressive head shaking to finally get him off the phone with a young female at Amherst. During their conversation, he mentions my name and thoughtfully embellished accomplishments a subtle 27 times. My mom takes me on a shopping trip to Mall of America, thinking that I will be admitted into Columbia based on my well-groomed appearance.
When we arrive on campus, however, my parents point out patches of dead grass and correct the grammar of students when eavesdropping, hoping the school’s flaws will make me feel less sad when Columbia rejects me, along with 90 percent of their applicant pool. But when we approach the library, they both fall silent. They can’t find any criticism for the majestic granite structure that boldly asserted its presence on the center of campus. We climb over students basking on the stairs and make our way through the enormous columns into the library, which is now the location of the admissions office. If the library was intended as an intimidation tactic for prospective students, it is a very effective one. Maybe that’s why the students roaming the campus radiate a poise and self-assurance that seems more than just a few years away from my current awkward state. People lacking in confidence, such as myself, are probably discouraged from applying by the campus’ daunting architecture.
I find a comfortable chair in the corner of the office and browse the school’s admissions literature. My dad slumps next to me, severely put off that the admissions officer at the front desk didn’t remember their friendly chat weeks before. Hundreds of faces smile up at me from the pages of Columbia’s viewbook. “If you come to Columbia, you will be happy and confident and successful and beautiful and rich… like us!” they say to me. I shove the viewbook away disgustedly and look up to see another set of perfect, white teeth.
“Hello everyone! My name is Jessica and I’m going to be your tour guide! Looks like we have a big group today! Splendid!”
I do my best to suppress laughter at the utter ridiculousness of her over-the-top enthusiasm, but I emit a loud snort nonetheless. My mom throws me an angry look.
“The building we are in at the moment is called the Low Memorial Library! It has the largest all-granite dome in the country! I bet you didn’t know that! Right this way now!”
I fall to the back of the crowd so I can make observations without being noticed. The kids all look pretty average. Most are wearing tee shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes in all of the usual brands that starkly contrast with the hip urbanwear of the students. Those who dressed nicely tug at the sleeves of their sweaters uncomfortably, making it clear that there had been parental intervention in their choice of attire. My parents weren’t the only ones who wanted to impress the admissions staff.
When we stop, the parents rush to the front to get as close to possible to Jessica whose excitement has persisted for all 30 minutes of our tour. They drill her with questions, many of doubtful relevance. With the parents thinned out of the crowd, I look around and see I’m not the only one sulking on the perimeter.
“My mom always asks the same questions,” whines a girl. Her t-shirt is a too-tight variation on the usual tee shirt theme.
“You think that’s bad? My dad’s been handing out business cards to all of the guides,” responded a scrawny boy in a Chicago Cubs shirt.
“Where else have you visited?” asks the girl.
“Harvard, Brown, Yale, Princeton, and here. I wanted to see Sarah Lawrence because they have a fabulous creative writing department, but my dad wouldn’t let me because it’s not Ivy League.”
I interject, “I was just at Sarah Lawrence yesterday. I really loved it. Their program seems great. So much individual attention! And the students were so sincere and unpretentious, and…” I turn to see that the boy is looking at his feet, “…oh, sorry.”
“You’re lucky,” says the girl. The rest of the group whose attention is on me mutters softly in agreement.
“Yeah, I guess I am.”