Crafting a Meaningful College List

My college list was as follows:
1. Harvard (pre-med)
2. Stanford (pre-med)
3. Brown (BS/MD)
4. Case Western (BS/MD).

Pretty pretentious, right? Well, let me explain.

Brought up in an Indian household, I chased high-ranking schools, thinking I would be noticed and congratulated by my parents, friends, and even my friends’ parents. I thought that by applying to top colleges nationally, I would make these people proud.

The journey was not going to be easy. I attended, arguably, the most competitive high school in California, so anything short of stellar was unacceptable. To make matters worse, all my medically-oriented family friends got accepted into top schools, and their parents were telling my parents about what their child had accomplished.

Pressured, I applied to prestigious medical programs (BS/MD), while also sprinkling in some big shot pre-med schools. “What could be better than early acceptance into a competitive medical school?” I naively thought, ignorant of what I was getting myself into.

I had no idea which colleges to apply to, so I decided to do what any sane teenager would do. I searched up rankings on websites like CollegeVine and US News, compiled the schools that offered BS/MD according to rank and applied to the top ones.

The application process was very tedious, filled with essay questions and additional letters of recommendation—torture for a senior in high school, so I applied to only ten BS/MDs and four pre-med programs.

After arduously finalizing 25 essays, I was rejected from thirteen schools and accepted into one–one near the bottom of my list. When I opened the email, it didn’t register–some school that I will be forced to go to, one I barely knew anything about. Honestly, I didn’t know why SLU was on my list other than its ranking and the fact that my family friend applied there years earlier.

Staring blankly at the acceptance, I remembered my college counselor’s opinion on a Zoom call one afternoon. “This list is filled with reach schools. Are you sure you did the research? The blatant truth is you will be spending the next four years of your life–at least–at one of them,” he said through my computer screen.

I gave a witless yes.

Perhaps the lesson here is to avoid basing decisions on superficial words like “ranking.” Such words add an unnecessary burden. I could have had a completely different application experience without that word buzzing around in my head.

Moreover, looking at the bigger picture, the stereotype rings true: the Asian-American community has an immense emphasis on college, especially where you are studying. It creates an absurd hierarchy that originated with our parents and is now trickling down to us. But let’s be honest, that’s not what true education is. True education does not depend on where you go. True education comes with the passion to learn.

Although this is self-evident, I know I had to hear it back then, so I will say it now: getting rejected from a prestigious school does not mean you are stupid. It does not mean that you are not good enough. It may just mean that college is not the right fit for you. So, throw away those thoughts and have confidence in yourself—that’s what is most important.

With that, I encourage you to put aside prestige, focus on your goals and compile a list of schools that would best help accomplish them. Do I like the community here? Are there interesting opportunities/programs here? These are the questions that should be asked when deciding which schools to apply to. Also, if the school’s prestige does play a part in your goal, that’s perfectly fine. But it should never be the clincher.

After some careful thought, my college list now would hold more meaning, more of my personality. Places that genuinely excite me, like SLU, University of Rochester and Penn State, would be at the top. What would be at the bottom, you ask?

One word. Harvard.