Applying to College Means Confronting my Future

Confessions From the College Front Line is a column about experiencing and reflecting on the college process.

Usually on my way to classes, my friends and I engage in the usual conversation: ranting about the newest teacher drama or stressing over homework and projects. But, the later I go into my high school career, the less our conversations become about day-to-day experiences, and the more they shift to the big C word: college. “I just registered for the SAT,” one friend says. “Shoot,” I think, making a mental note to add that to the to-do list: register for the SAT. “I’m doing the writing center. It looks good on college apps,” another says. I did a mental checklist of my extracurriculars. That got me thinking–exactly how much of what I do right now is for college?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that with many decisions I make, whether it be the classes I take or my extracurriculars, the thought in the back of my head is always: what looks good for applying to college?

Don’t get me wrong, I love my extracurriculars. I look forward to going into the Pediatrics department at Huntington Hospital and talking to the kids. I have made some of my best friends through my swim team, and I love going to practices every day. Playing the piano at the end of a long day can be frustrating, but it’s also incredibly rewarding when I finally learn a song. But whenever I need to make a new commitment, like considering the courses I’m planning to take next year, or adding a new after school activity, my mind immediately goes to what colleges want rather than what I want.

Walking around the service fair a few weeks ago, I picked up pamphlets from each station. I was immediately drawn to an organization which gives volunteers the opportunity to help with pediatric surgeries in underdeveloped countries. It seemed perfect. Combining my love for service, particularly working with families and children, as well as a new experience traveling to a country very different from my own, and finally, getting to learn more about surgery. No matter how appealing this option sounded to me, there was a tiny voice whispering in my ear: and it will look great on college applications…

Admitting this, I almost feel fraudulent. Helping others, volunteering, all things that I genuinely believe in, now seem warped by the temptation for personal gain. I know in my heart that I want to support people and contribute to a good cause, but I feel guilty knowing that a part of me might be taking advantage of someone else’s struggles to look good in the eyes of a college admissions officer.  

I can make all the ‘right’ choices and curate a near perfect resume, but I think I will always doubt how much of what I do is reflective of myself. The line between outside influence and my own aspirations has become so blurred.

College brochures

For the majority of my life, every time I’ve thought about college, it’s always been about getting in. I’ve thought about where I want to go and the steps I have to take to get there. It’s been a pretty straightforward path. Or so I thought. 

Now, I realize that the college process is about making a decision about my future, my values, and my aspirations. Picking a specific school reflects my belief system and picking a major indicates my interest in a specific field. There are endless decisions to make, endless choices, and for me, this causes endless panic.

This uncertainty is exactly how Barry Schwartz describes it in his book, The Paradox of Choice: “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard,” he writes. Schwartz explains that the more choices we have, the more likely we are to feel unhappy and trapped. It’s much easier to order off a menu with three items than 100. Hearing Schwartz say exactly what I have been feeling for the past months gave me comfort—clearly, I must not be alone.

I know that I’m incredibly lucky to even have the privilege not only TO make that choice, but to choose from a full menu of options. But college is the first real, big, life-altering decision I’ve had to make for myself. How can I make this life-defining choice when I’m not even sure the choices I’ve made thus far are authentically my own?

I don’t know if the reason I do my extracurriculars is because of a genuine interest, or because I’ve been conditioned to believe I like them. Would I have picked that specific sport, instrument, volunteer job, without the outside influence?

In his book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz writes, “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose; trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea of why they are doing it.”

I see many parts of this sentiment reflected in myself and many other Westridge students. Most of us are high achieving students who come from upper-middle class families. We are hardworking, yet confused. The biggest thing that lacks in our academic careers is purpose. 

Performing well in school and staying on top of my commitments has become a habit for me. I’ve been moving through life successfully thus far, but I don’t have any concrete answers for where I’m going, or why.  

It feels like being lost without a map, and I keep wandering in every direction, towards different careers or colleges or interests, each time realizing that they aren’t what I love to do. Somehow, every single time, I end up back where I started. Confused, lost, and wondering, “Where am I even trying to go?” How am I supposed to find my way when I don’t know where my final destination is?

Writing this article, I feel like I’ve asked an absurd number of rhetorical questions. But questions are most genuine to what I feel right now. I don’t quite know where I’m going, what I want, or what I think. But, I’m trying to be okay with that feeling of uncertainty. 

With all of these questions and uncertainty in the air, I also want to focus on what I do know about myself. I know that I’m capable of putting my mind to anything I want, and excelling at it. I know that nothing makes me happier than seeing a kid at the hospital smile after making a craft together. I know that compassion and human kindness is what I value above all else. I know that nothing makes my heart soar like a good song. I know that there are so many things that I love, that among my unlimited options are beautiful possibilities. I know that there is something out there that my future-self loves. I know that it’s okay not to know everything. I know I will find my way.