It's that time of year again, when many high school seniors witness their college dreams either come to fruition or get dashed to pieces in the form of forebodingly weightless rejection letters. Aside from wallowing in the purgatory that is the dreaded wait-list, most admitted students are now weighing their existing options before the looming matriculation deadline of May 1st or May 15th, etc.
Understanding what many of you are going through in these last few weeks or even days, I'd like to offer you some words of wisdom that I wish I had received when I was in your shoes.
Although this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my own personal experiences with the college application process, in which some things have no doubt changed, I remain fairly familiar with the whole harrowing ordeal. In addition to applying to and graduating from two competitive graduate programs -- one five years out of college and the other almost ten -- I briefly worked for Kaplan when the company was considering ramping up its college application program. The college application program, now defunct due primarily to its inability to scale, provided personalized consultative services to high school seniors who were applying to colleges -- everything from where to apply to how to wear your hair for an admissions interview.
What actually prompted me to write this was high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss' allegedly "satirical" piece in The Wall Street Journal, in which she sarcastically blames everyone but herself for not being interesting enough to get admitted to elite schools such as Princeton and Yale. Tough break, Suzy. To be fair, it wasn't so much the article as it was the responses it elicited, mostly in the vein of "it doesn't really matter where you go to school," or "what's most important is what you do once you get there." Hmm. I only half agree, and I'll explain why.
Contrary to what some people say, where you go to school does bear significance.
Where you spend four to five years of your young adult life and upwards of $200,000 is your decision -- it should matter only to you, regardless of what others, including those in the $20 billion education industry, purport. Having said that, where you choose to go to school will, for better or worse, remain with you in varying degrees of import for the rest of your life. Graduate schools and employers will take it into consideration as a factor in your candidacy, and sometimes as a factor in your compensation. Like everyone else in the workforce, you will be expected to include where you went to college not only in your job applications and on your resume but also on your LinkedIn profile, where others -- employers, recruiters, background checkers, fellow colleagues, friends, random creepers -- peruse more and more frequently.
Of course, most people will say that where you graduated from college will mean less and less as you become more accomplished in your career. This is true. But it's not without exception. For example, just last week I was being interviewed for a role to head the digital division of a traditional media company owned by one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. Bizarrely, and unsettlingly, the CEO and CFO, who made millions selling their company to the conglomerate but chose to stick around and run their acquired company, spent more time during the interview niggling over the fact that I went to Columbia and Harvard than asking me serious questions about how to build out a function that their company desperately needed. The two obviously had their own hang-ups about collegiate cachets in spite of their wild success, without considering for a moment where I came from and what it took to get me where I am. The point is, I've been in the workforce for over 15 years -- it shouldn't matter where I went to college and, yet, for whatever reason it did to these old men. And, like it or not, it will to others, too. I try to stay away from people like that, which is one of the reasons the role wasn't a fit for me.
What you do in school isn't all that important.
What I mean by this is that you're in college to learn, to have fun and to do things that genuinely interest you. Padding your resume with things you do in college merely for the sake of differentiation is a silly exercise because no one in academia or in professional graduate programs, such as law or medical school, will buy your crap. And, most especially, no one in the real workforce will either.
Unless you develop a cure for cancer or found a company that sells for millions, your internships and various activities in college will carry little, if any, weight. Don't get me wrong, they're worthwhile and they might help others gain some insight into you as an individual, but they won't elevate you to the next level. And, by the way, no one is expecting them to. When you graduate from college you will be 21 or 22 -- hardly an age of worldly achievements on your belt. When I graduated from college no one cared that I was a Division 1 athlete, that I recolonized a local chapter of a national fraternity, that I studied abroad, or that I volunteered for several worthy causes. They didn't care then and they certainly don't care now. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't work hard to learn all that you can and to get good grades, particularly if you plan to apply to competitive graduate programs or for jobs at snooty companies, like Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, that request copies of your college transcript. It just means that you shouldn't take yourself so seriously because, trust me, no one else is taking you seriously. Instead, try to direct the energy that fuels your worries and fears and hopes and assumptions elsewhere -- to somewhere more productive and enjoyable.
Lastly, it really is what you do with your education that matters most.
Perhaps this is what people mean when they say it doesn't really matter where you go to college, but I see an important distinction, and it's not just rhetorical. The distinction rests in the perspective of someone looking back versus the perspective of those who are looking ahead. Looking back, college is just one of so many mileposts in your life, most of which are far more meaningful, like whom you love or what you do to make the world a better place for your family, friends and community. Your education can (and should) aid in these -- and how you apply your education is entirely up to you. Ultimately, this is what matters most. This is how you become engaged, fulfilled and enlightened. This is how you leave your mark. So, be very mindful of your decisions, such as where you choose to go to college, but understand and rest assured that no one decision can ever define who you are. Fortunately for us all, it'll never be that simple. And with that I wish you the best of luck.