April is a scary month for high school seniors. They worry about their futures.
In a region with probably a higher concentration of college anxiety than any other, the admissions process dumps on them disappointments that are hard to handle.
My advice: Listen to whatever words of wisdom and consolation parents and older relatives offer. Be polite, no matter how painful it is to listen to people trying to be understanding.
Then seek out people in their 20s to learn what college looks like after you are done with it. If you don’t have a slightly older brother, sister or cousin, look for a neighbor, a member of your church, a former babysitter. They have something to say.
Take, for instance, Christina Zhang, who e-mailed me when she was a student at Towson High School in Baltimore County going through the tortures of applying to college. Her worst moment was applying for an early decision to her first choice, the University of Pennsylvania, and being rejected.
Zhang went to Cornell University and now works as a management consultant, specializing in health-care industries. She e-mailed me saying those years in college and the real world changed her thinking about her admission experience.
Her rejection by Penn had been “the biggest deal in the world,” she said. Adults such as me told her “everything was going to be all right, and I was going to get in somewhere great because I am ambitious/driven etc. But I did not care at the time. The only thing I could care about was my defeat/shame” as well as the grief of “trying hard to achieve something and seeing no results.”
It was only the reality of higher education and employment that led her to a different view of the power of ranking, the aspect of U.S. culture that makes the admissions process most stressful.
Ranking matters, Zhang said, but not “as much as people think. People at top schools do well because they are hard-working, resourceful and driven. Not just because they have a Harvard attached to their name.”
It didn’t occur to her until she got to college that rank consciousness might inhibit the energy needed to succeed, particularly at an Ivy League school. Zhang saw students “flunk out or do poorly because they thought they could coast on the Cornell name forever. Going to college is like making one move in a chess game. It’s just one step or even a start. Not the end.”
After college, the working world helped Zhang — like other young people I know — shed the love of brand name institutions they had when they were teenagers. As she moved into management consulting, she interned at a national firm in 2010 that she said was “on the top of every ranking list.”
“It was the worst summer of my life,” she said. Despite the astonishment of some friends, she walked away from the big company and took a job at a smaller one full of people she liked. Because she isn’t seeing those prestige-minded friends, “it no longer matters,” she said. “I am doing what I love and making good money.”
Love and money. That is what it usually comes down to.
An education in any of hundreds of colleges will usually be enough, if young people apply themselves, to make a comfortable living.
Finding something you love to do is trickier. It might require settling for less salary than is available, but if you ask old people — grandparents such as me — we will tell you that is the way to go.