By Caroline Hong
He had had two bottles of Nesquik chocolate milk, and after only three weeks, he was on his last bottle of Five-Hour Energy, from a case of twenty-four. I sat across from him a bit dumbfounded, watching him jiggle his leg and rub his eyes. He didn’t cover his mouth when he yawned, so I was privy to his open-mouthed gapes every five minutes or so, a reminder that he was running himself into the ground. Before him was a 45-minute ACT English section, which appeared to be causing him much distress from the amount of times he sighed and mussed up his hair.
This summer, I did ACT and SAT tutoring, which gave me the opportunity to meet a handful of students just like you and me, who were inevitably thrust into the stifling and over-demanding culture that is standardized testing and college admissions. They had this unspoken belief that the investment of time, the sleepless nights, the downed bottles of Five-Hour Energy would all be worth their while when they got into that “prestigious” college.
I tried to let them know something that I’d learned only after spending my first year of university largely faced with difficulty and adversity: College is not the finish line. When I was in high school, college was a sight accompanied by the vision of singing cherubs playing harps and beams of brilliant light. College meant making everyone proud, having a bumper sticker to point to and say, “I did that,” succeeding at something I’d been working on earnestly for four years.
If I’m being honest, I chose Cornell because I knew my family would be proud, because going to an Ivy League school had to be the greatest accomplishment. I didn’t think about the environment, paid no mind to other English programs, and put all my eggs in a basket. I got in early decision, and I’d done it, right? I’d reached the peak, planted my flag in the ground, and emblazoned on a Cornell t-shirt the message: “I’ve made it. I can be happy now.” But just as I was ready to do my victory shimmy, Life appeared at the peak, put a baggy sweater over my t-shirt, and gave me a pat on the head. “This is only the beginning,” Life said.
I stopped worrying about SATs, gym class, college applications, but those worries were supplanted instead by bigger, more serious issues of my future career, my mental well-being, my support system. In my four years of high school in a supportive, caring environment, I didn’t think to prepare myself to encounter things like anxiety and stress. I didn’t learn how to deal with emotional and mental issues because I thought I was immune. But they happened, and I’m sorry to say that they will probably happen to some of you, too. So take advantage of this time in high school, when it’s easy to talk to your teachers and develop coping skills. College is a little less forgiving and a lot more serious. It’s easy to lose sight of what is most important: you, your happiness, your health.
I’m not suggesting you throw up your hands and resign yourself just because college isn’t the end-all goal. I’m not suggesting that it won’t feel good when you finally get into college. What I’m saying is this: There is life before and after college. Give yourself time to breathe. You deserve to have fun, be happy, do what you love—now and later. (Maybe you want to pace yourself so you can get your research paper in on time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t Netflix an episode or two of your favorite show before you type up your Works Cited.) Not everything you decide to do has to be for college; if there’s a passion you want to pursue, something recreational you’d like to do, then go for it. Nowadays, I’m keeping some time to myself—to eat that occasional bowl of Lucky Charms, try to play the violin and not make too many high-pitched noises, go running and sweat in places I didn’t know existed.
Listen, I know it’s hard to put the brakes on when everything seems to be hurrying you toward this seemingly mystical goal. If you told me to stop outlining my paper right now and ride a bike, I’d be less than willing to relinquish my work. But remember: college is cracked up to be a lot of things, but it isn’t worth throwing away all the time until then.
I know it seems easy for me to say these things now that I have gotten into college, and you’re right. It’s tough to look at the whole college situation when you’re in the middle of it, which is why I’m trying to impart this message to you, now that I have some distance. If everything you just read is about to get flushed down the mental crapper, at least take this with you: College is built up to be the biggest milestone—and it is a big one. But after you pass it, you’ll find other things ahead, and traveling while constantly looking toward the next destination is hardly enjoyable at all. I, personally, get car sick looking too far ahead, so why don’t you just put your seatbelt on, tuck that science textbook away, eat a snack, and enjoy the view while you’re at it?