The Rough Draft: David and Goliath

Juliette Amram, Editor in Chief

This time of year, many students are at different stages of the college search process. In 12th grade, some students are completing their last applications, some have begun to receive admissions decisions, and some have already decided where they will spend the next chapter of their lives. At the same time, many underclassmen are thinking about the application process they will face in the coming years and are beginning to consider what they want from their college experience.

It is very common to separate a list of potential colleges into three categories: “safeties,” the colleges to which a particular student would expect to be admitted based on their grades; “matches,” the colleges to which a student has a good chance of being admitted; and “reaches,” colleges that have a low chance of admitting a particular student. It is very often debated whether to stand out in a class of students below your level or challenge yourself to improve by reaching upward.

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell published “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” a book that consisted of a series of anecdotes: a lawyer with dyslexia, a pastor fighting against Nazis, an oncologist that grew up in the Great Depression, and more people who were able to truly make the most out of their unfortunate situations. One particular story, from the perspective of Caroline Sacks, describes her own academic journey and the unexpected challenges she experienced as a student.

Sacks walked through high school with ease. She was at the top of her class, earned straight As, and achieved perfect scores on every Advanced Placement pre-college course she took. As a senior, Sacks had to decide whether to commit to the University of Maryland or Brown University. She ultimately decided to attend Brown University.

“Did Caroline Sacks make the right choice? Most of us would say that she did. […] Brown is a member of the Ivy League. It has more resources, more academically able students, more prestige, and more accomplished faculty than the University of Maryland. In the rankings of American colleges published every year by the magazine U.S. News & World Report, Brown routinely places among the top ten or twenty,” wrote Gladwell.

However, at Brown, Sacks was challenged academically for the first time in her life. She was enrolled in too many courses at once and involved herself in too many extracurricular activities. She struggled to keep up with the complexities of her chemistry courses, and the competitive nature of her incredibly intelligent classmates did not help.

The phenomenon in which people feel as if they are worse than the people surrounding them is known as relative deprivation and is part of human nature. In education, it is called the “Big Fish – Little Pond” effect and is quite common among prestigious academic institutions like Brown. According to this theory, the most elite academic institutions have the students with the worst self-esteem.

“Students who would be at the top of their class at a good school can easily fall to the bottom of a really good school. Students who would feel that they have mastered a subject at a good school can have the feeling that they are falling farther and farther behind in a really good school. And that feeling—as subjective and ridiculous and irrational as it may be —matters. How you feel about your abilities—your academic ‘self-concept’—in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks. It’s a crucial element in your motivation and confidence,” wrote Gladwell.

Attending a prestigious institution like those within the Ivy League does have its advantages. It provides extremely high quality education, allows for meaningful networking opportunities, and the reputations of these universities may give alumni an advantage in the job market.

However, by spending a majority of your life among the very best students in the world, one would be taking a risk. It is human nature to compare ourselves to those around us. This behavior has repeatedly discouraged extremely intelligent students in prestigious universities from pursuing their academic goals due to overwhelming feelings of inadequacy compared to their classmates.

The question of whether matches or reaches are better for students continues to remain unanswered. Each student has a unique perception of themself and the world around them, so there is not one university that will fulfill everyone’s needs. This is a period of great uncertainty for many students, but this process has a remarkable way of getting people exactly where they need to be.

This way of thinking actually took a very long time for me to adapt. I was rejected from an Ivy League university back in December, and I felt like my academic career was already over. If I was not going to spend my future in the Ivy League, what was the point of all of my hard work? The disappointment I felt in myself was soul-crushing.

I then began to reconsider what I wanted from my college experience. Maybe the rigorous environment of an Ivy League university is not the best fit for me as a student. Maybe I still need to keep looking to find the program that suits me best. This is not the end of my career, it just means I can still explore all of the other options that exist for me. So, I kept sending out applications to colleges whose values align with mine. I kept going on campus tours, writing supplemental essays, and interviewing wherever I could. All of a sudden, this process did not feel daunting to me. It felt exciting.

What’s important to remember is that no matter what logo you wear on Commitment Day, you are still you. You will bring all of your skills, passions, study habits, and goals to whichever university you choose. Whether it’s a small school with an intimate, collaborative environment or a world-renowned academic institution, both are full of opportunity and what truly matters is how you utilize those resources. It is still up to you to make your experience the best it can be. To my fellow seniors, I wish you all the best of luck in finding the college that brings the most happiness and is the fit that suits you best.🔳