The College Process

Hi, my name is (also) Olivia and I’m here to talk about college and my freshman year experience. My first semester of college was cut short by a week because of a trip to the Crisis Response Center at Pennsylvania Hospital – that’s like the emergency room for mental health. Luckily, I was not hospitalized but I also wasn’t far off from it at the time. I start by mentioning this detail as a reference for the changes and insights I have learned since then about my mental health and the college process overall.

Now let’s jump to the beginning shall we? 

I grew up in a wealthy, primarily white, small town in New England that prides itself on its academics. Behind our high performance and test scores, there is a community of students being taught that going to a name brand school is imperative and anything less than that is wrong. Straight A’s and high GPA’s are crucial, as well as taking as many AP courses as possible, regardless of the mental and physical toll.

I was always somewhat on the outside of this mentality because I never really was the high performing student with regard to the classes I took or my grades. I was diagnosed with ADHD in sixth grade and as a result, I was separated from my peers in multiple aspects of my education. Don’t get me wrong, I still was very much wrapped up in this culture, in my senior year I took AP classes and worked hard to maintain a high GPA but I also wasn’t as caught up in the culture as someone like my dear sister. 

My sister, whom I love with my whole heart, is someone who has been led to believe that grades and test scores are everything when applying to college. She is not unique in her experiences when I say that she has stayed up late crying over a B on a project starting from as early as eighth grade. I know so many people who genuinely believed that a single B would harm their chances of getting into a ‘good’ school. I have spent the last two years trying to help my sister, and anyone else who will listen, understand that the college process is so much more nuanced than we are taught by our schools. My sister is now a junior in high school and is beginning to look at colleges which is what prompted me to write out some tips for her when visiting schools. She and her friends found them to be helpful so I figured I would share them for any person or parent who’s child is going through the college process. 

For context,  some details are rather specific to my sister but they can still be applicable. A lot of these points may sound cliche but they’re the easiest to forget in the moment.

So here they are: 

  1. The first school you visit will seem like your dream school, in your case you’re visiting some of your hardest schools first which is what I did with Barnard. When I was there I felt like it was the only place I would ever truly be happy, obviously, that wasn’t true but it put so much stress on me for the rest of the process until I began to accept the idea that there are so many options. Vanderbilt and Duke are going to seem perfect to you but don’t get caught up in that and go on autopilot when looking at other schools okay?
  2. Look at the clubs and posters on campus, frequently the bathrooms in student buildings (aim for the student center and bio buildings in your case) will have posters in the stalls about upcoming events, these will tell you way more about the school than any tour will. Academics are only one part of college so you’ll want to be somewhere with cool sh*t happening.
  3. In the same vein, look at the people and professors on campus, do you see kids walking to class with professors? Do the kids seem nice? Do professors? Do the other staff on campus seem cool? For example, the staff and professors at one school I visited were amazing but the students all talked the same way and didn’t have a very inviting vibe.
  4. Look for at least one place on each campus where you can see yourself existing in the future. Aim for like a corner of the library or a cafe or something. When thinking about it you will fit in in college, completely disregard the ranking or the degree and all of the superficial aspects, you have to focus entirely on the environment and if you like the academics genuinely. If you can’t find a place where you see yourself, it isn’t right.
  5. Look at course catalogs and find classes in and out of your major you. Do they have weird fun classes like the art of winemaking or studying Hollywood catastrophes? These courses tell you about the overall academic vibe and if a school genuinely values learning for the sake of learning or if they want you to meet your requirements and gtfo.
  6. You’re gonna love the school you go to in the end, if you don’t find it on the first try you will eventually. Don’t get caught up in thinking you won’t get in or that the only schools you could possibly love are the ones that are hidden ivies, a lot of the people at those schools aren’t there because they love knowledge, they are there because of the title. Which brings me to my last point, ask yourself throughout applying if you genuinely like, or dislike, the school for what you actually saw or because of what image it has? It’s easy to confuse them, I did it a lot with schools like Temple and Barnard.

These factors contextualized school environments in a way that showed me what I liked and didn’t like. 

Now, I know I began with stating that I went to the CRC and that may make all of this seem like bad advice, but, my trip to the CRC wasn’t because I didn’t like my school. I wasn’t overtly homesick, I had made friends, I was still getting good grades and participating in classes, I looked like the poster child for a new college freshman on the outside. I ended up at the CRC because I ignored the warning signs of my declining mental health. I would be anxious and depressed for weeks but I would have one really good day and think everything was fine. Which brings me to my actual last point:

 don’t do that. 

Do not ignore discomfort because it seems like the easier option. To an outsider who doesn’t have mental health issues, this may seem obvious: of course, you shouldn’t ignore problems and hope they go away. But oftentimes for people struggling with mental health, ignoring or diminishing one’s pain seems like the only feasible option when the thought of doing anything else seems like the greatest challenge imaginable. I think it can be easy for parents and guardians, or even other students,  to misinterpret the extent to which things like anxiety and depression can make the start of college, and the process of applying to college, that much more confusing for people. I say confusing because naturally these disorders can make school more challenging but it’s more than that. Half the time in the fall I didn’t know what was normal for someone starting college and what was genuinely a problem. There are so many changing factors when we start something as big as college that it is easy to label our discomfort as a normal part of transitioning and leave it at that. I would have massive panic attacks or stay up all night silently crying and somehow come out of it saying “but this is normal for people starting college” – I’ve already explained how that methodology worked out for me…

I’m basically sharing all of these points in hopes of contributing to the growing movement trying to breakdown the notion that the only good schools are those that pride themselves on their prestige and acceptance rate. The process of being mentally healthy begins long before actually going to college. It begins when someone chooses a school that has a healthy environment for them that will promote growth and self-understanding.

So yeah, I hope this helps. 

Oh! I forgot to mention that things are much better now! Since getting help I’ve learned to love my school even more than I did before but that’s a whole other story for another time.

Peace out friends.

Me feelin’ happy at school

One response to “The College Process”

  1. Hi Olivia! I’m from SC and also attended a prestigious high school in a rich, white neighborhood. They pushed AP classes like nobody’s business! A lot of my friends and I got into ivy league and public ivy schools, but we were tired! So tired to the point where some of us couldn’t finish. This post definitely hit home. I’m so glad that you’re doing better. Much love to you!

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