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You’re already in the real world

3 min read, July ‘20

I hear it all the time. “Once you get into the real world…” “This is intended to prepare you for the real world…” Other common phrases like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” hint at it too — the idea that as youth, we’re in something that’s somehow not reality, and that at any given time, we’re merely preparing for the next step. Guess what? We’re already in the “real world” we hear about.

Many people view high school as merely preparation for college.

When you apply to college, there’s you, and there’s the distillation of you that your application conveys. If you’re a decent, interesting person who is qualified and a reasonable fit for a school, then — in theory — all you have to do to put your best foot forward is present yourself accurately. “Accurate” is the key word. It depends on introspection — discovering who you are — and a dash of communication skills, but notably, it does not involve misleading others about yourself. There shouldn’t be any need to create a disingenuous façade.

The alternative is that the college application becomes a place where you need to be dishonest to compensate, because you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. People who get into schools with insincere versions of themselves — and there’s no shortage of them— may continue to be successful, but I think it comes with the cost of integrity.

During high school and all parts of your life, do what you want to do, not what you think you should do. Ask yourself if you would do an activity if it had no bearing on college admissions. Would you continue pursuing it in this manner after being accepted to college or during college? If not, how would it change and why?

In general, asking “why” repeatedly can unearth underlying motivations and gaps in your thinking. Why do you think you should go to a good college? “Because it has a good CS program.” Okay, why do you want that? What is success to you? This exercise can help you reveal and challenge your assumptions. Shoehorning ourselves — or getting shoehorned — into well-trodden career trajectories is the norm in pre-professional subcultures, but can spawn restrictive, inaccurate beliefs.

For example, a common assumption is that the point of college is to prepare you for careers. But four-year universities provide an experience that affects all aspects of your life. If your sole goal is employment, bootcamps and certification programs are far more efficient. From the standpoint of Getting a Job™, college’s social growth opportunities become distractions, and general education requirements become barriers to graduating sooner, rather than spaces to broaden your mind.

This assumption is limiting because if you view college instead as a set of resources to help you, you can get much more out of it. College shouldn’t be the end goal of high school or the lackluster pre-requisite to the “real world.” Framing these formative periods of your life as means to a nebulous end goal is a byproduct of our larger culture — it’s not anyone’s individual fault. But you can identify and interrogate the things you’ve been told. More importantly, you can embrace the present and celebrate its inherent value, decoupled from the idea of it being a stepping stone to the future.

Further reading:

How to Be a High School Superstar by Cal Newport: The title seems sleazy, but I assure you the content isn’t. I believe high schoolers aiming for top universities would be a lot calmer, happier, and interested in more diverse topics if these ideas were more prevalent. I read this book in my senior year of high school (I think on my porch, accidentally locked out of my house?) and found that I’d unknowingly followed some of the concepts and appreciated the other ones too. Newport presents practical tactics (e.g. to do well in classes, have free time, and pursue activities you enjoy) and explains the “why” behind them (e.g. why unstructured time is valuable, why some things seem more impressive than others).

How to survive high school by Lachlan Campbell: A refreshingly sensible, purposeful case study from my friend on their approach to high school, and how they “started as an isolated, tiny human interested in escaping high school as soon as possible, and left as a full person with much broader ideas, a real identity, a career, and many strong opinions on the world.”

Applying sideways by Chris Peterson: A popular, timeless post that addresses one of the most common questions MIT Admissions receives (“How do I get in?”) and is similar to some of the ideas I presented above.

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