To the newly admitted Columbia University Class of 2021: You did it. After years of hard work, you logged on to the Columbia admissions portal, fingers shaking, heart beating a million miles a minute, saw the word, “Congratulations,” and proceeded to lose your mind because, wow, you were one of the 5.8 percent of applicants admitted to this fall’s first-year class. It’s a huge accomplishment.
As a member of the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee, I get to engage with you all via the Class of 2021 Facebook group, read your introduction posts, watch you bond with your future classmates over shared music tastes, and see you debate the pros and cons of each first-year dorm with current students. (For the record, it really doesn’t get better than Carman Hall.)
Your excitement should serve as a reminder to all current students why we love this place and how lucky we are to be here. Whether by hard work, a legacy status, or a sizeable donation, we were among the roughly 6 percent of applicants admitted to our respective classes. It can be easy to forget the good fortune of being accepted to one of the best universities in the world once the stress of actually attending one of said universities sets in.
This stress begins when we arrive here for NSOP, anxious about having neglected the first six books of the Iliad assigned for that first Literature Humanities class everyone will be hungover for. As you sit in Roone Arledge Auditorium, silently cursing the deceptively strong jungle juice at Beta, the luster of your acceptance to Columbia disappears, replaced with a nagging sensation of pressure that will likely follow you for the next four years.
Getting to witness the pure joy of our recently admitted students has led me to ask: Why do we lose this sense of wonder so quickly?
Undoubtedly, part of the reason is simply that college is a wholly new experience for most of us, so our expectations might not be in line with reality. For many of us, this is our first time being away from home for long stretches of time. For warm-weather folks, this is our first time navigating black ice and snow at 8:30 a.m. in a rush to get to Schermerhorn. And I’m willing to bet most of us were not prepared for the hundreds of pages of reading every week, the occasional all-nighters in Butler, the stress of the summer internship search, and the shock of an exam being nothing like the practice problems. Getting into college is glamorous, but the daily life of a college student isn’t.
Once you realize this, it’s not too difficult to lose the excitement that drew you here in the first place. For instance, when it’s 2 a.m. and you still haven’t touched the 100 pages of Contemporary Civilization reading that’s due in eight hours, you’re not comforting yourself with all the reasons you listed in your “Why Columbia” essay—you’re stressing about how you can BS your way through a discussion on Nietzsche having only skimmed the SparkNotes ... not that I’m speaking from personal experience.
When you decide on a school, you’re not really thinking about the nuts and bolts of college life, like how much time you’ll spend studying every day, when you’ll hit the gym, how often you’ll do laundry, when you’ll go grocery shopping, or how to budget for school and personal expenses. And maybe that’s why the excitement wears off: we didn’t anticipate the less fun yet incredibly vital aspects of university/young adult life. However, this begs another question: Why didn’t we anticipate them?
As a tour guide, I’ve noticed one possible explanation is that prospies and their parents simply don’t ask about the fundamentals of life in college. They want to know about the sexier aspects, like job placement rates, extracurricular involvement, or the party scene. Or they ask about the more controversial aspects, like sexual assault, financial aid, and mental health—issues which, while disturbing, are by no means unique to Columbia.
And when it comes to these more controversial aspects, I often find myself struggling to figure out just how “honest” I should be. When you’re leading a tour of 40 prospective students and parents and someone asks about the wave of suicides at the beginning of the semester, it’s not always easy to find the right combination of words that accurately reflects the Columbia community’s grief and acknowledges the University’s shortcomings, but also recognizes that many universities have these problems and highlights the steps Columbia has taken to address them. With these sensitive subjects it becomes even more important to strike the right balance between frankness and optimism, since these can become, quite literally, life-or-death situations.
At the heart of this conflict is my difficulty in reconciling the love I have for this institution with my frustration at its faults. Still, it’s tough to determine if this conflict is relevant to prospies deciding where to spend the next four years of their lives and, if so, how best to express it in a way that is honest but also not overly bleak. Of course, you would imagine that a prospective student would have done their research and be familiar with the challenges currently facing the University, but many of these prospies are more interested in what current students think, and so we as ambassadors hold a lot of power in determining what narrative prospies hear.
Still grappling with this conflict, it was refreshing to see the jubilation expressed by the incoming first-years in the Class of 2021 Facebook group when regular decision came out. It reminded me of the thrill of being one of the 2,222 admitted out of 36,250, which is so easy to lose sight of once you become just another one of the 6,000. But once the sheen of that coveted acceptance letter wears off, that’s when the real work of a Columbia education begins—and honestly, even in spite of the stress, that’s the best part.
Laura Salgado is a Columbia College sophomore studying political science and statistics who would really love to keep her gig as a tour guide in the URC. Hit her up on Twitter for more salty commentary @laurandsavior. A Pinch of Salt runs alternate Thursdays, or whenever Spec needs it to.