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Existential Crisis Week | The Checklist

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Coming into freshman year, I came to know a typical Ivy profile, a profile molded from a strict checklist and meticulously groomed to satisfy all its criteria ever since childhood.

I began to notice consistent commonalities among a seemingly diverse community of academics. These commonalities read like a resume of the sophisticated, well-rounded type-A Ivy bound kid. Note, I didn’t even have a resume in high school. In addition to the stellar GPA and top-performing test scores, under curricular achievement there’s the leadership category with “President” or “Founder” alongside a plethora of other club activities and probably some sort of national honor recognition. You can count on seeing a varsity letter to show athleticism, an instrument to display creativity, and a near fluency in a foreign language to prove cultural diversity. Don’t forget the service trip to a third world country and countless volunteer hours to exemplify genuine selflessness. With all the required bases covered, candidates still had room to showcase a unique quality to set them slightly apart from the competition, and of course, they did…

Seemingly everyone I met freshman year had completed “the checklist” as a right of passage into Cornell. But my checklist seemed quite pale in comparison. Sure my grades were good, my test scores were alright, and I knew how to play a strategy game to spin my story (I was a master bullshitter). But these basic qualifications stood alone on my list. I wasn’t bred for “the Ivy League,” like so many of my peers were, and I was just as shocked when I received my acceptance letter. I didn’t go to a kindergarten for gifted children, or start fencing as soon as I could walk, and I played a mean center bench throughout high school. How could Cornell have accepted such an outsider?

Come O-week, I played imposter and took part in braggadocious conversations and ego-boosting sentiments, pretending to relate to an unapologetic elitism. I should’ve counted how many times I met a valedictorian, a math genius with a perfect SAT score, or a national champ athlete. But surrounding myself with impressive and accomplished cookie cutter Ivy kids actually started to shape me to fit that profile. The outward competitiveness people have here motivated me to be better. I started trying out for selective organizations and met my networking personality I never knew I had. This image of the ideal Ivy student made me want to take up hobbies and gave me confidence to fail more often. Of course, it also came with feelings of inferiority and intense pressure, but above all, it rubbed off on me- and I found myself catching up on “the checklist.”

Why is it so tempting to fit the Ivy image? Well, it’s validating and feels a little like you’re joining something iconic and becoming an exclusive member of a “high class culture,” which maybe in a sense you are. But this isn’t me. This was a part of a lifestyle I never knew, and a stereotype I had to desperately try to mimic.

But the truth is, we all become a bit of this person by default from being in an environment dominated by it. Whether a prodigy, legacy, or somewhere in between, we all share in common arbitraries of the here and now. Something got us here apart from our achievements, drive, and ability to complete “the checklist,” the luck of being in the right place at the right time. We had no control over many of the forces that decided to work fatefully in our favor instead of creating unplanned roadblocks, unfairly preventing us from reaching goals we’ve worked towards our whole life.

It’s not so much about how you got here, or if you even deserved the acceptance in the first place. It’s about what you’re doing here. Are you taking advantage of this absolute privilege? Of all the resources and tools given to you here? Of the opportunities for personal growth and self-discovery? The advantages you’ll have in the future? Or are you working towards completing your next checklist?

“Why me? That is a very earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you seen bugs trapped in amber? Well, here we are Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.” –Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut

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