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It was the big day. Four years of late nights, coffee binges, sweat and pain came down to this. I logged onto my account online with a combination of anticipation and fear, but at this point, it was all out of my hands. My parents forgot today was the day, so I was sitting alone in my room about to find out whether I would live for the next four years. I entered my info, took a deep breath, and logged in.
And there it was! I was going to college! Now of course I already had admission to Penn State, but here was my real ticket to success: COLUMBIA. I didn’t know how to react, so I sat in silence, unable to take in what had just happened. In a matter of months, I’d be exploring the lights of the Big Apple, hanging out at Madison Square Garden, and eating hot dogs of the street. I couldn’t wait.
“Mom! Dad! I’m in!”
“COLUMBIA. I’m going to college.”
“Oh my gosh. Congrats buddy, good work.” In retrospect, my dad didn’t seem to entirely share the same enthusiasm I did, but I didn’t pay attention to that at all. All I knew is that I was into one of the best schools in the country.“So how’s it feel to send your kid to the fourth ranked school in the country?”
“You do know that you aren’t committing anywhere for at least a month.”
“Well yeah, but I figured that now that I’m in, and with everything the rankings are saying online, it’s a no-brainer.”
With my dad maintaining his straight face, Mom jumped in saying “Honey, there’s no rush to make a decision. Just soak it in for a few days and we’ll talk in a bit.”
“But what’s there to talk about? Number four, guys, number four! What more do I need to say?”
“OK, that’s fantastic. Now just go and relax, the hard part is behind you and you can make your decision later.”
“But the decision is made!”
“OK, OK. Just mull it over for a few days.”
Stunned by my parent’s anticlimactic reaction, I went back to my room, not necessarily upset, but surprised. I was so ready to go post a Facebook status and get the support of all my “friends,” but I’d lost the appetite for that. I decided to just wrap up with the rest of my homework and hit the sack.
The next day at school, you can imagine that amongst the jungle of seniors, the atmosphere was a mix of jubilance (for those who got into their dream school) and sorrow (for those who were rejected), but luckily everyone had gotten into at least one place. Of course, living in Pennsylvania, and being a rather intelligent school (at least according to the top-notch measurement by PSSA’s), most everyone who wanted to go to college got into Penn State.
I walked into first period English and saw that my table was already full with my three comrades. All three of them had huge grins on their faces. Apparently my one text to John had spread to more than just him. “Mr. #Four, everybody! Put your hands together for Mr. #Four,” exclaimed Michael.
“Wait, what are you talking about?” responded Will.
“Well obviously, genius, our buddy Theodore just got into the fourth best school ranked in the nation.”
“Oh awesome, man, why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“No disrespect, Will,” I said, “I just wasn’t spreading it around everywhere.”
“No worries, congrats nevertheless. So is that where you’re going then?”
“Well that’s what I thought, but my parents are being weird. I don’t even know what they’re thinking. When I told them, they were like ‘think about it longer’ and I was so confused and--forget it, it’s stupid. What about you guys? Anything interesting happen for you?
Michael had been waiting for a chance to say something, and quickly jumped in, “Princeton, man, Princeton! Number two!”
If it were anyone else, I would have been irritated by the pompous attitude, but this was the Michael I knew. Humility wasn’t part of his vocabulary, but I’d grown used to it over time. Whether it was bowling, Egyptian rat-screw, Jeopardy in history class, or college admission, he was going to let it all lose and be sure to assert his victory.
“Awesome man, awesome.” I said, somewhat uninterested. Despite his over the top exclamation, Michael knew not to expect much back, so he took what I gave him.
“Congrats, so is that your final choice?”
“There’s no way I’m not going, after all, it did get ranked number two overall.”
“Sweet,” said Will, “but what are those rankings even based off of?”
“Who cares, forget it, the number’s all that matters.” What Will and Michael said right there got me thinking. I was about to start pondering further into what the rankings actually meant, but was interrupted by Michael, continuing with his interrogation.
“Alright, Will, where’d you get in?”
Will told him, politely and calmly, but in no way pretentiously, “Well, I was sort of surprised, but I got into Harvard. I don’t know though--”
“Harvard!? Harvard?! Oh my god, I quit. Dude you’re number one. Number one!”
“Yeah I guess, thanks. But I was trying to say that I don’t--”
“WOW I CAN’T BELIEVE IT. YOU’RE NUMBER ONE.”
“Actually though, congrats, you deserved it,” I chimed in.
“I appreciate it Theodore. I think I’m going to Penn State though.”
“WHAT. HOW CAN YOU GO TO THE FORTY-FIFTH BEST SCHOOL WHEN YOU GOT INTO THE BEST SCHOOL?!?!?”
I couldn’t help but interrupt. “First of all, why the hell do you know all these numbers? Second, let the poor guy speak.”
“I don’t know. I mean its forty grand a year just tuition. I know it’s a great school, but I don’t know what that ranking takes into consideration. Shouldn’t I be going to a school that’s overall my best fit?”
“THAT OBVIOUSLY DOESN’T MATTER. You can do anything after going to the number one ranked college.”
“Yeah, but at what cost? I mean I heard that Penn State is like the number one school for recruiting after graduation. Not saying that’s the only reason to go there, but aren’t there pros and cons to both?”
“Well all that obviously doesn’t matter because US News ranked Harvard number one and it’d be a shame not to go there.”
“Michael, you ought to realize there’s more to a college than it’s number.”
This conversation went on for a while, but I went into my own mental zone and thought about this idea. I was getting so caught up with the same thing Michael was, a stupid number. I’m sure the $45,000 a year for Columbia was completely worth it for others, but I had to figure out whether it was for me. Does that ranking even take cost into consideration? I mean how do I know that they are looking at it from the same perspective I am? I thought about these questions, and realized why my parents told me to mull things over.
I was distracted by this for the rest of the day, and remained conscious of it when I arrived home too. I wanted more information, so I decided to give Will a call.
“Hey Will, you busy?”
“Nope, what’s going on? Still working on that decision of yours?”
“Well, actually, yeah. So I was thinking more and more about what you said about the rankings and what they’re based off of. Do you know more about it?”
“Oh yeah, for sure. You know my brother, Tom, right? He graduated from high school about six years ago.”
“Yeah, I think I’ve met him once or twice.”
“Yeah, so he was pretty much in the same situation as we are now, and his mindset was pretty much identical to Michael’s. He just didn’t know any better, and neither did my parents. He ended up going to Duke, which is a great school, but for all the wrong reasons. It didn’t fit him at all, he payed out of his butt to go there, and it was all because it was ranked higher than anywhere else he had gotten into.”
“Wow, what’s going on with him now?”
“Well, he was able to find a pretty good job, but he really didn’t like his college experience and he’s in a whole lot of debt. You know what’s crazier? Colleges themselves, like the top ones, even say don’t think about their rankings. It doesn’t make any sense why we pay so much attention to them.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I was looking around, and a whole bunch of places have statements about coming to their college for the right reasons, but definitely not their ranking.”
“Wow, that’s pretty crazy, Will. God, I thought the application was the hard part, but it’s all this decisions crap that’s really messing with my mind.”
“Haha, yeah I guess so. There’s just so much info and we don’t know what to do with it.”
“Yeah, I guess I’m just going to have to look to this a little harder. Hey thanks a bunch man, this helped a lot.”
“No problem, good luck.”
I decided not to rush into anything, and thought about all of this for the next few days. Eventually, I realized I’d made a decision. At dinner, I broke the news to my parents.
“So I was talking to a few people around school about where to go for college--”
“Theodore, come on, you know that what college you go to is a personal decision.”
“Oh yeah, no worries, Dad. That’s not what I was talking about. But do you guys remember what I said about Columbia being ranked number four and all?
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Well, I realized that’s extremely stupid. Because, quite frankly, in my mind, Columbia is number one and that is what should matter. I know that it’s going to be really expensive, but I did a lot of research, and I really think that they have some programs that fit great with me.”
“Well this is great news.”
“Really? You guys didn’t seem all that thrilled about it when I first told you.”
“Well it was all that mumbo-jumbo about the ranking. I want you to go to a college because it is the best for you, not because of what some magazine rates it. So your mother and I are thrilled about this decision. Now all you have to do is find $200,000 on your own.”
“Just kidding, of course. Like you said, though, it is going to be expensive, but a good investment for you nonetheless. Congratulations on a decision well-made!”