Letter to myself as a new freshman in college

I’m not writing this to tell you what you should do or how you can solve your problems. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to, because I don’t know how to help you. I’m not writing this because I want to dwell in negativity or relive the past school year.

I’m writing this for you – for myself as a new freshman – because I felt alone in feeling alone when I was you. I’m writing this for the new freshmen who want to know that they’re not the only ones who are struggling to do college and not feeling like they belong anywhere. I’m writing this because I didn’t find out until later in the year that lots of other people actually had or were having difficult freshman years, because it seemed like I was surrounded by people who were loving it and having a great time.

You’re going to meet people who can gush about how great Penn is and how exciting college is and how there are so many things they like about this school, and you’re not going to be able to join in. You’re going to struggle to have things to say because you don’t want to be a downer and you’re going to think it’s socially unacceptable to say you’re having a bad time in college.

You’re going to feel bad because you have run out of people to reach out to. You’re going to feel like you’ve burned all your bridges and ruined your life. You’re going to lose your high school friends. It’s going to seem like you have no friends. You’re going to feel like you have no place at Penn and no place away from Penn.

You’re going to send way too many Snapchats to people who weren’t that much friends with you in the first place but definitely are not your friends anymore. You’ll just want someone to accept that you’re having a hard time and not act as if there’s something wrong with you for it or say that it’s not that hard or that it shouldn’t be that hard. A few of your high school friends will eventually occasionally respond to you, but you’re going to have to realize that you’ve started to depend too much on others’ opinions.

Sometimes the people in your hall that you met at the beginning of NSO are going to cut you off or misconstrue what you said, or they’re not going to get your jokes, or they’re going to laugh too loud when you’re not trying to be funny. You’re going to think that means you’re too much for them. You’re going to notice that some of your new friends don’t like confronting people, and you’re going to assume that means they are too scared to stop pretending to be friends with you.

You’re going to have a breakdown over what class – physics or economics? – to take freshman year. It’s going to feel really high stakes because you’re not even sure your parents can actually afford to pay for your college education – especially not if you do something cost-inefficient like take such a difficult and impractical class as physics. It’s going to be hard to pay attention in class when you’re trying to figure out if you should take it or not. You’ll decide on a third option, and after two weeks of relief at having finally made a decision, you’ll spend the rest of the semester and then some regretting it.

After a few weeks of being overwhelmed with life decision crises, you’re going to decide that it’s time to make some friends. When you get to class, you’ll realize that everyone else already has friends and has formed ideas of what everyone is like and you’re probably the aloof kid who doesn’t like talking to people even though that’s not true. Which means that you have already lost your chances of making friends and you’re going to live the rest of your life friendless. Your insides will crumble away and your body will collapse at the thought of having ruined your life already.

You’re not going to get enough sleep for the entire school year. It’s going to seem that nobody else is getting enough sleep, but it will seem like everyone else has explanations – late-night Youtube binge-watching, cramming, partying. You’re going to be tired every day. Your body and mind will sometimes scream in the middle of the night. You’re going to have a lot of thoughts that don’t make that much sense.

The lectures are going to spin around you in a dizzying blur. It’s going to be partly because you’re sleep deprived, sometimes partly because it’s past time to eat the next meal, and partly because you’re having a huge identity crisis that makes it impossible to act like a normal person. Sometimes there isn’t anything you can do to live up to your ideals or to be a good student. You’re going to struggle to keep up with the reading. You’re going to feel bad for not doing the reading because you don’t even have other commitments preventing you from studying.

You’re going to try to force yourself to do homework when you’re more tired and have more of a headache than you would have allowed yourself to do productive-sounding-things with in high school. The words are going to blur and not register when you read, and you’re going to feel hopeless because you can either keep trying and not get anything done, or you can stop trying and not get anything done.

It’s going to be really hard to figure out what you think under the stress of the identity crisis and sleep deprivation and other people’s various opinions, but somehow you’re going to figure out that that conflict you feel is you rebelling against what you think you’re supposed to think.

You’re going to end up wearing the same outfit almost every other day.

Laundry is going to be hard. Keep trying! I want to say that laundry will get a bit easier with practice and planning, but it’s probably just luck.

It’s going to be hard to find a student group that you want to be part of.

You’re not going to like Penn this year. You’re not going to protest stuff you don’t like about the world or Penn. The hardest part with disliking Penn is going to be that people think there’s something wrong with disliking Penn.

It’s going to feel horrible for most of the time. There’s going to be no evident way out of this mess, but as you stumble and quit and start again, over and over, you’ll find one.

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Letter to myself as a high schooler

Letter to myself as a high school freshman: reflection on life after leaving the cloud of high school and going to the overrated school of my former classmates’ dreams

You’ve loved performance and stories for as long as you can remember. You imagine your life as a movie, and you like to think you can shape the story of what it will become. You imagined yourself becoming a benevolent popular girl in high school, with a personality to manage (to seem perpetually friendly) and a list of people to talk to (to make them feel included), but with the ability to brighten the days of everyone you interacted with and the power to change the culture around you.

When faced with reality, you already know you won’t be popular. As the first days of high school turn into the first weeks which will turn into the first months, you’ll straddle two perceptions of yourself: you as a motivated community member who isn’t shaken by the opinions of others, and you as a socially awkward misfit who doesn’t actually have friends. You’re going to embrace the first story just enough to start the environmental club that you think needs to exist, and you’ll let the second story shake you once you’re leading it.

In the next four years, you’ll find friends and friendly people who’ll talk to you, but you’ll experience loneliness and periods of social isolation that you’ll bring upon yourself, and you’ll struggle to find a balance between being a social being and being an individual – whoever you are. You’re going to feel confined to what you think other people think of you and you’re going to think you’ve busted your chance at being who you want to be here. You will look to college as a chance to make a fresh start – you’re even going to give less weight to schools that are popular among your classmates. I can tell you now that leaving high school and going to college isn’t going to allow you to escape your problems (you’re going to mess up very badly in the fresh start department and think you ruined your life within your first semester), but it’s going to help you see the mistakes you made and the lies you bought into (even if you didn’t think you believed them at the time).

 

Be who you want to become, not what you think you are or what others think you are.

You’re going to worry that you’re a burden on everyone. You’re going to try to help people by avoiding them. You’re going to believe that every minute people spend with you is a minute they wish they weren’t. But you’re also going to know that the world needs you as much as it needs everyone else. Many days, you’ll forget that and believe that your best use is helping other people limit their interaction with you.

There’s no easy or simple way out of this besides realizing that it’s not true and it doesn’t matter if it is true. There’s no easy or simple way of realizing these things – understanding and internalizing them. Hang in there.

You’re going to fall into perpetual self-pity, with no clue how it will ever get better. You’re going to hear people complaining to their friends and you’re going to think, at least they have friends that exist. You’re going to feel stuck, a lot.

You may think that you’ll never be good enough at art, writing, or math to help anyone by pursuing those subjects, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn what you want to learn. You might feel like you’re supposed to, but don’t give up on yourself.

 

Don’t confuse following others’ (or your own) expectations with being responsible.

It’s okay to try new things, especially if you’re in ninth grade still. Don’t worry about choosing your commitments before you’ve even tried them.

It’s okay to quit. You don’t need to waste time stressing about it if you know that in the end, you’re going to say no and bye. You’re going to find that you’re better off enjoying a few things that you put enough time and energy into, than forcing yourself through something you’re less than enthusiastic about or spreading yourself too thin by doing a lot without doing much.

Don’t beat yourself up for not meeting others’ or even your own expectations. It’s easy to think that it’s okay or even necessary to fail, but the sting of failure isn’t always something you expect or plan for.

There is such a thing as overstudying. You shouldn’t do it, but you’re going to. Just because the people around you are cramming and freaking out doesn’t mean you need to feel pressured to. You’re never going to feel prepared, but sometimes you’re going to need to act as if you are. It might feel like lying, but it’s true. You don’t have to study as much as you can just so that you can tell yourself that you did everything you could have done.

Take art class. You like art class but you’re slow at art, so you’re going to drop it in tenth grade in the name of not spreading yourself thin. You’re going to end up going through the motions of school without anything to look forward to. You’re going to find out that you will have time to work on art and you wouldn’t have minded working on projects outside of class anyway.

At least you’ll sort of learn and take art class in twelfth grade after spending way too much time deciding whether you should. You’re going to wish you did it two years before. You’re going to worry about how dropping French will make you look in your college applications, but you’re going to know that it’s the right decision.

It’s okay to write. You might imagine the great and omniscient College Admissions Board judging you for not getting awards and recognitions for your writing, but you don’t need to bow down to Admissions. You might not really believe it when people say that the outcome of college admissions isn’t going to matter, but after getting your college decisions, you’ll understand and know that worrying about what colleges will think is more than unnecessary. You’re going to find that you shouldn’t have been afraid to do what you wanted without regard for outcome.

 

Remind yourself why you live.

Keep reminding yourself why you love words and stories.

Within you, you have a sense of direction guiding you to where you need to be. Hold on to the candle burning in your throat.

You’re going to find so many ways to live through novels, poetry, philosophy, and art. In the process of trying to protect your future enjoyment of those things, you’re going to forget about them.

While finding so many things interesting makes it easy to doubt all your decisions, I’m glad you love learning.

People are more important than checklists. You don’t have to be a work machine just because that’s what’s on schedule. You’re going to need to block out the distractions on most days – efficient studying is surprisingly underused by your classmates in high school and college, but once in a while, you can take the time to say hi and laugh and be people together even in the midst of an assignment.

You’re going to think to yourself many days what a tragedy you are, because you suck at doing what you love. Remember why you read and write, and trust that you will find a way to say what you want to say. It may not happen now or next year, but sometimes, you’ll find a story that you can live inside. You might burn a few candles trying, but once in a while, you’ll stumble into a story that gives them all back and then some.

It’s okay to not write. Writing is what you do with what you’ve collected in your life, not what you’re chained to. You don’t need to write just so that you are writing. Live and find stories to tell. Changes in time and place can help you figure out what to say.

Keep reading. Keep reading novels, keep reading blogs, keep reading stuff you want to learn about on the Internet. You’re going to pretty much stop reading non-assigned books partway through eleventh grade, and it’s going to make your life less fun. You might wonder if the Internet stuff is a waste of time now, but it will be just as important to your education as some of the stuff they assign you in school (the other stuff won’t be as important) and it will help you find a sense of purpose and direction.

You’re right, aspiring playwrights can be glad they took AP Chemistry. You should write some plays through. And pick up the summer homework and make sure you do it during the summer. You’re not going to do either, and you’re going to make a huge comeback after that AP Chem summer homework fiasco, but you should actually read and write plays if you say you want to.

 

Listen to what feels wrong and what feels right.

Sometimes someone will say something and it will be so convincing that it might be true, but it goes against anything you could know. Keep searching for the truth.You’re going to need courage to not believe what authority figures say and hold onto the understanding that the truth is true more often than is what people say is true. You’re going to need courage to use your God-given faculties to find the truth for yourself.

 

Hang in there.

There’s a lot of advice I want to give you, but at the end of the day, you weren’t ready for most of it. Sometimes you just need to keep on keeping on, even if you don’t know where you’re going or what you’re doing.

 

Sometimes the clothes on you won’t match you.

You’re going to feel gross wearing your middle school clothes in high school. You’re going to feel insecure when people assume that you’re twelve, because you’re going to think your appearance reflects on your inner maturity. One day it’s going to hit you that you’re almost not seventeen anymore but you’re not going to be ready to be an adult because instead of preparing yourself, you spent your time trying to make the long jump from the kids’ section to the stuff that sophisticated 30 year olds wear on the Internet while trying to disassociate yourself from the teens’ section. I mean this both literally and figuratively. I’m sorry. It’s not a comfortable situation. In small ways, you are growing and changing. It doesn’t matter if the world or anyone else sees that.

You will know that there are things bigger and better than anything that could fit inside that school. Keep trying to bring that feeling to you. Keep dreaming, keep reading, keep imagining. Keep trying to transcend the system. You won’t do it perfectly, but you will know that you can and try to put into practice the knowledge that you can learn even in an imperfect school, that you can get good grades without being a slave to the system, that you can be honest and sincere and conscientious when it feels like you’re surrounded by chaos.

It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to feel and feel and feel. It’s okay to be frustrated with the way things are, to want to change things but find yourself unable to. It’s okay to not have friends. It’s okay to have fun with people whether you call them friends or not. It’s okay to be. The way you’ll take may not be pretty (and you’re not going to shed that tendency to unintentionally take the unhelpfully hard way), but it’s the one that will take you to me.

in which I start on senioritis and high school student expectations and end on colleges and the uncertainty of life

I wrote this before I received college admissions decisions. I don’t think this will be the last time I write about the topics in this post.

Senior Year Again, A Revised Rant/ Response to What Other People Said It’s Like

There are certain attitudes which people will generalize to something called “everyone” and it most nearly always doesn’t apply to actually everyone. So here are some of my thoughts on my experiences.

In mid-December of my senior year in high school, I was starting to see senioritis sinking in. I thought back to when I had never-ending ambition to buckle up and get work down to make progress on my understanding and mastery of course material, back when I thought I was going to fail AP Chemistry because I wasn’t smart enough and I thought it might have been a mistake for me to sign up for the class. I have prided myself on being a diligent person who doesn’t take shortcuts and who cares about the intrinsic process of learning. It’s hard to really be that with some of the strange structuring of the school system and dishonest behavior of peers dragging me down emotionally, but I was starting to think that all ideals are aspirational–things we work towards but can never achieve, things we can approach but never reach, like an asymptote. In December I was getting tired and thinking that there are better things for me to do than some of the things I’m expected to do as a high school student. And sometimes there are things that can’t be done. But I don’t think senioritis is a right.

Back when I started writing this post in December, it was a few days after one day when a portion of one of my classes blew up over senioritis. They argued with the teacher that they should be allowed to indulge in senioritis, that they needed a break after years of school. I actually kind of get that, and I myself have seriously considered taking a bridge year between high school and college so that I don’t have seemingly nonstop school. However, I think that there are some disordered habits within much of the student body which contribute to the problem. Students should be relaxing throughout the years of school, balancing deep work with deep relaxation, hopefully taking a day off each week. Though actually we have so much homework and school piles it on for AP courses during the summer. Summer’s too short, summer work’s too much. Some students find themselves thinking they’ll starve themselves of sleep and make it up during the weekend. That’s not how sleep works…though school also starts too early for me. I see people with caffeine dependencies and people with the mindset of just getting through this and making it until the weekend, and I wonder, how did you fall into this? Yet I myself sometimes fall into these places that are hard to get out of.

Some teachers keep saying that the problem is because people are telling us what to do. One teacher said that we shouldn’t be taking so many APs, especially on top of so many time-intensive extracurricular activities, but that then again parents and counselors and colleges are telling us to take on so much and build up a resume for the colleges. Another teacher commented that probably most people joined a club she advises in order to pad their resumes. I find these ideas ridiculous. One, if you ask pretty much any college representative (or at least the ones I have heard from), they are looking for commitment, depth of involvement, and basically meaningful things that tell about you as a person. Since when do laundry list items satisfy any of those things? Since when does getting volunteer hours for selling raffle tickets–or bringing in canned food that my parents paid for and picked up–make me look like a good person? Since when does it make sense to sacrifice your life for a college that will be so much harder that you won’t have the motivation to even get through that? I believe that college work is harder than high school work if you’re doing it right (but not busier–for me, that would be impossible). College requires more responsibility and personal motivation than in high school–so why would you fake having what it takes?

On why I am taking so many AP classes: I am taking four AP courses. That is not a lot compared to some people I know but I don’t think I can handle more than that and still find the time I invest worthwhile. There are only so many classes available and the most challenging ones in my school are APs. I want to take challenging coursework so that I won’t be bored–and I have been bored and underchallenged in school courses throughout much of my life. I used to think school was supposed to be easy, but it started getting boring in high school. In a way, AP courses seem to underchallenge me, or perhaps it is just my high tolerance for challenge, or perhaps it is my habit of overpreparing for projects and assessments–in some courses, I was surprised to hear my classmates freaking out about the difficulty of the content and assessments which I found stressfully difficult only when I fell behind or did not do the required preparation. The main strain was on time because sometimes it’s just not possible to get all the necessary work done if you only have so much time.

About doing more activities so I can look good for college applications: Literally, when I was recruiting members for the environmental club while trying to found it, I told someone I knew and she was like “Yeah, I’ll join. I need more clubs.” I’m not sure if she cared about the environment. She didn’t go to a single meeting, though I didn’t talk to her about it anymore because I was looking for enthusiastic and motivated members, not filler material. But the whole “more clubs” is pretty generic, like do you even care? When I was in ninth grade, my school counselor recommended to me and another ninth grader that we join at least ten clubs. This is how many clubs at my school I have attended meetings for:

  1. Debate Team
  2. Art Club
  3. Environmental Club
  4. Poetry Out Loud
  5. Endangered Species Club, which I joined in 12th grade because of its relationship with the environmental club
  6. Literary magazine, for which I attended an info meeting but the club didn’t happen
  7. A somewhat obscure philosophical and political discussion club, even though I didn’t actually join…I just observed the club a few times for a writing assignment
  8. Economics Club, if going to one meeting and deciding that I wouldn’t commit counts

Anyway, I already have lots of other activities. I wasn’t interested in any of the volunteering clubs, not because I don’t care about other people because I didn’t think those clubs’ activities were an effective use of my time. So maybe I would have looked like a better person if I had more regular community service commitments. I also claim to be interested in STEM but I don’t have any clubs involving science or engineering–does that mean I’m wrong? I wanted to join Robotics in eleventh grade but I couldn’t add it into my already busy schedule. I also wanted to audition for the musical but didn’t have time to even get involved in the production. Some people think I am being pushed into STEM because of its reputation for having stable careers or something like that, and because I have a clear interest in the arts and humanities. However, I like math. I like computer science. I like using the tools of math to solve scientific problems. I don’t want to think that there is a conflict between my many interests anymore.

I wasn’t always so enthusiastic about STEM, I think partly because I was trying to rebel against my parents and expectations in middle school. I actually considered joining some of the STEM academic competition clubs in ninth and tenth grade but I decided that I didn’t want to spread myself thin and instead I wanted to focus on ballet. I didn’t have a deep interest in science in 9th grade. It has felt to me as if people keep assuming that you’ll know what you want to be in 9th grade. Like when my physics teacher in 9th grade said if you want to be a playwright maybe you shouldn’t take AP Chemistry because it’s a waste of your time. I thought I wanted to be a playwright in 9th grade (not that I had written any plays). The thing is, once I started being challenged in science classes, I realized that I actually enjoy science. It became difficult and intellectually fulfilling, just like writing.

I read the guides online about how to get into those colleges and how you need to start from 9th grade. Which is why I was getting worried, that I didn’t quite make enough accomplishments in writing or whatever. I was just trying to live? I was just trying to do what I loved to do, which was to read and write, at the time. And maybe I haven’t been doing that as much now, because I’m not actually good at it. That’s kind of why I haven’t been writing so much–I figure I might spend time on things that I can actually do good at. But now I do want to get into a top school because of the challenge, because I really need to stretch and grow. But if I don’t get there, I can do an easier school, a less challenging program, and find a way to make the most of it. Because I have been doing this in school for much time and I can keep doing life. So life. So life so life so life.

This whole college obsession thing is kind of ridiculous I guess. Like in middle school there would be those parents who purposefully get into conversations to exchange info on their kids–SAT scores, etc. And now it’s college admissions–applications, acceptances, rejections, and it seems kind of weird. I mean I get it to some degree, this feeding off information and knowledge–it’s why people like trash gossip, not just the constructive kind of gossip if there’s such a thing, but this horrible trashy stuff like you would find on nerd E-news if I even know what that would be like.

I don’t know what school I want to go to or really what major I want to do or whatever. I’ve been thinking there are places I want to go to school. But really I want to get into a school that was at multiple points my top choice. I evaluated it practically and it fits with my goals and interests. I want to get in early so that I won’t have to worry about what school I’ll go to or about going to one of my second-tier choice schools. But who knows really. Because really it doesn’t matter because no matter what (even if I get rejected from every school) there will be a place to go, a choice, a life, a journey. And yes, I’ll have to keep on going–keep on keeping on no matter what. And what’s worth it is that I’ve been starting to live, albeit in a crooked way. My crooked neighbor, see my crooked heart.