Picture this: You’re 17 years old and staring with weary eyes at your supplemental essays on the Common App website. Time is of the essence. You’ve gleaned insight from the shiny college brochures, endured the awkwardness and excitement of campus touring, and have a rough idea of what the next four years of your life will look like. Sure, your syntax may be a little off, but your focus is on something else: pitching “your story.” You’ve been tasked with condensing your life experience into a couple hundred words. In your essays, you paint a picture of this person, an extension of you, to the best of your ability: a strong candidate with an affinity for outside-the-box thinking, an intellectual oddball, someone who will surely fit into the “Life of the Mind.” But how much does UChicago actually help us become the people we aspire to be? Is UChicago really “not like other universities,” or is it just an elitist carbon copy of the Ivy League that must make greater attempts at changing its toxic culture? While UChicago markets itself on the premise that we can become the people we portray in our application essays, the College is in fact designed to box us in and reduce us to fit the needs of the administration. Instead of shrinking into ourselves, which is a symptom of COVID drastically altering the typical college experience, we must abandon expectations of fitting into the Life of the Mind that we were advertised and treat our satisfaction and approach to the work-life balance in a more consciously careful way.
As much as college is painted as a place to rebuild yourself and have life-changing experiences—which do in fact happen—there’s an invisible pressure to conform to new expectations. Once we arrive on campus, the persona that we’ve crafted in essays seems to be overshadowed by the race to adapt to new rules. We follow the same tunnel-vision mindset from high school with new self-defining markers: Instead of getting into a good college as the end goal, it’s securing internships, job opportunities, coveted positions in competitive RSOs, reducing ourselves again in the “Experience” section of résumés and modifying our personalities to fit the needs of the organization to which we are applying. Considering the administration’s blind promotion of toxic productivity culture (recall the gaffe earlier this year when Woodlawn Residential Commons sent out a newsletter advising students that “Loss of sleep is temporary...GPA is forever”), it’s not surprising that there is a race to push yourself to greater limits at the cost of sleep, energy, and learning for your GPA instead of for “rigorous inquiry.” Challenging yourself is part of the college experience—but how many times have we convinced ourselves of this more optimistic narrative while ignoring the red flags?
Of course, this has been exacerbated by our warped college experience: Attending Zoom university has made me more aware of how untethered I feel from college and from myself. At some point between memorizing the routes to the few places I visit on campus, knowing more or less what my typical weekend looked like, and mastering the art of small talk in elevators and Zoom calls, I finally paused. I realized how frequently I was editing down certain parts of myself, not only among different crowds of people but also during class and in interviews. Other students I talked to felt the same, like we were all playing the role of a college student. Of course, this is a symptom of attending college during COVID, which UChicago can’t control. It’s become easier to throw in a half-baked comment on a skimmed reading, attend a Zoom meeting with your camera off just to leave halfway through, wake up minutes before lecture, or cram an assignment instead of sleeping. Instead of joking that UChicago is where fun goes to die, perhaps we should question why we feel an odd sense of solidarity with this motto. Will this be the standard forever? Triple majors are normalized here, but reaching out to mental health resources is not. We want to believe on some level that in college we are living the life of the person painted in our supplemental essays, but more often than not we are simply carrying over toxic habits from high school or creating new ones.
Perhaps there are other ways to feel grounded in the College as we find our footing. The creation of first-year Ellie Grimm’s “UChicago starter packs” has certainly raised spirits during the slog of winter quarter. The UChicago Man. The Ethereal Bisexual who references Marx in casual conversation. The Debate Kid in your Sosc class. The Econ Bro who explained to you how stocks work during the GameStop short squeeze. The Indie Friend Group in front of you in the line at Hutch that think they’re main characters (and let’s be honest, they probably are). You’ve probably encountered these many types of UChicago students—or perhaps, you are That kid —and it shaped your experience here one way or another. It can be comforting as well to have a social crutch, and if anything, these spinoffs are fun serotonin boosters. But there are more ways to cope than with humor (UChicago students are particularly talented at that): Perhaps it’s finally time to look into that mental health resource you’ve heard about and start treating your well-being as seriously as you treat other priorities. We only have a limited amount of time at this school, and you deserve to enjoy your experience here—even if it doesn’t completely live up to your 17-year-old self’s idealized expectations.
Transitioning into winter quarter has revealed the sobering reality that college (surprise!) isn’t all that it was made out to be in the movies. Sure, it can feel draining sometimes, especially once we become familiar with putting up a wall during the monotony of everyday routines. But I’ve learned so far that college shouldn’t be treated as a mere stepping-stone to the next chapter of your life. It’s not just about keeping up with the cascade of deadlines or comparing LinkedIn profiles. Perhaps we should stop wondering how we can fit into the College and its needs and start thinking: Have you become the person in your UChicago essays?
Rachel Ong is a first-year in the College.