EARLIER THIS month the mailman delivered a large package from Harvard University. I knew its size meant "yes." Finally, the long process of applying to colleges was over.
Here at last was the reward of all the 30-page admissions forms, the soul-searching essays, the interviews with Princetonian lawyers, the $50 application fees. I opened the package and learned that I had been accepted to harvard as a "Harvard Scholar." The package was chockablock with picture books, course catalogs and financial aid information on how to make the $24,000 annual cost "easy for you." Most important, the package contained my very own Harvard "Certificate of Admission" -- a parchment with my name in calligraphy as if to prove that it wasn't all a big joke. And indeed it wasn't, for soon I received notice that I was a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Club of Maryland. I was "in."
Within a few days, Princeton and Yale followed suit with their own packages, each trying to outdo the others in size and grandeur.
Naturally, I was overjoyed and flattered by all the attention given me by these fancy institutions. When my friends and teachers heard of my acceptance, they showered me with praise. At parties, strangers would lift their eyebrows in admiration, or so I fancied. Normally overlooked, I suddenly became the "one who got into Harvard." All urged me not to lose such an opportunity.
But as my initial euphoria faded, I began to wonder. I wondered about schools that send out admission packages that cost $3 to mail and which seem like advertisements to impress a customer. A strange way to begin a college education! I was puzzled why my peers were so thunderstruck by the name of a school they knew little about. Many were clearly convinced that attending one of these elite universities would automatically guarantee a good life afterward.
One's worth increases in proportion to the college one chooses; one's future is predicted accordingly, and parents' love is measured in terms of the money they are willing to sacrifice for tuition. Resisting such pressures is difficult. I almost came to believe that in a smaller school I would be sticking myself on a secondary road, passing up the more ambitious fast lane. I felt like a fool even to question the worth of places like Harvard.
However, these pressures did not sway me. Over the next few weeks I did my own research. I visited schools and classes, quizzed alumni and teachers, talked with students, read guide books, pored over course catalogs. My expectations, perhaps falsely inflated by the opinions of my friends, were very often disappointed, and I found myself a little unimpressed.
Many of the teachers I saw did not strike me as the "world-renowned experts" of the admissions office descriptions. Many of the students, moreover, seemed more concerned about weekend parties than about their courses. I found such attitudes disturbing, given the thousands many are paying in tuition costs. To these students, college seemed a place to get away from RTC parents, to "go wild" and to study a little on the side.
Perhaps my expectations were too high and perhaps I am too much the begrudger to admit being impressed. However, Loyola College of Maryland, not far from my home, impressed me much more. In fact, I liked it well enough that I have decided to go there next year, ignoring all the howls of protest from my friends: "How could you go there and not to Harvard?"
Even though I am turning my back on Harvard, the process of applying was an experience and an education. My Harvard certificate is already framed and hanging splendidly. I am relishing my last few days as a member of the Harvard Club, before they learn where I am really going. To all my acquaintances I still boast about acceptances to Harvard, Princeton, Yale. Perhaps the effects of peer pressure are more far-reaching than I thought -- or than I care to admit!
William Desmond writes from Baltimore.