In college settings, adaptation is inevitable

Graphic courtesy of Kinsey Ratzman ’21

Graphic courtesy of Kinsey Ratzman ’21


When I was a senior in high school, a teacher asked me what sort of person I thought I’d be in college. I was confused by the question — she knew me and had for years. She’d written a college reference for me. Now, halfway through my first year, I am a completely different person and her question has more meaning for me. It’s impossible to avoid reinvention in college, because your personality is continuously being shaped by your environment.

In high school, I was a varsity cheerleader, the student body president, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, the national honor society secretary… The list went on. I regularly spent 16 or more consecutive hours a day in my high school, attending classes, practices and any of the other commitments for which I had signed myself up. I was known across the student body for my constant involvement. I didn’t expect this to change in college.

In American public  high schools, students generally share the idea that they have to constantly prove themselves, whether it’s to teachers, friends or future colleges. There is a unspoken competition between high-achieving students. At my high school, this competition drove me to hold positions in more clubs than I was really interested in. All the high-achieving students wanted the highest ACT scores, GPAs and class ranks, and overcommitted themselves to get them. I participated so much not because I enjoyed the activities, but because I thought I would be judged for taking any time for myself. 

When I moved to Mount Holyoke, that stress became irrelevant. The constant discussion surrounding self-care on campus assured me that performative participation was no longer a requirement. It was quickly evident that college is a much more personal process and competition between students, especially at Mount Holyoke,  is of a healthy variety.

The Mount Holyoke campus is much more committed to self-expression and betterment than my public high school was. The College is home to dozens of   student-led interest groups that allow students to grow through exploration. College students all have individual education paths that allow them to focus on their interests without worrying about their involvement levels in extracurriculars that appeal to college application review boards. College communities urge students to understand themselves and their needs better. 

The college application process should place less importance on overcommittment, and try to encourage healthy lifestyles in young students. I can’t count how many times I was told that colleges prefer “well-rounded students,” a phrase which led to more meaningless overcommitments. High school students should be allowed — even urged — to explore the areas that interest them, instead of focusing on how many volunteer hours they can squeeze in between lunch meetings and SAT study sessions.  

The work required to get into a reputable institution puts the focus on the wrong criteria. Prospective college students should be able to focus on learning important life skills — time management, conflict management, leadership, etc. — before entering the “real world.” American public high schools hold students back, forcing them to reinvent themselves — and hopefully discover their passions and form valuable skills -— once they reach college. 

As a result of being educated in this system, I always assumed that success was defined by how much I could do in a day. Once I reached college, however, the student body appeared to be more focused on balancing academics and personal activities — that is what constitutes success. At Mount Holyoke, I spend my time on the activities that interest me and I feel more successful than I did in high school. 

If brought up in the American public high school system, a student’s reinvention is inevitable in college. The skills and attributes made important by this system matter far less once the student has left it, and the focus is re-centered on the student’s inability to be independent. 

In an institution as diverse as Mount Holyoke, adaptation is the norm. Students are expected to focus on bettering themselves, and overcommitment no longer equals success. A year ago, I thought that my personality was held up by my participation in student organizations. Now, because of the inevitability of reinvention in college and the lack of preparation provided by the American education system, I understand why my high school teacher asked who I thought I’d be in college.