On the Way in

On the Way in

Different Paths to 116th and Broadway

Published on March 23, 2016

It’s spring, which means that in a few weeks, colleges across the country will be finished sending out thick envelopes and assembling their classes of 2020, concluding another annual college application cycle and commencing the next. Admitted students’ Facebook pages will buzz with earnest and enthusiastic messages: “Still in shock!” “Can’t wait to meet you all!”

For a brief moment, there is a sense of shared accomplishment, a sense of being united by the fact that we’ve all made it to Columbia.

But come fall semester, we quickly discover that where we came from still seems important. “What school did you go to?” New York locals will ask each other during the New Student Orientation Program. The fresh alumni of big-name feeders like Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard-Westlake School will continue to proudly wear their school sweaters through the winter.

For some—like the recent graduates of feeder schools—the route to a Columbia education was forged long before they started writing their applications; it was a path well trodden and well marked. Others, graduates of run-of-the-mill public high schools, may be trailblazers and may have had to forge a path to the Ivy League with little assistance.

Since these paths are so different, they invariably and inevitably affect the way one sees the destination.

At 13 years old, Sejal Jain applied to Bergen County Academies on a bit of a whim after being encouraged by a middle school counselor. She and her family lived in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, a town she humorously estimates to be around one square mile large.

Lyndhurst is a township in Bergen County, which made Jain eligible for admission to BCA, the public magnet that was ranked the top fifth public high school in America by Newsweek. Colloquially, she and her middle school friends were familiar with the school for its ability to churn out Ivy-bound seniors every spring. The myth went that “people who go to BCA go to the best colleges: They go to Ivy Leagues,” Jain recalls.

Jain’s post-middle school experience would be spent at either Lyndhurst High School—which she describes as “severely underfunded” and was ranked 165th in the state—or BCA. Choosing to try for the latter wasn’t difficult.

For Jain, the process of applying to BCA in eighth grade was just like applying to Columbia four years later—it may have even been more time-consuming and arduous. She sent in her initial letters and documents in December, took a handful of tests in January, and sat for an interview in February. She heard back in early April.

Jain reminds me, twice, that it was a lot for a 13-year-old. But regardless, by ninth grade, Jain knew how to write successful personal essays and study for standardized entrance exams. She was already capable of making herself marketable to a board of admissions officers.  

Balan, a first-year at Columbia College with an intended major in economics, spins a similar story to Jain’s. He went to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, which was ranked the No. 1 public high school by Newsweek. TJ requires all applicants to sit for the Specialized High School Admission Test, submit essays and letters of recommendation, and go out for several interviews before being admitted.

TJ is a very competitive school, and once you are in, Balan says, your life immediately becomes largely focused around academics. “The social community is built around suffering through work together and still managing to do well after that,” Balan admits. There’s a joke that between sleep, grades, or a social life, TJ students can pick only one.

College wasn’t something Balan thought about before high school. And while he mentions that it took a while for it to start regularly cropping up in conversation, college admissions culture permeated TJ in subtle, quiet ways.

He talks about TJ like it is a mechanically assembled “system” set up to make sure students succeeded in the college admissions cycle. From early on, it was intrinsically accepted that everything, every little grade, every extracurricular activity, could distinguish or smear an application four years down the line. By the end of your first year, you were expected to have secured a leadership position in a selection of clubs. By sophomore year, you started doing research and entering academic competitions. Balan is currently applying for a patent on a method to identify rare bacterial illnesses he developed while doing research at George Washington University the summer before his senior year.

But the effort of being academically successful was motivated by a phantom college application rather than the idea of college itself. While applications were on people’s minds, college remained an abstraction. Students weren’t thinking about specific colleges, majors, or classes, but they nevertheless felt an intense pressure to “succeed” in high school for the sake of getting into a good school.

Underlying these deliberate efforts to spiff up these invisible college applications was the knowledge that your peers were your competition. GPAs were scarcely even whispered about; rankings were only the subjects of murmurs.

You quickly identify what your demographic is, Balan explains, and you become extremely focused on distinguishing yourself, making sure you will stand out.

While faculty members at BCA didn’t officially sit down and address college admissions until sophomore year, students faced the idea of college since day one.

When Jain tells me this, she means that literally. By the school’s entrance is a wall painted over with the logos of the colleges where members of the previous year’s senior class were headed—a blue crown for Columbia, a bear for Brown. Underneath each logo are the names of the students matriculating there.

This display is inevitably the first thing that incoming first-years see when they arrive at BCA. It is the centerpiece of the school’s main entry point. It is a reiteration of some promise silently made, a visual presentation of the expected end goal.

Ivy Day, 2012: Jain remembers sitting in the school cafeteria watching another group of first-years manically refresh Facebook again and again and again.

Students from BCA maintained an open Facebook page on which seniors could post their college admissions and decision news.

Another memory she recounts is that of watching crowds of students opening their Princeton decisions in a school hallway. Students hugging, shrieks of delight, tears, one friend consoling another.

She says, as if by way of explanation, that Princeton was the most popular Ivy.

Norman North High School in Norman, Oklahoma, is in some ways the archetypal Southern public high school. Its graduating class is 700 kids, it doesn’t have terrible facilities (perhaps a bit understaffed), and it makes local news when the football team does well.

It was the school that Columbia College first-year Dylan Dawson, Balan’s suitemate always knew he would attend; he lived two blocks up from Main Street where the school is located in Norman.

As Balan describes TJ and the way faculty members spun students’ time in high school as four years meant to lead to a prestigious college education, Dawson sits a few feet away.

Dawson says that if there was one thing that teachers and counselors made very clear to kids at  Norman North from the outset, it was that college was not for everybody. “[Teachers and counselors] wanted to highlight other potential areas that people could aim for, like technical school or just some sort of trade,” Dawson explains. “Trade and vocation are the political buzzwords that get thrown around.”

There was a similar expectation at Dixie Heights High School, where Carlos Ramirez, a first-year at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, spent his high school years in northern Kentucky: to graduate.

Many didn’t meet this expectation. “I know a lot of people who drop out, take the GED, pass the GED, and work at FedEx,” Ramirez says. “[For] the ACT, the goal is just to hit benchmarks so you can apply to community colleges.

Most people went to colleges in the area—University of Kentucky, University of Cincinnati, University of Louisville. Ramirez says he only knows a couple of kids who “travelled,” meaning they left the immediate vicinity. For example, someone might “travel” to Alabama for college.

The first time Dawson thought about college in a concrete way was at the end of his junior year of high school when he overheard first-years talk about the schools they wanted to apply to. At that point, he realized that application season was almost underway and college not so far away.

These were first-years who belonged to, as Dawson puts it, a “certain socioeconomic and racial intersectional demographic” that bought into the College Admissions Madness™ that you hear about. They did not make up a large proportion of the class, and very few among them were ultimately successful.

Dawson explains that about half the class would go to the University of Oklahoma. Some others would go to Oklahoma State University, and a handful to the University of Tulsa. A few “lucky” students, as Dawson describes them, would leave Oklahoma entirely, go to Kansas maybe. And then, Dawson specifies, there would always be a solid number of seniors heading to Oklahoma City Community College or Moore Norman Technology Center, a vocational school.

From a young age, Dawson had the support of a handful of teachers and faculty members that noticed him. “It was never the school structure or the culture there that pushed me to succeed, but individuals who really believed in me,” he recognizes. These people told him that he would be successful, but it was unclear what “success” entailed. Dawson speculates that it probably just meant he wouldn’t be going to Oklahoma City Community College.

Now that it was college season, the theoretical idea of success needed to be defined. Dawson had no idea where to start.

Ramirez only learned about Columbia at the end of his junior year. He didn’t discover it because he was searching for someplace prestigious, but because he wanted to live in New York City—or just get out of Kentucky.

He remembers his counselors discouraging people from leaving the state. When he told them he was applying to Columbia, they tried to convince him it was a bad idea. They told him to use the money the state gave to top students going to school in Kentucky and mitigate the cost of college.

But Kentucky wasn’t for him. He wanted out.

When asked, Jain is comfortable telling people that Columbia was her top choice. It was a school that would be deemed a “reach” for anybody, but then again, a reassuring number of people got in each year.

Jain herself didn’t feel great about her application. She didn’t feel particularly exceptional relative to her classmates, and she knew she was being compared against them. But she also had a strikingly different perspective on Columbia when it came to her home life.

“Just going to college is a big deal because I’m a first-generation college student, I am from a family of immigrants,” she says. Her parents never expected their kids to go to a school like BCA, nor could they fully comprehend that they might be sending a daughter to one of the world’s top universities.

Once outside of the school environment, she remembered how inflated the BCA perception of college was.

Connor Haseley, a Columbia College first-year, went to Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. When you mention it, some people recognize it as the off-kilter, independent, experimental school that “doesn’t give grades.”

“It’s not a true feeder school in the preppy sense of the word,” he says. “Its mission isn’t really to prepare you for college, but at the same time it works in practice as a feeder.” Ten years ago, Saint Ann’s became famous for having sent the highest proportion of students to the Ivy League in the country.

Haseley applied to 14 schools in total. When he says this, Ramirez, who sits across from him in the gazebo in front of Wallach, interrupts. “You applied to 14?” he laughs. “I applied to four.”

It isn’t uncommon for students at Saint Ann’s to apply to a lot of schools, Haseley says. “At a certain point, it’s a crapshoot to get into any highly selective college, even if you ‘should’ get in, however you define that,” he explains.

He mentions that back in his sophomore year, his friends jokingly predicted that of all the Ivies, he would go to Columbia.

When it came to picking schools to apply to, Balan also knew enough about the system to have decided that things were less about “fit” than about “playing” that system. “The strategy is to apply to as many as you can and see how it turns out,” he says, echoing Haseley.

Balan mentions TJ’s extensive alumni network, which helped him figure out “how to play [his] cards right.” He reached out to several recent graduates who had had similar profiles to him in high school and had gotten into good schools for guidance.

When he applied to Princeton early action, it was largely because he felt his research corresponded well to some of the research being done there. He also took into account who else at his school was applying there and what their backgrounds were like. He needed to make sure he stood out.

Plenty of first-years like to tell their acceptance day stories. Where they were when they logged into the Columbia portal and found out they had been admitted, who they told first, the hugs, the tears, the claps on the back, the phone calls and texts that greeted the news.

Ramirez doesn’t. He went online, checked the portal, found out that Columbia had accepted him. It was good news, but he didn’t tell many people, knowing that he wasn’t going to pay $70,000 dollars just to go to school in New York.

Instead, he talks about the day he opened his financial aid letter in the mail. It was something tangible, a physical letter that he could hold. That was the moment he realized Columbia was within reach. He called his parents; they couldn’t believe it. He felt jittery.

News percolated slowly, mostly because a lot of people hadn’t heard of Columbia. But teachers stopped him in the halls to ask him if the rumors were true and to congratulate him on the news. His parents were incredibly proud; they told everyone they knew.  

Dawson was a QuestBridge finalist, meaning his entire tuition for all four years of college would be covered. He was going to find out whether he had been “matched” with any school on the first of December.

QuestBridge, a nonprofit that provides high-achieving, low-income students with full scholarships to top U.S. colleges, invited him to apply the summer after junior year. Dawson thought it was a scam. Even after dozens of Google searches, all of which led him to the conclusion that the program was legitimate, he still wasn’t able to fully grasp the full meaning of the opportunity in front of him.

Columbia was his first choice, mainly because it was in New York City. He describes a pervasive fear in his high school that if you didn’t leave Norman for college, you weren’t ever going to get out. His top three QuestBridge choices reflected his desire to live in a city: Columbia, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania.

At some point on Dec. 1, Dawson recalls getting a text from his friend, another QuestBridge finalist that said, “Aw, dude, I didn’t get in anywhere, but the results are up.”

Dawson logged into QuestBridge knowing that this was his one shot at a college education. “They’re offering it all up front. It is double or nothing, it is four years or plumbing,” he remembers thinking.

“Congratulations! You’ve been matched with Columbia University, one of 501 college matches.” Dawson screamed. He jumped, he ran, he hollered, though no one was around to hear. He estimates that he texted half of the people in his contact list to tell them the news: “I’m actually going to college, this is crazy!” Some of these people were the individual faculty members that had personally supported him through high school.

When he visited the teachers who had written him recommendation letters, he thanked them for making his future possible.

The excitement wasn’t really that he’d gotten into Columbia, an Ivy League university, fourth best in the country, home of 82 Nobel laureates. It was that he was going to college and leaving Norman.

For what it’s worth, though, he was the only one in his graduating class to go to an Ivy.

Haseley found out his decision in the Seoul airport while he was travelling abroad. March 31, he recalls. He went through the admission portals of each Ivy League school one by one, while passengers waited for their baggage in the arrivals terminal. He couldn’t remember some of his passwords, so he had to reset them.

By this point in the application process, he’d finally decided that Columbia was one of his top choice schools.

He opened his Columbia decision, saw he had gotten in, and suddenly knew where he was going to college. He sent a Snapchat to his friends back home.

A couple of them jokingly reminded him that they’d called this, all those years ago. The 30-minute taxi ride to downtown Seoul was an exceedingly happy one.

According to Balan, his grade did poorly in the 2014-2015 admissions cycle. “15 to MIT—that was less than normal. Five to Stanford—the year before Stanford got 10, five to Princeton, four to Columbia, Cornell got 15 or 16, Penn got two…” His voice trails off, trying to recall the numbers.

Balan was choosing between Columbia, Cornell, and Berkeley, and he is straightforward about the fact that he chose Columbia mostly because of reputation. The action of parsing through top-tier schools and making minute distinctions in prestige is not an uncommon practice at TJ.

He even admits that Columbia gave him less financial aid than other schools, but that wasn’t a priority for him—“if that reveals to you [my] priorities and, therefore, people at my school in general,” he says.

“In the context of people who were in my grade, I didn’t feel exceptional that I had gotten into Columbia. There were also other people who got in and into other better peer schools,” Jain admits.

BCA allotted one day a week for students to do internships in a field they were interested in; Jain’s was engineering. She ended up doing research at Columbia and came to campus once a week throughout her senior year.

By the time she arrived on campus as a college student, she already knew how long it took to walk from the entrance at 116th Street to Pupin Hall, and where the best halal carts were.

Her familiarity with the campus—the stage for first introductions—helped her settle in.

She felt she knew what to expect when it came to Columbia students, so she wasn’t surprised during NSOP when it became apparent that most students had similar academic backgrounds to her: They also went to public magnets, prep schools, or private schools. They could talk about the research they had done, the hackathons they’d attended, the competitions they’d taken part in.  A lot of them, she realizes, were also from New Jersey.

Dawson’s feeling of being distinctly disadvantaged was made pronounced by the way that people interacted and introduced themselves during NSOP. The common question: Where are you from? The more people who responded with New York, Long Island, some Northeastern metropolis, some city or suburb along the East Coast, or California, the more he realized simply being from Oklahoma made him stick out.

Very few people were able to understand his background. Introductions made him uncomfortably conscious of the geographical minority he was in. Some people even asked him where Oklahoma was.

The sense of exclusion was impossible to ignore. “The interconnectedness of all the people coming from certain schools definitely became apparent to me,” Dawson recognizes. “That was something that actualized to me the geographic barrier that goes along with it [the sense of exclusion] all. I just don’t have connections.”

He felt that there was little effort made on the part of many of the people he met to try and understand him and his background. If introductions were a quick way for people to discern who they were most similar to, they also provided an easy avenue for people to quickly decide that Dawson’s background was too distant from their own.

Introductions helped make Balan feel more comfortable on campus during those early days. He only realizes this retrospectively as Dawson speaks.

Balan reasons that this is because a sizeable proportion of the Columbia student body went to feeder schools on the East Coast. They remember seeing and meeting TJ students at math and robotics competitions. They had a clear idea of what his high school background was like. There was immediately fodder for conversation.

“When people introduce themselves they’re just looking for common ground, something they can talk about,” reasons Balan.

TJ gave him that common ground in his first few days of being a Columbia student.

Haseley made a concerted effort to not talk to his city friends at the beginning, or even people he peripherally knew. He wanted his college life to be different; he wasn’t looking for a continuation of high school.

In the end, though, he ended up spending a lot of time with a guy from New York and some people he knew from high school. Those were the people he felt close to first. “We had the same slang, same culture, we knew about the same stuff that was going on,” Haseley acknowledges.

If he hadn’t made a concerted effort to continue expanding his social circle, he admits he may have found himself fixed into this social group early on.

Ramirez says he didn’t have a vision of Columbia when he got to campus, that it was developing when he arrived. But very quickly his search for “normal”—or at least his personal conception of what that was—became a big issue for him.

“I had a lot of where am I? and why am I here? Why did I decide to come here?” Ramirez remembers.

He was initially surprised that Columbia students looked, when walking around campus, relatively normal. “I had this image of people being braniac-looking, nerdy kids,” he muses. Outwardly, he felt like he blended in.

But everything seems to come back to students’ valiant quests to find people who actually understand them. In terms of background, he felt like he stood out. Ramirez describes a friend he started to get close to early in the year before realizing his lifestyle wasn’t something he could keep up with. “He’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to a club, it’s $3,500 a table and five of us are splitting’ and ‘You wanna take a cab?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m not going. No, I’d rather walk or take the train.’”

Ramirez found one person early on who he felt he could talk to and be understood. But the singularity of this friendship highlights how generally large the discrepancy in backgrounds was.

He seems to recognize that ignorance and clumsiness when interacting with students from different socioeconomic strata works both ways. When somebody in his Under1Roof session, which is a mandatory NSOP event for new students about diversity, admitted to being “movie star rich” he found it hard to process. When he hears people talking about precisely what they want to do after they graduate, he doesn’t know how to contribute to the conversation.

“People are asking me what I want to do after I graduate. I want to enter the workforce,” Ramirez affirms. These are conversations that he realizes he is less capable of navigating because he’s not used to having them. To others they are rote.

When he meets somebody from a recognizable feeder school, Balan admits that he draws conclusions about them.

He concludes that they’re smart. He concludes that they’re accomplished. He knows what it is like to go through such a grueling, competitive system and so making it to Columbia is testament to how successful they’ve been. They’ve distinguished themselves in a class of really intelligent and driven people; that says something about their caliber.

He says that having had those experiences himself, he’s come to the conclusion that they build good intelligence and a good way of approaching problems.

He turns to Dawson and says, “Now I know you pretty well and you’ve done great things and it’s ridiculous how far you’ve come, but it’s just because of the perspective I have that I assume those people who have had similar experiences to me are smarter for them.”

Ramirez is shocked when Haseley talks about a particle physics class he took on a whim in his junior year of high school. Despite being in SEAS, Ramirez never took a physics class in high school, and AP classes were a very recent addition to the curriculum. Suddenly, he was in college-level physics without any idea what was going on. The assignments were unfamiliar and he was cognizant of the way that his classmates already had the background knowledge to do well in the class.

This is something he still feels seven months into his first year. “I kind of came to this realization that because of my high school background, I’ll always be an underdog here.”

He worries that it may not be possible to ever catch up.

Recently, Balan went to a financial networking dinner in downtown New York. He’s vague about the details—it’s for a firm working out of Chicago, and there were recruiters there. He mentions it because in the midst of one of the conversations he had, Thomas Jefferson High came up. “Oh, I saw you went to TJ? Do you know so-and-so?”

He thinks it’s funny that where he went to high school has followed him past graduation, past those early NSOP introductions, through to his first attempts to lay the groundwork for his life and career post-Columbia.  

“We get to moments like these,” Dawson begins, stretching his arms to indicate it is the last day of class before spring break, “we just got done with midterms, and there’s definitely a similar lens through which we view Columbia because we have this shared experience of suffering.” He laughs, “and maybe even enjoying it a little.”

“Once we step away, we have a different perspective that’s more shaped by our individual views, which are always going to be molded by the people we were brought up to be and the experiences we had prior to Columbia.”

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