I think I spent about a week on the last IHUM essay I wrote. I churned out a first draft the day after it was set and got about four people to proofread it, including friends, the HWC people and my PWR professor. I submitted it, waited, and got it back. The result surprised me. I know it’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve finally managed to convince myself something that I’ve been repeating inside my head like a mantra since NSO: ‘college is not about academics.’
Those who know me well will agree that I’m very much on the academic side. At school, I used to be more than willing to forgo social activities for academic opportunities and even just front-loading homework to a ludicrous extent by doing it in the common room the day it was set rather than at home that night. I’m something of a perfectionist: the day I got into my head the notion that academic success is more important than anything else, I pursued it obsessively and with abandon.
There are lots of fairly obvious issues with this mentality. The problem is, however, that there are simply so many people at Stanford (and indeed Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford and all the top universities in the world) who have adopted it and, like I did, obstinately cling to it. It’s not their fault. Chances are they even recognise it as a problem and consciously attempt to take steps to mitigate it. But it’s difficult to let go of the mentality that not getting an A is not OK. I know, I’ve been there. Here’s my two cents.
The problem with frontloading work is that it is inevitable that you end up spending more time on it. My idea was to start and finish work quickly to get it out of the way so I can enjoy life later. That has never happened. No essay will ever be perfect, and there will always be something more to do. And of course, like everything else, work follows the principle of diminishing returns: the more you work on an assignment, the lower the marginal utility. So frontloading and obsessive perfectionism results in spending a huge amount of time working on something with very low return!
A solution would be to leave working on assignments until later: procrastination. Epic night-before-due-date procrastination clearly won’t do, but I do think that something like last-minute panic, if handled well, is a healthy way to work. If you’re doing problem sets the day before they’re due and doing fine, it means you’ve handled your schedule well. It means you haven’t wasted time unproductively performing the inexorable and infinite act of editing and revising, and have instead done something more useful. Like meeting people, or having discussions about things you’re passionate about, or turning friends into really good friends, or getting an internship. It’s somewhat analogous to the President passing new laws – if he makes it by the skin of his teeth it means he’s making the most assertive demand he can from congress, whereas if he wins the vote by an avalanche it means he isn’t making a strong enough demand.
Speaking of meeting people, I think that’s definitely one of the most important aspects of college. It seems most people make their best lifelong friends at college. It’s a unique opportunity to meet an amazing group of people who’ve been selected simply because they make an amazing group of people, not because they happen to have the right skills the company is looking for or because they happen to share an interest in some activity. Unless it’s a group project, school work is inherently an unsocial thing, and deprives you of the opportunity to meet this amazing group of people. Most students will be working pretty much solidly for the rest of their lives. There are plenty of opportunities to work. But there are few opportunities to really get to know people of such calibre in life, and it’s a pity to pass up this opportunity for something as mundane as getting an A in a class.
I guess it’s really all about perspective. One of my friends was determinedly writing an obscenely long and unnecessarily detailed response to a question for a 1-unit credit / no credit class, yet couldn’t come up with a response when I asked him what he’s getting out of it. I think asking yourself that question from time to time really does help to put things in perspective, and I plan to use it a lot in the next few weeks/months/years. Life is about achieving your dreams. Getting an A in a class that every freshman is forced to take hasn’t helped anyone I know achieve their dreams.
So what am I saying? I don’t know. I guess I’m saying academics really aren’t that important. It’s a bold statement to make, but it’s far too easy to get caught up in the obsession with grades and GPA. In the real world, NOBODY CARES; the real world cares about personality and skills. It’s much better to have a below-average GPA but have an amazing set of loyal friends and supportive and incredible contacts than have a GPA of 4.3 and miss out on the quintessential college experience and forgo opportunities only college can provide.
Anyways. It’s past 2am. Time to write this essay.