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The Good Fortune of the Ivy League Reject

In the uproar that followed Suzy Lee Weiss’s “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me,” one assumption was left untouched: that Weiss, like any student, would be better off at an Ivy League college than at one of the Big Ten universities she now plans to attend.

As someone who split her undergraduate career between a large public university and an Ivy, I’d like to suggest something different: Weiss (who, full disclosure, is the sister of a friend) is lucky to have gotten those rejections.

I, like Weiss, was a middle-class white girl from the suburbs who started her freshman year at a big state university feeling entitled to a fancier education. When I secured a spot in Harvard’s transfer class, I was sure I stood only to gain: My classmates in the University of Maryland’s upper-level English classes asked questions that struck me as hopelessly naïve, I got A’s on papers my high-school teachers would have made me rewrite, and I envied my friends at elite colleges whose freshman-year hall mates debated the ethics of drag while mine emptied out every weekend to frat row—where the only visible gender-benders were women in flats.

While I now realize that my own snobbishness kept me from benefiting from Maryland, at the time I was growing more and more sure that staying there, particularly in the humanities, would mean getting a subpar education.

Unlike Weiss, though, I didn’t really think I belonged in the Ivy League. I had my heart set on the warm embrace of a liberal-arts college. But when a close friend handed me Harvard’s transfer application, having decided not to use it himself, and I saw that it was due earlier than Wesleyan’s and Grinnell’s, I figured the deadline would help me prepare my materials for the colleges I actually had a shot at attending. When I got my acceptance e-mail from Harvard, I was so convinced it was a mistake that I had my mother call the transfer-admissions office to make sure the system hadn’t malfunctioned.

My reaction to that congratulatory e-mail was just the first symptom of an inferiority complex that would obstruct what should have been an unparalleled education. Harvard, through its pervasive culture of superiority and its famously deep pockets—offering such rare perks as undergraduate arts funds—is set up for students who believe they belong there, even when many, deep down, doubt that they do.

Because of my insecurity, I reveled in more superficial pleasures than educational ones. I loved living in a suite with two other roommates instead of in a single room with three, and I was charmed by the clanging steam pipes, which I imagined were the soundtrack to my very own bildungsroman (the central heating of Maryland’s high-rise dorms, in contrast, smacked of suburban characterless mediocrity). I was impressed by everything from the relative weight of the silverware to the easy way “Foucault” and “Heidegger” rolled off my classmates’ tongues.

Looking back on my time at Harvard, I realize that I could have learned so much more had my classmates and I not been too proud—and, as later conversations with alumni would reveal, too intimidated by one another—to ask questions. One incident still stings.

For my sophomore “History and Literature” tutorial, I wrote a paper on shifting attitudes toward The Scarlet Letter as reflected in publishers’ shifting marketing strategies. I had never written a college-level history paper before, nor had I ever attempted such an ambitious project with so little background knowledge.

I still cringe when I think of the short, lonely Cambridge evenings I spent in my dorm (or rather, “house”) with a dozen editions of The Scarlet Letter strewn about me. There were so many questions I could have asked my instructors (called “tutors”), starting with a very basic one: “How does one research the publishing industry?”

As I look back, my humiliation over that poorly written paper is softened with compassion for the 19-year-old who didn’t even know how to ask a question. I eked out a vague comparison of jacket designs and font choices, and I was so sure that I had shown myself to be an Ivy League misfit that I was too embarrassed to talk to my kind and well-meaning tutors about rewriting the paper for a higher grade.

Much attention has been paid to the challenges faced by disadvantaged students in matriculating at elite institutions. But for students like me—students who are ashamed of their own ignorance and are intimidated by their peers’ wealth, confidence, and scholastic achievement—the struggle is more psychological than structural.

I’ll never forget when, years later, I was teaching academic writing at the University of Michigan to a group of students whose academic ambitions varied as widely as those of my own former Maryland peers, and a student interrupted me to ask what I meant by “characterize.” I almost asked her to repeat the question, disbelieving that, halfway through a semester of studying literature, this basic word and concept could still elude her.

Fortunately, I caught myself in time to thank her for her question and explain the word’s meaning. The class proceeded to have a discussion that felt more wide-ranging and exploratory than many we had had that semester. Privately, I envied the fact that she was in an educational environment where she felt safe enough to ask such a question.

As Weiss and tens of thousands like her bemoan their Ivy League rejections and gear up for state-school educations, I’d encourage them to appreciate what they stand to gain: an environment where students can ask questions, a place where a student’s ignorance is less shameful than her pride.

Ilana Sichel has an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and is the editor of MyJewishLearning.

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