First item of business. If someone says “I have three prelims next week,” what’s the first response that pops into your head? Well, there are really only two types of responses. “Oh man, that’s awful, I’m so glad I’m not premed / an engineer / a hotelie / double majoring / an English major / graduating early / prelaw, you guys have it so much harder than the rest of us,” or “Well, I had three prelims AND two papers in a week once.”
Second item of business. If someone says “I’m so tired, I had to pull an all-nighter again,” what’s your reply? The range of answers is, again, binary. Either “You’re so crazy, I never have enough work to pull an all-nighter,” or “Well, I’m pulling my second one in a row tonight.”
If you didn’t know these items before, congratulations! Provided you picked the second response in both scenarios, you are now qualified to converse like a Cornell student. If someone’s already given you the memos on “Let me tell you how much alcohol I drank last weekend / plan on drinking this weekend” and “Do you think s/he’s into me?,” you are also fully qualified to participate in, oh, some 70 percent of the conversations that are happening on this campus at any given time.
Snark (mostly) aside, I’d like to use my 700-word soapbox to focus on the first bit of that paragraph up there. I have heard many phrases used to describe this lovely place, and among the first I heard — right after “pressure cooker” — was “stress competition.” My esteemed colleague Will Spencer commented recently that Hotelies and Engineers alike only seem to know how to have one conversation, the one that revolves around how ridiculous their schoolwork is. And oh, I am not about to contradict. (And not just because I sit in staff meetings with him).
If you feel the need to talk constantly about how difficult your schoolwork is, please pick one of the following options.
1) You’re smart and good at school, and your coursework is legitimately difficult. You also require constant external affirmation to feel good about yourself, and it’s kind of annoying.
2) You’re smart, but you’re not very good at school. Your coursework is legitimately difficult. You require constant external affirmation about your intelligence to compensate for your grades, and it’s kind of annoying.
3) You’re pre-med, and everyone thinks you’re annoying. I’m kidding! I’m kidding. Not all pre-meds are annoying.
Ladies and Gentlemen, please. You all attend, for what it’s worth, the *cough* US News-ranked #15 university in the nation. The largely arbitrary crapshoot called undergraduate admissions means that you’re a smart and talented person who won (or lost) the lottery. So, let us dispense with the notion that a game of academic mine-is-bigger-than-yours is either necessary or fooling anyone. For one, it makes you look needy. Talking like you have something to prove does, in fact, make people suspect that you have something to prove. For another, it’s specifically this sort of attitude that has created the Cornell pressure cooker environment.
An intensely competitive environment has created this collective campus fear of admitting any academic or personal weakness, and we’ve all seen what kind of toll that takes on people. Talking about all the work we have to do to a fellow student who is quietly struggling to find the will to get out of bed every morning isn’t just insensitive, it’s selfish in the worst way. We’re all human. We all have egos that need to be stroked. But in the end, the distribution of prelim grades is going to look roughly normal anyways, and no one is going to care that you ONLY ended up at the mean because you had SO much other work to do. On the other hand, people are going to care that you made them feel like a piece of crap about only getting the mean, because they studied really hard for it. So, Big Red, campus that I love, please take that chip off your shoulder. We’ll all be better for it.
Deborah Liu is a junior in the College of Engineering. She may be reached at email@example.com. First World Problem appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.