“Cornell professors really hype us up,” said one of my friends after a psychology lecture in which our professor spent the last 20 minutes of class telling us how incredibly “brilliant” we all were, and how “blown away” he is by our potential.
I don’t even really remember what prompted him to go on this complimentary rant. One minute we were talking about the psychology of dreams, and the next thing I knew, we were being showered with compliments by a professor a hundred times more accomplished than anyone else in the room.
While it may seem random, I’ve found that this is quite a common theme in a lot of classes at Cornell. As a freshman, I remember being told in every introductory lecture that we were all “extremely bright” and “driven” students, and I really believed it.
In fact, I think that when many of us first comes to Cornell, we are still reeling from the shock of being accepted into a school that falls under the elite, glittering title of the Ivy League. We think that we must be pretty intelligent to be the only ones in our high school friend group to go to a fancy, world-renowned school. Everything at Cornell is exciting and stimulating and you can’t wait to be successful.
And then you go through your first round of prelims.
Jokes aside, I’m willing to argue that every student at Cornell has faced that sinking feeling that they are not as capable as they once thought they were. That maybe, just maybe, their dreams and aspirations are too big, too unrealistic and too ambitious.
Suddenly, your brain begins qualifying professors’ remarks about how smart you are with what I like to call “Yeah, but…” statements:
“Yeah, I’m smart, but so-and-so is smarter.”
“Yeah, I’m smart but so is everyone else applying to medical school.”
“Yeah, I’m smart but Harvard still rejected me!”
Ironically, it takes getting into an Ivy League for many of us to stop being confident in our abilities.
Undoubtedly, I think that part of this is because when we come to Cornell, we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by people more determined and competitive than ever before. But in my opinion, what plays a bigger role is that deep down, many of us don’t believe we belong here.
In my first year here, I found myself looking up transfer applications every few months because I genuinely didn’t think I was smart enough to study at Cornell. Surely, the admissions committee must have made a mistake. I felt like I wasn’t good enough at anything while everyone around me was good at everything.
But then, in my sophomore year, I started working as a writing tutor. If I’m being completely honest, I was initially quite skeptical about why any student at Cornell would need a writing tutor. Wasn’t it their impeccable personal statements that got them here in the first place?
Soon enough, however, I discovered that this wasn’t the case at all. I remember one particular student that I worked with who, as soon as I told him I was a premed, proceeded to brag about how he had gotten an A in organic chemistry. As someone who only understood about 20 percent of the material in orgo, I was infuriated by his statement. If he was so smart, why was he coming to me for help?
But then, I read his essay. While I don’t condone making fun of tutees’ writing, I will do so solely because I have a point to make:
His writing was horrible.
And this delighted me. Not because I was spiteful and wanted to see him fail — I helped him to develop a beautiful paper than he ended up getting an A on — but because I found that I had a strength that he didn’t.
As cheesy as it sounds, I think that in this moment I had the realization that nobody is good at everything, but everybody is good at something. Part of the perilous journey through our four years at Cornell is recognizing our weaknesses, but also discovering our strengths. I think that we are very quick at doing the former, but too often we overlook the latter.
It’s easy to feel painfully average at Cornell, but everybody has their “horrible essay” moment; a moment where you finally begin crediting yourself for being great at something, even though you aren’t good at everything.
Faiza Ahmad is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Fifth Column runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.