At a Cook house dinner a few months ago, Prof. Wolfgang H. Sachse, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, sat down at our table. A friend and I had just started the semester, and as the forks and knives clinked all around us and the cloth handkerchiefs and tablecloths replaced our usual paper napkins and bare table surfaces, we were just hoping to make it to the weekend. As we got deeper into the conversation and my friend and I recounted our journeys leading up to our sophomore year at Cornell, Prof. Sachse asked “did you really work hard in high school?” — making the assumption that we had coasted through and somehow gotten admitted. Maybe that worked decades ago, but with acceptance rates reaching single digits, and a digital, permanent record of every decimal point of every high-school assignment, coasting through the admissions process is impossible. Or is it?
A large portion of my high school experience was complicated by the pandemic. In the first few months, I found some projects to do virtually. By the time my senior year came, I submitted an early decision application to Cornell, received an acceptance a month or so later, and some would say the rest was history. The first few months as a senior were fairly difficult in anticipation of the months ahead. But ultimately, I lucked out. I submitted two essays for Cornell, and the rest of the essays could stay as drafts, gathering dust in the virtual world.
The enlightening conversation with Prof. Sachse touched upon many different points, including his escapades and stories abroad. But his off-hand remark, his random question, leads to an important point: as my high school years fade from memory, my work ethic in the past or my attendance at Cornell becomes irrelevant. It is what I do with these present four years, the skills that I sharpen and the people that I meet — including Prof. Sachse himself — that will inform how happy I am, the goals that I achieve and the course of my life to come.
I used to have deep and interesting conversations after school about politics and international affairs with teachers. These discussions were had with a vigor and curiosity that I chase to this day, but seem to have lost in Cornell’s academic environment. I know I should start attending office hours with professors and chasing additional opportunities for engagement, something I have not done enough throughout my Cornell years. Spending more hours with professors would deepen my intuitive intellectual inquisitiveness and lead to a much more unique and sophisticated view of political behavior and domestic and global trends.
Some friends of mine worked extremely hard in high school and by the time they got to college, they burned out and decided to spend their first two years partying. They mindlessly submit their assignments and drone on. They worked hard to make it to this campus and now enjoy the benefits of the social scene at the expense of their GPA. I know others who claim — claim being the operative word — that they did not work very hard in high school, some of whom are doing well and some of whom are struggling.
I suppose I am somewhere in the middle, maintaining decent motivation regarding academic and professional areas I developed a passion for in high school, but also cultivating a wide range of friends, getting lost in the simple pleasures of life and not stressing too much about academics.
At Cornell, I would recommend focusing on personal development. Cultivate a skill and a sharp aptitude in a very specific area. Become respected by your peers and professors by developing a core talent and prominence in an academic or extracurricular field that applies to — and is desperately needed in — the workforce or academia.
Many clubs and organizations are overrated, but there are certainly associations and groups which will enhance your experience and provide tremendous value. While fraternities can sometimes provide a backdrop for useless activities, many houses do indeed provide priceless professional connections with alumni. I am biased, but the Daily Sun itself has opened up a cool new world of alumni and fellow students that I have learned a lot from. I have a campus job as a Website & Marketing Assistant for an administrative unit, which provides me with some cash as well as professional development and productive projects to touch on in future interviews and conversations.
To answer Prof Sachse’s question, I cannot say for certain how hard I worked to gain admission to Ithaca’s heights, but I can certainly say that I am working hard to develop and sharpen my personal and professional skills at Cornell. And I encourage you to do the same.
Aaron Friedman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Honest AF runs every other Thursday this semester.