Over break, I perused through an old copy of my high school graduation program. As I flipped through the pages, I ran my fingers over the embossed letters of my name. On the adjacent page, I spotted my name on award and fellowship recipient lists. Below the awards was a list of schools to which the graduating class was matriculating. Among them was Cornell University, in bold print.
Two years later, I now assess my standing at that bolded institution. What do I have to show for it? I am a decent student, don’t misunderstand, but I am nothing overly outstanding compared to my peers. No awards or fellowships, no special cohorts or evidence of outstanding scholarship. To stand out in large introductory classes at Cornell, take chemistry or microeconomics for instance, you must be the best out of hundreds of peers, each of which were likely among the best in their high schools. My high school equipped me for this mental change, and often defended their resistance to grade inflation as a means of deflating academic egos in preparation for college.
Yet, I still wasn’t immune to the whiplash that accompanied the transition from exceptional to average. This sentiment seems to be shared by many students, who are now “ordinary” among Cornell’s student body. For some, this feeling manifests itself in impostor syndrome, a sense that they are unworthy of Cornell or do not belong here. While I don’t doubt my academic place here, Cornell’s more difficult academic setting has recalibrated my expectations of being an exceptional student.
This phenomenon is furthered by Cornell’s use of comparative measures of success, such as published class means and the widespread knowledge of performance statistics for each exam. What doesn’t accompany the means and standard deviation of a prelim is the disclaimer that the group of people to which we compare ourselves is much smarter than we realize. I often remind myself that high ACT and SAT scores are the rule, not the exception, among people at Cornell. But I still sometimes feel rather stupid — or at least unexceptional — when I see how I measure up to my exceptional peers. Exceptional now feels impossible.
Perhaps college hasn’t truly made me stupid, but it has surely made me feel much stupider than I have in the past. Yet, it is possible that I am unfairly blaming college for this change — factors like neural development, lifestyle habits and social maturity likely contribute too. The brain undergoes many changes until it stops developing in our mid to late twenties; among those changes are alterations in self-perception and ego. Beyond physiology, greater exposure to education may correlate with a decreased perception of our abilities. As explained by the physiological phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger effect, we often feel less confident in our competence as our understanding of a subject increases.
Moreover, living by oneself for the first time enables less-than-exceptional habits like poor sleep and inefficient studying — both of which may cause a true drop in performance associated with the higher caliber of my academic peers. The truth behind my “feeling stupid” likely lies somewhere in between these theories, and is a product of both a new academic environment and the natural changes that accompany growing older and attending college.
Now, I must remember that being exceptional should not be the goal. I know that given my abilities and coursework, to be exceptional would come at the cost of social life, hobbies and other engagements that I value beyond the prestige of my name in a yearbook or on an award certificate. College is four years of life to be enjoyed, regardless of where you fall in the pack.
Julia Poggi is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. The Outbox runs every other Sunday this semester.