May 7, 2023

SWASING | The Art Of Underachieving

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I spent the last two weekends working at Cornell Days. When I wasn’t giving tours, I was in Klarman Hall welcoming the Arts & Sciences admits. And when I wasn’t there, I was speaking on a panel composed of ambassadors from each undergraduate college in a Bartels gymnasium filled with prospective students. I talked to a lot of admitted students and their families in the past few weeks. 

By far, the most common question I am always asked in my role as a tour guide and college ambassador is, “Looking back, what do you wish you knew when you were starting college?” As a seasoned college student, about to enter my senior year, I have so many different answers to this question. One of the most frequent ones I give is that I wish I knew it was okay to let things go. 

In high school, I did everything. I was a big fish in a small pond, and an ambitious one at that. I was an overachiever who liked to keep busy, so it was easy to be part of every single organization I wanted to be involved with, to take every class that interested me and to earn every achievement or recognition available. This is not an uncommon backstory for Cornell students. Many of us come from a place where we were the best at what we did and checked off every academic and extracurricular achievement like items on a grocery list. Club president? Check. Valedictorian? Check. Team captain? National Honor Society? Honor roll? Check. Check. Check. 

When you get to college, reality hits fast. First of all, there are way too many things to be involved with to do them all. You really have to think about what activities and involvements appeal most to you and what you really want to get out of your college experience. Then, you have to let go of some of the things that aren’t as meaningful to you. This is more than just clubs and activities though. What it’s really about is the arbitrary standards you held yourself to prior to college. Massive quantities of extracurriculars is just one example. 

As another example, for me, learning to let go meant not making Dean’s List my top priority each semester. Before Cornell, I had been on Faculty Honor Roll every year since the start of middle school. Coming into college, I expected that streak to continue. To make the Arts & Sciences Dean’s list, however, you need to be enrolled in 15 graded credits each semester. I quickly discovered that I had semesters where I simply didn’t want to be enrolled in that many courses. I had to decide whether I was going to cling to this ridiculous standard I was holding myself to or just let go of it and base my course schedule on what was truly best for me. Once I let go, I could feel the weight of my past self’s expectations lifted off my shoulders. 

Past me would have viewed this mindset as underachieving. Past me would say that to look at opportunities that were perfectly within my grasp and choose not to pursue them is lazy. But guess what? I’m not past me anymore. Is it true that I am underachieving based on my past standards? Maybe. But past me also would have never believed I’d be at a place like Cornell — with one of the world’s best educations right at my fingertips — and part of some of the amazing programs I’ve found through letting go of past expectations. 

Past me is a lesser experienced me who had no idea what the world had in store for her, so why should I let her unrealistic standards continue to control my life? Our lives and our goals are dynamic, and they should change over time as you gain new perspectives and experiences. Underachieving according to my younger self’s standards has allowed me to focus on what really matters to me at this stage in life, and to push aside the internal and external pressures that come from growing up as a big fish in such a tiny pond. Underachieving has given me the space to experience my life in college authentically instead of conforming to the role of a cookie cutter, picture perfect student.  

Halle Swasing is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Goes Without Swasing runs every other Sunday this semester.