Despite important ideals, book won’t make a dent in college admissions mania

October 30, 2018 — by Kaitlyn Tsai

After graduating from Stanford this past spring, 2014 Saratoga High alumnus Nikhil Goel and his college roommate Sanjay Kannan published “Dreaming of Stanford: How to Rethink High School and the Pursuit of College.” The book is a brief guide on how students should approach their goals and the college process, advice that Goel and Kannan developed through their personal experiences.  

As a sophomore still on the outside of the college application process, I expected the book to be just another boring read on what students should do to achieve their Ivy-League dreams: become valedictorian, participate in prestigious competitions and summer camps and ace the SAT or ACT — or both.

Instead, the guide slapped me across the face with almost the exact opposite message, essentially preaching that college is not an end goal. To my surprise, the book still remained fairly realistic. Topped with sprinkles of millennial humor, it breaks down the college process, beginning with how to find a true passion, to setting goals and values, to the proper ways to approach school.

In the first chapter, Goel and Kannan establish that college begins “the second you stepped onto your high school campus.” While they agree that few high school students truly know what they want to do in the future, they claim that students should explore their passions during this time in order to figure this essential question out; thus, they proceed to outline different ways to discover and develop such passions, depending on how clear each student is on his path in life.

While “Dreaming of Stanford” provides valuable advice and insights on the college process, such as “working smart is better than working hard” or “college is not an end goal,” it would take far more than a 46-page guide to transform the mindsets of students, especially those attending competitive high schools like Saratoga High.

Although I felt more hopeful and motivated to further develop my interests after reading the book, my instinctive response to phrases like “getting all A’s is not a mark of success” was derision; after all, many of Goel and Kannan’s messages directly challenge ideals that have long been ingrained into students’ brains. Students may read the book and feel uplifted, but just reading the advice is entirely different from believing in and following through with it.

Personally, I would not approach my goals too differently after reading this book, especially not by sacrificing precious studying time and my grades to explore my interests like Goel and Kannan suggest. I suspect most students would likely do the same.

Although students understand the principles Goel and Kannan outline, most may be reluctant to follow through because the prospects of falling behind their peers are far too risky. Instead of following their passions, which may not allow them to have jobs with steady incomes, students would rather maintain high GPAs in order to squeeze into prestigious universities, which would in turn allow them to acquire prestigious jobs.

In competitive schools like Saratoga High, many students work under incredible amounts of stress, trying to achieve over-4.0 GPAs and juggling various extracurriculars in order to accomplish their goal — attending a respected, if not brand-name, college, even though Goel and Kannan stress the opposite.

As such, almost all students compete with each other, struggling to come out on top of their peers, because they all believe that attending a brand-name university is the mark of success. There is no undefined journey but rather the one rigid objective they work for throughout their high school careers. And the only way to achieve that is by piling ridiculous amounts of work — and stress — on their plates.

Both peer and parental pressure contribute to this mentality, building mental walls that prevent students from following the sound advice Goel and Kannan impart.

Goel and Kannan have good intentions, and their advice holds several grains of truth, but they essentially add only a bit more depth to many phrases teachers and counselors tell their students — words many students never internalize. “Dreaming of Stanford” is simply not enough to shatter those mental walls and create a lasting impact on many students.

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