Avoiding undergraduate regret
September 15, 2010 10:18 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on avoiding undergraduate regret...

After not getting into a high-end private school and failing to transfer to one, it's looking like I'm going to end up spending two or three more years at a state school most people attend for its football team than for academics. While I'm not bothered by a sports presence, and I'm definitely getting a lot out of college academically, I worry perpetually that I'm not getting the social experience I would get at a school like Harvard or Yale; conversations are more likely to be about the big game than academic jokes or philosophy. I've found friends in varying capacities, but I still feel like I'm missing a critical component of undergraduate life, and I'm worried that I'm going to be screwed out of that experience for my entire lifetime. I really feel passionately about this; I'm crying as I write these words. I'm just very concerned that I'm missing out on something precious and valuable that's worth more than I can imagine.
posted by LSK to Education (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are there any student organizations you can join where you can find more like-minded people? I went to a school where most people care more about football than... anything else, but managed to find plenty of people who had similar interests to me (and many who also didn't care about football). I was pretty bummed about going there, but didn't really have any other choice because of money. However, it turned out just fine. I like music and artsy stuff, so I did college radio. However, there are also academic fraternities, service organizations, book clubs, political groups, etc. If it's a big school, there are probably student organizations for almost any interest you can think of. If not, start your own and post flyers and ads to get members.
posted by elpea at 10:24 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have several friends who attended Ivy League colleges for undergrad -- believe me, it's not all jokes about Nietzsche and long, interesting salons late into the night. There's a large number of people who are there because of their social connections rather than any intellectual merit. You may not believe me, but it's true.
posted by proj at 10:32 PM on September 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

conversations are more likely to be about the big game than academic jokes or philosophy.

If you are going to a large state school, these things are happening somewhere on campus. There may be fewer people involved in them relative to the whole student body than at some more exclusionary institution, but then, you can only have so large a circle of friends anyway?

That said, I'm betting that five years after you graduate your late night Dead Poets Society style musings will be seen as having served a social function - not unlike that provided by tailgating for others - much more than an intellectual one.
posted by phrontist at 10:33 PM on September 15, 2010

That is exactly what happened to me -- I always thought I would attend an elite school, and I ended up attending the local state university. My husband, on the other hand, went to a very exclusive and respected engineering college.

I think there are plusses and minuses to either side. If I had gone to a private school, I would have exited with six figures of debt. However, you're right about the community--it is different, at least integrated over the whole.

However, some of my husband's classmates are ridiculously sheltered and ignorant, having no concept of intellectual, class, or cultural diversity. If you went to Harvard or Yale, you'd be chumming up with a bunch of libertopians who honestly believe that poor people choose to be poor. Elite colleges are really monocultures, and monocultures have a tendency to produce weird biases in thinking.

Also, don't forget how much wealth factors into elite school attendance. They're not all die-hard intellectuals there--many are attending because Dad did and it's family tradition.

Advice: I dealt with it by building challenges for myself and cultivating friendships with smart people. It doesn't matter what the average IQ of the whole school is... what matters is who you choose to spend time with.
posted by amberwb at 10:34 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, you would be surprised how often the big football school is actually THE BEST PLACE to study a particular subject. Football schools also tend to be big research universities.
posted by amberwb at 10:36 PM on September 15, 2010 [16 favorites]

The social experience? You've got to be kidding. Trust me, there's boneheads at every college in the world. Don't waste another second of your life imaging that you'd be so much better off if only you were discussing Dante with like-minded peers, in New Haven or Cambridge.

You can find interesting, worthwhile, smart, curious fascinating people all around you. Take off the Ivy-wreathed shades, join a club, write for the paper (start your own), talk to people, get your head out of your butt etc. Seek out foreign students. Volunteer. Be in the world and of the world.

Your undergrad social experience has so little to do with the rest of your life. You're not missing out on anything fabulous that only happens to those who go to some other college. Stop fretting and start living.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:39 PM on September 15, 2010 [7 favorites]

You can always pursue graduate school. Honestly, are you sure you're not just romanticizing the Ivy League institutions you see in the movies? You seem sad about it because you're missing the "experience", less so that you will not be among people who have more in common with you. If you truly care about the latter, I'm sure you'll find peers who will indulge you eventually. If it is truly your interest to tell academic jokes and talk philosophy, you have your entire life to find people who have similar interests, because it is a core component of who you are, and people do not stop being nerdy and philosophical after undergrad. You can also look for more academic clubs now (I'm sure there are people like you even at your state college).

If you want it just for the experience you witnessed in the movies...well, I'd say stop crying about it. It's like you're crying that your life isn't a romantic comedy, or something similarly silly.
posted by lacedcoffee at 10:40 PM on September 15, 2010

proj is dead on. The Ivy Leagues very much have their own jock cultures (maybe having more to do with lacrosse than football, but still).

I'd look into clubs based on your personal interests. How about trying out for a play, or offering to work on the technical end? Volunteering to work as a docent in your school's art museum? Working on the newspaper or an art/literary journal? Your school should have some sort of press-release department with a monthly listing of visiting scholars giving lectures, or school-sponsored cultural events. Actually, these can be great -- maybe you aren't as well versed in what the visiting lecturer is talking about but hey, go and mingle. Maybe there'll be some wine and cheese afterwards, and you can meet like-minded undergraduates.

I mean really, if you want more intellectual hob-nobbery you won't find anything comparing to a visiting professor giving a talk on some obscure topic to ten or so other professors and their students.

The niches are there, you just need to get out there and find them. Developing relationships with a professor you like can help as well. The good ones should be fairly tuned in to what's going on with a university's cultural life. And another little secret -- professors really like it when you've read one of their books and have questions about it. They can be pretty intimidating giving a lecture to 100 students at once, but really (like any other profession) they love it when you take a personal interest in something they've done or written. Don't think of it as "sucking up" (although maybe it is a little) as you are making a connection with someone with whom you can interact as an inquisitive human being. Granted, some professors are pompous fucking blowhards but certainly not all of them.

Hang in there! It sounds to me like you might just be a bit stressed out in general. Having gone to graduate school at a "Big State U." it just takes some time to meet the right people. But definitely treat your school as a resource, not an obstacle. In many ways, a state school is going to have far more resources and opportunities than a private college and be grateful you aren't going into massive debt that you might not ever be able to pay off.
posted by bardic at 10:49 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I went to a Big Ten university where athletics is a huge part of the campus identity (even though our sports teams have been a little less than stellar the last 10 years). Still, I can't think of a single time my friends and I sat around and discussed the school sports teams. Plenty of conversations about religion, politics, philosophy, literature, science, etc. I didn't even have to try hard to find these people... most of them lived on my floor (granted, it is a favorite dorm with the engineers).

Point is, there's a group of people out there just like you.
posted by sbutler at 10:55 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Wondering which big state school you mean--these vary quite a bit. But at most of them, you can definitely find a viable group of people who are enthusiastically intellectual; and in fact its sort of enjoyable being at a school where not everyone is like that--less of a "monoculture" as amberwb put it.

If I were you the first thing I'd do is to try browsing the web, looking for what your school offers that might be of interest. Is there an honors program? Or an honors seminars within your major? Study abroad choices? Dorms that have special themes or programs? Or, how about student organizations that relate to your interests?

In addition to the web, you can talk to counselors or professors in areas that you find interesting. They'll have ideas for interesting things to do, and can also help if you do decide to transfer after a few years.

Generally, at a big state U, you'll need to take a more active role in seeking out the kind of education and companionship you're looking for. But that's healthy, in lots of ways.

Best of luck in finding what you need.
posted by washburn at 10:55 PM on September 15, 2010

a) You will find smart, like-minded, intellectually-inclined people to talk to. Don't worry - it's not going to be a vast sea of football-loving meatheads, plus you. It may not happen overnight but you'll find your people if you look for them.

b) I went to a fairly elite, non-Ivy, west coast private liberal arts school. I, too, thought I would stay up late into the night, sipping espresso, discussing poetry and philosophy. Ha! My classes were so time- and brain-consuming that when we didn't have to talk about class anymore, my friends and I listened to ridiculous music and watched The Daily Show and talked about random crap. My freshman year roomie transferred away because she got sucked into a social group that was all about clothes, parties, and boys, and she couldn't stand the shallowness. It baffled me because I knew all of these brilliant really-not-shallow people, but that was her experience. (Also, I talked to a girl who went to Harvard once, and she said she felt like everyone was so busy competing to have the best grades and to be involved in the most clubs and to have the coolest activities that she hardly had time to even have friends.)

Just saying, the experience is what you make of it, wherever you are. And don't assume that whatever default friends you make right off the bat are representative of the whole school. If they're not the friends you want, find others.
posted by mandanza at 11:00 PM on September 15, 2010

State colleges are far cheaper than whatever private school snubbed you. Let's face it, if you had gotten in, you would have only just gotten in and it's unlikely they would be just throwing scholarship money your way. Get in-state residency, take your 100-200 level requirements at a local community college, and graduate with a mere fraction of the debt you'd be incurring at Snub U., if any.

Big schools offer a far more diverse social landscape and far more ways to get involved in a common-interest group you like. If you must go to Snub U., or you'll just die, dear diary, you'll just die!, then wait until grad school to do it. 18-22 year olds are generally self-absorbed and shallow no matter where you go.
posted by holterbarbour at 11:03 PM on September 15, 2010

I worry perpetually that I'm not getting the social experience I would get at a school like Harvard or Yale; conversations are more likely to be about the big game than academic jokes or philosophy.

HAHAHAH. The Ivy League was great and all, but freshman year, about eight people admitted to me that they had expected so much more, but it just seemed to be full of legacy jocks who wanted to be investment bankers. (No offense to those who are.) Sure, those eight people who ended up my friends were smart, but no smarter than all my high school friends who went to state football schools.

Find friends you like and think are smart. Then be content. This sense that you're missing out on some entirely different world is all in your head. It is not the truth.
posted by ruff at 11:05 PM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, who says you're only limited to your classmates for finding intellectual friends? Shoot the shit with your professors every once in a while, they're human beings too. Hanging out with your professors for dinner or coffee is not like sleeping with them, and whatever weirdness you feel from palling around with them should disappear when the course is over. If it doesn't, then it should if highbrow friends is really your goal.
posted by holterbarbour at 11:15 PM on September 15, 2010

Is there an honors program? Are you in it? Do they have a dorm for the honors program? At my undergrad we called the "living-learning communities" and there was a whole (small) dorm just for the honors kids who wanted to live there. Plenty of late-night philosophical discussions to be had there. Point being, find a group of people who think like you and you won't miss the "experience."
posted by LokiBear at 11:29 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can't believe I forgot this one but: Do you have any interesting independent coffee shops to hang out at? In a college town, there are probably some music and poetry events that go on. Great place to meet people.
posted by bardic at 12:24 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I went to a large state school (albeit one with a good honors program) and then off to grad school with people who attended more prestigious institutions. The biggest difference that I could tell, talking to them, is that at an Ivy you get somewhat coddled in your academic pursuits. You have to do a thesis, you have to have an advisor, your classmates are quite intelligent, your classes are small. All of these things, however, are available at a big university as well, but you have to find and ask for them instead of having them handed to you. And since you already know that these are the sorts of things you want, you're in luck, because you can start looking for them from the get go. And the research at the average large state school, if you want to get involved in that, tends to be far more diverse than you'll find at the Ivies and frankly of a rather similar caliber (though often with less funding).
posted by Schismatic at 12:33 AM on September 16, 2010

Consider finding some grad students to hang out with. The US grad students I've talked to seem to.share the trait of being almost wilfully oblivious to their university's sports teams, mascots, etc., having gone there purely.based on the reputation of a particular lab or research department. They're also, generally, sufficiently passionate about research that the conversions you're talking about aren't too rare.

Also consider the societies or clubs run by your students' union- some of the subject-specific ones might.be good places to look, as might the "hobby" societies that select for people Who're willing to put a lot of work into their recreation, e.g. (musical) theatre, book or.film clubs, etc.
posted by metaBugs at 1:07 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Definitely start with the honors program. I was in a similar situation a number of years ago -- with added resentment against parents who would not cosign for huge loans, so I was stuck with the Big State School even though I'd been accepted at the School of My Dreams. I spent an entire year pissed off at the world for its unfairness.

Then the summer before sophomore year I worked as an honors orientation leader, started hanging out with a crowd of very smart people, and changed my entire college experience for the better. The clever, interesting kids are there where you are, believe me -- you just haven't found them yet. If the honors program isn't working for you socially, take some interesting and really demanding courses (Biochem! Classical Greek!), join some groups where like-minded peers might spend their time (orchestra!) and that might expand your social horizons.

My state school story has an additional happy postscript: I got a good solid honors BA with ZERO debt, and went to the expensive School of My Dreams for a PhD with six years of full funding -- i.e., I paid nothing and got a stipend besides. In the end, Big State School served me very well. Believe me, ten years down the road you will be very grateful not to have huge loan payments following you around when you want to do other things with your money.
posted by philokalia at 3:32 AM on September 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Elite institutions don't have students hanging out discussing Manichean ethics. I went to what is supposedly the most elite place in the Midwest (that isn't Chicago), and mostly, it was Heathers away from home. My reaction was to get the loudest exhaust possible on my old car, to offend the sensibilities of all the kids from Up East whose daddies bought them BMW M3s for their 18th birthdays.

My biggest regret in life is not having gone to a state school. Honestly.
posted by notsnot at 4:01 AM on September 16, 2010

Best answer: Let me give you some perspective from the other side. I spent four years at an upper-tier liberal arts school, studying a subject that the school wasn't particularly well known for. I had a great time, and spent my first year there congratulating myself for getting out of my tiny home town and not going to the state university like most of my high school classmates. I studied, I partied, I basked in how wonderful I was to be in this elite cadre of humanity.

It's now been five years since college graduation. I'm working at a job where none of my interviewers had heard of $TINY_LIBERAL_ARTS_SCHOOL, because it doesn't have a program that's particularly well known, and it's 400 miles west of here and enrolls less than 2000 students. I was on absolutely level footing with every other applicant who had gone to a local school at 1/5th the price tag. My transcript will never again be a contributing factor to my professional life--after that first job, all employers care about is previous employment. Meanwhile, since my family wasn't at all wealthy and liberal arts schools basically don't do academic scholarships, I have a $400/month student loan payment for the debt I racked up there in four years. $400 a month is the difference between a $150K house and a $200K house, or the difference between a 6-year-old car and a new car. It's a non-trivial sum of money, which I am paying for what was essentially a luxury that I never got to enjoy after graduating, and which I would be stuck paying for even if I were to declare bankruptcy tomorrow. And that number is absolutely dwarfed by a lot of people I know who went to the same program. If I hadn't gotten lucky and bluffed my way through the financial aid office during my first month there, that figure could easily be $800 or $1000 a month.

My wife, on the other hand, went to a state school in the state she grew up in. There is absolutely, flat-out no way my education was any better than hers. Our stories of undergraduate shenanigans are exactly the same--my 'stimulating intellectual discussions' were the same ones she had, our professors had the same pedigree, and my horror stories and tales of freshman hijinks are exactly the same as hers. The differences? My classes had fewer people in them, and she had a better football team to root for. And she didn't pay a nickel for her four years there.

I guess what I'm saying is, whatever glory you would feel from attending an elite school would evaporate almost instantly after graduation, and in most cases, you'd be stuck paying for it for at least the next ten years. Long-term, the state school is probably the better choice, and is definitely the better investment.
posted by Mayor West at 5:26 AM on September 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

conversations are more likely to be about the big game than academic jokes or philosophy. I've found friends in varying capacities, but I still feel like I'm missing a critical component of undergraduate life

The thing you think you're missing is only a critical component of undergraduate life for characters on poorly-developed television shows and movies.

It's also the case that if your parents talk about how they stayed up late talking about philosophy, what they likely meant in many cases is that they got high and stayed up very late arguing about whether Jesus could microwave a burrito that was so hot that not even He could eat it, or that they got into heated arguments about whether Wedge Antilles or Biggs Darklighter was the bigger badass. (Biggs, because Wedge has zero stachepower and Biggs has 327 stachepower.)

I have to assume that if people are attending for its football, you're probably at a flagship state university somewhere. And flagship state universities are almost always fine places to be, with absolutely every opportunity for an excellent undergraduate experience. If you live on or near campus in the company of other students, you're getting the social experience.

About the only social experience you won't get at a big state U that you'd get at an Ivy is a chance to hobnob and network with national elites. But at most state universities, you're going to get a chance to hobnob and network with future state elites -- yes, that beefy guy doing the beer bong might well be smarter than you think and turn out to be a future Agriculture Commissioner or be partnered in a big state law firm or whatever. If you're planning or expecting to keep living in your home state, attending one of your flagship state universities can give very good connections, potentially better than an Ivy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:36 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I went to a Large State School. I did not pal around with most of my professors. I did not have small classes where I was guided to enlightenment by fellow scholars.

I learned to motivate and guide myself through research, sometimes alone, and sometimes in a group of like-minded people. Develop this and you can graduate and get paid to keep studying for the rest of your life.

I bet you have an incredible library and excellent research mentors available if you take the first few steps. Get moving.
posted by Jorus at 5:46 AM on September 16, 2010

"I worry perpetually that I'm not getting the social experience I would get at a school like Harvard or Yale; conversations are more likely to be about the big game than academic jokes or philosophy. "

You're romanticizing. I went to elite private universities, for both college and grad school, top-of-the-charts places, and I can count on one hand how often I stayed up talking about philosophy or (god forbid!) making academic jokes. Far, far more often we talked about sports, both were very "jocky" places. And I'm a big giant nerd, not a jock in the least. I still talked far, far more about football (NFL and college both) than about philosophy. We argued more heatedly about the stupidity of the BCS than about ethics. When it came to "academic" discussion, which it rarely did, it was mostly about politics, not dead white philosophers. And generally I believe we were substantially more drunk than the students at Flagship State (or at least the Flagship States around me, I don't know about nationwide) ... and I have seen statistics to back that up, relating to binge drinking culture on my campuses specifically and at elite private universities in general.

I suspect if you went to Harvard or Yale you'd be crying because you were surrounded by a bunch of people arguing about football instead of philosophy, only now it's Ivy League football (which nobody who's not in the Ivy League gives a shit about; at least normal people CARE about Big Ten football or whatever), they're binge drinking, and you're paying $45,000 a year to discuss football with drunk people.

I would also like to point out that I teach college philosophy part time. And I still didn't stay up late talking about philosophy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:01 AM on September 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I went to an Ivy and now work at a state university much like yours, and I agree that you're romanticizing the Ivy experience. Some percentage of Ivy League students are there because they're legacy admits who get in basically as an entitlement, but most other students are there because they've spent their whole lives being the smartest, hardest-working person in every room they've ever set foot in. Then they finally achieve their life's dream, they arrive at the Ivy League, and they are confronted with the fact that for the first time in their lives they are extremely non-special. They are not the smartest person in the room. Everyone else works just as hard. There's a huge collective meltdown the first year as everyone adjusts to not being the biggest fish in their pond and tries to figure out what makes life worth living when they're not constantly being told how wonderful and unique and awesome they are. It's incredibly traumatic to observe, even if you quickly resign yourself to your relative mediocrity. Ivy League students are often too busy trying to reconstruct their shattered egos to spend much time making witty jokes about philosophy. I remember people spending a lot more time angsting about their econ grades than sitting around talking about Big Ideas.

So anyway...

Where are you hanging out? There are probably hangouts in your town that are filled with undergrads and separate hangouts that are filled with grad students. Consider going to the grad student places. I agree about attending talks given by professors, literary readings (if that's what you're into), and things like that. First of all, those things will be interesting. Second of all, the grad students will be there, and they'll start to recognize you. Is there a bar in your town that broadcasts UK soccer games? If so, there will probably be an interesting crowd there. If you get out of the undergrad ghetto, college towns are full of interesting people and really cool institutions.
posted by craichead at 6:24 AM on September 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

conversations are more likely to be about the big game than academic jokes or philosophy.

I went to Dartmouth and there were plenty of people who were happy to do nothing but talk about the big game, rush, how drunk they got on Wednesday (house meeting night) and how many times they booted, and many other non-academic subjects. Lots and lots and lots of people. I didn't find my niche until sophomore year.

I had a friend in college who did an exchange term at U Michigan, and she loved it. It was umpteen times bigger than Dartmouth, which meant - to her, at least - that it was much less incestuous and you didn't feel like you were all living in each other's pockets all the time. She was fairly outgoing, so YMMV, but she found it pretty easy to find a bunch of different groups of people to hang out with because there were so many people to choose from.

Nthing the suggestion that you investigate your university's honor program. And there are academic clubs at your school. Find them. Join them.

Non-academic clubs can be a source as well - a lot of the people I knew in the Outing Club learned a lot about and taught other people about environmental issues, wildlife biology, geology, etc.
posted by rtha at 6:39 AM on September 16, 2010

I'm a grad student at an Ivy (though not Harvard or Yale), and want to add another voice to the chorus saying "You're romanticizing." I live near all the frats and sororities, and thus can confirm that there are many, many students at Ivy League schools who like to get drunk and talk about football. Sometimes, they like to do this until 3AM on a Tuesday.

You've been given a lot of great advice and encouragement about how to find the smart, interesting, engaged people at your school, but here's another, further-looking point. You're probably the kind of person who is going to want to have smart, interesting, engaged people around you for the rest of your life, so the skills you gain in finding them in a less than ideal environment are going to be one of the most valuable things you learn in college. If you can pick the philosophy nerds out of the wrestling team (and I bet there's one on the wrestling team), you're set, because you'll be able to find the one in your office, or figure out how to strike up a conversation with the bartender who is always reading something interesting. It can be much harder to find like-minded friends after college, and you're preparing yourself well for this challenge.
posted by dizziest at 7:22 AM on September 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I cannot agree more strongly with Mayor West. Unless you're going to live in a major city (DC, Chicago, NYC), attend grad school, or unless you're picking a non-liberal arts major, you may have actually regretted attending an "elite" school.

I attended one of the top 5 public schools in the country, although I was out of state so my tuition bill was still considerable. I majored in English & Hispanic Studies. I'd always wanted to move back to my hometown (Louisville, KY), so I did that right after college. The school I attended has never once mattered - all that's mattered is my degree, which is more or less an expensive piece of paper in this town. Many of the people I work with got their jobs through connections they made at the large, state schools in Kentucky - UK, U of L, or WKU. It's been difficult for me to find a challenging job and difficult for me to advance in the job I currently have because I have a liberal arts degree from a school no one's heard of, and I went out of state so I didn't make any useful connections while in school.

This isn't all just meaningless bitching. My point is that I made the wrong choice of where to attend school, given my personal goals & situation. I never wanted to move to a big city, go to grad school, or become an English teacher or professor. I just wanted to move back home, be close to family, and with any luck, find something interesting and challenging to do. I would have been much better off at a large, state school where I could have saved money and made useful connections. The elite, Ivy League schools are not necessarily the best choice for all situations. The "prestige" of attending a top school has been worthless. I've gotten some level of personal satisfaction from knowing that I graduated from such a university, but it's been outweighed by my frustration and regret at making a poor choice.
posted by pecanpies at 7:38 AM on September 16, 2010

The bigger the school, the more likely it is to have all possible social niches, with large enough populations to be self-sustaining.

I came at this from the opposite direction as you: I had gone to a tiny private high school, and wanted to go to a big state university, primarily for social reasons. So my perspective is obviously different. Suffice it to say that it worked out well for me. I found a solid group of friends, activities that I was interested in, and so on. I didn't interact with the jock culture or the frat culture or any other subcultures I didn't want to, and the school was big enough that I didn't need to.
posted by adamrice at 8:01 AM on September 16, 2010

I felt the same way until I joined an undergraduate debate league that put me in constant contact with hundreds of students from all kinds of different schools, all of whom shared certain interests and character traits with me (argumentative, competitive, etc.). Perhaps you can find an activity that, like debate, brings you together with students from other schools, which will get you out of your school's culture bubble and perhaps help you find people with whom you have more in common.
posted by prefpara at 8:33 AM on September 16, 2010

I work at a school that might be an Ivy League school (cough cough) and I can tell you that the percentage of boneheads among the students is only slightly lower than the percentage amongst the general population. There's a lot of legacy admissions going on. and political admissions. And a lot of admissions because your parents donated a shit tonne of money.

Plus, like dizziest said, if you can figure out how to find friends now in a school population that better resembles the general population, you'll be much better off in your social future. If the lack of Dead Poets Society chitchat has you crying now, I can only imagine the complete and total meltdown you'll have upon being released to the real world if you don't learn these skills now. It would make a great black comedy for the rest of us. (Don't worry, you'll find your niche and look back on this question and laugh, probably in a only a year.)
posted by WeekendJen at 8:37 AM on September 16, 2010

I went to a prestigious private university. I certainly had access to some incredible resources, and I enjoyed my time there. But my social life? I learned to avoid people who dropped references to philosophy or academic jokes in casual conversations. They are utterly obnoxious and, generally, not as smart as they think. Their forced, "Oh, I was up too late last night reading Chaucer for fun! Because I'm a nerd! HA HA HA" really meant, "Oh, I have no idea how to have an adult conversation in which I express interest in your life, so I will tell you how smart I am! HA HA HA"

I enjoyed small class discussions led by smart faculty about classics or interesting research. Sometimes those conversations would spill out into the hallway. That was neat. And I might mention to my roommate that she should really consider taking that class because we read XYZ and Prof. Smith was amazing. But when I was out with friends on the weekend, or hanging out at my apartment with my roommate? We talked about the news, or Grey's Anatomy, or "that kid" in our literature class (you know, the one who won't shut up about what Shakespeare "was trying to say").

You may have large lecture classes or smaller classes led by grad students, and that may not facilitate the kind of thrilling group discussion that my classes sometimes had (although sometimes it was seven students and a distinguished faculty member and all kinds of awkward because no one had anything to say). So, create a similar experience for yourself with the resources you have. Join a club or study group that interests you and discuss your favorite philosophers or whatever else during those group meetings. Attend visiting scholars' lectures--get a group of people together to attend one and have a beer afterward.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:38 AM on September 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I was in a similar position to yours -- I'd planned to attend a fancy Ivy League school but due to familial collapse, I had to go to the big state school I hadn't even applied to at the last minute, and I was a bitter monkey.

What helped was finding my people -- smart folks who for whatever reason wound up at the big state (athletics obsessed) school too. We had those deep-seeming late-night discussions about politics and philosophy and the meaning of the universe. I got involved in student government and dj-ed at the college radio station and took weird language classes and worked weird jobs and took advantage of the insane number of opportunities a big state school has that a little private school doesn't. (If you're not sure about what's out there, you can meet with your academic advisor.) If you try enough stuff, you'll find your people. If you give off the air that you're Better Than All This, you won't find your people.

After going to a fancy grad school, I kind of missed the unpretentiousness of my undergrad. I never realized how many people enjoy the sound of their own voices.
posted by *s at 8:52 AM on September 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I went to a school that everyone hates because we keep blowing it at the national title game (and I really think that if our special teams can get it together we have a real shot this year.)

While there, I watched the 2000 presidential debates at a conference table with John Glenn, was sponsored to go to the National Conference for Undergraduate Research, and did a bit of promo work for our first electric racing car (way before it broke world records, but still.) I read names at 2am in the middle of campus for Yom Ha'Shoah and held cards over my head that (with 500 other people) spelled stuff out that NBC swore they'd actually put on TV this time. I got to stand at field level when we beat really good teams in football. I got to argue about philosophy with an instructor on loan from the CIA who had no sense of how much reading undergraduates will put up with.

The thing is, I really wanted to go to St. John's in Annapolis. They were My People, except for the smoking and the drinking. I spent too much of my 16-25 years feeling sorry for myself and my lost chances. I invite you to get the "poor me" stuff out of your system ASAP; I could have done much cooler stuff if I'd lived in the moment instead of moping.
posted by SMPA at 9:19 AM on September 16, 2010

I learned to avoid people who dropped references to philosophy or academic jokes in casual conversations. They are utterly obnoxious and, generally, not as smart as they think.

Quoted for truth. I wanted to say what Meg Murray said, but I forgot AND she said it better than I would have, because clearly she's smarter than I. And probably reads Chaucer for fun. ;)

One guy I can thing of at Elite Undergrad who started philosophy discussions all the time was a) a Douchey McDoucherson who was mostly interested in scoring points for his awesomeness and took advantage of others earnestness in conversation to score points off them with his brilliance (as many of this sort were; they were just pretentious snobs who knew less than they thought they did) and b) joined a cult junior year because they members "recognized his brilliance." As a recruiting tactic, obviously, but he was too dumb to realize it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:27 AM on September 16, 2010

I'm curious, why did you "fail" to transfer? What year are you? You aren't on a set track, you can try and transfer for the spring, for next fall, next spring, etc... and I've heard (although I might be wrong) that it's a hell of a lot easier to transfer into these elite colleges than it is to get accepted in the first place, especially if you do well at your state school. There are also a lot of them, if you have the money, and not getting into one in particular isn't the end of the world.

If you end up hating your state school - and I doubt you will - there's no reason to suffer for the next three years. You have the power either to (a) not mope and enjoy your state school, or (b) move to another college - even if you're about to graduate.

SMPA - what happened to St. John's for you? (I graduated from the Santa Fe campus)
posted by ke rose ne at 5:16 PM on September 16, 2010

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