The opportunity to show ourselves as human is a privilege not all students share
Unlike the educational systems in many countries, the United States strongly believes in second chances. There’s not one defining exam a teenager must take. Students need not choose their career goals in high school. And in the instance that a student takes a wrong turn, makes a bad choice or has a hard year, the consequences are not life-changing. There’s freedom to change and evolve as human beings, a chance for redemption and rewards for getting back on one’s feet. That is something uniquely American.
The system that we partake in is mostly qualitative. To get into degree programs (surprisingly at both the undergraduate and graduate levels), most students must submit multiple pieces of information, including GPA, standardized test scores and essays. They also look at recommendation letters from professors and supervisors. No student is a number — they’re fleshed out humans on paper. This is an incredibly qualitative system, which ideally should reduce pressure on students. But it doesn’t.
Sadly, when it comes down to it, people like numbers — even in the activities they enjoy. They want to know how many experiences they should write about, how long they should stay with an opportunity, the number of awards they should receive to be considered accomplished. Suddenly this qualitative system has become quantitative again. There’s the desperation to do more, more, more — and what was made to make students look three-dimensional on paper pathetically backfires.
Whether we like it or not, fellow students who have been successful in their future pursuits set the bar for “magic numbers.” While many students realize early on that there isn’t one fixed way to achieve a similar goal, others quickly try to make a checklist of experiences and start ticking them off the list item by item. Two years in a lab, three papers, four years in a club — the numbers quickly seep back into the lexicons of the ambitious, whether they have perspective or not.
There’s no clear solution. In an ideal world, students would pursue only the things they are passionate about, giving their time only to activities that provide them with purpose and enjoyment. But the world is not ideal, and we all know at least one person who doesn’t want to be where they are or doing what they’re doing — such is life. At the same time, it’s not fair to claim numbers are the cause for the increasing competition to perform outside the classroom. As American as our educational system is, it’s also intrinsically capitalistic. The best and most talented rise to the top, and the rest follow suit.
But competition need not be sour.
“Knowing I have competition strongly motivates me to do my best work,” said Sara Vacanti, a third-year chemical engineering major. “I enjoy working with my peers, and UC Davis is a great environment for teamwork — everyone is rising to meet the challenge.”
This mindset is why our education system chose to be qualitative in the first place. “Rising to the challenge” is not for everyone, but “rising” is. The goal is to have resilient people in the workforce and in the community. Competition is but a springboard. And that’s why a qualitative language matters. It’s not who has risen to the challenge in the past, but who is most likely to rise to the challenge in the future.
Very rarely can one claim that the system is trying to give us the best shot — but the qualitative nature of the American education system is trying to do just that. Allowing us the opportunity to show ourselves as humans is a privilege, and the frantic need to put numbers into the equation shows how dire competition in our society has become. As students, we must step back and realize that this is our chance to be passionate and involve ourselves in what makes us happy. Because if one dares to claim they are more than their GPA, they must also have strong conviction about what they would like to define them.
Written by: Samvardhini Sridharan — firstname.lastname@example.org
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