On Friday, I watched Everything Everywhere All At Once, a movie where a woman gets to experience many of the other universes that might’ve appeared had she made a different decision somewhere in her life. In one universe, she decides not to follow her first love to America; instead, she becomes a kung fu master, living a glamorous life replete with red-carpet photoshoots and limousine rides. In another universe, she is a sign-spinner on a street corner. In other universes, she’s a teppanyaki chef, a rock on a sandy mountain ledge, a lesbian with hot dogs for fingers.
My younger brother, Kyler, will probably never become a rock or a kung fu artist, but still, he currently faces a decision of his own. He’s a high school senior choosing between Harvard and Stanford. And if you’re reading this, perhaps you are making an agonizing decision of your own, too.
Several weeks ago, Kyler came to Cambridge for Visitas, Harvard’s visiting weekend for admitted high school seniors. He stayed with me for one night before crashing with his Harvard host. I kept worrying about him. Our mother had also come along, so I directed all my worry at her, peppering her with questions that thinly concealed my stress.
“Do you think he was able to find his way out of the building?” My house is a confusing maze of stairs and winding hallways. “What if he accidentally opens the wrong door and goes inside someone’s bedroom?”
“Do you think he’ll be okay taking the T?” The T being Boston’s subway system, which he used to get from MIT to Harvard. “What if he gets lost?”
My concerns were so unnecessary. When I was a high school senior, I had visited MIT by myself for CPW, and it had been totally fine. But I couldn’t help but worry. Perhaps in my mind, Kyler was still twelve years old, immortalized as the kid he’d been when I left home for college.
I used to measure his height through its relativity to my own. When he was first able to walk, he came up to my hips; then he came up to my rib cage, then my armpits. I’m not sure when he finally outgrew me, but now he is much taller than I am.
This blog post was supposed to be about giving my brother advice about which school to choose, but I’m not sure what advice I can give. Here we are, in this universe where I chose MIT. I love MIT in a bone-deep, ferocious sense that is probably uncool for an upperclassman, but I’m okay with being uncool. I will probably never have hot dogs for fingers or perform knife flourishes for restaurant customers, but I know I made the right decision all those years ago.
Not everyone gets lucky with the choices they make. There was an older blogger who had been accepted to Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. She chose Harvard, partially due to a boy she met during Visitas, whom she fell in love with. Unfortunately, they broke up during her junior year of college. Near the end of her time at Harvard, she wondered on her blog if she had made the right decision: after all, MIT had been her first choice originally, and Stanford had beautiful weather and people seemed much happier there. After graduation, instead of pursuing medical school like she had dreamed of, she accepted a job at a prestigious consulting firm, a place where many of her peers at Harvard also worked. She told me she was going to use the consulting firm’s exit options to attend medical school, but I recently checked her LinkedIn and she is now a strategy and marketing consultant at a different company.
If she had chosen a different school, would she have had a better outcome? How can we even compare outcomes, like, would it be better to be in crippling student debt as a med student or to receive a high salary as a consultant? And who is to say that her interests didn’t bend into a different path, and she is truly much happier now? I am not her, so I cannot make these judgments.
My best friend from high school dreamed of MIT, but he was waitlisted here. He attended Princeton instead. He majored in East Asian Studies there and now he’s doing a PhD in number theory at UCLA. Recently, he told me that he was glad he didn’t get in here, because our math department is very toxic sometimes and he would’ve felt pigeonholed into an identity he’d carved back in high school instead of branching out to explore other interests.
Petey has written many things, much better than I can, about how we make and destroy our future selves every second of the day, how we can only really become ourselves. Who do you want to become? Which school will cultivate skills and values in you that are congruent with your current beliefs? But then again, how certain are you in your current beliefs?
A lot of advice about choosing schools seems obvious. Location matters, and the quality of academic resources is important, and financial aid is a significant concern for most students. But Kyler likes both Cambridge and Palo Alto. Both Harvard and Stanford have incredible academic programs. He was fortunate enough to receive an outside merit scholarship that means his undergraduate education will be free.
The deeper consideration, I think, is about how a school might shape a student. There are certain values that each school cultivates more strongly in their students. An example: MIT has pushed me to work much, much harder academically than I ever did in high school. I’m terrible at physics, but at MIT, I didn’t have much choice besides to take two semesters of physics, as it is a graduation requirement. It was a struggle and probably I got Cs in both classes, although they are Ps on my transcript.
I cross-registered for some classes at a different university and was surprised by how easy the grading was: I got As on every assignment and received little critical feedback. And I’m sure that many classes at this other school are difficult, but I also got the feeling that, if I wanted to, I could slip through that school without exerting much effort at all.
I didn’t see the value of hard work until I came here. Some days I still find it immensely difficult to gather motivation to do anything besides lie in bed and look at memes, but some days I actually grind a problem set, and I actually care.
No axis of the universe has actually shifted due to my efforts; nobody’s life besides my own has improved. I don’t even plan on applying to graduate programs, at least not ones where my GPA is particularly important, so my hard work doesn’t even matter much for my own career trajectory. I know all that. But I finally understand something that many adults in my adolescent life, from my parents to my teachers, had tried to reinforce over and over to no avail: that we only get this small pocket of time on earth, that we move through each minute in one irreversible direction, and I want to spend these few precious years actually trying. The value of hard work isn’t in receiving full marks, or a high GPA, or anything else extrinsic. But I owe myself my very best.
That’s a lesson I could’ve possibly learned at another school. But MIT is particularly difficult to fake one’s way through. I suspect that, at another institution, I would’ve kept avoiding the hard work.
To be honest, I wasn’t that excited to attend MIT, and I mostly chose it because it was better than my other options. I confess, perhaps I simply felt pressured to attend the most prestigious university I’d been admitted to. I wanted to be seen as an MIT person. There were other deciding factors, of course, but this is the unshakeable, undeniable truth underpinning every other consideration: that I wanted to move through the rest of my life with that social capital, the perception automatically bestowed upon those who wear brass rats.
I wasn’t so self-aware at age seventeen that I could’ve evaluated my own shortcomings and selected an institution based on how I should grow. I got lucky, though. MIT turned out to be exactly the school I needed.
Kyler’s visiting Stanford now. He hasn’t asked me for advice on where to choose, and he knows himself best; he’s fully capable of reflecting upon his own aspirations and selecting the best place that will allow him to thrive.
After Visitas, he excitedly told me about everyone he had met, all the amazing kids who could be his classmates if he wanted. The bittersweet realization struck me: our journeys were diverging. Kyler went to the same high school as I did, so I had given him advice on what classes to take, which teachers were lenient graders, how to avoid prerequisites. I had helped him revise his college applications. But now he was entering a world I knew little about. I couldn’t be his lighthouse anymore, guiding him through the dark.
Sometimes, I wish I could go back and do it all again. I would be a better older sister if given another chance. I would be more patient, more generous, more compassionate. I was so young, I made so many mistakes, I didn’t realize that the amount of time we’ll ever spend in each other’s presence goes by so quickly and now it is already more than halfway, if not three-fourths, gone.
But we only have this life, don’t we? Time flows only forward. How lucky we are to exist together in this universe, to be the collective result of every decision made by those who came before us, to define the unknown for ourselves through every step we take.