Why Stanford Is Not The Answer

We’re Nikhil and Sanjay, recent grads from Stanford. We get a lot of questions about how we got in, why we chose to go there, and whether the experience was worth it. For a while, we didn’t know what to say.

So we contemplated until the end of time.

And then we wrote a manifesto.

Dreaming of Stanford tackles the hairy questions of high school, college, and life. You’ll find the Foreword below and the remaining chapters here.

On a lazy autumn Sunday, Nikhil received a call from a family friend.

“Hey Nikhil, I’m applying to Stanford. Any tips?”

“Hey dude! It’s been a while. Tell me about your yourself. What are you interested in? What keeps you busy outside of school?”

“Well, I like basketball… and I worked at a startup last summer.”

“Okay, how was the startup experience?”

“It was alright, just something my dad set me up with.”

After receiving a few more lackadaisical responses, Nikhil proceeded to explain that a college application yearns for a cohesive theme, which can be pretty much anything. The more genuine your voice, the better.

The conversation was quick and compulsory. The kid was simply following instructions: “Apply to Stanford. Call the family friend who got in.” He didn’t know what he wanted or why he was applying. After the call was over, Nikhil felt frustrated. He didn’t fault the kid for not having a dream in mind — plenty of high schoolers don’t — but he knew that kids everywhere were just like his family friend, going through the motions while chasing some externally-defined notions of success.

Meanwhile, in the depths of East Coast suburbia, Sanjay was home for break. He was ready to relax, eat copious amounts of food, and survive a deluge of well-intentioned moms and dads asking him about his time at the almighty Stanford. Never quite the chatterbox, he would usually mutter something about classes taking a lot of time or about his struggle to find a job.

And that was hopefully the end of things. But god forbid they ask about getting into Stanford. This was an uncomfortable topic for Sanjay, mostly because he had no idea why the hell he got in.¹ “But what SAT score did you get? Oh, 2320? Hey, hey son! Get over here — bow down — over 2300 on his SAT!” Then they would dutifully note his extracurriculars and hear whatever they wanted to hear about hard work, drive, and determination.

Here’s what he wished he could tell them, if only he had the courage: Stanford was a nice place, but in no way was it the be-all, end-all of academic life.

“No,” the parents would have said, “Oh no, no. Do you mean to say that getting into college is not heaven?” In fact, there were times over the last four years when Sanjay was convinced that attending a state school back home would have saved him $250K and given him most of the same opportunities he had received at Stanford. Why were these parents so certain that elite colleges were the goal?

Like clockwork, high schools churn out identical, college-worshipping students by the truckload. They spend their waking hours molding themselves into what they believe colleges want. They are pushed into sanitized, application-ready extracurriculars and are ultimately driven into a career that doesn’t excite them. Forget the rat race as you know it — this is a race toward rotten cheese.

And it’s not that these kids burn out permanently. But it ends up taking personal crises and a lot of decisive action to become people they respect. They lose valuable time not living the lives they really want. We’ve seen this process unfold with each and every one of our friends, in high school as well as college. Now we’re sharing the wisdom we wish we once had.

Maybe you’re an ambitious kid. You’ve never verbalized the extent of your ambition to yourself, but you’ve worked hard so far and success matters to you.

Maybe you’re the child of first-generation immigrant parents. You feel unspoken expectations chasing you wherever you go.

Maybe you’re the latest model in a long line of native-born bankers, doctors, or something-or-others, and the standard is that you at least meet standards.

Maybe you’re a degenerate, a social heathen who can’t chug along with the status quo any longer.

Or maybe you’re just a normal kid looking for some practical answers to some ordinary questions:

“How do I do high school?”
“How do I do college?”
“What’s the point of school?”
“Should I start drinking coffee?”

We’ll give you all guidance where we can, but before doing so, it’s equally important to recognize who we are: We are not your parents, we are not your teachers, and we are not your siblings. We’re just two overthinking 22-year-olds who recently graduated from Stanford. We set out to forge our own happiness, success, and virtue, and in the process we’ve relentlessly unpacked our lives for answers.

If you’re curious why you should do school or how to maximize your years of schooling, keep an open mind and continue reading. We don’t have formulas for getting you into college or rules for success that you can copy and paste. What we can offer you is a series of questions and references to help you conclude things about your own life.

After reading this manifesto, you should arrive at a deep understanding: For maybe the first time in your waking existence, you control the direction of your actions, and more broadly, your life.

Full manifesto here!

[1] Sanjay has some idea why.


Why Stanford Is Not The Answer was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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