There have been few things in my life that I've wanted as bad as admission into an Ivy League school. Many students, especially children of immigrants (like me), conflate the American dream with going to an Ivy. At 17, I was averaging two all-nighters a week, kept alive on a depraved cocktail of Adderall, Percocet, and coffee. The only light at the end of my tunnel was visions of the "Congratulations!" letter from Columbia University, my dream school.
On average, the Ivies accept about 8 percent of applicants. I still remember the shock I felt when I got into Columbia. In my freshman orientation program, we had a discussion about what it meant to attend an Ivy. The greatest artists, politicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs had walked through these halls. "We're the elite," one girl said. "We're not like other people." She pointed to the passersby outside, visible through the barred windows. "We're going to change the world."That was the fall of 2012. Now I'm finishing up my junior year at Columbia and I can't wait to get the hell out of here. Ivy League schools are supposed to be hard, but even back then, I couldn't have imagined the world I was stepping into: a place of unimaginable wealth, privilege, cruelty, pressure, and stress. My first night at Columbia, a girl jumped out of her window. I saw the blood on the pavement. Depression is normal, but here, it's the norm.Things at an Ivy League school are not what they seem to be. If you're one of the few who've been chosen to go to an Ivy League school this fall, here's what you're in for. And if you're not, maybe you should be thankful for that.
There's a myth that you have to be interesting and hard-working to get into an Ivy League school. I was disappointed to find out otherwise. Certainly, there are some amazing people, but you also have kids who would attend an Ivy no matter what—the children of Fortune 500 CEOs, movie stars, Middle Eastern royalty. There have been multiple pieces recently exposing Ivy League admissions as " a sham" and "rigged in favor of the privileged," and I've even overhead students laughing and saying stuff like, "I definitely wouldn't be here if my dad didn't donate." So, to all the kids who came from public schools, who worked hard, and didn't get in anywhere—that's who took your spot.I'm still appalled at how shallow some of my classmates are. How the fuck did you get in? I wonder. But it makes sense. A lot of kids turn out to be interesting only on paper. Sure, they might have lived in four different countries and traveled to 20 more, but those experiences were bought.
THE PEOPLE AT COLUMBIA SUCK
My third night at Columbia, I found some kids to smoke with. Maybe they'll be cool, I thought. I rolled a blunt, which none of them had ever smoked before. As I took the first inhale, someone said, "OK, so as we smoke weed… go around the circle and say whether or not you believe in God, and why." They all got into it and started arguing, and I just shook my head. Why can't you guys fucking do anything naturally?
Trust me, Ivy League kids are just as confused as everyone else. Figuring yourself out often means taking a step back, but Ivies are a world where you have to keep moving forward no matter what. These are not places where you can kick back and "find yourself" in four years, because if you stop moving for one second, then you've already fallen behind.If you graduate from an Ivy and don't have a lucrative job waiting for you, it's shameful. So many students disregard passion, disregard their own interest and hobbies—things you can't list on a résumé—and get ground up and spat out with a suit, a smile, and a hollow inside. This is the reason why the most popular major at Ivies is financial economics—even at Brown, the school known for making grades optional, has students flocking to study the "dismal science" so they can cash in upon graduation.I've seen kids who came in as incredibly talented musicians give up and go into finance. I've seen kids who wanted to be astronauts give up and go into finance. At Ivies, dreams take a backseat to prestige and stability.
THE CULTURE OF FAKENESS
Very few people want others to succeed, especially in classes that are graded on a curve, where everyone can't get an A. The cutthroat environment breeds a sense of competition, not collaboration. During my freshman year, my suitemate vented about her friend. "I really hope he doesn't get a good grade, he didn't study as hard as me," she said. "But isn't that like your best friend?" I said. She stared at me and replied, "So what?"A lot of people get discouraged by how unfriendly people are here, when in reality, everyone is just insecure. Each year's crop of Ivy League students includes hundreds of valedictorians, all-state jazz musicians, spoken-word poets, Science Olympiad winners, nonprofit founders. Many of them were treated like gods in high school and have never had to deal with not being the brightest one in the room.Then they get to an Ivy League like Columbia and realize there are thousands of other kids like them. Not just like them but better than them. They're used to being big fish, but someone has to be the small fish here. And small fish get eaten.Everything is a competition. You have to apply to join clubs. You have to apply to do nonprofit work. You have to apply to get dinner with the speaker on campus. And so many kids get rejected, who've never been rejected before. It's hard for them to handle.Here's where the Ivy League's relationship with finance comes in. Once this environment crushes you and makes you realize that achieving your dreams is going to require a lot more rejection than you're used to, Wall Street swoops in. Not every Ivy has this relationship with Wall Street, but the phenomenon of banks and financial firms preying on vulnerable, intelligent students is well documented. "Here," they say. "Here's money and stability and prestige, all the things you deserve, because you're a straight-A student who made all the right choices." The only thing you don't get from that is honor.
CLASSMATES ARE YOUR COMPETITION, NOT YOUR FRIENDS
Everyone seemingly has their shit together and yet is emotionally drowning under the surface. Students race to juggle more classes, internships, and clubs than other people. There's a culture of quantitative comparison of how few hours of sleep you got, of how many assignments you have to do that night. And in reality, none of it matters, but people sacrifice their mental health to be king of that pile of bones.In the morning, you can see people brushing their teeth in the library, finishing their all-nighter. On weekend nights, the library holds entire rooms of sleeping people. I see my classmates trembling from the stress. I've witnessed kids get on their knees and cover their ears, screaming about a late paper. Girls who were once beautiful look terrible from lack of sleep, poor diet, and way too much caffeine. Whenever I ask people how they are, I rarely get "good." I get a halfhearted hand wave and a look behind tired eyes. "I'm holding on." This issue of lack of sleep isn't just a problem at Columbia—according to a 2012 survey of undergrads, 58 percent of Princeton students only feel rested three days a week or less.
THE PRESSURE IS INTENSE
So many awful things happen here. Columbia University has a record of covering up sexual assault (the "Mattress Girl" performance piece happened here). Being poor at an Ivy League is a humiliating experience, as has been documented in the press lately. Kids strangle themselves with plastic bags during finals week. It's fucked up and often feels like the school doesn't care about you, the students don't care about you—no one cares about you.
Me, I just try to stay in my own lane and not bother anyone. I have a lot of things going on outside of school, like spending 20 hours in strip clubs for VICE. I live 20 minutes off campus, so I try to hang out with my city friends as much as possible. But don't get me wrong: I've met some wonderful people at Columbia who will be my friends for a long time. But they're the exceptions.Just because you go to an Ivy doesn't mean you're what I've talked about above. I know people who've overcome insane circumstances, poverty, and discrimination to get here. I know people who came from the elite upper-class and are still incredibly interesting, ambitious, and good-hearted. But those people stand out to me. Most are just as clueless as any other American student. From my experience, they're really not that special at all.This school will make you or break you, and sadly I've seen too many people broken by it. The second semester of my sophomore year, consumed by depression and hopelessness, I ended up taking a leave of absence to go live and work at Rap Genius in Los Angeles. I thought I was going to drop out. People ask me why I went back. It's because, at the end of the day, an Ivy League degree opens doors. Whether it's fair or not, people automatically assume you're smart. And I've already benefitted from that.If you have the fortitude to stay above the raging wave of pressure that threatens to drown you at any moment, you'll be fine. More than fine. You'll develop a crazy work ethic, be taught by world-class professors, and the small percentage of genuine, interesting, kindhearted people here are like nowhere else. It's like any adverse experience: If you can overcome it, you'll be stronger. But I sometimes wonder if my worsening depression is tied to this place. I wonder if I would have been happier had I gone to art school or Ohio State, my parents' alma mater.An Ivy can change your life for the better, but there's a price you pay for that. You're going to have fight for your happiness constantly. You're going to have a hard time finding "real" people. And you're going to sleep very, very little.Going to an Ivy League college can be a great thing if you're ready for it. But if you're not, it can ruin you. So I'm just saying—be prepared for what you're getting yourself into.Follow Zach Schwartz on Twitter.