I’m a high school senior who recently applied to college, and I feel like I won’t have the life I want unless I go to a highly selective school. I read Hazel’s article about getting rejected from your #1 school, and I realize that, as she says, “You are not your application.” But I still can’t help thinking that you’re only as good as where you go to college, because all the people I admire most graduated from choosy and expensive places: Chelsea Peretti went to Barnard, Ira Glass went to Brown, Lena Dunham went to Oberlin. Virtually nobody I admire graduated from Illinois State University or Southern Illinois University, the realistic schools for my financial situation. I feel like I’m being excluded from the path to success. What do I do? —Emma, 17, Springfield, IL
Emma, GURRRL. I’m going to build on Hazel’s advice and take it one step further: You are MOST DEFINITELY not the college you attend! While it might seem otherwise based on the people you cited, for every successful person who went to a fancy Ivy League or liberal arts college, there are at least five who went to a state or community school—or who didn’t go at all. Personally, I fit in that latter category: I didn’t go to college, mostly because of money (and also because it wasn’t the thing I wanted to be doing at the time), and instead opted to live my college-age years moving around the country, trying out different jobs, and educating myself as much as I could. Through gumption, lots of hard work, and talent, I was able to become a professional, paid music journalist by the time I was 21, even with a big ol’ blank spot in the education section on my résumé. Now I have a successful career as a writer and editor, and I even TEACH a college class at New York University. (Yes, my employers know I didn’t go to college!) And I’m not the only one—here’s a short list of successful people who went to a state school or even dropped out: Tina Fey (University of Virginia), Charlyne Yi (UC–Riverside), Miranda July (UC–Santa Cruz), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University), Sandra Cisneros (University of Iowa), Patti Smith (Glassboro State College), Junot Diaz (Rutgers University), bell hooks (University of Wisconsin–Madison), Wes Anderson (University of Texas–Austin). Also, I looked up alumni of the colleges you mentioned you might attend, and I have to say, there are plenty of awesome people who went there, including Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, Syleena Johnson (an amazing R&B singer who’s on a couple of my fave Kanye West and Cam’ron songs), Bob Odenkirk, and THE INVENTOR OF DIPPIN’ DOTS, ICE CREAM OF THE FUTURE! Dippin’ Dots are the best!
But that’s beside the point, really. You didn’t say what you’re interested in studying at college. It might be different if you’re going to be a businessperson or, like, a surgeon, but if you’re interested in the arts (which I guess I’m assuming based on your list of “successful people,” it ultimately really doesn’t matter AT ALL which college you went to, because as far as I can tell, the biggest thing creative people take away from their college experiences there are their interpersonal relationships. I have some friends who graduated from Ivy League schools who don’t feel that their educations were particularly exceptional, and I have others who do. This sounds really cliché, but I think you probably get out of college what you put into it. And, yes, there are little pockets of nepotism in writing and film and television that are entirely contingent upon whom you know—but my point is, while some colleges might help a little bit, no college can exclude you from a path to success! I don’t think you need to worry so much about your specific college defining you, because no matter what you do or don’t get out of it, you’re still going to be YOU. To quote the boss Lupita Nyong’o, “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are still valid.” Nothing is set about your future, except that you’re about to step into the vast awesomeness of it, and it’s going to be super exciting! —Julianne
I suck at interviews so, so badly. Whenever I’m asked a question, I don’t know what to say—I’m so awkward when put on the spot like this. I was recently denied a space in this science and technology forum because my interview was so bad: I stuttered and squeaked when they asked me the SIMPLEST QUESTIONS. It’s like I become stupid in front of the exact people who are supposed to think I’m smart, and it’s freaking me out because I have to partake in my college entrance interview soon, and I don’t know what to do. Any tips on how to ace an interview? -Lizzie, 16, New Zealand
Throughout my professional life, I’ve been lucky enough to have one of the strongest, smartest, and honest life coaches working for free for me—my mom. One of the things she taught me early on was to practice my talking points ahead of time in order to be prepared for my turn in the hot seat. When you train your brain by rehearing messages ahead of time, it makes it easier to feel confident.
This TED-Ed video backs up my mom’s advice with cold, hard science. It explains how clamming up after being put on the spot is a normal human reaction that’s part of our “fight or flight” response to extreme stress, an instinct that can make every public conversation feel like a matter of life or death! But it also explains how we can control our response to feeling freaked out when it’s time to speak up.
Over the years, I’ve asked my parents, friends, and mentors to ask me challenging questions about my career background and personal interests, ranging in tone from friendliness to downright hostility, before presentations and job interviews, so I can feel prepared on game day. I swear by this form of verbal and mental “training” to the point that I sometimes dress up and record myself in advance so I can work out nervous feelings, physically see myself in action, and know that whatever comes my way will be old hat because I did my homework. However many times you may have heard this adage, I have to say that practice really does make perfect. And if I’m still feeling nervous, I dust off my copy of a book by Christine K. Jahnke called The Well-Spoken Woman, which is full of helpful tips on conveying concise, compelling, and consistent messages.
I believe in you, Lizzie, and I know you have what it takes. Congratulate yourself for getting your interview, and own your expertise. You already have the qualifications and experiences you need to interest your interviewers and stand out in a crowd. Good luck, Lizzie—you got this! —Jamia