Spring at Cornell smells mostly like manure.
I wonder if that would be my impression of Cornell springs 10 years from now: the smell of the blooming flowers only masked by the fresh manure laid down by the groundskeepers, but I am consoled by the fact that, well, for the first time in months, breathing in the outside air deeply (not that you’d really want to) doesn’t hurt the inside of my nose (though, going back again to the poop on the ground, it smells like poop, so don’t breathe in too deeply you know?)
Spring at Cornell looks like small birds and prefrosh, carrying their (probably free) bright red Cornell drawstring bags, with their five-by-eight index card name tags hung around their necks. It sounds like parents giving their kids advice, and it sounds like the pre-freshmen asking the current students for directions.
When I got my acceptance letter to Cornell four years ago, I wanted to go to Cornell days too, so I could “make the best decision” (was deciding between Vanderbilt, Cornell, and Georgia Tech). My parents said ‘no’ to spending the money to visit the schools (Other than Georgia Tech, of course, but that was in my own backyard). They told me that, outside of the programs themselves (ex: GT is known for engineering) there’s “very little difference” in all three of these institutions; whichever one I decide, I will probably be fine in and adapt to. At the time, I thought not being able to visit these schools put me at a severe disadvantage in terms of my final decision. I chose Cornell in the end solely based upon the fact that to me, it felt like the better option for pursuing pre-med and statistics at the same time, with the flexibility to switch majors if my plans change.
I ended up loving Cornell–I had my struggles and difficult days, sure, but that would have happened at any of the three schools I listed. I remember there was a period of time in my sophomore year when I felt particularly down–sophomore slump, I called it. That was when I wished I had visited another school, maybe came to another decision.
But the thing is, I also know I probably wouldn’t have made another decision if I had a chance to visit the schools. In addition, I think visiting the schools, while that might have been valuable, wouldn’t necessarily tell me everything I need to know about the school. Admitted/prospective students see a single snapshot of the campus. And at Cornell, that single snapshot also happens to be the most beautiful few days on campus (us students joke about Cornell owning a weather machine that turns on every year when prospective students are visiting), with cherry blossoms (and poop smells) on top. It also happens to be when the food at the dining halls are particularly good, and when the current students are particularly friendly (you can attribute that to the nice weather, I’m sure). Finally, I’m also fairly sure Cornell picks the professors with popular classes (or reputations of actually being good professors)–because you gotta protect the prospective students from the professors who are so smart and accomplished that they fail to recognize you as a human being.
What prospective students don’t see is the freshman year loneliness, the discouragement and burnout when yet again, you tried so hard on a prelim and still failed. The exhaustion that you still felt after consecutive all-nighters and multiple coffees in a single day. The times that you felt so average and inadequate because your professor said the words “you know?” and “obviously…” far too many times in a lecture, and while the students around you nodded, you just don’t get it. The time when you approached a professor, obviously distressed, but you get a less-than-empathetic response. The times when you spent almost a week in the Olin Library stacks, surrounded by books and little social interaction because you had so many exams in a row. The time when you pretty much had a nervous breakdown after stepping in a foot-deep puddle, because the week was just too much and that was the breaking point for you (sounds really personal, so I will say that yes, this actually happened to me–my boyfriend will attest to that; and yes, it sounds incredibly crazy, but it felt valid to cry and break down at the time). Let’s not even begin on how little the administration cares about their students, starting from the subpar mental health services. Then there’s the toxic pre-med culture, competition, and probably some occasional grade-deflation thrown in between. Freshman and sophomore year, I also remembered feeling lost, unsupported and oh-so-far away from home.
It’s also not possible for prospective students to feel the joy of sledding down Libe Slope on a snowy day on a plastic storage bin lid. Feeling the connection with some of the brightest, kindest minds. Playing in a quartet, then meeting your significant other and best friends through music, then having all of your friends accompany you in your senior recital in your piano solo debut. Meeting incredibly interesting people, all the time. Beating the 9PM boba rush at UTea and just laughing and bumming around with your friends after the last organic chemistry prelim you’d ever have to take. Admiring the gorges and nature on the day-to-day. Taking a class with only the most famous Mozart scholar of our time before he retires. Learning, living, breathing, simply taking in a wonderful learning experience.
Cornell can be a wonderful place, and it has helped me grow–but I also had some dark days here, when I felt like I was just barely surviving. You can’t experience either of those sides, good or bad, fully, by coming to Cornell for a few days. Furthermore, it’s impossible to anticipate how you will fit in, or even what your days will be like here. Sure, you know what the campus looks like, you might attend a lecture or two, you might ask some students for advice–but you won’t truly experience life as a student here until you’re actually a student here. You may have a wonderful visit, commit to Cornell, then hate it. You may hate the visit, end up committing for some reason, then absolutely love it. You could end up somewhere else, hate that place, wish you come to Cornell instead.
And here’s the thing: I probably would have a similar experience at Vanderbilt or Georgia Tech too. Change the proper nouns and place names, and that’s probably exactly what would’ve happened. I’m not saying I made a bad decision, or that I wish I had gone somewhere else–but, if all else was kept equal (for example, degree programs, my career aspirations, etc), and we looked at experience alone, it would probably have been the same. I would have met cool people no matter what, I would have had hard days, good days, sad days, no matter what. I probably would still meet a best friend, still met people I liked enough to hang out with. I would still have met a horrible professor, and probably some good ones too.
So, Prefrosh–don’t worry so much about the college experience itself. It isn’t that there is no value at all to visiting, but if you’re worried about not being able to visit, I promise you will be OK. DO consider the program itself, your career aspirations, where you want to be after graduation, and the cost of attending.
(Feel free to reach out if you do have any questions for me though! ask away while I’m still here~)