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Perfecting mediocrity

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OCTOBER 27, 2022

Like all UC Berkeley students, I was a major overachiever in high school. Nothing mattered more to me than maintaining that perfect 4.0 GPA.

What was it all for? College, of course.

College was my only goal for my adolescent years, and I had high hopes for it. I wanted to go to the Ivy League, the elite institutions and be surrounded by others who were as high-achieving as myself. But when I got my college decisions, it all came crashing down.

Deferred. Rejected. Waitlisted. Rejected. Waitlisted. Rejected.

I had studied so hard in high school, done so many extracurriculars and gotten good standardized test scores. What happened? Almost every school, including UC Berkeley, had either waitlisted me or rejected me flat out. What was it about me that wasn’t good enough to fully commit to an acceptance?

The fact of the matter is that I really shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was when I didn’t get into these schools. These were some of the top schools in the country, and it wasn’t like I did anything particularly groundbreaking during my high school years. And yet, I felt that I deserved a spot at these institutions, like it was a given for me to attend. 

Everything happens for a reason; I’ve heard it all before. I did get into UC Berkeley in the end, but college decisions were a huge reality check for me. And it also brought into conflict two aspects of my personality: the confidence in my academic ability, and my lack thereof in pretty much anything else.

Was I destined for mediocrity, whatever that means?

It was a weird feeling to sit with. In high school, it was so easy to envision myself in elite spaces, whether that be in college, law school or beyond. But now that the time had finally come to enter these spaces, I had been barred from entry. 

Even once I got into UC Berkeley, these feelings continued. I hadn’t been “good enough” to be let into UC Berkeley right off the bat, they had to wait until someone else they really wanted rejected them before they could let me in. 

Applying for clubs was another shock. The level of competitiveness for clubs here was not something that I expected — I knew for certain clubs there would be some kind of audition or tryout process, but going through multiple interviews and sending cover letters for a college club was unforeseen to me. 

I was even more confused. Now that I had finally made it into “the elite,” there was a whole other level to conquer that I hadn’t anticipated. The extracurriculars that I envisioned myself in, that would look so important on my resume, had rejected me once again. I didn’t have any backups, had no idea what else I wanted to pursue other than those specific clubs I had applied to and was too intimidated to apply to anything else because I feared rejection.

But I also felt aimless — what was the point of being in college if all I did was go to class and nothing more? How, in a school of 45,000 students, could I not find a club that I wanted to join, that would also accept me?

I somehow simultaneously felt that I was academically excellent, but also didn’t deserve to be here and was decidedly mediocre. It was as if I had an idealized version of myself in my head that couldn’t be forgotten, despite how many times she had been beaten down by the harsh realities of the college admissions process. 

In the activities I did join and the classes I took, I did extremely well. I got leadership positions and got good grades. This was even more confusing to me — I could excel in these spaces, and yet they weren’t considered exclusive or elite enough. Anyone could take this class, and a lot of people could get an A in it. For some reason, this wasn’t as important to me as it was to get into these exclusive clubs and competitive internships. 

While at UC Berkeley, there’s always someone you know who seems to be doing more than you. They have leadership positions, they have internships and jobs, they volunteer, and somehow they manage to balance it all out with a great social life. It’s hard not to feel inferior to these kinds of people, even if they’re not deliberately trying to show it off. They’re in the top consulting club, the most competitive team, a D1 athlete, whatever. It was easy to idealize these people just as much as I had idealized myself. 

I came to realize that it’s not how the name looks on your resume, but rather what you gain from it. While I’m not a part of the most competitive, selective organizations, I am part of organizations that I care about. It’s not that I’m “mediocre,” whatever that means. Just because my goals no longer align with being a part of the most elite institutions doesn’t mean it’s because I’ve failed to do so. Rather, I’ve learned that anything that you care about is the most elite thing to be a part of. Maybe I could join a consulting club, but am I really passionate about consulting?  Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what consulting clubs even do. 

While a part of me will always picture myself frolicking in ivy-covered halls and interning for the Supreme Court, it’s not all that matters to me now. I’m perfectly proud of where I am today, elite or not.

Aviva Binder writes the Thursday column on hidden insecurities. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

OCTOBER 27, 2022