27 December, 2007

College Memories (1)

The college application process was a nightmare for me. It's not altogether unlike the whole resume scene. Tests are one thing, but what I had trouble with the most was the recommendation letters. Asking somebody to write something like that for me was a huge hurdle, especially considering that I was the kind of person who tended not to make a huge impression on or have much personal connection with my teachers. The "college essay" was also something that I antagonized over. What is it even supposed to be about? I don't remember exactly what I ended up writing, but I think I just described a few aspects of my unique personality - you know, in an attempt to stand out.

For the letters of recommendation, since I was considering studying physics, I figured it would be a good idea to ask one of my physics teachers. There was the teacher of my current AP course, and then there was the teacher of my previous honors course. I felt a little bit closer to the teacher of my previous course, so I resolved to ask her for a letter of recommendation. It was really hard for me, but I forced myself to do it, and she accepted my request. For the second required letter of recommendation, I turned to the one teacher that probably knew me best (which is still to say, not a whole lot) - my Japanese teacher, V-sensei. It helped that she openly admired my intelligence. I had no problem convincing her to write me a recommendation.

I kind of waited till the last minute to apply to colleges. (Well, my older brother waited till the last minute; I guess you could say I waited till the last hour). It was a pain in the neck for me, and although my dad had made a point to take me to some college fairs so that I had tons of brochures to look through, I had a hard time figuring out where exactly I wanted to go. I eventually picked out four places, and applied to each one. Harvard was at the top, and Penn State was at the bottom - since my dad graduated from there, and my older brother was currently enrolled, I figured I'd have no problem getting in. Harvard flat out rejected me (although some 4 or so other kids from my high school had already been accepted to Harvard that year, probably on early decision, so they probably reached some kind of quota). Of the remaning two colleges, one put me on a waiting list, and the other accepted me. Oh, and Penn State also accepted me, as expected. So, ditching the waiting list college, I had two places to choose from - Penn State, and Bucknell University.

In the spring, I took a day trip up to Bucknell with my dad, and my girlfriend tagged along (she was already primed to enroll in a college in California - if things had progressed between us a few months earlier, I might have actually considered applying to a college in CA), on admissions day. The weather was cool and gloomy, with a little bit of drizzle here and there. I remember making a point to catch the trial physics lecture. Tom Solomon was the professor, and he definitely made an impression on me, talking about Chaos Theory and related issues. I was still undecided about my major (as I figure most people are at this stage), but I was toying with the idea of studying computer science. Unfortunately, there was a complicated split between the computer science associated with the engineering college and the computer science associated with the arts and sciences college, and it became this huge issue for my dad, who wanted to make sure that I was in the right position to pursue what it was I wanted to study. Of course, the issue wasn't nearly such a big deal, but my dad was determined to clarify the details, and I got incredibly embarrassed and somewhat frustrated at all the questions he insisted on asking various people.

It actually got pretty bad, and I kind of broke down, and started saying that I didn't even really want to go to college anyway, that I was only doing it because it was expected of me. My girlfriend tried to console me, and I felt a little better, and kind of just rode the rest of the day out. It was a mixed experience.

But among the cool things that happened that day, in addition to the neat physics lecture, I got to meet the anime society at the club fair. They had a really cool Evangelion wall scroll hanging up at their booth, which is the same wall scroll I had hanging up in my room back home. I talked with them very briefly (pretty sure it was the pres and vice pres of the club at the time), and became excited at the idea of joining an anime club. Another interesting experience that day was walking between the lower dorms and hearing Black Dog from Led Zeppelin's fourth album blaring from the direction of Larison Hall. That made an impression on me.

On another day, I went up, just with my dad this time, to visit Penn State main campus. My experience was much less personal, partly because it's a much bigger place (like 10 times the size and population of Bucknell), and partly because it wasn't explicitly the day for prospectives to check out the campus. But my dad knew the place well, and he showed me around. The main impression was: huge. It was like a city. It definitely didn't have the homely feel of Bucknell, but with size comes diversity, which breeds opportunity. Still, I felt more comfortable in a smaller place with less people. Plus, having the opportunity to attend a college like Bucknell seemed like one not to be missed. I mean, so many people go to Penn State, it just seemed like it would mean more to attend Bucknell. And that's the decision I made.

While I was deciding which classes to request for my first semester, I got the idea that I definitely wanted to major in physics. My concern was that if I didn't get off to a good start, then I wouldn't be sufficiently prepared by the end of my time at Bucknell to go to grad school. Like, if I didn't start right away, I wouldn't have time to earn the right credits, or that I'd have to get an arts degree instead of a science degree, and that that would give me a disadvantage trying to advance higher in the system. So instead of letting things work themselves out naturally, I made a point of entering the university as a physics major.

Among the other classes I requested, Japanese was one. Having finally got a chance to formally study Japanese in my final year in high school, I was anxious to continue my education in that language. As fate would have it, I ended up being forced to take a year off from my studies in Japanese, only to return to the language in my sophomore year. But the good thing about that is that I ended up studying with some really cool students.

For my required "freshman seminar", I had to pick a list of favorites from the available choices. There was a physics-oriented seminar, but the one that really caught my eye was more concerned with philosophy and psychology. It was titled "Distortions of Reality", and is definitely one of the greatest courses I've ever taken. And the professor was an unendingly fascinating individual himself. I also requested a general philosophy course, since I had always been interested in philosophy, and there had never been any philosophy courses in my high school - the closest I could get was a psychology course in my senior year.

So my freshman schedule consisted of the freshman seminar mentioned above, the introductory philosophy course, and for my major, a combination of the introductory physics course, and Calculus III. I guess that last one requires a little explanation. I took AP Physics and AP Calculus (the higher of the two AP Calculus courses) my senior year in high school. I also took an AP Computer Science course (in C++). I managed to score a 5 on my AP Calculus exam, so Bucknell placed me considerably ahead in math. It was a mixed blessing. The higher I got in math in high school, the more I felt like I needed some extra time to get my bearings and really understand what I was doing. But I kept plowing ahead. And that continued into college. I was able to survive through Calculus and Differential Equations, and once I got to Logic (the mathematical, not the philosophical kind), it was a refreshing change of scenery. Instead of solving equations, which is more important to science, all of a sudden it was about proving (mathematical) statements, which was endlessly more interesting, and far easier for me. I regret not studying more and higher math in college, but on the other hand, it was a relief to finish my math requirements early, and open up spaces for some more interesting courses, like the ones that earned me minors in Japanese and philosophy.

1 comment:

  1. I remember how college was such a big deal for my mother, but not a big deal for me. At that point, I didn't really care about the future; unlike my classmates, I didn't have any particular aspirations or dreams. I had the vague idea that I liked art, and another vague idea that I liked computers, so the best I could come up with was that I'd like to pursue a career in one of those two fields. I let myself get persuaded that art wasn't profitable at all... which wasn't actually that hard, considering the complete lack of confidence I had in my own abilities.

    Whatever the reason, I decided I was interested in computer science, so I looked at the obvious choice: Carnegie Mellon. My mother thought that was setting my sights a little high, so she had me pick out a couple other places to visit; I picked the first and last schools in my (alphabetical) pile of brochures: Bucknell and Washington & Lee. Pretty random, but they both seemed like good schools.

    I ended up applying to Bucknell because CMU didn't impress me in the tour for various reasons and W&L seemed too stuffy. I like to say I applied to Bucknell because it was the first on the stack, but that's only half the reason, honestly.

    Letters of recommendation weren't particularly hard for me to procure, though I do remember being worried about one teacher's spelling and grammar... which seems pretty egotistical of me, but my spelling and grammar have been pretty constant since junior high school.

    I took a ton of AP courses in high school, which was the only reason I was able to have three semesters of only three classes at Bucknell... and then FAIL classes... and still have enough credits to graduate. As far as I can remember, I got 5s on all of my AP exams, though I remember being pissed that Bucknell wouldn't waive the lab science requirement from a high school AP course credit. If they had, that would have saved me so much trouble...