May 3, 2013

When Quality of Life trumps Prestige or Why One Young Man turned down Harvard

University of Virginia

Kevin Cao has become something of a local celebrity.  A senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), Kevin recently announced his decision to turn down college offers from Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Brown, Rice, the College of William and Mary, and Dartmouth in favor of the University of Virginia.

In an essay posted on social media and Google Docs, Kevin explained his decision to family, friends, and teachers most of whom were taken by surprise the hard-working senior who co-founded “Growth and Inspiration through Volunteering and Education (GIVE), a non-profit organization that currently has 11 free tutoring centers located throughout northern Virginia.

“Most of you must think I’m crazy for turning down Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. to go to UVA, but read this letter I wrote explaining my choice and remember: It’s not about where you go, it’s about what you do while you’re there… And how happy you are!”

In his essay, Kevin admits that Harvard had long been his college choice only to find himself attracted to Princeton during a campus visit. But “[g]rade deflation was a huge turn-off” for him, as was the “somewhat stiff competition” to be in the top 35% of the class.  He worried about time to get involved in extracurricular activities.

At a Harvard admitted student event, Kevin encountered students who struck him as affluent and pretentious.  “Most of my fellow prefrosh hailed from preparatory schools so expensive that their parents are potentially saving money when they switch over to paying the Harvard tuition next year.”

In addition, he was put off by alums who when asked why they chose Harvard deflected the question with the usual, “because it’s Harvard.”

Rather than dwell on the negative, Kevin began looking closer to home and opened himself to the possibility of heading to Charlottesville for the next four years.  He analyzed quality of undergraduate education, opportunities, and the overall quality of life—community, experience, and personal development.

In the end, he made his final decision based on a series of questions key to any college search:

  • Where will I be happiest?
  • Where do I feel at home?
  • Where will I regret most not going?
  • Where will I grow most as a person?
  • Where will I be able to change the world?
  • What school will I not be able to recreate?
  • What school will offer the best undergrad experience?

And UVa got the nod.

For the record, Kevin would have attended Stanford had he not elected to stay closer to home, and he found turning down Harvard “extremely liberating.”

“Remember that there is much more to a school than the name,” Kevin writes. “Consider where you could really spend the next four years of your life and be happy doing so.” 

Words for all of us to live by.

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