A red–haired Wharton student stared at me with palpable discomfort as I cried outside Huntsman Hall.
The phone call I’d just ended had been peppered by my mother admonishing the kids and the dogs, and staccatoed by her answering the front door. When she snapped back to me I told her I’d dropped accounting. She protested. I stood firm.
“Do you really think it’s normal to hate your major so much? Or your school? I don’t understand why you’re so stubborn about this.”
I applied to Wharton with the certainty only a 17–year–old could have. But after three semesters, I found myself in Cohen Hall, in the College of Arts and Sciences advising office, and that certainty channeled into something else entirely.
I walked out of that appointment confident in my decision to eliminate all Whartons—except Edith—from my academic life. Now, I study creative writing.
The day I got into Wharton may well have been the happiest of my life, and the joy I felt watching the complimentary comments roll in on Facebook far outweighed the fact that I dreaded math. I assured myself that there would be business writing classes and a communicative focus, that I could put my soft skills to work.
This became especially necessary after I realized just how bad I was with hard ones. I could rattle off rankings and statistics like a wind–up doll. I clung to the Wikipedia entry about earnings. I had made it.
The admissions process for elite colleges and programs is exhaustively documented from all angles, so I’ll spare you the section dwelling on it. But don’t get me wrong—those months, years, even, spent preparing for admissions were hellish. I applied to 11 schools, chosen from a list I’d taken four years to curate.
Even though the critical coverage of college–prep mania stops once you get in, manifestations of the mania itself persist: put a bunch of highly neurotic students in a pressure cooker, and how could they not?
Back before before classes started, during my freshman year NSO, my new classmates and I crammed into the Patty and J. H. Baker Forum and listened reverently to the dean’s speech.
“If you don’t have a five–year plan by now, you should.”
Somehow Geoff Garrett’s Aussie accent softened the blow. So, I nodded; as far as I could see, everyone else was nodding too. We were all about to pursue our B.S.’s.
Later, walking in the Lehman Quadrangle—dedicated to the “many Wharton alums who enriched the firm”—always left me feeling a little off. Some of my classmates seemed to like American Psycho and Wolf of Wall Street a bit too much.
And in the age of Donald Trump, a Wharton degree has taken on a new and possibly even more perverse connotation. It’s a school where “big–league” (or is it “bigly?”) is a lifestyle. Drug use, branded fashion, name–dropping—Wharton has it all. A marketing presentation in one of my classes once featured a girl in a Versace scarf next to a boy in head–to–toe Gucci explaining skim penetration strategy.
The institutional favoritism the school gets is mind–boggling. Penn is a monumentally well–endowed school, and yet funnels new resources and initiative towards Wharton with an intensity that would be funny, if only the Counseling and Psychological Services department weren’t so underfunded at a school where .
Adam Grant (sorry, I’m name–dropping) wrote a New York Times a few years ago in which he effectively waved a red flag and condemned Wharton’s hyper–competitive culture—in a word, “cutthroat.”
The old adage that my father’s coworkers warned me about was this: Wharton kids tear pages out of books then give them to their classmates to study. That didn’t happen. What did happen was much more pervasive and hard to identify.
In the heat of OCR season, it wasn’t uncommon to see some variation of business formal swarming Starbucks or carrying Accenture–branded umbrellas to shield their padfolios from rain at all hours of the day or night. Study groups? Not so much. Conversations became coded networking sessions about what job you’d be working this summer, or where you were from, or what your parents did for a living.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to go to a good college. There’s nothing wrong with working your ass off to get there. But buying into a toxic culture and perpetuating it?
The summer after my freshman year, I had the chance to revisit the infernal process as a counselor for a Wharton pre–college program. Students paid upwards of $7,000 to spend a month living in Penn’s Quadrangle and attend classes in Wharton academic buildings.
Every weekend, counselors would have “coffee chats” with campers who were seeking advice from students just as lost as they were, often a mere year older.
And every time another kid sat down, entangled in admissions and searching for a one–size–fits–all answer to what seemed at the time like the most important question of my life, our conversation would go a little something like this.
“How did you get in?”
The short answer? I have no idea.
“What other schools did you apply to?”
Ten others. Not recommended.
“What were your SAT scores?”
Plead the fifth.
“What was your essay about?”
Plead the fifth. Emphatically.
Many of the students at my summer program just started their freshman years of college. Only one of them ever asked me if I liked what I was doing. I didn’t have an answer then.
My decision to switch didn’t come from one class, one experience, even one semester. I dipped my toe into Penn’s Creative Writing program, got to know upperclassmen who worked on Street, and when it came to writing—to quote Lizzie Bennet—was in the middle before I knew I had begun.
And as much as I could rationalize the economic gains a Wharton degree could give me down the line, the promise of clawing my way to a consulting job, working with the same people, doing the same thing for as far as I could see just made me a little bit sick to my stomach. And, did I mention I was terrible at accounting?
A few months ago, I got recognized: the closest to celebrity I’ll ever come to at Penn.
“Wait—you’re that girl who transferred out of Wharton?”
Annabelle is a junior in the College studying English. She is the Assignments Editor for 34th Street.