Robert Hsu
The Casual Observer

Credit: Robert Hsu

From a young age, we’re taught to focus on the finish line — getting into college. Often, we only hear about the stories that lead to this event and rarely learn about what comes afterward. We forget to appreciate what it took to get there.

Society invests a lot into the idea of getting into a good college: SAT/ACT prep, extracurricular activities, leadership retreats, summer college camps and college counselors are all geared toward this final goal. We lose sight of what the four years after we receive our acceptance letters in the mail are actually for.

Once we get in, it’s easy to slack off and become complacent. After all, what could possibly go wrong once we’re in?

It’s been almost a year since I, along with other regular decision applicants, got into Penn. Even though March 30, 2011, seems like a while ago, I try to remind myself how fortunate I am to be at Penn.

Last year, 31,663 students applied to Penn — a number that probably exceeds the size of most of our hometowns. From this pool, only 12.4 percent were admitted. Imagine a class of 25 students who all applied to Penn and only three getting in.

Most freshmen heard back from Penn a year or more ago, but a small portion who were waitlisted waited up to three additional months before eventually gaining acceptance.

I wondered if the extra weeks and even months that these students waited had any impact on their appreciation of Penn, so I decided to get in touch with a few of them.

College freshman Matthew Rosenthal, who was waitlisted, felt strongly that “people who say that college is a stepping stone to a job … need to appreciate the opportunity to attend Penn, or wherever they are. Every day, I think about how lucky I am to be here.”

What collectively defines us on the surface may be the common goal of earning a diploma from the University of Pennsylvania, but what truly characterizes us is our knowledge and the skills that we gain here. It is the people we meet who change how we think, the organizations we join that influence our careers and the setbacks we encounter that shape our personalities.

Marietta Catsambas, a College freshman who was also waitlisted, shared with me in an email how joining the Penn Band has been a defining moment in her college career and “by far the best choice” she’s made.

“If it hadn’t been for the band,” she said, “I never would’ve thrown toast at a football game, learned any of the Penn songs, or felt such strong pride for the Red and the Blue … I’m so grateful that the band has given me so many opportunities to have the real ‘Penn experience.’ I’ve made the greatest group of friends I could’ve asked for.”

Penn’s magic, it seems, doesn’t simply come from the brand name attached to this Ivy League university. It comes from passions inherent in the students and faculty that occupy this campus.

College freshman Peter Hess, who waited until June to learn of his acceptance, has made the most of his first year at Penn. “I am so grateful for the unique experience I’ve had here,” he said. “I’ve been able to take a strategic reasoning course on game theory while being able to explore my art history and economics interests simultaneously. I even helped the Penn Chess Club defend its Ivy League Championship this past January.”

It is easy to get lost in the sea of extracurricular responsibilities, looming midterms and piles of assigned readings. Even on the days when we walk out of Huntsman Hall to greet the rising sun, we ought to take a second to appreciate what we have — world-class professors, one-of-a-kind guest speakers and talented classmates. Even when we’re groaning at the thought of sitting through lab class in Goddard Laboratories, we should remember the famous scientists who walked there before us, the ground-breaking researchers who share the same building, and our classmates, who have the potential to be future Nobel Prize winners.

When Penn admitted us, the admissions office put faith in our ability to make the most of these four years. Now, let’s return the favor.

Robert Hsu, a College and Wharton freshman from Novi, Mich. His email address is The Casual Observer appears every other Wednesday.

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