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Columnist Zara Tena argues for the destigmatization of being ordinary in the midst of Penn's competitive pre-professional culture.

Credit: Yolanda Chen

When I first got into Penn, I remember everyone telling me to prepare myself for the high-pressure environment that everyone associates with Ivy League schools — especially with Penn’s notorious pre-professional culture. For months before even arriving on campus, I would picture myself spending days locked in a library studying for hours on end. 

What I never imagined is that the pressure I would be feeling would not come from the difficulty of the classes I was taking or the amount of work on my plate. What was pressuring me was myself.

No one is actually pushing me to be excellent at every single thing I do. I don’t really need to check the daily five-question worksheets for my French class 15 times. It’s not necessary for me to have all of my friends proofread everything I write. No one is asking me to constantly try to get ahead in my work.

So why do I feel the need to make sure that everything I do is perfect? Or that my work must exceed expectations? Why is it that I feel like my best is never enough? 

Sitting with my friends on Locust Walk, I can’t help but watch my peers run around to class, work, coffee chats, or club meetings. As I people-watch, I realize that we all run ourselves dry with such hectic schedules because of the same fear: No one wants to be ordinary.

In a society that constantly pushes us to want to be happier, smarter, and more productive, we have become scared of being regular. Especially here at Penn, where we are immersed in a highly-competitive environment where everyone is always doing something novel and new, it can certainly feel like you are never doing enough.

In addition to the academic side, there is also enormous pressure to have an amazing social life. Despite the amount of work one may have, attending as many parties as possible is often at the top of students’ priority list. 

There is also a lot of stress regarding how we are perceived. We all want to seem like we have everything under control, even when we internally feel like we are falling apart. We’ve become so good at pretending we are okay, that we have tricked ourselves into believing that we are not allowed to struggle.

The fear of mediocrity is ingrained in our minds, and it continuously exerts ridiculous amounts of pressure in all of us. We all idolize exceptionalism, always reaching for the peak of success. We have convinced ourselves that anything less than extraordinary is unacceptable. I’ve been in tons of conversations in which students have expressed doubt in their abilities and demonstrated that they feel the need to prove themselves — even when we all have achieved remarkable things, studying at Penn being one of them. 

While attending a prestigious college usually indicates that we all have a certain level of academic potential, it is important to remember that success is subjective. Our education and overall college experience should be a personal journey where we get to measure our own goals based on our personal aspirations. At the end of the day, perfectionism keeps us stuck in one place and stops us from becoming who we actually want to be.

With this, I am not saying that we should be complacent. Complacency often comes with a lack of motivation to do better, and that’s not why we are here. We should always strive to improve in all aspects of our lives, but it's important to learn how to differentiate healthy ambition from an impossible pursuit of perfection.

We should be fostering a culture of support in which taking a break and taking care of our mental health is not perceived as a sign of weakness. In order to destigmatize our fear of being ordinary, there should be discussions around the challenges of maintaining the high standards we’ve set for ourselves. Embracing imperfection is part of being a healthy human, and it makes life way more enjoyable than pushing ourselves to perfectionism.

ZARA TENA is a College sophomore studying Political Science from Puebla, Mexico. Her email is