When I was nine years old, I stood on the lawn of Stanford University. I was in awe of the university’s beauty. I did not know yet of its prestige or that it demanded the best out of admitted students. I only saw these Spanish-style buildings, people conversing about school as if it was their passion, and sunny California skies. I went home that night and told my grandparents that I would love to go to a school like Stanford. But they went on to tell me the hard truths about it – “You need a 4.0”, which I never heard of until then, as well as a list of other criteria. At that moment, I discovered my path in life – to get into a great school like Stanford.

Although I set my own goals for college, I still felt external pressure to perform well academically. I noticed many Asian American peers felt the same way, although undoubtedly the feeling is mutual for many high school students regardless of race.

For  people who are going down the same path – where college seems both like an exciting, defining factor and a chore in life – here is advice that shines some light on how to realistically manage college ambitions.

Don’t be perfect for someone else

The first thing you should do before committing to anything, including college, is ask yourself why you’re doing it – make sure that it’s for you alone. I have spent countless hours researching advice and working to achieve a variety of things in my academic career. I’ve wanted to alter my plans to make myself happier, but always stopped myself, feeling like I couldn’t disappoint other people. But over time, I realized that if I was going to do something for so long and so rigorously, it needed to make me happy.

Enjoy the moment

There is no shame in wanting something far in the future and working hard for it. However, it is a shame to lose enjoyment in life. There will be great moments no matter what age you are, but as a kid, you’re supposed to do the fun, silly things. Smell the roses, as they say. Sometimes, when you isolate yourself to one dream, you get tunnel vision and block out other experiences. Do the work you intend to, but remember to stop, look, and listen at the opportunities and moments around you.

Have no regrets and commit

There is a saying from a cookbook called, “Zen and the Art of Vegetarian”, that doubles as a great quote – “when you wash the rice, wash the rice.”

In pursuing a goal, you must work diligently – if you’re going to spend time on something, make it worthwhile, put your heart into it. Do not let opportunities pass and work wisely. From grades to jobs, things only count when you make it count.

Also, start early once you decide on a path. Brian, 17, says, “Don’t find excuses as to why you’re putting off the college applications. It’s a bit of work but the earlier you get it done the better.”

Grades and scores are not everything

No one can say what truly happens in admissions offices besides those who work there, but two factors often haunt applicants – grades and extracurriculars. Both are good indicators for different things – grades demonstrate your academic ability while extracurriculars indicate your passions and character. Depending on where you choose to apply, people may have similar scores and so this becomes more of a filter than an initial deciding factor. Send in your scores then focus on your essays and extracurriculars – show them who you are and what makes you different.

Seek out advice when necessary

Alex, 16, is going through the process right now and encourages students asking for help when something is confusing – “As smart, talented, and confident as you may be, you’re not infallible. There will be situations that are above your comprehension,” especially when going through applications. Remember that peers, counselors, teachers, and older family and friends are great resources.

You decide your future

While the college you go to can aid your prospects and pave the way for better opportunities, who you are, who you know, and what you want ultimately drive the course of your future. There are successful people who did and didn’t go to Harvard. Success can be defined in different ways, such as being a family man or a billionaire.

Present yourself the way you are, not what you feel like you should be. And even if your dream college doesn’t accept you, the place that does may be the better fit for you after all, because they liked you for who you are.

Lisa, 25, a University of Houston graduate, emphasizes the importance of passion – “Working hard is the key to success, but also happiness. If you are not passionate and love what you’re doing, you will not accomplish the best that you can. You must identify what you want and make sure that it is what you will be happy with.”

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