And, in a lot of ways, so is the college admissions process.

Let’s make that above statement a little clearer, at the very least by saying that the reverse is very not true – online dating is not a science, not in the least. Nut I was struck last night by the idea that science (or really, my attempts to get into science last summer) resembles accounts of online dating.

Back to the beginning. This all starts with Aziz Ansari and Modern Romance (I finished it this week), which focuses on romance and romantic relationships in the modern technology-obsessed age. It spends a lot of time talking about online dating, which is something I’ve never thought about before. As Aziz describes it, the process (with some variation) looks like this:

  • You create a profile.
  • You start poking around for potential matches, or some algorithm spits out other profiles that match what you think you want.
  • You read up, gather info, look at profile photos.
  • You then dismiss a lot of them based on subjective criteria. And then you get your heart set on a special few.
  • With the ones you don’t automatically dismiss, you craft a message – with varying levels of personalization and investment – that gets sent to “the other side.”
  • Sometimes there’s a screening stage here – an exchange of messages between parties, a date or two.
  • You are either accepted or rejected, no matter how many other vague criteria people try to put between the two.
  • And, in the end, you a) more often end up with someone you already have connections to, and b) actually are drawn to categories you wouldn’t have thought to plug into the search algorithm.

When I was thinking about this coming summer last night, I was struck by the similarities between this process and trying to find a lab to work in last summer. I wrote up a vague CV/resume (kinda hard to do when you’re a teenager with no experience), looked up labs, read papers by the PIs, got invested in a couple, sent a whole lot of messages, and got a whole lot of nos. And in the end, I ended up at Jacobs Lab through a string of connections, doing work that I wouldn’t have chosen off the bat if you presented it to me in a list of other options.

But it worked itself out in this case, and was pretty darn wonderful in the end. Honestly, I can’t see that process going many other ways.

And this afternoon I’ve been sitting and reading Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be on the college admissions process, and I’m applying the same analogy. You create a Common Application, you use an honestly screwed-up methodology to try to find things that you think appeal to you, you submit applications, time passes, and you’re rejected or accepted. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t.

 

I want my process to be less screwed-up than that, both with college and with science. Really. But I know that it will likely be as arbitrary as anyone and everyone else’s, and I’m trying to come to terms with that. With science it’ll likely stay that way, for the next couple years at least, and acceptance is probably necessary. But with college, I can and will try to change it. My current strategies to fight the random, arbitrary nature of the search and application process?

  1. Listen to recommendations by people I care about. I have ten schools on my list right now, three of which have been recommended to me personally by people who know me and know how I work and learn. I want to give those recommendations a thoughtful examination, because I know that other people sometimes (okay, quite often) know me better than I know myself.
  2. Attempt to figure out what I want. In this I mean: be specific. Have criteria. Even if you change those criteria drastically later (see: my dear friend Supy and his college struggle and madness), figure out what you’re looking for so you can avoid applying to schools with big brand names just because you know about them or “think you should.” I want to go to a medium or large university (for the most part not an undergrad-only liberal arts college) with really strong undergraduate research programs, in or near a fairly large city where I’ve never lived before. I’m flexible with this set of criteria to some extent, but it’s crucial in narrowing the field.

 

I am at the relative beginning of this process (except for maybe the crazy parents who start their kids while in diapers). I have a long ways to go. But, at the very least, I hope to remain somewhat reasonable along the way, even over the course of a process that makes millions feeding off teenage fear and insecurity. I am a primarily statistics-driven person, but this is can be so random that I’ll even say it: wish me luck!

 

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