Reflection: If I’m Not the Best, Who Am I?

Reflections on failure, disappointment and finding alternate metrics for success.

by Caris White | 9/7/21 3:30am

by Alexandra Ma / The Dartmouth Staff

This article is featured in the 2021 Freshman special issue.

It’s been a while since I was the smartest person in a room. I am writing this article as I finish the last few weeks of sophomore summer, which means I am just crossing the halfway point of my time at Dartmouth. I have learned more in the past two years than I ever imagined I would when I was coming into college. I’ve also failed more during my time here than during any other period of my life.

Like many of the incoming members of the Class of 2025, I came to Dartmouth because I did really well in high school. I was lucky enough to go to an excellent magnet public school, but even there, I was consistently one of the best and brightest in my classes. I got used to seeing straight A’s on my transcripts and occupying a predetermined social niche as one of the smart kids. 

Then, I travelled 3,000 miles across the country to a school where everyone was one of the smart kids, and it became time for me to find a new way to define myself. I remember looking around during O-Week and wondering how I would manage to distinguish myself from this sea of new peers, all of whom appeared to be just as ambitious and intelligent as myself.

One of the first lessons I learned is that it’s absolutely exhausting to try to be the smartest person in the room at a school like Dartmouth. It might have been possible for me to ace every CHEM 005, “General Chemistry” exam during freshman winter, but I quickly realized that some nights, I just wanted to play pong or relax with friends in my dorm room. That’s not to say that I don’t or didn’t study hard — I put in my time at the library that winter — but in a cost-benefit analysis of studying versus free time, I learned to value moments with friends and extra hours of sleep over a five-point boost on a pre-med weed-out exam. 

Another word of wisdom: every student has a big failure — or several. My first one came during sophomore winter, when I well and truly bombed my first BIOL 13, “Gene Expression and Inheritance” midterm. After I got the grade back, I called my mom in distress, looking for parental reassurance that I could still be a good doctor even though I got a 58% on my test. I ended up sticking with the class and squeaking out an at-median grade, which taught me the value of, sometimes, just holding tight and grinding it out.

While I’ve had my share of academic challenges at Dartmouth, those are far from the only kinds of failure that have shaped my time here. I have met some of the best people I know during my time in college. I’ve also hurt, argued with and learned to forgive those same people. Living with peers lets us into one another’s lives to an extent that only happens during college. It can turn strangers into friends in a matter of days, and dorm living has produced many of my favorite college memories. However, it also means that the chaotic, unwise and sometimes straight-up mean decisions of 18-23 year olds have an outsized impact on all of our lives.

There have been moments over the past year when I thought some of my most treasured friendships weren’t going to make it. Things get complicated in college — people grow up, relationships unravel and throughout it all the D-Plan changes our social landscape every 10 weeks. Coming into college, I thought I had interpersonal dynamics pretty much figured out. As it turned out, I did not. 

I have messed up and hurt people during my time here, and that kind of failure felt worse than any test I’d ever bombed. From those experiences, I’ve learned how to apologize to people I care about, how to be a better communicator and how to tell someone that I like them. All of these things are a part of a new metric for success that I’m creating for myself at Dartmouth. 

Of course, success on paper matters. I want to thrive intellectually and get good grades and be respected by my professors. But I also want to be a good friend, roommate and confidant. I still love school, I’m still pre-med and hopefully grad school-bound after college. But instead of being the smartest person in the room, I’ve learned that I am a lot of other things. I am a lover of Foco breakfast and of finding synonyms for words. I love fun socks and high-top shoes and talking about religious theory. I love journalism and writing the perfect article subhead. I love sitting on the porch at Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority and playing pong and trying new club sports. 

I knew some of these things in high school, but to be honest, I spent most of my time before Dartmouth being the best at school. It wasn’t until I gave that up that I realized all of this. 

To the Class of 2025: you will fail during your time here. You might bomb a test, lose a relationship or be rejected from the organization of your dreams. But I hope you will find that each of these closed doors leads you to somewhere unexpectedly good, whether it is to a new major, a new interest or a new friend. I know that has certainly been the case for me.