Dear 100 Hour Board,
I am going to be a senior in high school in the fall and was wondering about coming to BYU. My parents went there and I know BYU is a good school, but I wonder about going there sometimes. I am fairly intelligent and a lot of my really good friends who are also pretty intelligent (but not members) are planning to go to Harvard, Stanford, USC, etc. and when I mention BYU, I feel that it doesn't quite have the same ring. I feel like if I go to BYU, I might be settling. I know it shouldn't be all about prestige or whatever, and that BYU is a really good school, but I'm still not sold. And I am praying about it. But I was wondering, why you on the Board decided to go to BYU (please don't say to get married!) as well as how you've enjoyed it? From reading the Board, I can see that BYU obviously has its quirks, but I would appreciate your opinions.
Thank you so much for your help!!
- Need to Have Direction in My Life
Dear Need to Have Direction in My Life,
I attended one of the schools you mentioned and loved it. I am at BYU doing grad work and plan on going back to another one of the schools you mentioned for another graduate degree. BYU is not the last stop on academic careers and in my case, it was the perfect place to find that faith and academics can co-exist after a fairly secular education. Attending a non-LDS school could be the right thing for you for several reasons. One of my friends from my first college ward told me that she felt she needed to be an example to others outside of Utah as a young person with strong morals in an increasingly permissive college culture.
Since I have experience at a school you mentioned, as well as having friends (and siblings) at most of the U.S. News "top" 10 schools, I can tell you that people who do well in life do not have to attend one of those schools to achieve those things. One thing I can tell you from experience with friends is that going to a school to impress others is not going to make you happy.
So, yes, BYU is not as widely known across the board as the schools you mentioned. But you have to remember that for a school of over 30,000 students to still have the average GPA and ACT requirements be so high, BYU is a solid place to attend. If BYU were to accept 7,000 students like most schools in the bizarrely-important U.S. News Rankings, then its status would surely skyrocket. I contend that the best students at BYU could be the best students at Harvard, Stanford, and USC, etc.
I have a friend with stellar grades here at BYU who told me that he was choosing between an Ivy League School and BYU and chose BYU because it is a "greenhouse" of sorts. He meant that it is a place where an intellectually curious person can really bloom and achieve the support and preparation that waits outside.
If you decide to investigate other schools, go ahead and find people in their student wards. You might find that the LDS community will be a valuable asset to your college experience.
Also, make sure you assess the schools for the experience you will achieve not just academically, but socially. BYU students are ten times happier than my classmates as an undergrad. Their trials are just as challenging as those of my former classsmates' but they take on the world with a faithful courage you will seldom find in other places.
There is something about the very elite schools that no one really talks about and that is the sense of privilege that pervades the student bodies. I'm not saying Tom Wolfe's "I am Charlotte Simmons" is completely accurate, but there are some realities that you will notice about colleges without a religious foundation. Among these are the alcoholic dependencies of students who still manage 4.0 GPAs, the sexual environment to which even the most morally honorable of people are exposed, and a culture of entitlement that you will very seldom find at BYU. Oh yeah, and drugs. Not to make anywhere-but-BYU sound like Gomorrah incarnate, but it is something to consider.
Ask the hard questions of the other schools. Ask about the instances of date rape, the use of alcohol in dorms, the disconnect between world-renown faculty and the students who might not see them as often as their public speaking tour agents might. You deserve to attend a school that will help you grow and learn and find your authentic self. Most of your learning occurs outside the classroom, so choose your learning places carefully!
A "big" name is nice, oh so very nice, indeed. I love looking at my college diploma and anticipate decorating my wall with a few others. That is not the same for everyone and you should be fully informed about all schools before weeding them out of the running.
Dear Needing Direction,
Sometimes BYU is presented as a mecca-type stereotype; because it is a Church-owned school, every sane Mormon should want to come here. But the truth is that BYU life isn't for everyone. It just isn't. Some people would rather die than abide by the honor code, and other people just can't take the stigma that is sometimes here. But other people really want the opportunity to learn here and they find a major that is just perfect for them. They settle into student life and get adjusted and think that BYU is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to them.
I wanted to come to BYU because I grew up with BYU. My parents graduated from here and my grandparents have both worked here (one as a professor), and all my aunts and uncles have come here too. Short of saying I was brainwashed into coming to BYU, I felt like I should come here because I would have some good experiences that would help me later in life. Some of my friends got into BYU and others didn't--the ones that didn't were either secretly glad, or they hated everyone who did get into BYU. However, I have found that the friends who didn't get in weren't really supposed to come here, and they went to other great institutions of learning and had the experiences that they needed--and they met their husbands too. They now think it is funny that I beat the BYU stereotype of coming to BYU to get married, since I am not and all my high school friends met their spouses at other schools.
Seriously though, the bottom line is that you need to go where you feel comfortable going. Have you been to BYU before? If not, plan a campus visit. Sometimes you need to see the physical location of what you'll be getting into. You can also walk around and see how you feel about being there. Some people come to BYU and are seriously creeped out. Others come and feel the spirit that is here and know they want to come here. So you might want to consider taking a campus tour if you haven't.
I came to BYU for one big, glowing, neon reason: MONEYYYYYYYY.
I really really really really really didn't want to come here. Reeeaaaaaalllllllly really. Really. My dad teaches here. Everyone in my family has gotten a degree of some kind from here. (Except my dad, actually.) I grew up in Orem. I hated Orem. I hated Utah. I would rather have died. I would rather have died by drinking Clorox. Then BYU gave me a lot of money.
I wanted to go to a small private college, but I didn't want sixty thousand in debt for a Bachelor's degree. I got good scholarship offers to a few other schools, but not as good of schools. BYU offered me more money than anyone else, and for a better education, and so here I am. This is, I still believe, the best thing about BYU: you get a good education at a very, very low price. And it is a good education. The name doesn't have the same ring, no, and I struggled with that myself, but the Ivy League ring comes at an Ivy League price that might hurt later. If you're planning on doing graduate work, think about getting your Bachelor's somewhere cheap, because you really don't want money to be a limitation when you're looking at grad schools.
Of course, for all I know you're independently wealthy, or by "fairly intelligent" you mean "a flaming genius," so you have your pick of schools at no cost to you. So here are some other things to consider.
1. The LDS religion is very much a part of academics on campus. This is both a good thing and a bad one. It's wonderful to be able to approach religion -- and not just religion in general, but your own religion -- in an academic way, to apply it to academics and see how study and faith can interact. On the other hand, there are teachers who are more than willing to co-opt the gospel to support their particular political viewpoints, or use the classroom as a preacher's corner for their take on the gospel. The American Heritage class I took should have been subtitled Why God Is A Republican. More than one religion class has made me want to leave the Church entirely. You'll find the set of beliefs you thought was your religion manipulated and twisted into all kinds of definitions and agendas; it can be very frustrating.
2. The meatmarket. I didn't come here on the guarantee of Celestialized matrimonial bliss, but it turns out other people did. If you want a wide range of Mormons to date, this is where they gather; however, I can't imagine another university where guys consider it their God-given responsibility to ask girls out, and girls' divinely-instituted gender role to say yes. Basically, while it is a good place for Mormons to meet, mingle, and marry, it can also be exhausting trying to get your calling done when the only reason you have it is because the Bishopric thought you and your co-chair might make a cute couple.
3. BYU wards. I've had good wards and bad wards, but they're all BYU wards, which means they're freaking schizophrenic crazy. People asking each other out in the opening prayer in sacrament meeting, girls bearing their testimony in Relief Society that "I know God loves me even though not being married yet at the age of nineteen is such a trriiaaalllllllll," a quarter of the ward just broke up with another quarter of the ward, and did you hear that LaElsa Snow totally prayed about Franklin Young last week, and they're totally not getting married?
4. The culture. Personally, I like being at a school where you can go to party and generally know that coming home without getting drunk or having sex with a guy who might have been named Brett, or maybe Chip. I also like that I can move into BYU housing with roommates I've never met, and be confident that they won't have having drunken frat parties in my living room. It's also nice to be able to talk openly with people about your faith and your religious experience. On the other hand, this is also a culture where you'll be chastised for drinking caffeine, watching The Simpsons, using birth control, and reading philosophy -- not by everyone, but by a hefty minority. And it's one thing to be condemned by a random stranger; it's another thing to be condemned by a random stranger who shares your religion and is condemning you on those terms.
Overall, I've liked my experience at BYU. I'm ready to leave, but I've gotten a good education, debt-free, and made a lot of very good friends. I wouldn't say that BYU has directly strengthened my testimony, but maybe I would say that it has been a trial which has forced my faith to grow up or die. Despite the direst of my expectations, I'm glad I came.
In sum, don't come to BYU just because you're "supposed to" and don't go to Harvard just so you can wear Veritas underwear for the rest of your life. Think about what you want to study and where you want to go with your life, what kind of culture you're willing to live in, and how much debt you can afford for an undergraduate degree. And, of course, pray about it.
-A. A. Melyngoch