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Being Ordinary: How to Cope as an Average Student at a Top University

The day I got into Duke was one the best of my life. Not only was I thrilled at the prospect of attending my dream school, I was also enormously relieved that all the hours I had put into my applications and school work had not been for naught. I had gotten into a top university, and from there on out it would be smooth sailing. Or so I thought.

A few months later, as I was sitting in the Duke Chapel during Convocation listening to the Dean of Admissions rattle off the achievements of my peers, I started to get a little nervous. I had never written a book. I had made no progress on ameliorating the AIDs crisis, and I really only spoke one language fluently. During Convocation I realized I might be average here, if I’m lucky.

The idea of being an ordinary student didn’t sit well with me at first. I felt inadequate when I realized that some kids seemed to grasp ideas more quickly than I did, or knew more about global issues. Coming to terms with being a small fish in a big pond took some time. Here are some ways to stay afloat when you feel like a little fish.

Let Your Peers Elevate You, Not Intimidate You

You know that kid in your Poli Sci class, the one who seems to read about political theory for fun? Or the quiet guy in your math class who always seems to be a few steps ahead of the professor? Our seemingly brilliant classmates, whoever they may be, don’t have to be our competition. They can be our resources. Tuning out those people who seem to know everything makes you miss out on one the best aspects of a Duke education- what you can learn from the other students. Just because someone knows more than you doesn’t mean they’ll judge you for not knowing as much. If it’s something they’re passionate about, they’ll probably want to help you learn. Swallowing your pride and asking good questions will help you get on their level, and enter the discussion.

Focus on Yourself

Instead of comparing your understanding and abilities to those around you, judge yourself against yourself. Even if you never know as much about a subject as some of your peers, you can still greatly improve what you do know. Dwelling on what you don’t know can make you feel paralyzed, and cause you to feel more overwhelmed and inadequate in class. Making the switch between “I can’t learn this” and “I will learn this” gives you more confidence. If you just do your work as well as you can, you don’t really have to worry about what other people are doing.

Rachel Toor, in an article called “The Joys of Being the Dumbest Person in the Room,” writes that for people who are used to success, questioning, “who made a mistake and admitted me?” is very normal. The unease this second-guessing creates is actually good for us. According to Toor, “when you’re on the upslope of learning, life is rich and exhilarating.” So don’t let your little fish status depress you, let it motivate you to work harder and be better. You belong at Duke. Now get out there and prove it to yourself.


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