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Life was easy in elementary school. As long as we paid attention, didn’t fight other kids and dutifully recited our ABCs, we were good. We were smart, and we were praised for it. The same thing went on in middle school and, even to some extent, in high school. Even if you went to a challenging high school that was academically rigorous, the effort you put in was taken into account in one way or another. For most people, there was partial credit — even if the answer was wrong, as long as your steps looked somewhat logical, you got a few points back. The longer the essay, the better the score it was likely to receive. Sometimes just completing the homework was enough. Accuracy didn’t matter.
At Princeton, things are different. Professors don’t look at long essays and think about how long it took to write, they just look at the content. If it’s terrible, so will be the grade it receives. It doesn’t matter if you studied for eight hours and your friend looked at the syllabus 20 minutes before the test. You have a better shot at getting a better grade, but depending on how smart your friend is you two may get the same exact grade. Dance groups across campus say they’ll take people with zero dance experience — sure, if you’re preternaturally flexible and can come up with your own improv choreography on the spot. Despite what they say at the club fair, a Princeton dance group or a cappella group or orchestra is not for the “interested” or “enthusiastic” — it’s for the good. Because no one cares how hard you try. It’s all about the results.
Take that principle up a notch, and you have the summer internship fair. There, of all places, it becomes abundantly clear that all that matters is how good you are. How good you are could be measured in the number of programming languages you know and your proficiency in them, in how fluently you can speak multiple languages, in how good your interpersonal and communication skills are. But no matter the metric, companies care most about what skills you have, not whether you tried really hard in math but couldn’t get the hang of it, whether you wrote some poems for a lit mag but they didn’t get accepted. As a sophomore who is not skilled at the moment, I was definitely turned away by the majority of companies there who were looking for experienced upperclassmen, and I accept that. I’m simply not good enough right now for the internship positions they’re looking to fill, but I’ll strive to change that for next year.
It feels like there’s almost no room for error. That’s because there isn’t. That’s how it is at Princeton and even more so in the real world. If you make mistakes, you will pay for them, either with a hit to your grade or with your job. That’s not to say every little mistake will cost you everything you have, but every little mistake will make a difference. There will be employers watching, and it will impact your reputation. As we get older and older, we have progressively fewer opportunities to make mistakes and still get away with it. While we’re still in college, perhaps it’s OK to make a number error on a problem set; perhaps we’ll still get a little bit of partial credit. But in the future, when Princeton students get real jobs, human error will be a big deal. It could mean millions of dollars, servers crashing, a man dying on the operating table.
The funny thing is that all this cynicism was inspired by a very trivial matter. Last year, I locked myself out of my single and had to visit the housing department for a temporary prox 17 times. This year, the housing department is charging $30 for temporary proxes after the third use. There is a monetary penalty for my forgetfulness now; if I make mistakes, I have to literally pay for them. At first I was indignant about this new policy, just as I was indignant about the exclusivity of extracurriculars last year and about the scrutiny with which COS TAs graded program comments. But that’s just what college does. It makes you realize your mistakes in ways you might not have in the past.
But the good thing about this is that even if mistakes matter now, it’s still not real life yet. If I lock myself out of my room again, it’ll cost me $30, but it’ll only affect me. It won’t affect my coworkers, my company, my clients, my patients or my students. In college, it’s still all about the results, but the results don’t have to be perfect just yet. Even though our mistakes will start to hurt now, we still have time to make them and learn from them.
Barbara Zhan is a sophomore from Plainsboro, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.