Column | Oct. 1

The cult of exclusivity

When that orange tiger popped up on our screens back in March, it meant acceptance. It meant we beat out 93 percent of the applicant pool and made it to Princeton. It meant the end of awkward alumni interviews and hair-pulling stress sessions and agonizing over miniscule Common App edits. It was the end to the grueling college application season. Little did we know that in less than a year’s time, we’d be going through another application season, but this time for acceptance by our peers.

All of the colorful posters on the bulletin boards advertise auditions, promising “no experience necessary!” Several hundred rejections later, we definitely smell something fishy. After being initially accepted by Princeton, we have to fight all over again to be accepted. It no longer matters that we got straight As in high school and that we aced our SATs and AP exams. That’s the first thing on everyone’s resume here. Being smart is now average. Everything is by application, by audition. Am I the only one who finds it bizarre that even the Princeton Chocolate Lovers’ Club is by application only?

After winning the initial admission lottery and landing on the happy side of a 7 percent admission rate, once we’re here the odds are just not in our favor. I know someone who was rejected from intramural volleyball. There were four open spots and 12 hopefuls, 10 of whom were varsity players in high school. The star of a high-school track team getting rejected is no strange story here. “It sucks being told that you’re not good enough for what you’re good at here,” she said, after hearing back. I know people who were rejected from Triangle Club after years of Community Theater and others who’ve gotten rejected from Chapel Choir and Glee Club after years of high school choir.

For a freshman, it’s hard to find a group of friends in an extracurricular when you have to compete to get into it. And when you’re listening to 20 cheering girls picking up your hall mate for the group you didn’t get into, it just feels 10 times worse. Maybe getting hit by a long string of rejections is part of the Princeton experience, unless you’re a track star with the voice of Aretha Franklin who can dance like Michael Jackson. In that case, you’re set for all four years, socially at least. The “ normal” people will just have to climb the ladder, rung by bloody rung.

Ultimately, the question comes down to this: What good comes out of having such a cult of exclusivity permeating the campus? Perhaps it’s a taste of what’s to come in the real world, where capitalism means we fight to make it, and suck it up when we get hit by rejections. Is this good training, or is it something that contributes to the stress and depression that afflicts 50 percent of students? I’m leaning toward the latter, gloomier idea. Exclusivity creates a dichotomy of “good enough” and “not good enough.” When you’re told you’re “not good enough,” it stings. And when you’re not in control of the groups you want to join, it’s even worse.

On the flip side, perhaps this exclusivity is our own fault for choosing the most selective groups to apply for. The most highly advertised groups are the most popular and thus the most selective. But perhaps exclusivity and the occasional (or more) rejection is just what Princetonians need to prevent us from sinking into a lazy, self-satisfied complacency. It’s not high school anymore. We’re a step closer to the real world, where hard work and dogged diligence are essential to survival. Exclusivity hurts, but it might also be good for us. It could force us to new levels of excellence while preserving our sense of humility.

With that said, at the end of the day, if I’m going to petition for a new club this semester, it will be a club for people who didn’t get accepted into anything, and the club’s agenda will be to pick up everyone in the club. And of course, in classic Princeton style, the Society of People Who Didn’t Get Into Anything Else will be by application only.

Katherine Zhao is a freshman from East Brunswick, N.J. She can be reached at kz2@princeton.edu.

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