Column | Dec. 11

'What'd you do to get into Princeton?'

Staffing a historical committee at PMUNC, Princeton’s high school Model United Nations tournament, this past weekend, I inevitably got asked some pretty weird questions by the delegates of my 14-person Berlin Conference simulation. “Can the delegation of Belgium stage a democratic revolution to overthrow the King so that I don’t have to vote for this treaty?” “Can you look up some stats on the weapons manufacturing industry in Denmark in the 1880s for me?” “Is it OK for me to reference ‘Heart of Darkness’ even though it wasn’t written until 50 years after this conference?”

By far though, the most awkward questions weren’t about the conference. They were the unavoidable questions about college admissions, especially since about two-thirds of the members were either high school juniors or seniors. After some of the committee sessions, delegates would come up to ask me or my chair what our top-choice schools were, what to say in an alumni interview or to recite the list of colleges to which we applied and got accepted. The question that surprised me the most of these though was, “What’d you do to get into Princeton?”

When he first asked me, I tried to reconcile the standard feelings that the question elicits: Scrambling to try to say something super impressive-sounding and inadequacy in wondering why I even belong at Princeton. Trying to avoid attempting to answer a question I obviously don’t have an answer to, I asked the delegate to be more specific and a few minutes later found myself having to list my SAT scores and high school leadership positions.

After a while, I realized that it’s probably better not to think about questions like these, and more importantly, that it’s probably better not to know the answers. In not knowing why I got accepted to Princeton, what specific accomplishment or impressive-sounding recommendation put me ‘over the edge’ in the admission committee meeting, I don’t feel defined by any single accomplishment. While it’s probably not the case for the majority of students, for some, there very well may be that one special accomplishment that almost single-handedly got them into Princeton. For me, not feeling like I have an easy answer to “Why are you here?” makes me instead feel that I don’t have a mantle to uphold in any specific area and can have some flexibility in my choices. I didn’t win the Intel Science Award, I didn’t manage a gubernatorial campaign and I’ve never been nominated for a Grammy. As such, I don’t feel that I have some unbelievable standard to live up to, in one very concentrated area. For most people applying, past a certain point of grades, accomplishments, extracurriculars, etc. the admission decisions are effectively a lottery system, and the decision cannot be solely accredited to one individual thing.

Not knowing why my admission letter began with “Congratulations!” is also motivating. On some level, a bit of insecurity is a good thing. To put a positive spin on it, “insecurity” can simply mean feeling like I have to “earn my place.” I don’t at all feel like I’m entitled to be here or that my accomplishments make my presence here an inherent right. It would be quite easy for Princeton to find another me; in fact, probably hundreds of people who had the same qualifications, interests and background as me applied to Princeton (as a white male from New England who went to private school and wants to be a Wilson School major, I’m literally positive this is true). It makes me work harder and incentivizes me not to give anything less than a full effort, even despite the crushingly busy schedule we all face.

In not knowing that I got accepted only because of one particular accomplishment, which I would obviously feel obliged to continue and live up to, I have a freedom to try new things. If I had won an Intel Science Prize, I would feel guilty being a comp-lit major. Had I started a multi-national charity that runs schools for orphans in some impoverished country, I would feel guilty giving it up to pursue a club sport I’d never tried. But I didn’t.

So when a high school kid asks me what I did to get into Princeton, I could list off the grades and scores I got or the extracurriculars I did and led, but I think now that I’d proudly say that there was no one thing that got me here. Instead I would advise that student to present himself honestly, and not try to be a superstar at the expense of cherished interests. Because as I now know, there’s at least some space open at Princeton for people who are still waiting to make their mark.

Ryan Dukeman is a freshman from Westwood, Mass. He can be reached at rdukeman@princeton.edu.

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