Column | March 7

Applying to Princeton

By Grace Li

In my recent tutoring session at a New Jersey prison, my student was analyzing an author’s portrayal of brotherhood. I found myself wishing that he had access to professors I know who would push and probe him even more than I did and a whole class of my peers who have helped cultivate my ability to formulate arguments and ideas. When my student responded to, “You can make it to college if you keep working hard,” with “Maybe I’ll see you at Princeton,” I saw the glass ceiling beneath my feet. I thought, “The system is rigged against you, they’ll never let you in — we’ll never let you in.” Instead I said, “I’m a senior, so I’ll have graduated.”

He would not get in. When applying to the University, we all had to indicate whether we had been “adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime” unless, of course, our records had been expunged. Though one checked box does not necessarily disavow an entire application, given Princeton’s low acceptance rate, he and others in a similar situation do not have a chance. In fact, they are being disincentivized to apply or even think about applying. These potential students, correctly, see a near-zero probability of being chosen over countless other applicants with similar qualifications and a spotless record.

During my second year at Princeton, I began to volunteer as a tutor in New Jersey prisons through the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program. Through working weekly with students, many of whom are at least my equals in intellect and personal strength, I have come to recognize that my opportunity to be at Princeton came largely from winning the birth lottery.

By chance, I was born to educated parents who benefited from China’s first recent easing of emigration restrictions. They relocated to a country in which I would have greater opportunities and carefully chose their residences based on the quality of school district. They offered me freedom to explore and gave me constant emotional, financial and logistical support. Fate and my parents’ choices have peopled my world with teachers, mentors and friends who have made my life stimulating and happy. These people, whom I consider “my team,” have done everything possible to help me succeed in a way that has landed me at Princeton. My current situation is as much a result of my hard work as of my luck.

Many who fared worse in the birth lottery were born poor and/or non-white, born into the types of families that do not feed into Princeton, born into communities neglected by businesses and political representatives but targeted by the criminal justice system.

One in four Americans has had contact with the justice system. The way the justice system treats these Americans depends on their background and factors outside of their control. As one example, black and white people use marijuana at similar rates but black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Those with restricted access to Princeton due to “criminal pasts” are not making choices so different from ours. Growing up, my friends and I spent lawless weekends and summers in the Swarthmore woods and each other’s basements in Rose Valley, Pa., an East Coast suburb so small and quaint that it does not have a police force. My classmates had parents who were pro bono lawyers, but had defense attorneys who were expensive experts at keeping these teenagers’ slates clean. Having expunged records perpetuated the very same privilege that afforded access to these top-notch attorneys.

I am here, and my students from Petey Greene are in prison.

Now that I am here, it is easy to think that the system is flawless. After all, it accepted me, so why question it? We form miniature social and extracurricular institutions on campus – eating clubs, student groups – where access is restricted because access is precious. The existing members have some proven value, so only the most worthy can gain access to their – our – time. Our desire to protect the quality of a group breeds trust in the selectivity as well as the selection process and structure.

In admissions we trust, especially, because we have been admitted. The entire process aims to pick out the best – not only those who will succeed at Princeton and make the most of this opportunity, but also those worthy of accessing the existing resources including, prominently, the human resources. Who deserves to explore ideas with this swath of outstandingly intelligent, creative, and hardworking students? Who should have the chance to build friendships with people with immense social capital? Who is worthy of access to peers who may become some of the most powerful business partners, political allies, our generation’s influential thinkers and artists, the ideal colleagues?

Access changes lives. When I was applying to colleges, my mother’s American friend warned her that only kids with the “right granddaddies” got accepted to my chosen schools. Unfazed I vowed to start my own legacy. After (almost) four years of integrating into the seat of (almost) paradisiacal privilege, I recognize the possible future trajectories Princeton opens.

At the same time, volunteering through Petey Greene has shown me the trajectories that involvement with the justice system closes. Knowing this, I no longer feel as strongly about being the head of some vertical line of privilege, as my hypothetical children will too by chance be born into privilege.

I want to share the access to privilege, now, with others who have fared worse in the birth lottery.

There are countless inequalities that make the road to Princeton difficult, but there is action we can take. We can resist keeping our gates closed to those who by chance have had too little opportunity thus far in their lives. The Admissions Opportunity Campaign calls on Princeton to lessen the barrier by removing all questions about past involvement with the justice system from the undergraduate application for admission. It is one step for our university to take toward acting truly in the nation’s service.

Grace Li is a Wilson School major from Media, Pa. She is a co-founder of SPEAR and member of the Admissions Opportunity Campaign. She can be reached at

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