At a holiday party over winter break, I asked a high school friend, who had entered Yale as a freshman in the fall, about her college experiences. Between boozy tales and suite-mate anecdotes, she mentioned that she had joined a publication and dropped it within two weeks. Explaining why, she claimed that the publication’s expectations for new members proved too much for her to handle and, in her mind, produced little pay-off. She informed me that Yale’s student organizations rarely require selective applications or auditions— just an obscene level of commitment for their new members. First, I doubt this to be ubiquitously true of Yale’s student organizations. I imagine the worlds of elite a capella, the Yale Daily News and secret societies would scoff at such a trusting assumption. The conversation did make me wonder, though: is Princeton’s extracurricular culture of requiring applications for any and nearly every club membership the best method for funneling students into causes to which they will truly be committed?
My problem with applications for membership in student organizations does not stem from an issue with selectivity. The unfortunate truth is that certain students have skills best suited or most adaptable to particular activities, and the resources of each student organization can only support so many members. Anyway, it’s best not to be coddled here when in fact, the institutions we encounter beyond our graduation will use similar principles of selectivity to determine whether or not we are a match for them. Applications, however, are unfavorable determinants of success and commitment in three ways: 1) they favor the good writers, the greatest spin-doctors of accomplishment, 2) they permit laziness and 3) they tend to favor past experience over future potential.
Applications to Undergraduate Student Government committees, Pace Center programs and many special interest organizations on campus require you to answer generic questions regarding your motivations for applying, potential contributions to the organization and maybe an anecdote about a time you did something special. Students with a capacity for writing, or at least those not averse to writing, may churn out answers to such applications without much thought. While written applications can be important indicators of communication skills and excellent vehicles for conveying passion, they may be ineffective in cases of students for whom writing is not a particularly comfortable language of communication. Even in the case of undergraduate college admissions, personal essays are supplemented by academic record, recommendation letters, scores and extracurricular achievements. This is neither to suggest that the SAT score is a valid indicator of potential success in college nor to propose that Princeton extracurricular activity applications start asking for standardized testing results— that would be terrifying. Still, the multiplicity in the types of indicators allows students the opportunity to represent their potential in different ways. Written applications, thus, prove restrictive and favor the writers of the lot.
Applications permit laziness. If you’ve written an application and been lucky enough to get accepted into an organization, you’re good to go. The terms of membership for many student organizations are often scantily outlined and little enforced. You can afford to contribute nothing to a group for two semesters and your membership will still be waiting for you in the third. Applications are one-time efforts; while they may sometimes be suitable determinants of relevant experience, they don’t effectively gauge likelihood of commitment because applicants are not required to undergo any real grueling process in order to obtain membership. The exceptions to this rule may be organization like the Princeton University Press Club and any other clubs with similar recruitment processes. The Press Club isn’t perfect either, but it does make prospective members work long and hard to obtain membership, and the process itself seems a worthwhile growing experience.
Applications essentially make membership contingent upon relevant past experience. This is valuable in many respects because relevant past experience may mean you’ll be quickly adaptable to the contexts and requirements of the organization. But a relevant background says little about your willingness to commit to a similar cause on campus. The type of person you are and your ability to cultivate passion for a cause, rather than your immediate familiarity with it, may be stronger indicators of what you will actually contribute to the organization. Such indicators may be best accessed through more extensive recruitment processes that immerse students in the realities and expectations of membership. Although it can be trying and a little risky for both students and the organizations recruiting them to opt for more inclusive recruitment procedures, doing so may prove best for the future and development of such organizations. Where talents can be cultivated and are not immediately necessary, we should consider this alternative.
Reva Abrol is a sophomore from Syosset, NY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.