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My naïve freshman self was shocked by the avalanche of emails that took over my inbox during the first week of Fall semester. As I scrolled through my new collection, I became increasingly anxious that I was not busy enough. These electronic envelopes all seemed to hold the golden ticket to a fulfilling semester, with their google application forms and open houses. The sea of applications overwhelmed me — they were reminders of how I wasn’t taking the full advantage of what the University was offering me. The University showered me with amazing opportunities but did not offer the guidance I needed to navigate through the complex web of options I was faced with, often for the first time. 

Fast forward to December, when the typical conversation starter switched from “Which residential college are you in?” to “What are you doing this summer?” Everyone around me, including myself,  seemed to ooze anxiety because they didn’t know what they were doing for their summer vacation. Like all the other confused and terrified freshmen, I joined the herd of applicants charging forward to earn their internships, fellowships, and various other opportunities. While the University sent me emails upon emails about ways to find good internships, I only found one email from Career Services advertising an hour-and-a-half long workshop to find which internship I should apply to. I felt lost. 

This phenomenon seemed normal at first, but in hindsight it was ironic. I came to the University because I was excited about the opportunities that it would offer me, but when faced with these opportunities I was so overwhelmed with stress that I could hardly exploit those opportunities. The fear that I would not be “competent” or “successful” if I didn't apply to multiple commitments to fill my resume was painfully tangible. Was this simply because I was insecure about my future? Partially, yes. However, the biggest problem was that I simply had too many options.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz, at his TED Talk in 2005, explained this ‘Paradox of Choice’ by presenting the negative effects of having excessive freedom of choice. One of the side effects of having overwhelmingly large number many options is that we become “paralyzed.” The multitude of choices overwhelms an individual to a degree where they are unable to choose as a result of analysis paralysis. It’s what you experience when you spend five minutes agonizing over whether to have pasta, a quesadilla, or pizza at late meal. What’s more, when we choose something, we become riddled with regret; the imagined alternative always seems to be the better choice in retrospect, and thus regret reduces the satisfaction we feel even when we did make a good choice. These two effects combined explain why the 103 Google form applications induced so much anxiety and stress in me. 

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we need to reduce the number of opportunities offered on campus. What I am suggesting, however, is that the University should have more consistent institutional guidance for underclassmen, who are still confused as to where they see themselves in the near future. The main reason that the abundance of opportunity and choice overwhelms these students is often because they are unsure about what they truly want to pursue in the future. Being undecided may scare students into thinking that they need to do everything to keep every door open. If the student could choose certain fields that they want to prioritize and explore, it would eliminate some options for them and thus allow them to concentrate their energy on pursuing a few select opportunities. 

However, students would need comprehensive and personalized guidance from wiser mentors to choose these priorities in the first place. Oftentimes it is difficult for an individual to analyze and assess their interests and skills by themselves. Comprehensive guidance would allow a student to discuss their strengths and weaknesses, potential career options, and passions with a mentor with objective perspective. This would create solid criteria based on which they could make their choices, rather than hastily applying and committing to everything in fear of missing out. For the stress comes from the lack of self-assurance that we are pursuing what we really want, not from the abundance of opportunity. 

What would “comprehensive guidance” provided on an institutional level look like? An example of such a career guidance program can be found at Dartmouth College. Dartmouth’s Center for Professional Development provides the Professional Development Accelerator CareerTracker Program, a flexible two-year program that allows students to assess their skills and interests and learn how to explore industries they find interesting. The difference between Dartmouth’s PDA CareerTracker Program and the University’s existing Career Service resources is that one is consistent while the other is sporadic. While the 30-minute appointments are definitely helpful, it is often very difficult to have a meaningful conversation about the future in such a short timeframe. However, if these 30-minute appointments were done with the same advisor over an extended period of time, they could serve as a map to which students may refer on their journey to the future. 

Implementing such an extensive program would certainly take time and resources. While the University should definitely work towards developing one, there are other less time-consuming initiatives it could start immediately. One of them would be developing a guidebook that coordinates information about application deadlines for various opportunities that the University offers. The guidebook could include timeline of events of application process, as well as general outline of when and where students look for their summer activities. The student groups could also contribute, and the Undergraduate Student Government could create a website where all information about when each group accepts applications or holds auditions could be organized in one place. Finally, the University could expand the Career and Life Visions workshops held by Career Services that help students explore their values, interests, and strengths. These types of workshops and advising sessions could be better publicized and more frequently than they are now. 

The University is indeed a Land of Opportunity. However, we must develop a way to help students take advantage of opportunities — to do so out of passion rather than out of FOMO (fear of missing out). Otherwise, we may find ourselves stuck in a wasteland instead, standing among piles of empty resume fillers.

Jinn Park is a first-year from Yongyin, South Korea. She can be reached at jinnp@princeton.edu.

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