When another admission cycle came to a close last month, I felt a familiar sense of unease with my place on campus, as it brought back memories from the first few months after I was admitted to Princeton. My father is a professor here, and my uncle was an undergraduate student, so my admission was almost guaranteed, so long as I maintained a good academic record in high school.
As a result, I have experienced a lot of resentment, both from students and otherwise, about how I was admitted. There’s a taboo against talking too much about where and how you got into college, and for me, that was taken to another level. Even now, when I’m not faced with the same level of scrutiny, I sometimes question whether I really deserve to be here, whatever that means.
A few months ago, standing in line at Whole Foods, a woman came up to me, eyeing the Princeton logo on my sweatshirt with an intense look of awe and curiosity. She asked me how I had gotten in, what my grades and standardized test scores were, and what extracurricular activities I had done. Though this struck me as out of place and intrusive, I answered her politely. But her all-too-familiar line of questioning bore into me as I recognized what this woman really wanted to know — what does it take to be a Princeton student?
I felt myself shed the protection of my Princeton apparel as I told her that I did get good grades and received strong standardized test scores, but also that I had legacy connections and that my dad works as a professor at the University. Her face changed, as she realized that I benefited from advantages that her son in eighth grade would never have.
This sort of reaction is not unique. My ophthalmologist told me that I probably didn’t have very good test scores and I definitely wasn’t a “real” Princeton student. I told her that standardized testing was stupid, though I happened to be really good at it, and that I was as much a Princeton student as anyone else with “princeton.edu” at the end of their email address. But I knew what she meant, and sometimes I struggle to convince myself that I am a “real” student.
In the classroom, when I hear other students rattle off their high school achievements, or refer to philosophers I have never heard of, this nagging sense of not belonging creeps in. As I try to grasp at the core of why I belong, at understanding my admission as a result of an opaque and often unfair admissions system, sometimes it feels like there is nothing.
When it comes to figuring out what it means to be a Princeton student, my instinct is usually to remove the many privileges that paved my path to admission and try to get at my central justifications for being here. I try to convince myself that I’m smart enough, and that I can think quickly and speak convincingly. I’ve come to realize, however, that my approach is flawed. Questions about my ability or worthiness to be a Princeton student usually trigger this instinct.
The privileges I had in the admissions process — as a legacy and child of a faculty member from a high-income area — are not unique. I see commonalities in the ways many students, from recruited athletes to legacy kids to graduates of elite private schools, explain their admission stories. And I see it in precept, when every single student describes their winter break trips as either skiing or traveling to warm places. Over 70 percent of the student body is from the upper 20 percent of the income bracket in the United States. It is also evident in admission statistics — almost 40 percent of the Class of 2021 went to private school, 13 percent of them were children of alumni, and around 17 percent of the previous class were recruited athletes, which most likely was pretty much unchanged for the Class of 2021. Though there is overlap between these groups, they get at how common these sorts of admissions boosters are and the kind of privileges that almost all students had in getting into Princeton.
Questioning the individual privileges that I, or any other student, had at gaining admission to this university can be not only hurtful but also misguided, because it assumes that I am the exception to the rule. This is simply not true. The criticisms directed toward me have largely been motivated by a sense of personal injustice, as if my place at the University bumped the Whole Foods mom’s eighth grade child, or my classmate in high school, or my ophthalmologist’s son, out of their rightful spots at the University.
This is also not true, as it would be implausible for their child to be the highest-ranked person on the waitlist who didn’t get accepted. It also puts me in an awkward spot when I have to respond because I do empathize with their general concerns with the admissions system. These concerns, however, shouldn’t be directed at me, or any other individual student deemed “not really a Princeton student.”
It’s clear that being an exceptional individual isn’t enough to get into Princeton. Almost everyone has had some sort of exceptional privilege, in their financial situation or a more specific admissions booster. A “real” Princeton student is a product of privilege, luck, and money, and I do think that needs to change. There are broader, systemic inequities in the admissions system, like the over-representation of certain races and income groups, and faculty and legacy preferences. When people question the legitimacy of my admission, it usually comes from a feeling of personal injustice.
But if we want to have honest conversations about the entire admissions system, we need to move away from pointing at individual circumstances, be it legacy admits, children of faculty, or varsity athletes, and look to broader, systemic inequities in the admission systems. Coming to terms with my place on campus meant realizing that there is no way for me to prove that I am objectively qualified to be here. But I do think I belong as much as anyone else.
Cy Watsky is a first-year from Princeton, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.