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Career fair competition

The two words “career fair” shined in a golden light; they were alluring, magical words that carried the promise of internships and job opportunities galore. Unfortunately, there seems to be a pervading mentality that dictates that summer vacation is only a vacation in name and that, in order to build up a resume, students simply have to land a position with some big, reputable firm. Upon arriving at Princeton, I, and many others, I suspect, have come to believe that to be the truth, despite the fact that we of the great Class of 2017 will not be on the active job market for another four long years. Regardless, the chance to see exactly what employers look for in a candidate was too interesting a prospect to miss —that, and the fact that most booths usually give out freebies, convinced me to attend.

When I spoke with the representatives myself, I generally tried to convey that I was a freshman as soon as I could. I’m not sure what I was expecting —perhaps some part of me naively hoped that the reps would appreciate the enterprising and adventurous nature of a member of Princeton’s youngest class trying to make a name for himself. Instead, most looked at me with a smile that wasn’t really a smile and an expression that conveyed a disguised look of pity. They often mentioned something along the lines of “Oh, that’s nice! Unfortunately, we are looking more for juniors, or maybe sophomores. But feel free to apply next year!”

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The rationale behind the brusque dismissal was quite simple. Most freshmen lack any real specialization, as they are, for the most part, taking introductory classes and trying to fulfill their course distribution requirements. Why would anyone even consider a “prospective” economics major still taking ECO 101: Introduction to Macroeconomics, when there are so many more qualified upperclassmen out there vying for the same position, upperclassmen currently taking courses such as ECO 519: Advanced Econometrics, Nonlinear Models?

While it is logical for employers to prefer experienced students, what’s so wrong with freshmen (and indeed, students in general) trying to gain experience, valuable experience, in fields that interest them? The career fair brought up an interesting oxymoron —on the one hand, employers attend career fairs such as the one last month in order to attract and entice promising students, students who attend a world-renowned educational institution known for encouraging intellectual risks and for promoting an active exploration of a variety of subjects (why else would the distribution requirements exist?). On the other hand, in order to obtain a job or an internship, students need to be specialized —they need to have tailored skill sets and well-developed proficiency in the field that they hope to get into. Want work at Colgate? What experience do you have in chemical engineering? Want to work with Dropbox? Show us some of the past software projects you’ve developed or designed. It’s the classic bait-and-switch. Promise one thing —that there’s a position, a spot, a special seat for everyone —then reveal the reality: There’s only a job for students who are already experts.

This raises an interesting dilemma. People are not struck with sudden epiphanies regarding what they want to spend the rest of their lives doing; they don’t wake up in the middle of the night with the revelation that they want to be cardiac surgeons or software engineers or literary critics. Rather, it is a gradual process, a process of discovery, through which people come to realize where their interests lie. A variety of studieshave shown that hands-on experience is often the best way to learn and foster interest —after actively working in a field, it is much easier to decide if that field resonates or not. Yet in order to enter any specific field, students first need to be experts even before they apply for the job.

Where’s the learning curve? The experimentation period? It seems that in this increasingly competitive world, expertise is a prerequisite for success, which is not a positive change. The need for specialization leaves students with an ultimatum of sorts: restrict yourselves to a single area of study and become “experts,” or else don’t get that internship or that position. Maybe it’s time for employers to change their mindsets and to start considering qualifications other than pure expertise; qualifications such as a holistic educational background that covers a broad swath of subjects and areas, an education that renders a student not necessarily an expert, but rather someone capable of creative and constructive thought. After all, capability comes in many forms.

Jason Choe is a freshman from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He can be reached at jasonjc@princeton.edu.

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