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What I'm not proud of

"Weren’t we done with this four years ago?" I thought, glaring at the job application. The poor application didn’t deserve my anger — I’m sure the pages bore me no ill will. But this application — to a firm we’ll call Biological Sciences Corp. — had a question which resurrected long-suppressed memories of 500-word personal statements. What achievement, BS Corp., asked, was I proudest of?

Unsurprisingly the answer to this question has changed somewhat in the last 20 years. Once, I’m sure, my proudest achievement was realizing that the round-shaped peg doesn’t fit in the star-shaped hole in the Fisher-Price toy that taught me spatial awareness and fine motor control. Later, that was surpassed by my pride in correcting a preschool teacher about subtleties of human anatomy — "The baby isn’t growing in her tummy, it’s in her uterus!"

My intellectual achievements did eventually grow less trivial —17-year-old Bennett would have listed his AP scores and debate victories until those achievements gave him that ultimate academic gold star, which was Princeton admission.

But that wasn’t all that got me into Princeton. Even at the tender age of 17, I recognized that an essay celebrating my GPA and AP scores would be either the most tedious or the most laughable part of some admission counselor's day. So I cast about for other things to take pride in and I found not only that I could talk up my non-intellectual achievements — service work in Detroit, science fiction — but also that merely by presenting them as important parts of myself, they became important to me.

This raises many uncomfortable questions about how impressionable teens are, how people modify their self-conceptions to fit others’ expectations, how little distinction there is between self-discovery and changing oneself and how college admissions is, like that Fisher-Price toy, about pounding round-shaped students into star-shaped holes. Instead of agonizing over all this, I padded my application with a sonnet that vaguely gestured at these concerns and also compared admissions officers unfavorably to Egyptian underworld guardians.

At Princeton, too, I took a sometimes perverse pride in my intellectual achievements — when a psychologist reassured one of my ISC classmates that symptoms of severe clinical depression were "normal" for someone with our course-load, we wore it as a badge of honor.

But I also started paying more attention to what I was proud of outside of academics. Was this a carryover from the forced introspection of college applications? Could I no longer define myself as a genius once I entered a school full of polymaths and valedictorians? Or is it simply that wisdom comes with age? I doubt it had anything to do with Princeton’s branding as "in the Nation’s Service." While it’s nice to think the institution can ensure its members are conscientious and altruistic by dictate, I think we pay lip service to that statement and then somehow manage to be introspective despite our disregard (perhaps through communities, not institutions).

Whatever the cause, I became proud not just of academic all-nighters, but also of having led an OA trip through the woods with a high ratio of personal growth to bodily harm. My heart was warmed when people told me that my op-eds — written to speak my truth — spoke their truth as well. I grew as a person and as a citizen.

And often, I did it in spite of my academics and my research.

It’s no secret that the workload at Princeton is too heavy. Princeton-specific factors — our calendar, our sometimes genuinely positive and sometimes masochistic drive to improve — combine with societal pressure for prestige and security to drive our overscheduled lives to ever-greater extremes. It was wonderful to hear President Emerita Shirley Tilghman acknowledge this during her Last Lecture with the senior class last week, challenging us to remember the last time we’d read for fun or taken a walk down the towpath to relax. But it is far easier to recognize that we spend too much effort on busywork than to actually ensure all students can suck the marrow out of their years here.

It’s important more than ever that we do. The age of the gig economy is upon us, the age of artificial intelligence not far behind, and the ability to be non-academically human will be just as, if not more, important than the venerated STEM or the venerable Liberal Arts.

But for now, BS Corp. doesn’t care whether I live life to the fullest — they don’t want a personal statement. I told them my proudest achievement was my senior thesis: a still-incomplete document, but a project that shows me and my future employers that I can commit a year of my life to a frustrating, interesting, challenging, expansive, incremental effort. But as excited as I was four years ago to cap my career here with a thesis, that isn’t truly my proudest achievement.

BS Corp. ended up rejecting me — I may as well have given them this column as a personal statement or told them my proudest achievement was knowing what a uterus is. But perhaps it’s for the best — after failing to force my round-peg-self into a star-shaped hole, I’ve decided to pursue a career in writing, not science.

Maybe that’s their answer. Maybe that’s something I can be proud of.

Bennett McIntosh is a chemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at