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Why you don’t feel successful at Princeton

<h6>East Pyne Hall.</h6>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
East Pyne Hall.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

I spent my first two summers of high school completing state-required gym classes so that I could fit more science classes into my schedule during the academic year. Every morning, I had to run a lap on the track with my classmates under the searing July sun.

I ran these sprints several dozen times, and their outcomes were always the same. The track athletes reached the finish line first, followed by the people who were neither in nor out of shape, who were trailed in turn by the less athletic students or bulky athletes who were known more for their muscle than their speed. 


No matter how hard anyone tried, their relative ranking in the race never changed because some of the students — namely the track stars — had received so much more training to run the lap that no one could catch up to them in our brief few weeks of gym classes. 

A sixth sense has long told me that the Princeton experience is like one of these morning laps. Students stand along the starting line at opening exercises, and then they’re off to the races once Orientation begins, attempting to achieve more and outdo their peers in every way. But few can pull ahead who aren’t already primed to do so.

As a junior and senior columnist for The Daily Princetonian, I’ve pieced together demographic data on the eating clubs’ memberships, mapped undergraduates’ hometowns, analyzed confidential grading data, chronicled the inner workings of the admission process, and tracked the winners of top academic awards. These sources have confirmed my hunch that our college trajectories are split like the runners on my high school track.

The conclusions that I reached from these investigations agreed what I had long suspected: Students’ upbringings significantly influence — if not outright determine — the course of their academic and social lives at Princeton.

During the final months of my senior year, I discovered the smoking guns that I had long been searching for. Buried in the Mudd Manuscript Library, I found documents in which admissions officers acknowledged — and even predicted — that various groups of students would perform differently because of how they fit into the classes that they crafted. The practical and ethical consequences of this knowledge affect nothing less than the very futures of the undergraduates across the highest echelons of higher education. 

Princeton’s admissions process — along with those of the rest of the Ivy League — underwent a dramatic transformation in the 1960s. It began favoring academic superstars over children of rich aristocrats. Instead of admitting well-rounded students, it created well-rounded classes of narrowly-interested students. The University wanted a student body that was diverse in every way, but it also had to address the demands of various factions within its community, such as finding recruits to fill a coach’s team or accepting children of alumni to avoid disturbing the donation stream. 


Thus, the “round system” developed by E. Alden Dunham ’53 satisfied all of these pressures by flagging athletes, debaters, legacies, ruralites, engineers, and minorities and separating them from the overall applicant pool to be considered individually in successive phases. Although the round system was eliminated in the 1980s, its admission preferences persisted. The trade-off to selecting students in this manner is that their scholastic abilities vary considerably. 

In 1960, Harvard’s dean of admissions, Fred Glimp, openly pioneered the practice of admitting a “happy bottom quarter.” Any class will have a bottom quarter of students, he reasoned. If driven bookworms filled it, then they’d have an unpleasant college experience, as their inferior status in the campus hierarchy would frustrate them. His alternative approach to keep everyone happy was to populate a class’ bottom quarter with students of lower academic prowess but of some particular identity or extracurricular skill, so they wouldn’t mind their lower position.

I couldn’t find any documents revealing whether Princeton’s admissions officers agreed with this philosophy. Nonetheless, the effects of their own new system were similar, in that they wedged divisions in the student body. And they knew that would be the result. 

“The problem as we state it here is an old one: Two students of the same ability come to Princeton with quite different preparation. The graduate of an Advanced Placement physics course at Exeter is way ahead of a student of equal ability who sat through the gym teacher’s physics course in a regional high school in Kentucky. Princeton for years has been admitting both,” Director of Admission John T. Osander ’57 wrote in 1969. He noted that the “gap” between well-prepared and ill-prepared students was largest in math and science.

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In 1973, the Office of Admission prepared a report in which it predicted — by combining data from applications and graduates’ transcripts — how students admitted in special groups would perform once they were at Princeton. Applicants who were admitted purely for their outstanding academic and extracurricular work or who had “special academic strengths” would earn a B-plus on average. Legacies, along with athletes, were B-minus students, and Black students, if they received “significant” preference, would be given C-pluses. Similar predictions could probably be made for undergraduates’ social lives.

Despite half a century passing since then, studies — including “Reclaiming the Game” by former University president William Bowen GS ’58 and “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal” by Thomas Espenshade GS ’72 — have confirmed that these rifts persist.

It would be too harsh to say that the Office of Admission is setting up students to fail. After all, these differences exist because an anxious upper middle class is pushing their kids to cram more academics — leaving everyone else behind — in the hopes that they improve their chances of getting into places such as Princeton. But admissions certainly isn’t setting up some students to succeed in all aspects of college. 

“Potential careers in medicine and engineering, for example, have sometimes been aborted during an unsuccessful freshman year encounter with a course for which the student lacked adequate preparation,” Osander wrote. A modern spin on the same observation could say, “Students abort potential careers in medicine and engineering because even though they are adequately prepared, accelerated coursework at magnet schools prepared their classmates much better, leading them to feel inadequate in comparison.”

Suppose a student falls out of the niche that the Office of Admission thought they would occupy on campus. A 1968 report to the faculty admitted, “One of the poorest admission decisions we make is one that brings a high school athlete with modest academic ability to Princeton, when that man ends up not making one of our varsity teams and not able to find another outlet for his energy.” It’s no secret that some athletes with modest academic ability still receive substantial breaks in admissions. 

Imagine one of these athletes getting injured early in her freshman year so that she can no longer play. Detached from her primary social group, she may have difficulty navigating Prospect Avenue where — as I have reported — athletic affiliations impact who gets into which eating club. In precepts, she may become discouraged when she can’t match her peers in intellectual firepower. Of course, I don’t mean to say that she won’t reap any benefits from a Princeton education in the long-term. But her four years here may be quite miserable as she struggles to succeed. 

Now imagine the same athlete, except that in her freshman year, after being injured, she decides to pursue a lofty goal — a Rhodes scholarship, say, or admission to Harvard Law School, or an engineering job at Google. Her academic credentials predict that she’ll earn a GPA of 2.2, but she works very hard to get a 3.2. 

In her senior year, she applies for her goal and gets rejected on the grounds that her grades aren’t high enough (or for some other reason). Meanwhile, a student admitted on academic merit with a predicted GPA of 3.9 might cruise through college with less effort, get a 3.7, and be accepted. Even though the athlete beat the odds, her efforts go unrecognized.

While I picked an athlete to illustrate my point, it could be anyone: a musician, an environmentalist, a student from a low-income background. The current admissions philosophy of a well-rounded class — combined with its penchant for wealthy applicants — creates a well-ordered ecosystem defined by one’s background. 

Most students, I think, naturally fit into their assigned niches and don’t question them. But the well-rounded class philosophy also makes it difficult for students to try new things or prevents them from achieving specific goals because there are students who — by the nature of their life before college — are better prepared to accomplish them. 

A first-year student taking MAT 103: Calculus I, for example, has a slim chance of becoming a math major. Students who follow that path usually start in MAT 215: Single Variable Analysis and have already attended rigorous math camps before college. 

A middle-class rural student from the Rocky Mountains will have a tough time getting into the Ivy Club, where students from big cities and private school graduates rule

A recruited athlete will seldom win a Shapiro Prize. His commitments to a team may prevent him from devoting enough time to keep up with top students, or he may have been admitted with lower academic talents. 

A student who didn’t spend a decade learning to play the violin won’t pass the audition to join a faculty-led orchestra.

A student from a typical public high school in engineering isn’t going to win a Rhodes scholarship or become a valedictorian. Her many classmates from magnet schools will frequently beat the grading curves and set faculty’s expectation for how their classes should perform. The list could continue ad infinitum.

In short, I’ve learned, how you were admitted will largely guide your undergraduate career at Princeton. If you want to leave your assigned niche or aspire to a goal where you won’t be competitive, then, like the runners in my high school races, you will be sorely disappointed when you realize your position rarely changes.

This is the final article in a series about Princeton’s admissions process.

Liam O’Connor ’20, from Wyoming, Del., concentrated in geosciences. He can be reached at