All is quiet on the email Listserv front. Most clubs have concluded their auditions, recruitment emails are slowing down to a trickle, and freshmen are settling into their extracurriculars. But tryouts season is never easy, especially at Princeton and peer institutions. A junior at Yale recently took to The Atlantic to bring to light the rise of “competitive club culture,” a phenomenon where almost every extracurricular activity — from a capella to club sports to debate — has a selective application process. In doing so, she joined a flurry of columnists from other schools chiming in about their own over-competitive campus cultures, with writers from the University of Michigan, Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and Princeton, complaining about the fact that students can never escape from competitive institutions. This represents a remarkable and organic outpouring of dissatisfaction, much of which has been oriented toward the student leaders responsible for perpetuating this system and the perceived culture of exclusivity and egotism.
I am now that guy, sitting on the other side of the interview table, as I have been for two years. As co-captain of the Princeton Model United Nations Team (PMUNT) and President of the International Relations Council (IRC), I have judged four seasons of tryouts for PMUNT, totaling somewhere in the vicinity of 200 prospective team members. It brings me no joy to report that a majority of those tryouts ended in rejection. In an ideal world, not a single one should have been denied admission. However, these gatekeeping systems exist for a reason, which is all the more reason why we have a responsibility as club leaders to adopt the best practices to keep the decision-making process as pain-free and fair as possible.
Peeking behind the curtain of club tryouts, the truth is that any organization involving traveling, performances, or other expensive activities is, at its heart, a business. Revenue comes in the form of ticket sales to a dance show or a system of digital advertisements, while expenses might include costumes and set design or booking hotels and train tickets. From this emerges a ruthless law of campus economics: Revenue must be greater than or equal to spending in order for the club to continue operating. For IRC, we rely on revenue from the registration fees of two annual Model UN conferences that we run, Princeton Model United Nations Conference (PMUNC) and Princeton Diplomatic Invitational (PDI). These are spent on our expenses: fees for traveling to and attending domestic and international conferences. There’s a hard ceiling on the revenue side — after all, there are only so many high schools within a driveable radius of Princeton’s campus. Moreover, inflation is ratcheting up our cost per team member. This means that the only way to balance the budget is to put a cap on the size of the team.
That’s the reason, nothing more. Psychoanalysis of tryout decision-makers as students who “[are] fueled by insecurity, feel the need to over-justify their worthiness … and … impose endless hierarchies on one another” are simply wrong. It brought me tremendous grief, not an ego boost, to send out dozens of emails with sad subject lines, each destined for the inbox of a student who could have brought incredible and unique vibrancy to the team. Sigmund Freud can’t explain why college clubs are competitive, but Adam Smith can.
Yet the truth can still hurt: The genuine resentment felt by rejected applicants of all tryout-based clubs indicates an authentic need for change. Every semester, club recruitment season is a grueling arms race for everyone. The burden falls especially heavily on freshmen, whose friendships and social groups are often forged in the crucible of their first-semester clubs. The pressure can be even more intense at Princeton, where the looming threat of sophomore year's bicker season for eating clubs raises the stakes, as campus organizations are one of the best ways of meeting upperclassmen and gaining social capital, which can be translated into a successful bicker later on.
Although the necessity of a selection process can’t go away, my fellow student leaders and I can and should adopt practices in order to minimize pain and maximize fairness throughout the application season. First, all clubs should democratize their criteria so it can be mastered by any applicant — not every high school has a debate team or a theater program. To increase equity, freshmen should not be expected to join a club already fluent in the vernacular of the field. Instead of expecting them to act like experts, they should be judged based on underlying foundational skills that could have been gained in different ways. For PMUNT, we have shifted to a system that does not judge prospective members on knowledge about MUN parliamentary procedure. Instead, we assess the building blocks of what makes a good team member: compelling and logical argumentation, creativity in problem-solving, and perseverance in pursuit of a goal. I would encourage my peers in selective clubs of a different variety, such as a capella or theater groups, to break down their tryouts’ formats in similar ways — looking for stage presence, voice control, and musicality instead of rewarding perfect pitch or past experience delivering soliloquies.
Second, clubs must make their processes transparent. Prospective members should be kept informed during every step of the process, not only about the judgment criteria but also about the expected number of new members that the club is planning to admit, so they can accurately gauge the competitiveness. They should be told about less visible gatekeeping mechanisms further on like additional applications after admittance to the club (such as those imposed by the Yale Undergraduate Legal Aid Association). PMUNT, for instance, has been upfront this year about the fact that domestic conferences are open to any member, whereas our international conference rosters are determined on the basis of practice attendance and conference staffing.
Lastly, opportunities for improvement should be accessible to all rejected members. Club leadership should ensure that all applicants get feedback on their performance, and rejected members should also be given further opportunities to practice and improve based on that feedback. In a bid to compete with one another for engagement during recruitment season, many clubs host open houses and demonstrations, but those doors quickly shut again for the rest of the semester. Is it too high a burden to expect them to be open more frequently? The Princeton Debate Panel (PDP) hosts successful public speaking and debate workshops that are open to any Princeton student, allowing rejected applicants to continue to participate in their love of debate and potentially get some practice ahead of future tryout rounds. PMUNT is following their lead this year with our IRC Diplomacy Workshop series. Similarly, I would challenge club sports teams to host more “open practices” or “open gyms” (as Women’s Club Volleyball did at the beginning of the year) throughout the semester where prospective members can hone their skills alongside existing members, or for investment and consulting clubs to offer Interviewing 101 classes.
As decision-makers, club leadership teams have a duty to make sure that our treasuries don’t run dry and that our businesses can keep operating. But we also have a duty to the prospective students hovering outside the door and peering inside. We need gatekeeping systems for economic reasons, which means they don’t have to be cruel. By implementing the best practices such as democratization of criteria, transparency of process, and accessibility of improvement, both of our responsibilities as leaders can be met.
Vincent Jiang is a junior concentrating in the School of Public and International Affairs. He serves as the President of the International Relations Council and was formerly the co-captain of the tryout-based Princeton Model United Nations Team. A columnist at the Prince, he can be reached via email at email@example.com, on Instagram at @vincent.vjiang, or on Twitter at @vincent_vjiang.