Prior to COVID-19, my experience in a New York City specialized high school was the epitome of Darwinism. My acceptance to my high school was based on a single test that I took when I was 13, and my score defined the high school I would attend for the next four years.
Now, I’m a rising sophomore at Vanderbilt University.
I was excited to attend a college where collaboration was the norm. Last September, I attended the Club Fair where I learned about clubs such as the business fraternities, being a tour guide and sororities in Greek Life. Yet, these clubs were not accessible to every student and required application processes that might include multiple rounds of interviews.
I was curious if this competitive culture was Vanderbilt-specific or if my friends at other institutions also witnessed the same shock when they entered the competitive extracurricular activities sector. I chatted with students from a variety of institutions in the United States to get their insights on involvement in college.
Brooklyn native Cathy Li attends the University of Pennsylvania and said that clubs are extremely competitive and require applications. Li joined one club last semester, which was the satire magazine. She stated how Penn’s clubs echo the pre-professional culture on campus as well as the post-graduation job application process.
Li told me “it’s the thrill of wanting to be accepted in something that is so elite that draws people into applying.” She acknowledged how the clubs determine a student’s “social standing,” given that students’ identities can be formulated based on their club affiliations. Li noticed the imposter syndrome students face and how it can be “cured … by getting accepted into one of these “prestigious” clubs.”
Baltimore native Stephanie Fishkin attends the University of Maryland. She applied to the Student Government Association; Student Alumni Leadership Council; Hillel as a Repair the World Campus Corps Intern; A Capella; College of Behavior and Social Science Peer Mentors and Ambassadors; and the Department of Sociology for their Peer Advisor Position.
Fishkin auditioned for multiple acapella groups on campus, spending two consecutive Sundays for five hours on the audition process and was only accepted to one. She explained how the club process was similar to the college application process due to the recommendations and personal essays which were required.
Like Li and Fishkin, Columbia University freshman Sylvi Stein felt a little overwhelmed when applying to clubs. Stein is a member of the Kendo club, a copy editor of The Federalist, Columbia’s satire newspaper and a member of the Philolexian Society, a literary and debate society.
Stein said “the main clubs [she applied to] that had long and arduous applications were the literary clubs.” Stein auditioned for a theater production, which “was very casual.” She wonders whether the culture is because “[she] is a freshman or is [a student] at an exclusive institution which makes people very competitive about which clubs they join,” but she “has learned that everyone in Columbia is very keen on getting on top and above others.”
Robert Ukrainsky, who is a freshman at the University of Chicago, also experienced an arduous time when applying to clubs. The business club application process was extremely time-consuming due to an extensive application and an interview. This process taught him how to speak confidently. He also stated that it prepared him for the workplace after college because of the resume round and networking. In addition to business, he applied to Jazz Ensemble and Piano Program.
Deborah Effon, a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, applied to be part of the Student Government Association. Numerous clubs on campus have an “open join policy” so no application is necessary. Yet SGA is the most competitive club because students compete against each other when running, campaigning and in the electoral process. She said that “those who want to be engaged with campus will do what it takes to participate no matter how competitive the process is.”
While competition is part of life, clubs tend to be thought of as safe spaces where students can socialize and be themselves. I didn’t anticipate that I would have to compete to get into college clubs. I thought that having multiple rounds of interviews and “weeding out” seemed counterintuitive for extracurricular activities that seek to promote camaraderie and serve as venues to produce a “well rounded” student.
Schools might want to promote more inclusive practices to enable students to reach their full potential both academically and socially.