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The Liar’s Club: Looking Back on Princeton

· 9 min read
The Liar’s Club: Looking Back on Princeton
Statue of former Princeton University president John Witherspoon near the East Pyne building on the school's campus in New Jersey, U.S. Photographer: Emile Wamsteker via Getty Images

In 2017, I got the welcome news that I’d been admitted to Princeton University. At the time, I was ecstatic. And I remain humbly grateful for the education I received there. But now that I’ve graduated, I’m not sure the prize was worth the price I paid to win it. With millions of young Americans now in the midst of preparing their own college applications, this feels like a good time to explain why.

During high school, I spent almost every Friday and Saturday night studying, or working on the sort of extracurricular activities that I knew would assist my college applications. I had little time for friendships or dating. For meals, if I remembered to eat, I’d often wolf down my food in solitude. It wasn’t a healthy way to live, yet this is how many ambitious American students behave in their bid for admission to one of the country’s top schools. Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon’s 2010 documentary film Race to Nowhere gives a good sense of the kind of pressures these teenagers impose on themselves. And in the decade since that film was released, those pressures seem to have grown stronger.

In 2019—even before the COVID pandemic made things worse—the Pew Research Center published data indicating that a whopping 70 percent of American teenage respondents considered anxiety and depression to be a “major problem” among their peers. The same proportion also expressed concern about gaining admission to a college or university of their choice. More than 60 percent felt pressure to get good grades. And the competition only seems to be getting more intense. In 2019, when Pew was reporting its data, Princeton’s undergraduate admissions acceptance rate was 5.8 percent. In 2021, it stands at 3.98 percent.

As my own example shows, the hyper-competitive admissions process at elite institutions can rob teenagers of important experiences. It also can encourage a sense of hyper-individualism, since the only way to beat the odds is by endlessly boosting one’s own accomplishments. What’s worse, this achievement-obsessed mentality doesn’t seem to dissipate with an admit letter from the right school. At Princeton, I regularly saw students who were well-acquainted walk past one another without so much as a greeting, each absorbed in his or her own private paper chase. Those scenes from film and television of students on college campuses whimsically throwing around frisbees and having snowball fights—I never saw that happen. Yes, people ate together, drank together, went to parties, played sports, and studied in groups. But to an almost comical degree, these activities were tightly scheduled. You’d be hard pressed to find a Princeton student who didn’t track his or her life in 30-minute increments.

Students still have sex, of course. But it was hard not to notice a lack of sustained romantic relationships. In my case, I allowed a meaningful relationship to lapse because I prioritized my studies, imagining that this kind of intense focus would lead to a job in investment banking (a dubious goal to begin with, but more on that below). Regardless of whether a relationship really would have affected my grades in any significant way (which seems doubtful), it was the wrong choice.

It was also hard not to notice the transactional nature of social interactions among undergraduates—especially when it came to Princeton’s “eating clubs,” glorified co-ed fraternities where many students eat their meals. Membership in these clubs serves as a marker of prestige, while also (supposedly) helping members advance their careers through alumni networks. In this way, even the simple act of eating in the company of others can become just another form of self-advancement.

At Princeton, a student can’t join a club until sophomore spring. And so many students (including me, I confess) spend their first three semesters on campus attempting to bolster their chances of getting into the club of their choice. This can include selecting extracurricular activities, sports, friendships, and, in some cases, even romantic relationships, as a means to stack the odds. In my junior year, I heard about a group of freshmen girls who’d actually started up a dedicated group chat to trade information about the officers of an especially selective club.

Compared to the average young American, students who graduate from Princeton tend to have bright economic futures. One might think that this would lead them to be less anxious than their less fortunate counterparts. But from what I’ve seen, the opposite is true.

The sort of student who gets into Princeton has probably spent his or her teenage years in constant fear of slipping up in any way that might threaten his or her picture-perfect college application—whether at school, in his or her personal life, or on social media. Fellow students looking to sabotage one another and college admissions officers looking to lighten their reading load all have an eye out for any slip-up. In the social-media age, teens often feel like they’re being constantly watched and judged. But given that a single bad tweet—or even an off-color meme shared in a private group chat—can cost you a shot at the Ivy League, as it did to 10 Harvard hopefuls in 2017, that’s not mere paranoia.

College promotional materials typically promise incoming students an open-ended voyage of intellectual self-discovery. But, like many of my peers, I intentionally chose classes at Princeton that I knew I could ace—which is why I avoided anything in the sphere of engineering or computer science, subjects that I feared would be challenging for me. To satisfy cross-disciplinary requirements, engineering students I knew tended to take the easiest possible humanities courses. Humanities majors likewise vied for the easiest possible science courses. Comprehensive lists of the easiest classes in each required distribution area circulated freely among students.

This risk-averse attitude extends to career choice, with investment banking, management consulting, and tech being at the top of many students’ wish lists. Most of my friends at Princeton aspired toward these fields. As did I.

In 2017, Princeton sent about 37 percent of its graduates to jobs in consulting, finance, tech, or related areas. In 2019, Harvard sent 35 percent of its graduating class into these industries. Since 2015, the University of Pennsylvania has been sending around 30 percent of its graduates to Wall Street. In 2020, 30 percent of the Penn graduating class took jobs in finance, 20 percent in consulting, and 16 percent in tech—with the three categories collectively accounting for about two thirds of all graduates.

In 2013, Vivek Wadhwa, a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School, authored a notable piece entitled If you want to be an Entrepreneur, Don’t Go to Harvard. “My greatest disappointment after joining academia was to see my most promising students accept jobs at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey,” he wrote. “Engineering students with ambitions to save the world would instead become financial analysts—who used their skills to ‘engineer’ our financial system. Or they would take grunt jobs in management consulting—another waste of valuable talent.” Wadhwa cited student debt as the chief cause of this phenomenon. And no doubt, that’s a major factor. But it’s notable that the increasingly generous nature of the financial-aid programs at Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Duke, Princeton, and other similarly prestigious schools hasn’t done much to change the career aspirations of graduates. The attraction of secure career options seems to be at least as much about internalized risk avoidance and prestige seeking as economics.

All great schools occasionally produce standout intellectual celebrities who blaze their own trails, such as Gabrielle Thomas, the Harvard-trained epidemiologist who also scored a podium result as an Olympic sprinter last year. But the vast bulk of graduates aren’t blazing new trails, creating innovative new companies, or saving the world nearly as much as these schools might have you believe. Most are doing the same thing that many office workers do, just wearing fancier clothing in nicer offices.

Nor does the treadmill mentality stop once you’re making a steady paycheck in one of those safe and lucrative industries. A friend of mine from my year at Princeton who now works at a big investment bank recently said he was trying to avoid what he called the “PE Trap” (i.e., private equity). By this, he was referring to the usual pathway of starting at a bank and soon after getting recruited into a private equity firm (or some other alternative asset manager, such as a hedge fund). He told me that what he really wanted was a substantive role with a company that produced a real product, as opposed to just shareholder dividends. This made sense to me. But to his fellow banking associates, it was anathema. The pressure to stay on the well-trodden path doesn’t stop after college.

All of this may seem confusing to those who assume that campus life at a place such as Princeton is dominated by woke ideology, not dreams of Wall Street—an impression that would certainly be supported by the performative social-justice gushing contained in the applications that prospective students submit. Whatever an applicant’s actual views, it’s a huge plus to signal the right social-justice commitments. Consider, for example, the student who gained admission to Stanford with an essay-question answer consisting of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag repeated 100 times.

And, of course, the universities themselves have gone all in on the same messaging. My alma mater, for example, recently entered full social-panic mode on the issue of systemic racism, and has scrubbed the name of former US president Woodrow Wilson from both its public policy school and Wilson College—notwithstanding the fact that, as Princeton mathematics professor Sergiu Klainerman rightly noted in 2020, Princeton’s campus is one of the least racist patches of real estate on the planet. Ironically, Princeton’s virtue signalling backfired when the US Department of Education launched an investigation into its self-confessed racism.

But these progressive ideals are mostly for show—as evidenced by the fact that the actual career paths of typical Princeton graduates are guided by a hunger for status and security, not social justice. No one I know mentioned “Goldman Sachs” or “McKinsey” in their admissions essays. But year after year, they flock to places like these.

What I’m describing is a kind of liar’s club. Hopeful high school students lie about their commitment to social justice in a bid to gain admission, while the universities themselves lie about all the risk-taking, world-changing mavericks they’re looking to nurture. Neither side dares to speak the grubby truth, which is that the undergraduate experience will be a pro forma exercise in leftist indoctrination that precedes a march into the hallowed halls of investment banks and management consultancies.

Of course, there are reasons to endure this institutionalized hypocrisy, and perhaps even the high-school sacrifices required to partake in it. If you’re a first-generation college hopeful from a low-income family, the Ivy League offers social mobility and heightened career security. Moreover, because Ivy League schools such as Princeton now offer so much in the way of financial aid, they can, in some cases, actually be cheaper than other schools for eligible low-income students. Moreover, if an elite college (or any college, for that matter) offers a unique program that’s specifically suited to an applicant’s interests, that might compensate for the drawbacks I’ve described.

But in all other cases, applicants should take a close look at their other options. One of these would be to attend a so-called “normal,” moderately selective college offering a course of study that’s uniquely well-suited to the student’s interests. Another option would be to avoid university altogether and consider a trade school or apprenticeship. The third would be to teach oneself, since the substantive elements of the education at a place such as Princeton often can be provided through books and any number of online video courses (many of them free). And with tools such as LinkedIn now offering an educational component that allows users to put achievement "certificates" on their profiles, there are formal ways to self-signal proficiency in a given subject. A university diploma, especially one from an Ivy League school, can help you get a foot in the door in many industries. But this kind of formal credential isn’t always necessary, at least not anymore.

I turned out more or less alright in the end, by my own self-evaluation, at least, because I eventually followed my heart of hearts, which told me that the treadmill I’d been on since middle school wasn’t especially fulfilling. Over time, I remembered how to live life for myself, instead of for an Ivy League admissions officer or Wall Street recruiter. It’s a lesson I wish I’d learned sooner. But better late than not at all.

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