I went to a very small (some might say tiny) all-girls high school in New York City. Each and every member of our 43-person class made it her business to know all there was to know about the other girls in the grade. Test grades were closely guarded, but in vain — within an hour of getting exams returned, the school was abuzz with the success stories and the embarrassing failures.
At no point was this more toxically evident than in the college process. Only one or two impossibly secret girls managed to keep their lists hidden from their peers. I, for one, walked in to school on the morning that Yale’s early admissions decisions were to come out, only to be greeted by classmates of all ages offering me reassurances that the wait was almost over, and how sure they were that I would be just fine.
But this constant meddling in other people’s business was not always (or even often) kind-spirited. More often, my tiny high school bred an environment of constant competition. Everyone knew and cared about everyone else’s test scores, because how their peers were doing was seen as an implicit reflection on where they stood in the constant power jockeying that defines private high school in Manhattan.
So when I got into Yale, the idea that excited me most about coming here was the hope that at a bigger school — one where everyone was interesting and accomplished and talented enough not to be riddled with personal insecurities — the petty concern with everyone else’s business would fade. It seemed like a safe assumption to think that anyone who had gotten into Yale would have enough going for them, whether academically, extracurricularly or personally, to rest assured in their own worth.
But with time I’ve found that this isn’t the case — and it gets worse with every passing year. I don’t need to remind anyone that Yale loves competition. The students themselves, by nature driven and hyper-motivated, come here and find a community quick to institute tiers. No sooner have you gained admission to Yale than you find yourself applying for new and even more selective things — Directed Studies, a cappella, tour guides. Yalies thrive on being visible, on being too busy to function and, above all, on being “known.”
Yale has a few programs, majors or extracurricular activities that the University itself treats as its personal darlings. To be part of these elite clubs or circles makes those students, no matter how few, feel wanted. And more importantly, it makes the people who are not part of these small subgroups feel “out” — even if they have absolutely no interest in whatever it is that the group is doing. Freshmen who get into DS are immediately touted as members of a “very selective freshman seminar program.” Even if the thought of reading Plato’s Republic bores you to tears, you can’t help but feel left out.
And once Yale sponsors these particular selective programs, the fallout is natural: Everyone else takes great pains to make their own extracurricular selective and exclusive, thus validating their own interests. Joining clubs at Yale is something of a competitive sport; there’s almost nothing you can do here that doesn’t require you to jump through hoops and prove your valor. That makes you all the more special, then, to be part of the club.
But there’s an even more insidious result of this constant implicit competition: It deprives us all of the ability to be genuinely happy for our friends for their accomplishments. Every single time someone around us attains something, no matter how irrelevant it is to our interests, most students’ first reaction is anything but excitement. Instead, the response is resentment that there is something out there that we haven’t gotten; it’s a reminder that in some field, we are not the best. And people at Yale, myself included, simply don’t take that well.
But long after these insignificant and petty evaluations have faded into the past, after no one remembers what society you were in or whether or not you got into Global Affairs, people will remember their good friends and those who stood by them, not only in the bad times, but also in the good, which can often be even harder. No one is cut out to do everything. But it’s a proof of character to cheer on your friends for their strengths, and not take them as a sign of your own weakness.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .