Have you ever watched 5-year-old boys play together? Some cheap plastic car lies abandoned on the ground while the happy tots run around and ignore it, until one kid decides to pick it up. At which point, every 5-year-old in sight decides he wants the car as well, and pandemonium ensues as the placid schoolyard is transformed into a Hobbesian state of nature.
In choosing their majors and extracurriculars, Yale students behave pretty much like 5-year-olds. Of course, to some degree or another, most people are interested in organizations that accept a few and exclude many. But we Yalies are obsessed with them. It is, I suppose, the inevitable byproduct of going to a school with an admit rate — also known as our “student selectivity” in admissions jargon — currently at 9.7 percent. Yale advertises its brutal selectivity proudly and often, so it is hardly a surprise that many of those who apply for admission are drawn to the highly selective as a moth is drawn to flame.
Of course, our choosiness has many desirable byproducts. Because Yale is so picky, it can afford to fill its dorms with smart, talented and interesting students. It also, however, makes for a school in which all that is sexy or alluring is also usually exclusive, and in which every club seems to have its own closely watched “admit rate.” Senior societies are surely alluring in large part because they only tap a select few. A cappella groups, for all their bubbly warm feeling, are also unapologetically exclusive — yet the more discriminating a singing group becomes, the more freshmen seem to want to be in it.
Perhaps my favorite example of this phenomenon is the so-called YSECS — “Yale Society for the Exploration of Campus Secrets.” Although it was founded only two years ago, based on the number of freshmen prowling around campus searching desperately for hidden rooms and secret passageways, YSECS-mania seems to be sweeping the Class of 2009 with all the fervor of facebook.com. Despite having little clue what the organization actually does, as its founder cheerfully admits, 250 freshmen have expressed an interest in joining. Given that YSECS “taps” fewer than 20 people per year, most of these eager supplicants are going to end up disappointed. Yet that is precisely the secret of YSECS’ success: To students with a selectivity fetish, this cabal is a huge turn-on. The fastest way to create a thriving group, it seems, is to tell everyone you’re trying to recruit that they probably can’t get in.
The same thing seems to apply to our academic programs, and I can think of no clearer example of this than the selective major Ethics, Politics and Economics. Each fall, an undisclosed but reportedly high number of sophomores apply to EP&E. To be sure, the major is a rigorous one, the classes are said to be superb, and the program is clearly a magnet for some of the most intellectual students at Yale. Unfortunately, it is also a magnet, in some cases, for intense selectivity fetishists. After all, majoring in economics, political science or philosophy is so common; anybody can do it! And so some Yalies strive to obtain coveted spots in EP&E to prove to their peers their academic superiority once and for all.
To be clear, I have no particular axe to grind with any of the above activities. I didn’t rush a cappella, I didn’t try to join YSECS and I didn’t apply to EP&E — but I recognize that to some Yalies, these activities are rewarding and well worth the fight it took to enter them. If your dream at Yale is to sing for the Whiffenpoofs, study the intersection between ethics and social sciences or even break into locked libraries after hours, then you should certainly not let the barrier of selectivity stand in your way. But for too many students, the thrill is not the activity itself, but rather getting into it.
That creates some pretty serious problems. As someone who knows many EP&E majors, and many of last year’s applicants, I can say with some certainty that in several cases, students who are extremely good at filling out applications edged out students with a genuine passion for the subject. And a huge number of students currently in the major are now quietly thinking about dropping it — in some cases because they find the program to be an administrative nightmare, but in others because they have simply realized that EP&E is not for them after all. This pattern extends far beyond majors; I can think of dozens of examples of Yalies who have fought tooth and nail to get into a club or a class, only to realize after securing a spot that they don’t really want it.
Yale, Yale organizations and Yalies need to remember that restricting admission is only a means to an end. For Heaven’s sake, think carefully about whether you actually want to do something before you apply to it. And at the same time, look closely at the applicants to your selective society, singing group or seminar, and make a real effort to distinguish those who are actually interested in it from those who only want another notch on their belt. There’s nothing wrong with selectivity, but there’s everything wrong with glorifying it.
Roger Low is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.