Yale tells us a narrative of selectivity, not only one of being selected, but also one of being selective. Within two weeks of getting to Yale as a first year, I learned that selectivity doesn’t end after the six percent admission rate. Instead, exclusivity permeates the lives of students from the moment they first reach campus, a reality that can only be changed once we begin a dialogue about it.

I was encouraged to try new things in college, to not be afraid to fail and to explore — so I did. I liked to sing but never got to try choir in high school, so I auditioned for a cappella groups. I wanted to try my hand in finance and consulting clubs, so I attended their info sessions and learned how to make an investment pitch. But all of my efforts weren’t enough. As I perched on the gray wooden benches in L-dub’s courtyard, I thumbed through my Gmail, reading variations of emails all beginning with the same five words, “We regret to inform you.”

There’s a lot to be learned from this experience. First and foremost, Yale’s clubs don’t truly encourage us to try something new. The application — and for some, the interviewing process — creates a barrier to entry for the very newcomers that clubs should be welcoming.

After realizing a cappella and finance might not be my calling, I retreated back into a pattern of doing what I did in high school. Moreover, I realized that many of the clubs I applied to were the ones Yale is best known for. Oftentimes, the more selective a club is, the more it lures students in. As one of my friends who runs a small art club phrased it, “applications make something more appealing.” The fact that people are attracted to selectivity is what I believe exacerbates the already high barriers to entry. To put it lightly, Yale has an obsession with selectivity.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Yale is built on exclusivity. Just look at how we got here. But that same exclusivity continues once we’ve come to campus. Sometimes, we apply to clubs because we genuinely want to try them. Other times, we apply to ones we think are “good” as measured by the number of other students vying for a spot. The latter motive is so pervasive that it even taints the former: we place exclusivity on a pedestal even when our intentions are pure.

Student organizations with a high number of applicants and a low number of available spots like the Yale Student Investment Group, Yale Debate Association or a cappella groups like the Whiffenpoofs are a hallmark of campus prestige. Taught at Yale to collect trophies for our resume, we want to earn this badge of prestige as well.

Then came my first year spring. Some students began seeking to join fraternities and sororities. Most of my friends who participate in Greek life say they rushed for the large community, potential network and fun — but the unsaid perks include admission into exclusive mixers and listed parties. Exclusivity manifests itself through rambunctious parties and pledge events for Greek organizations on campus. But exclusivity is also perpetuated through secret societies. Silent about their activity but ubiquitous nonetheless, secret societies feed into the same mindset as frats, sororities, debate teams and the like.

Finally, jobs. A large portion of the student body gravitates towards the finance and consulting industry. Their highly competitive hiring process and great resources and salaries make those positions appeal to Yalies — especially the ones uncertain about what they want to do with their lives.

Most of us don’t know what steps we want to take next, whether it be our major, clubs or career. Within this confusion, students develop tunnel-vision about getting into a club that’s exclusive, perpetuating a continuous loop in which our campus passes on a toxic tradition to underclassmen.

I am not vilifying all that is exclusive; I recognize that competitiveness is a concept that has always existed and will persist throughout time. But by reconsidering if you want something for its inherent value and not due to its prestige, you can reframe your mindset and in turn be a part of a cultural shift at Yale.

Michelle Fang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at michelle.fang@yale.edu .

  • Celia

    Yes! This is absolutely an important and insightful article. I had a similar experience my freshman year and was similarly disillusioned about the whole “chance to fail and explore” promise. I came to campus so excited to try new things and then ran smack into all those “we regret to inform you” emails, and I was really thrown off balance. Overall Yale culture is unlikely to suddenly introspect and change, but being personally aware of this cultural phenomenon made me better able to find fulfilling (and new!) paths once I had regrouped as an upperclassman. So, as an alum who is now several years out of college and looking back, I very highly recommend you take this author’s advice about “reconsidering if you want something for its inherent value and not due to its prestige” and reframing your mindset accordingly. At a place like Yale it is very easy to get carried away with (or crushed by) the toxic wow-I’m-so-cool narrative, but trust me, it’s ultimately better to take longer and dig deeper to find activities you genuinely value than to muck up your schedule right away by chasing the most obvious sources of self-importance. And the first step is self-awareness!