The second-worst question on any application, the one that always makes my heart sink, is perhaps the single most common one: “Which extracurricular organizations are you involved in?” (The worst question is the one that inevitably follows: “Which leadership positions have you held in these organizations?”)
Often, these questions serve to identify how “well-rounded” a candidate is, and I should clarify: This piece isn’t a tirade against the value our society places on well-roundedness. That’s for another time, and perhaps another writer. I expect many students at Penn, myself included, are here because the admissions office deemed us not masters of one subject, but rather jacks-of-most-trades. Well-roundedness is a fine quality — in pursuit of it, we become scintillating dinner-party conversationalists, yes, but we’re also better able to understand the fields in which we choose to concentrate later on in life.
The trouble lies not in well-roundedness itself, but in how exactly we go about becoming and defining “well-rounded.” Lately, the prevailing attitude (and not just at Penn) has been that one should always be “doing” something, always be “busy” — and the things we “do,” with which we make ourselves “busy,” are the things that make us well-rounded.
On one hand, there’s the “extracurricular activity,” which is performed voluntarily to fill out resumes and build social capital, although it is occasionally done in search of actual camaraderie. On the other, there are the College’s infamous sector requirements, which require students in the school to choose several courses from almost-arbitrary sets outside their field of study. These could be “interesting,” or even “life-changing,” but if a student has no prior interest in the course material, then quite often they feel that Penn is simply making them go through the motions to be “well-rounded.” It’s all about doing, doing, doing.
The ways in which I feel that I’ve learned more about the world, though, have always felt more like doing nothing. If I were to draw up a set of hard-and-fast rules for my ideal club (as opposed to an “extracurricular activity”), it might look something like the following: 1) This club shall not “do” anything as a group; 2) This club shall have no officers; 3) This club shall not exist on any member’s resume.
This club might not sound like it’s actually a club. You might ask — how will it get anything done without an established hierarchy? But this club doesn’t “get anything done.” If all the rules are followed, it’s just a group of friends sitting in a room, chatting, being themselves.
These kinds of clubs don’t exist, at least not in the eyes of the greater Penn community. Maybe it’s because they don’t advertise — because they don’t have a marketing director or a graphic designer or indeed, any budget whatsoever. But you don’t need to join one that already exists. In fact, you shouldn’t — you should start your own with your friends, so you can just hang out, no strings attached.
Sure, I joined a few “clubs” right off the bat, as many freshmen will: They all fell more under the category of “extracurricular activities,” centered around the pursuit of a common goal (plays, publications, you name it). Theoretically, they ought to have contributed to my development as a student and as a person.
That’s what you’re told about extracurriculars — and that’s what you’re told about the sector requirements, too, even though, despite having worked hard and done well, I can’t remember a thing I learned in my first-semester Formal Reasoning class. In the same way, I look at who I am now, consider my “extracurricular activities” and realize that — though the final products were great, and the people wonderful — nothing about me was ever shaped by being “busy.”
You become “well-rounded” through late-night conversations with classmates in the Quad’s musty basement lounges — conducted until all hours in the guise of “working on homework." You become “well-rounded” at raucous potlucks — “dinner parties,” if you will — thrown by friends in cramped apartment kitchens that are too small by half. Most of all, you become “well-rounded” during the dead-eyed but beautifully honest dialogue between two roommates after one has just come home from Van Pelt at 4 a.m.
This is how you learn more about the world — by interacting with other people (sorry, sector requirements) in settings in which you and they can both be yourselves (rare, in the context of a large, formalized extracurricular activity). You become “well-rounded” by simply existing at Penn, and by not letting your extracurriculars define that existence for you.
SHILPA SARAVANAN is a College junior from College Station, Texas, studying linguistics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Phone Home” usually appears every Thursday.
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