I have failed in college. A lot. I’ve been rejected from more clubs than I can remember. I’ve been turned down from countless jobs. The phrase “We regret to inform you that we cannot offer you a position at this time” has become so commonplace that I don’t even feel anything anymore when I see it in my inbox. Yes, I do understand that you interviewed an unprecedented number of qualified applicants. Yes, I get that other people are more qualified and fit your needs better than I do.
This numbing to the pain of rejection can be seen as a good thing. I am more comfortable putting myself out there for opportunities that even remotely interest me. I have found a strong support system and have developed enough confidence in my own abilities and self-worth that I can move past these rejections and failures.
Still, why, as a community of some of the best and brightest students in the world, have we ingrained rejection as an integral piece of the Penn experience?
I believe that this problem stems directly from the success of Penn students, even before we start college. By and large, Penn students have experienced immense success in high school, with few academic difficulties. Starting college with 2,400 other valedictorians, class presidents, science whizzes and nonprofit founders is overwhelming in and of itself.
When freshmen get to campus, even before they have a chance to acquaint themselves with their new independent lives as college students, they are greeted with the opportunity to apply to hundreds of different clubs and organizations. Not join. Apply. At 18 years old, these students are expected to fill out job-like applications and endure multiple rounds of interviews for the chance to be a member of an organization.
The fact that some freshmen apply to upwards of 10 clubs just to be accepted into one is a little ridiculous in my opinion. Quite honestly, does all this stress, anxiety and time spent applying significantly add to or improve our extracurriculars and our Penn experience?
To me, it seems that Penn students’ pressure to succeed and outperform their peers has morphed extracurricular experiences into an ever-growing hypercompetitive bubble. This pressure continues to build, as students progress through their time at Penn. At every turn of a student’s career, there is a new set of competition awaiting; and with competition comes failure for someone.
Maybe it’s just a healthy dose of reality that we all need, but I pray that the real world isn’t exactly like this. We are in a unique position at Penn to work at the forefront of academic fields, have access to the most prestigious jobs and apply for the best graduate programs. So why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to outperform our peers? Penn students’ measure of “success” has arguably become so narrowed that it shouldn’t represent reality in any way.
“Success” at Penn has become less and less personalized and more centered on a stereotypical list of boxes to check, ranging from joining exclusive clubs to securing the most prestigious internships.
Given that this competition is so deep-set at Penn, what can we even do to change it? How can we chip away at the toxic aspects of the Penn culture that lead to general discontent and unhealthy amounts of stress?
I don’t have an answer for you. If I did, then this wouldn’t be an issue on campus. However, I do believe that the place to start is through creating a dialogue. Opening up a conversation around failure and rejection at Penn to make the idea more commonplace is the first step in fixing the negative nature of competition at Penn. The Wall of Rejection created by College senior Rebecca Brown is an incredible example of an initiative to do just that — publicly share examples of failure that Penn students from all walks of campus have experienced.
If anything, it is important to just make people more aware of the pressure that we put on each other. Maybe you can take a break from talking about the awesome job you just got with the friend who you know applied for the same position. Or maybe you can refrain from posting that extra picture about the cool new organization you’re in when you know of so many others who wanted to join.
And don’t be ashamed to share with others a time you were rejected or experienced failure. These conversations normalize failure on campus and help people to realize that it happens to everyone — even the people whom they consider to be “successful.”
SHAWN SROLOVITZ is an Engineering junior from Manalapan, N.J., studying bioengineering. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Srol With It” usually appears every other Tuesday.
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