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If you surpassed more than 90% of applicants to be admitted to Penn, you deserve admission into any student organization at Penn. Credit: Keyu Lu

It’s September 2021, we’re still in a pandemic, and Penn’s campus is going through a dynamic reopening. We’re mentally envisioning the transition from Zoom screens to lecture halls, from managing a hectic Google Calendar filled with virtual meetings to monitoring your daily steps. Despite troubling COVID-19 trend lines, we’re eager to return to some sense of normalcy and the lessons of the pandemic remain salient. We’ve learned not to take for granted in-person classes, a world without face masks, or interpersonal contact. If I could summarize the lessons I’ve learned during the pandemic, everything points to this: community is important. Genuine relationships and positive social interaction are important. 

As a newly-minted senior, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of community, especially Penn’s many communities, such as those in performing arts, student government, sports, and journalism. To get into Penn, we were undoubtedly the high schoolers who took extracurricular activities seriously, sought meaning and purpose in the extracurriculars we pursued, and obtained multiple leadership positions for our passion, ingenuity, and courage. However, upon arriving at Penn, we encountered many student leaders who are just as passionate or even more talented than us, and when we compete with each other for limited spots, fierce competition becomes the norm. With such a talented student body, how do club leaders reserve the right to selectivity? That’s why more clubs need general body membership. A structured GBM program will improve the landscape by providing space for student growth and development, greater objectivity and efficiency in club recruitment, and further Penn’s commitment to inclusion and equity. 

A campus full of ambitious leaders creates constant momentum. However, there are downsides to the intensity of our student body. Students cite mental health struggles and disappointment when facing club rejections. From the grading curves to our student organizations, we are always competing. We compete with each other for high-status jobs, good grades, and access to peer networks. With some club acceptance rates in the single digits, it’s time we moved towards a more objective way of evaluating candidates. Let’s put the Penn community first by broadly embracing GBM in our student organizations. Intense competition and true community cannot coexist. I cringe when I hear first years discuss the club application process. It all seems toxic to me. I came from a high school where there were no barriers to establishing community. If we compete for everything, including group acceptance, we will never feel happy and accepted.

Penn’s current club admissions rely heavily on pursuing students with prior experience and skillsets instead of accepting students who show great potential and capacity for growth. A well-structured GBM program promotes the idea that skills and talents are developed, fostering a collective growth mindset within Penn’s campus. Club leaders talk about seeking “talented” students and they screen students for “talent” through cases and behavioral questions. This creates an irrationally high standard for who gets in, making it impossible for someone who has the passion but lacks the skills and experiences to succeed.

Psychology professor Angela Duckworth identifies grit as the main predictor of success, defining it as the combination of passion and perseverance. Some students did not intern at hedge funds or gain strategy consulting experience before coming to Penn, and to level the playing field, clubs can adopt a teaching-based model. They can offer students training over an entire semester and use this time to identify students who demonstrate passion and work ethic, rewarding them with leadership roles and other privileges. When we make decisions based on “talent,” we fail to expand the applicant pool to people who are hungry and willing to learn.

A well-designed GBM program provides increased objectivity in selecting students for advancement. Humans are inherently flawed and subject to many biases. I’ve been privy to decisions made on gut feelings, which were nothing but biases dressed in vague language. Many student organizations have an ideal organizational culture or aesthetic they want, and may judge candidates superficially. The multiple rounds of interviews and behavioral questions we swear by are inaccurate predictors of performance. A thorough GBM program provides all students with the opportunity to showcase their drive before they are subject to biased or discriminatory decision-making. We have spent the past year discussing the importance of diversity, and we need those same conversations to impact how Penn’s student organizations are run.

Penn’s club system is also inefficient and poorly regulated. It can result in lopsided results in which some students receive admission to many selective clubs while others get rejected from all the clubs to which they apply. If the goal is for students to find community, then Penn should ensure that everyone receives acceptance into a group of their choosing. If more clubs embrace GBM, students have an increased chance of becoming leaders in the clubs that truly interest them. Club participation could differentiate between experienced students who are increasing their odds by applying to many clubs and students who are genuinely interested in gaining skills. Even better, similar clubs can bind together and employ a system resembling deferred rush, in which students spend time as members in different clubs and then rank the ones with which they’d like to advance.

Penn’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is undermined by some organizations’ inability to effectively recruit diverse candidates. The status quo isn’t working for highly selective clubs. These clubs desire more diversity, but their recruitment of multicultural students can appear tokenistic and insincere. Selective finance or consulting clubs may frantically search for minority candidates, but find themselves unable to attract them. With a GBM program, everyone starts on equal footing. This creates the notion that becoming a club leader is less about your background and more about your desire to grow and lead. It is this equity that will attract a broader array of students. Diversifying your club begins with an open mind and willingness to let others showcase their skills and dedication over time before their candidacy is evaluated.

If you surpassed the more than 90% of applicants to be admitted to Penn, you deserve admission into any student organization at Penn. Instead of issuing rejections, clubs can establish their communities by including as many students as possible. As we reopen for the fall, let’s change how we gather and interact with each other. 

SURAYYA WALTERS is a Wharton senior studying management and marketing from New Rochelle, N.Y. Her email is surayyaw@wharton.upenn.edu.

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