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Credit: Hain Yoon

Coming to Penn this August, I was more or less prepared to be surrounded by the University’s infamous pre-professional culture. However, I didn’t expect the overwhelming feeling of anxiety and stress that stemmed from such a culture as I tried to navigate through the first month of my first year. Whether I was at the club fair, in the classroom, or even over the dining tables in the cafeteria, people seemed to always overburden themselves with countless commitments whether it was seeking out an internship opportunity, preparing for a competition as a club member, or networking with a guest speaker. The fact that everyone else was constantly doing something to ensure a secure future constantly made me question why I was not doing the same. But it soon occurred to me that the more perplexing question is: Why exactly is everyone doing so much? The current pre-professional culture at Penn asks students to invest too much in packaging themselves as the perfect applicant at the expense of exploring what their desired career is really about. Penn students need to take a step back from acquiring the skills and experiences for a job until they have thought enough about the reason for doing so, which is the crucial step that defines our humanity.

In essence, Penn students partaking in the pre-professional track are burdened with the obligation to showcase themselves before thinking about the intrinsic reason for doing so. The intrinsic reason for getting into, for instance, finance and consulting isn’t about the money or stability these jobs can offer – there are many other jobs that can be equally well-paid and stable, so why not something else? The reason shouldn’t stem from one’s parents either. We all hear so frequently that someone is going to be on the pre-med track because their parents tell them to do so. As a human being, it is ultimately our life that we are living. Therefore, what matters the most is what the self believes and ponders. Our ability to think proactively separates us from a robot. Whereas a robot only passively takes in commands from the external environment, a human has agency over themselves and has the power to make themselves unique with their own thinking. For Penn students, taking the time to ask themselves why they, as human beings, want to get into a particular field that they spend so much time preparing themselves for is one way to utilize that power.

Thinking about the reason for getting into a specific field doesn’t mean that pre-professionalism itself is problematic. The ideology of pre-professionalism per se is less of a problem than how this idea manifests itself on campus. There is nothing wrong with preparing oneself to become a more competitive applicant among all the other college graduates who are on the lookout for the same position. And for many students who face rising tuition costs and aim to achieve financial stability in the future, pre-professionalism is one way to get a head start compared to other students. However, pre-professionalism doesn’t mean getting an internship as a first year or even before going to college. Nor does it mean that students should be devoting an excess amount of their spare time to participate in clubs that focus heavily on building connections with people already in the workforce while taking intro classes that don’t reveal the complexity of the corresponding discipline.

One way to reform Penn’s pre-professionalism is to delay the process of skill acquisition, giving students enough time to figure out the almost philosophical question. To many students, this question doesn't have an easy answer and it shouldn’t be. Instead of skipping the thought process and heading straight into action, a helpful pre-professional program would prioritize the task of helping students find the intrinsic value over preparing these people with the skills they need. There are numerous ways to make such a program possible, but the most effective way is through reforming club activities. The panels and events many pre-professional clubs organize should put a heavier emphasis on the meaning of a career. A prospective first year or sophomore can benefit much more from hearing a panel talking about the meaning of being an employee in a company than the skills an employer is looking for.

However, it is also dangerous for some students to find an easy way out of this mind-boggling problem by making up a humanitarian reason to support their career choice. Echoing a Stanford Daily writer who summarized this phenomenon as the duck syndrome, “[students] quack loudly about deep intellectual thoughts on the surface while paddling furiously toward career goals underwater.” Any decision we make without knowing its intrinsic meaning or while pretending to have one will result in a loss of a fraction of humanity, and the latter is even worse because pretending to have a reason means that someone has willingly chosen to give up their opportunity to think. When a person acquires a job without really knowing the reason why they chose that specific job, they lose that tiny portion of humanity that is a thousand-fold times more valuable than the paychecks and stability.

Tony Zhou is a College first year from Zhejiang, China. His email is