The University of Michigan loves to boast about its 1,600+ student organizations on campus. We flaunt that statistic during campus tours and information sessions, displaying it as proof that the University has something for everyone. However, overly competitive application processes have turned many clubs on campus from something that should be about inclusion into something fueled by exclusion.
When new students arrive in Ann Arbor, they are full of passion, enthusiasm and curiosity; their hobbies and interests could range from writing to soccer to deep sea diving. They are eager to find their place on campus, but must first navigate a cutthroat and downright absurd environment. In brief, entrance to many student organizations requires lengthy applications, formal interviews, multiple info sessions and mass meetings, networking events, informal coffee chats and a smorgasbord of contrived club events. When you have to do all that, student organizations don’t seem as open as they do in a college brochure.
In many instances, students do everything I described and still get rejected from the clubs they want to join. I don’t know a single person who got into every club they applied to, but I know plenty who were rejected from multiple clubs and organizations. Certain clubs on campus — the pre-professional organizations in particular — receive hundreds of applications a semester and only take a dozen or so students. With rejection running so rampant, it seems like getting into some clubs is harder than actually getting into the University itself.
This begs the question: What makes U-M clubs so competitive? The simplest answer comes from the size of our student body. If there are many applicants, then naturally clubs are going to have to reject more people. But the size of the University doesn’t explain why we have clubs that only get a few dozen applicants and reject most of them, or why clubs that could accept more people choose not to. It appears then that student behavior is the cause of this competitive process, not student population size.
Members of student organizations — the ones actually deciding who gets in and who doesn’t — have fostered a system that rewards preferential treatment and excessive barriers to entry. In essence, we have a spoils system on campus. New members are more likely to be chosen if they have friends already in the club or if they fit in socially. Additionally, there are many clubs on campus that claim you do not need prior experience to join but end up picking people who have more specialized resumes and who came from high schools with more opportunities. This means that in this system, who you know and where you come from matters more than what you’re passionate about and what you want to learn.
Still, there are many on campus who feel that our club culture is not overly competitive but rather reflective of what life is like in the real world. They see the strenuous application process as good practice for actually applying to jobs and internships. To those students, I ask: Is college meant to be exactly like the professional world? Did you only come to the University to pad your resume and prepare for a future job? If college is primarily meant to be a time of academic exploration and personal growth, the University’s club culture holds that belief back. With our current club application process, many students are not given the opportunity to learn if they do not have past experience. A system that limits opportunity to the student body definitely does not help prepare us for the future.
Why, then, do U-M students allow this application process to function as it does now? The primary reason is the way “U-M students” think about competition. A little competition is a good thing, and it helps people stay motivated and work harder in certain situations. However, the excessive competition surrounding student organizations exists only to bolster people’s senses of prestige, power and identity.
Certain organizations, like business fraternities or consulting groups, are viewed as more prestigious if they are more selective. Their competitiveness makes them desirable. To that same end, with a college degree becoming more commonplace and vital for obtaining a job, the importance of what you do in college has increased. It’s not enough to be at a competitive college, you have to stay competitive while attending, too.
The club culture also stays competitive because of the power that comes from rejecting applicants. Club members were once on the receiving end of the application process, so now they might think that new students should go through it, too. Taking over the role of gatekeeper might be seen as a way to benefit from a flawed system.
The University is not even close to the only college in America that deals with this highly competitive entry process. Similar cultures can be found throughout America’s other top universities. Students in many selective universities are doing this to themselves.
This phenomenon raises a lot of questions when you think about how highly selective colleges impact student behavior, but it does tell us one thing: We are not alone in our chaotic and unnecessary club application process. We are not the only ones in need of improving our system, and the only way to do that is if students from around the country work together to make the college experience better for everyone.
Max Feldman is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.