Graduating from a high school class of only 40 students, I looked forward to Michigan for more reasons than the welcome change of a new student body and a famous football program — I was excited to begin a new phase of my life where constant comparisons and competitions for grades would be absent.
With more than 26,000 undergraduate students at the University, many unknown to one another, I assumed that comparing the decimal points of a grade after every test would be a thing of the past. And, for the most part, that assumption has proven true. However, I’ve noticed a different type of competitive practice emerging in college — one that feels more threatening than the battle for grades I experienced at a competitive high school. This competition is that of the prestige of achievement.
Let me provide an example which illustrates what I mean by prestige of achievement. Before starting college, I had little interest in studying business. However, when I noticed that many of my classmates were applying to the Ross School of Business, I briefly believed that I, too, should apply. After all, it’s a competitive program and it seemed that admission would validate my intellect. In other words, my brief desire to be in the Business School was ignited by the prestige I thought the program would afford me.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with studying business or any other competitive major. What’s troubling is that the impetus to do so is often the result of the race for recognition.
The prestige of achievement isn’t strictly limited to areas of concentration. It also applies to internships, job opportunities, study abroad programs and even extracurricular activities. A pre-med student who spent her summer shadowing a doctor feels threatened by the classmate who spent his summer doing medical research at a university. An art major who studied abroad in Florence feels inadequate next to her friend, a history major, who studied abroad at Oxford. A writer for The Michigan Daily feels like a joke compared to the kid in lecture who’s been published in a national paper. We’ve all been there.
The idea of making choices based on prestige is not a new one — many of us took into account a school’s reputation when applying to college. However, its pervasiveness in the university world is unique to our generation and due to a few different factors.
One contributing factor to the stressful trend is social media, a frequently cited and often guilty culprit of our time. Never before have we been so aware of our friends’ professional achievements.
Networking tools like LinkedIn allow us to see another’s résumé instantaneously. Facebook allows us to see the enviable summer job or research opportunity that our best friend’s cousin just locked down. It’s right there on our homepage.
Unfortunately, many of us forget that people never publish a failure on their résumés or Facebook profiles. All we see through others’ successes are the opportunities we never had and the prestigious awards we never won. The competition of prestige belittles our own accomplishments (no matter how great), makes us second-guess our choices and breeds fear for our futures.
The feeble job market also accounts for our widespread preoccupation with others’ achievements. When we hear of a friend getting a new job, many of us feel a pang of jealousy or alarm at our own unstable futures — there goes the job we could’ve had.
Needless to say, the air of prestige-based competitiveness doesn’t make for a better academic environment. Not only does it diminish one’s self-esteem, it inhibits our ability to be happy about our peers’ achievements. We must resist the urge to use other students as a yardstick for measuring our own accomplishments.
I didn’t consider the Business School just because I viewed it as prestigious. I’m an English major, for God’s sake! I considered it because everyone else held it in such high regard. The student who shadowed a doctor probably doesn’t want to work in a lab, but she still feels bad about it since others seem to value lab research more highly.
In moments of doubt, we surrender to ideas of prestige that we don’t personally hold. This game of comparison is bound to leave us all dissatisfied — even when we’re doing what we want, it makes us feel like we should be doing something else. It’s important, therefore, to strive for achievements which make us proud and avoid succumbing to the tempting comparisons our environment creates.
Sarah Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.