A few months ago, a prospective student from my high school (let’s call her “Susan”) visited Princeton. I did not know her—her interests, her talents, her social proclivities—and yet I found myself on the verge of launching into a speech about how Princeton is the best school—probably in the world—and how she would in all likelihood be denying herself the possibility of self-transcendence if she applied elsewhere early action. I didn’t actually say any of these things. They did, however, cross my mind, and I have said similar things in the past, and chances are some other student told Susan similar things on her visit.
But why? Why did I feel the need to sell Susan on Princeton? I really do like Princeton (mostly), but in any reasonably reflective mood I realize that I have no authority to claim it the best school within any domain, let alone in the world. People say they like other schools, and they’re probably not lying. Perhaps Susan would be a better fit for a different place. Not everyone is happy here. Perhaps downplaying the influence of eating clubs and glossing over a complicated social scene is not benevolent; tweaking assessments regarding the level of academic rigor based on quick guesses about the pre-frosh’s intellectual capabilities and interests not kind. It seems likely that being so adamant that Princeton is the best school is a bad idea. Why do it?
It’s helpful to think about what might qualify as good reasons to pitch Princeton to pre-frosh. I think these can be separated into three classes. One possibility is that their attending is good for you. Maybe Susan is my close friend. Maybe Susan will help me with my “p-sets.” Maybe Susan is really hot. Such considerations may not quite justify a dishonest sales pitch, but they at least make sense of this type of behavior by serving as incentives.
A second possibility is that you believe Princeton is actually the best place for the person. Say I’m a nice guy, and I genuinely care about Susan’s welfare. I’m pretty sure that she will love Princeton. I want her to be able to take part in the inimitable Princeton experience. I also know that she might not be able to see that for herself. I will then do my best to convince her that Princeton is the best place for her, lying where necessary. (“Oh, you like journalism? We have a fantastic daily paper!”). While this is a bit patronizing, at the end of the day I’m doing what I think is in her best interests. That seems like a nice thing to do. At the very least doing so wouldn’t make me a duplicitous asshole.
A third possibility is that you think selling Susan on Princeton would be good for Princeton. If Susan is an academic superstar or whatever, then it’s probably good for Princeton for her to come here. If I think that Susan would be a real asset for some particular community at Princeton, then insofar as I want those communities at Princeton to be better off, I have reason to encourage Susan to come.
Okay, fine. The problem is that none of these are usually true. Thinking about it now, I don’t give a shit whether Susan attends Princeton. She’s not my best friend, we’re not even going to overlap here assuming I graduate on time (it’s looking good), I don’t know her and can’t know if Princeton is best for her, and I have no reason to believe that Princeton will be materially bettered by her presence over someone else’s. I had no misconceptions about these facts when I met her. While I didn’t ultimately make the hard sell to her, I had thought about it, and I certainly had done so to other people in the past.
There doesn’t seem to be good rational explanation for pushing Princeton on people I barely know. More likely, this tendency was function of psychology. It had less to do with any particular pre-frosh and more to do with me and my insecurities regarding my experiences at Princeton. At first, perhaps, selling Princeton was a function of excitement. Princeton has a nice campus, classes are pretty interesting, it’s ranked number one in US News, and we have late meal. In other words, there are things to be excited about, and that widespread initial feeling probably bubbled over into my interactions with potential schoolmates.
By Preview Weekend, though, the luster wore off and while Princeton wasn’t going poorly, my expectations, which had been high, were—on some level—not being met. Some of my high school friends at other colleges couldn’t stop talking about how incredible of a time they were having, and I was not ready to admit myself that I didn’t fully share their enthusiasm. It took time to meet this realization head on, to try and carefully diagnose what was causing feelings of dissatisfaction, to articulate these things to myself and to think about responding to them in a meaningful way. In the interim, my reaction was to ignore those issues. Part of doing that successfully was acting in such a way that I could convince myself that my life was just like the brochures promise. There was no better channel for that then to tout the party line to pre-frosh about Princeton; to become a passive receptacle through which the bromides about Princeton social and academic life could pass; to adopt the place of the various underclassmen who told me the same things when I was a pre-frosh. So I would gush to these unwitting visitors about the exciting social scene, the rewarding academics, the overabundant funds, the plentiful food, the comfortable dorms, the awesome architecture, the quaint town, the manicured lawns and whatever else I thought people might care about. If I talked about Princeton in generalities and clichés, it was easier to gloss over disappointments and personal failings, a growing sense that while satisfaction was not out of the question I had not achieved it.
This inclination is not limited to pitching pre-frosh on Princeton. I’ve found myself hawking everything from smart phone apps (Evernote) to college majors (Philosophy) to food preferences (Wheaties) for no clearly discernable reasons. In each case, I think the tendency can be traced to some combination of visceral excitement and lack of sufficient self-awareness. It is only once I pause to consider more deeply my relationship with the object in question that this urge dissipates and begins to strike me as odd. It’s okay to talk about things, to share none or some or all of your feelings toward them. But in most cases, it makes more sense to be upfront about the conditional nature of these feelings, to be explicit about the fact that your sentiments might reasonably not be shared.
I never disliked it here, but I’ve enjoyed it more after beginning to reflect more seriously on what I was getting out of Princeton and what I really wanted. The process is a continuous one, but it’s clear that a more nuanced perspective on my own experience has translated into a shift in roles when it comes to dealing with pre-frosh. Instead of issuing meaningless, handed-down superlatives, I feel much more comfortable offering observations I’ve had, being careful to note that the applicability of anything I say is contingent on the particular interests of the pre-frosh I’m speaking with. I see myself in a genuine advisory position rather than as a salesperson. And I avoid the pitfalls of dogmatism—unreflective, unargued attachment—which is as beneficial to me as it is to unsuspecting pre-frosh.