The way it came to me was in a letter. I think a lot of people got them, but I don’t know. It was from Dean Rapelye or maybe Malkiel, and it said something like, “you are one of the particularly outstanding students admitted,” and to “please consider coming to Princeton.”
Or something like that. I couldn’t check for you because I don’t think I have it anymore. I was embarrassed by the whole thing, the same way I’d avoided telling anyone where I was applying to college, and hid my grades and test scores.
Another boy in my school also received a letter. He came up to me in the library and asked, “Um, did you get that thing in the mail?” We laughed, made some awkward, self-deprecating jokes. He went to Harvard instead.
The letter was memorable, but not because it praised me (I’m sure it was far less exclusive than its tone implied—my theory is that it was sent to students admitted to schools that they might pick over Princeton). The strangeness was in its tone, a marked transition from the language of applications and informational pamphlets, which took advantage of applicants’ desperation and the school’s hand in power. Pre-admission, the language had been informative but businesslike: “This school is extremely old and well-endowed. Admission is highly competitive. Students come from (almost) every state.” Nonchalant, almost smug in the understanding that tens of thousands of students would apply, no matter what was said.
But the letter, and the admission materials I began receiving that April of 2011, marked a change in the rhetoric. It was congratulatory but pleading: for the first time, speaking to me as an adult rather than the desperate high school student I had been. It reminded me of the way parents would speak to a child: “You’re so great, honey.” You’re special. You are wanted. I imagined the dean signing these furiously at her desk, desperate for our yield to beat Harvard’s. As a stressed-out senior, I liked the idea of her spending April waiting sleeplessly for my acceptance, just as I had spent my March.
A major feature of this new correspondence was highlighting the accomplishments of my classmates. “We have three-and-a-half Olympians, literally all the Intel Science prize winners, a whole slew of Presidential Scholars,” another letter from the admissions packet might have read. You are just as good as the kids you fought against in high school, it seemed to say. You’re both getting a Princeton degree.
The ego boost provided by admissions materials clearly angles to attract students through flattery. In this period of decision-making, it’s justified. But this language doesn’t end when we get to campus. “Princeton” is thrown around as an adjective, in both praise and condemnation. A thoughtful comment is justified with, “Well, you’re Princeton students.” Scolding for bad behavior can be as simple as, “I’d expect more from a Princeton student.”
One would think that this constant affirmation of excellence would create a narcissistic student body obsessed with their own accomplishments, like spoiled children constantly reassured that they are special. But I don’t think that is the case.
This is because we forget. Princeton is the town in which we live and a school we attend and classes we skip just like every other college student. Princeton is a word whose power we forget because it is now reality, rather than a carefully composed image in a brochure. We live and breathe and puke in eating club bathrooms next to students just like us, every single one just as qualified (read: enrolled) to wear a branded sweatshirt as we are. Our friends are nationally-ranked tennis players and figure skaters and that kid whose picture our mothers put on the fridge in high school and said, “You could do this!” We forget that we’re supposed to be impressed by them and this gorgeous campus and the power of the label until we step outside Princeton, and then it hits us—I’m a member of one of the most exclusive and prestigious brands in the world.
But it’s not just that we forget. It’s that we might disapprove of an administrative choice or have an awful professor or don’t fit in with the social scene. I look around and see a lot of students working hard, maybe too hard, getting beaten down by their first experience on the mean of the curve. I see kids so used to things being effortless that they’ve never learned how to work with a challenge.
So maybe this language, the constant reassurance that we are special, simply cancels out the kind of despair that can set in when faced with the reality of the situation. Without the assurance that we are at the top (“#1 U.S. News and World Report!” screams quietly from every speech to the student body), would we continue trudging through eight semesters? A criticism often levied at our student body is that we are not political enough; without the cushion of a brand, would we protest or demand for more? Would we ask for more than a label with which to define our college experience?
And maybe it’s the realization that you, like your school, are not so unique after all. “You are Princeton students.” But there are thousands of alumni, many of them great people, yes, but also some people who did very bad things or are perfectly ordinary. “You are an Ivy Leaguer,” this being the label my high school self most wanted to identify with. There are even more of us, then. You are one of hundreds of thousands (eight colleges times roughly fifty graduating classes still living). You are not special. You will meet students here who fall into both categories, and maybe did less work than you to deserve it. Maybe you didn’t do much, either.
But I can still remember wanting it so much that it hurt. In high school, I took a tour of campus. To every student walking past, I wanted to say, “How did you do it? What does it feel like?” I wanted to be like them, to belong to this idea of the Ivy League— the same way I lusted after a Chanel dress in a magazine. Princeton promised success and happiness and a sign that you had done the best that you could.
Such is the nature of a brand. Yes, Princeton’s reputation is based in its history and research and incredible accomplishments, but it’s also carefully controlled and advertised by a publicity department that has made it into a label separate from the school itself. One has to look no further than the media’s recent obsession with Susan A. Patton’s letter to the editor. The letter is striking in that it presents a backwards and sexist view—but far crazier ideas can be found on the internet or even someone’s grandmother. The true uproar stems from its association with Princeton, and the popular idea of what this means. When a letter to the editor gains more media attention than a rape at another college, it’s a sign that a school has transcended a role as an educational institution: it has become a brand.
On that same tour, I remember my mother asking if I wanted to sit in on a class. I was confused. “What for?” I thought to myself. Other people had already defined everything I needed to know about the school I would be happy at. It was not facts about classes or majors I was interested in that would convince me, but in the fact that it was Princeton. I wanted it so much that I did not read too closely into the language of the information presented to me. I assumed that the classes would be amazing, the instructor-to-student ratios low, the dorms all Neo-Gothic because “it’s Princeton.” If it wasn’t, how could it still be known as Princeton? How could it be anything less than what was promised?