Many clubs at Princeton have some kind of selection process. Often called “try-outs,” these selection processes give these clubs an outward appearance of meritocracy. The most straightforward justification for try-outs is that they are needed to choose the most skilled members. However, we can also view try-outs as social rituals intended to confer prestige on the group and its members.
No doubt, for some groups like dancing and singing groups, which require skilled performers who have already had years of experience, try-outs make sense. Yet, there are also groups that focus on skills like journalism and public speaking that normally require no extensive training. With sufficient enthusiasm, one can learn how to write or edit an excellent news piece or deliver a rousing speech.
For example, Winston Churchill, arguably one of the greatest English-speaking public speakers of the 20th century, had no formal training in oratory. From my observations, people who have no experience debating often just do not know what to focus on when crafting an argument and pursue an irrelevant tangent for too long. Learning what to focus on is just a matter of perspective and can be done very easily. Likewise, even professional journalists do not need a degree in journalism. Famous New York Times columnist William Safire did not even have a college degree, let alone a degree in journalism. What one needs to be successful in these fields is enthusiasm, self-confidence and verbal intelligence, qualities most Princeton students already possess. Unlike ballet, where one needs to start practicing from a very early age to be successful, journalism and public speaking do not require years of intensive training. Many of these groups can themselves provide training. WPRB is an excellent example of this, as they train every new member on how to become a DJ, regardless of experience. The question then arises as to why these clubs, which have the capability to train students on their specific skills, still have selection processes.
One might argue that the purpose of selection is to weed out applicants who demonstrate insufficient enthusiasm by placing hurdles before potential members in order to avoid wasting resources on them. This argument is valid if one considers the resources spent on training members in the first one or two weeks too great a waste. The fact is that people with insufficient enthusiasm are unlikely to attend more than one or two training sessions. For instance, the author of the present article thinks that WPRB is really cool, but they were not sufficiently enthusiastic about becoming a DJ to stay after the first information session. (This is a mistake that the author intends to remedy.) Moreover, training for such groups often just means lecturing, and it does not matter whether 20 or 30 people listen to a lecture. The amount of effort invested is the same. Thus, the logic of seemingly meritocratic selection processes cannot lie in resource conservation.
Moreover, not everyone who passes try-outs stays in clubs. Some people drop out after training sessions. If admission to clubs were based on interest only, then clubs would have more members who are willing to collaborate on shared projects. This would cause the quality and quantity of the work done by clubs to increase rather than decrease without try-outs. This means that even if every single argument in favor of try-outs were true, a system where anybody can join clubs based on interest would be better. This is because only people who have a certain level of interest in an area are going to join and stay in a club dedicated to that field. Try-outs eliminate a part of those potential members, whose work could prove useful. The current system is thus unable to harness the full potential of students.
While the rationality of try-outs is dubious, they have a clear social function. These try-outs are rituals that are intended to project an image of selectivity and prestige outside of the group and bind members closer inside. A meritocratic selection process gives the impression that the club is highly selective and therefore prestigious. This prestige motivates members to stay in the club and attracts new applicants. Thus, the selection process confers social legitimacy on the members of the group and acts as the glue that keeps them together.
However, greater openness in groups that could offer training to their members would foster an environment where more people could actually follow their passions and improve their skills. The way that clubs are currently organized prevents us from fully developing our talents and pursuing our interests. We become shallower and more one-dimensional people. A more open environment could help us all cultivate more skills and flourish in more ways than one.
Furthermore, try-outs are stressful, especially for first-year students. Many of us already suffer from impostor syndrome; being rejected by clubs only worsens feelings of inadequacy. This, in turn, leads to low self-esteem and makes it more difficult for students to be successful in other endeavors.
If all of us were free to pursue our own interests without any barriers, our Princeton experience would be much more enriching. The cost of such a change would be a loss in prestige on the part of some groups, but opportunities for personal improvement would be enlarged considerably. A stress-free first year may be a utopian dream with all the classes we need to take, but we would at least be better off without the extra stress of auditions and rejection.