Competitive clubs: How Princeton’s selective extracurriculars favor the wealthy



Princeton is an incredibly competitive institution. During its most recent application cycle, the University accepted only 3.98 percent of applicants. But, as most undergraduates realize during their time at Princeton, the competition doesn’t end with admission.

Princeton’s after-school clubs are also notoriously competitive. Everything from dance teams and a capella groups to entrepreneurship organizations and counseling clubs, require nominations or auditions. Considering that Princeton clubs rely on a candidate pool of some of the most motivated young adults in the country, getting into one of these exclusive groups can be quite a feat.

In an ideal world, clubs would not need nominations. The sad reality, however, is that the number of applicants often exceeds the amount of places available in a student pool. There is not much that can be done to change that. But there is one element of the club application process that requires our attention: Much like the college admissions process itself, the club application process at Princeton favors high income earners.

There is no denying that the college application process favors the wealthy. More disposable income means better access to expensive after-school programs, private schools, and well-funded public schools. The same factors that make high-income students more likely to be admitted to competitive colleges also increase their chances of being accommodated in highly selective extracurricular groups.

Low-income students are less likely to participate in expensive extracurricular activities, resulting in what “the Atlantic” calls the “activity gap”. Schools attended by low-income students are less likely to offer niche after-school programs, such as active school newspapers and programming clubs. In short, low-income students are, on average, less exposed to the types of activities offered at Princeton than their higher-income peers. But does previous experience in the extracurricular in question benefit the candidates of the club?

In their advertising, many Princeton clubs claim that no experience is necessary to join. Students generally complain that such statements are false and only make club rejections more difficult. I am not here to assess whether such claims are true or false. What I will argue, however, is that even where clubs are genuinely unaffected by applicants’ past experience, the club application process nonetheless favors applicants with certain skills – skills that both public and private schools do. well funded tend to focus.

Take, for example, the United Nations model. I spoke with Sophia Richter ’23, captain of the Princeton Model United Nations Team (PMUNT), to get an overview of the PMUNT application process. When asked what makes a PMUNT candidate successful, Richter replied, “We are definitely not looking for experience. Every year we take people who have no experience with the United Nations model and who sometimes don’t even really know what the United Nations model is. We are looking a lot more for people who are good speakers, who understand politics well… We are also looking for people who seem to be leaders.

The skill set expected of PMUNT applicants – public speaking and leadership ability – is much easier to develop in the type of schools that high-income students tend to attend. These schools tend to have smaller class sizes, which increases the students’ chances of expressing themselves in the classroom. These schools also promote leadership skills through their large club offerings. This is not to say that low-income students cannot be effective speakers or leaders, regardless of their past experience. I’m just highlighting the sad reality that high-income students are more likely to attend high schools that encourage the development of certain skills, public speaking and leadership, among others.

Thus, the college club application process often favors high-income students. But what about competitive creative clubs, such as a capella and dance groups? Simply put, the skills arts groups look for in their applicants are expensive to develop. For example, a one-hour music lesson in the United States costs on average over $ 60. It is precisely these expensive courses that help applicants integrate into groups such as the Princeton University Orchestra. On a related note, a naturally talented singer who has taken years of expensive singing lessons likely has an advantage over an equally talented singer without formal training during an a capella audition. The same principle can be applied to dance lessons and sports coaching.

So what can we do to make access to extracurricular activities more equitable in Princeton? The answer is different for each club; dance teams will obviously have different considerations than consulting clubs. But PMUNT offers a good example.

According to Richter, “in the first round [of PMUNT tryouts], the first part is country speech, but the second part is actually a game that tests critical thinking. It has absolutely nothing to do with politics or really the United Nations model. This gives a real advantage to people who do not have the experience to show their ability to come up with creative solutions. Including a non-traditional element, such as a game, in the application process can ease the stress of applying and allow students from all walks of life to shine more evenly.

For arts clubs, making the audition process fairer is more of a challenge. But groups that don’t already might offer a handful of training sessions before formal auditions, during which contestants learn the fundamentals of the art form they’re interested in.

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The majority of club application cycles have ended this semester, but another application cycle is on the horizon. For those readers who have the power to make the club application process fairer, I urge you to take the time and effort necessary to do so.

Genrietta Churbanova is a sophomore from Little Rock, Ark. She can be contacted at [email protected].



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