Opinions

Opinion | Pre-professional clubs, open up

Opinion by Joyce Chen
Jan. 11, 2022, 8:37 p.m.

Ah, club rollouts – what a quintessential quirky Stanford experience! Awakening in alarm to the sound of your door being knocked down, praying that it’s not for your roommate, banging on other Chosen Ones’ doors and wandering around campus in your pajamas. 

But what about that roommate who isn’t rolled out? What about those who experience their first painful rejections so early on in their Stanford lives? Why do so many pre-professional and industry/business-oriented clubs contribute to a culture that makes frosh feel inadequate and underqualified without so much as a rejection email? 

It is clear that there is often a false conflation of exclusivity with excellence, with many freshmen bugging upperclassmen and asking online about which clubs are the most difficult to get into. Some clubs lean into this by boasting their low acceptance rates to new recruits. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because this exact mentality drives the race for the “most prestigious” college admissions. It fosters an environment in which you feel artificially good about being one of the privileged selected few and therefore may want to keep your group exclusive as you rise in the ranks; see backlash to the university’s expansion plans after a record endowment. 

From the activities fair to endless emails, clubs seem desperate for you to apply and join their community, only to ghost you after unsuccessful first round interviews. One almost suspects that some clubs put excessive effort into encouraging applications simply so that they can reject more people and inflate their exclusivity and, thus, prestige. 

The main defense of exclusivity is that the resources of these clubs are often limited, and so in order to give some students the best possible footing, they must take fewer new members. However, the most frustrating outcome of this culture is seeing only half of the club’s chosen interns or fellows or analysts or consultants turn up to all their programmed events to take advantage of the very resources they have been selected to access. This is understandable – students are busy with all manner of academic, social and other extracurricular activities that will naturally prevent many from fully committing to one club. But then that club’s limited resources should be allocated to those who are likely to make the most of them rather than half the people chosen to that stage.

So what if clubs opened up, and what would that even look like? The belief that opening pre-professional clubs to all students would drain resources often doesn’t hold given that many activities, especially in frosh fall, are not resource-restricted: talks from club board members, industry leaders, and professors; lecture-style resume workshops; study nights and community-forming. 

Clearly anybody and everybody could benefit from insightful talks, mailing lists and potential mentors, and yet these are currently only accessible to members of certain clubs. And on what basis? The selection process, which almost always involves resume-processing and interview rounds, bakes in biases and particularly disadvantages FLI students and others who have not had previous experience or access to industry opportunities. 

At the moment, club applications typically involve two main types of questions: explain why you like and want to join the club, and tell us about a time you were a leader/entrepreneur. The first genre of questions is essentially meaningless when applicants are frosh who barely know the club beyond its name and mission statement. The latter, especially when paired with resumes of high-school accomplishments, preferences those whose high schools had several clubs and societies to lead, grants and teacher support to buoy student entrepreneurship and students who had the time to pursue extracurricular activities outside classes, work and familial responsibilities.

Absolutely nobody’s access to opportunities in college should be influenced or determined by the experiences they had in high school, particularly when those opportunities can help build careers. However much leadership experience you had in high school is not an indicator of how good of a leader you are nor, much more importantly, how great of a leader you can become. Furthermore, many club boards are currently dominated by white and East Asian students, and this type of demographically unrepresentative board can dissuade underrepresented frosh from applying and potentially being fairly evaluated.

Where resources are genuinely restricted (mainly when club programs work directly with industry), there are two potentially better ways to select “interns”: later application cycles and participation-based access. 

Many applications for selective freshman programs occur within the first five weeks of students even stepping foot onto campus; they likely have no exposure to the club before applying. With late Fall or Winter application cycles instead, frosh will gain a much clearer sense of whether this is actually a community they want to join rather than simply following the crowd, and club leaders can see how committed and how good of a fit potential members would be. This means that only students who are genuinely interested in the club will apply, and the club will likely choose more suitable members, reducing unnecessary rejection and incompatible new recruits. 

For the reasons mentioned earlier, there are very, very few (if any) instances in which your resume or ability to write well about your high school projects and passion for a club you have never meaningfully participated in should determine whether you are accepted to an organization at Stanford. The solution is to simply allocate positions and resources (again, only where they are truly limited) based on who turns up most regularly and shows the most keen interest. Then we can minimize the resources wasted by uncommitted members and increase the actual functionality of those roles, for example helping to organize speakers.

Of course, these are imperfect suggestions with their own flaws, but I think they would certainly improve the cut-throat and uneven playing ground on which many pre-professional clubs currently operate. At the end of the day, everyone should have equal opportunity to access a new industry and learn the skills they want to learn; why exclude people with the excuse of mimicking the finance/consulting/tech job search, when the club should help you become qualified for those very jobs? Being part of a university like Stanford should open up a world of opportunities, not introduce a new set of hurdles to access the most basic ones.

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