OPINION: Accepting rejection

By TEHILA WENGER

’Tis the season to be rejected.

The acceptance emails and rowdy pickups have maxed out now as student organizations across campus take their pick of the deliciously talented cornucopia of applicants. Egos inflate and implode as students experience the high of finding themselves wanted or the crushing reverse scenario. Freshman roommates navigate their first major relationship obstacle when the lucky one gets serenaded in his room by the same a cappella group that just rejected his new friend. Basically, there are a lot of feelings right now.

As a senior, there’s a strong and obnoxious urge to sit back and laugh smugly at the whole process. I’m fairly well set in my commitments at the University, and anything added to my schedule this year will be in the form of open groups or activities not requiring an interview and a love letter to the organization in order to participate.

Still, watching the process from the sidelines has been making me think a lot about the breadth and depth of the rejection experience at Princeton, not least because I have several good friends who are on the sending or receiving ends of that unpleasant, polite little message informing students that their extracurricular organization of choice has no room for them at the moment: “Sorry, and see you at auditions next year.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against selectivity in student groups. Certain kinds of organizations need to have standards and vision to maintain excellence, and the members who make up their ranks are specifically chosen with the objective of perpetuating the particular character of that group. Besides, the culture of rejection forces many Princeton students to face the fact that they are not desirable to every campus group relevant to their interests, and that kind of humbling revelation has the potential to be very good for us.

I say “potential” because Princeton students often deal with rejection in less healthy ways. We have a tendency to take rejection as a heavenly sign of our incompetence or failure in a specific area and subsequently drop the hobby completely. As Princeton students, we have been programmed to value exclusivity and judge merit according to its ethos. If we weren’t, we might not have found the University so appealing in the first place, and we certainly wouldn’t go around gleefully quoting the school’s changing acceptance rates every year. We worship exclusivity and frame our judgments of ability around a sharp dichotomy of “in” versus “out.” As a result, when the powers that be (student boards, play directors, etc.) inform us that we’re not what they were looking for, we treat their decision like the ultimate verdict on our talent. I’ve seen it happen again and again. Students dedicate their high school careers to a specific extracurricular that probably played a central role in their applications to Princeton, only to discover that their years of experience and passion mean squat to the voting members of their favorite theater group. Result: They give up the passion.

Competitive student groups, however, are not the only option. They’re simply the most attractive one to the kind of person who has been conditioned to believe that acceptance equals validation. There are communities and events that cater to the specific interests of students who were not accepted into the better known clubs on campus. The Princeton University Band and Lobster Club Improv Comedy are the most celebrated examples, but there are many others slipping under the radar: Sister Speakers: Women’s Open Word, the juggling club and Rise Up, to name a few. These no-audition options often go unexplored because they lack the prestigious and validating authority of an exclusive organization. Once the gods of selectivity have spoken, too many Princeton students decide there’s no point committing time to their writing, playing or acting in any forum.

A student who was turned down from Tiger Capital Management, the University’s student-run investment fund, quoted a line from his rejection letter: “This does not reflect on your accomplishments or your investing knowledge, but rather on our organization’s current needs.” This is a pretty classic rejection trope. It might be read as courteous diplomatic garbage — and maybe sometimes it is — but, as often as not, the “It’s not you, it’s us” line is actually true with regards to campus extracurriculars. There are enough talented students at Princeton that groups with limited membership and specific ideas about the kind of image they want to project cannot accept all applicants. If you love dance, don’t let rejection from one or even three selective companies rule it out of your life. Dig around for alternative options that don’t require auditions, and, if none suit your needs or taste, start your own. Otherwise, you’re letting an apologetic email nullify years of commitment to an interest or talent — and that is failure in the true sense of the word.

Tehila Wenger is a politics major from Columbus, Ohio. She can be reached at twenger@princeton.edu.

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