I couldn't participate in extracurriculars at Yale because of the school's competitive environment. It's not just a Yale problem.

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I couldn't participate in extracurriculars at Yale because of the school's competitive environment. It's not just a Yale problem.
The author, not pictured, says Yale is too competitive. Yana Paskova/Getty Images
  • When I applied to Yale and got in, I thought the hard part was behind me.
  • But on campus, there was even more competition to get into the top clubs, organizations, and classes.
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Applying to college in 2017 was one of the most stressful times of my life.

I'd dreamed of attending a prestigious college since the first grade, so in the fall of my senior year of high school, I packaged and repackaged myself for 14 colleges in 150-word answers.

What do I want to study? English — probably. What motivates me to learn? Fear and anxiety, if we're being honest, but we're not. So let's say it's the interconnected nature of the universe. What would I contribute to my first-year dorm if admitted? Crisp oxygen. I have a lot of houseplants.

There were days I wanted to quit. At my public high school in Arkansas, no one else seemed to be applying to as many schools, but I kept reminding myself that it would be worth it. Plus, come spring, I'd be done with personal essays and never have to do them again.

The following March, I got into college. I matriculated at Yale, bought room decor, and learned the hard way that Yale dorms didn't have air conditioning. After the initial excitement of moving in and meeting my suitemates, I was hit with another round of applications: this time for classes and extracurricular activities.

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I quickly learned that the competitive nature of the college-application process bred even more competition among Ivy League students once they got to campus.

My first days at Yale were filled with a 2nd round of applications

Like my fellow first-year students, I attended back-to-back information sessions for clubs: the Yale Dramatic Association, debate, Sabrosura (its Latin dance team), and more. Every information session was essentially the same: Here's what we do. You can do it too. Just apply — no experience required.

Then came the rejection emails. The debate team didn't want me even though I'd captained my high-school team for three years. Neither did the Latin dance team, even though I'd taken dance classes for 12 years. My suitemates and I bonded over the high-school extracurriculars we thought had gotten us into Yale, which we seemed no longer qualified to do. Some of my friends got into clubs only to find out they had to apply internally to participate.

It wasn't just extracurricular activities. Every semester, I wrote essays, submitted writing samples, and emailed professors to get into classes I needed to graduate. It's common for seminars to receive over 100 applicants for 12 spots. I applied three times before being admitted to a popular essay-writing class.

This wasn't how I pictured my first year. College was supposed to be my time to make mistakes, experiment, and try out things. After prioritizing things I excelled at over having fun for most of high school, I planned to go back to the activities I had given up along the way. I wanted to audition for a play or take up aerial gymnastics.

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Instead, I had to do the equivalent of applying to college again every year I spent at Yale.

It's not just a Yale problem

It's not just Yale that breeds a hypercompetitive environment. The university actually felt a lot less overtly competitive than high school because people weren't all trying to achieve the same narrow set of goals. But the atmosphere created a stigma around failure that caused some people, including me, to hold themselves back from trying new things.

To be good at something, you have to have tried it, "failed" a lot of times, and persisted. But the audition/application process at Yale made it so that I either had to be prodigiously good the first time I tried something or have spent years improving — and even that might not be enough.

The director of Yale's education-studies program, Mira Debs, has pointed out in The Atlantic that many clubs are student-run, so perhaps the students are creating a competitive environment. But it's hard not to notice the parallels between Ivy League admissions and the subsequent application cycles.

Competitive clubs are a product of a value system we bought into as children so that we could get into these schools. That doesn't just go away because you can recognize that it's destroying you. That's why exclusivity isn't just a Yale problem. It's pervasive among all colleges with competitive admissions.

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I'm still unlearning the all-or-nothing mindset that makes me feel like things aren't worth doing if I'm not immediately good at them. Before college, I wanted to try my hand at acting. Now that I've graduated, maybe I finally can.

Editor's Note: Yale's communication office declined to comment on this story.

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