Princeton's School of Hard Knocks

Bloomberg View , September 02, 2015

Worrying about the angst of high-achieving students has become a minor industry. “America’s culture of hyperachievement among the affluent” has led to suicides, depression, and anxiety among college students, suggested a July New York Times feature. “These cultural dynamics of perfectionism and overindulgence have now combined to create adolescents who are ultra-focused on success but don’t know how to fail,” wrote Julie Scelfo. The rhetoric of concern barely conceals contemptuous disapproval.

In this popular narrative, America’s best college students are making themselves miserable trying to please pushy parents and grab lucrative jobs. They’re soulless grinds -- the products of insensitive parenting and a sick culture. This fable leaves no room for intellectual enthusiasm or the pride of seeing oneself as smart and accomplished. It assumes every activity these students pursue is instrumental, undertaken merely to look good on an application for the next stage in their upward climb. Their drive for success, it suggests, cloaks an ignoble lust for fame or money. The moralism of this tale may flatter the tellers, but the story itself largely misses a deeper underlying struggle on elite campuses.

Intrigued by reports that my alma mater had initiated something called the Princeton Perspective Project, which aims to reduce student stress by puncturing a reportedly pervasive ideal of “effortless perfection,” I went to campus last April to investigate. Had Princeton students stopped griping about how much work they had and how little sleep they were getting? Had sprezzatura, the art of making difficult feats look easy, truly gone from a concept you learned in Renaissance history class to a quality most students possessed, or tried to?

I spent four days interviewing both students involved with the Princeton Perspective Project and others I contacted through social media outreach and personal connections. (Because the interviews took place at the end of last school year, I identify students by their class standing at the time.) This sample wasn’t random or necessarily representative of the range of student experience. It was heavy on STEM majors and middle-class strivers, light on athletes and wealthy prep school graduates. In these ways, it resembled my own undergraduate circles, although with more children of immigrants and more women, both groups whose numbers have grown significantly in the three decades since I graduated. But after repeatedly hearing the same themes, I came away with a better sense of why students feel stressed at Princeton and most likely at similar elite institutions.

Every January a great team loses the Super Bowl. Every April three of the Final Four go down. And every September, extraordinary students arrive at highly selective universities only to discover that one out of every two really will wind up in the bottom half of the freshman class --and one out of every five in the bottom quintile.

“I think most people come in knowing that they’re going to do probably worse than they did in high school, but there’s a very big difference between knowing that and actually getting back your grades at the end of the first semester,” freshman Bharath Srivatsan told me. “You may have thought Princeton was going to be hard, but it’s unlikely you thought you were going to end up in the bottom quintile. So when you see that, that’s very, very jarring.” (A fate that did not befall Srivatsan.) Since 2004, when Princeton embarked on a campaign against grade inflation, the university has told students which fifth of their class their cumulative grade point average puts them in.

Contrary to generational stereotypes, these students are not precious snowflakes who’ve spent their youth receiving participation trophies just for showing up. They’re genuinely impressive -- high achievers who’ve distinguished themselves, often in national or international competitions. They are so gifted and so diligent that they’ve rarely experienced obscurity or defeat before arriving as freshmen. They’re used to doing well, and to being known for their achievements.

“If you Google most of your friends, you’ll find them, and that’s really not normal,” said a senior chemical and biological engineering major, recalling the first-year practice of digging up news articles about friends’ high-school accomplishments and posting links on Facebook. It’s affectionate teasing, but also a reminder that “even before you do anything, even before you’ve taken a class, there’s already an expectation for you.” (Although she didn’t care if her friends recognized her, she was one of several students who asked that I not use their names to protect them from search engines.)

Nor are these high achievers necessarily victims of overbearing parents. “Overwhelmingly they are putting that pressure on themselves,” said Alexis Andres, a residential-college director of student life and one of the administrators behind the Princeton Perspective Project, in which students share their struggles so that others know they aren’t alone. She recalled meeting with a student who needed to drop a course after health problems caused her to fall behind. The young woman was beside herself, crying “What am I going to tell my parents?” As Andres and the student’s academic adviser sat there imagining scary Tiger Parents, the student sobbed, “My parents are going to say it’s fine and not to worry and it’s no big deal -- and they’re not going to be mean about it when it is a big deal!” The drive of these students is intrinsic and tied to their sense of identity.

“Effortless perfection,” however, is hardly the norm. To the contrary, students described something akin to Parris Island. As freshman Ian Iverson put it, “the culture tends more towards, ‘I’m doing everything I possibly can and I’m almost at the breaking point and about to fall down, but I’m not.’” On an otherwise diverse campus, said a sophomore woman, “the common thread is that classes are difficult and people struggle with their school work.” Everywhere I looked, students were quite obviously working hard. And history professorAnthony Grafton told me that his classes showed little interest insprezzatura when he taught Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier in the popular humanities sequence. It apparently wasn’t a concept they found resonant. (What engaged them was the role of women.)

The real problem, it turns out, is that students expect “effortful” perfection. Those who work hard and nevertheless get low grades or who don’t win a spot in their preferred extracurricular group assume everyone else is succeeding. (Just look at the happy pictures on their Facebook pages!) Confronting failure or rejection in one area, said Andres, they extrapolate “that their life has no meaning, that they aren’t going to be successful here, they aren’t going to be happy here.”

Surrounded by distinguished peers, freshmen in particular may experience a disorienting loss of identity. “It’s not just that you’re not the biggest fish in the pond anymore. It’s that there are so many other big fish,” said the chemical and biological engineering major, a top science student in high school who found herself near the bottom of the class at Princeton. Once known as “the smart kid” or “the great musician,” students no longer find themselves so distinctive. “When everyone’s a nerd, you’re like, What am I?” she said.

Despite what you read in the newspapers, the primary source of this angst isn’t bad parenting or crass careerism. Instead, it’s simply that too many superb students with impressive extracurricular accomplishments now have a fair shot at the very best colleges. Widened horizons and increased financial aid mean that students whose equivalents a generation ago might have triumphed at the nearest state university or regional liberal-arts school now find themselves in the middling, or even bottom, ranks of the most demanding institutions. Meanwhile many of the legacy admissions who might once have provided an ample supply of students satisfied with aristocratic C’s are now the super-high-achieving kids of high-achieving baby boomers.

One of the seniors I talked to was a third-generation Princetonian. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed, he’d fit the casting director’s idea of the kid who cruised through admissions thanks to lower standards for WASPs with family connections. But real life isn’t the movies. He had in fact done graduate-level math research while still in high school. His dad, one of my college friends, had been a stellar Princeton student, Phi Beta Kappa with a passion for puzzles that made him an outstanding statistics major. The son was even better -- and so was his high-school preparation.

The result of all this excellence is that today’s most talented and driven students are learning some tragic truths earlier than their predecessors: To be genuinely ambitious is to fail, repeatedly and throughout your life, by reaching for goals you can’t quite attain. And in a big world, you are almost certainly not the best at whatever you care most about.

As a result, they face the existential challenge of discovering who they want to be and what makes them special while they’re still in college. One of the recurring themes in my conversations with students was their need to find something to be “known for,” a way to “make a mark” or “stand out.” They quickly corrected any assumption that this was a quest for fame. “I think we know that with 5,000 kids here you can’t really have a reputation with the whole student body,” said freshman Ming Wilson. It’s a search for meaning and significance: a contribution uniquely one’s own.

When I asked what college is for, their answers were remarkably philosophical. “Starting to figure out and try to live the type of life that you want to live,” answered Wilson. “College is a time for people to choose who they want to become,” said senior Shawon Jackson, a two-term student government president and a driving force behind the Princeton Perspective Project. Choose, he emphasized, not “find yourself.”

“It’s almost like a holding pen for us, to wait those extra few years -- it’s a midway point in the process of growing up,” mused sophomore Mary Heath Manning, the Princeton Perspective Project’s chair. But at least at Princeton, she continued, the waiting isn’t as passive as that metaphor implies, because the school “provides so many opportunities to figure out what’s important for you in life.”

The chemical and biological engineering major I talked to sounded less like a recruiting brochure but made the same point. “I think it’s kind of good that Princeton breaks people,” she said, “because it forces people to think, What am I actually passionate about? Not, What is good for my future?” Despite her struggles, she had opted to stay in her demanding field because she genuinely loved the subject.

Learning to deal with defeat -- to take it seriously but not to find it crippling -- is one of the proverbial ways in which sports builds character. We take athletic disappointments as part of the game. We understand that even at the highest level not everyone can be the best. We expect fiercely competitive players to be frustrated, sad, and angry when they don’t win. We also expect them to get over it.

Building character is a horribly old-fashioned concept. Although it inspired their founders, secular universities like Princeton would never invoke the concept today. Explicitly or not, however, building character is still something they do.

The pain and struggles that generate so much public fretting are real. But unless elite schools start reserving a quarter of their slots for the unmotivated or unqualified, they’re also unavoidable. Wanting to excel is not a character flaw, and shouldn’t be treated as one in the guise of concern for students’ mental health. Ambitious students deserve the same respect we accord ambitious athletes.

  1. In a follow-up Q&A, Scelfo contradicted the thrust of her long feature, acknowledging that “there is no data indicating that suicide is more prevalent at elite institutions than at two-year or four-year colleges. In fact, college of any kind seems to be a form of protection against suicide.”
  2. When I was a student, the male-female ratio was 2:1, which in my minority opinion is ideal. Today the undergraduate population is 51 percent male.
  3. She didn’t tell me about her high-school accomplishments; I Googled her, thereby demonstrating her point about search engines.