“Collaboration, engagement, and mindful exploration.” On the first day of college, I was full of high hopes for my extracurricular life when I read about the exciting promises Northwestern’s Student Organization & Activities made on their webpage. At my first club fair, I filled out the dozens of sign-up sheets under the persuasion of enthusiastic club representatives advertising enriching and inspiring opportunities. What I couldn’t have predicted was the unnecessarily frantic selectivity that followed those initial sign-ups.

Six applications, five rounds of interviews, and two networking nights later, I was rejected by five of the six consulting clubs and business fraternities that I applied for. The reality is, on top of being inspiring, engaging, and collaborative, the student-run business organizations at Northwestern are often very selective.

Over recent years, the finance and consulting industries’ high pay and rewarding learning opportunities at entry-level have attracted a large number of applicants from elite universities like Northwestern. Due to the extreme imbalance between interest and opportunities available, the recruitment process is highly competitive.

As early as the first quarter of college, business-minded students join pre-professional clubs to gain an edge on other applicants. Having gone through the recruitment process, I witnessed the anxiety and defeat the competitive nature of these clubs brought. I couldn’t help but ask, what are the problems with the selective business clubs at Northwestern?

As one of the nation’s most competitive universities, Northwestern admitted 2,000 first-year students who stood out from over 40,000 applicants in 2019, and the trend of competition only heightened in applying for clubs. As freshmen in our first week of college, we knew nothing about the clubs on campus, so the questions we asked our upperclassmen friends often went like this: “Should I try ___ club?” To which they would respond, “that club’s so easy to get into; it only has one round of applications” or “the best one’s ___; they only took 10 people last year.” As one of the aforementioned freshmen, I learned to judge and distinguish between the clubs largely based on their selectivity and the mechanism through which they select members. The caliber of the organizations was almost directly equated with these criteria--the harder, the better.

Echoing this mentality from the applicants, business clubs are reinforcing the toxic selectivity with hardcore methods of selection. After completing essays no less than what I had to write for college applications, I eagerly hunted down business casual attire for the subsequent rounds of interviews. During a group case interview, we were interrupted before finishing our presentation.  Without saying “thank you” or “good job” or at least attempting to be polite, the interviewer bombarded us with criticism.

Talking to my friends, I found out that many of my fellow applicants related to my experience, having also faced condescending attitudes and intentionally difficult questions during interviews. With very little benefit, the exclusivity of certain clubs only strengthens the superiority complex of their members. Even setting aside the student VPs and Execs’ qualifications to judge, the unreasonable standards for freshmen with no previous background in business are simply not sensible or necessary.

It is also about lost opportunities. My rejection letter from ISBE Analytics, the consulting group of  the largest business club at Northwestern, read, “we are forced to limit our size to ensure a productive learning environment.” However, do the rejects not deserve an environment to learn about the industries they are passionate about? College is supposed to be a time of exploration, but where can students find opportunities to discover their passions if they’re rejected in the first round of interviews? Many things about the selective recruitment seem to discourage interest--precisely contrary to what a student organization is supposed to do.

Certainly, there are legitimate motivations behind establishing a selective process of application. Consulting clubs, for example, only have a limited number of projects per quarter and are obligated to ensure high-quality service to their clients from the most capable consultants. The current system of selection favors students with past experience in related fields, rather than people who are curious and willing to try new things. However, even students with related knowledge have failed to succeed in this application process because of the overwhelming competition and selectivity.

Thus, the situation calls for the creation of more opportunities. According to Northwestern Career Advancement, 35% of the Class of 2018 graduates were employed in the business and financial services or consulting industries. In contrast, less than 20 of the over 500 student organizations focus on these fields. Perhaps a possible solution is creating more open access, entry-level organizations. Furthermore, existing organizations should consider establishing general memberships for educational purposes. The school should also provide resources and connections for clubs to expand and benefit more motivated students.

After all, we’re only college students. I’m sure we will all go on to face many more rejections in our lives; but in college, we should be able to afford to explore without the fear of constant failure. Hopefully, through healthy competition and active involvement in extracurricular activities at Northwestern, we will be equipped to find our own way of taking fewer “Ls” in the real world.

Article thumbnail: "rejected"by Sean MacEntee, licensed under CC BY 2.0