We can never be told enough how much of a privilege it is to attend a school like Wesleyan because it’s immeasurably true. Most alumni I’ve spoken with say that most benefits of a Wesleyan education aren’t apparent until certain things begin to pay off well into adulthood. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to examine how we got here and the ramifications of our presence and subsequent degree, because as college admissions have become more competitive, we have unwittingly learned to become selfish consequentialists in the process.
Of course not all of us practice some of the bad habits and unethical behavior necessary to get into elite schools, but there is a complex just about all of us have developed in order to get a foot in the door here. Just as many students experience “imposter syndrome” early in their time at schools like Wesleyan—where they feel that they are inherently unqualified compared to their peers and ultimately don’t belong where they are—a potentially mirrored number of students experience what I will knowingly coin without a degree in social psychology, “payoff syndrome.”
Because part of my thesis involves the over pathologizing of behavior in contemporary American culture (and even 19th Century Europe if you read Gustav Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and want to go there), it should be noted that my use of the word “syndrome” is not to equate a phenomenon among the lucky few who get into top universities to people with a wide range of chronic illnesses. And, indeed, there is certainly a significant intersection between these populations that bars mutual exclusivity. However, just like imposter syndrome, payoff syndrome operates on a de facto level in such a way that it’s worth examining as a legitimate social phenomenon, even if it isn’t as well vetted as empty nest syndrome or imposter syndrome.
So what are the cardinal sins we commit to become Wesleyan Cardinals? Perhaps the most pervasive, as journalists like Frank Bruni have chronicled, is the accumulation of philanthropic and leadership positions solely for their place on a resume. Often involving little to no serious engagement, these “fly-by” gigs condition us to pursue titles with the best buzzwords rather than meaningful work itself.
Short trips to under-developed countries becoming the primary subject of college essays have been the most glaringly obvious symptom of this mentality that, for many tireless admissions deans, they have become a sort of kitsch joke already. Nevertheless, thousands of applicants will write about a subjective and privileged experience in these countries to avoid sounding banal.
Following the shallowly accumulated resume positions in high school comes a flash storm during the first year of college consisting of essentially the same thing. Ambitious students scurry around club fairs signing up for anything that interests them, or worse, clubs that they may not be interested in, but that nonetheless pop off the ever improving resume. There’s nothing inherently wrong with joining Listservs and seeing which clubs are appealing. What often happens instead, however, is that first years (myself included, at the time) will overextend themselves across several time consuming extra curricular groups. While dedicated involvement and even a leadership position are the ideal results of being involved with any club, both goals are impossible when extra curricular involvement is treated as a form of capital to be acquired rather than an intrinsic good to invest oneself in.
From there comes the all-too-common phenomenon of only pursuing courses with a high likelihood of getting a strong grade. Almost every school has professors who are notoriously tough graders, and more often than not, students are better off having taken their courses with a handicapped final grade. But instead, a strange supply and demand model is applied to courses with prestigious sounding names that are easy to do well in, and, in place of intellectual curiosity, an algorithmic and consequentialist approach is taken to the core of the college experience.
Finally, getting worse and worse the closer we come to graduation, this conditioning leads us to make erroneous decisions when it comes to internships and jobs. In a search for the best possible title at the most prestigious firm, we overlook meaningful work at the grassroots, and in the modern economy of late capitalism, we also miss out on a decent wage or any wage at all.
This sets us on a path of inevitable dissatisfaction. Having passed by the reservoir of lifelong learning we had at our disposal as if we were a mid-phase Apollo mission, we instead get slingshotted back to Earth after our college experience, left only with a handful of zesty resume titles.
Perhaps the only way to rectify any of this is to do something many of us have been too good at avoiding to get into a place like this. We need to fail. We need to fail badly, and fail as soon as possible. The humility we learn in failure is far greater than any inflated and fleeting pleasure we receive from vapid titles and fly-by obligations.
So the next time you practice your branding talking points before a mock interview in the career center, take a step back, be honest, and be willing to take the more difficult path with less empty adjectives in its title.