Academic [d]Evolution

“Do you know anything about graduate school applications?”

My boyfriend Matthew, like me, is a junior in college and beginning to think about (that is, be overwhelmed by) the nearing terrors called ‘grad school apps’. My mother half laughed—the kind that is mostly air whistling through the nose—and replied, “I only know about my application, and that was thirty years ago.” I broke in to point out things are much different now. “It’s way more competitive,” I said.

In a free market environment, there is usually a consensus that competition is good. It prevents monopolies or socialism, keeps prices low and product quality high. Turns out, though, it affects students too. For any student seriously pursuing a high-caliber graduate program, the realization comes hard and fast: they must be willing to look amazing on paper. And I don’t mean just a 3.9-something. A quality resume includes impressive jobs, community service, awards, presentation, and if the student is lucky, a minority ethnicity. Students with hopes to continue in the academy smack face-first into Darwin’s maxim from Origin of the Species: “all organic beings are exposed to severe competition.”

Darwin pursued this idea until it led him to the theory of natural selection: to survive ‘severe competition,’ organisms develop stronger dominant straits. The university student is a microcosm for that entire process. The pressure of competition can lead to numerous traits that are crucial for academic survival: time management, work ethic, maturity, self-sufficiency, etc. But some effects can be troubling, such as restlessness, narrowed perspective, and flattery.

What is the student at graduation—advanced or monstrous? Maybe both. As with shelf products, graduate programs get their pick of low-priced, high quality goods. As long as applicants heavily outweighs admits, a student’s academic evolution seems unavoidable; we will inevitably conform to necessary evils like the GRE. True, the crunch of competition can push a student to greater accomplishment and fuller maturity. Must a healthy perspective on success fade in the evolution as well?

Personally, I don’t want to pursue acts of excellence only for the sake of standing out in peer comparisons, like a company creating a charity merely for marketing purposes. Stanford, Duke, UC Berkeley…even they aren’t worth that compromise. The difficulty is in retaining good things—and accomplishments and charity are good things—but not to use them merely as means to what are actually lesser ends. The undergraduate’s challenge is to face the competition, work hard, develop strong traits…but not forget to live well. Else, at life’s end, the MA or PhD will be discovered to be just one more leaf of grass. ‘