Seeing Double: We Aren't Special

You, the beautiful and kind person reading this column, are one of a kind. Nobody in the world is quite like you. Even the person most similar to you, wherever they may be, has had different experiences, holds different opinions, and is, quite simply, different. But while you are certainly unique, I can promise you one thing: you aren’t special.

I mean this not in the sense that the things that make you a distinct individual don’t matter, but rather that you aren’t more deserving than other people. At Amherst, we spend a lot of time trying to convince people that they belong here, which is of course the case. But we spend far too little time considering that while we may all belong here, we don’t deserve to be here — at least not any more than the average person. 

It is tempting to think of ourselves as above average, especially when we go to a place as lauded as Amherst. Perhaps there’s something in particular that you like to think sets you apart from the rest of humanity. Maybe you think that you have an especially powerful intellect, or that your painting skills are extraordinary, or that you have a golden foot for soccer. But even if that is true — even if you do possess extraordinary skills — you aren’t here because of them.

Rather, you’re here almost entirely out of luck. For example, you are far more likely to attend an elite American university if you were born in the U.S., a stroke of good fortune that you have no control over. If you doubt that claim, simply consider that the vast majority of human beings are not Americans and yet the majority of students at universities like Harvard, Yale, and yes, Amherst, are American. For me and the other Amherst students born in the U.S., I can guarantee that most of us would not be here had we been born elsewhere.

Similarly, a substantial number of Amherst students come from elite prep schools or expensive private schools. If you’re one of them, you are far more likely to attend a college like Amherst than someone who didn’t have that opportunity. Still more of us come from suburban, well-funded public schools or were able to pay for tutors when we struggled academically. These factors increase both our chances of applying to an elite school and being accepted. And don’t even get me started on paying for ACT and SAT study sessions or re-sitting for those exams.

Often, these factors result from our most basic socially significant identities, like race, class and gender. As early as childhood, society tells some people that they should apply to college and others that they shouldn’t through countless everyday interactions. When it comes to applications, elite colleges privilege white, more powerful and better connected students over others. And since schools like Amherst balance students by gender, even though women are generally more qualified, any one woman is less likely to get in than any one man. 

Beyond those easily identifiable structural advantages that some of us have, the simple fact stands that each year, Amherst could easily choose two totally adequate classes out of its applicant pool — and in fact it does. Amherst admits more than a thousand people each year, and only about 470 decide to attend. Many excellent applicants are waitlisted or outright rejected. Our luck — in admissions, in high school, in birth, in life at large — got us here, not our skills. 

Yet college admissions claims the exact opposite. We write essays and take tests and plead with teachers for better grades because the story goes that our merit will determine whether or not we get into a good college. In fact, we’re fed these lies for our entire lives. Merit supposedly determines hiring and firing, raises and bonuses, even love and companionship. 

Our belief in meritocracy persists even after we learn about systemic racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. When we talk about the fact that “meritocratic,” race-blind systems often disadvantage people of color, we say that those systems fail to accurately determine the “true merit” of people of color. We act as if the tools we use to determine merit are broken rather than questioning the entire idea of meritocracy.

Ultimately, all of these fictions culminate in those with privilege believing that they earned that privilege. Regardless of our backgrounds, being at Amherst imparts a privilege to each of us. We graduate into the highest echelons of a credentialed ruling class. If you’re like my co-columnist and you decided to major in a dying humanities field, then your degree gives you an extra leg up if you decide to stay in academia. And an economics degree from a place like Amherst — coupled with our extensive alumni network — all but ensures that you can become a Wall Street fat cat in time. 

My point is not that we should redesign all of society and abandon the idea of merit (at least not in this article), but that we should think critically about how we ended up where we are. Undoubtedly, many of us have worked incredibly hard to be here, and I don’t denigrate or ignore that effort. Without it, only the luckiest of the lucky make it to a place like Amherst.

But even so, the reason that you’re here and not some other kid boils down to luck. Maybe you benefit from structural advantages, or maybe you had a teacher that saw something in you that nobody else did. Maybe you were given a chance to develop your talents while other students grew up in schools without art programs or advanced math tracks. Maybe the admissions officer was feeling a tiny bit more generous, or maybe an applicant that would have pushed you out decided to only apply in sunny, warm parts of the world. Whatever the reasons, luck was crucial for all of us.

We belong here, and we should act like it — and I say that especially to those of us whom Amherst wouldn’t have accepted 50 years ago. But none of us deserve to be here any more than others. And if you think that you earned your spot here, think again.