Healthy Competition

Every Dartmouth tour guide makes it a point to advertise the academic environment of the college as collaborative rather than cutthroat. Unlike some of the other hogwash one might hear on these tours (or any college tour for that matter), this is actually true, for the most part. Despite Dartmouth’s rigid median grades, students often study together for tests, look over each other’s essays, share study guides, and generally root for their peers to succeed. This collaborative spirit, however, does not overshadow Dartmouth’s nature as a highly competitive environment from the first day students arrive on campus.

Most Dartmouth students were either the best or among the best at a certain discipline at their respective high schools, whether it was academics, athletics, acting, pottery, or debate. Many were among the best in more than one of these areas. For most, being placed on a small campus with 4,000 immensely talented students is a humbling experience. Striving for comparative excellence at Dartmouth, one finds, will be a bit more difficult than it was in high school.

Before the first exams begin, students compete for spots in a capella groups, dance troupes, and club sports teams. Acceptance to these groups turns out to be more competitive than many would think. Later on, students receive their first test grades, course grades, and freshman-year GPAs. While plenty of students excel from the outset, nearly everyone sees a handful of their peers doing better and often substantially better than themselves.

The competition intensifies in the pursuit of coveted internships and post-graduation jobs. The process starts during sophomore summer, when a handful of companies (mostly in the consulting and financial services industries) recruit on campus in search of the top candidates at one of the top schools in the country. Competing against candidates that look almost perfect on paper can be a herculean task, just ask the plethora of students with 3.7+ GPAs that ended the process without a single offer.

The point is clear; Dartmouth can be a stressful, competitive, high-pressure environment. With that much settled, however, many questions still abound. Is this environment healthy? Is it ultimately beneficial for students? If not, is there a way to change or improve it?

Dartmouth alums are pretty successful, even in comparison with the few schools that have lower acceptance rates and higher national rankings. Eight Dartmouth graduates are representing their respective nations at the Olympics, a high total for a college of such small size and high-caliber academics. Tons of current and former CEOs and multimillionaires have attended the College. On the other hand, cheating, illegal use of study drugs, and mental health issues run rampant at Dartmouth. To varying degrees, these problems can all be traced back to the pressure of competition.

There is both healthy and unhealthy competition. Healthy competition encourages people to strive to get the best out of themselves and, through successes and failures, become better people. Unhealthy competition occurs when one will stop at nothing to succeed, at the expense of his or her own health, the interests of others, and ethical behavior. How can Dartmouth separate the good competition from the bad?

Brown University’s solution for reducing competition was to eliminate almost all graduation requirements, allow students to take courses Pass-Fail, and eliminate grades with pluses or minuses. But that extreme has costs; that less self-motivated students choose to avoid rigor and that some employers discount a Brown degree or high Brown GPA. Moreover, many Dartmouth students chose Dartmouth precisely to avoid an academic environment like Brown’s. Pushing aside healthy competition for the sake of minimizing unhealthy competition is not the answer.

There are micro-level structural fixes that could go a long way in alleviating the cancer of unhealthy competition. The first is ending the college’s failed experiment with increasing “academic rigor”. Not the same as rigorous academics, academic rigor has more to do with holding tests on weekends and arbitrarily lowering course medians than it does with the complexity of the material and the difficulty of course assessments. Thus far, it has only served to make the more difficult classes at the college (such as those in STEM and Economics) more difficult, while leaving the courses and departments with recurring “A” medians essentially untouched. Those who were already under a substantial amount of stress are now being subjected to greater stress. The second fix involves corporate recruiting. While the recruiting program offers a sizeable number of options in the financial services industry, most of the consulting firms that recruit at Dartmouth are in the top tier of the industry and are often even more competitive than the bulge-bracket banks. This is not even to mention the general lack of diversity in the companies that come to the College. The Center for Professional Development needs to work on bringing tech companies as well as Fortune 500 companies in other industries to meet the demands of its students, and remind those students that they can still go on to have successful careers even if they don’t get jobs at the top finance and consulting firms.

These suggestions are just two examples. In general, Dartmouth’s administration should allocate more resources and pay more attention to creating a competitive environment conducive to the intellectual and personal growth of its students, rather than one that can be soul crushing to aspiring doctors and economists, those who don’t have their hearts set on careers in finance, or don’t have high enough GPAs to be considered by the current group of campus recruiters.

Finally, the Dartmouth community needs to adopt a different collective attitude. With every failure, students must be reminded of the caliber of their competition and urged to use defeat as a source of healthy motivation rather than discouragement. There must also be the constant reminder that while academic success is important; it is not worth harming one’s body and mind or acting unethically. Much of this may seem obvious, and to some extent this dialogue is already ongoing. However, if we hope to foster a healthy competitive environment, this thinking needs to become a more pervasive part of Dartmouth’s culture.  

Is healthy competition dying at Dartmouth?

How can Dartmouth create an environment of healthy competition?