Bare bones club membership at CMU and ‘the grind’

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Carnegie Mellon is often regarded as a school with a rigorous admissions process; U.S. News considers it one of the most selective schools with an acceptance rate of approximately 17 percent. According to the Carnegie Mellon common data set from 2021-22, extracurricular activities are a “very important” part of an applicant’s submission. This means that students admitted to Carnegie Mellon participated in extracurriculars throughout high school. So why does it seem like so many organizations — including The Tartan — are struggling to find and maintain members?

The pandemic clearly plays a major role in this. There’s little doubt that motivation runs low among students stuck behind a computer screen to care about organizations they are in (or want to join). This led to membership drops in many orgs over the last two years. For many, they spent the year returning to pre-pandemic activities making sure that their club would just barely continue to exist.
This highlights a bigger problem: outside of passion, there’s very little incentive for students to join organizations at the college level. At the high school level, the motivation for many Carnegie Mellon-hopefuls was to have something to put on their college application. This isn’t to say that students weren’t joining organizations because it was something they were interested in doing, but that four-year involvement with an officer position was incentivized by its pretty title on a college resume.

At the collegiate level, many students don’t have the same motivation for engagement. Sure, a leadership position in a college org will look good on a job application, but so will having that 4.0 QPA. A lot is expected of Carnegie Mellon students. There’s an obvious grind-culture that consumes many students — work hard, work harder. To many students, joining orgs simply isn’t part of that.

At least for me, imposter syndrome plays a role in this. As most Carnegie Mellon students can tell you, imposter syndrome has a large presence on campus. Though we all managed to get into a rigorous university like Carnegie Mellon, there’s always a feeling like we’re not good enough, like there’s someone outworking us. This continues to feed the grind cycle — if you’re not actively working, someone else is and will do better than you in classes and in life. This leads to students committing more of their time to working, studying, and burning out less than halfway through the semester.

This endless cycle of work, burnout, work, burnout is toxic and joining a club is one of the healthiest breaks from the endless grind culture. So why don’t more students do it? It’s because it’s not going to get them their internship at Meta or a six-figure job following graduation. This highlights a bigger picture at Carnegie Mellon: the average student is fairly one-track minded.

Grind culture is a manifestation of this. Students tend to have a fairly narrow outlook on their college experience. Get good grades, get internships, get a diploma, then get a job. As bare-bones as that sounds, that’s the image I have of the average student here. This was the track that I was on when I entered college last year. I was worried about finding an internship for my first-year summer. I knew that after college I wanted to go to graduate school, and after that, work in a national lab. I joined The Tartan briefly toward the beginning of semester, but stopped attending meetings and writing articles to focus on my school work after about a month. I was a victim of the grind culture.

It wasn’t until I realized that I was stuck in the grind culture during the following spring semester that things started to improve for me. I spent more time doing work for The Tartan (and other orgs), less time in my room (at home, thanks COVID), and more time focusing on what made me happy. I didn’t end up applying for a summer internship, and I honestly think that was one of the best decisions I made for myself. Though I may be more uncertain about what I want to do with the rest of my life than I was last year, I can certainly say that I’m much happier with my situation.

Grind culture can be toxic even when it is passed off as tenacity. For some, constantly working and studying may be how they cope. Somehow, I doubt this is the case for most. The pressure students put on themselves to constantly put out our best work is what pushes them, and when something goes wrong, they simply break. Even the slightest failures seem like we’re falling behind our peers; it’s hard for students to adjust their expectations of themselves.

Being closed-minded doesn’t just apply to the grind culture at Carnegie Mellon — I feel like the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality is commonplace. Breaking from this phrase means change, and that can throw off the perfect plans we have in our heads. For instance, the change to the 14-week semester that includes fall break next year. Personally, I’ve heard some resistance from students regarding this because we’ll be receiving less instructional days, or there’s fear of professors assigning work over break anyways. Students aren’t willing to take a chance on change, even if it means getting a break from work for a while.
While sticking to the status quo is safe, the closed-mindedness of Carnegie Mellon is detrimental. While it may feel secure to stick to a plan and constantly work, it doesn’t lead to happiness in the long run. But given the average Carnegie Mellon student, it’s going to be hard to break from the grind culture, since that’s all a lot of us know.