Think Dartmouth: work hard, play hard
This article was featured in the Green Key 2017 Special Issue: "Awakening."
Think Dartmouth: a school in a picturesque college town, charming but remote. A quintessential college campus, with a clock tower, a college green and a set of neatly matched, colonial-style academic buildings. Don’t forget frat row— throw in a hodgepodge of sorority and fraternity houses, a few American flags and a host of Greek letters to which students to pledge their allegiance. You have your setting.
Add a group of high-achieving individuals to the mix. Their academic experience is intense — a quarter system with 10 week terms, because who has time for syllabus week? The stakes are high, because they’ve worked hard to get into the school and they need to work even harder if they want that J.P. Morgan internship. But also remember that these students are social beings, so they’re not just occupied with studying. Think back to frat row. Students take a break from their economics finals, Spanish papers and history theses to blow off some steam on the weekends. There’s a deep reverence for the game of pong, an ongoing series of fraternity parties and a termly “big weekend.” With few off-campus social spaces, it is pretty much expected that one can step into a fraternity basement to check out what these students are up to — and to see whether the intensity of their partying matches the intensity of their study habits.
When you look at Dartmouth this way, it’s not surprising that the College is subject to stereotypes. Given the all-encompassing nature of Dartmouth — rigorous academics, a social scene that revolves around on campus Greek houses and a location that amplifies our commitment to both — it makes sense that the school has a reputation of having a “work hard, play hard” mentality. The fact that Dartmouth is both generalizable and unique, like a smaller, more intense version of a standard depiction of college, makes it an easy target for stereotypes.
Andrew Lohse ’12’s “Confessions of An Ivy League Frat Boy” paints a picture of the school as being little more than a playground for future Goldman Sachs executives — a place where preppy frat brothers ace economics midterms by day and morph into beer-guzzling animals by night and a place with Greek houses in which the future corporate leaders of America shake hands over games of pong and exchange stories of their sexual conquests. Dartmouth has been touted as epitomizing the downfalls of the Greek system and a nationwide epidemic of binge drinking and excessive partying. Add its Ivy League status, and you get denunciations of privilege and a condemnation of the “Dartmouth mentality” that keeps students studying hard and partying harder with little regard for the consequences of their actions.
To what extent are the stereotypes that surround life at Dartmouth true? I talked to a few students to gauge whether this “work hard, play hard” reputation is accurate and to see how individual students might find balance in a culture where social and academic pressures can be high.
Isabel Taben ’19 is an affiliated student athlete at Dartmouth, which means that she has to find time to balance lacrosse, clubs, her sorority and her social life.
“Sometimes, you have to sacrifice something, and lacrosse and school always come first,” Taben said. “But one of the things I like about being an athlete here is the flexibility that I have. Other schools pick classes for athletes, but I can major in whatever I want or even take a class when I have practice if I absolutely need to.”
People from other schools are often surprised to find that Taben is an athlete in a sorority, she said. However, she said that her time with her sorority is flexible and that students at a school like Dartmouth understand that everyone has other commitments.
Taben said that striking the right balance can be difficult, and it’s taken her most of her two years here to figure out how to effectively manage her time. For her, the fast-paced nature of the quarter system makes it particularly challenging to juggle athletics and academics.
“I’ve missed five days of classes for lacrosse,” Taben said. “When you only have 10 weeks in a term, if you miss a day, it’s a big deal.”
Despite her various commitments, Taben affirmed that she finds time to socialize on the weekends. According to Taben, this is typical of Dartmouth students.
“I would say that Dartmouth has a ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude, to some extent,” Taben said. “But I think that’s a good thing, because people are really focused on getting their work done, but they get a break to go out on the weekends with their friends and just have fun ... it’s hard to do work all the time if you never get a break from it.”
Sarah Kovan ’19 agreed that students do like to study and socialize but argued that the reputation is in part inaccurate.
“I don’t necessarily think that Dartmouth students actually party more than students at other schools,” Kovan said. “I think that Dartmouth has the reputation of being a party school because most of the partying that goes on is confined to the campus. At schools in less rural areas, students can go to bars and clubs in the city.”
Alternatively, Alex Chao ’20 explained that he was attracted to Dartmouth’s reputation when applying to college because, for him, it meant that Dartmouth provided academic and social opportunities.
“Students at Dartmouth deeply value their academic experience, but they equally embrace the opportunity to participate in a vibrant social life,” Chao said.
For Chao, balancing work and play means maximizing his productivity during free time.
“In my experience, balancing your social life and work means that you have to use the chunks of free time you do have efficiently,” Chao said.
I also spoke with sociology professor Janice McCabe, who studies the interaction between college friendships and academic success, to get a sense of what Dartmouth’s academic and social culture might look like from a sociological perspective.
McCabe recently published a book, “Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success,” in which she examined college students’ friendship networks. McCabe interviewed students at a large public Midwestern university, which she refers to as MU in her book. McCabe asked students to rate themselves on a scale from academic to social. Most of the students at MU rated themselves exactly in the middle (a score of 5), and three-quarters of the students rated themselves between 4 and 6. McCabe then compared these responses to the responses of Dartmouth students and found that the responses that she received from Dartmouth students were relatively similar to the responses she received from the MU students.
“If you just look at the average, the interviews I’ve been doing with Dartmouth students are quite similar, but there’s also more of a range,” McCabe said. “So the idea of balance seems to resonate really well with students here, but it seems like there are more students who see themselves as being more academic than typical. They feel like that’s a good balance for them.”
McCabe said that the academic rigor of Dartmouth may play a role in students’ ratings.
“I think when Dartmouth students are putting themselves in the middle, oftentimes academics is more objectively higher, but perhaps their social life is too,” McCabe said. “I hear a lot of that ‘work hard, play hard’ idea here.”
McCabe explained that, though students strive to balance their academic and social lives here at Dartmouth, few reported that their social lives were detrimental to their academic performance.
“There were times when students would tell me that their academics suffered because of social life, but it seems like those were more the exceptions,” McCabe said. “In general, people strategize to put academics first.”
It seems unrealistic to assume that Dartmouth’s culture varies drastically from its Ivy League counterparts or from other schools across the country. It’s easy to criticize Dartmouth, not only because the school is so classically “college,” but also because the extremely campus-focused nature of Dartmouth makes any issues that exist at Dartmouth particularly visible. However, Dartmouth students — like any college students — seem more focused on finding balance between work and play than pursuing extremes on either end. Of course, Dartmouth’s “work hard, play hard” reputation is not unfounded in that the College is a top academic institution with one of the highest levels of Greek affiliation in the country. In this way, the negative press that Dartmouth has received in recent years has been effective in drawing attention to issues that can accompany privilege, Greek life and an epidemic of binge drinking. However, while criticisms are valid and may indeed be amplified by the specific conditions at Dartmouth, they represent issues that exist across universities and Greek systems nationwide. They certainly should not be isolated to Dartmouth alone. It is also important to remember that Lohse’s portrait of Dartmouth — and the negative media attention that it sparked — caricaturizes Dartmouth students and ignores the diversity that exists within the student body. The portrait of the Dartmouth student as corporate-obsessed, diligent library goer by day and hard-partying frat brother by night may be as dramatic as it is overly simplistic.
Kovan is a member of The Dartmouth business staff.