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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Zhao: Branded, Bold or Blind Sheep?

How does 63 percent of the senior class end up in finance, consulting or tech?

On the first day of senior year, the one-armed bro hugs and exclamations of “Oh my god, I haven’t seen you in forever!” punctuated the still Hanover summer. On the second day of senior year, a flood of blazers, suits and skirts marched in and out of the Top of the Hop, home of the annual career fair. 

Pivotal moments like these best highlight the peculiarities of the Dartmouth student ego-complex. Lest the old traditions fail, Dartmouth students love ragging on finance and consulting as “selling out.” Ironically, the Dartmouth ego-complex pits students’ desire to be authentically alternative against their tendency to seek mainstream validation from peers. 

Some students stride into the career fair, head held high with their resume in hand, ready to give a confident self-introduction followed by a strong handshake. A second type of student slinks about and hides behind cardboard tri-folds, as if afraid to be seen at the career fair. Strategically, they wear an outfit that intentionally falls on the cusp between business casual and casual in order to plausibly claim that they only dropped by. A third type of student alternates between lamenting about “selling their souls” with friends and earnestly networking with recruiters. This contradiction between the kinds of people students claim to be and the kinds of jobs they pursue can often cause them discomfort.

Of course, there are also those who never actually set foot in the career fair. Nonetheless, 63 percent of the Dartmouth senior class has ended up in finance, consulting or tech in recent years. This leads us to the question: what happened to the freshman class that matriculated with dreams of various shapes and sizes?

It’s what happens when the Dartmouth ego-complex dukes it out with reality. Ideally, a strong liberal arts education combined with an Ivy League brand and tight-knit alumni network enables students to follow their true interests with fewer repercussions on their employability. Many of them like to think that they will one day change the world. Simultaneously, many are concerned about student debt, loans or getting a return on their annual cost of attendance of $74,000. After four years of dear old Dartmouth enabling students to pursue a wide variety of interests, it’s difficult to accept that they may not find their passions or change the world the day they leave college. Given that they are attending an Ivy League institution, some are also concerned with the prestige or image of their post-graduation choices. And many 21-year-olds don’t know what they really want to do. 

Careers in finance, consulting and tech (specifically corporate behemoths like Google, Facebook or Amazon) address possible concerns around money, prestige, risk and commitment perfectly. For some, a high starting salary justifies an enormous investment in college better than happiness alone can. On top of that, Ivy League elitism breeds a sinister desire for prestige and exclusivity into many Dartmouth students. From pursuing elite colleges to entrance into exclusive campus organizations, a stampede of interest toward selective employment naturally follows. Finally, if students fear that their first job will pigeon-hole them or if they feel uncertain about what they want to do, well-regarded jobs with a broad set of exit options are an attractive next step. The problem that these mainstream career choices pose to the alternative Dartmouth ego-complex is that they threaten a sense of self that values staying off the too beaten path. 

On the contrary, staying “off the beaten path” sometimes comes with more volatility and risk. Twice, I came back from off-terms to tell my friends about how I loved the impact of the sick startup I worked at, but didn’t feel that there was consistent mentorship, structure or chances to learn when the focus was purely on execution. When my turn to tell summer tales ended, some friends would tell similar gripes about life on the Hill, in nonprofit organizations or in research roles. 

Therefore, if students value learning and gravitate toward the path of least resistance, it makes sense to flock to where others are willing to invest heavily in them. For some aspirations, places of learning tend to be larger companies with the budget to spend on new graduates. This is especially true if the liberal arts path students took did not give them specialized skills that other college students developed. After all, the currency of talent that brand name companies such as McKinsey, Goldman Sachs or Google buy into involves the implicit belief that students who succeed at elite universities will learn fast enough to be trained on the job and catch up. 

Yesterday, a senior in the KAF line aptly said, “Over sophomore summer, I thought the half of our class that resume-dropped for corporate recruiting were just sheep blindly following the herd. This fall, I’m not so sure that’s the case.” It’s highly probable that some students applied solely because the Center for Professional Development conveniently brokers opportunities that involve little legwork on their part. Some others could not stand sitting on the sidelines watching friends apply and wondering if they were missing 100 percent of these shots.

However, no one can truly pretend to know the decision-making calculus of their acquaintances and classmates. How much of their decision to recruit for finance, consulting or tech involved a six-figure student debt and the search for a six-figure salary? Do they truly believe that these roles provide the best learning opportunity and path for their personal dreams? In the same way that it is difficult to judge whether other churchgoers truly believe in God, or whether medical school students love saving lives, it is nearly impossible to speak on behalf of individual classmates and label them as sheep and sellouts without understanding their individual stories. At the same time, there is some truth to the sellout taunt. Let’s not pretend or complacently believe that these careers are the best way to impact the world. Applaud those with the courage or privilege to break from the mold come next July, but let what the Class of 2019 is doing in 10 years speak for itself.