Nomen omen – the name is a sign. And “Sciences Po” says it all. The “Sciences Politiques”, the political sciences, emphasise the art of competition and convincing others by way of eloquence, networking, and deception. Confrontation with others is therefore not only a constant in the political sciences, but also at Sciences Po. Academic competition is common in other top-tier universities, but us Sciences Pistes tend to face each other in every dominion of our university experience, from participation in class to our social skills (revealed through our number of party invites).
As an elite school with a rigid selection process, Sciences Po encourages students to constantly compare scholastic results. Its student body is a selection of the most brilliant and hard-working French and international minds, which means almost everyone is used to being top of their classes. However, the bar is raised once this extraordinary selection of people is brought together, and only a few are able to excel academically in the way they were used to in high school. Not being able to achieve as in the past can negatively affect the students’ mental health; going as far as to cause anxiety or depression.
Sciences Po’s common curriculum, especially in the first year, does not help in terms of academic competition. Indeed, studying in the same courses as all of our co-years, but also our closest friends can cause academics to be a central topic of conversation and an easy source of comparison with others. I can vividly remember the amount of “how did it go?”’s when the results of the fall semester’s final exams arrived at lunchtime on that fatidic February 20. Because of the small size of our student body, keeping track of who excels academically and who does not is easy. The end-of-the-year separation into “summas”, “cums” and the “nots” makes this distinction even more straight-forward. When everyone is graded on the same course, on the same exams as everyone else, in a university which takes up such a big part of our lives, it is easy to feel worthless when we do not perform as well as all of our peers seem to have done.
The admissions to Dual BAs and to the third year abroad are another source of pressure. Machiavellian calculations of who will apply where and the careful positioning of schools on a list concerns restless minds. When the day comes, there will be winners and there will be losers. The winners will post enthusiastic, slightly narcissistic photoshopped images on Facebook. While the losers will flee to the library to avoid questions about 3A results. There are many structures in Sciences Po which cause (if not incentivise) academic competition between students. Is the very organisation of our university part of a effort to get us used to the brutal world of politics?
Competition does not stop at academics, as in many other universities. The highly praised associations at Sciences Po add to the pressure of excelling in, and belonging to, our institution. Associations are a feature of the competitive system: to be part of one, you have to go through a demanding selection process. From the first day of Integration Week, 1As are instructed on Sciences Po’s association hierarchy, with the permanent bureaus at the top, and everything else that goes down the pyramid of relevance. Needless to say, the higher in the pyramid the association is, the lower the chances to get in. Then, the dances begin. From the most intellectually elaborate interviews to the funniest and dumbest demands, 1As put themselves out there to gain a much desired place in the activity. The criteria upon which the new members are decided are not clear, but the social distinction between the babies and those who did not make it is.
One would think that once the much envied babies are chosen in September, the war would finally end. But Campaign Week for the permanent bureaus is right behind the corner, and the war will be bloodier than expected. Two or more lists will violently fight each other, hoping to have the monopoly of the bureau the following year. Babies have created alliances since the very moment they became part of the bureau. It has lead to a sequence of drama, backstabbing and broken friendships worthy of a Latin American telenovela. There is no peace or truce in the Sciences Po association war.
Competition is not a consensual topic. It can be a source of positive stimuli, which can push us to challenge our limits and do our best. The race to get the cubicles at 7:45 am during the revision period can indeed be an incentive to get an early start to a productive day. Having been chosen as a member of an association over many others can increase one’s commitment and feeling of responsibility.
However, competition can also create anti-cooperative dynamics which are not beneficial to anyone’s university experience. It can cause a feeling of worthlessness and inadequacy and perhaps lead to a deterioration of one’s mental health. Competition forces us to compare ourselves with peers and makes us forget what really matters: the appreciation for learning and what can be done with the knowledge acquired.
We are not all equal, we have different passions, qualities, and aspirations. Our diversity enriches our student body and is an added value to our educational experience. Do not measure yourself with what others can do, rather give your unique best: you are worth it.
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Illustration by Isabelle Yang @The Sundial Press