The Berkeley Club Application System Is Broken

You probably had one of two reactions to reading the title of this post. Firstly, if you go to Berkeley, you probably thought “Yeah, that seems about right.” If you don’t go to Berkeley, you probably thought “What is a club application system?” So here, I’m going to explain what the club application system at Berkeley is like, why it’s broken, and how it can be fixed.

What Is It?

When I refer to the “Berkeley club application system,” I’m not referring to a unified system of applications, because that doesn’t exist. Instead, what I’m talking about is the many clubs, focused around either computer science or business, usually, which all have similar application processes.

Why would a club need an application process at all? Well, Berkeley has a ton of computer science and business students. The general intro class for students intending to major in computer science has 2500 students per year. The population of motivated students wanting to join extracurriculars and improve their resumes is large, so there’s a lot of people who want to join clubs. However, the population of students who not only have the knowledge and ability to start a new club in one of these fields, but also are willing to invest the time required to actually do it, is fairly small.

So Berkeley’s clubs face a typical economic issue - high demand, low supply. There’s no official limit on the number of people that can be in a club, but having much more than 50-75 people dilutes the experience and makes it more difficult to organize things. So, in an effort to stay at around 50-75 people, many of Berkeley’s clubs have to turn away 90% or more of their applicants. They narrow down their search through - generally - a series of essays, interviews, and social activities intended to find the students who are the best fit for the club. The process mimics the interview process for many top tech companies and other Fortune 500 companies, as most of the people leading these clubs are going through company interviews themselves.

To clarify, not every club at Berkeley is this competitive. There are some clubs which accept everyone, and some which aren’t too hard to get into. This post is mostly about the many clubs which, out of necessity to preserve the social experience of their members, have extremely competitive admissions processes.

So that’s a general overview of how the club admissions process works. Now, let’s look at why it’s broken.

Why Is It Broken?

Theoretically, an admissions process that accepts a low number of applicants doesn’t have to be flawed. Google accepts a very small number of the people who apply to work for them, but their process is generally accepted. However, with school clubs, the process should be different. At most schools, clubs are easy to join, with maybe a few exceptions. Ideally, clubs wouldn’t have essays and multiple interview rounds to join them - they would be groups of students interested in pursuing something who work together to achieve that thing. But at Berkeley, this isn’t the case.

I would like to be clear in saying that it’s not the clubs themselves that are at fault for this in most cases. They’re simply doing the best they have with the situation they’ve found themselves in - if you were running a club that intended to do something cool, and suddenly 200 people join, it’s easy to see how that could present some organizational problems. If you can only let 15 of those 200 people join, the fairest way to do it is through an application process, trying to decide which candidates will be the best fit for the club. It’s not perfect, but if you spend a lot of time evaluating each candidate, then you’re going to have 185 annoyed people who spent a lot of time trying to get in and got nothing for their efforts. Also, the purpose of the club presumably isn’t to figure out who to admit to it (although that would be an interesting idea for a meta-club), so any time spent interviewing candidates or reading essays is time not being spent on the main goals of the club.

But this system has a few unintended results. Firstly, although the system is well known to many, it’s not well known to incoming freshmen, who often don’t know how difficult it is to get in and feel really disappointed when they apply to two or three clubs and don’t get into any of them. This might discourage them from applying at all in the future even if they would really enjoy it, because they assume that clearly they must not have what it takes. Secondly, some people end up having somewhat elitist attitudes about the whole process if they do manage to get in. If their club has a low acceptance rate, they might feel that they can do things such as trying to force potential applicants to only apply to their club, or go through stressful interview processes. This isn’t the majority by any means, but it’s happened. And finally, it creates an overall atmosphere similar to what college admissions creates, but on a smaller scale. Students might talk to their friends and feel jealous of them for getting into a particular club, or like they’ve somehow ruined their chance at a good career if they don’t get into something, or other feelings often associated with college admissions. It’s tough to avoid with college admissions, but shouldn’t be a big part of college clubs.

I think the first issue is the most important here, so let’s look into that in more detail. Consider a freshman who enters Berkeley intending to major in computer science, but mostly unaware of the club system here. We’ll call our student Robert (not based on an actual student). Robert has heard the generic advice of “join clubs in college,” so he attends some infosessions and think some of the clubs look pretty great. He doesn’t want to write a ton of essays, so he picks three clubs that look interesting to him and decides to apply. After all, I saw a lot of people at the infosession, so it’s not a sure thing, but I’ll probably get into at least one, he thinks. Unbeknownst to Robert, the three clubs he picked all have 10% acceptance rates. (Side note: Why is the acceptance rate of clubs not public information? Because it doesn’t have to be, and any club that says “Our club has an 8% acceptance rate” will get less applications than other clubs which don’t say that, even if they do indeed have an 8% acceptance rate. So clubs all try to pretend that you have a good chance of getting in to encourage applications. One way of solving this is mandating that all clubs release acceptance rates, but this could be tough to enforce, realistically.) Robert submits his applications, and for two of the clubs, he gets immediately rejected. The other one, he gets invited to do an interview. Well, Robert thinks, this is about how I thought it would go. I assume the interview is mostly a formality, and I’ll get in to this one. Unfortunately for Robert, he gets rejected after the first round of interviews, and now is out of all three clubs.

What conclusion is Robert likely to draw from this? He’s not likely to assume the truth, which is that he was the victim of a process which includes a lot of randomness and has a very low base probability of working out in his favor. If Robert did actually have a 10% chance of getting into each club (which requires that he be an above average applicant, unless the process is truly completely random), then he would still only have a 27% chance of getting into even one club. But Robert’s not going to believe that he’s an above average applicant, even if he is. He’ll probably think that he just isn’t cut out for clubs, and might not try again later. Robert, like most people, would benefit from joining a group of like-minded people who work on projects and socialize together, and it’s too bad that Robert may lose one way that he could do that.

Although I don’t have hard evidence for it, I believe there are hundreds of people like Robert at Berkeley - people who would benefit from the atmosphere that the 50-75 person clubs at Berkeley provide, but who aren’t in them because they believe they aren’t cut out for them. Clubs aren’t supposed to be this way. They’re not supposed to be exclusive groups which prevent the majority of interested people from joining. But that’s the way it’s worked out. So how can we fix the problem?

How Can We Fix It?

So we know the club system is not in a great state currently. But how can it be fixed? As they are currently, clubs do provide a fun experience for those who get in. The trick is to expand that experience to as many people as possible, without reducing the quality.

What the Administration/ASUC Can Do:

  • Give more money to student clubs, and consider more metrics than just “number of years in operation.” Looking at the list of money given to clubs this year, it seems like the main deciding factor for whether a club gets a lot of money is whether it’s been around for a long time. This makes it difficult for a bunch of computer science clubs to pop up, because if they’re all only getting a couple hundred dollars a year from the school, they aren’t able to fund as much without company sponsorships. If the ASUC were to consider things such as “number of people in club” or “amount of work done in club,” I predict many CS clubs would be awarded much more money. And of course, if there were more money in it overall, all clubs would benefit.
  • Enforce a requirement that clubs release their acceptance rate in some public database. If everyone has to do it, then it’s no longer something that is intended to be hidden, like it is currently. This would reduce the amount of people who think that they just aren’t good enough to join the “top” clubs, because they could see the 8% acceptance rate and realize the difficulty of getting in.
  • Make it easier to start a new club. I don’t know what the process of starting clubs entails, but presumably it could be made easier than it is currently. Even if it’s very easy now, having more resources to encourage people to start them can’t hurt. Every new club that starts up creates more opportunities for interested students to join.

What Clubs Can Do:

  • Cross-promote across clubs: a couple of clubs do this already, but making sure that students have the opportunity to apply to more clubs is good for ensuring that they don’t feel really disappointed when they apply to one and get rejected. I imagine some deals could be made where club A says “yeah, we’ll mention club B at the end of our infosession if you do the same,” and club B agrees. Then, anyone who wants to apply to one hears of the other one.
  • Try to grow in ways which don’t hurt the club’s atmosphere. This is difficult to do, but it seems possible to go from 55 to 65 members, for example, without having a significant impact on the culture or atmosphere of the club. I don’t think adding 50 members in one semester or something is a good idea though, as that will certainly hurt the culture.

Overall, the responsibility for this problem doesn’t lie with the clubs, and it doesn’t really lie with the administration either. But they can still make an attempt to solve it, and I am confident that with enough time spent on the issue, the club system at Berkeley will be better for everyone.