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Why some pre-professional organizations value selectivity

Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs, questioned Duke’s “culture of selectivity” at a February Duke Student Government Senate meeting. But amid the questioning of selectivity, some pre-professional organizations argue that it is integral to their structure.

Members of Business Oriented Women (BOW), Catalyst and Duke University Debating Society explained why they see selectivity as necessary and beneficial to their organizations. They believe their clubs attempt to foster inclusivity by extending events to the public and emphasizing interest over skill as the most important criteria for selection to the organization. 

There are many prominent pre-professional and career-oriented groups at Duke that are selective, including BOW, Catalyst, Duke Mock Trial, Duke University Debating Society and Scale and Coin. Scale and Coin did not respond in time for publication.

Duke also has various other selective organizations like social selective living groups and Greek organizations, certain Living Learning Communities, academic groups and arts groups focused on dance, a capella, theater and comedy. 

Business Oriented Women

BOW is a part of the Society of Women Leaders and participates in events with women business organizations from schools such as Harvard University, Columbia University and the University of Notre Dame. At conferences with these schools, BOW members discovered other schools’ non-selective women-in-business groups had engagement problems with their members. 

BOW President Angela Zhou, a senior, said BOW’s selectivity is primarily aimed to increase the participation of members.

The BOW selection process is name-blind, with at least five different executive board members reading each written application. Zhou noted that although there are no strict limits of how many women the club will accept each semester, the executive board keeps a general idea of the percentage of applicants BOW will accept in order to ensure the selection process is fair among semesters. 

“Our mission is to empower women who want to go into business, and it's hugely unfortunate that we can’t do that for every woman that applies,” said BOW Executive Vice President Hayden Manseau, a senior. “In choosing the members who want to be in BOW, we do it based on interest, not past experiences, skillset, GPA and interview because we moreso want to see people who are interested in joining.”

The 322 current members of BOW must comply with an attendance policy that would be impossible if the club were open, Manseau said. 

Every day, members organize and offer one or two on-campus events to foster continued engagement. Each member must attend all mandatory events and two optional events a month. This attendance policy is important because BOW can guarantee speakers at these events certain levels of attendance based on the estimated number of members committed to attending.

Manseau also cited attendance, resources and the alumni mentorship program as reasons for selectivity. Because BOW receives no funding from Duke, the club runs on seed capital and company sponsors, which are limited each year. Additionally, BOW relies on a mentor program through which around 30 mentors each connect with two to three mentees per month. 

“I don’t think the structure of BOW as it is could exist if BOW was an entirely open club,” Manseau said.

Zhou noted that BOW tries to be aware of the issue of selectivity and opens up events, like resume building workshops, to all students. They also have an open listserv.

“Both of us want to emphasize that, while we think our selectivity is necessary for BOW and for what we do in BOW, we regret that it has to be that way,” Manseau said on behalf of her and Zhou. 


Catalyst was founded five years ago as a result of the growing number of students majoring in computer science who wanted a support group for academic and career pursuits, and due to participation in HackDuke, a computer science event during which students create tech solutions to social problems.

Catalyst President Akshara Anand, a sophomore, explained that selectivity is vital to maintaining a sense of community. 

“As our organization continues to grow, it’s getting harder and harder to deal with the overwhelming interest in Catalyst,” she said. 

Catalyst first used a written application, but the members felt it did not holistically represent prospective members. The process has since evolved to include a mix of professional and social events such as interviews, speed dating and meals with older students. Anand emphasized that the selection process is based on interest, and she herself knew little about tech when she rushed last year. 

Approximately 30 students were accepted out of the 200 who rushed in Fall 2019, Anand said. During the spring rush process, 20 of the almost 150 rushees were accepted. 

In addition to limiting the number of new members to create a tight community, the selectivity process also aims to “filter out people who only want the organization for their resume,” Anand elaborated.

However, she said that she did not feel represented in her Catalyst class when she joined as one of four first-years. 

“Our rush process is not foolproof by any means,” Anand said. “We strive to try and make our organization a lot more inclusive.”

She has since seen Catalyst grow to be more inclusive. The gender ratio has improved, she said, with an even split of men and women in last semester’s rush class. 

“My time in Catalyst and the relationships I formed have allowed me to be more comfortable with myself and asking for help,” she said. “My imposter syndrome has gotten a lot better. I think losing this bit of selectivity would lead to losing a bit of the community and tight-knitness that people find.”

Duke Mock Trial

Duke Mock Trial is a student-run organization that works with the American Mock Trial Association, which governs intercollegiate mock trial competitions across the country. Besides preparing for and participating in other universities’ invitational tournaments, Duke Mock Trial hosts its own tournament in the fall, the Tobacco Road Invitational.

Mock trial selects its members through a process that covers three different aspects of mock trial competition. Participants auditioning first memorize and deliver an opening statement, learn a witness affidavit and answer direct and cross-examination questions as if they were a witness. Participants are then provided with a topic which they must give a 2-3 minute impromptu speech about. Through this process, Mock Trial accepted 15 new members for the 2019-20 academic year. 

“We’re trying to find new members that have the potential to be really good at mock trial, looking for things like public speaking skills, acting skills and the ability to think on your feet,” Duke Mock Trial President Sonali Mehta, a senior, wrote in an email. 

Duke Mock Trial is made up of three teams with 10 members each, which Mehta compared to assembling a sports team or casting a show. She said that the club’s five coaches, who generally are Duke law students, work with these teams. Additionally, there expenses associated with a minimum of five tournaments a year: a registration fee, travel fees, hotels and materials for competition

“Year to year we budget and fundraise so we have enough money to field three teams,” Mehta wrote. “If we were to add a fourth team or a fifth team we would need thousands of dollars that we just don’t have.”

Without selectivity, Mehta said that some members would not be able to compete. “We can’t ask people to put in 8+ hours a week of mock trial, and then tell them they’re not allowed to travel or to actually compete with the team” she wrote.

Duke University Debating Society

Senior Elle Eshleman, president of Duke University Debating Society, wrote in an email that logistical constraints make selectivity necessary.

"Unfortunately, Duke Debate is forced to be selective due to constraints on our funding and time,” she wrote. “Tournament competition is central to our group’s purpose and we strive to ensure that members have sufficient tournament opportunities. However, our limited funding allows us to send a finite number of students to tournaments each semester, requiring us to employ some measure of selectivity.”

Eshleman noted that since the training process takes a large amount of time and energy from the upper-class students, the group has to limit the number of new members. 

However, inclusivity is still a goal of the debate team, and interest in the activity is important in the application process.

“We do our best to be inclusive of both students without debate experience and students for whom English is a second language by accounting for those factors during the tryout process," Eshleman wrote. 

Paige Carlisle

Paige Carlisle is a Trinity senior and a staff reporter for The Chronicle.


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