“You can talk, you can bicker, you can bicker, you can talk. You can talk all you want to but it’s different than it was.” “No it ain’t, but you gotta know the territory!”
— Meredith Willson, “The Music Man”
At the start of every spring semester — like clockwork — Princeton’s sophomores venture down Prospect Avenue to join social organizations called “eating clubs.” As groups of students walk down narrow sidewalks, a few peel away at each successive opulent mansion. It’s been this way since F. Scott Fitzgerald was a student, and it hasn’t changed much.
Princeton — unlike most other colleges — doesn’t have any recognized fraternities or sororities, so the eating clubs are the hub of social life. Three quarters of upperclassmen join them.
There are eleven eating clubs: Ivy Club, Tiger Inn, Colonial Club, Charter Club, Cloister Inn, Cottage Club, Terrace Club, Quadrangle Club, Princeton Tower Club, Cannon Dial Elm Club, and Cap and Gown Club. All of them are located on Prospect Avenue, colloquially called “the Street,” except for Terrace. Each club has a popularly-ingrained stereotype:
- Cloister– “floaters and boaters” who are the members of the rowing, swimming, and diving teams
- Colonial– a mix of everyone, significantly Asian by proportion, overall nice people
- Charter– the endearing engineers, Princeton University Band
- Tiger Inn– known as the “Animal House” of Princeton, mostly people who like to drink a lot, raucous parties, loud and proud, (Though in a strange twist, more women bicker and get into T.I. than men. Female students have said that the club’s lifestyle appeals to them because gender roles are relaxed.)
- Cottage– the southern élite, students from unrecognized fraternities and sororities, heavily white
- Ivy– students from the upper class who may be children of celebrities, captains of industry, or world leaders, international students, also Greek-heavy
- Terrace– the alternative type, artistic people, students who do drugs, hippies, free love, all-inclusive, anti-establishment
- Quadrangle– STEM majors, a mix people from anything and everything, some of the smartest people on campus
- Tower– all of the politicos, artistic people, writers, a small engineering contingent, (a friend once quipped, “Ivy is for the people who will own the world, and Tower is for the people who will run the world.”)
- Cannon– almost entirely athletes
- Cap– a diverse and chill set of people, a mix of everyone
One could ask any student at Princeton about the eating clubs, and she would probably give a similar answer. But don’t take my word for it. There are dozens of online articles on this subject. Not everyone in a club perfectly matches its description, however the stereotypes persist. (UPDATE 12/17/18— I published a data-driven article on the demographics of eating club members in the “Prince.” The stereotypes are true.)
Students can join five of the eating clubs — Colonial, Terrace, Cloister, Charter, and Quadrangle — through a process called “Sign-in.” They rank the five clubs in order of preference and an algorithm sorts them into a club. Most students get their top choice. But the other six clubs require students to undergo a selective admissions process called “Bicker.” It’s a Princeton tradition that’s shrouded in mystery and the angst of high school seniors on College Confidential.
During the late nineteenth century, Princeton’s student body was growing, but the school couldn’t expand its meal services to meet the increased demand. Its dining hall closed in 1856, so students started to eat meals at local boarding houses in groups that became known as “eating clubs.” The original clubs were only temporary associations until Ivy Club was founded in 1879. At first, it was located in the old Princeton Law School building on Mercer Road and later moved to its present clubhouse on Prospect Avenue.
Other clubs organized in the following decades. By 1912, the eleven eating clubs in existence today had all been established. There were additional eating clubs that opened based on students’ changing desires, but none of them survived.
Woodrow Wilson was Princeton’s president at the turn of the century. He tried to kill the eating clubs and integrate them into his residential college plan. Wilson met opposition from alumni. His failed plan contributed to the alumni resistance that ousted him — and pushed him onto the path toward the presidency.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of the eating clubs in This Side of Paradise:
“Ivy, detached and breathlessly aristocratic; Cottage, an impressive melange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers; Tiger Inn, broad-shouldered and athletic, vitalized by an honest elaboration of prep-school standards; Cap and Gown, anti-alcoholic, faintly religious and politically powerful; flamboyant Colonial; literary Quadrangle; and the dozen others varying in age and position.”
These descriptions still hold some iota of truth today.
By 1914, students had started Bicker. It was defined as, “any talk, argument or discussion designed to induce any man to join any club.” A club representative visited students in their rooms and had short conversations with them. Then, clubs offered bids to them. If he was a big man on campus, he received upwards of six bids. The most competitive bids were usually from the Big Five: Ivy, Colonial, Cottage, Tiger Inn, and Cap and Gown. Students who performed poorly in Bicker received 1-3 bids from bottom-tier clubs on the social hierarchy. A writer for the The Harvard Crimson said after visiting Princeton, “Bicker is a frightening and trivial experience.” Protests to abolish it began in the 1920s.
People who are rejected from a club are colloquially said to get “hosed.” For some people, getting hosed is difficult. As the Yale Daily News reported, “Senior Grace Labatt said a friend who was rejected from a bicker club actually took the next semester off. Being rejected from a club, Labatt said, can be especially difficult when students bicker with friends or when they have a parent who was a member.”
To mitigate the degree to which students felt rejected, the eating club presidents instated a “100 percent Bicker” policy in the 1950s, meaning that anyone who bickered was guaranteed to get into at least one club. Princeton became the center of a national scandal in 1958 when 23 students — over half of whom were Jewish — did not receive any club bids. The “Dirty Bicker,” as it became known, showed the nation how anti-semitic prejudices were at play in the Ivy League.
Protests against Bicker continued. In 1967, there was a “Gentlemanly Revolt” where the leaders of Princeton’s most influential extracurricular clubs distributed a pamphlet outlining ways to improve the clubs, including a plan to end Bicker. The revolt failed. Alumni control and campus apathy prevented anything from changing. It was the seventh protest in the system’s history. During the affair, one graduate board chairman told The Harvard Crimson, “You can’t sleep with every girl you’d like to. Why do you think you should get into every club you want to?”
The following year, the administration opened a school-sponsored social club called “Adlai Stevenson Hall” in honor of the former U.S. diplomat. It was housed in the mansion of the former Court Club, which closed in 1964. At the same time, eighty four club members posted in advertisement in the Daily Princetonian that said they were resigning from their clubs to protest Bicker.
Princeton gradually provided alternatives to the eating clubs by instituting residential colleges — dorm clusters with shared dining halls. But the clubs remained the most popular dining option for upperclassmen.
Terrace abandoned Bicker in favor of sign-in in 1967, and others soon followed. Most of the clubs became co-ed when Princeton began admitting women; however, Ivy and T.I. were forced to accept women in 1990 following a high-profile lawsuit filed by student Sally Frank in 1980.
Three hundred fifty students protested Bicker in 1978. They supported the Social Alternatives Coalition, a club that sought new dining options for those who didn’t want to bicker. The chairman of the Coalition was a former Ivy member who resigned from the club to protest Bicker. He said to The New York Times, “I was so unhappy and disturbed by the spectacle of my friends and schoolmates being sucked into a system that they were unhappy with.”
In the late 1980s, Bicker evolved such that sophomores applied to only one club. Clubs wanted evidence that they were students’ first choice. In 2013, the Interclub Council reintroduced “Double Bicker,” which allowed students to Bicker two eating clubs. By 2017, all six of the selective clubs had adopted this policy.
In 2015, undergraduates voted on a referendum that would have called on the eating clubs to end Bicker by 2019 and directed the Undergraduate Student Government to form a committee that would facilitate the process. Nearly two thousand students voted, of which over half rebuked the “Hose Bicker” referendum.
The referendum’s sponsor told the Daily Princetonian, “if you were in a Bicker club, you couldn’t oppose Bicker because then you’re being hypocritical, if you got hosed you couldn’t be hypocritical because then you’re just being salty, if you’ve never bickered then you can’t be opposed because you don’t understand the process.”
As my winter break drew to a close, I started receiving e-mails from the eating clubs about Bicker and Sign-In. I had not yet given much thought about which eating club I would join, if I even joined one at all. After some deliberation, I decided to jump in headfirst to get a closer look at this peculiar Princeton tradition. I registered to bicker Ivy and Tower. I deliberately picked these two clubs as part of a social experiment. I knew a lot of people in Tower through Whig-Clio. In contrast, I hardly knew anyone in Ivy.
Prior to Bicker, I studied each club for nearly 90 minutes in preparation for the interviews. I poured through their websites, past newsletters, Daily Princetonian articles, and anything else I could get my hands on. I brainstormed potential question, prepared answers, and practiced giving them in an empty room. If I was going to Bicker, I was going in fully loaded.
Princeton Tower Club
At 11:50 AM on Sunday, February 4, a mob of Princeton students spilled out of Frist Campus Center. Some of them shouted into the air, and others chatted loudly amongst themselves. The first Bicker session for the eating clubs was going to begin in 10 minutes.
Although sharp gusts of wind brought snow flurries tumbling down, the group remained cheerful. I tagged along in the back. After crossing Nassau Street, students left the main group as they passed each eating club. Tower is the closest club to campus, so I departed early.
Once in line outside of the club’s glossy wooden doors, I talked to friends and eavesdropped on some nearby conversations. Everyone sounded nervous. The tension could be cut with a knife.
Two Tower members emerged from the door, introduced themselves as members of the Bicker committee, and gave us directions. I walked inside, relieved to be in a heated room. Tower’s interior is cozy. Its light beige paint and dark carved wood-paneled walls are classy but not stiff. I submitted an online form with basic contact information. The final question asked if I preferred to be hosed in person or by online notification. I chose the latter. In retrospect, I wish I had chosen the former.
I walked over to a table and filled out a notecard with standard information: name, hometown, major, extracurricular activities, and a fun fact about yourself (infamously known on campus as the “Tower Fun Fact”). My fun fact was that I swam with piranhas in the Amazon rainforest. Once completed, someone took my picture, and I handed my notecard to a member of the Bicker committee who was standing on top of a table.
Tower’s Bicker was an anthill. Twenty or more students huddled around the Bicker committee member. She flipped through the notecards and handed them out to club members. When members approached the committeeman, she asked them if they knew the person on the card. If the answer was negative, she handed the member the notecard, and the member whisked away the bickeree to a corner of the clubhouse for an interview. Members are not allowed to interview people who they already know; that is known as “dirty bicker.” Once the interview ended, bickerees gave their card back to the committee member, and the process repeated itself ad nauseam.
Over three Bicker sessions of two hours each, I had approximately twenty interviews. Some of them were conducted jointly with another student, a practice known as “double bicker.” Most interviews were simple discussions around a table. One interview occurred while playing a game of 8-ball. Another interview had very few questions from some bored club members and involved playing “Heads Up!” for ten minutes.
Below are all of the interview questions that club members asked me. The frequency at which they were asked is in parentheses.
- Tell me about your fun fact. (15)
- Why did you choose that as your major? (8)
- Would you rather live life as normal or receive $1 million and have a death snail constantly crawling toward you from anywhere in the world. It can travel across water and through walls at a snail’s pace, and you can identify it. But it will kill you if it touches you. (2) (A Tower Classic)
- Where is your ideal napping spot on campus? (1)
- Why do you want to join Tower? (10)
- What is your favorite aspect of Tower? (3)
- If you were not a college student, what would you be and read it off as if it were your Wikipedia page? (1)
- Where is your dream vacation destination? (3)
- How did you get into your hobbies? (4)
- What is it like being in (insert one of your extracurricular clubs)? (13)
- If you had a punk band, what would its name be? (1)
- Does a cylinder have one hole or two holes? (1)
- Guess what our (the interviewers’) hometowns and majors are. (1)
- What are your two favorite movies, television shows, and musical artists? (1)
- Tell us your favorite joke. (1)
- What is your opinion on candy corn? (1)
- Is a hot dog a sandwich? (1) (A Tower Classic)
- What is one skill that you will never have but want to learn? (1)
- What is your favorite Tower memory? (5)
- What is your favorite class in your department? (2)
- What would you show me in your hometown if I were to visit it? (1)
- What are your top three favorite movies? (3)
- What are you going to do with your degree? (2)
- You own an art gallery. The picture above has been sitting in your gallery for months. No one has wanted to buy it. Now, two wealthy businessmen (the interviewers) are standing in front of you and are interested in it. Sell it to them. Tell the picture’s history, style, and how it makes you feel. (1)
People at Tower were generally friendly. Although the majority of members that I met were politics, economics, or Woodrow Wilson School majors, there were a few engineers, physicists, and writers. Tower’s president-elect interviewed me, and she was very affable.
Later, Tower’s current president gave me an interview. He asked me, “Given your articles about underage drinking in the ‘Prince,’ does bickering an eating club contradict your principles?” The question initially caught me by surprise. Nobody reads the student newspaper. But I should have known better at Tower — the only club whose members care about campus politics. I responded that I thought individuals should be held responsible for their actions and not the club at large. He wasn’t satisfied by my answer.
In between interviews, I took a few minutes to look at the sophomores in the lobby. They didn’t appear to be happy. There was a look of consternation in many of their eyes. But that melted into a smile when members picked them up for interviews.
To repurpose a Forrest Gump quote, Tower was like a box of chocolates; you never knew what you’d get in its Bicker. Conversation topics ranged from pedestrian to outlandish. Regardless of their nature, I performed well enough. While it’s impossible to entirely succeed at some of the bizarre questions, I had delivered my answers swiftly, and my fun fact captured members’ attention.
The snow had stopped falling by the time I left Tower on the afternoon of February’s first Sunday. Students were streaming out of the eating clubs after the day’s first Bicker session had ended and were either funneling back to Frist across the street or going to the second eating club for which they were bickering. After having sufficiently held my ground in Tower’s barrage of questions, I knew that I could handle Bicker at another club.
I saw a friend leaning against a post of Ivy’s iron gate.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him.
He replied, “I thought I’d bicker Ivy for the fun of it.
“I guess that makes two of us.”
“If you’re going to Bicker, you should go big.”
We walked into Ivy‘s brick Jacobethan clubhouse. Its interior was dimly lit by cool white light coming from wall-mounted shaded miniature lamps. We followed a line and dropped our coats in a room to the entrance’s right. The room’s walls were painted lime green. White trimming adorned a fireplace.
My friend and I walked back into the foyer. The bickerees were standing in tattered clumps spaced throughout the room as if it were a cocktail party, but they were concentrated at the base of a magnificent wide wooden staircase. A painting of approximately eight feet long by five feet high hung from the side wall next to the staircase. It showed Medieval monks eating dinner at a long table. Portraits of the club’s notable alumni lined the foyer’s walls; each of their subjects had their own Wikipedia pages.
Ivy’s standardized Bicker process has changed little over the past few decades. Every student is interviewed by exactly ten members, five males and five females (though I had four males and six females). Interviews last 10-30 minutes or longer depending on the student. In 1999, James Q. Griffith ’55 — the president of Ivy’s graduate board at that time — said to The New York Times of the club’s Bicker, “I can’t see any difference between the way it is now and 50 years ago.” He continued, “It’s a Jeffersonian democracy, taking the natural aristocracy, as you were.”
After fifteen minutes, Ivy’s members gathered at the top of the staircase. Despite the lackluster lighting, I noticed some similarities between the members’ æsthetics. All of them were well dressed. While they weren’t wearing suits or gowns, their clothes would make them indistinguishable from the average patron at an upper mid-level New York City restaurant. Many of them kept an urbane European appearance with sweaters, dresses, scarves, Oxford shirts, close-fitting pants, and stylish shoes. Most were light skinned and had neatly cut hair.
Several students wearing loose green neckties walked down the stairs. One of them started banging a cowbell, and then all went silent when the club’s president yelled, “Everyone shut up!” She told the group how the Bicker process worked.
Then, it began.
One by one, the club’s cosmopolitan members descended down the clubhouse’s grand staircase and called out their bickeree’s name. It was a scene from a modern-day Fitzgerald novel. But sometimes you can’t write fiction that’s stranger than reality.
My first interviewer walked down the stairs with a friend. She had decided to double bicker. The member assigned to me was short with freckled pale skin and shoulder-length orange-brown hair. Her friend was of a similar stature, blonde, and energetic. I recognized her as an actress in one of Princeton’s prominent theatrical groups.
Following an initial exchange of smiles and handshakes, they led us into the club’s new wing. It was filled with bickering students whose voices filled the cavernous room all the way up to its vaulted wooden ceiling. A carved limestone fireplace was in the center of the left wall and was flanked to the back by two doric columns. We sat at a table in the back for a 15-minute conversation. The club members seemed to be solely interested in partying and hookups. I couldn’t talk much on those subjects compared to the other sophomore, who discussed at length his experiences of getting into exclusive raunchy European nightclubs.
I returned to the foyer, and my second interviewer came after fifteen minutes. She took me into Ivy’s dining room. Six tables in two columns of three were covered in white tablecloths and lined by wood chairs. Each table had silver candelabra. According to tradition, the candles are always lit for meals. Club members are required to take the next open seat at a table when eating. They order from a menu, and waiters serve them.
With shoulder-length brunette hair and a black dress, my second interviewer exuded sophistication. In a measured tone, she asked me questions that registered on the upper-tier of difficulty for job interviews. Her intense stare made it feel as though I was the only person in the room despite the fact that there were at least a dozen bickerees having similar conversations at nearby tables. She said that she was “impressed” by my answer to the question “Why Bicker Ivy?” and commented that I was, “very well spoken.” My preparation paid off.
My next interview was another double bicker. The club members took us down into the “crypt,” Ivy’s newly constructed library. Whitewashed columns held up curved ceiling panels amongst light brown bookcases. The other sophomore — who was from Oyster Bay, New York — and I sat on a table while our interviewers rested in a window seat.
The interviewer on the left had chest-length brown hair and thin pink lips on her pale face. The other interviewer’s bright eyes juxtaposed her soft dark skin. She remained enthusiastic; her smile never waned. When describing her upbringing, she said, “I went to boarding school at the Lawrenceville School. A lot of people in Ivy went to Lawrenceville.” The Lawrenceville School costs $65,920 per year.
By the time my third interview finished, the Bicker session had ended. I returned at 9:15 PM the next evening after leaving Tower. Ivy’s Bicker started all over again with the officers banging a cowbell and members traipsing down the staircase.
My fourth interviewer took me to a window seat in Ivy’s taproom. She was of middle height and light complexion. Her face was dotted with freckles, and she sported a dark dress. She had a propensity to ask questions about my childhood. I haven’t the slightest idea as to what that subject has to do with the assessment of my personality as a prospective Ivy member.
The subsequent interviewer was a short female with shoulder-length brown hair, wide open eyes, and a level of energy matched only by a cheerleader after a shot of espresso. As we watched members playing 8-ball, she peppered me with questions about love. I thought it was a rather odd topic to discuss with a complete stranger, so I pivoted the conversation to a different subject. At the end of the conversation, she said, “You’re very eloquent. You should go into politics.”
I was taken back to the “crypt” for my sixth interview. A blonde British male of average height in a gray henley shirt sat next to me on a couch. He exhaled clouds of vapor from his e-cigarette when he thought that I wasn’t looking. Of all of the conversations that I had, his was the most fascinating. He told exotic stories of venturing around eastern Africa for his senior thesis research. When the interview finished, we stood up. I saw something on the couch and said, “I think you dropped your wallet.” He picked it up and replied, “Thanks. I left it there to see if you would steal it.”
As we were walking back to the foyer, he mentioned that 210 students were bickering for approximately 60 openings. In total, the club had to hold 2,100 Bicker conversations within three nights.
The night’s last interview was conducted by a dark blonde male from Philadelphia. A thin mustache covered his upper lip below his strong blue eyes. He asked only one direct question during the interview: “What are you interested in studying?” The rest of our conversation consisted of discussing economic solutions to climate change. He didn’t have the veneer of a fake personality; instead, he seemed to be genuinely interested in learning and just wanted to use Bicker as an opportunity to hear new ideas.
I arrived at Ivy for the third and final time on Tuesday evening. My first interview of the night occurred in the pool room. A muscular British man in a white shirt sat on the wooden booth perpendicular to me. He was tall with fierce blue eyes, dark eyebrows, and a broad-shouldered athletic build. Our conversation went like this:
“Who was your favorite interviewer?”
“The second interviewer stands out in my memory. She had a very intense stare. That was different from everyone else. It felt like she was hanging on your every word.”
“What kind of stare was it?”
“It felt like she was staring at my brain or something.”
“Do you want to look into people’s brains?”
“Do you want to look into people’s brains?”
“Sometimes there are things that I would rather not know about other people.”
“What kind of things do you not want to know about them?”
This exchange carried on — back and forth — for the next 15 minutes like a Socratic dialogue. It was the most peculiar conversation that I’ve had at Princeton. Eventually, we arrived at the topic of public speaking, and he interrogated me about the best tips that I had for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Then, I had another double bicker interview in the “crypt.” One member, an Iraqi, spoke with a British accent. His hair was short on the sides and longer on top, and he wore a denim jacket with a sherpa fleece-lined collar that gave him the aura of an adventurer. The other member was a burly man from Nigeria whose handshake nearly crushed my puny palm. They spent most of the time joking with each other.
At last, I arrived at my final interview. A woman with shoulder-length black hair escorted me to the taproom. She asked me questions about world events, specifically those concerning Tibet and Taiwan’s relationships to China. Following my response to the question “Why Ivy?” she said, “That was a good answer. I’m tired of people saying, ‘because of the people.'”
Unfortunately, for me, as former Ivy member Sheon Han recently wrote in the Nassau Weekly, “Many interviews end with this question, ‘Why do you want to join Ivy?’ Having a good answer wouldn’t help much. Just like the Princeton admissions interview, the question exists only to filter out potential serial killers.”
In all, I was asked the following questions during my interviews:
- Tell me about yourself. (8)
- Why bicker Ivy? (9)
- Why do you like your major? (4)
- How did you get into your hobbies? (2)
- Pitch a new party idea for Ivy in 30 seconds. (1)
- If you could have dinner with anyone throughout history, who would it be and why? (1)
- What has been your favorite class at Princeton and why? (2)
- If you died tonight with no other communication with the outside world, what would you want people to know? (1)
- What is one thing people misunderstand about you and why? What is the truth? (1)
- What is the most extreme thing that you have done? (1)
- Of your previous interviewers, who was your favorite and why? (5)
- What is one question that I should ask you that has not already been asked? Now answer it. (2)
- How would your friends describe you? (1)
- Have you ever been in love before? If so, with whom? If not, do you plan to fall in love? (1)
- Describe your ideal first date. (1)
- Tell me about your childhood and high school. (1)
- Who do you know in Ivy? (4)
- Who are your friends? (2)
- Have you been to any Ivy parties? (4)
- How would you solve climate change? (1)
- What career will you pursue? (3)
- What did you do during Intersession? (3)
- What thing makes you the happiest in the world, and what makes you the angriest? (1)
- Which high school did you go to? (2)
- Describe where you grew up. (1)
- Would you want to be able to read other people’s minds? (1)
- Give me your three best public speaking tips. (2)
- What were your responsibilities for your summer job? (2)
- Do you know who the Dalai Lama is? Tell me about the conflict between China and Tibet. (1)
- Do you play sports? (1)
- What would you contribute to Ivy? (2)
- Tell me about your life on campus. (3)
- What is your favorite book? (1)
- What is your favorite movie? (1)
- What is your dream vacation? (3)
From a purely speaking perspective, I crushed Ivy’s Bicker. I had accurately predicted over half of its questions in advance. My responses were unique and surprised several interviewers. But, as I later learned from a friend in Ivy, these signs don’t necessarily translate into success.
With all of my Bicker interviews completed, I returned to my dorm for some repose. Bicker’s results were to be posted on Friday morning. I shoved any worries that I had about them to the back of my mind.
St. Archibald’s League
On Thursday, I received an e-mail inviting me to, “Princeton’s newest, coolest, and most exclusive club St. Archibald’s League” with the line, “All invited, few welcome.”
St. Archibald’s League premiered in February 2017 as a live performance protest against Bicker. Unlike prior protests, it didn’t involve the circulation of pamphlets or picketing of eating clubs. Instead, students were welcomed into Campus Club — a former eating club that was bought by the University — and underwent an exaggerated mock Bicker.
Looking for some entertainment, I returned to St. Archibald’s for its second admissions event. Outside of Campus Club, two “protesters” waived signs warning students not to go inside because of St. Archibald’s elitism. They distributed a copy of the Daily Princetonian from 1966 in which its writers penned an editorial saying, “Like you, we are tired of talking about Bicker. But, we are more tired of Bicker itself. We no longer want to wade ankle-deep in its hypocrisy and knee-deep in its bathos. Bicker is tiresome. It is trite. It is unnecessary. It should be abolished.”
I entered Campus Club anyways. Inside, a “bouncer” wearing circular mirrored sunglasses and a black tie beneath a gray jacket greeted us. The “bouncer” led us upstairs to a waiting area where he said that few, if any, of us would be admitted. “The benefits of getting in are infinite. But there are no benefits for getting rejected. We won’t smile when passing by you in the hallways, and we won’t talk to you at the dining hall tables,” he said.
He led us into the club’s library. A woman sat the far row of a long table. One by one, she called us to sit in a seat next to her and answer the following questions:
- What is your name and hometown?
- On a scale from 1 to 10, how cool are you?
- How racially diverse is your friend group?
- What is your favorite thing about this club?
- Rank the other eating clubs from coolest to weirdest.
- How much do you drink?
- When was the last time you smoked?
- Based on my appearance, how many people do you think I have hooked up with?
- Who in the room do you think comes from the richest family?
When it was my term, the “bouncer” entered the room because I was of “special interest” to the club. I gave a fake name. He called me out on it and promptly escorted out. In the stairwell, the “bouncer” removed his sunglasses and said, “thanks for playing along.”
That bouncer was Kyle Berlin, a senior and renowned campus thespian. Standing at over six feet tall with shaggy long blonde hair, he’s a hard person to miss. His motivations for staging St. Archibald’s League are rooted in his desire for a more inclusive campus. After writing two articles in the “Prince” against Bicker, he received much praise from students and administrators. His most daring move occurred in 2017 when he snuck into Cap and Cottage to interrupt their deliberations and give an announcement asking them to end Bicker. In Cap, a big member kicked him out.
I’ve heard some criticism of Berlin’s work from Bicker’s defenders, who mostly reside in the eating clubs. While such vitriol tries to cast his arguments as a “snowflake,” he’s just another student — in a long line of Princetonians — who’s continuing a protest movement that’s been occurring for a century.
St. Archibald’s League was even more fun after having underwent Bicker. Its faux interviews are outrageous but not too far-fetched. Occasionally, it’s hard to differentiate fact from fiction at Princeton.
The Chosen Ones
For entertainment, I also talked to some friends who bickered. These are some other Bicker questions that I heard about:
- Who in the club do you think should be reverse hosed?
- Of your previous interviewers, who would you fuck, marry, and kill?
- There is a baby in a microwave. You don’t know whose it is. You get $10,000 for every second that you leave the microwave on. How long would you microwave it?
- Which Princeton libraries would you fuck, marry, and kill?
- Would you rather invest in copper or copper futures?
- Here’s a Wikipedia page on Otto von Bismarck. Get to Mitt Romney in as few links as possible. (Apparently, the record was three.)
- Who is your Cottage crush?
- What is your favorite Cap memory?
Once Bicker is complete, club members meet during the subsequent nights to determine who is worthy of admittance to their respective clubs. The process varies slightly between clubs, but all require pulling several consecutive all-nighters. For most clubs, members gather in a single room. Bickerees’ names and pictures are projected onto a screen. Members then discuss the social merits and shortfalls of each bickeree. During this time, they have carte blanche to say whatever they want about a sophomore no matter how significant, trivial, petty, or false it may be.
Tower has a “positive Bicker” policy, meaning that members can assess bickerees solely based on their positive traits. Ivy’s process is unique. After members interview sophomores, they write a paragraph about their experience and rank them on a scale of 1-5. A committee analyzes all of the reports to decide the club’s new membership. Current club members can also submit letters recommending that the committee accept certain people. But these are — allegedly — worth much less than the interviewers’ reports. I later heard a story about someone who received 11 recommendation letters and was still hosed while someone with none was accepted. I also heard that the average score for this year’s admitted students was 44-45, meaning that they received 4s and 5s for all interviews. Han wrote, “From what I’ve observed, if Ivy bicker is a democratic process, it’s as democratic as the Electoral College — it’s technically not a fraud, but often things don’t quite add up.”
Bicker is often compared to fraternity and sorority “rush.” But such a comparison isn’t accurate. It’s a uniquely Princeton institution. The greatest difference between them is that Bicker occurs during the spring of sophomore year instead of the fall of freshman year. In rush, fraternity members have to base their selections on superficial personality characteristics because there is nothing else on which to judge. Contrastingly, Princeton students have already been in college for eighteen months by the time they undergo Bicker. Many people in a particular club probably already know them. Consequently, this can hurt or help certain sophomores.
For the former, students may have already gained a bad reputation at a particular eating club for their conduct during a party or their prior actions in clubs, classes, and discussions. When these students enter Bicker, they’re dead in the water before they even step through the mansion’s lacquered doors. The club members already have their minds made up, and they will sink their candidacy during Bicker deliberations regardless of how well they performed during Bicker. Most famously, Ted Cruz was thrice hosed by Tower. No matter how hard he tried, the club didn’t want him.
For the latter, having the right affiliations can practically guarantee admission to certain eating clubs. A 2010 University report stated, “Student comments also focused on the role fraternities and sororities have developed as feeder mechanisms to particular selective clubs, to the point where students who enter Princeton with an interest in a particular club may join the fraternity or sorority associated with that club primarily to increase the likelihood that they will be admitted to the club.” This mentality has been acknowledged by club members themselves. In 2007, a Cottage member said to the Observer, “This club cares about affiliations.”
But there are also more subtle ways in which affiliations help with admissions to certain clubs. Cannon, for example, is known for being dominated by athletes. While students don’t play sports for the sake of getting into Cannon, the fact that their teammates are already in the club definitely helps their prospects for getting admitted.
Three years ago, a sophomore in the Department of Geosciences was frustrated by the number of his friends who were hosed. He created a survey with questions about the affiliation of newly selected eating club members and sent it to six clubs’ e-mail groups. Almost 500 students took the survey out of the approximately 1,300 students in the Class of 2015. Although the survey wasn’t statistical perfection, the trends it revealed shined a light on an otherwise opaque subject.
At Ivy, 100 percent of the responding students who were members of Greek organizations got into the club and composed at least 25 percent of the newly chosen membership. At Cottage, 17/18 accepted responders reported playing a sport or being involved in Greek life. At Tower, students in arts or political groups had higher acceptance rates than those in other activities.
Despite Bicker’s appearance as a social meritocracy, data and reports overwhelmingly indicate that it’s not. In other words, one’s performance in Bicker has little bearing on admission to a club. While this evidence doesn’t mean that there have never been students without affiliations who were admitted to a Bicker club, it does show that it’s not a process at which the average Joe off the street can “win.” Admission is often predestined long before choosing to Bicker.
In short, Bicker is a microcosm of the social dynamics — openly and tacitly — present on the Street.
The 2:15 PM New Jersey Transit line from Princeton Junction rolled through the slums of Trenton on Friday afternoon. It was deserted. The Interclub Council had posted eating club placements at 9:00 AM, but I hadn’t looked.
I pulled out my phone and checked the results. The admissions page said in boldface “Congratulations!” I scrolled down further to a table that listed the clubs’ names in the left column and the answer to the question “Am I a member?” in the right column. Ivy Club: No. Tower Club: No. I had been double hosed. And I didn’t care.
I laughed and starred out the window. Dilapidated houses and abandoned factories passed by. There are bigger problems in the world than not getting into your mansion of choice at Princeton University.