What they don’t tell you when you’re applying to college
If you’ve grown up in an environment that values prestige and extrinsic accomplishments, applying to college is a major milestone. It’s the culminating event for years of effort: AP exams, extracurriculars, impressing your teachers for reference letters. All for a shot at getting that coveted acceptance letter in the mail.
My own experience with college applications was as stressful as you’d expect. I was surrounded by peers who were thirsting for admission to a prestigious university and who felt the pressure to succeed from all directions. It was a status game that we played with desperation, and teachers and parents watched from the sidelines. To my high school self, applying — and hopefully getting into — a good college felt like it would be the defining moment of my life, and the beginning of a decades-long journey towards fulfillment, meaning, and success.
I’ve learned a few things since that time, and in this piece I’d like to share the most important and least acknowledged bits of wisdom I wish I’d known.
Before we get started, it’s important to clarify the word “success”. Success is something all ambitious high school students want. There are two separate problems we can explore: (1) defining success, and (2) predicting success.
Most high school students gloss over problem #1, for understandable reasons. The definition of success is fed to us throughout our lives. We’re given hints: who gets the most recognition from teachers in class; who’s bragged about most in the family group chat; who gets the most likes on social media or awards at the school assembly.
For this post, I’ll confine myself to the “conventional” notion of success: being well-regarded by others, making a lot of money, getting recognition from people who are themselves considered successful. I’ve written before about the perils of being completely absorbed by the desire for this kind of success, and the ways to combat our worst tendencies towards it, so it should be clear that I’m no fan of this definition. But unfortunately it’s the definition many high school students use, so it will be necessary for our discussion.
The nice thing about this definition is that it’s easy to measure. We’ve developed tools that tell us exactly how many people think you’re important (Twitter, Instagram) and we make lists of all the people with the most money and influence (Forbes, Time).
So now that we know how to define and measure success, the next step becomes prediction: what causes success, and how can an individual take actions that will make them successful?
The mentality of a high school student is: I want to be successful in life, and successful people go to good universities. Therefore I must go to a good university. If I get into Stanford, that means that I’m much more likely to be enormously successful in the future.
Why would someone think this way? Admission to a prestigious school can be a harbinger of success in two ways: (1) if you’ve gotten in, that means you are already really good; (2) once you go there, you’ll get access to elusive opportunities and connections that, combined with your existing skillset and accomplishments, will make you even more successful.
I remember in high school, it seemed like every successful person’s Wikipedia page linked to a prestigious school. Matt Damon and Jeremy Lin went to Harvard. Jeff Bezos and Michelle Obama went to Princeton. Every fifth president went to Yale. As a budding adult, how could you not think that these institutions have some special sauce that makes them a hotbed of success, wealth, and power?
I intend to chip away at these tenets of the high school mentality with two things I’ve learned since then.
Learning #1: Admissions officers don’t know what they’re doing.
When you’re a kid, you assume most adults know how to do their job. Teachers, doctors, economists: they all have fancy credentials that give them authority. I had an especially high regard for the adults who were running elite universities. I assumed that because the alumni of these schools were successful, insightful, and competent, the same must apply for their admissions departments. Admissions officers have experience reviewing thousands of applications over the years and they get to follow the results of their decisions over time. Surely they must have perfected their powers of success-prediction by now.
So when I was rejected from almost every college I applied to, only to see some of my friends admitted to the very same schools, I was convinced that admission committees had seen a hard limit on my potential. They knew everything about me: what my teachers thought, all the activities I was involved in, my grades and test scores, essays I toiled over. Despite my best effort and my single-minded, years-long focus on this goal, I failed.
I didn’t know what it was, but I assumed there was something the committee saw in me that made it clear I was destined to mediocrity. I looked at the few students who did get in and saw all my failings compared to them. I’m not confident enough, I’m not ambitious enough, I’m not smart enough. I gave the committees so much credibility that I felt they understood my strengths and weaknesses and the limits of my potential better than myself. And I’m certain that if I had gotten in to my dream schools, my self-deprecation would have just as easily flipped into an unwarranted egoism and conceit, based on a flimsy sense of validation. What did I get wrong?
There are many reasons why admissions officers are not all that I made them out be. Let’s put aside the fact that admissions departments, like many of the departments at universities that are 300 years old, don’t tend to have the most cutting edge policies and practices. Let’s forget that most admissions offices employ biased, inconsistent human judgement at every step of the process. Let’s also ignore the dozen arbitrary factors that give one student an edge over another, like legacy, playing a sport, being from one of twenty rural states, or best of all, bribes.
The central question for me was: given all of their experience assessing and selecting the best students, did these people discover a fundamental truth about my limits as a person? Years later, I know that even the most principled, well-meaning, and skillful admission officers can’t do this, because reliably predicting a high school student’s potential for success is impossible.
Consider the NBA draft. Every year, NBA teams decide who among thousands of college basketball players they want on their team. They employ legions of professional scouts and invest thousands of human-hours into deciding which players have the most potential. Franchises take this very seriously: there are hundreds of millions of dollars on the line. Given the gravity of the situation, teams should be very good at predicting basketball career success by now, right?
Nope. Teams still struggle with this; you need to look no further than the abundant examples of catastrophic draft choices. Yes, there’s the occasional prodigy who is a shoe-in for first pick, but often the standout player isn’t picked first, or even tenth. Sometimes they’re picked thirteenth (Kobe Bryant), or twenty seventh (Dennis Rodman), or fifty seventh (Manu Ginóbili), and sometimes they’re not drafted at all (Ben Wallace). This will continue to be true no matter how much time and money teams invest in scouting varsity athletes. Why? Because humans are autonomous, complex, chaotic systems that can change over time, set and update goals, and respond to predictions about themselves, making them extremely hard to model reliably.
If NBA teams, with millions of dollars to spend and unparalleled access to information about prospects, still make all these mistakes, what chance do college admissions offices have?
The prediction problem with colleges is harder because we’re no longer focusing on a single domain. Measuring a basketball player’s height, strength, and free throw shooting is easy, and it gives you at least some sense of the player’s career potential. But colleges are looking for students who will be great at anything, whether it’s fencing, cell biology, or spoken word poetry. What’s the equivalent of “free throw percentage” for these and all other possible fields? What single trait can admissions officers measure that is relevant and predictive of success generally? It doesn’t matter how many studies we conduct that correlate some variable (like test scores or survey responses) with another (like lifetime earnings or creative output), because even these semi-reliable correlations don’t give us a precise deterministic model of any one human’s potential for success.
The most advanced science we have can barely simulate a tiny fraction of your brain cells, let alone predict how the thousands of interactions you’ll have with others — along with the chaotic oscillations of weather, political movements, markets, and economies — will come together to form what we call your life path. No matter how much information admissions officers have about you, they can’t solve the problem of finding the upper limit of this trajectory. They can’t determine ahead of time the ideas you’ll have, the relationships you’ll form, the discoveries you’ll make: your future successes and failures.
So admissions officers are not oracles who apply a superhuman understanding of the world to predict your potential.¹ Such an oracle does not exist.
Learning #2: Most people who go to the best colleges are quite ordinary.
When I was in high school, the only alumni of Harvard I knew were the ones I saw in mass media and the news. In other words: celebrities, billionaires, best-selling authors, Nobel laureates.
When this is all you see, it’s easy to build a subconscious expectation that everyone from prestigious colleges ends up as successful as this. That everyone who goes to Stanford or MIT is a super-genius who will become rich, famous, or otherwise noteworthy someday.
In high school, any time I came into contact with someone accepted to a fancy college — whether seeing them at an information session or lurking their social media profile — I ascribed this all-consuming aura to them. Here be The Chosen One, destined for greatness, unstoppable in their upward climb to success. Then, after spending my first two years of college at the University of Toronto, I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where I finally got to interact with such people every day. Through my time at Penn and my summer internships, I became good friends with students from every brand-name college I had heard of. The magical aura I’d associated with these colleges disappeared: they were all ordinary people.
As with the NBA draft, I’m not denying that prodigies exist. They do and they’re often picked out by the best colleges. But once you meet a larger sample size of students and alumni from these schools, you realize that the vast majority of them don’t meet that standard. They are people who have real insecurities. They do well in some classes but need extra help to barely pass others. They work hard but often burnout; they’re capable of being studious but also capable of making terrible decisions about how to spend their time. Once they graduate, a tiny fraction of them become wildly famous or rich, but most of them get on with jobs they’re somewhat unhappy with, hang out with friends at the bar now and then, and maybe have a hobby or two outside of work.
Of course, “ordinary” means different things to different people. Is making a six-figure salary at Google or McKinsey an “ordinary” thing to do? From the outside, it’s not: you’re working at one of the most well-recognized companies in the world, earning a salary that puts you in the top decile of earners in the US, slowly hoarding generational wealth and power. But first, this kind of success is not guaranteed from admission to one of these schools. At Harvard and every other school, there’s yet another fierce competition for the limited spots available at [insert prestigious company’s program for new graduates here].
But even for the lucky subset of Ivy League grads who get to work at the fanciest companies, life can still be miserable. In fact, it’s often at those same lucrative positions — working long hours, toiling to reach the next quarter’s revenue projections — that you feel as unexceptional and unfulfilled as you have ever felt in your life.
There is definitely some benefit to getting into the best college, and some value that you get from the network. But let me tell you from experience: it’s not going to resolve that deep-seated feeling of mediocrity that you’re trying to resolve by putting a brand-name onto your resume. Your life and your self-identity will be as mind-numbingly ordinary as they currently feel, if not more.
Humans need a lot of validation. My high school self really just wanted an adult with credibility to say: you are valuable and important; you will be an important person. Because the environment I was in elevated Ivy League schools, I looked to those institutions as the arbiter of my value. This is what brings about the catastrophe of parents’ and students’ collective obsession with college admissions.
Are the insights above the most important or life-changing things I’ve learned since college? Not exactly. The most important lessons have been how to define success for myself, how to be more present, how to find things that make life feel meaningful. But I don’t think my 16-year-old self would have internalized those things if they were smacked across his face. Hopefully there are wise adults around you who tell you that fulfillment is not just a matter of money or prestige, but I suspect that even if you hear their advice, you’ll have trouble really believing it.
What I hoped to do here was tell you things that most people don’t bother to mention, either because they haven’t thought about it or because (in the case of admissions officers) it’s a little awkward to admit. Admissions officers know almost nothing about how to reliably predict the success of individual humans. Other adults like NBA scouts don’t know how to do this either, because there is inherent unpredictability to the problem. And getting into these schools is not a guarantee that all your dreams of success will come true.
So in addition to following the usual bits of advice — taking your time figuring things out and remembering your value as an individual human — keep in mind that the people deciding on the fate of your life don’t know what they’re doing, and you’ll eventually see that they were never deciding the fate of your life at all.
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- This is not to say that admissions officers are doing a “bad job”. As I’ve argued, if doing a “good job” at admissions means picking the exact set of students who will be most successful, admissions is destined to fail. Instead, the goal should be to provide a positive experience for applicants, put together a well-rounded class, and perpetually try to remove biases and arbitrary prejudices in the admissions process. And it is possible to do a good job of that.