What they don’t tell you when you’re applying to college

Credit: Unsplash

Defining success

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.

Predicting success

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.

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.

Human potential

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.

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.


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.


  1. 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.



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