College Admissions

Getting into Harvard and Stanford: How to Earn Admission Into Elite Colleges

Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome was invited to the Laura Bush Community Library to speak about how to gain admission into elite colleges and universities. This video is shared courtesy of the library.

Getting into elite colleges such as Harvard or Stanford is not as simple as a perfect homeschool transcript, a 1600 SAT score, and lots of volunteer activities. 

Antonio Buehler, a Harvard and Stanford graduate, outlines the three dimensions that ivy league schools focus on most.

Antonio Buehler founded Abrome to fundamentally change the way the world views education. He wants society to reject the notion that education should be a standardized product in which children are expected to be passive recipients of instruction that is chosen and delivered by adults. Antonio wants learners to be able to direct their own education so they can live rich, fulfilling lives. He believes that by providing learners with the opportunity to take full ownership of their education, Abrome will help save millions of lives, and in the process change the world.

Antonio earned a B.S. in Systems Engineering from the United States Military Academy, an M.B.A. from Stanford University, and an Ed.M. from Harvard University.

Are They Learning if They're on a Screen? Self-Directed Learning is Active Learning

This morning I received a call from a parent whose teenage son attends a nearby traditional private school that is not working for him, and she wanted to know if Abrome could work for her family. She had two primary concerns: (1) could he get into a top college if he left "mainstream" schooling, and (2) would he spend all day on screens if he came to Abrome. 

It was pretty easy to address the college admissions question, as we have done so time and again in our public presentations and blog posts (e.g., hereherehere, and here). However, she was not reassured by my answer to the screen time question. My answer was maybe.

At Abrome, we trust young people to take control of their learning experiences, and we see their choosing how to spend their time as critical to enabling and preparing them to lead remarkable lives. For some Learners, particularly older students who are transitioning from hierarchical, age-segregated, curriculum-based school settings, they may initially spend what seems like an inordinate amount of their time on screens. This is in part because computers (and iPads, phones, etc.) are common tools of society, and most young people want to play with the tools of society; and in part because they need the time and space to shed the bad habits and mindsets that develop from traditional schooling

The belief that school children on screens is a bad thing is misplaced. First, short of certain addictive disorders, limiting or prohibiting students from accessing technology during school sets them back in preparation for a future where technology will be intertwined with daily life and most careers. Second, there is a belief among many adults that screen time is for zoning out, and that being on screens means that students are not actively learning. This belief is likely colored by our generation's experiences plopped down in front of a television watching whatever came across the tube. 

The reality is that when young people are able to engage in self-directed learning, even if they choose to spend that time on technology, they are much more likely to engage in active learning than their peers who are in class in traditional schools. Today, young people have control over their interactions with technology. When they play games they are much more likely to play games that allow them to manipulate the conditions in which they play (e.g., Minecraft, Roblox). When they get bored they are much more likely to move onto something that captures their attention. And for many young people, technology provides the one outlet in their lives where they have the opportunity to experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose (experiences they are not getting in traditional schools).

At the end of the day we would prefer that Learners not spend all day on their computers, but we will not prevent them from doing so. And the reality is that they do not spend all day on their computers. Our Learners, like the overwhelming majority of humans, want to interact with others. At Abrome they have the opportunity to spend all day in front of screens, but they choose to also read books, play board games, take the dogs for walks, and run around in the back yard. They find time to test the pH, ammonia, and nitrate levels in the fish tank. They make themselves lunch, work on puzzles, and create works of art. They sit around and talk, and laugh. And they even find time to do more academically oriented tasks such as working through multiplication tables or debating topics in articles that they have read. Instead of saying maybe, I considered that I should have said maybe, but unlikely. But what I really should have said is that self-directed learning is active learning, and the medium for that learning is sometimes a screen.  

West Point's Open Letter to High-Achieving High School Students Highlights What's Wrong With High School

This summer, the United States Military Academy at West Point released an "open letter to high-achieving high school students." No doubt West Point released it in the hopes that it would go viral and increase the number of candidates who end up applying this fall, but the letter drives home an unfortunate reality about the high school experience and college admissions, and perhaps what West Point is looking for in applicants.

I’m even more selective than the Ivies. In addition to being academically competitive, qualified applicants must be physically fit, have leadership experience, acquire a congressional nomination and pass a rigorous medical exam just to be considered for admission. So if you’re into history, prestige, academic rigor and competitiveness, then I’ve got what you’re looking for.
— West Point Admissions

West Point emphasize their selectivity, prestige, and competitiveness in the letter. While there is no shortage of high school students who are living their schooling existence for the purpose of outcompeting their peers so they can get into highly selective universities as a marker of their own self worth, there is a severe shortage or young people who are leading remarkable lives. People who lead remarkable lives do not get validation from being tied to certain institutions, or by beating others. People who lead remarkable lives own their lives. They make the relevant decisions about how to spend their time, and they find meaning in the work they do. They value their contributions to society far more than they value how society ranks them relative to same-aged peers at any given moment in time. 

A West Point Cadet at graduation

A West Point Cadet at graduation

West Point is seemingly choosing to pass on trying to appeal to those rare students who choose to lead remarkable lives today. Or maybe they are making a decision to pass on those who can find meaning within their lives without tying it to the prestige of established institutions?

West Point highlights that their alumni include "presidents, generals, governors, astronauts, CEOs, and captains of industry." But they don't talk about the humanitarians, scientists, and artists. They don't highlight the people who make their families and communities better by investing in the people close to home. This open letter sends the message that success is rising to the top of established institutions. Staying within your lane, doing your job very well, but never really challenging the status quo. This open letter is an extension of the high school experience for most "high-achieving" students, where they are told to take the most challenging classes, get the best grades in those classes, and seek out opportunities that will pad the resume, but never really challenge the status quo.

This open letter may bring more applications into West Point this year. That increase in applications would decrease the admissions rate. That would make West Point even more prestigious in the eyes of applicants, parents, high school counselors, and the publications that produce college rankings. And that may be what West Point is looking for. And given what West Point has to offer (an existence within a highly regimented military schooling environment), the extreme costs of attending (five or more years of required military service, and maybe one's life), and what they need graduates to do (obediently work within a hierarchical, slowly changing war machine), perhaps appealing to the desire of many schooled students to have their self-worth validated by being associated with a prestigious institution is the way to go for them.

However, this approach is completely out of step with what the most selective colleges are really looking for in applicants. Most selective colleges are not just looking to improve their admissions statistics. They are also looking for people who lead remarkable lives. They are looking for people who love to learn, who are constantly seeking out opportunities to learn, and who are trying to identify ways that they can contribute to improving the world around them. These rare applicants will raise the level of intellectual inquiry on campus. They are the ones who will dive into the additional readings in the syllabus because it will contribute to their understanding of the topics they are studying. They are the ones who will commit to leading campus organizations, joining research labs, and tutoring others because of the opportunities to help others and for personal growth, not because such activities will help them with future scholarships or graduate school applications. And when they move on from college they will have the courage to not go into the military, or banking, or consulting if they are more drawn to less "prestigious" professions that will ultimately allow them to lead lives of purpose and meaning, and contribute to the human condition.

Unfortunately, very few high school students have the opportunity to lead remarkable lives. The practices and structures (and pressures) of high school simply do not allow time for a remarkable life. And in lieu of a remarkable life lived, colleges are left using one's ability to rise to the top of high school as a proxy for their ability to someday lead a remarkable life. Or at least to be a competent military officer. Unfortunately, what it takes to get to the top of the class (including a focus on achievement and competition) is often incompatible with leading a remarkable life.  

Disclaimer: the author of this blog post graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1999.

 

College Admissions for Alternative Schooled, Homeschooled, and Unschooled Applicants

Today, the Common Application goes live, and with it the college admissions season is once again here. And today, hundreds of thousands of rising high school seniors begin transitioning from the thrill of imagining themselves in a variety of university settings as they flip through college websites and view books to the anxiety of filling out applications and wondering if they will get into a college that is prestigious enough for their parents to place a sticker of that college on the back of the family car(s). While students who were able to opt out of traditional (public and private) schools so that they could go to a progressive alternative school, be homeschooled, or unschool themselves were able to avoid much of the stress associated with the ever-present college admissions arms race that has fully permeated the high school experience, they are often less sure of the next steps forward because they do not have a clear understanding of the application process or how they measure up against other college applicants. This essay serves as a brief primer for these applicants moving forward.

Harvard University

Harvard University

Start Early

Ideally you (or your children) are not applying this year, and instead are planning to apply several years down the road. Those who begin earlier rather than later have significant advantages because they can be more thoughtful about building an interesting and relevant transcript, conduct meaningful research of their target schools, prepare for standardized tests, manage potential recommenders, and endlessly edit their essays until they near perfection. Additionally, those who understand that the college admissions process is a game can turn the game on its head by leading a remarkable life over the period of several years, as opposed to trying to package themselves in the 11th hour (see “It’s a Game” below). Some of this advice will be geared toward those who start earlier, but even those who wait until the summer before applications are due before they dive in can benefit from a better understanding of the admissions process and what they can bring to it.

It’s a Game

College admissions is not a meritocracy; it is a game. Sadly, it is a game that weighs heavily on applicants and parents, and it is often seen as a decision that can make or break one’s future prospects. Even more sad is that college admissions decisions have little to do with merit, and much to do with class and privilege. It is essential for applicants to recognize that the college admissions process is not fair, and that the decisions that colleges make in favor or against an applicant have absolutely no bearing on the academic or personal worth of that applicant. Easier said than done. But when an applicant recognizes that college admissions is a game, and they know the rules of the game (and how to hack it), they are more likely to be successful at the game. And an applicant that opts out of traditional schooling has a huge leg up in the admissions game.

Stanford University

Stanford University

Building a Transcript

Hopefully, most young people who are alternatively schooled, homeschooled, or unschooled know that a high school degree is largely worthless. No reputable college or university in the United States requires a high school degree. However, all colleges will want to see a transcript, and this is one area of several where non-traditionally schooled applicants have a sizeable advantage. The time and effort that typical high school students put into their transcripts usually ends with a verification that they are hitting all graduation requirements (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits) and a quick calculation to determine which honors and AP classes they should take to boost their GPA relative to their peers. But young people who are responsible for their educational pathways have the opportunity to walk admissions committees through a unique journey that was tailored to the applicant’s needs, goals, and interests. The best way to do this is to celebrate how the applicant spent their time engaged in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences, without trying to conform it to a standard academic transcript (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits).

Additionally, letter grades or percentages are meaningless on a non-traditional transcript unless it shows anything less than a perfect GPA, which would hurt an applicant. Those who opt out of the traditional schooling system should never introduce the rank ordering aspects of grading that pull applicants down.[1]

Standardized Testing

Another benefit of opting out of traditional schooling is that young people get to avoid the relentless testing that is required in the classroom and for the state (e.g., Texas STAAR, New York Regents). Testing serves as a means for lazy politicians, bureaucrats, administrators, and teachers to assess and sort students, at the expense of students. Hopefully, the first time any young person takes a test is if they opt into it for their own benefit, such as taking the PSAT or an AP test. However, one of the very few downsides to a non-traditional education is that many colleges will lean more heavily on standardized test scores during the admissions process. While the SAT or ACT most often serves as a disqualifier for top private colleges and universities (and as an automatic qualifier for many lower ranked private or state schools), non-traditional applicants may have a more difficult time overcoming a poor SAT or ACT score than a traditionally schooled applicant who has a perfect GPA and ranks at the top of their class might.

The good news for non-traditional applicants is they should have ample time to prepare for the tests without being burdened by the unnecessary time requirements associated with traditional schooling (e.g., compulsory attendance, mandatory classes, homework, studying, testing). And for those who do not perform well on standardized tests even with plenty of prep, there are now over 900 colleges and universities that do not rely on or require standardized tests in the application process.

It is worth noting that the most exclusive schools also require or “recommend” applicants submit SAT subject tests with their application. Non-traditional applicants should treat SAT subject tests as required if a school “recommends” them, and as recommended if a school “considers” them. Similar to the SAT and ACT, these tests can hurt an applicant’s prospects if they are low, but are unlikely to substantially help since so many applicants score in the high 700s or 800 on these tests.

Yale University

Yale University

Building a College List

Traditionally schooled applicants typically have an easier time than non-traditional applicants have of zeroing in on schools to apply to because (1) they are more likely to focus on college rankings as a guide for constructing their list, and (2) based on their class rank and GPA at their particular school, combined with their standardized test scores, they can lean on their guidance counselor or Naviance to help them identify the highest ranked schools where they have a chance of admission. Unfortunately, this approach results in a high volume of applications to a wide range of schools, lower quality applications, excessively high rates of anxiety, and very often a failure to identify best fit colleges.

Non-traditional applicants can more easily overcome the aforementioned challenges because they are more likely to ‘understand thyself’ thanks to years of self-directed learning (or less coercive schooling) and reflection, and are therefore are more likely to be drawn to colleges based on what opportunities and experiences the colleges can provide the applicant in accordance with their needs, as opposed to being drawn to colleges based on their rank. This process will still lead many of these non-traditional applicants to elite, private research universities such as Harvard and Stanford, but others may find that the flagship state school or even starting out at a local community college may be more advantageous for them, while many others may be drawn to liberal arts colleges that are less selective than the elite research universities but that arguably provide the best college education of all.

From a strategic perspective, fewer schools are better than many in the college admissions game. By focusing on only the most selective schools as opposed to the best fit schools, many applicants are driven to apply to upwards of two dozen colleges that may each have single or low double digit acceptance rates. In doing so, they undermine their chances by stretching themselves thin on supplemental essays, applying to schools that their applications will not resonate with, and failing to help recommenders (especially optional recommenders) tailor their letters to a target group of schools. Applying to a bunch of schools also costs a lot of money.

Many counselors and consultants recommend applying to 6-10 schools, but we would recommend applying to no more than five schools. We have advised applicants to only apply to schools they would be thrilled to attend because of what they could make of the experience, whether it is Harvard, Stanford, State Flagship University, or Directional State U. We highly recommend against applying to safety schools as something to fall into if best fit schools do not work out. We also recommend against applying to any schools that do not require supplemental essays beyond what is required in the Common Application or Coalition Application, unless the applicant feels that the school is a great fit for their needs. Schools that do not have additional essay prompts often benefit from having large numbers of lazier applicants apply because of the marginal effort required (an application fee), making it more difficult for a non-traditional applicant to drive home their unique story to the admissions committee. [The author of this essay applied to only three universities: West Point for college, Stanford and Harvard for business school, and Harvard for education school. The author has never been rejected and attributes much of that to being able to submit a near perfect application on the factors that he was able to control or have considerable influence over (e.g., essays, recommendations).]

University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley

Four-year Colleges vs. Community Colleges

Community colleges are a fabulous higher education alternative for both traditional and non-traditional applicants who are concerned about the cost of college, distance from home, or who may not be able to gain immediate access to more selective universities. Unfortunately, many people (especially in more affluent communities [and charter school networks]) seem to look down on them as an option because they do not carry with them an air of exclusivity. However, while many applicants and parents may find themselves on the outside looking in after the college admissions season, for many top state universities, community college is an excellent end-around into school, with many offering automatic admission based on GPA.[2] Community colleges have particular leverage among many elite public universities such as Berkeley and UCLA where upwards of 20 percent of the undergraduates come from community colleges. Although the percentage of community college transfers at the University of Texas at Austin is lower than it is at the California schools, over 40 percent of transfer students into UT-Austin come from community colleges.[3]

When to Apply

Sooner is always better than later in the admissions game. While some recommend holding off until Regular Decision (historically January 1st or 15th) so that applicants can build up their bonafides, it is extremely rare that someone is going to be able to add anything to their application in a couple of extra months that will seriously move the admissions committee. The cost of delaying until Regular Decision is missing out on the opportunity to apply Early Decision, Early Action, or Restricted Early Action. And the chances of admission at most schools are substantially higher for those who apply early rather than later. Many counselors and consultants also advise applicants with financial need to apply Regular Decision because they believe that applying early locks them into a school with no opportunity to compare financial aid offers. This is also a misplaced argument. First, those with the most financial need are most likely to benefit from the free room, board, and tuition that is offered by the most selective colleges with the most generous financial aid (e.g., Harvard, Princeton, Stanford). Second, all schools allow their applicants an out of a binding admission if they can demonstrate that they cannot afford to attend. Third, many schools are need blind during early admissions, but become need aware later in the admissions process, meaning those with need are even more disadvantaged by waiting to apply.

It is also worth noting that many applicants can have multiple bites of the early admissions apple. Early Decision (ED) limits applicants to applying to only one school and they must enroll if accepted (or forego college altogether unless they can be released from their commitment due to financial or other exigent circumstances). Some of the more exclusive universities that have ED include Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and University of Pennsylvania, as well as some of the most exclusive liberal arts colleges such as Amherst and Williams. However, some schools also have an Early Decision Round 2, which allows people who fail to earn admission to their first-choice ED school to apply to another ED school. Although this is no longer an “early” admission, it is binding. More exclusive schools with an ED round 2 include NYU, Pomona, Swarthmore, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and Wellesley. Instead of Early Decision, applicants can choose to apply Early Action (EA) which does not bind them to the school should they gain admission. This allows them to apply with an increased likelihood of admission (although not as much of an advantage as ED) without taking away other potential college options. Some of the more selective schools with an EA round include CalTech, Chicago, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. Finally, a small number of schools offer Restrictive Early Action (REA) where applicants can apply early and get a non-binding response but can only apply to one school early. This means that they can apply to either a bunch of EA schools, or one REA school, but not a mixture of the two. The four most selective universities in the country happen to offer REA: Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Crafting a Story

Another tremendous advantage of applying as a non-traditional applicant is that it is remarkably easy to come across as interesting, accomplished, and intellectually curious to the admissions committee. Most schooled students simply do not have time to be interesting, accomplished, or intellectually curious. They are stuck in required classes in school for 5 to 7 hours per day for 180 days per year for 13 years of their lives, in addition to the all of hours they spend on expected extracurricular activities and sports, required service hours, and the many more hours of homework and studying needed to finish at the top of their class. There is a reason why most high achievers are perpetually exhausted—there is not sufficient time to sleep. Especially for those who come from feeder high schools and the schools that wish they were feeder schools.

On the other hand, non-traditionally schooled applicants are able to lead remarkable, interesting lives. It is not a given that they will, especially for those who attend schools where they have little to no say over how they spend their time, or for homeschoolers who are forced to work though boxed or online curriculum. But when young people have the freedom and time to take learning down pathways that meet their needs, they get to engage in the type of deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that turn them from just another applicant with good numbers into someone who captures the attention of the admissions committee as well as future classmates. When those experiences are coupled with a level of intellectual vitality that rarely survives the k-12 schooling process (because of the coercive nature of schooling), colleges are eager to offer admission and bring these applicants onto campus.

It is not sufficient to have a great story, however. An applicant must also be able to tell a great story, and that is where the college essays and recommendations come in. Telling that story in a way that moves an admissions committee that reads tens of thousands of applications is challenging. It is why a select number of college admissions consultants charge over $20,000 to their clients. But non-traditionally schooled applicants typically have ample essay fodder to work with, and they typically have a sense of purpose or a mission in life that allows them to string that essay fodder into a powerful and compelling personal story.

The University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Austin

Decision Time

Almost as stressful as the application process is the decision process once the offers roll in (if an applicant is not bound by an Early Decision offer of admission). Non-traditional applicants have a tremendous advantage over their traditionally schooled peers in picking a college and in taking advantage of the resources available to them at the next level. This is because traditional school applicants have been fighting to get to the top of their high school class, because ranking ahead of peers is deemed necessary to success, and now they are moving on to 13th grade with a vision of climbing to the top of their college class. To too many traditionally schooled students education is about satisfying teachers and competing against peers, as opposed to learning. The non-traditionally schooled person has more likely seen education as a collection of experiences that have allowed them to understand themselves and to grow as intellectuals and humanitarians. Education to them is an opportunity, not a competition, and because of that perceived opportunity they are more likely to choose the college that is the best fit for them, as opposed to obsessing over college rankings. They are also more likely to take advantage of the many opportunities at college that they can use to continue to grow, as opposed to being worried about going down the same path as all of their pre-med and Goldman Sachs bound peers.

Good luck to all the non-traditionally schooled young people out there who are heading into the college admissions season. You have tremendous advantages in the admissions game, but more importantly, you will have tremendous opportunities to make the most of your college experience.

Great educations aren’t passive experiences; they’re active ones.”
~Frank Bruni

Far more significant than where you go to school, however, is why and how.”
~ William Deresiewicz

1.     Grading also undermines the learning process. Any school that grades their students, fails their students. There is never a reason for an alternative school to engage in this destructive practice.

2.     For example, the University of Virginia is one of the most prestigious public schools, often considered a “public ivy,” and offers Virginia community college graduates who meet very reasonable standards a guaranteed admission into UVA, https://admission.virginia.edu/vccsguide

3.     Conversation with UT-Austin admissions office, August 1, 2017 

Cross posted at Alt Ed Austin: part 1, part 2.

 

 

Elon Musk Does Not Care Whether You Have a College Degree. Why Should You?

While the Abrome YouTube channel has only eight videos on it, we have over half a million views. 99.95% of those views come from a video of super-entrepreneur Elon Musk insisting that when it comes to hiring talent for his team, that he could care less where candidates graduated from college, much less if they graduated from college at all.[1]

In the clip, Musk is asked by the interviewer which colleges or universities he is most interested in hiring from. He responds that it does not even matter if a candidate has a college degree, or a high school degree. He acknowledges that a top university can serve as a signal that a candidate might be “capable of great things,” but clearly that is not sufficient to justify bringing one on his team.

Musk is not alone. Internet giant Google has moved away from their early focus on hiring from a collection of top schools, and as of 2013, up to 14% of some Google teams were filled with people who had never even gone to college.[2][3] Google did not change their hiring process based on some sort of anti-establishment ethos, they did it based on their own analysis of their own employees. They found that there was no relationship between job performance and GPA or college affiliation after the first few years on the job. In fact, Google’s senior vice president of people operations is on the record saying that grades are “worthless as a criteria for hiring.”[4]

Historically, colleges were used as a lazy man’s screen for talent. This was in part due to people confusing admission into and performance at college as markers for ambition, intelligence, and perseverance. College attainment has always been more associated with class privilege than intelligence and hard work. It is a rather recent phenomenon that a stellar high school academic record can place an underprivileged applicant into an elite college in place of a privileged applicant with a middling high school record. But children of the elite still have tremendous advantages in the ability to access such educational opportunities, even though studies have shown that they are the ones that benefit from them the least.[5]

With a somewhat democratized economy, where large institutions are more easily challenged and brought down by upstarts, the companies that want to continue to grow and thrive will need to move beyond the lazy man’s screen for talent, and begin to identify better indicators for future performance and success among job candidates. With organizations such as Tesla and Google leading the way, other companies will either adapt their hiring practices or lose the race for talent.

As Musk said, evidence of exceptional ability and a track record of exceptional achievement are far more important than degrees from certain colleges. And the best way to build exceptional ability and to acquire exceptional achievements is to lead a remarkable life, not to chase degrees. However, our schooling system discourages young people from leading remarkable lives. It encourages them to aim for perfection on a narrow range of academic measures based on a narrow and out of date curriculum, and to chase degrees.

If one is intent on playing the game everyone else is playing, they can take comfort in the fact that most companies still rely on lazy screens for hiring. But the world is changing, and young people should not be subjected to the same game everyone else is playing.[6] The focus on academic achievement and degree hunting will not only fail to be an advantage in tomorrow’s economy, it will put young people at a significant disadvantage. It will leave them ill-equipped to navigate the hiring process, and unprepared to prosper in their careers.

It is remarkably difficult to lead a remarkable life while also trying to excel in the oppressive and restrictive world of schooling. Not only does schooling take up at least 6-8 hours a day, 170-210 days a year for 13 years of one’s youth, but it also take up considerable mind space that alters the way they see the world and pursue opportunities. Schooling creates a dependency on authority figures to dictate to young people what is meaningful in life. It creates a shortsighted focus on short-term, finite projects, because those can be graded, whereas deep, meaningful projects that span months or years are beyond the scope of what schools can measure and asses. Schooling also trains students to look for the “right answer” as opposed to dancing in the beautiful space of uncertainty, while risking failure, that is so essential to deeper learning.

The best hope young people have to lead remarkable lives is to divorce themselves from the schooling apparatus and to instead engage in self-directed learning experiences. Only by being able to pursue learning according to one’s unique needs, goals, and interests can one take true ownership over their educational journey. In doing so, they will ultimately find or create opportunities that allow them to develop mastery over or expertise in fields that have personal meaning to their lives, and through the continued refinement and development of their skills and the application thereof for the benefit of society, they will build meaning and purpose within their lives.

People who lead remarkable lives do not need college degrees from top colleges to get their foot in the door or to thrive in life. But a strange irony arises for those who lead remarkable lives: they have a much easier time gaining admission into top colleges, and they have the mindset and skills that allow them to outperform their schooled peers once in college. However, they are also more likely to opt out of the employment game altogether, choosing instead to pursue an entrepreneurial existence.

 

1.     The clip we showed came from a 2014 Auto Bild interview.      

2.     Google Doesn’t Care Where You Went to College (CNN)

3.     Google Has Started Hiring More People Who Didn't Go To College (Business Insider)

4.     In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal (The New York Times)

5.     Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours (The New York Times)

6.     It is also a game where there are far more losers than winners.

Picture of Elon Musk: Wikipedia 

Top Myths of College Admissions, and What Really Matters

This week I attended a free talk that promised to cover the Top 10 Myths About College Admissions from well-known admissions consultant Mimi Doe. As expected, the room was overflowing with eager parents trying to figure out what they could do to help their children gain admission into the top colleges and universities. Most of them already knew that college admissions is a game that can be played, and they were no doubt hoping that Mimi would let slip some of the secrets to the admissions game that she typically charges families tens of thousands of dollars for.  

Mimi did a fine job during the presentation. She provided them with some basic facts about the admissions process, demonstrated knowledge on some of the finer points of college admissions, and most importantly, she induced enough anxiety within the attendees about the college admissions process that surely one or two of them will retain her. The only meaningful “secret” she really let slip was how to leverage early action/early decision to improve one’s chances of admission.

While she was right on many points, such as half the class at top schools being taken by applicants with hooks, she was factually incorrect on a couple of points. One glaring example was the remarkable claim that young people have a better chance of getting into top colleges from public schools than private schools. She pointed out that schools such as Harvard typically fill 55-65% of their freshman classes with students who attended public schools. What she failed to tell them is that although private high schools only enroll about 8% of all high school-aged students, they represent about 35% of the incoming Harvard class. From a sheer numbers perspective, it is significantly more likely to gain admission into Harvard from a private high school than a public high school, especially if it is a non-parochial school.

Diving even deeper, we find that not all public and private schools are created equal. The Harvard Crimson did an analysis of where the Class of 2017 went to high school and found that one out of every 20 matriculating freshman went to one of only seven high schools![1] Of those seven schools, only three were public, and only one of them did not require students to apply to gain admission (i.e., a local district school where many Harvard faculty members send their children). While these seven schools placed the most students in the freshman class, there were plenty of other feeder schools. Only 11% of the high schools represented filled one third of the freshman class. These schools, which are disproportionately private schools and large public magnet schools, are well known to college admissions staffs, and one can reasonably expect that in any given year they will have at least a couple of students gain admission. Meanwhile, three quarters of the high schools represented sent only one student to Harvard, filling less than 50% of the freshman class.

These numbers make clear that from a statistical standpoint, it is much less difficult to gain admission into Harvard from a private high school than a public high school. But people would say that there is less competition at regular district public schools, so perhaps it is actually easier to get into Harvard from a regular district public school. No, that is not the case. At the feeder schools, which are predominantly private schools, one does not have to be the best student every several years to be able to get into Harvard. One just has to be in the top tier of students, and have a good story. However, for unhooked applicants from the overwhelming majority of the 37,000 high schools in the country, to be seriously considered for Harvard you have to be the best student to have come through the school in years. Even in public schools that send more than a few students to top schools every year, such as Westlake High and Lake Travis High in Austin, TX, one still has to outcompete hundreds of other students to have a shot at securing a spot at these schools.

Perhaps Mimi made the claim about public schools to assure the parents in the room that their children still had a chance, if you retained her. Who knows.

After she was finished her presentation, Mimi opened up the floor for questions. Most questions followed the typical overanxious parent narrative, eager to squeeze the one helpful nugget of information that might allow them to work their overstressed child into the college of their (parents’) dreams. When I give my speeches on college admissions, I hammer home the point that college admissions is not only a game, it is an unnecessary game, and it does not guarantee those who play it well a great outcome.

Not expecting to hear any particularly good questions, I began surveying the room to see who else attended. I recognized a couple of parents who had previously attended my prior talks, and I wondered if any of them took my advice on how to allow their children to be free to lead remarkable lives.

Then all of a sudden, a woman spoke up who said she was stressed out by the college admissions process. She wanted to know what she could do as a parent to help her child succeed in college, not just get into college. It was such a relief to hear a parent asking a question that acknowledged that life extends beyond the college admissions process.

Mimi suggested that those applicants who were able to take control of the admissions process were the ones who would perform the best once they got to college. Sadly, it was pretty clear that most of those in the room were not the type of parents who would step back from the admissions process so that their children could take the wheel. But Mimi was right, applicants who take control of the admissions process do tend to do better in college.

Most young people spend their primary and secondary years just following the directives given to them. The “best” students are always doing exactly what they are told, neurotically shooting for perfect grades, and continually endeavoring to make their teachers happy. They are told that so long as they do what is expected of them to perfection, that they are setting themselves up for future success. But they are never given the time and space to figure out who they are, to engage in learning experiences that they find meaningful, and they never learn how to take charge of their lives because their lives are being directed by others.

Unfortunately for the woman who asked the question, she asked it several years too late, and she asked the wrong person. The best way to help prepare children to thrive in college (and beyond) is to trust them to lead their own lives while they are young. When they are the ones who are expected to decide what, why, and how they are going to learn, and they are expected to deal with the consequences of their decisions, they are much more likely to take their lives much more seriously. Those young people are more likely to go college with a plan. To identify the resources available at a college and utilize them. And to see the course catalog and syllabi as tools to be used in pursuit of a larger goal.  

Unfortunately for all the attendees that evening, no one pointed out that allowing young people to lead their own lives while they are still young is also the best way to position oneself to get into a top college.

1.     “The Making of a Harvard Feeder School,” The Harvard Crimson http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/12/13/making-harvard-feeder-schools/

Five Steps to End School Bullying: Collaboration, Not Competition (Essay 2 of 6)

We previously pointed out that the first step to ending school bullying was to end age segregation.[1] The second step is to eliminate competition and grades.

The most overt (and odious) function of schooling is a sorting function. Edward Thorndike, the father of modern educational psychology, pushed for standardized classes, homework, and tests in schools in order to rank students. He figured that ‘smart’ students would thrive under these conditions, and that less intelligent students would falter.[2] He did not see students faltering as a shortcoming of the system, he saw it as a desired outcome. He would ask you, why waste resources on students who were unlikely to benefit from the time and money invested in them? 

What Thorndike did not know, and what we know today, is that learning is not linear. Learning happens in spurts, and cannot be set to a developmental timeline. Some of the most intellectually curious learners seem to be going nowhere for long periods of time, while those who appear to most quickly learn subject material often get lost in the long run. Yet our schools still judge students as Thorndike wanted them to be judged over a century ago—by the speed at which they can master predefined tasks.

Schools judge and sort students by grading them. In the overwhelming majority of traditional schools, students are given a letter grade (or worse, a numeric grade) for each class that they take. This helps administrators and teachers quickly determine whether the students are dumb, average, or smart by subject area (although they often use the euphemisms basic, proficient, and advanced). While the adults may appreciate being able to measure and rank students, young people tend to absorb these grades into their self-worth. And because schools would be unable to rank students if they gave all of them perfects scores, most students are going to accept that they are less than intelligent. This may come in the form of “I am not good at math,” “I am a bad writer,” or “I don’t like science.” And unsurprisingly, when students come to embrace the belief that they are not good at certain subjects, or that they are dumb, they often give up on the learning process.

While grading is detrimental to the self-confidence of most students, and undermines the learning process, it also tends to negatively alter the behavior of parents. Parents generally understand that the prospects of their children getting into top colleges out of traditional high schools requires that their children rank at the top of their class. In order to rank at the top of the class, it is not sufficient to master the content of the classes they take, or to love learning. Instead, they must get the highest grades in all subjects. When the ultimate measure of academic success becomes whether or not one gets higher grades than all of his peers, there is no room for anything less than winning. Winning isn’t everything in the eyes of these parents, it’s the only thing.

With a hyperfocus on being number one, cheating becomes one way to rise in the hierarchy above one’s peers.[3][4] Other students become relegated to nothing more than competition, and this idea is reinforced by teachers who are quick to accuse collaborators of cheating.

Additionally, the focus on outperforming peers then bleeds into other activities that colleges care about when considering traditional schooled applicants, namely sports and clubs. Participation and engagement alone does not allow one to rise above. Instead, students recognize that they must be the Captain of the football or volleyball team, the President of the debate or robotics club, the Editor of the student newspaper, and the President of the student council. And while cheating becomes the way to squeeze out those extra points to get the top grades, a Machiavellian approach to stepping on classmates and teammates often becomes the way to rise to the top of extracurricular activities.

In the schooling environment where everyone wants to be number one, bullying becomes ingrained in the fabric of the culture of the school. If they cannot be at the top of the class academically, at least they can assert their position socially. Where hierarchy is everything, many students resort to bullying as a way to secure their spot at the top of the class, or at least above select others (the bullied). And because so few can be at the top of the class academically or socially, there is significant pressure for schoolgoing children to engage in bullying, or to lend support to bullies.[5] Even the popular kids, the ones us adults so often assume to be doing the best, often engage in bullying. And disturbingly, the students who are the most popular with the teachers and administrators are often given the longest leash to engage in the most aggressive forms of bullying.[6]

In order to eliminate the bullying effects of competition in school, schools need to eliminate competition. Unfortunately, most schools cannot fathom a world without competition, because competition is the bedrock of the academic experience, and it is what is expected from parents, administrators, and bureaucrats. The simplest and most meaningful step toward eliminating competition is eliminating grades. Some schools give lip service to the value of reducing the pressure of grading, and a smaller subset of schools will ‘refuse to rank’ students to address the harmful effects of competition, yet they continue to grade students.[7] Schools can eliminate academic ranking by eliminating grading.[8]

The next step schools should take to eliminate competition is to embrace age-mixing, as articulated in the first essay in this series on bullying. When students are surrounded by other people appreciably older or younger than them, the urge to compete lessens dramatically. There is little reason for a ten-year-old to attempt to show that they are superior to a six-year-old, or a 14-year-old. Simply put, society does not expect six-, ten-, and 14-year-olds to compete with each other. Hopefully, someday, society will no longer expect ten-year-olds to compete with ten-year-olds, either.

Once schools eliminate grading and age segregation, they will be able to truly embrace collaboration in lieu of competition.[9] In a collaborative environment, the emphasis is not on how much more one knows than another, it is on what students can accomplish together. In such an environment, every member of the community is valued for what they can contribute to the experiences of others, and the need to jockey for position relative to one another disappears.

The collaborative environment we propose does not take away opportunities for leadership roles. Those leadership opportunities will be able to grow out of demonstrated interest and intentional action in the pursuit of one’s goals. Without the focus on beating one’s peers, there is less of a stigma in joining someone else’s project (becoming a follower). And in an environment with age diversity, it is natural for younger people to join in the efforts of older people without feeling as though one is not measuring up to the leader.   

When we eliminate competition, we eliminate the existence of losers. In an environment where no one becomes a loser, the need for bullying evaporates.

(1)   http://www.abrome.com/blog/2016/10/3/five-steps-to-end-school-bullying-age-mixing-essay-1-of-6

(2)   https://www.amazon.com/End-Average-Succeed-Values-Sameness/dp/0062358367

(3)   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/08/education/studies-show-more-students-cheat-even-high-achievers.html

(4)   http://www.glass-castle.com/clients/www-nocheating-org/adcouncil/research/cheatingfactsheet.html

(5)   https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Christina_Salmivalli/publication/12829538_Participant_role_approach_to_school_bullying_implications_for_interventions/links/54ec20030cf2ff89649f1ed3.pdf

(6)   https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201005/school-bullying-tragic-cost-undemocratic-schools

(7)   College admission committees are not thrown off by schools that ‘refuse to rank’ their students. The committees get a profile of each high school, and back their way into figuring out how each applicant compares to their peers. Further, if multiple students from a given school are applying, it becomes readily apparent where in the rank order the various applicants fall. This reality can often exacerbate the stress that comes from grades, as students work frantically to improve their unknown position against peers.

(8)   It is important to note that in addition to promoting a bullying culture, as previously mentioned, grading is harmful to students from a learning perspective. Even if schools were uninterested in addressing the issue of bullying, it would make sense for them to eliminate grading. An argument against eliminating grading would be that grading is necessary to assess what the students are learning. However, the reality is that assessments do not require testing or grades.

Non-graded assessments, in general, still undermine learning. Students benefit the most when they are able to deeply engage in learning without external pressure. If students know they are being evaluated, even if there are no consequences to the results of the evaluations, they are more likely to lose interest in the activity. This point is described well by Alfie Kohn in an essay on grading: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/grading/.  

(9)   While many argue that just a little competition peppered into a collaborative environment is better than full collaboration or no collaboration, the truth is that any amount of competition gets in the way of collaboration. Once again, Alfie Kohn covers this well in an essay on competition in collaborative classrooms: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/competition-ever-appropriate-cooperative-classroom/.  

Broken dreams in pursuit of an educational brand: Stanford becomes the first university to dip below 5% admit rate

The Stanford University Office of Undergraduate Admission just released their application numbers for the Class of 2020, and for the fourth consecutive year they earn the enviable but not necessarily laudable distinction of being the most selective college in America. Also, in a first for any of the schools that jockey for position in the US News Rankings of best colleges, Stanford has seen their acceptance rate dip below 5%.

Stanford received 43,997 total applications this year, up 1,510 applications from the previous year. And if that bump wasn’t enough of a hit to the dreams of this year’s Stanford-focused applicants, Stanford admitted only 2,063 candidates this year. A decrease of 81 offers from the prior year. Stanford’s continued rise in terms of prestige and perception (it is now Harvard vs. Stanford, not Harvard vs. Yale or Princeton) is leading to a marked increase in their ability to win over a larger percentage of dual-admits to peer universities such as MIT, Yale, and most notably Harvard; and the recent miserable East Coast winters haven’t hurt. As Stanford’s yield goes up, their number of acceptances will continue to go down.

While we do not have Harvard’s final number of admits, we do know that they received 39,044 applicants this yearcompared to last year’s 37,305. If we assume that they accept the same number of applicants as they did last year, they would have a 5.1% acceptance rate this year. It’s fair to assume that Harvard will join Stanford in the under 5% club in the next year or two. And in the coming years, we can expect to see the other uber-selective universities (e.g., Yale, Princeton, MIT, Columbia) also joining the club. And in doing so, no one will be better off for it. Not even Stanford or Harvard.

The ever-dwindling acceptance rates at the top schools do not represent an increase in the quality of education available at those schools, nor do they represent an increase in the quality of the incoming class at those schools. The ever-dwindling acceptance rate at the top schools merely represents the ever increasing priority placed on education brand or prestige by the parents of the young people who are applying to these schools. No longer can it reasonably be said that even a significant minority of the students applying to the top schools are concerned most about specific educational opportunities or fit of the schools. No, the only thing that matters in this dog-eat-dog world is how my kids compare to yours … and if my kid gets into Stanford and yours gets into Brown then my kid is supposedly better.

The ever-escalating admissions arms race leads to more parents paying more people to help their kids apply to college, after four years of micromanaging what classes their kids take, how their kids are doing in those classes, and how much time they invest into various extracurriculars that are vetted by the parents. Young people are not masters of their own universe, they are simply expected to excel in the space that is carved out for them by their parents. In the race to get our children into the top schools, our children have lost the opportunity to decide for themselves what experiences they will engage in, how much time they will invest in those experiences, and even whether or not they should try to figure out who they are.

And when young people are not given the opportunity to forge their own dreams, especially when their aspirations are being defined for them by their parents, then even if they get into their [parents’] dream school, they will fail to take advantage of the opportunities available at those schools that would uniquely benefit them and their dreams. This will lead to an ever growing population of over-coached, over-prepped, over-tested, privileged upper-middle class young adults (because these schools are still largely off limits to lower socio-economic young people who don’t have the opportunity to prep and pad their experiences from the age of 13 in anticipation of college admissions) graduating college completely lost at how to take on the world.

It’s a shame that Stanford’s admit rate has dropped below 5%. This is not a good sign of things to come.