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.

If we want students to think for themselves, let them.

Last week, a group of Ivy League scholars published an open letter urging college bound students to "Think for Yourself."

Unfortunately for most students, thinking for oneself is really difficult because most students, especially the ones who manage to get into the Ivy League, have spent their academic years doing the opposite of thinking for themselves--they have allowed themselves to be shaped by others, seeking to perform perfectly as charged by adults. They have been rewarded for neither questioning the dominant narratives in society nor questioning authority.

The letter, however, seems to focus more on the debate over whether schools should be safe spaces for all, or if people with oppressive agendas (e.g., promoting racism, fascism, patriarchy) should be shut down in order to maintain that safe space. Or as The Atlantic puts it, should schools focus on "seeking truth" or "advancing social justice."

Contrary to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, we do not need to make binary tradeoffs between the two. As the professors allude to, the truth is the antidote to bigotry. However, debate does not mean entertaining absurdity. Universities should not subject themselves to debates over the virtues of slavery anymore than they should subject themselves to debates over a flat earth theory.

Truth seekers do not fear debate. In fact, they venture into territory where most people refuse to go because it is uncomfortable, and without easy answers. They look backward to learn from the past, but look forward to build a better future. They stand in stark opposition to those who see an earlier era as the ideal, where women, people of color, or LGBTQ folk "knew their place."

Those students who have been convinced to stay in line, follow a prescribed path, and to repeat what their teachers (or parents, preachers, or politicians) laid out as truth are the ones most likely to fall for bigoted ideologies that actively prevent truth from bubbling up in favor of maintaining a status quo that benefits the privileged.

It is the students who have not been beaten down with curriculum, standards, demands for conformity, and prescribed academic tracks that are the most likely to question. And for those who were able to engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences in a self-directed manner, they are the most likely to question in an intelligent manner that will inoculate them from embracing simplistic (and often bigoted) explanations for the challenges we face in society.

So students, please, question everything. Challenge yourselves, each other, and your professors. Professors, challenge your students. Take on controversial topics. And parents, do not merely hope that your children will think for themselves once they get into college. Educate yourself on the benefits of self-directed learning, and investigate learning environments such as Abrome, as well as unschooling.

We do not have to subject students to oppressive ideologies that have no place in an intellectual setting in order for students to think for themselves. We simply need to allow them to think for themselves.


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.



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/

Donald Trump Cannot Read? The Profound Dangers of a Fixed Mindset

This past fall, I bought copies of Carol Dweck’s Mindset for two of our new Learners.[1] Each of them, who spent most of their school-aged years in traditional schooling environments, demonstrated proclivities for what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” This mindset was holding them back from taking risks that would allow them to grow intellectually and emotionally. Specifically, they would avoid engaging in learning experiences they did not feel they already had mastery over, they would shut down the moment someone else realized they did not understand something, and they would place immense value on whether others thought they were smart, popular, or attractive.

Dweck states that a fixed mindset is a fundamental belief that qualities, traits, and talents are largely unchangeable. That they are inherent, or inborn. The opposite of a fixed mindset is a "growth mindset" which is a belief in the ability to change and cultivate qualities, traits, and talents through deliberate effort and experience. And while people are not completely fixed or growth mindset oriented in every facet of life, some people tend to stand out as one or the other significantly more often than the rest. As I revisited Mindset for the benefit of our two Learners, I could not help but notice that then presidential candidate Donald Trump was a perfect fixed mindset case study.[2] 

The mindset of a king

In 2015, Trump himself laid out a compelling argument for his fixed mindset orientation in an interview with Michael D’Antonio of the Los Angeles Times.[3] “I’m a big believer in natural ability,” Trump said. The belief in natural ability is a cornerstone of fixed mindset thinking, and it also defies what we know about human development. He later added, “the most important thing is an innate ability.” In Trump’s eyes, innate ability, which one cannot control, is more important than what one has significant control over such as effort, education, and experience. It was once accepted that the best people to rule nations were royalty, the people who were preordained to lead. Befittingly, the LA Times piece was titled, “Donald Trump believes he was born to be king.”

As the campaign season wore on, Trump became notorious for attacking those who questioned him, no matter who they were or how insignificant their opinion was. Trump would go on public campaigns attacking and attributing negative characteristics to the members of the news media, politicians, and celebrities who dared to critique him. Rarely did he address their arguments; he just attacked. But he also made time to attack random Twitter users who had little to no audience, calling them losers, dumb, and failures. While politicians are not necessarily known for their incredibly thick skin, the ability of people to (often gleefully) so easily get on the nerves of the future leader of the free world was remarkable. It was as if he could not possibly stand being critiqued.

Growth mindset oriented people are more willing to hear critiques; they seek them out. They more often value diversity and feel more comfortable populating their teams with contrarians who will challenge their positions. Growth mindset people facilitate and improve communications within their teams, as they see everyone, including those they disagree with, being a part of their learning process. Fixed mindset people, on the other hand, tend to surround themselves with yes men who will always agree with them. They view critiques of their beliefs or actions as attacks on their ability, competence, and intellect. And unlike growth mindset people who will try to understand the critiques of outsiders, fixed mindset people immediately label those outsiders as the enemy who must be dealt with swiftly.

We did not have to wait until the campaign season shined a light on some of Trump’s more impertinent social behaviors to find evidence of a fixed mindset—the evidence was there all along. As much as Trump talked about The Art of the Deal, it seemed much of his financial success came after deals were made by way of broken contracts and non-payments to contractors for services received.[4] He has also demonstrated an eagerness to threaten lawsuits against people who upset him or get in his way, and a willingness to follow through on many of those threats.[5] Additionally, he has been accused of assaulting women multiple times, and has been caught on audio joking about assaulting women.[6]

While all of these actions should be seen as troublesome, unsavory, or unethical on a one-off basis, that Trump keeps revisiting them is what screams fixed mindset. As Jamie Loftus writes, “Throughout [Trump’s] life, there are examples of his making the same mistakes, ignoring criticism, being threatened by others, and not accepting the challenge of self-examination.”[7] In other words, he does not learn from experience because he does not see any value in the introspection that growth minded people use to try to improve their behavior or performance. 

Fake it ‘til you make it           

A fixed mindset does not necessarily preclude one from success, riches, positions of influence, or fame, as Trump rising to the most powerful political position in the world shows. Already having power and privilege, as Trump did growing up, can certainly help one overcome shortcomings they are unwilling to address. What a fixed mindset does, however, is limit opportunities for success, place successes on a weak foundation that can be exposed at a later date, and it can lead fixed mindset people to engage in dangerously self-defeating behaviors.[8] By virtue of Trump being a billionaire and president of the United States, let’s accept that he has had his share of successes. But now he is in the precarious position of taking on more complex challenges without the support systems that he has benefited from and grown used to.

People have often built their successes on false foundations. Success is everything in our society and it is dictated by the perception of others: getting into Harvard or Stanford, working for the right consulting or law firm, buying the right house in the right neighborhood, getting your children into Harvard or Stanford. My list starts and ends with school for a reason. School is where society is best conditioned to focus on attaining arbitrary measures of success and avoiding failure at all costs. Schools drive this lesson home early and often with gold stars, report cards, and class rankings. By the time students arrive in high school, they know that their success requires them to be perfect in class; there will be no time for experimenting and growth because a perfect GPA does not allow for it. This is why so many students cheat, and why so few students are genuinely excited to learn.

Apropos of the previous point, there is a persistent rumor that highlights how Trump the fixed mindset president may have built a false foundation and positioned himself for an inglorious downfall in a way that a growth mindset president would likely avoid. Can Trump read? David Pakman recently produced a 12-minute video laying out compelling evidence that Trump may not be able to read, and has since followed up with another video really pushing the issue.[9] 

Trump not being able to read, or only being able to read at a fourth grade level, raises some serious concerns about his ability to serve as president. And not for the reasons that everyone else might suggest. Yes, reading sharpens mental acuity and provides one with the factual knowledge necessary to engage in higher order thinking.[10] And yes, not being able to read may increase the chances of someone signing off on orders they do not understand, such as when Trump appointed Steve Bannon to a seat on the National Security Council.[11] But people can still be great leaders even if they are not great readers. As an explanation for Trump’s apparent difficulty reading, Kristine Moore suggests that Trump may have dyslexia or Irlen Syndrome.[12] The ranks of the most successful entrepreneurs, artists, and scientists are littered with dyslexics and people with other learning disabilities. And Winston Churchill, who had Irlen Syndrome, became a great reader, writer, and leader. But the difference between Trump and Churchill is that the former is fixed mindset oriented, and the latter was growth mindset oriented.

Because Trump places so much value on inherent abilities and talents, he does not see the need to focus on developing them. And because Trump places so much value on what others think of him, he does not want anyone to recognize that he is flawed in any way. And he likely views his inability to read as a glaring flaw that he cannot psychologically afford being exposed to the wider public. Or he convinces himself that he is too important to waste his time reading.[13] In order to overcome this deficit, Trump goes out of his way to beat his chest about how smart, intelligent, and educated he is.[14] He loves to boast about his attendance at the Wharton School, and about the education pedigrees of those in his family.[15] He wants to believe, and wants you to believe, that degrees, even those earned by family members, are a better measure of his intellectual capabilities and curiosity than the ability to read is. But he cannot afford for you to believe that he cannot read. So he fakes it.

The danger of insecurity 

Insecurity in oneself is a natural outcropping of a fixed mindset, whether or not the fixed mindset people realize it. Trump comes across as excessively confident in his ability to produce great outcomes in whatever endeavors he chooses to engage in. For example, he constantly reminds people that he will “make America great again,” and that only he can make America great again, despite having never served in public office before. But because he is so resistant to learn from his mistakes, or admit that he is not talented in every possible way, he fails to benefit from the tremendous growth that is available to a man with his power and privilege. This leaves him quite insecure, in spite of his seeming confidence. This is visibly apparent when he tries to read in front of others, or discusses the topic of reading.[16]

The danger of insecurity lies in the potential response to insecurity. We have already highlighted how Trump responds to criticism; he evades and attacks. He evades by denial and attempts to change the subject. Historically, he has attacked through threats, lawsuits, and public beratings. However, now he has the tools of the presidency at his disposal. And for someone who feels it is more important to fake being able to read than actually learning how to read, this is worrisome. How does someone who is not fully capable of being president on day one, as nobody is, fake competence? Trump gave us insight into how he may try in his first ten days in office. Trump’s appeal to many of his supporters was that he would make America great again, whereas Obama was a failure and Clinton could only offer them more failures. In his eagerness to prove himself superior to Obama, who he called the worst president in history, he allowed his staff to convince him to approve a risky military operation in Yemen by suggesting that Obama would never be so bold.[17] That raid was a disaster, leaving both an 8-year-old child and a Navy SEAL dead.

Trump’s inability to handle criticism coupled with the stresses of being president is likely to take a tremendous toll on him. Given Trump’s fixed mindset, as people continue to question Trump’s actions and positions, and as he fixates on their opinions through social media and cable news, his attempts to convince people of his competence and intelligence may become more and more desperate. He has already publicly questioned the integrity of the judges who presided over lawsuits against him and who blocked his executive orders, and he has threatened to destroy the career of a Texas politician who opposes asset forfeiture.[18] Would he be willing to direct federal agencies to go after political enemies? Would he be willing to punish corporations that do not show allegiance to his administration or refuse to do business with any of the Trump organizations? Would he be willing to engage in trade wars with countries that do not fall in line? Would he be willing to escalate international disagreements into military conflicts for the sake of rallying the American people around his presidency? 

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
~ Hermann Göring

Trump’s fixed mindset orientation is a significant barrier to his growth. Such a mindset has left him unwilling to learn from his mistakes, and unable or unwilling to read. There is no such thing as an average person, much less someone who excels in all aspects of life.[19] Many people have weaknesses, and many people have overcome challenges, just as people with dyslexia or Irlen Syndrome can and do lead remarkable lives.[20] But in order to do so, they have to be willing to seek out the resources and tools that will help them thrive, and they need to recognize that learning differences or disorders, or one’s station in life, are not badges of shame. This is a hurdle Trump cannot get over. But as dangerous as his fixed mindset is to his growth, it is far more dangerous to society.


Graphic: From Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

1.     Carol Dweck, Mindset

2.     I am not unique in noticing Trump’s fixed mindset. “The Mindset That Leads People to Be Dangerously Overconfident,” Harvard Business Review; “Trump and Hillary Show Totally Opposite Success Mind-sets,” New York Magazine; “This Election Comes Down to Who Has the Better Mindset,” Inverse

3.     Donald Trump believes he was born to be king,” Los Angeles Times

4.     Hundreds allege Donald Trump doesn’t pay his bills,” USA Today

5.     Trump's 3,500 lawsuits unprecedented for a presidential nominee,” USA Today; “The ~20 Times Trump Has Threatened To Sue Someone During This Campaign,” FiveThirtyEight 

6.     An Exhaustive List of the Allegations Women Have Made Against Donald Trump,” New York Magazine

7.     This Election Comes Down to Who Has the Better Mindset,” Inverse

8.     In Mindset, Dweck highlights the ignominious fall from grace of multiple individuals, including Lee Iacocca, Al Dunlap, Kenneth Lay, and Jeffrey Skilling. She could have easily provided profiles of politicians whose fixed mindsets led to their downfall, as well.  

9.     Uh-Oh: Does Donald Trump Know How to Read?,” The David Pakman Show; “WOW: Trump Fails Basic Literacy Test,” The David Pakman Show

10.  Schools Focus on Teaching Shallow Knowledge, But Fail,” Abrome

11.  Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles”, New York Times

12.  Can Donald Trump Read Beyond a Fourth Grade Level? [Opinion]”, The Inquisitr News

13.  Donald Trump doesn’t read much. Being president probably wouldn’t change that,” The Washington Post

14.  Donald Trump's myths about himself,” Chicago Tribune; “'I'm, like, a really smart person': Donald Trump exults in outsider status,” The Guardian

15.  Trump’s repeated references to his attendance at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which he transferred to after two years at Fordham University, are well documented. For examples, see the sources in the prior note and in the article, “Trump flaunts Wharton degree, but his college years remain a mystery,” The Daily Pennsylvanian. Trump has also been documented focusing on the intelligence of family members to suggest that he is intellectually gifted, particularly a well-respected uncle who taught at MIT. “Donald Trump’s Nuclear Uncle,” The New Yorker

16.  WOW: Trump Fails Basic Literacy Test,” The David Pakman Show

17.  Donald Trump's staff get him to agree to policies by saying ‘Obama wouldn't have done it’,” The Independent

18.  Trump Says Judge’s Mexican Heritage Presents ‘Absolute Conflict,’” Wall Street Journal; “Trump lashes out at ‘so-called judge’ who temporarily blocked travel ban,” The Washington Post; “Donald Trump Threatens to ‘Destroy’ Texas Senator,” The Daily Beast

19.  Any System Designed Around the Average Person is Doomed to Fail,” Abrome

20.  Richard Branson has dyslexia, Temple Grandin is autistic, Mark Zuckerberg had social anxiety. The list of people who have overcome hurdles in their lives to achieve extraordinary levels of success is far too long to list out. 


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.

What good is emancipated learning if a child cannot get into Harvard or Stanford?

A year and a half after I graduated from Stanford, I started a search fund to look for a company to buy. Although I was industry agnostic, I kept finding myself focusing on companies that touched the academic space for children, such as curriculum providers, charter management organizations, and tutoring services. This made sense, I had already centered most of my non-work efforts around children throughout my career. I coached baseball, basketball, and football teams; I led an effort to help clothe children in Kosovo; I mentored children in multiple countries; I organized college fairs for West Point and Stanford; and I was on the board of a child bereavement non-profit. I realized that any future professional success would most likely have to be tied to my long-running desire to help children.

However, the more I dove into the companies that were operating in the space, the more I became frustrated at their inability to actually help children. Even the thought of running my own charter schools seemed destined to cause more harm to children than good. I quickly came to the conclusion that virtually the entire education industry was being operated for the benefit of adults at the expense of children. This realization led me to authors such as John Holt and John Taylor Gatto, and a broader homeschooling and unschooling movement. I was faced with a dilemma: do I keep looking for an education company to buy that would undoubtedly harm children, or do I throw myself into promoting options where I couldn’t make much money but where I could actually help children? It wasn’t much of a dilemma; in late 2010, I packed up and moved from New York to Austin to try to grow the homeschooling movement.

While working to liberate children from traditional schooling, I found that I was lacking two credentials that vocal critics of homeschooling, unschooling, and other forms of liberated learning grabbed onto: I did not have teaching experience and I did not have an education degree. So I chose to work as a teacher for Bronze Doors Academy (now Skybridge Academy) for two years, and then I went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a master’s in education degree (Ed.M.).

At Harvard I began to work on a new platform for education that would allow all children to lead remarkable lives. It was intended to be a community of self-directed learners that would benefit from a broader network of learners and mentors online. It avoided the worst aspects of traditional schooling (e.g., curriculum, testing, grading, homework), but it also failed to provide parents with what they saw as some of the benefits of traditional schooling (e.g., a place for their kids to go during the day, a ready network of peers to interact with, social validation from friends and family). Time and time again, parents would agree with me as to why they should opt out of traditional schooling, and how their children would be far better off outside of a traditional school environment, yet far more often than not they would still opt to keep their children in school. It was apparent that most parents, as much as they loved their children, just could not take the risk that their children might fail outside of a school environment, whereas if their kids failed in the school environment, at least they would not be entirely responsible for the failure.

While I was unable to recruit many families to join my virtual community of emancipated learners, I was able to keep the lights on by providing college admissions services. Over the past decade I have been helping people apply to college and grad school, and I have gotten nearly 50% of my clients into Harvard and/or Stanford, and 75% of my clients into schools ranked in the top ten. Because of a combination of my success rates plus the time I invest into each college admissions candidate (which takes away the time I can work on emancipated learning), I charge a significantly higher price for college admissions consulting ($25,000 during senior year) than I do on an annual consulting basis to help children lead remarkable lives ($6,500/yr). And I would be flummoxed if I was not willing to accept that most parents (although they will not admit it) would eagerly put their children through hell during their primary and secondary years if they could assure that their children would gain admission into Harvard or Stanford.

My goal is not just to get a bunch of kids into Harvard and Stanford. College admissions consulting is a great lifestyle business (it is fun, it is easy to do really well, and it is seasonal), but it does not fundamentally undermine the injustices of our society that are rooted in and reinforced by traditional schooling. In order for me to be able to emancipate children from the tyranny of the status quo, and in order for those emancipated learners to go on to take down the tyranny of the status quo and improve society for all, I recognize that I cannot at this point separate the two–parents need a sure bet that their children are going to be able to lead remarkable lives and gain admission into top colleges and universities, although the latter does not in any way validate or lead to the former. A virtual community is not sufficient at this moment in time, so keep your eyes open for exciting new developments from Abrome in the near future.

UPDATE: We have launched a school to address the dilemma of parents being much more willing to pay for college admissions than for helping young people lead remarkable lives.