Less selective schools should create the story

I had my little rant last week how I wished the press would write stories this month about colleges that are  accepting plenty of their applicants, instead of eagerly recycling the annual news that the nation’s most selective colleges got even more competitive this year. 

Then I learned that those less competitive schools don’t make it very easy to find those statistics.  I tried to find the class of 2016 admissions stats for over a dozen schools featured as Colleges that Change Lives, great schools that accept plenty of kids who aren’t necessarily at the top of the class, and I couldn’t find any information.  I know they’ll all eventually publish profiles of the freshman classes, but you’ll need to dig into their websites to find those.  That information is less likely to show up in a major news story. 

It’s a public badge of honor when a school claims they rejected even more qualified applicants this year—it makes the school seem more desirable.  Maybe the less selective colleges don’t want major press outlets announcing that they take B students with average test scores?

My question is, why not?  To schools that are accepting lots of applicants, why not create that story?  Tell the press and anybody who wants to listen:

We just offered admission to 52% of our applicants for the class of 2016.  We admitted two quarterbacks of state champion football teams, 24 club presidents, 2 flutists, an oboe player and 62 students who worked part time jobs after school.  We admitted one published author, a student who makes ceramic pots and sells them at flea markets, 14 students who wrote for their high school papers, four yearbook photographers and one poet who posts her work on her blog.  We admitted three debate champions, one trainer of guide dogs for the blind, a pilot, several competitive equestrians, and a student who’s going to make it his life’s mission to beat his mother at tennis.  The average high school GPA of our admits was 3.42 (we are test-optional because we don’t think SAT/ACT scores help us find the right students) and we couldn’t be more excited to see who joins us this fall. 

Start creating those stories and you’ll change the way people think about college admissions. 

Replace the names

Juniors, here’s a good way to focus your college search, find colleges that are right for you, and improve your chances of getting in: as you’re looking at colleges, pretend the names have been replaced with serial numbers.  Your future college sweatshirt and decal on the car might be “0873.”

Now, there’s no pretense of name-brand cache.  You can’t be drawn to a college just because it’s prestigious.  You have to identify what you really want from a school, what type of environment is best for you, a place where you could be happy and successful for four years. 

If you go through your entire college search consistently imagining that the names have been replaced, you will have much better answers when applications and interviewers ask you why you’ve decided to apply.  You’ll have a better chance of getting in and being happy once you get there.  And when you buy the real sweatshirt, the name on it will be the right school for you. 

If you want to go to a prestigious graduate school…

…what you actually do in college will matter much more than where you do it.  There are 74 undergraduate institutions represented in Yale Law School's class of 2014.  Here are more than half of them:

Bates College
Birmingham Southern College
Boston University
Brigham Young University
California State University-Long Beach
Clemson University
Columbia College (note: different from Columbia University)
Eastern University
Florida State University
Hillsdale College
Hunter College-CUNY
Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge
McGill University
Morehouse College
Oberlin College
Ohio State University-Columbus
Ohio University
Patrick Henry College
Purdue University-West Lafayette
Reed College
Saint Peter’s College
Samford University
Scripps College
Seoul National University
Trinity College-CT
University of Delaware
University of California-Santa Barbara
University of Georgia-Athens
University of Maryland-College Park
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
University of Miami
University of Pittsburgh
University of Rochester
University of Texas-Austin
University of Toronto
University of Wales
University of Washington
Washington and Lee University

The truth about alumni connections

I’ve met a lot of students and parents who think particular colleges offer “great connections” for their graduates.  And yet, I have never once met a person who got a job just because he or she went to the same college the boss attended. 

You might think that attending a school like USC, Duke, Michigan or another school with a strong alumni network will guarantee you job opportunities when you graduate. But the world doesn’t work that way.  Real connections are born from the work you do to earn them, not by sharing a loose affiliation with a person of consequence.  And you can do that work at lots of colleges that aren’t famous.

When you work closely with a professor on a project and impress her with your work, you can later ask her for advice or to write you a letter of recommendation because you’ve earned that connection.  You can do the same thing with the supervisor at your internship, the housing director who oversaw your work as a resident advisor, or the director at the non-profit where you volunteered.  Wherever you go to college, you’re going to have virtually unlimited opportunities to earn those kinds of connections. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s Princeton or Prescott. 

Is there any value to attending a college with a large, national alumni network?  Of course.  If you take a job in a new city where you don’t know anybody, you can go to a local alumni meeting.  You can tailgate at the football games with the other alums.  Wherever you go, you’ll have a home base of people with whom you share at least one common interest. 

But don’t expect any of those people to give you a job just because you know the same fight songs.  You’ll need to have earned some connections along the way, and keep earning them once you meet these new groups.

Don’t pick a college just because you think they’ll give you connections when you leave.  Pick a college where you think you can do your best work to earn them.

A Harvard interviewer’s advice to eighth graders

Andy Doctoroff interviews applicants for Harvard, and he's got a good piece in the Huffington Post today, "Dear Eighth Grader: So You Want to Apply to Harvard? Some Words of Advice…"

The central message is that good grades, high test scores, and impressive activities alone aren’t what impress him during an interview.  “Intellectual ambition, drive and zest for discovery” are, especially when they’re genuine, not just being forcefully presented in an effort to get into Harvard. 

And make sure you don’t miss this part near the end (and remember, this is a guy who went to Harvard).


Frankly, it's not really that important whether you go to Harvard. There are a lot of Harvard graduates who do not lead productive lives. And, of course, Harvard and other comparable schools have not cornered the market on success."

Where did students at Harvard Law School go to college?

Anybody who claims that attending a less prestigious college hurts your chances of getting into a prestigious graduate school should check out this list of the 261 undergraduate institutions represented by all students enrolled at Harvard Law School for the 2010-2011 school year. 

Yes, all the Ivy League schools are listed, along with Duke, Stanford, Northwestern, Rice, UC Berkeley, West Point, the Naval Academy and other schools that reject almost everyone who applies.  I don’t dispute that a lot of graduates from highly selective colleges go on to do great things.  It’s not surprising considering that you’ve got to be an exceptionally smart, motivated, hard-working kid to get into one of those schools in the first place. 

But the list also shows that exceptionally smart, motivated, hard-working kids can go to places like Adelphi, Arizona State, Beloit, Cal State Northridge, Dickenson, Eastern Kentucky, Florida State, Gonzaga, Hampton, Indiana, Knox, Louisiana State, Mary Washington, Northern Arizona, Oregon State, Pacific Lutheran, Queens College, Rutgers, San Jose State, TCU, University of Delaware, Western Washington University, and dozens of other not-so-name brand schools and still go on to Harvard Law School.   

It’s not where you go.  It’s what you do while you’re there. 

Why Harvard is like the Boston Marathon

Every marathon is exactly the same distance—26.2 miles.  And yet many hard core marathoners covet the Boston Marathon more than any other. It’s not because Boston’s is notably prettier, more fun, more challenging, or otherwise better than New York’s or LA’s or Chicago’s marathons (all of which draw runners from all over the world).  Boston’s secret is simple—they reject runners who aren’t fast enough.  

Hal Higdon, longtime Runner's World magazine contributor and the author of the best-selling "Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide," explains the Boston Marathon’s allure in the documentary “The Spirit of the Marathon.”


When I first started running Boston we had, I think, 150 runners in the race.  Gradually through the 1960s, the numbers of runners started to grow.  By the end of that decade, I think we were up to about 1,000.  And they sought a way to limit the field, and they put on standards that began with, I think, you had to have run a previous marathon in four hours.  That, they figured, would limit the field.  And then they started cutting it down to 3 ½ hours, 3 hours, and the more they raised the challenge, the more interested runners became in meeting that challenge.  So, without realizing it, they had made their race much more popular by making it more difficult to get into.

That’s surprisingly similar to the allure of the most prestigious colleges.

Telling lots of people, "You're out" just makes more people want in.   It’s true for night clubs, dinner parties, colleges, and even marathons.  I know that not every college is the same.  I know that people who go to Harvard or Yale or Duke will tell you that they couldn’t imagine going to school anywhere else, just like runners who finish Boston will tell you nothing could match that experience.  But whether you run a “sub-3” marathon in Boston or Toledo doesn’t matter—you’re pretty damn fast.  And if you work hard, find subjects that interest you, make contributions to activities you enjoy, treat people right, and keep doing those things once you get to college, you’re going to be a pretty damn successful college graduate no matter where you went to school.  

I’ll bet you haven’t tried this way of getting into a famous school

If you want to improve your chances of getting into a prestigious college, here’s one effective way to do it—find five other colleges you have never heard of but would be just as happy to attend as you would be to go to your dream school.

Whether or not you actually end up applying to them, the process of looking for and finding colleges you’ve never heard of that are right for you makes you focus more on the colleges and less on their names.  You'll think more about what you’re looking for in a college, what you expect your experience to be like and what you hope to get out of your time there.  You'll become more discerning.  At presentations and on tours, you'll ask more insightful questions than, “What’s the average SAT score for students you admit.” 

And more importantly, you’ll start to realize that there are hundreds of great schools out there, that you could be happy at lots of them, and that the difference between the first ranked school and the 100th ranked school would be almost indistinguishable if you took their names away.  

You’re not going to impress Harvard by telling your interviewer that you’re applying because Harvard is so prestigious.  If you’re choosing colleges based on their prestige, it’s time to look deeper (and think more deeply).   Becoming a savvier college shopper will help you get into lots of schools including the famous ones. 

Plenty of important roles

I spent last week with 60 people in an invite-only business and marketing class.  The group included a product manager at Google, a former speechwriter for a congressman, a programmer who writes software for major banks, the owner of one of the largest commercial construction companies in Texas, two published authors, the founder of a charter school in California, and the owner of an executive coaching firm.  Lots of diverse experiences, but all were successful. 

And in the three days, I didn’t meet one who’d gone to an Ivy League school.  In fact, the most selective college I heard mentioned was Tufts—that’s where the class instructor went. 

It would be hard for someone with even the most incurable case of namebranditis to spend any time around these people and still believe that going to a prestigious college was a prerequisite for being successful.  There are plenty of important roles in the world to be filled.  It will be up to you, not the name of your college, to cast yourself in one of them.    

Top-tier this

Nobody will ever accuse David Heinemeier Hansson of being subtle.  He’s brash and often profane.  But like him or not, you can’t argue with his success.  He’s a partner in 37signals, a New York Times best-selling author, the creator of the web-application framework Ruby on Rails, and the 2005 winner of Google and O’Reilly’s “Best Hacker of the Year.” 

Here's his post from their company blog yesterday.


If I hear one more Silicon Valley type gush over a computer science graduate from CMU, MIT, or Stanford, I’m going to puke. Yes, yes, I’m sure these are mighty dandy nice schools, but you’re letting the stench of superiority and shallow whiff of superficial judgement pollute my airways.

The fantastic thing about programmers is that we don’t have to give a f*ck about where they were trained because we have something much better available: We can look at what they actually do! We don’t need the indirection of pedigree to guess at their skills, we can look at their code and know it.

Here’s a list of the top tier schools that helped shape the fine band of programmers we employ at 37signals: 

Lawrence University
Rochester Institute of Technology
Brock University
Washtenaw Community College
California Institute of Technology
Copenhagen Business School
Brigham Young University”

There’s truth to what he says no matter what career you may want after college.  Just going to college—famous or not—and getting a degree isn’t what’s going to get you a job.  Employers want to know, “What can you actually do?”  If you attend the right college for you, you’ll have four years of virtually unlimited opportunity to find an answer to that question.  See my June 2011 post for more on that if you're interested.