Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the history of the game. When he came into the league in 1984, nobody had ever seen spectacular, high flying dunks like Jordan could do. He won six NBA championships. He was the league MVP 5 times. He led the league in scoring 10 times. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. He could shoot three-pointers. He could rebound. He was a leader, a tenacious competitor, and just to top it all off, he was one of the worst trash talkers to ever play in the NBA (I would have been, too, if I could back it up like Jordan did).
It was no surprise that when Nike introduced their Air Jordan basketball shoe early in Jordan's career, it became the hottest selling athletic shoe of its day. Nike's marketing execs were smart enough to attach their brand to Jordan and bet on him early. They could see that he was great and was only going to become even greater. Over 25 years later (and nearly a decade since Michael left the game of
basketball for good), the Air Jordan is still one of the most popular basketball
shoes. It was brilliant marketing foresight.
That's a lot like what highly selective colleges are doing when they select kids.
The nation's most selective colleges get applications from the smartest, most exceptional applicants in the college admissions pool and then reject almost all of them. For the 10% that are accepted, the colleges are betting on their success like Nike bet on Jordan. Given what those kids have already accomplished by age 18, it's a smart bet.
So, how much credit do the colleges deserve when those kids go on to do great things?
I think that to give too much credit to the most selective schools for the greatness of
their graduates is a bit like saying that Michael Jordan achieved his success
because of his trademark shoes.
Successful people don't do great things just because they attend a famous college. They do great things because they've worked hard enough to become great in the first place. Kids who have the intellectual curiosity, work ethic and passion for their interests to be accepted to a highly-selective college are more likely to apply those same traits once they get there. Put a bunch of those kids together and you have a lot of potentially great future college graduates. They were, after all, great before they ever moved into the dorm.
I don't have anything against highly selective colleges. I don't deny that they can offer a unique experience for an exceptional kid who's seeking the opportunity to surround herself with ridiculously smart, motivated, passionate students who are also published authors, concert pianists, patent holders, all-American athletes, artists, physicists, etc.
But that experience is a product of the population as much if not more so than it is of the college and the education it provides. Nobody with an ounce of common sense has ever believed that a basketball shoe alone would actually get you into the NBA. Please don't believe that a famous college will make you great.
When he was a kid on the varsity team, Jordan wasn't dreaming of having a shoe named after him. He just wanted to be a great basketball player. So don't make your high school years about trying to get accepted to an Ivy League school. If that's the only reason you're working hard, you're missing the point.
Your goal should be to become great–at math, painting, the drums, hockey, poetry, drama, computer programming, video production, singing–whatever it is that you love to do. Work hard enough at being great and the right colleges will appreciate you.
Then you can bring your greatness (and your shoes of choice) with you to college.