Is your eye on the right goal?


Last year, I had the privilege of meeting an old family friend (my “uncle”) I admire greatly. As was the case on many earlier occasions, I was privileged to be a guest of his family in London, England. While discussing my work around the dining table, he asked me what the big deal was about the big branded schools because none of them can teach you how to become a billionaire! I gave a spiel about education but I could already perceive the follow-up question – if it is just about the education, there are many other places to get it. Although he was no longer young, my uncle always knew which questions to ask. He was also in a superb position to pose that question because of his own life’s trajectory; never attending college or university, he started out as a dishwasher in Chinatown in London but eventually became a very successful and wealthy businessman.

Even though my uncle had not attended college, he was anything but uneducated. He read widely and constantly; the breakfast table and his work desk were always full of newspapers and books. More than anyone I knew, he was an incredibly inquisitive soul. Always picking the brains of those around him, I was gratified that he had found anything worth picking in my brain at all!

Is my uncle right that attending a famous school will not make a person a success? This is a question that could launch a million debates with many strong arguments on both sides. However, when all is said and done, how those arguments are resolved will ultimately boil down to the core of our belief systems. Personally, I believe the evidence supports the position that eventually, it is all about the person. What does this mean? I would tell parents that although they cannot control whether their child is admitted to a famous college or university, they can nurture their child’s curiosity and support their personal development.

What should we do then? We should treat education less as a series of hurdles (tests and exams) to overcome and more as a process of exploration and personal growth. Abandon the notion that your child should take a particular subject because you believe college or university admissions staff will “value” that subject over others. If your child eschews all things academic, perhaps some reconsideration of pathways is in order. Your child should take a subject because he or she has an interest in the material. What if your child has no interests? Well, that is a whole other blog post.

Last but not least, I would like to share a classic 2005 blog post from Ben Jones of MIT Admissions that expresses some of the same views. Do bear in mind that the numbers are dated in terms of order of magnitude.

Blog post by Ben Jones of MIT Admissions

OCT 5, 2005

Many Ways To Define “The Best”
posted in: Prepare for MIT
Some parents wrote to me and asked me to contribute my opinions to a College Confidential thread about the pressure to load up on AP classes. Obviously my response is directed to parents, but I thought it was important enough to post it here as well:

As with most of my posts in the parents’ forum, I’ll try to respond both as an MIT adcom and also as a parent. This’ll be sortof long, sorry.
First, the MIT adcom perspective.
I don’t know the exact numbers; I couldn’t tell you even if I thought it would be helpful. Numbers mean nothing to us because ~70% of our applicant pool is qualified in those terms.
Based on the thousands of apps I saw last year both in selection committee and as a reader, I can tell you that the average # of AP’s for admitted kids was 5 or 6 (that’s total for all 4 years of HS – i.e. 1-2 per year if evenly distributed). Many admits (most likely the majority) had no college classes. The most common AP’s taken were in math and science (no surprise, it’s MIT). The overwhelming majority got 4’s and 5’s on all tests.
I’ll pause here to add that I frequently saw kids with perfect SAT scores and perfect grades and a gazillion AP classes get rejected. Why? Because often these kids knew how to grind, but brought nothing else to the table. And that’s not who we’re looking for at MIT. We admit kids who show genuine passion. Sure AP’s can be one of many passion indicators – but I emphasize one of many.
When I was on the road, kids asked me repeatedly whether or not they should take a given AP class.
“Well,” I’d respond, “would you be taking it because you genuinely want to, or simply because you think it will get you into college?”
Sometimes they didn’t know the difference, which is a tragedy that deserves its own thread. But I digress.
And this is where you all start saying that adcoms are talking out of both sides of our mouths: we encourage kids to follow their hearts in the choices they make, and then as adcoms we want to see that they’ve taken “the most challenging courseload.”
To which I say: guys, I work for MIT! If a kid doesn’t want to be taking a challenging courseload in high school, that kid is certainly not going to be happy here.
Quite simply, the students who are happiest here are those who thrive on challenge. Most of our admits have taken AP math and science because they would have been bored silly in the regular classes. Indeed, they genuinely wanted to take those classes. They don’t look at MIT as the prize; they look at MIT as the logical next step. It’s an important distinction.
That said, AP’s are not the only way to demonstrate that one is passionate and likes challenge. Read Anthony’s story for an example.
When faced with the choice, we will always choose “the right match*” over numbers. We’re not lying when we say that. You’ve heard me beat that sentiment to death in other threads, so I won’t do so here.
(*Match = mission, collaborative spirit, hands-on, balance, character, and passion, among others.)
But the reality is that when you have 10,500+ applications for ~1000 spots and 70% of the pool has great numbers, your pool is going to have plenty of kids who have the passion and the match and the scores/grades/AP’s. So we admit those kids – what other choice do we have?
But then (understandably) you guys say “Look! You need X, Y, and Z to get into MIT!” To clarify, we don’t require those things; many of our admits just happen to have them. And, I might add, for the right reasons.
This brings me to the more important part, where we toss my affiliation with MIT out the window and I give you my thoughts as a parent.
There is only one coin. There are many sides to the coin, but there is only one coin. And you can flip it however you like.
So when a parent says to me, “Why does HYPSM (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, etc.) put so much emphasis on AP’s?” I reply “Why do you put so much emphasis on HYPSM?” When a parent says “My kid’s value as a person/student shouldn’t be measured by how many AP’s he/she has taken” I say “…and your kid’s value as a person/student shouldn’t be measured by whether or not he/she goes to HYPSM.” I could go on and on.
There are literally hundreds of amazing colleges and universities out there (some of which actually admit kids with no AP’s!). Many of them would actually be better matches for your child. Many of them would provide your child with a better education.Most importantly, many of them would ultimately give your child a greater sense of happiness and fulfillment. The right match will do that.
And the match goes both ways. We try to determine if your kid is a good match for MIT. Your kid should be trying to determine which school is the best match for him/her. As a parent, what are you doing to help him/her figure that out?
Here’s a hint: if you’re spending time obsessing that a lack of AP’s is going to keep your kid out of Stanford, you’re missing the point.
As I told the kids in my blog, I had a wonderful college experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything, at a school that is currently only #23 on the USNWR LAC list (The HORROR!). I got a phenomenal education and can certainly hold my own against any Ivy grad. Bonus: I even got to grow up, get married, have kids, buy a house, land a great job, and enjoy life.
I took one AP class in high school.
Make sure your kids are choosing their schools for the right reasons. Name, status, “brand” – these are not the right reasons. Let your kids be kids. Let them follow their hearts. Encourage them to have a present, not just a future. Don’t let them define themselves by which colleges accept them – and don’t let them define themselves by doing things only to get into certain colleges.
The machine is fed from all sides. USNWR, the media in general, the GC’s, the parents, the colleges and universities, the high-priced independent counselors, the test prep people…
My kids are still many years away from college, and I’m no expert on the parent side of this process. But I do know one thing: I will fight to protect them from all of this, to help them with perspective and clarity. Because if I don’t, who will?
Because if we don’t, who will?

Just my 2 cents, for what it’s worth. More often than not, what society deems “the best” is not actually the best for most.