College Admissions Decision Part III: Assessing My File

See Parts I and II in my series revealing where I’ll be going to college.

Amidst the onslaught of documents is a particularly important one: your transcript to-date. For students at UHS, my high school, this can always been a damning moment. UHS is a hard school. Most of the courses are upper level college classes. The students are bright and hard-working. Formerly stand-out students become simply average after enrolling at UHS.

My college counselor, Jon, showed me my cumulative GPA through my fall semester junior year: 2.67 out of 4.0. It wasn’t pretty, even considering the usual bump up most colleges give to students from UHS in consideration of the academic rigor. My PSAT scores – a predicator of SAT results – were good not great.

Jon and I spoke about the process and my prospects. We talked about my entrepreneurship but more important, my intellectual interests and activities. Jon, a former professor and associate director of admissions at Stanford, was a smart and funny guy, and we had to work hard to stay focused on college stuff, given our propensity to meander off-topic. Finally, he cut to the chase:

"Ben, I want you to know something. A lot of schools like to talk about wanting kids who show intellectual drive, who are well-balanced, to have passion for the activities they pursue. Unfortunately, a lot of this is window dressing. I’m going to be blunt. Your numbers will hurt the averages of these schools and hurt their rankings. They really need to be convinced that you’re special, and it’s hard to articulate what you’ve done in such short space and to people not versed in business, blogging, whatever. What you’ve done the past few years seems mighty impressive, but much harder to boil down than fantastic artwork or an amazing piano recording. And your numbers, frankly put, show an inability to master academic work. So I want you to know that you’re facing an uphill battle."

I responded: "I understand. I’ve made choices and they have consequences."

He smiled, relieved I wasn’t going to be one of those students who would only apply to a handful of name-brand colleges, or who’d self-righteously assume his talents were delivered from heaven and self-evident.

Even though I was kind of disappointed my real world entrepreneurial experiences wouldn’t have as much mileage in my college admissions as they could have, I still had a huge advantage over most applicants: I attended a private high school, I had the resources to apply and personally visit a dozen schools, and had college educated parents who would support me emotionally and financially.


When I think about my academic struggles, I don’t feel sorry for myself (ok – sometimes I do, when I’m forced to slave through multiple choice tests, which I undoubtedly bomb). Let’s face it: I got my ass kicked. But. I’m still happy, and I’m still dreaming, and who knows…maybe I’ll move a mountain someday.

See this old New Yorker article which I blogged:

"In 1981, two professors…began following the lives of eighty-one high-school valedictorians…According to Arnold’s 1995 book “Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians,” these students continued to distinguish themselves academically in college; a little less than sixty per cent pursued graduate studies. By their early thirties, most were “working in high-level, prestigious, secure professions”—they were lawyers, accountants, professors, doctors, engineers. Arnold totted up fifteen Ph.D.s, six law degrees, three medical degrees, and twenty-two master’s degrees in her group. The valedictorians got divorced at a lower rate than did the population at large, were less likely to use alcohol and drugs, and tended to be active in their communities.

At the same time, Arnold, who stays in touch with her cohort, has found that few of the valedictorians seem destined for intellectual eminence or for creative work outside of familiar career paths. Dedicated to the well-rounded ideal—to be a valedictorian, after all, you must excel in classes that don’t interest you or are poorly taught—the valedictorians had “used their strong work ethic to pursue multiple academic and extracurricular interests. None was obsessed with a single talent area to which he or she subordinated school and social involvement.” This marks a difference, Arnold said, from what we know about many eminent achievers, who tend to evince an early passion for a particular field. For these people, Arnold writes, a “powerful early interest evolves into lifelong, intensive, even obsessive involvement in the talent area.” She goes on, “Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.” Valedictorians, by contrast, conformed to the expectations of school and carefully chose careers that were likely to be socially and financially secure: “As a rule, valedictorians relegated their early interests to hobbies, second majors, or regretted dead ends. The serious athletes among the valedictorians never pursued sports occupations. Most of the high school musicians hung up their instruments during college."

Chris Yeh goes on to say:

In other words, while valedictorians do well, most of those who are most successful in life were definitely not valedictorians. Let me emphasize one line from the quote above: Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction.

School isn’t like real life. In fact, it’s about as far from real life as can be imagined. The lessons that let you be successful in school (follow the rules, work hard, know the right answers) are completely the opposite of those that help you become a successful entrepreneur (change the rules, work smart, know the right questions).

10 comments on “College Admissions Decision Part III: Assessing My File
  • I hear you loud and clear on this one Ben.

    As someone who had even a small amount of “real world experience” (mainly graphic/web design)I felt a frustration over being stuck in school learning things I knew first hand others had no use for.

    Some teachers grew concerned… particularly after I started making comments that I felt “the education process is like prostitution, only I don’t get paid” (yes, I said that, out loud no less)

    I’m still not so thrilled with the school enivornment, even in college, though some professors seem keen on changing things. I’m stuck in a couple of the atypical lecture/exam courses, with no group interaction or individual projects and reporting (my favorite type of work actually)

    My question to you is, what was/is your coping? Meaning, when you really get agitated with the whole mess that is college/schooling, what’s your way to get around it?

    My writing stemmed from frustration; unsatisfied with the world I was in I went about creating new ones. I had to keep my work under lock and key, seeing how if any of my teachers–or even my parents– were to find out what was really going through my head I would probably be sent to the shrink’s office.

    (Drugs, sex, affairs, murder, etc. were all mainstays in my short stories–those types of things tend to make adults uneasy. Though I’m not quite sure why… I was just exploiting them for entertainment value, LOL)

    Anyways, I’m actually off to a class right now. I get to listen to ocean currents and wind patterns.


  • As Jon (an old friend who was actually one of my teachers when I was at Stanford) told me when I chatted with him about Ben, “Ben is one of those special people who don’t let school interfere with getting an education.”

    One side comment on valedictorians…one thing I realized from re-reading the section above is how useless “Lives of Promise” is when it comes to its analysis of the valedictorians. While I stand by my comments that many great entrepreneurs were far from model students, it’s reckless to conclude that valedictorians do not achieve eminence based on a sample of 81.

    What the analysis fails to do is to compare the performance of the valedictorians to a control group–say the average high school graduate.

    Let’s say that the professors are right, and that the fact that none of the valedictorians had achieved preeminence in their field is a sign of underperformance. At a minimum then, the professors would have expected at least 1 superstar.

    Does this mean that 1/81 people in the overall population achieve preeminence in their chosen field?

    The conclusion that valedictorians don’t achieve preeminence is roughly equivalent to concluding that valedictorians are immortal, based on the fact that none of the subjects studied died during that period.

    Jason: As for your predicament, the best advice I can offer is this:

    A man encounters three stonecutters and asks each what he’s doing.

    The first replies, “Cutting stones.”

    The second replies, “Providing for my family.”

    The third replies, “Building a cathedral.”

    Find your cathedral, and try to keep it in mind when you’re in a boring lecture.

  • I was going to make the same comment as Chris. I skimmed through most of “Lives of Promise” and it is true that most lived adequete lives and none had achieved eminence. But this doesn’t show that valedictorians are more or less likely to be amazingly successful than your average high school student.
    Even if valedictorians are less likely to be superstars, I don’t think that leads to the conclusion that school and grades are unimportant. Even though they may not have been valedictorians, I would expect that most people who have achieved great success would still have performed well in high school, probably being in the top 10-20% of the class.

  • I would generally agree. If I had to choose between hiring someone who’d done very well in school versus someone who’d done very poorly in school, with no other data, I’d hire the person who did well in school.

    I don’t think school and grades are unimportant. I think they’re an important aspect of a bigger picture.

  • Ben,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for the past year or so. I think your pursuit of knowledge is great.

    I thought I would add my two cents on college and give a lil pitch. I remember when I first narrowed down my college choices. I had just recently realized that entrepreneurship was my passion and planned to pursue that fully in college. I ended up leaving Seattle to come to the University of Arizona because at the time, their Entrepreneurship program was #2 in the nation (now #1). Contrary to you, I find business terribly interesting, but then again, only certain parts. I would challenge you to come check out the U of A, a lot of Frisco people love it.

    I would also challenge you with this? Do your four years in college need to be defined by the school that you attend? I think that you probably could get into some very prestigious universities, even with your GPA (“Business is run by C students”- Dr. Mort Feinberg, “A lot of Entrepreneurs are not A students”-Mark Zupan, former dean of the Eller College) but I also think that by choosing a school with great programs, but not necessarily an insane workload, you could pursue your many passions and hobbies.

    This is what I have found at the U of A, especially in my founding of the Entrepreneurship Club. A lot of our more intelligent students (notice I didn’t say smarter) are concerned with their classes, but usually put more time and effort into their passions. Luckily, sometimes those intertwine, like in the case of the senior year entrepreneurship major, which is very challenging, and rewarding.

    I’d love to talk with you at greater length if you are interested, or to give you a tour.

    Kyle Cherrick
    BSBA ’08 Marketing, Entrepreneurship
    Eller College of Management
    The University of Arizona

  • Ben, really interesting series you are writing here.

    I would agree with most of the comments so far: the study about “exceptional adult achievers” is biased because your sample would have to be a lot larger to make any conclusions about exceptional acheivements. I would expect 1/1,000 vale’s to do something really groundbreaking versus 1/20,000 non-vale grads, so the chance of getting a very succesful grad in his sample is less than 10%.(Disclaimer: 87% of all my statistics are made up on the spot)

    Also, remember that people like Gates, Page, Brin, Zuckerberg, etc., while they may have eventually evolved into terrible students, it was after they had demonstrated themselves enough academically to be at top institutions.

    I think the younger you are the more important it is to focus on school. Mainly because when you’re young you know very little. As time goes on, school definitely can be more burdensome and that is when I think exceptional people start breaking out.

    That being said, I have also always followed the slogan “never let school interfere with getting an education.” I have some horrible grades(that I got in classes that were boring or taught poorly) when it wasn’t worthwhile for me to put the time in to do well.

    Look forward to reading more

  • Breck — I agree that if someone drops out of school in 6th grade, I wouldn’t applaud it. If someone dropped out of college, and showed ambition to get an education on their own, I would respect their decision.

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