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).

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