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).

College Admissions Decision: Part II: Does College Make Sense for Me?

Back when I was a young freshman in high school, spending 20 hours a week on my company, a few city managers to whom I was pitching my product asked whether I was going to college. I hadn’t given it a second of thought. "Of course," I responded. Everyone in my immediate family had gone to college. My Mom’s side of the family tree is full of academics.

Some thought this was a good idea ("There’s so much to learn" or "The social life is amazing"). Some thought this was a bad idea ("It will hold you back, you need something better, and different")

I didn’t ask myself this question until my junior year in high school. I had been successful in the "real world" with my entrepreneurship. I had developed a curiosity about why the world works as it does that demanded different skills than the traditional classroom. My grades in school were poor — in part due to my intensive commitment to my company, in part because I wasn’t good at scoring high on tests (both the testing and recall). The kind of intellectual exposure I encountered in the business world — smart, high energy folks who challenged my ideas and provided new ways of thinking — seemed absent in the classroom. Despite top notch teachers and impressive students, so many of my classes in high school couldn’t engage me (or I couldn’t engage them). I wasn’t "above" the classes; our styles didn’t mesh.

For a long time I was simply ambivalent about whether college was in my future. I remember a reporter asked me this question and I said, "Yes" and then a second later added, "If it makes sense with where I’m going."

Then I met marketing author Seth Godin in New York and discussed where I was in the college process. He posed an idea I call "Real Life University." Seth questioned whether four years in a place that teaches how to be normal filled with students who are looking for a degree helps me. He wondered aloud whether two years on the road traveling in different cultures, and two years reading books and meeting mentors, would be a better experience.

From that point forward my opinion on the matter became clear: I want to spend four years of my life learning. I don’t want to graduate from high school and just start more businesses. After all, business is only kind of interesting. I want to learn. I want to explore.

"Real Life University" – four years of reading and exploration, guided by a "board of trustees" of advisors and mentors – became a real idea I refined and held in my back pocket.

I wanted to give myself options. I would pursue the traditional college admissions process and see what happens. If none of my college options suits my fancy, I thought to myself, I can always do Real Life U

College Admissions Decision: Part 1 of 6

An unmeritocracy at best, profoundly corrupt at worst, was how Malcolm Gladwell described the college admissions process in America nowadays in a New Yorker piece in the spring.

"Not so much palaces of learning as bastions of privilege and hypocrisy," said The Economist recently on U.S. higher ed.

With the insane mass media attention on the college admissions process, it was a little surreal for me to enter the fray in spring ’05. Given my tendency to both participate in something and analyze it dispassionately at the same time, for the past two years I’ve been a saddened "victim" on the one hand and an amused commentator on the other.

Over the next week I will describe my experience.

Part 2: Does College Make Sense For Me?

Monday: "Thinking about Real-Life University"

Part 3: Visiting colleges, thinking about fit, and writing applications

Tuesday: "Telling the Ben story in 500 words"

Part 4: Thick and thin envelopes

Wednesday: "Visiting three colleges in April"

Part 5: The decision and deferral

Thursday: "Ben, I always tell people there’s no such thing as a perfect fit. This is an exception. This school is a perfect fit."

Part 6: A Major Announcement

Friday: Where I’ll be spending four years of my life

Thought "I Am Charlotte Simmons" Wasn't Real? Read This Post

Some people told me they thought I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, which I reviewed here, exaggerated the preponderance of alcohol in college social life.

Lindsay, who I know through my blog, recently started freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. On her Xanga she recaps her first night on the college social scene at Penn. I applaud Lindsay’s courage in choosing not to drink, and in her willingness to share the ugly details.

Parents who still believe in America’s elite universities as spotless beacons of pure intellectual pursuit are advised not to read Lindsey’s post!

Washington Monthly Releases College Rankings With Different Criteria

The U.S News and World Report college rankings really are as corruptive as they’re made out to be, not only to high school students but in the way it has universities acting (yes – you can "game" the system to improve your ranking). Washington Monthly recently came out with their own college ranking guide, with different criteria. I haven’t read through it all, but I’m very supportive of alternate systems. You may be surprised at which schools are in the top 20!