Why You Don’t Belong at Harvard

Only a fool competes on another’s terms.

I help people reach their professional dreams. A few start early, age 12. Most come in around age 24 when they are preparing to go to graduate school – for some this is a reset button, for others it is a continuation down their well defined path. The first step is to determine what the candidate can master both through skills and interests as the next 50+ years dedicated to work are much easier to bear when you have a willingness to master your area. Then we figure out the most efficient paths. Often that will lead to schools such as Harvard and Harvard Business School. Not a romantic notion of learning and camaraderie, it is a strategic decision.

When it comes to elite school admissions, there’s a game. If the outcome of an elite education is important for your long term development, you need to acknowledge that there is a game and learn what it is so you can choose how you want to play it. For those less inclined toward the elite education path, beware cutting your interest prematurely**.


Part 1: Don’t confuse how you want the game played for how it is played.

An admission colleague asked me my thoughts on this article, which is summed up with this excerpt:

Sometimes this toughness comes through in the application proper. Were you an award-winning debater? Did you write snippy op-eds in the paper? Did you muscle out people with Ph.D.s to get a second author on a scientific paper? Have you had to endure a lifetime of pressure from your legacy parents, warning you that if you don’t get in, you’ll be disinherited? Congratulations. You’re in.

As someone involved with admissions overseas she felt strongly that “international admissions are even more skewed towards the children of the elite.”

Is that ok?

Is it okay that some schools seem to favor the children of the elite? As a family you can reject the elite status that Harvard and Princeton proclaim. After all, you don’t need the Ivy League to be successful. Choose any industry and you will see a broad spectrum of non-Ivy grads at the top. Why all the fuss about elite schools?

Elite schooling is a personal brand issue. It can have substantial impact in your career and your ability to enter certain fields. For practical reasons, as someone squarely middle class, I think it far better to be able to decipher which schools will impact my progress than to have blanket statements about elite schools. Not all schools can generate the access you may need within your field. I’d like to know in advance what battles are ahead for me – so I can choose which ones to fight and which ones to avoid.

For example, The University of Chicago is a great school – strong quantitative programs and excellent faculty, known for Finance and Economics. But Chicago undergrads find far too much competition for getting to NYC. The deeply entrenched Ivies and NYC local schools have far more pull for analyst positions in NYC. If you study at Chicago and you wish to work in Finance in NYC, expect to make a detour through Chicago, Houston, or Dallas working with commodities or energy.

For the Chicago student who really wants to work in Finance in NYC, it is important to understand just how much bigger the uphill climb for his target analyst role will be. Understanding the game allows him to choose different recruiting opportunities or to make a different school choice.

Let them drink Lemonade!hbs lemons

Causation: The more lemons we import the fewer traffic deaths we’ll have. Let’s drink Lemonade.

Correlation: The Quantity of Lemons imported has increased as Traffic Fatality Rate has decreased.

This boils down to a broad problem in society of confusing causation for correlation. At our worst, we draw lousy conclusions from complicated information. We depend heavily on patterns we think have worked before.

In any one case, with appropriate information, a reasonable adult can suss out the difference in causation and correlation – the lemon/traffic data example. Does it seem reasonable to conclude that importing more lemons has reduced the traffic fatality rate? At the very least we would be suspicious of the conclusion and would (hopefully) seek more information to corroborate the conclusion. A conclusion is always an opinion. When faced with too much information, we make really simple stories out of the data. In that overload we look for markers – cues that match patterns we recognize so we can draw a conclusion and move on.

Brands live and die by that. Elite schools have particular brands and the brand has very little to do with the content of the education. By default, others who understand the brand lean on it to do their evaluations of you.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Texas A&M has been an excellent Engineering school for generations. Civil, Mechanical, Aerospace, etc. We can build great things. But Texas A&M is not known for its History department. The BA from TAMU in History isn’t likely to carry much weight with academic departments should you seek a PhD and isn’t likely to prepare you for anything other than cocktail party conversation. So if you want to be in that field, you would be far better off at a different undergraduate institution. When I see a resume with BA History from Texas A&M – my alma mater – I try to keep an open mind, but do immediately think, “Wow, this kid had no idea what he was doing and frankly, screwed up. 1. He missed the best opportunity – our ENGR resources, and 2. He didn’t notice how bad an idea it was to major in History at an Institution that does not prioritize the History department. Double whammy.”

Everything you do sends a signal. For better or worse.

It’s worth knowing what signals your choices send. You can’t control all the signals people read on you, but for the ones you can . . . wouldn’t it be nice to know which choices can help you the most?

Part 2:

Premium education is freely available.
And it has been. For centuries.

The Public Library system including the US and the World Libraries has housed massive amounts of information, which has been largely freely available for hundreds of years. Perhaps not always easy to access, it’s been there, waiting for the diligent scholar. As academic journals have proliferated, some have been removed from public circulation (often due to expense), but the WWW has now made even those most abstruse journals available, International Journal of Fuzzy Systems (not about cuddling) for example.

Lack of access to educational content is not what holds anyone back professionally.

RightAdmission inequality ends up self-perpetuating in part because most candidates don’t realize the game they’re playing*** and those who do have no incentive to share the game strategy. Imagine you were on a 400m oval track. You and an opponent are told the race is complete at the 300m mark. If this were a high stakes race like the push to get into top schools, would you share your running strategy? Let your opponent run 300m. You’re clever enough to run 100m in the opposite direction. No one said which direction you had to cross the 300m line.

I spend a good deal of time with my uninitiated candidates on understanding the perspective of what school choice is all about in terms of network effects, access, and patina. I also help them understand that they may not be accepted on the professional path they want in a way they want, but that they can prepare for success on that path anyway, i.e. you’ll get accepted at School X, but you’ll be perceived as the class dummy. In that case, don’t expect to make friends. You just have to survive this stage so you can thrive at the next stage when you get to break into your chosen field. If you understand what’s waiting for you on the other side it becomes far easier to endure seemingly dark days.

Part 3: The Game

I can’t really blame the Elite schools for admitting the predetermined elite kids. The not-yet-elite kids will still be less-elite when they come out – not necessarily in terms of economic advantage but in terms of access and perspective on what to do next. We are conditioned at a very early age. It is very hard for us to throw off our family values and habits.

The elite kids know what they’re supposed to do next. And who to call. And which jobs and companies will give them the biggest boost. Kids who didn’t grow up with that access have a harder adjustment to school and the next phase after school. A student might have to change aspects of his personality to capitalize on his new reality. He’ll face push-back from friends and family. He may stay stuck in limbo.

Is it important for Harvard to invest its reputation in people who only have a cursory understanding of what the power of Harvard can do? It’s a social engineering question. 

What good is a moat if there’s no one to keep out?

Imagine you are the Harvard Admission office.

You have spots to hatch 2000 eggs out of the 10,000 eggs who apply. Which eggs will hatch into the best ducklings for your institution?

The eggs’ happiness isn’t Harvard’s concern. I’d even say it’s not the potential future donations that are of concern. It’s the persistent brand impact.

Brand ambassadorBrand Impact Rating Scale:

0 – no ability to sway your target population and no reach
1 – slightly more persuasive or more socially connected 0
2 – holds some sway over her colleagues but has no reach with your target market – OR – is not a compelling person but does have limited social reach
3 – revered by her colleagues but has no reach with your target market – OR – is not a compelling person but does have social reach
4 – revered by her colleagues and has limited reach with your target market – OR – is a decent candidate and has tremendous reach
5 – revered by colleagues and is well positioned

*A quick note about legacies because it kept coming up in editorial comments…. I don’t think legacies are very advantageous. Not at all for HBS and not much for undergrad. Indeed a Harvard admissions person stated that the worst position you can be in is that of a double legacy. But that isn’t the full story. A double legacy who is also a future mover-shaker is a shoo-in. But a double+ legacy who is lame is barely a 2 on my scale above and not likely to be admitted. Legacy may make you a 2+, but you had better be able to carry yourself up to the 5 – i.e. you’d better be a compelling person.

If you accept a group of zeros – people who have no real ability to influence other candidates directly and indirectly within your market – and build them into 2s and 3s, the new 2s and 3s may be much better off professionally, but are you as Harvard? If you take 5s and help them stay 5s, you maintain your brand presence. Throw in the rare zero who can climb to 5, a small number of 3s who can climb to 4s and 5s, and you have a strong presence that creates brand craving, a moat around your Ivory Tower. The brand benefits from the children you reject just as those you accept. What good is a moat if there’s no one to keep out?

Eliza Doolittle.

So what does it all mean? Elite schools are elite and they serve the children of the socio-economic elite – based on a certain social norm. Attending an elite school does not make you elite. If you want to be that form of elite you have to mold yourself accordingly. Attending an elite school can open doors if you use the opportunity strategically.

Which is why . . .

Harvard isn’t for everybody. No one needs Harvard to have a great career and a fulfilling life. You have access to the same content – perhaps not as neatly packaged – freely available. But if you want to be on a particular path and 75% of the people on that path went to Harvard, you need to learn what they learned and begin to operate the way they operate so you can join their ranks. It all depends on the path you choose.

Once you choose a path, learn the game at play.


**For those who would shout that Harvard isn’t important, etc. Fine. Sure. Of course. I don’t think Boxing is a particularly interesting sport. But if I wanted to become a World Champion Boxer, I’d better learn how to land punches, take hits, and manage aggressive promo staff. My objective is to get you to consider what the game you are getting into really is, so you can play it well.

***And the more your family emphasizes fair play and middle class American values, the less likely you are to consider alternative routes – at least the first time on the track.

Cost of Education

Friday night my little sisters graduated from high school. Come Fall they are off to college. What better time to reflect on the changing values of a college education. Does it make sense to go to the best school you get into? Is it worth $100k, $200k in debt?

100000It seems to depend on what we expect to get out of the education.

1. If you just want to get a good liberal arts education so you can be witty conversation at cocktail parties, there are several low cost and no cost alternatives to a proper college. Do you really need to be signed up for Lit 201 to read Beowulf?

You’ll need a copy of the book, the online forum full of medievalists and a few discussion partners to really understand the significance that Beowulf plays in the great context of literature.That would take getting organized, but identifying what you want and going after it are two very useful skills.

Or you could watch any of the Foundations of Western Culture Classes at MIT . . . for free. So there’s really no excuse, if you want access to the best minds, this is a mighty fine start.

2. Perhaps you consider college preparation for the working world. That is perfectly reasonable, but let’s review….

Is there a causal relationship between wage rate and level of education? Is there a relationship between COST of that education and the wage rate? Seth Godin put together a chart comparing the relative, relevant cost increases. I added the aggregate wage data.

If the cost of education was a relatively small percent of the budget, then a 10-fold increase might not be that important. But the cost of education has been and continues to be a stumbling block for many families. Are we really getting the value out of it or is it a luxury item?

If you are preparing for a specific field: engineering, medicine, or any other field where you need access to equipment not likely to be found at Home Depot, then you must get thee to a University. But how is this different from a Vocational school?

3. Or do we really go to college simply because it is socially expected? Can we be honest enough to admit that? It isn’t bad to do things that are socially expected – we stop at stop signs (for those of us outside of Boston), but we shield college under the guise of higher education when in reality most schools require students to sit through junky, giant classes taught by disinterested Teaching Assistants. Star faculty are absent or inaccessible. Students will take multiple choice tests where only one answer is correct.

Where is the HIGHER in this form of education. On the whole schools are teaching average students average material and then handing them an average piece of paper that will not change the job prospects, nor the level of enlightenment.

We would benefit more as a society to teach our kids tolerance for ambiguity.

At no point is there just one option. It is challenging to authentically look at the purpose of our actions.

-All that being said, Kelly and Victoria are off to college in the Fall and I’m mighty proud of them. 🙂 Kate

Yet, all of these require a child to be independent and self motivated . . . isn’t that what we really want for our kids?

Image courtesy of Tax Credits

Do Girls Suck at Math?


It’s a common refrain both from the mouths of males and females. Yet, what evidence do we have to support this?

Stereotypes (1)A former boyfriend even presented a LONG diatribe about the actual genetic reasons women are bad at math . . . but there’s just one problem. Namely, me.

Or Jill.

Or Heidi.

Or Shanti.

Or Leah.

Or . . .

The fact is, the hype surrounding the idea that women are bad at math is itself, bad math. If you look at the statistics from the experiments that indicate girls as less capable mathematically, they share one thing in common: they rule out the possibility that there is a social element in the testing. Even more telling, the fellas I’ve met who most loudly proclaim that women are bad at math, are themselves, not so good at math, or rather, not as good at math….

The one who presented the diatribe . . . explains how he won a math competition in high school. Dude, I won one in 3rd grade. Seriously.

Let’s bear in mind the realities of a 2 parent home…. Who is making the economic decisions?

Sure guys, of course you are…. Riiiiiight. Over 70% of all purchases for the home from toilet paper to chainsaws (you’ve seen the pink power tools) are DECIDED by the women. INCLUDING the flat screen TVs and Computers. That’s why computers now come in fancy colors. And none too soon.

how_it_worksSmall businesses?

Yeah, it’s the ladies making the financial decisions there too.

So how do you take this “girls suck at math” argument seriously?

Where is there enough common ground to make a valid point?

Alex DiBranco presents a new study from the University of Chicago that indicates girls identify with their weak female teacher role models. Okay, plausible. I don’t like it, but it is plausible.

Still smacks of total lameness.

So ask yourself this, if someone told you that your daughter is ugly. How would you respond?

Angry, defensive, indignant?

Now what if that same person told you that your daughter is bad at math. How would you respond?

Angry or accepting?

As families, why do we accept the notion that girls would be worse at math? There is no legitimate reason for this to be the case. But, 6th grade roles around and all of a sudden girls are expected to roll over. Is that what you want for your daughter?

Women outlive men, make the family financial decisions that have the greatest impact (daily decisions FAR outweigh investing decisions), and really, aren’t all that bad with numbers . . . when no one is watching. If you care about the economic decisions made by the 52% of this country who happen to be female, you may want to contribute some knowledge to the dames.

Less denigration, more derivatives.

Pi, pi, pi, pi, pi
I like mine with lots of Wine
Pecan, Apple, all divine
Expanding that bottom line. (TM)

This is one (of many) iterations of my pi song, sung each time I bake pies. As LBJ would say, share early, share often.

Careful what you tell your children. They will believe you . . . until they realize you’re full of SH*T. And then they’ll choose your nursing home.

Photo Credit

Education Issues: Performance Pay’s Effect is Weak?

This post was sent to me and sadly I do not have the original link. This brings up the debate between the perpetuated myth of evil business and good education as though the two must remain mutually exclusive. Which reminds me, why do we educate everyone?Incentives

Most countries don’t.

So, callous though it may be, I put forth that we educate the masses to reduce our cost of running the country – more people have the skills they need to care for themselves and to increase our potential for productivity –  educated people innovate more. Okay, now, I’m not claiming we do that well, but those reasons are perfectly respectable.

from original source:

Despite $300 million being handed out to teachers as part of the Governor’s Educator Excellence Grants, the program has had an inconclusive impact on student achievement. The evaluation paints an even murkier picture in its conclusion that performance pay led to a “weakly positive, negative or negligible effect.” The money was handed out over the course of three years, given to teachers in high-poverty schools. The good news though was that teachers liked the money and liked the program, even when they didn’t win the bonus.

Diane Ravitch at EdWeek uses this study to frame a general discussion of Obama’s education policy. She fears that despite this report’s conclusions being weak, and despite a lack of evidence, too many school districts, and too many people in Obama’s administration are pushing ahead with their agenda anyway — for both performance pay and wider measures. They poke holes in studies rather than accepting their findings as inconclusive and accepting that inconclusive grounds are not grounds on which to build comprehensive and risky reforms.

Ravitch further fears that the Obama administration’s education vision is more business plan than education strategy. This is clear in many districts with an appointment to the Chicago public schools system of an uber-technocrat who’s experience is perhaps more suited to management and business than education. Same for the new Ed Tech director, who many fear is too close to business. These people are keen on helping run schools as better businesses and ensure the money that is available is spent well, but Diane Ravitch is right to be discouraged by educational leaders shunning evidence in the hope that half-blind drastic reform will lead to higher quality teaching.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon


Are you joking, you’ve measure results over 3 years? You have the same teachers in the same districts, there isn’t much ability to demonstrate results. The point of paying teachers more – despite, I agree weak evidence that higher teacher pay gets better student results (because of the way the studies are designed to MEASURE that… ahem), is to draw talent to the field of teaching who would otherwise not teach.

Here’s the short term problem: Teacher Unions.

The Unions have been the drivers behind keeping strict “standards” of teaching, which appear to be based more on willingness to acquiesce to the union’s status quo and less on excellence. If you have time and talent to teach, but not a certificate of teacher-ship, which is really just a trumped up piece of paper saying you endured pedagogy lessons from someone who’s only ever taught pedagogy (think about that for a moment – it’s like having a virgin teaching sex ed), you can’t get into teaching. You are specifically excluded.

And really, if you have talent, you look a the pay scale and think . . . gee whiz, I could teach for $45,000/year (tops) working 60 hours a week, putting up with whiny parents, the politic of school boards, and other assorted irritations, or I could be a scientist/business owner/private tutor where the market sets my rate.

The unions block talent. The unions have outlived their useful lives in the profession of teaching. Instead of creating value they create overhead and prevent local communities from responding to the communities’ needs.

How do you feel about this?