‘Will a Good School Accept Me?’

I answered a question on Quora (well, I guess I didn’t really answer the question, but spoke to the ideas behind it) about getting into a top university without straight A’s.  You can read the question here.

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First and foremost, don’t stress.  This won’t make or break your life.

I don’t know what those institutions require for admission but I have another idea: don’t spend your time trying to get approval and acceptance from academic institutions but instead go create value for yourself and the world.

Our world is awash in official accolades and credentials and padded resumes.  You’ll realize when you get into the world outside the education bubble none of that matters much for value creation and personal fulfillment.

Identify what you want in life, identify the obstacles to getting it, and create challenges and habits to help you overcome those obstacles.  All of this can be done without the official sanction of formal institutions.

If what you want is to be a professor or to work within academia, then of course that’s the way to go.  Or if you simply wish to enjoy college as a very costly consumption good, go for it.  But the notion that you must jump through the right hoops to earn the approval of X or Y university is backwards.  You want skills and experiences and knowledge and a network.  You’re the customer.  See if you can think of the best, most effective, quickest, least expensive, and most enjoyable way to get them.  The question isn’t whether those universities will take you, the question is whether you’ll deem them worthy of your time and money.

Whatever path you take, good luck!

Who is College for?

Slightly modified from the original publication on Thought Catalog.

It is commonly assumed that everyone who can should go to college. Sure, maybe a few super-brilliant techies or people with a crystal clear path can skip it and do well, but everyone else needs to go, just to be safe. This is completely backwards. Most people can do a lot better than college. There are really only a few groups for whom college is the best option.

The legally-bound
Sadly, a number of professions have lobbied to secure barriers to entry in order to keep out plucky young upstarts who might undercut monopoly pricing. If you know beyond a shadow of a doubt you want to work in one of these professions, you’ll need to get the magic paper. Just be careful not to let the paper do all the work. For the sake of your customers, try to get more than just the legally required credential. The most common jobs with degree requirements are lawyers, doctors, and CPAs. If that’s you, bite the bullet.

The well-to-do, insecure partier
College is a consumption good for some people. It’s a four (or five or six) year party covered by mom and dad. If you’ve got stacks of cash and your major goal for your early twenties is to chill at frat houses with a Solo cup, maybe you should go to college. Let me take that back. You see, you can move to a college town and party without enrolling. But if you’re really insecure and worried about not having official student status at parties, you’ll need to pay the piper. Tuition and sitting through classes are a small price for a well-off party junkie who can’t think of non-credentialing methods of having a good time. Go for it!

The parental pleaser
A lot of parents will be mad at you and ashamed to talk about you to their friends if you’re not in college. Luckily, most parents don’t care too much if you’re actually getting value out of the experience, as long as you’re enrolled and passing. If keeping mom and dad reasonably happy without challenging them to rethink what happiness means to you is your top priority, go to college. There’s nothing else with the same mystical power to elicit parental pride.

The college professor
If your dream is to be a professor, you’ve got to do your time. In fact, the entire education system top to bottom is optimized for the creation of professors. Every other profession to emerge from 20+ years of institutional education requires a deschooling process, because only academia plays by the same rules and incentives as the school system. All other industries are remarkably different, what with their accountability to customers and emphasis on value creation. If the system is your first love, and doing research and teaching within its walls your sole dream, do it. You can be an intellectual without a degree, but not a university-sanctioned professor.

The bureaucrat
Government isn’t known for rewarding merit, but it’s great at rewarding rule-following and form-filing. If you dream of reviewing building permits or vehicle registration documents, you’ll need a degree of some kind. The nice thing in this field is that the things you’ll do in school are pretty similar to what you’ll do at work. Comply and complain about the non-compliant. As an added perk, you really can’t be fired for being rude to everyone once you’re in.

The frightened 9-5er
If security sits atop your personal hierarchy of needs, and working for a big corporation with a massive HR department that specializes in sameness and risk-avoidance sounds like the life you’ve been waiting for, go to college. It’s changing, and a little faster than you’d probably like, but most big companies still filter out non-degreed applicants for entry level jobs that require a heavy dose of repetitive process-oriented labor. You’ll be competing with machines and software, but for the time being, there’s still a slot for you.

Everyone else
If you don’t fit into one of these categories, college may still provide some value, but it should in no way be considered the default option. There are myriad ways to tailor your own learning experience or gain skills, knowledge, and a network to discover and do what makes you come alive. College should be treated as one option among many, and no more or less valuable or open to scrutiny and cost-benefit analysis.

What Does a Degree Signal?

There are plenty of critics of college.  It’s not uncommon to hear prominent pundits challenge the prevailing narrative that everyone should go to college.  Many contrarians say that too many young people are going to college, not too few.  They say that higher education is well-suited for the smart, hard-working, above average types, but too many mediocre students are attending.  They say it works better when only the best and brightest attend.  I think most of these critics have it backwards.

A degree is a signal.  It is well established that higher education’s primary value, and hence business model, is as a sorting mechanism rather than a forming mechanism.  Sure, you learn and change and gain things through the typical four year experience.  But all of those things could be had without being a registered student.  The only reason people keep paying to make the experience official is because of the signalling value of a transcript.  Given this fact, it follows that the signal would provide the most value for the marginal students, and the least value for the smartest, hardest working, highest achieving (not merely academic achievement, which doesn’t always mirror what matters in the world outside the walls of the classroom).  In other words, college is far more valuable to an average person who is content to put in less effort it than an above average talent who is very ambitious.

Considering how widespread the granting of degrees is, and considering the talent level of the typical college classroom, the degree doesn’t signal much.  It signals that you are average.  You’re like most other people.  If you’re at or below average, it can be valuable to have a way to let people know this.  If you’re above average, you want signals that demonstrate that you are, not merely those that lump you in with average.  Look around a college classroom and remember; what you’re purchasing is a signal that says, “I’m about the same as these people.”  For many of the sharpest, hardest working students, a degree signal greatly undersells them.

So much so that degrees have actually become a reverse signal in some circles.  In the venture capital world, it’s not uncommon for investors to count skipping or dropping out of college as a big plus for founders they want to invest in.  Entrepreneurs who have the courage to pursue their vision in the face of social pressure signal something really powerful.  Some of the most interesting people and opportunities in the world want an answer to the question, “Why did you go to college?”, rather than why didn’t you.  If you’ve got drive, creativity, and smarts above average, why did you choose the relatively easy, prevailing path?  Why did you wait four years to get started on the really good stuff?

Like most critics, I agree that college is not for everyone.  Where I disagree is that I think those who benefit least from it are those who are smartest and hardest working and most able to do more without it.  College is a least common-denominator signal.

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