The current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has a provocative article titled, “How to Get Into an Ivy League College—Guaranteed.” No, this is not some commercial on late-night cable TV, paired with an ad for the slice it/dice it knife. Instead, it’s about entrepreneur Steven Ma, who runs a booming business on how to scientifically game the system for admission to the nation’s top universities.
A few posts ago, when I wrote about Joe Green, president of the ruthless lobbying group FWD.us, I confessed that I had already had a pre-existing bias against Green back when he was in high school. He and some classmates had been the subject of a CNN documentary on the pressure on kids applying to elite colleges. To me, the students came across as cynically desiring the prestige these schools bring, rather than a wish to experience the intellectual stimulation imparted by world-class leading professors.
I am certainly not implying that most students in prestigious universities are like the ones in the CNN show, and I think the admissions officers usually manage to select students who genuinely add something to the academic, social and cultural atmosphere of their institutions. But clearly these gatekeepers are having to scramble, what with the likes of Mr. Ma on their heels.
Ma simply applies statistical principles (call it “machine learning” if you insist) to data on applicants and their success or failure in getting into the school of their desires. The more data he has, the more powerful his predictions are, so he’s constantly improving an already-strong track record.
Skeptical? Surely the admissions officers don’t make decisions in such a formulaic way, you say? Let me tell you a little story.
Way back when I was in grad school, I was employed as a Teaching Assistant, and part of my duties was to help grade exams. One day I was grading papers, and an undergraduate happened to be in the office I shared with a fellow grad student. The undergrad watched me grade a particular problem, say Problem 3, for a while, and after a few minutes he got to the point at which he could predict with remarkable accuracy what score I would give on Problem 3 to each student. I was quite taken aback to learn that I had been grading on the basis of some formula that even I myself had not been aware of. Thus, in reading the BW article now, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that admissions officers at these selective schools are also unconsciously using formulas, all while thinking that they are evaluating each applicant individually.
And maybe some of it IS conscious. I remember a friend of mine in the South San Francisco Bay Area telling me about 10 years ago that word had been circulating among his social set that Stanford was placing a major premium on applicants who had done well in a debate team. Supposedly someone in the admissions office had leaked the word. I’ll never know whether that rumor was accurate or not, but based on the successes my friend cited of kids acting on that tip, it may well have been legit.
One can hardly blame Mr. Ma, who is simply applying his quantitative skills to a very lucrative market in the Asian-immigrant community. There are many such companies, such as IvyMax, one that I pass by all the time in Fremont. (The Chinese name 飛達 means “fly to achieve”.) Ma also is engaged in admirable philanthropic work. However, I do blame the Tiger Mom type among his clients, as I have written here before. Which brings me to one more story:
One Saturday in March a few years ago, when my daughter was a senior in high school, she participated in the local Science Olympiad. One event consisted of building a catapult. As I was watching, a pleasant fellow parent from another school struck up a conversation with me. “Which one is your child?”, he asked. I pointed to my daughter, and mentioned that she and her teammates were high school seniors. The other parent was dumbfounded that they were seniors, asking me “Then why are they here?” Joe Green would know immediately what that parent meant: It was March, way past the deadline for submitting admissions applications, so participating in that competition was “useless” from that parent’s point of view. To him, participating in the contest was simply a cynical act to build up a re’sume’ that college admissions committees would find attractive. But I answered simply, though probably with an edge in my voice, “They’re here because they love science,” The other parent recovered from his faux pas, and said, “Yes, that’s a good reason.”
This gaming of the system encourages cynicism among our young people, leading to even deeper cynicism when they become adults, Joe Green being a case in point. And I’m sure this article about Mr. Ma is causing much hand wringing among admissions officers; I don’t envy them.