Didn’t Get Admission in Good College? It’s Less Important Than You Think

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Top colleges matter less than what you think. Make an attempt to get into them, but if you fail, don’t treat it as career-shattering, least of all life-shattering event.

You can make a great career from a less-selective college as well.

You don’t always get what you ask for

There are two main species of lions – African and Asiatic. Whereas African lions are found in the wild in more than twenty-five countries in Africa, Asiatic lions are confined to just one country, India. And within India, to one state, Gujarat. And within Gujarat, to just one national park, Gir.

Think of it, the entire population of Asiatic lions in the wild is confined to just few thousand square kilometers.

With such cloistered population, there is always the risk of an epidemic or a natural calamity wiping out the entire species. Moreover, the population of lions had increased to the extent where it was difficult to sustain them in the limited area of Gir.

Therefore, in mid ‘90s, Government of India initiated the process of translocating some of the Gir lions to another habitat, Palpur-Kuno wildlife sanctuary in the state of Madhya Pradesh. In anticipation of the new guests, necessary infrastructure was set up and several villages were shifted out from the sanctuary area, incurring millions of dollars.

But, when it seemed that the lions were all set to roam in the wilds of Palpur-Kuno, the state government of Gujarat refused to part with their lions.

The matter reached the highest court, the Supreme Court, in India. The government of Madhya Pradesh was hopeful.

In the meantime, another scene was unfolding in New Delhi. The national capital had come under threat from monkeys. Scaring, snatching, sometimes biting, they had unleashed reign of terror in the city, which took such proportions that they were even accused of being a security threat to the country after the simians, in one of their heists, scattered top-secret documents at Ministry of Defense.

As a result, a court in New Delhi in 2005 ordered the monkeys to be pushed out of Delhi. And guess where they landed… the forests of Palpur-Kuno.

They asked lions, got monkeys.

You ask lemonade, get lemon.

You want an Ivy League, get a low-ranked college.

You don’t always get what you ask for. However, as you’ll see in this post, it’s not difficult to make lemonade out of lemon, make a great career even out of a less-stellar college.

(An aside: Madhya Pradesh’s wait for lions continues.)

Poor performance in an exam isn’t reflective of your future

MBA programs evaluate applicants on the basis of their GMAT score (many programs now accept GRE score too), resume, essays, recommendations, and interview. When considering GMAT score, most programs look at the overall score and its two components – Quant and Verbal – but rarely Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) score. (In GMAT, AWA requires analyzing the reasoning behind a given argument and writing a critique of that argument in a short essay. It tests a candidate’s ability to think critically and to communicate ideas.)

Rotman School of Management, a prestigious Canadian MBA program, studied admission data, including GMAT scores, of more than 1,000 of its MBA graduates and mapped it onto their post-MBA career trajectory. In a surprising outcome, they found that AWA score, which is often not given much importance in the admission process, and performance in admission interview are highly predictive of a candidate’s ability to land a job and gain a solid starting salary.

GMAT score was found to have no significant impact on employability.

Google, consistently ranked as the best company to work for, considers test scores and GPAs to be worthless as far as predicting how an employee will perform in future. Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, says:

One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation…. What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.

Google thinks that test scores and GPAs are not predictive of how you’ll perform in future. They even recruit those who didn’t attend college.

Mr. Maram Venkat Ramreddy, one of the Deans at The Narayana IIT Academy, a popular coaching institution for IIT aspirants in Southern India, after having seen several of his students who joined IIT struggle, puts the role of testing in the right perspective in his interview in the book The Topper Prepares: The True Stories of Those Who Cracked the JEE:

The first rank is not important. Whether you gain 1st rank or 50th rank, or 500th rank, or below 1000, it doesn’t make any difference as far as I can see. So I constantly insist that the students improve their communication skills. A student might end up with 97 percent marks in their subjects, but without communication skills, he would not get the best jobs in the industry. A student with better communication skills will get the edge even with lower marks.

An IIT degree without checking off other boxes may not be sufficient.

In his commencement speech at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the renowned American astrophysicist, summed up the role of GPA:

Your grades, whatever is your GPA, rapidly becomes irrelevant in your life. I cannot begin to impress upon you how irrelevant it becomes. Because in life, they aren’t going to ask you your GPA. …If a GPA means anything, it’s what you were in that moment — and it so does not define you for the rest of your life.

A test can rarely measure skills such as grit, creativity, collaboration, interpersonal skills, ambition, and self-discipline, which matter the most for long-term success in career and life. It can, at best, predict your current ability on certain parameters, most of which aren’t relevant to even your short-term career.

Here are three reasons why shouldn’t agonize – and least of all kill yourself – over missing out on your dream college:

1. Skills matter, degrees don’t

Thomas Friedman sums up his NYT column on ‘How to Get a Job at Google’ with:

Beware. Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it). And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.

Skills get job done, not degrees.

You can’t trade your degree for a job, howsoever exclusive it may be. Maybe in your first job, but beyond that, your skills will determine where you go. And, in today’s world, you can learn many of these skills outside the classroom.

A. Learning hard skills

How you acquire some of these skills has undergone – and is undergoing – a sea change in the last few years with the evolution of digital learning (this will get further boost when Augmented Reality gets mainstream) and increasing adoption of smartphones. To learn many of new-age skills, today you don’t even need a formal classroom, let alone a top college. (Many digital learning programs offer hybrid experience, involving human interaction.)

If you want to learn digital marketing, for example, you can do so from leading industry blogs such as moz.com and hubspot.com for free, and hone it through a website or blog of your own.

If you want to learn coding, you can do so from resources such as codeacademy.com, and practice it on your own website.

If you want to learn entrepreneurship, you can learn it from those who’ve tread the path earlier, and refer to plethora of online resources such as Y Combinator, Steve Blank, and TechCrunch.

Better yet, start a business on the side, even if it’s selling something on Amazon or EBay. Or start a website, build traffic, and sell something relevant. Or sell something offline in your community, in the local market. Nothing can replace getting your hands dirty.

If you want to become a writer or copywriter, learn from blogs such as copyblogger.com and copyhackers.com. Read a lot (Pulitzer essays, opinion editorials, and different genres of books), observe how they write, and more importantly, like I said before, get your hands dirty. Write. Write. Write.

What matters the most in anything you learn is to put things into practice, test real waters, and reflect on the results you get to improve. (That’s how you build skills valued by the real world.) This is even more important in technology industry. “Especially in the tech industry, employers want to see skills applications rather than traditional resumes. Show, don’t tell,” says Kris Stadelman, director of the NOVA Workforce Investment Board in Silicon Valley. No amount of resume-dressing will convince employers more than the real work.

Many of the resources mentioned above are free, but even if you take a paid course to shorten your learning curve and get consolidated stuff, it’ll cost only a fraction of your college tuition fee. These days such resources are available for many industries, making it so much easier for you to learn the skills you want to.

There is, in fact, a strong reason why at least some skills, especially those in technology industry, are better learnt or supplemented outside the formal education system: new trends and updates typically enter college curriculum with some lag. This worked fine ten years back and earlier when things weren’t changing every six months and disruptions were only occasional. But now… it matters.

B. Learning soft skills

Organizations today value hard and soft skills both. Google, for example, evaluates following skills in its prospective employees:

  • Coding skills (for technical jobs)
  • General cognitive ability: Ability to process information on the fly or put disparate information together
  • Emergent leadership: Unlike traditional leadership of donning formal leadership roles such as president of a club, emergent leadership requires stepping up when a problem crops up, providing a solution, and then stepping back to let someone else take over
  • Humility and ownership: Feeling of ownership, humility to accept better ideas of others, and willingness to learn

Speaking of soft skills, can only a top-tier college prepare you for these (the last three bullet points)?

They’re learnt through actively participating – even taking up few leadership roles – in class and extracurricular activities on campus, which often requires shedding fears and discomforting yourself. Like any other skill, they’re learnt through practice. Is it something that you can’t do in a less-stellar college?

You certainly can. But what most students do? They fear moving out of their comfort zones, and even if they do, one failure sends them back to their default modes. (For the same reason, many students in top colleges too remain average.) You can’t blame prestige of the college – unless it’s too bad – for your fears or apathy.

I’ll cap this subsection by giving you a peek into how even the best management institutions are introspecting and changing the way they educate business leaders. At a seminar on future of business education held at Columbia Business School (CBS), a top-5 MBA program in the world, experts agreed on following four areas of focus for management education:

  • More focus on interaction and application in class while uploading more lecture-like material
  • More experiential learning outside the classroom, locally and globally
  • More emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, balancing learning-by-studying with learning-by-doing
  • Supplementing the soft skills of leadership with a data analytics toolkit allowing leaders to talk to and learn from the “geeks”

Do you see what they concluded?

Application, not theoretical knowledge.

Learning-by-doing, not academic learning.

Entrepreneurship. Data analytics. Technology.

These focus areas for future, however, have not been recommended with startups and technology firms in mind. They’re a reality for any industry of note these days.

And many of these can be learnt outside the formal education system.

New-age companies are more open to recruiting outside traditional bastions

New-age industries are more agnostic to prestige of a college when hiring. For instance, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock, admitted that their earlier practice of hiring only from Ivy League schools was ‘wrong’. He told CNN, “There’re exceptional kids at the Cal state schools, at the University of New York system, and all these other places who have grit and determination and really fought to get there. What we find is the best people from places like that are just as good if not better as anybody you can get from any Ivy League school.” (As mentioned earlier in the post, Google has even recruited those without college degrees.)

And surprise of surprise, even Goldman Sachs, the marquee name in the world of finance, has taken a cue from tech companies to recruit outside Ivy Leagues in U.S.

2. College plays much less role in your career than you think

In a 1999 study of nearly 10,000 college graduates, Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist, and Stacy Berg Dale, affiliated with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, compared the earnings of graduates who entered highly selective colleges like Yale or University of Pennsylvania with those who entered moderately selective colleges like Penn State or Tulane nineteen years after graduation (they entered college in 1976 and earnings data is from 1995). The study, unsurprisingly, found that average student from moderately selective colleges earned $22,000 less, which seemed to support the notion that elite colleges increase earning potential of their graduates.

However, Krueger and Dale went a step beyond what previous studies had done. They also scrutinized the earnings of students who got admitted to moderately-selective as well as highly-selective colleges, some of whom decided to join moderately-selective over highly-selective colleges. They found that their earnings varied little, no matter which college (moderately-selective or highly-selective) they attended, and it held for both men and women.

What does it mean?

Graduates of highly-selective colleges earn more in general because of selection bias. These colleges admit higher proportion of hardworking, bright, and ambitious students, the type more likely to do well in their careers. And it serves the college well. Success of alumni translates into higher brand equity and more dollars to the endowment fund, which in turn attracts more likely-to-be-successful students.

(The study, however, found one segment of students to benefit from attending a highly-selective college: those from low-income families. Attending a more selective school increased their earnings significantly among comparable students.)

A larger follow-up study of nearly 19,000 students by Krueger and Dale arrived at a similar conclusion. This study, published in 2011, scrutinized earnings of not just the cohort of 1979 from the earlier study over a longer period, but also a new cohort that entered college in 1989.

(Just to reinforce, both the studies look at long-term earnings, not short-term or medium-term. As per the two studies, though there may be differences in the earnings of graduates from highly-selective and less-selective colleges in the short term, they essentially disappear in the long term as far as same quality of students are concerned. Such students eventually find their way up to their goals.)

However, there is another study which suggests that graduates of highly-selective colleges earn more than graduates of comparable ability from less-selective colleges. Caroline Hoxby, a Harvard economist, studied male students who entered college in 1982 and projected that those who attended the most-selective colleges would earn an average of $2.9 million cumulatively, those who attended the next most selective colleges would earn $2.8 million, and those who attended all other colleges would earn $2.5 million. She estimates that three-fourth of the educational benefits a student receives is determined by his or her own efforts, and the remaining by the status of the college he or she attends.

Although they differ in attributing contribution of college to long-term earnings, studies by both Krueger et al. and Hoxby point in the same direction. That colleges play much less role. That’s very much contrary to popular perception, isn’t it? (Having said that, a college should be good enough to impart quality education, which doesn’t mean just the top few colleges.)

3. Where you go for college may not even be important in many cases

A 17-year-old boy in New Delhi committed suicide in May 2016 reportedly for not scoring well in grade twelve, which would have made it difficult for him to pursue a career in medicine.

He may not have taken the extreme step had he known that taking at least one U-turn in career (a change in career where you practically start afresh) is not uncommon, and such change can render even the past work experience irrelevant, not to talk of undergrad degree.

Although not a representative example, nearly 40% of Harvard alumni take to entrepreneurship at some point in their careers. Such is the skillset required and uncertainty in entrepreneurship that even if they start a venture in a field where they’ve worked for years, it’s close to a U-turn.

Another reason why your first degree may matter much less is the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree (say, an MBA) in future if you so choose to.

If you combine the two effects – career U-turns and opportunity for another degree – there are sizeable number of people who, through the paths they choose in the course of their careers, render the contribution of their first degrees in their eventual career low. (And your eventual career matters the most, provided it doesn’t come too late.)

Imagine, you fret and stress so much over a test, which may not even count for much in shaping your future. And what if someone takes an extreme step, like the 17-year-old boy did? Needless.

Do top colleges not matter, then?

They do.

They, on average, provide better resources, placement opportunities, and alumni than less-selective colleges. However, these advantages aren’t as insurmountable as we perceive and they certainly aren’t worth getting depressed over, least of all losing life. A driven student can make a good career from a less-selective college too (recall the studies in point # 2, ‘College plays much less role in your career than you think’).

Ryan Holiday, a college dropout and a New York Times bestselling author of multiple books, indicates how you too can do it:

Everything that is good in my writing came from risks I took outside of school, outside of the “craft.” It was sleeping on Tucker Max’s floor for a year. It was working as Robert Greene’s assistant. It was working at American Apparel, watching the office politics and learning how to get stuff done. It was dropping out of college at 19. It was saying yes to every meeting and introduction I got, and hustling to get as many as I could on my own. It was reading dozens of books a month.

He exemplified what Warren Buffett says about education:

The best education you can get is investing in yourself. But this doesn’t always mean college or university.

In short, you need to pursue real-world skills, both hard and soft. And it’s more doable today than it was ten years back.

So, what do you do minutes before that crucial exam?

Skies above Seoul go silent an hour before Suneung, the college entrance exam for South Korean high school seniors, starts. Commercial flights are rescheduled to avoid disturbing more than 650,000 students taking the test. Financial markets, banks, and government offices open an hour later than usual to reduce the burden on traffic so that students reach test centers in time.

In India, suicide among pre-college students is commonly reported around the (exam) result days. What is shocking is many are committing suicide in the preparation phase of entrance exams when they haven’t yet failed, something completely unheard of 10-15 years back.

Lot of this has to do with parental expectations and pressure, which isn’t exclusive to India though. As per a survey by Pew Research Center, 68 percent Chinese people think that parents in their country put too much pressure on their children to succeed academically, followed by India (44 percent) and Kenya (42 percent):

Burdened by these expectations, in the hours leading to that much-awaited exam, your mind stresses and overworks. Several what ifs swirl in your mind. “What if I fail?” Fear of failure grips you, and you extrapolate potential failure to a catastrophic outcome – a bleak future.

But there are so many factors that influence each outcome from step 1 to step 4 that, despite failure at step 1, you can still achieve your future goal, which often happens to be your career.

Despite failure in an exam, you can still achieve your career goal.

So, ease the pressure, shed the fear when you enter the test center. Say to yourself, “It’s only an exam. If I under-perform, it’s not going to be the end of the world. There are other paths too which will take me to my goal.”

The very realization that this exam is not the only path will, in fact, improve your odds of doing well in it.

In her book, A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley quotes Tracey Magrann, Professor of Biological Sciences, Saddleback College, on how to tackle anxiety on the exam day:

I tell my students to face your fears. Often, your worst fear is not getting the grades you need for your chosen career. How can you handle this? Simple. Have a plan B for an alternative career. Once you have a plan for the worst contingency, you’ll be surprised to see that the fear will begin to subside. Study hard up until the day of the test, and then let it go. Tell yourself, “Oh, well, let me just see how many questions I can get right. I can always pursue my other career choice.” That helps release stress so you actually do better and get closer to your first career choice.

Great advice, but I’ll question one thing.

Why should you assume that plan A was better, and plan B only an alternative?

Jan Koum’s plan A was to work for Facebook.

Brian Acton’s plan A was to work for Twitter or Facebook.

Peter Theil’s plan A was to enter legal profession.

And Leslie Binns’ plan A was to summit Mount Everest.

However, if their plan A hadn’t failed, we would have probably not heard of WhatsApp, PayPal, Palantir… and demise of Gawker Media.

What about Leslie, one-eyed British ex-serviceman, though?

Why did his plan A fail? And what was his plan B?

Well, of all of them, he came the closest – 450 meters, literally – to accomplishing his plan A. On 20 May 2016, when he was just 450 meters away from his lifelong dream of summiting Mount Everest, he saw a lady slipping fast into the inevitable after she had slipped and injured herself. Her supplemental oxygen too was almost finished. In a rare sign of selflessness, he quit his quest to save her life. He could have easily passed her by, as did others, in this high-stakes game (upwards of $50,000 and months of painstaking training), especially when there was no one there to catch him skipping. But he didn’t.

On the way down, Leslie found another person in distress. Sliding, falling, crawling, he dragged him along too. Three persons died on Mount Everest that day, but the lady survived. And Leslie was the only person from his team who didn’t summit.

More than 4,000 have summited Mount Everest since its first conquer in 1953, but the world remembers only a handful. Think of it, if Leslie had summited that day, he would have been forgotten in days (I haven’t heard of his team members!). In the subsequent months, he was awarded by Royal Humane Society for his life-saving actions.

His plan B, though inadvertent, too has turned out to be better than his plan A.

And guess what, he didn’t have to bear the financial burden for his next attempt at Mount Everest, as he got sponsored by eponymous home improvement company, Everest.

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