How to get into a Famous College

In his podcast, Akimbo, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

In this podcast, Seth helps us think about the college admission process and the approach of positioning ourselves for our desired opportunity. We can leverage a similar tactic for going after a job or a project that we would like to be part of.

We can think of the college admission process as a game. There are rules, explicit or unspoken, for getting into the ranked college that we desire. As it turned out, college ranking is also a game, and schools often manipulate those elements to improve their ranking. The process of picking the students might not be fair, might not be accurate, and might even not be right, but it is a game.

Colleges have only a few metrics to work with on granting admission to students. Many schools focus on primarily academic and testing achievements, but there is another door. The schools reserve that door for people who would be considered to be interesting candidates by the colleges. Those candidates are people who would end up becoming extraordinary alumni. They would make the classroom and learning environment interesting. Most of all, these are the people who were going to be “people like us” when the school wanted to brag about their student body.

The first half of the approach is to teach our children to focus on non-routine activities. These activities take advantage of the fact the teenagers are smart and have plenty of spare time. They take advantage of the fact that a teenager can be goal-directed and figure out how to start something. The activities also show a teenager who is generous and can figure out how to connect with others, how to organize, and how to make change happen.
In the end, these activities demonstrate clearly that the student is the kind of self-directed person who can get something done if she cares about it.

Another way is to work on ideas and figure out the areas where the student wants to do research. Focus on ideas that involve experimentation and methodical approach. The students do not need to work on ideas that require a lot of money, just those that require effort and intelligence. Doing research is one route that someone who is passionate about making changes can take.

The second half of this approach is to figure out how to let the school know that this is our path. Find someone at the college that we choose, like a professor. Study the professor’s work and decide whether we are truly interested in their work. If so, correspond with the professor about that work. Go deep into the work. Try to understand what they are trying to teach and asked interesting questions. Keep the correspondence going, so it is mutually useful for both parties. If possible, help the professor make connections. After months of these correspondences, it is quite appropriate that we can show our interest in the school and ask for a referral. The credibility and trust we have built in the working relationship with the professor might propel us to the opportunity we are seeking.

In the end, the journey and effort will be worth it. It is worth it to become the kind of person who organizes something or builds projects that might not work. By taking the initiative, we are not acting like a cog in the system. It is also helpful for kids to become self-directed, generous individuals who can easily prioritize and able to navigate the adult world without being filled with fear. That is what we get to do as parents are to figure out how to create that environment, where our kids eagerly become capable individuals trying to find an organization where they can make a difference.

The same math is true that when we show up at an interview with a resume. Our resume is just like the test score, and the HR department is the admissions office. The HR department is much more concerned with filling slots with the cheapest, competent people they can find.

On the other hand, if we can build a body of work that is irresistible, generous, remarkable, and game-changing, people will call us. They will call us because there are some jobs where they need somebody who possesses the skills demonstrated in our work. They will want us to help them by doing the same thing for them.

We have so many degrees of freedom available to us these days, and too often we let the prevailing power structure of the culture dictate what we do next. When we spend a quarter of a million dollars and four best years of our life working our way through an institution, we have a safe space. In that space, we get a chance to act in ways that scare us but can create positive value for the people around us. And when our students leave that institution, they are ready to walk into the world not as a cog, but as a leader.