The Perfect Student
Bias hiring decisions against perfectionists. If you work in a white-collar sector that attracts highly educated job applicants, you’ve probably been flooded with résumés from people who are not so much human beings as perfect avatars of success. They got 3.8 grade-point averages in high school and college. They served in the cliché leadership positions on campus. They got all the perfect consultant/investment bank internships. During off-hours they distributed bed nets in Zambia and dug wells in Peru.
When you read these résumés, you have two thoughts. First, this applicant is awesome. Second, there’s something completely flavorless here. This person has followed the cookie-cutter formula for what it means to be successful and you actually have no clue what the person is really like except for a high talent for social conformity. Either they have no desire to chart out an original life course or lack the courage to do so. Shy away from such people.
Though he spends most of his space constructively arguing for an alternative Adam Grant of Wharton recently said:
When students submit applications, colleges learn a great deal about their competence from grades and test scores, but remain in the dark about their creativity and character. Essays, recommendation letters and alumni interviews provide incomplete information about students’ values, social and emotional skills, and capacities for developing and discovering new ideas.
This leaves many colleges favoring achievement robots who excel at the memorization of rote knowledge, and overlooking talented C students.
I think these people are being almost willfully ignorant of how we got here.
Back in the good old days, you got into a good college and got good jobs because who you were suggested that you would end up being something special. That’s why Harvard’s 1935 application essay seems laughably simplistic, and JFK was able to gain admission with a one-dimensional response, beautiful penmanship, and probably some recommendation letters from the Right People.
Of course, there will always be space made for royalty in each Harvard class, but we now have a sizable number of genuinely competitive spots at all institutions. The most natural way to assign these new spots would be based on academic prowess, but it was quickly noticed that accepting only the most studious into your school would make your class body consist of solely of one-dimensional academic bores or, to use the colloquial term of the time, Jews.
Enter the need for Character. Admissions would still consider standard academic criteria, but committees could also consider what kind of person you were and select well-rounded candidates with less-than-pefect academic credentials over the tasteless straight-A students. If that happened to result in more well-rounded noses in the entering class, that was just a happy side-effect of doing a good job identifying Character.
These “character” requirements were eventually codified, because that is what bureaucracies do. This codification was publicized and reverse-engineered by the Jews and later the Asians so they too could have Character. If playing the piano meant having character, then their kids were going to become concert pianists. If doing charity work meant having character, then their kids were going to do the most dreary work for the neediest people.
And that’s is at least part of how you get people with 3.8 GPAs, cliché leadership positions, and perfect internships and extracurriculars. Students were told these were needed, and they provided it.
If the formula for success is widely published, don’t be surprised when you see that formula followed widely and faithfully. If these students seem too perfect, it is because that is what you have asked of them.
A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Nearly every single kid got every single line correct. It was a thing of wonder, she said, like watching thoroughbreds circle a track.
Damning, isn’t it? How dare they competently memorize poetry!
Deresiewicz feels this, along with sports, musical talents, and poly-lingualism are evidence of an evil conspiracy to keep rural whites, “the group that is most disadvantaged by our current admissions policies,” down. Also clear is that this message resonates with a lot of people even if they can’t quite bring themselves to say directly that it would be better if students were less capable speakers of foreign languages or had worse memories. Deresiewicz, once he has set his hook, seamlessly transitions from referring to these students as “Super People” to “entitled little shits”. And his solution for alleviating to this scourge is to admit a greater number of mediocre white students.
Not that I have anything against mediocre whites. (Some of my best friends are mediocre whites!) It’s just that mediocrity seems like a bad criterion to use when choosing who to admit to your elite college. One might even argue that a school like Yale ought to seek and admit the best students it can find rather than purposefully bad ones in the hope that one will be the next Steve Jobs. If you are unhappy with the students you have, the problem is with how you’ve defined excellence, not with excellence itself.
Would you prefer that applicants have lower GPAs? Ask it, and those students will show up at your door. Do you want them to not have any global travel experience? Ask, and the next batch will assiduously avoid or hide it. If you control something incredibly valuable and name a price, don’t be surprised when those willing to pay show up at your door. Make “experienced a major life setback” a requirement for admission to Yale, and you can be sure that parents will get their kids hooked on meth so that their kids can explain how they struggled with and eventually overcame the problem. Businesses will set up summer meth camps to make it easy. The next David Brooks column will complain about applicants being uniformly perfect avatars of success in this newly defined way. “The I learned I lot from my meth habit” will become the new “I learned a lot from helping those people in Mozambique.”
I don’t share the desire for imperfect students, but I do admit that I am not happy that our current system rewards those who take the most programmatic approach to their self-development. Still, as long as standards are published, students will compete to meet those standards. Don’t hate them simply for succeeding. They will reverse engineer the requirements and mold themselves to fit.