During high school, students learn skills that will help them in their future careers. This can be referred to as building human capital. They also build up a record of grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities that colleges use to assess whether to admit them. This can be referred to as signaling quality to colleges.
High schoolers engage in valuable activities that fall outside of these two categories, such as personally enjoyable activities and helping others. This article focuses on building human capital and signaling quality to colleges, for the sake of simplicity, rather than because I think that these are the only two things that matter.
In an ideal world, building human capital would be perfectly aligned with signaling quality to colleges. In the real world, this is not the case. Consider the following story:
Kevin is an ambitious high school student who aspires to become a molecular biologist.
Kevin attends a competitive high school, where a student is awarded an extra GPA point for each honors or AP course that he or she takes. The maximum number of grade points that a student can get taking a “regular” course is 4.0 and the maximum number of grade points that a student can get for taking an honors or AP course is 5.0 A student who gets all A’s and takes at least one honors or AP course gets a GPA that’s greater than 4.0 so that taking a “regular” course reduces his or her GPA. GPA determines class rank, so taking a “regular” course lowers such a student’s class rank.
Kevin’s school offers a molecular biology elective during second semester, which is not an honors or AP course. Kevin would like to take the elective during the second semester of his junior year, in addition to his other coursework, but he knows that doing so would lower his GPA, so he decides not to. Kevin ends up with a class rank in the top 1%, contrasting with a class rank in the top 5% if he had taken the molecular biology course. Because he’s in the top 1%, he’s accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and MIT, and this would not have happened had he only been in the top 5%.
Kevin chooses to attend Stanford. The summer after his freshman year there, he works as a molecular biology research intern, and performs worse than he would have if he had taken molecular biology in high school.
This story shows how there can be a tension between building human capital and signaling quality to colleges. Kevin’s choice enabled him to get into a better college than he would otherwise have been able to get into, but it came at the cost of lowering the quality of his future work.
Imperfect measurement and perverse incentives
In Kevin’s story, the class ranking system was poorly designed: it rewarded some students for achieving less rather than for achieving more. The colleges that Kevin applied to were relying on a faulty measure of quality.
All measures of quality are imperfect to varying degrees. Because they’re imperfect, they sometimes assign somebody higher quality for making a choice that actually lowers his or her quality relative to what it otherwise would be. Once people catch on to this, they feel pressure to make such choices.
Imperfections of measures of college applicant quality
Class rank at Kevin’s high school is an imperfect measure of the strength of students’ academic transcripts. This is only one of many examples of imperfection in the measures that colleges use to assess student quality. Some more examples come from:
- Academic transcripts being insensitive to academic achievement in subjects that aren’t taught. There are many academic subjects that are not taught courses that high school students have access to. Colleges give heavy weight to academic transcripts when they assess students’ academic achievement, so studying subjects that aren’t taught in school is given relatively little weight.
- Course grades being insensitive to unusually high achievement. Course grades are capped: it’s generally true that the highest grade that a student can earn is an A. When the threshold for earning an A is below that of subject mastery, students aren’t awarded for developing subject mastery. In practice, the thresholds for getting top grades are often below that of subject matter mastery. For example, one can get the highest mark on some AP exams by answering a relatively low percentage of the questions correctly: low enough so that it doesn’t correspond to mastery.
- Individual teachers' grading schemes being imperfect. Teachers often assess student achievement via measures that differentiate students based on factors other than how well students have learned the subject. For example, in a chemistry course, a teacher may design tests that give heavy weight to computational accuracy to the exclusion of knowledge of chemistry.
Each factor gives rise to situations in which students aren’t able to signal quality to college by doing certain activities that would raise their human capital more than the activities that do signal quality to colleges.
Some activities that build human capital also signal quality to colleges. But it’s important to recognize that building human capital isn’t the same thing as signaling quality to colleges. Many activities that build human capital don’t signal quality to colleges, and many activities that signal quality to colleges have negligible value from the point of view of building human capital.
What to do about it?
Having acknowledged that there’s a tension between building human capital and signaling quality to colleges, one is faced with the question of what to do about it. Concretely, in the story above, did Kevin make the right choice? Should he have taken the molecular biology elective?
Exploring other options can sometimes resolve tensions
Of those activities that build human capital to a given degree, some signal quality to colleges more than others. Of those activities that signal quality to colleges to a given degree, some build human capital more than others.
Sometimes when there seems to be a tension between building human capital and signaling quality to colleges, one can resolve the tension by being imaginative and resourceful. In the story, Kevin could have considered possibilities such as
- Auditing the molecular biology elective
- Studying molecular biology on his own
- Taking an online course or a course at a local community college
- Looking for a school year internship in a molecular biology lab so as to learn some molecular biology outside of the academic system.
If Kevin had been able to do these things, he could have learned some molecular biology without having to sacrifice his class rank.
Tradeoffs between building human capital and college admissions
Sometimes there’s no possibility of resolving the tension, so that imagination and resourcefulness don’t suffice. One does have to make tradeoffs.
In Kevin’s situation, the choice isn’t just “molecular biology vs. no molecular biology,” but “molecular biology vs. everything else that could be done within that time slot.” Putting aside the issue of taking molecular biology lowering Kevin’s GPA, there might be other activities that would signal quality to colleges better than learning molecular biology.
There are two inputs into thinking about how to make tradeoffs in this context:
- The relative value of building human capital vs. getting into a better college. This depends very heavily on the details of a given person’s situation.
- The size of each tradeoff. Even when it’s necessary to sacrifice opportunities to build human capital for the sake of signaling quality to colleges, some activities involve smaller sacrifices than others, whether because they take less time and energy, or because they simultaneously build human capital (even if not as much as possible).
The answer to the question of how a given individual can best balance building human capital and signaling quality to colleges depends very heavily on the details of individual’s situation: his or her values, his or her goals, and the opportunities that are available to him or her.
Though there’s not an easy answer to the question of how to best balance building human capital and signaling quality to college, it’s helpful to explicitly recognize the distinction between two things, and the tradeoffs involved. The first step to resolving a tension is recognizing that it’s there.
I’m primarily interested in feedback involving signaling as it relates to undergraduate admissions (as opposed to, e.g. signaling in the context of romantic courtship), but I’d welcome related observations about signaling to graduate school or employers based on high school or college coursework.
What’s an example from your own life where building human capital and signaling quality to colleges have come into conflict? How did you resolve the conflict? Do you think you made the right choice? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Thanks to Vipul Naik for conversations that lead to this post, and to Luke Muehlhauser for feedback.
Preface: I graduated from one of the top public high schools in Arizona and will be starting classes at Stanford in just a few weeks.
It's been my experience that the overwhelming majority of AP / honors students (the top performers at a US high school) are more preoccupied with the signaling effects of any given activity than its immediate or long-term effects on human capital growth. In the AP classes in which I was involved, I'd estimate 50–75% of the students enrolled in the class not based on genuine interest but rather driven by the will to "be an AP student" or "have a good-looking transcript." Even the majority of administrators and counselors focused on the signaling side of the equation, advising us to build rigorous schedules that "demonstrated" our academic persistence.
I avoided  classes, clubs and activities which were evidently abused for their signaling effects more than they were actually enjoyed. I was one of very few among the top 1% of my class who didn't force themselves into AP US History, AP Chemistry, etc. These classes were not of immediate value or interest to me, so I simply didn't take them.  I spent my time on more productive tasks that were of immediate utility and / or greatly increased my human capital: contracting as a web developer, studying foreign languages, linguistics, math, philosophy, … outside of school, and networking with developers online and in my city.
I can confirm after meeting fellow Stanford students and getting clear answers from admission officers that students can rarely, if ever, force themselves into a top-tier school with a strategy dominated by signaling. These schools  put an extreme amount of weight on essays.  Test scores and class load, areas which often earn the most focus from students, parents, and teachers, are all secondary to the image a student projects through his or her written responses.
Signaling should be far less central to a high school strategy than is currently the norm. Top-performing students need to realize that the surest way into a selective university is:
tl;dr: "Follow your passion" is really true. Students should rarely engage in activities solely for the sake of signaling. Evidence of a true passion can show through in application essays, and will mean more than 10 club presidencies or 50 letters of recommendation. Rip out of the chains of high school and do something that you're passionate about!
I'd highly recommend How to Be a High School Superstar for any current high schoolers. This book really changed my view on academics, and I'm not sure I would be at Stanford without it. (No affiliation, just a happy customer!)
You're speaking from anecdotal life experience. My anecdotal life experience tends to disagree with several of the points you have made.
Bad assumption, even when only taking into account similar schools and demographics to the one you attended. I did make exactly this sort of cost-benefit calculation in high school and I was only above average and not close to the top 5% when it came to GPA. To avoid having you attribute this to low intelligence, I'll also mention that I was in the top 1% when it came to standardized test scores. I attribute this to the fact that GPA primarily measures organization, conscientiousness, working memory,and signalling while test scores primarily measure English verbal and quantitative proficiency.
I paid zero attention to signalling in high school. I'd engage in auto-didactic activities such as browsing google-scholar and reading stuff which interested me in favor of working on my assignments. I signed up for all of the most challenging classes because I knew that in the competition between regular course X and AP course X, the AP course would be more fun, more interesting, teach me more, and suck up roughly equal time. For the same amount of studying, a high level course will give you a lower grade but more knowledge. I didn't even think about my GPA - I didn't even bother keep track of how many points I had in my classes. I had a terribly single-minded focus on learning...because signalling was just too damn boring to bother with. To this day I still struggle to force myself into putting up adequately strong signalling, even when it's dull. Not signalling adequately is akrasia, it is bad, don't do it.
Right, but that means you took non-AP History and non-AP chemistry courses. You could have chosen to take the AP classes and simply spend the same amount of time studying for them as you would for the non-AP equivalent , and been content with a lower grade because you learned more about the material. If you weren't signalling at all, why would you ever take a lower level course if you have the prerequisite knowledge to understand the higher course?
If it takes 5 hrs/wk to get an A in AP english and 2 hrs/wk to get an A in regular English, you can (but shouldn't!) still just spend 2 hrs/wk on AP english, get a B-, and still learn more than you would have with an A in regular English.
So when I started college (due to my GPA, it was not a high-flying Ivy league) and started taking courses, when it came to the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and sociology I had already read much of the original research off of which the material was based. Some of the professors I encountered felt like celebrities because I had happened to read one of their papers once. Of course, this didn't help me at all when it came to introductory courses where most of the material was memorization, but now that I'm taking upper level courses dealing with primary source material it's finally beginning to pay off. But even now, those introductory courses are leeching my GPA, and are going to effect my graduate admissions process.
So lets return to high school: how exactly do I put: "For the past three years I've I spend hours every day reading primary literature and so I am intimately familiar with how science is done, but you'll just have to take my word on that" on a transcript without sounding completely lame? That might fly in grad school interviews, but your average undergraduate admissions officer probably doesn't understand why this is a really valuable and rare thing for a high school student to do. They're thinking, "Yeah, my kid reads Scientific American too, big deal". The fact that I won several science fairs, which should actually be the much less impressive accomplishment, probably helped my resume more than all my reading combined.
So here's what I see: You are someone who followed their passions and excelled in school, and you think doing well in school is about passion. I am someone who followed his passions and did above average in school (an underachiever relative to what IQ-proxy standardized tests expected), and I thought doing well in school was about signalling.
Here's my updated conclusion after reading your story: some people have natural passions which take them in a direction that happens to cause good signalling - passions which cause them to succeed in school and get admitted into high level colleges. Such people like the system and tend to feel that its indicators are good and honest. Others have natural passions which take time away from signalling activities, and these people perceive a constant strain between signalling and passion. Such people tend to think that the system has perverse incentive structures.
And that's the crux of it. You did signal optimally, and the fact that you didn't signal optimally on purpose doesn't change that.
See, when your passions just happen lead to high GPA and good resumes, you don't need conscientiousness-ly cultivated signalling behavior. This is why you are advising others to simply do what comes naturally.
For the rest of us - if you want to get into a high level university, I'd advise you to keep signalling, or switch into a different set of incentive structures (homeschooling, alternative schools, etc).
Admission to graduate school is easy to hack, especially if you know the people in the field. Decide now on a short list of people you'd like to be your advisor, and talk to your professors about them. Work your way up to emailing / calling them, but an introduction from a professor that likes you will go far. If a professor says "I want Ishaan to be my graduate student," you will be admitted.
Seconded. This seemed outrageous and unthinkable to me before I was in grad school; now that I've been to grad school, I recognize it as obviously true.
Well-known professors get cold-emailed pretty frequently by prospective students, and are largely ignored. An introduction from a professor that likes you, in a related field of study, will get you pretty far.
Of course, you won't get those introductions without having a professor that likes you; the easiest way to get a professor to like you is to demonstrate interest, and start to build expertise, in the field you want to do work in. Start reading papers, ask your professors questions about research, or just pointers to relevant research. If you want to do math or CS or theoretical X, make serious attempts at solving interesting problems. If you're in a lab science, ask to help with relevant experiments at your university.
I did not do these things when I was an undergrad. Doing them would have made a serious difference; I've seen that difference in grad students since then. If you seriously want to do graduate research, this stuff is at least as important as your grades. It's good practice and good signaling.
I wish to point out that the emphasis on "passion" as an admission criterion is destructive. Every high school student has heard that they have to show "passion" in something in order to get into a good college. The normal manifestation of this is not "I like knitting and will open an Etsy shop and teach classes." It is "I liked band enough to stick with it for a couple years, and that's an Activity, and I can write something convincing about my passion for it. Therefore I can't quit band now that I've stopped liking it because then what would I look passionate about?" Same with volunteering, sports, etc.
Because "passion" was a mandatory signal, I had no idea it was ever real. It wasn't until college that I realized for certain that there were people who were genuinely interested in anything.
Great point. I think my interpretation of the word in this context has drifted from the norm because I've built such a philosophy around it. How else can we describe the manifestation of "passion" that I wrote about? Is "focused ambition" any better of a way to name this?
Here's a virtual high-five for capital-A "Activity." This is the kind of thinking that guides otherwise brilliant students away from their ultimate potential.
Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed comment. I'd be interested in corresponding or speaking if you'd like — I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a general disclaimer, I favor efficiency of discourse over tact, and so sometimes I inadvertently come across as dismissive — if I say anything that gives that impression, please don't take it personally — it's my default mode of operation, and doesn't correspond to my having a negative assessment of my interlocutors. Some of my questions are in part rhetorical in nature, but I don't intend them to carry connotations of the type "the answer to this question should be obvious."
I would have thought that getting into the top 1% of a high school class would require at least some choices that compromised personal development for the sake of signaling. Did you never encounter such choices?
Why do you think that the admissions officers were telling the truth?
What information did you get from your classmates that gave you this impression?
According to Stanford's profile of the class of 2013, 7% of applicants who got a 4.0+ GPA were admitted, while only 1% of applicants with a GPA of <= 3.7 were admitted. Under some weak assumptions, in order for this to be consistent with written responses playing the dominant role, the odds of people in the in the latter group having sufficiently good written responses would have to be 7x the odds of people in the former group. Do you believe that this is the case?
Why do you think that high schoolers do what they do if it's so poorly optimized for college admissions?
You'll notice "efficiency of discourse" is not my strong suit with this topic. My apologies—I have a lot to blather about that has been held in for too long. I've bolded the occasional important phrase to help the LW-skimmers of the future parse through my dense stuff. :)
I should amend my preface before continuing: I'm writing solely from the perspective of and about the top ~5% of a high school class. I assume that students taking the time to weigh the human capital growth prospects vs. the signaling benefits of an opportunity belong to this class. Among this group you can expect to see something close to (if not exactly) 4.0 unweighted GPAs.
These choices came up many times over. It's definitely tempting to seize at all opportunities that present themselves—I'd say the mere environment encourages such overinflated ambition. I've seen club advertisements and even heard teachers saying "It'll look good on your resume" as a major benefit of a program. Obsessive concern over signaling is widespread among honors students, and it's so common that they'll blatantly capitalize on the idea when trying to market a new club or class.
I ignored this common concern in my own major decisions. I took non-honors Intro to Graphic Design and Intro to 3D Graphics classes where I could've fit in extra APs. I dropped cross country (a great activity to have on a resume) in my senior year in order to dedicate more time to my work (something that wouldn't show up on a list of extracurriculars).
Within classes, of course, I had to make sacrifices for the Numbers (GPA and class rank). There was the occasional ridiculous English project I had to push myself through and chemistry lab I needed to rewrite. I didn't often connect this work with college admissions, however. I retained some amount of loyalty to the Numbers just because I felt it was the high-utility thing to do.  Going through the motions on silly projects could often earn the respect of a teacher, a useful thing to have when times got tough.
Good question. The situation was one where there was little incentive to speak untruthfully: a group discussion between incoming students and a regional admission officer (who knew that we had all been accepted). Admittedly, there is a chance that the officer had to hold her tongue due to internal policy about sharing admission strategies.
No student saw grades as a central factor in getting accepted (I asked this of quite a few people while I was there, as I'm curious about much the same things as you are!). Of course, this is low-quality anecdotal evidence at best. I don't have anything more definitive to provide on this point.
I made a mistake in my previous post in not being clear enough about my scope. I mean to restrict the statements more in this post (see the first paragraph). The process I've built is likely to be useful to high-achieving students—the kind who are considering human capital growth prospect vs. signaling benefits, i.e., the kind that are likely already near a 4.0 GPA.
I don't mean to discount high school academics entirely. It's vitally important for a student to find subjects within the high-school curriculum which he / she enjoys and dedicate him/herself to them. What I'm against (and what is currently part of the norm for the top students, from what I've seen) is a student using signaling benefits as a deciding factor in any amount when selecting extracurriculars, classes, etc.
I see it as a long-term case of the "Failure to Evaluate Return-on-Time" fallacy. There might be a better name for this, or I might be using the wrong idea altogether—let me explain. (Forgive me for the imprecision… I'm new to contributing to this wonderful site.)
High school counselors often give presentations to 8th-graders at local middle schools and freshmen at their own schools. They describe the process of college admission and the various steps that need to be taken over four years at a high school. They often also present "strategies" for building up an impressive resume / transcript. Most, if not all, of the options provided in these strategies involve school-run programs: advanced classes, clubs, special STEM activities, and so on.
It's very easy to build a cozy box using all the opportunities offered. I might call this planning a "bounded ambition." Students measure their success and the success of others  by how many activities they can take on and how well they can do within those activities. Over time, their real passions are clouded over by the idea of taking that extra course, of joining that extra club.
I feel I'm getting ranty and too aggressive in my statements once again. I'll sign off for now.
: Admitted possibility of post-hoc rationalization here.
: Competition between students is a huge issue at this level and undoubtedly plays a role in making signaling effects more attractive than human capital effects. Gosh, we could write a whole book on this stuff.
I affirm your wise decision not to be much moved by the force of this question - People Are Crazy, The World Is Mad.
I feel as though this is a conversation stopper. Two issues:
This can be used as a conversation stopper and to maintain balance I suggest we also must acknowledge that forbidding it or dismissing it entirely would also be conversation stopper, just one that results in a different conclusion.
The archetypical case where this statement is used is where the context is of the form:
If there is disagreement about the degree to which premise B is true then it is useful to express that disagreement (to whatever extent that such discussions are useful in the first place). If an unresolvable disagreement about B is discovered then the immediate conversation can be considered to be successful. That is, agreement may be reached that given the premises held the participants are correctly reasoning about the immediate subject and agree that if they had the other's premise they would have the other's conclusion. Further argument about the immediate subject is not needed.
If you consider the claim to be a compressed expression of the claim that B, above, does not hold then hopefully the claim is clear to you. You may still disagree but vagueness claim no longer applies. I do agree that there are surely better ways for Eliezer to express this position than the rather provocative catch phrase that he has adopted.
I would essentially agree with this but refine that the real two competing theses are procedural about what we should do at point B in the argument:
Rule B1: If a significant group of people do a thing, then this in itself may be brought up as evidence that the thing may perhaps be rational, it is not necessary to further develop a thesis about how this group is reasoning correctly. A special thesis may be brought that on this occasion, people are acting irrationally, but this is burdensome and never quite believable with confidence except with the most extreme evidence.
Rule B2: If a significant group of people do a thing, this is an interesting observation, but there are many reasons why people do things, and to feel a slight sense of nervousness at departing their behavior pattern is leftover hunter-gatherer instinct which would poorly serve many of us now. To suppose that the group is acting rationally is a significant and unimplied further statement, which should not be made without specific supporting evidence especially if there seems to be a countervailing object-level argument.
(Hidden incentives which explain why people do what they do are commonplace, but unconscious reasoning will rarely add up to long-term rationality with respect to the original goal criterion being considered. It is both 'cleverness' and great implausibility to construct some elaborate pattern of secret knowledge which no one ever speaks explicitly, and Machiavellianness, and unusual personal goals or redefinitions of success, whereby the apparently stupid becomes smart.)
Object level arguments aside, people engaging in behavior A is still nontrivial evidence that behavior A is rational. Sure, it may be weak evidence, and can easily be swamped by object level arguments, but it can't be entirely discarded.
The dichotomy Rule B1 vs. Rule B2 is a false dichotomy – one can be pretty confident that people are acting irrationally in a given instance even when one isn't extremely confident, etc.
Strong evidence or it didn't happen.
That is my default reaction to this concept, having seen it so often on LW applied to unmeasurably small wisps of evidence.
Compare But There's Still A Chance, Right?. "But It's Still Evidence, Right?" is the other side of that dud coin.
I meant to suggest that people's behavior is one countervailing consideration against the position that demanding courseload & grades don't matter much at the upper echelons, not that it's very likely that they're doing the rational thing.
Your English teachers may be bleeping awful. Go to your library and obtain worn-looking books on how-to-write which have been authored by successful authors. (Beware that how-to-write books in the used bookstore may have been passed on for a reason; check to see if they were written by English teachers.)
"How to write" books are often an awful mess of superstitious prescriptivism. To be fair, the people reading your essays may have also read these books, and in this case it's good to know that they may look down on you for splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and using various other perfectly fine English constructions that someone a hundred years ago decided were ungrammatical because they don't work in Latin. (See Language Log for some informative rants on this subject.) There's good stuff out there, but don't count on finding it easily.
If you want to learn to write well, (1) read a lot of fiction by successful authors (good writing style affects success more there than it does in, e.g., the sciences) and (2) write a lot, preferably in a forum where your writing will be read and criticized frequently.
In particular, the fiction of Isaac Asimov has done a lot to improve my writing. His writing (both fiction and nonfiction) is perfectly clear and transparent, to the point that you don't even notice there is a style. Even if this isn't the kind of writing you're really interested in, I think everyone should have this style in their repertoire.
I've only encountered one such, many books which repeated each other though usefully to the novice, and a few books which are excellent.
Any particular recommendations?
Currently reading this one, it's pretty good: http://www.amazon.com/Self-Editing-Fiction-Writers-Second-ebook/dp/B003JBI2YI/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1378421718&sr=8-2&keywords=self-editing+for+fiction
It's not a basic book for new writers, though, as one might guess; I like it because it has some very low-level advice not contained in other books.
Hmm, I wonder if there are any stats on how applying the book's advice affects a) acceptance rate and b) popularity. a) is hard to measure, but b) should be easy: take a few bestsellers vs a few random published books and see how severely the advice is violated and whether the bestsellers are better at compliance.
Presumably a) could be measured via the same techniques by comparing a sample of a publishing house's published books with a sample of their rejected manuscripts.
RIght, if the latter were easily accessible. Besides, most of the rejects are probably terrible in other ways, masking the issue.
That looks really interesting! I'd been thinking of Strunk and White and the like when I wrote my comment.
It surprises me how much my attitude to this post is "15 years from now, is it really going to matter that much what you did in high school to get into college?" AFAICT, academics are not that strongly related to long term career success, and that in the longer term, traits like conscientiousness and skills like working with others end up being more important. I wouldn't recommend to my child that they try to signal their worthiness to colleges and universities at the expense of actually acquiring skills.
Then again, I speak as someone in a field (nursing) where it really doesn't matter where you did your schooling; nobody cares. I get the impression that there are fields where it matters a bit more (like engineering) and fields where it might matter a lot more (like business, where most of the value of a prestigious college is in networking and building human capital anyway).
One thing that's unambiguous is that many ambitious high schoolers believe that where they go to college matters a great deal. My post is intended to address this audience.
As for how and how much undergraduate institution attended impacts life outcomes, I'll be writing about the subject at great length in the future, but in response to your reaction that it doesn't matter, for now, consider the following:
It might be, but you can't just say this -- you need to justify a model under which this is true.
More on hiring practices at finance & management consulting firms.
It's possible that I misread, but I interpreted Swimmer963's point as saying exactly this - it really doesn't matter what you do in high school, as long as you get into the college you're aiming to get into. If this is what she meant, I probably agree - I don't think there is any one-semester high school course which can't be entirely learnt by a reasonably bright student in about 1 week of dedicated personal study.
That's a bit my point, but not entirely. I think that 10 or 20 years later, the specifics of what high schoolers did will almost never matter. (General high school work ethic and direction/ambition in life likely does matter, if only because it will correlate, in most people, with adult work ethic and ambition). To a lesser degree, 10 or 20 years down the road, it probably doesn't matter whether a student got into their top choice or second-or-third choice college. College admissions depend on a lot of random factors, like whether you were sick on the day of a high school exam worth 40% of your grade, and more time passing flattens out this randomness. Students with good work ethic and a strong direction in life will probably end up where they want to be anyway, once 10-20 years have passed. Students who don't really know what they want to do still won't know in 10 years even if they went to a prestigious college. Good work ethic and ambition is correlated with getting into prestigious colleges, but I would argue that there's less causation there than this article seems to imply.
This is just my impression, though, and I'm generally not that ambitious. It might be different for people at higher level of driven-ness and/or with different, more academic-based goals.
Vaniver: I said "it surprises me how much..." because I expect to agree with most LW posts, and I'm slightly surprised every time I don't agree. It's a good surprise.
I'm really not sure that's the case. It seems to me that people who attend prestigious colleges are likely to be exposed to a broader range of interests and opportunities than they otherwise would, giving them more of a chance of finding something that they want to do.
I guess I don't have a big enough example set to know. Anyone know of studies done on this that try to separate variables like conscientiousness/work ethic and ambition from actual college attendance? (Given that there's an expectation, in the US anyway, that smart, hardworking, ambitious kids will go to prestigious colleges and the rest won't.)
How about this as a counter-example? This guy essentially got into Harvard because of one accident with a plagiarised essay when he was a kid (at least, that's the way he tells his story), and is now a member of faculty at Chicago. I think life outcomes might be more path-dependent than we like to admit.
The second half of his story has a fair amount of detail, and implies very strongly that he was conspicuously intelligent and the first high school he was at wasn't all that bad for students.
Unfortunately, the transcript includes that his wife thinks he has a secret to happiness by controlling his attitude towards events, but doesn't go into detail.
Can you say where your impression comes from?
I got some of that from the start:
Generally, when I say "it surprises me that I think X" that happens because I thought I thought ~X, which generally happens because I used to think ~X.
My impression is that it's mostly ability bias, and there's several studies to that effect. (My flight is about to board, or I'd look some up.)
Where does your impression comes from?
Social science studies are often unreliable, and specifically, often verify a claim for a single population, and then unwarrantedly conclude that the claim holds for all populations. This isn't physics :P
Mostly Caplan, other papers (here's two studies with commentary), and a prior determined mostly by a broader version of hereditarianism (seeing most of a person's 'quality' as fixed by reaching adulthood, so a combination of biological and early environmental effects). Just IQ is apparently 40%, add in Conscientiousness and it's likely to cross 50%, and now we're in the territory where it's mostly ability bias.
Now, so long as the treatment effect is positive there's an argument for going to an elite school, but since elite schools are expensive (both in cash and in signalling to get there) the treatment effect needs to be above some threshold to be worthwhile, and I haven't run the numbers to figure out where I think that threshold is.
Perhaps this is implicit in what you say, but signaling and social networking benefits from going to an Ivy League may play major roles independently of human capital.
I try to use the phrase "treatment effect" to encompass both capital improvements and social networking, "sheepskin effect" to encompass signalling, and "selection effect" to encompass ability bias. It seems to me that social capital (i.e. knowing other people and them knowing you) could be wrapped into human capital directly without much loss.
I was nodding along here until the last sentence. What you did in high school will usually cease to be relevant after some time, while the signalling value of a sufficiently prestigious college remains. You can usually make up missed learning opportunities from high school, such as the molecular biology course given in the example, whereas the window where your activities will be relevant to college placement is much narrower.
For a sufficiently conscientious student, the value of high school may be primarily what it gives them the opportunity to signal, rather than what it gives the opportunity to learn, aside perhaps from lessons of a social rather than academic sort.
As JonahSinick notes, many high school students and their parents believe this both by stated and revealed preference, and I think they are correct although the magnitude of the effect is hard to pin down. If nothing else, however, if you greatly surpass the academic standards of a college, they will give you merit scholarships in order to get you to pick their college, and the amounts here can be very large especially if the alternative was being forced to borrow money at interest! Thus, signaling is at a minimum a paying job.
As a family with a highly aspirational high school student and as a public school board member in a community where we have recently extensively debated AP grade weighting, we have had many conversations on this subject. In my opinion, the energy in the debate is indicative of a society overly focused on simplistic quantitative measures. "Simplify and Exaggerate" is a media trend that dilutes rational thought on complex issues in many areas.
In my recent conversations with admissions departments and faculty of highly selective schools, the feedback we have often received is "follow your dreams", almost to heck with the scores. This is easier for them to say than it is for students to live based on the perceived pressure to show high signaling quality numbers, but I think it's worthy advice. It seems that admissions departments strive to be less formulaic (although there may be certain cutoffs). For example, I don't think that a highly selective university would necessarily reject a student not in the top 1% GPA if the rest of the application were compelling. A passionate and honest essay by Kevin about a desire to do great things in Micro Biology with supporting demonstrated activities and extracurricular studies may weight more than the 1% vs. top 5% (but probably not get a 50%er into Harvard).
On GPA weighting, this is an area where a guidance counselor letter of recommendation can be used effectively. If the recommendation stated that Kevin pursued a course in Micro Biology even knowing that it would damage his GPA, that would look very favorable. Guidance counselors can be sympathetic to this and effective to communicate unique academic records circumstances.
It seems that the constraint in finding great students (and for many of our successes) is not an issue with having inadequate human capital, but rather lacking the vision and motivation to follow our dreams. The top 1% will always apply to the best schools, but my sense is that great schools would rather have a top 5% student with a demonstrated passion to pursue their dreams rather than someone with high book smarts and human capital that was only focused on GPA. The key in successful college applications these days seems to be to share a portfolio to demonstrate the potential for future success as much as formulaic scores.
The choice for Kevin to take that Micro Biology class would be the one with more integrity to pursue his dreams and I'm sure that would have come out in other ways in the application. Great university admissions departments are not fooled by GPA pumping strategies, they strive to seek for other underlying qualities of future success. More often than not I think we all have a tenancy to do what we think will get us high signaling quality to others rather than take risks to pursue our dreams that often would have resulted in better ultimate success or at least educational failures that are more personally valuable than perceived external rewards.
That's certainly an improvement to the extent it is true, but it moves the signaling battle up a level rather than removing it. As you note, a college would "look favorably upon" signals of passion and/or signals of willingness to sacrifice GPA or other first-level signals, so now the question becomes how to create these new second-level signals while also needing to have enough success with first-level signals to be able to "give back" some of it in the name of the second-level signals. If my kid was ambitious and book-smart but not passionate, his or her goal would then become faking a passion...
Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
I agree that factors other than quantitative measures play a role in admissions, and that elite colleges often take top 5%ers who are strong on activities/extracurriculars over top1%ers who aren't. And the hypothetical that I gave involving Kevin might be unrealistic.
There are still tradeoffs. What if Kevin had been just on the cusp of the top 10% in class ranking? (My impression is that the 10% threshold is more significant in admissions than the 1% threshold.) What if the molecular biology elective was slotted at the same time as AP US History?
As for what college admissions people say — note that "we look at the whole person and believe that people should follow their dreams" sounds much more pleasant than "we use heuristic shortcuts that enable people to game the system." So admissions people would be more likely to say the former independently of whether or not it's true.
I agree with Zvi's comment.
I would be interested in corresponding. My email address is email@example.com.
(Speaking as someone who works for a US educational institution without having ever attended a US educational institution, barring MOOC,) I don't think taking a molecular biology class in high school would make much difference even in college, not to mention after that--in grad school or at a job. Maybe it would make the first unit of the first college MolBio class somewhat easier, and I'm not even sure if that would be a good thing since it may develop a laid-back attitude. (And even college classes won't really prepare you for real research/job.) Moreover, it would be totally useless if the student then realized they wanted to go for some other major after all. Maybe another way to phrase it is "high school is time for exploration, not exploitation".
Yeah, I don't have subject matter knowledge here. Maybe I can think of a better example.
This seems somewhat noncontingent. (I might be missing something, but it appears to me that one could equally well argue that students shouldn't learn prerequisite material for subsequent courses, which seems incorrect).
I think that this is the real issue — it's a more significant tension between building human capital and signaling. But it's harder to make a convincing argument for it without deconstructing the commonly held view that high school and college courses "teach you how to think" in general, and this involves a lengthy digression, which might not hold the attention of the reader.
It could help the student realize that he or she wants to do something else sooner rather than later, giving him or her more time later on.
The issue of "watering down" one's GPA by taking more classes is already being significantly addressed by colleges and high schools.
Most top colleges examine unweighted GPAs rather than weighted ones. Unweighted GPAs cannot be watered down by non honors classes, and have better predictive validity for college grades than weighted GPAs. One might be inclined to think that this provides incentives for taking easy classes, but the top schools are simply not going to take you seriously if you adopt this strategy (speaking from personal experience at a top liberal arts college and having seen the data on the average number of AP classes taken).
On the high school end, many high schools (including my own former school) have switched away from a weighted average system for class rank. Instead, they use a system where one's GPA for class rank purposes = 36 (unweighted GPA) + .5 (number of honors classes taken) + 1*(number of AP classes taken). The additive system prevents the possibility of having one's GPA watered down. Some high schools go further by adding additional points for taking extra classes beyond the number required for graduation, further encouraging the taking of additional classes regardless of their honor/AP status.
Changing the formula might create the incentive to take additional easy classes, but it's theoretically impossible to create a system that doesn't give trade-off opportunities to signal versus do something else that is otherwise more useful. It's very hard to make taking that extra course exactly neutral in expectation in terms of impact, and even if it is, you've got opportunity costs.
Even high schools that use average weighting systems vary tremendously (and I suspect that more than anything else is why colleges use unweighted grades). My own high school, for example, used a weighting system where is was still impossible to get more than 100 (we used a 100 point scale). Instead, as long as you passed a course (higher than 65), you were given pack a percentage of lost points (40% for honors, 70% for AP), so a 70 in AP Bio became a 91, but a 70 in honors bio became an 82.
Is this even possible in high school? At least, I've never heard of anyone auditing a high school class.
I think it's possible if the teacher allows it, and that the reason that it doesn't happen more often is because it doesn't occur to people that they could do it. I audited a class during high school, and it was one of the best choices that I made.
How is Kevin going to run his molecular biology experiments, given that he decides to audit the class or take it online ? Does he have a fully equipped lab in his garage ?
My personal experience (going to Harvard, talking to students and admissions counselors) suggests that at one of the following is true:
Teacher recommendations and the essays that you submit to the colleges are also important in admissions, and the main channel through which human capital not particularly captured by grades, and personal development are signaled.
There are particularly known-to-be-good schools that colleges disproportionately admit students from, and for slightly different reasons that they admit students from other schools.
I basically completely ignored signalling while in high school, and often prioritized taking more interesting non-AP classes over AP classes, and focused on a couple of extracirricular relationships rather than diversifying and taking many. My grades and standardized test scores also suffered as a result of my investment in my robotics team.
Teacher recommendations and essays may be weak signals.
Getting good recommendations depends in part on how appealing you are to teachers (in respects that are orthogonal to personal development). For example, people develop halos around people who are physically attractive, viewing them in more favorable terms along all dimensions.
Some students get extensive coaching on their essays.
I'm interested by this in juxtaposition with the fact that you got into Harvard. If you'd be willing to email me with some more details about your personal profile (e.g. high school grades, test scores and extracurricular achievements) I'd very much appreciate it. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another way out: Make molecular biology as a second semester senior, when colleges have already accepted him.
Twice in high school I sacrificed building my human capital in order to take courses that I believed would signal better quality — or at least, would enable me to signal better quality in other areas. Did this hinder my acceptance into Ivy-League schools and selective programs in the university I currently attend? Possibly. But at the time, I felt that taking AP courses that I didn't care about would be a waste of time, especially when I had access to so many other beneficial activities beyond the classroom (namely work and free educational resources).
Junior year, I signed up for an APUSH course, but later dropped it because I thought I was wasting my time, human capital aside. I wasn't learning about modern and world history (my true history interests) and I was exhausting myself and my ability to perform well in other top-level courses. After I got sick and saw that there was no way to make up my work in time to retain a competitive grade, I switched to a course in more modern US history and was a lot happier. I think I made the right choice — if I had stayed in the class, I wouldn't have performed as well in my other AP class and my electives.
Senior year, I opted for a "regular" Calculus course even though I was eligible for both AB Calculus and IB Calculus. My reasoning was this: I was already taking AP Chemistry and AP Statistics, both courses relevant to my degree and own interests. Only 2 semesters of undergraduate calculus is necessary for my degree; science courses have more weight. Therefore, I didn't see any reason to sacrifice my 3 science classes and job for a class I would have to take again (AP Calculus credit wasn't accepted at the colleges I applied to).
Given that I'm in a specialized program at my university now and have learned from several high-achieving students that they didn't gain much from their AP courses except human capital for their college application, I think that my instincts were more or less beneficial to me in the long-term, which is all that I care about.
One caveat I need to make is that I would have definitely joined up with my senior year elective (robotics) from the very beginning and stuck with it all through high school. I jumped from club to club from freshman through junior year, which hurt my human capital. In terms of human capital, it didn't matter that I needed time and variety to discover what I really liked, only that I'd showed genuine interest, effort, and leadership opportunities within the extracurricular. Granted, all of this happened during senior year, but by then, the application process was over.
As a senior in high school, I had the option to take two different computer science courses.
Option 1: AP Computer Science A, taught at my high school. The teacher was one of my school's math teachers who had some programming experience. (My school had not actually offered a comp sci course since I started there, even though Intro to Java was on the books.)
Option 2: An independent study in computer science, taught at the local vocational high school. The teacher had a master's degree in computer science from Brown and had worked for Macromedia/Adobe. (She was also the daughter of my school district's Director of Technology, whom I knew as a student representative to the Technology Committee.)
On the surface, Option 1 looks better for college admission, since it's an AP course. There may also be some perceived bias against vocational schools. However, I chose Option 2. This proved to be the superior choice. I had already taught myself basic programming skills, and the independent nature of the course meant I was able to learn at my own pace and study different topics with a knowledgeable teacher.
When I started college, it turned out that the AP Comp Sci A test wasn't even worth any course credit. Actually, the Computer Science department did not require Computer Science I as a prerequisite for more advanced courses, assuming that if a student could pass Computer Science II, they didn't need to take the previous course. Choosing the better course allowed me to get a jump-start on learning more once I got to college. Although I did not end up completing my intended computer science minor due to too many course conflicts with my physics major, I still found it useful to have an advantage from my high school course. I continue to use the lessons I learned from my high school teacher (who excelled at teaching object-oriented programming and data structures) in my current software/programming-heavy research on the CMS experiment.
Full disclosure: the non-AP course did not contribute to my weighted GPA or class rank because I took it in the last semester of my senior year. The last semester was not counted since rankings had to be decided before the semester ended, both for reporting to colleges and for the purpose of valedictory and salutatory addresses during graduation.
Taking a non-honors or AP course only harms one's GPA (in this ranking system) if it replaces an honors or AP course. There have to be enough honors or AP courses offered to fill a student's entire schedule in order for this to be the case.
Ranking systems which do not weight honors or AP courses can also encourage students to achieve less. This can even happen when honors courses of different difficulties end up with the same weighting.
I think the real lesson to draw from such examples is that creating a measure by taking information which exists in a multidimensional space and projecting it into a single dimension can lead to perverse incentives. (A similar idea is mentioned in another comment in this thread, but I thought it worth pointing out the general principle.)
At least in the UK I've seen one conflict of this kind talked about quite frequently: the choice between getting a deep understanding of a subject, and learning how to do well on the exam.
This happens at all levels up to and including graduate degrees, but I have most experience in undergraduate admissions in mathematics, and looking at the qualifications directly before these (A-levels). Many UK universities admit principally on the basis of A-level results, and the exams for these have a certain number of standard style of question. It is possible to learn specifically how to answer this style of question, and that is often a good strategy for people trying to maximise their grade in a given amount of study time. When they get to university, however, and the mathematics gets more abstract, people who have learned the methods in this way tend to suffer in comparison to people who have a deep understanding of the basics, even if they're less good at complicated questions.
This is further complicated by the fact that Oxford and Cambridge interview students, which is an opportunity to probe how well they understand things which do not fit into the regular mould (it is possible to learn how to do well at these interviews, but in that case the signalling is a little closer to actually building human capital). This means that the best strategies for getting into different universities can vary significantly. So while it seems like a lot of our applicants have over-emphasised learning how to do exam questions, I'm not sure that this is the wrong strategy for them considering that they are applying for multiple universities.
When I planned to apply for university I had to find somewhere that would let me take A Levels, the cost of A Levels outside of school being prohibitive. Anyway, I eventually found a school that would let me do it. Naturally, however, the requirement to be in school from 8:30-15:00 allowed me far less time than I'd normally have to learn and pursue my own interests - the environment was utter hell if you were trying to learn in your free time. They didn't even really have a library you could go if you wanted somewhere quiet to think; they had a small room with books in that backed onto an open-plan classroom but it wasn't really suitable.
I resolved this by convincing the school change their registration procedures for the sixth form so that people could sign themselves in and out of school when they weren't meant to be in class.
Do I think I made the right choice? Well, it wasn't a bad choice. But there were better choices - I've since learned that some universities let you join without pre-existing qualifications if you do a bit of hoop-jumping, and I'd probably do that if I were doing it over again. Given what I knew then though I don't think I could have done much better.