2019 admissions scandal

“There is a front door, there is a back door, and I’ve created a side door.” William Singer may have been thinking outside the box, but I suspect he’s soon going to be in a different (and much less metaphorical) sort of box — one well-suited for lots and lots of thinking.

Anyhow, I’d like to mention a few related points.

First is that while only the “side door” is illegal, the “back door” (i.e. endowing a building in exchange for admission) is, let’s just say, worth our while to re-examine, as a society. (Plenty more to say here, but I’m sure others will make this point better than I can in the coming days.)
(UPDATE: Sure enough, here’s The Guardian’s take.)

The other points I want to make involve my experience as a test-prep professional and student coach.

Some years ago, I had the exquisitely horrible experience of preparing a student for an admissions test so well than the student got in despite what had been impossible odds… and yet I prepared the student in such a narrow way that the student wound up dropping out of that college later due to lack of ability to keep up with the demanding pace.  (Since then, I’ve focused my test-prep on becoming a brighter student rather than on becoming a better test-taker.)  My point here is that on balance, the system still more or less works to reward merit and to discourage cheating.  It just doesn’t do it as well or as strongly as it should. This can be fixed.

Also, please indulge me as I run some numbers.  Median lifetime earnings for a college graduate is in the $3.5MM to $4.0MM range.  A standard deviation’s worth of admissions score increase correlates with a 3% to 7% increase in lifetime earnings, which is in the ballpark of $200,000.  One standard deviation’s increase, while no mean feat, is well within the capability of a skilled and experienced coach to catalyze. And presumably these numbers are even higher in certain predictable circumstances.  What these folks have tried to buy is more closely equivalent to three standard deviations’ change in prospects, so worth over half a million (present-day) dollars. My point here is that the expenditures made by these families, while both illegal and unethical, are otherwise arguably economically rational. So it should be no great surprise that this sort of thing goes on, because it’s a good return on investment if you don’t get caught (and if you frame your kids as an investment). There will always be a taker for this sort of thing.

To be clear: I’m not condoning it; I’m not aware of it in my circle; and I actually do scout for it in order to protect the integrity of the related professions in my area. I’m just saying that part of the current function of the higher education system is to lock in class privilege, and it has become more efficient in this respect than is probably a good idea.

Learning styles

What skills should tutors have for accommodating visual / auditory / kinesthetic learners? None, I’m afraid; that’s simply not a thing.

And yet, many students’ lived experiences suggests that it is. Why?

I suspect it’s for more or less the same reasons that September babies are overrepresented among elite athletes: a small preference or advantage early on leads to more practice with a particular method, which becomes self-reinforcing.

More valuable than identifying learning styles, I think, is identifying skills that are necessary, but whose absence can go unnoticed.

(Then again, maybe the real moral of the story is that utility can be more important than truth.)

Unknown unknowns

You probably remember the quote:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

When it comes to STEM tutoring, test preparation, and contest preparation for especially strong students, this is a shockingly important concept.  After all, strong students know a lot; they know what they know; and they are aware of things that they ought to know but don’t yet.

But typically there are things that they are missing that they don’t even know that they are missing.  And this is where most of the real trouble lies.  I help these students recognize these “unknown unknowns” in their academic lives.

The most common unknown unknown is a deficit in one of three qualities (which some colleagues helped me identify in a previous post): 

  • Fluent: the successful student knows the material and how it all interconnects.
    Otherwise, success is necessarily limited (of course). This category includes not only “I need to study more” but also “I had memorized that fact, but didn’t how it was relevant to this question.”
  • Present: the successful student is fully focused when engaging with the material.
    Otherwise, knowledge doesn’t matter; you’ll still flub it, e.g. by misreading the question, answering a different but related question, making an arithmetic error, doing too much in one’s head rather than on paper… in essence, a forehead-slapper. This is often missing in students who are so fluent that they aren’t used to having to focus 100% of their attention.
  • Bold: the successful student is willing and able to make progress with incomplete information.
    It’s often called creativity, critical reasoning, or problem-solving. But at its core, it’s about reasoning successfully even when some pieces of the puzzle appear to be missing. This is often missing in students who are so fluent that they aren’t used to having anything less than complete information in the first place.

That’s it in a nutshell: to be extremely successful academically, you should aim to be fluent, present, and bold. But most strong students consider any academic issue to be a failure only of fluency, which means they often use the wrong tools for solving their problems.

This can cause extreme frustration, and can threaten both morale and identity.

My diagnostic systems identify gaps in these categories, and my interventions help students build the new habits that bridge these gaps.  This eliminates these frustrating “unknown unknowns” for most students.

I’m glad to finally have a way to easily discuss these issues with students and parents, so that we can all help the student as a cohesive team.

The price and the value

Working with me and my team is more expensive than working with most tutors. That’s because what we do is actually different in a few ways. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting good value for your money.

Does one of these describe you?

  • You need the right answers to math problems
  • You need to know the techniques for solving certain math problems
  • You need to know how to read a math book more easily and effectively
  • You need better study skills
  • You need to feel less anxiety in your class or during tests

If so, then we can help you, but you can probably find good help for less money. (Even if you need many of the above things, it’s probably worth looking around.)

Or are you looking for something more like this?

  • You want your classes to go better, but don’t know what more you could be doing
  • You want to understand your own mind better, and understand why you’re actually having trouble
  • You want to get better at solving problems, especially when you feel underprepared
  • You want to learn cognitive skills that will benefit you for decades
  • You want to excel at math competitions through creative thought, rather than by memorizing obscure math
  • You want an expert co-strategist

If so, then I respectfully suggest that you’re in the right place. The price is high, because it’s difficult to do this work well.

But that’s exactly what we do, and we’re grateful to get to do work we love.

Thank you for allowing us to give these benefits to you and your family.

What straight-A students get wrong

Adam Grant just wrote a lovely piece in the New York Times that points out that, as he puts it, “academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence.”

He’s right, and for the right reasons, but a quick skim of the piece might lead you astray.

The key insight isn’t that “slackers win over the long haul.” Instead, it’s this: we’re always choosing between “explore and exploit,” and exploration is more powerful early on.

So don’t blindly optimize for the rules you’re given.  The dominant strategy over the long haul is to run little experiments that help identify options that are not “on the menu” but which are nonetheless available.

What this means for students in high school and college is that it’s not necessarily best just to do whatever everyone tells you to do, as well as you can figure out how to do it. It’s better to reserve some of your time and energy for little trials and explorations.

Study a new subject.  Try a new study method.  Meet some new people.  Experience the discomfort of failure (preferably, in a context where the long-term consequences will be minimal). And so forth.

 

 

A few quick examples of how I use this with students

  • When my students make errors, I help them see whether it’s an “I didn’t know enough math” error or a different type entirely, e.g. “I didn’t approach this as creatively as I could have,” or “I was on auto-pilot, rather than giving this my full attention.”
  • In Chapter 20 of my book How to Be a Brighter Student, I get into this in some detail. I’ll include an excerpt in the comments below.
  • When students experiencing trouble shifting to this perspective, we often discover the need to discuss mindset and/or stress. (If you have the book, see Chapter 5, Harnessing Your Mindset, and Chapter 9, Stress: A Primer, for more detail.)

 

Some detail from Chapter 20 of  “How to Be a Brighter Student

GETTING HELP
As you may have noticed, making important life decisions is mostly regarded by our culture as something best left to the experts: first your parents make decisions for you, then college counselors, then graduate advisors, then professional mentors and managers, and on and on and on.

This isn’t necessarily such a bad thing: experience often leads to better results. (Also, there are certain kinds of mental tasks related to decision-making that become biologically easier after one’s early 20’s, so advisors for students may be especially helpful.)

Sometimes these experts will be amazing professionals with fantastic, groundbreaking advice for you. On the other hand, sometimes they’ll just be a “safety net” of decent advice, so your very worst decisions won’t be too bad. You need to be able to tell the difference.

Ultimately, you’d prefer to make your own decisions, perhaps informed by the wisdom of others, but not defined by it or by them.

GOING IT ALONE
Most decisions are informed by your “autopilot.” You make decisions at least partly (if not entirely) by seeing that the current situation matches some past situation (possibly in relevant ways, and possibly not), and then doing in the present whatever you think was the right thing to do in the past. (See Gladwell’s Blink and Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow for more in-depth knowledge on this.) This is not a bad thing, but it’s useful to understand how to balance this important but unconscious force with your conscious, executive mind.