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Trials of Admission

Trials of Admission
Published on Apr 1, 2024.

It's common practice for tribes to put new members through a trial before letting them in. New members must prove themselves worthy, and then the group welcomes them in with a powerful experience that psychologically brands them as one of their own.

The point of the trials is to make sure new members embody the values of the tribe, and care enough about the tribe that they are willing to make sacrifices for it. Because being part of a tribe requires sacrifice. The most necessary, of course, being the subjugation of individual identity in favor of the identity that the tribe imposes instead.

So when I was young, and I wanted to enter my tribe, the tribe of the elite, I also went through trials. We just called them college admissions.

In our tribe, getting into college is a rite of passage, because it's how we prove ourselves worthy. People take it for granted as a part of growing up. Just like getting your first car or having a boyfriend or girlfriend, you're going to apply to college. It's just natural.

But the truth is that college admissions are anything but natural.

Getting into college, especially the ones at the top of the charts, is a diabolical game. And like a lot about this world, the game is fake and rigged, even though we treat it like some sacred process of selection.

I know, because in high school I spent years learning how to crack the code. After finishing homework, late at night, I would spend hours on web forums like College Confidential, where students ask what their chances are to get into their dream schools.

Reading those forums was like deciphering a code. Kids talk in shorthand and inside baseball, dropping acronyms like ECs, LORs, AP, ISEF. But the most important word, the one that everyone kept talking about, was "AdComs". It was short for the "admission committees" at colleges that decide who gets in.

The forums would go into incredible detail speculating on the inner workings of the mysterious AdComs. Kids devised hypothetical scoring rubrics, often built on unconfirmed rumors. "This is how many points you get for your grades, this is how many for the SAT I, the SAT II, this is for the extracurriculars, and this is for the X factor."

What any of these markers meant, or whether they measured anything of real human value other than your ability to follow directions blindly, was besides the point. No one was naive enough to approach college admissions with honesty – no one who wanted to get in, anyway.

People who haven't trawled the forums might thing that "strong extracurriculars" means doing lots of things. Somewhere they pick up the idea that colleges want "well-rounded" students. Someone who played in the orchestra, organized blood drives, served as the president of 3 clubs. I guess because those are the kind of people that we like.

But if you spend hours poring over what former adcom members say, if you stay up nights and read their books, what colleges actually want is the complete opposite. They want students who will become rich and famous as alumni, and they think that happens when people are extraordinarily good at one thing. So they are looking for students who have a very clear, single-dimensional profile. There are lots of archetypes that work – Math Prodigy (future Wall Street quant), Budding Entrepreneur (future tech mogul), World-class Violinist (future Chicago Symphony orchestra). You just need to know what you are when you apply, and present your self accordingly.

I gobbled up books on college admissions, with pictures of Harvard graduates on the covers in their school sweatshirts, promising to tell you the secret of the adcoms. I remember this one brother-and-sister author duo, Gen and Kelly Tanabe, who had won $100k+ in scholarships and went to Harvard debt-free. Over the years, they wrote the same book over and over and over again, on the essays guaranteed to get you into the top colleges (combined, they have 14 books on this!).[1]

What this entire cottage industry of forums, books, and fly-by-night consultants[2] promised to reveal were the magic spells you must chant to pass the trials of admission, in the form of the personal essays that adcoms wanted to hear:

In example after example, they showed me how to trump up ordinary experiences to make them sound like they fit some impressive mold. And when I applied, I wrote an essay about moving away from home to go to a more competitive school, about overcoming the challenge of leaving behind everyone I knew to pursue academic ambitions. In truth, this wasn't really the most important thing in my life, not even top 10, and moving was hardly my choice (my parents decided it), but the story plucked all the right notes and heartstrings, and it worked.

But when I got the acceptance, it felt emptier than I expected. This trial, I had learned, was not about honesty. It was not about who I really was, or what I really think. The game is about impressing the adcoms. It's about who they are, what they think.

Like all trials, this one tested me to see if I had what it took to be part of the tribe. But it wasn't testing real intelligence, nor integrity or empathy or creativity, but something else.

The real thing the trial was testing was my ability to bullshit. How willing I was to do it, how quickly I picked it up, how deeply I gave myself over to it. Because the world that opened up after this trial, at colleges and the corporate halls beyond, was built on it.

  1. At some point, they started their own scholarship, as a way to "give back", but they barely gave out any actual money and people have started to realize it's probably a scam. ↩︎
  2. Sometime my senior year at Stanford, I started editing college essays for one of these companies. They'd mail me a pack of essays, and I'd get paid something like $50 for each one that I edited. Though it was clear that "editing" was cover for basically rewriting people's essays, and turning their regular life experiences into something that might fit one of those admissions profiles colleges look for. ↩︎