A few days ago, the FBI charged dozens of high profile celebrity and wealthy families with attempting to use bribes to get their children admitted into elite universities, including Stanford and Yale.

There’s been a lot of discussion around this topic, and I thought I’d add in my comments as well.

My first (tongue-in-cheek) reaction was: Why would someone illegally bribe their way into an Ivy-caliber university when they can do so legally by donating a building instead?

I was reading a satirical essay from someone at the University of Pennsylvania who was “aghast” that none of the people arrested had tried to bribe their way into Penn. His sole consolation was that nobody tried to bribe their way into Cornell either.

I’ve always found our society’s focus on prestige and status peculiar.

When I was in high school, I remember the day after I was accepted into Stanford. Everybody started treating me differently.

I remember thinking that in the last 24 hours, my DNA had not changed; I was the same person I was before I was admitted — yet people were treating me very differently based on a single letter I received in the mail.

That seemed peculiar to me.

(Something similar happened four years later when I got job offers from all the top consulting firms. Suddenly several people wanted to be my “friend” that had pretty much ignored me the prior three-and-a-half years. Again, peculiar.)

A few years after I graduated from Stanford, a young woman was caught pretending to be a Stanford freshman. Even though she applied and got rejected, she snuck onto campus, found an empty dorm room to live in, and started going to classes.

She studied for finals, participated in dormitory social events, and was a member of everyday student life.

When she was finally caught and asked why she would do such a thing, she said that she was too ashamed to tell her parents that she didn’t get in.

About a decade ago, I used to live near the Stanford campus, which is right in the middle of Silicon Valley.

The people who live around the Stanford campus are a mix of university professors, venture capitalists, and people working in the technology sector.

In the span of two years or so, dozens of teenagers attempted suicide with several students being “successful” in ending their own lives.

The teenagers attempted suicide by jumping in front of the local commuter train.

The local school district contemplated solving the problem by posting a security guard near the train station.

At the same time, my oldest child was just about to enter kindergarten. I remember visiting several school information sessions in the area to see which elementary school might be the best fit for her.

At one of the information sessions, one of the parents asked the head of school, “What is the acceptance rate of your graduates?”

The head of school asked for clarification, “What do you mean?”

The parent clarified, “What percent of your graduates get into Harvard?”

The head of school was stunned by the question, as the average age of their students was only eight years old — a full decade away from entering college.

Over the last two years, I’ve been an alumni interviewer for Stanford undergraduate admissions. It has been an interesting process meeting the high school seniors in my area applying to Stanford.

I have been shocked… absolutely shocked… by the exceptional caliber of many of the students that do not get into Stanford.

I think prestigious opportunities and elite university educations have their place and can be quite useful. However, I don’t think prestige and status are significant enough to warrant being the sole or even primary focus of one’s life or career.

I’ve come across countless people who are wildly successful (by traditional standards) on the outside, but are either unhappy, miserable, or have ended their own lives.

(Two people I know of through a common acquaintance committed suicide just this past week. One was a prominent technology leader here in the Seattle area; the other a world-renowned economist.)

It’s important to separate the functional value of a prestigious or high-status opportunity versus the perceived (but incorrect) value that most people assume come with such achievement.

High achievement opportunities do open doors to new opportunities. I think that’s true. They do give you street credibility in that field. That’s true too.

However, if you feel like an inferior person before getting into Harvard, you’re going to feel like an inferior person at Harvard, and then you’re going to feel like an inferior person after graduating.

Prestige doesn’t solve self-esteem issues.

If you feel lonely and a lack of closeness with other people in your community, a prestigious opportunity doesn’t change that. If you don’t have close relationships before Harvard, you likely aren’t going to have them at Harvard, nor after Harvard.

There are plenty of “high-status” people who are lonely.

They are plenty of “low-status” people who are lonely too.

Status and loneliness are independent of each other.

Having an Ivy League diploma on your resume IS very useful for the first six seconds that your resume is being read by a busy resume screener.

For the other 31,535,994 seconds of the year, it doesn’t really matter much.

It’s important to recognize this distinction.

It doesn’t make you an inherently more important human being.

It doesn’t make your joy in life any greater.

It doesn’t make your grief in life any milder.

At the end of the day, you’re still a human being, just like everyone else.

I think Ivy League degrees and big brand names on your resume are useful tools in your life… but I will argue that they should not be the focus of your life.

By all means, seek out, collect, and use tools that help you in your life… just don’t mistake life’s tools with your life’s focus.

They are most definitely not the same.


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