Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Yield: A short-short story about an A student

“Should I answer it or leave it blank. There’s a penalty for wrong answers.”

David was taking the SAT for the fourth time and his score had gradually risen from an already lofty 1420 to 1510. That met his goal: 99th percentile, which would boost his chances of getting into his dream school, Harvard.

In addition, David had completed the requisite absurdity of taking all Advanced Placement (college-level) courses in high school and killing himself to get nearly all A’s at the expense of a social life. Too, he chose expeditious extracurriculars. For example, every college needs a tuba player and few applicants play the tuba. His application essay studiously trod the required line: balancing assertiveness and humility plus a safe foundational principle: urging more redistribution to women, minorities, and the poor.

Thus David got the thick envelope, which invited him to Visitas: “our April celebration for newly admitted students.”  Admissions weekends are more accurately but less appealingly described as yield boosters—Even Harvard worries about losing admitted students to competing universities. Yield is the ratio of enrollees to admits.

Visitas was thus filled with fun events as well as an invitation for admitted students to sample “selected” classes, that is, cherry-picked to be the most engaging. David decided to sample what wasn’t selected to maximize yield. So he left the beehive of admitted students, who were bubbling in their superiority and visions of a Harvard diploma opening fantastical career doors. Instead, David wandered through classroom buildings, peeking into classes. Each one was more boring and irrelevant than even high school: formulas of stochastic processes, Derrida deconstruction of patriarchal literature, a proof of the Cayley-Hamilton Theorem, socioeconomic antecedents of the first Peloponnesian War, chiaroscuro use by Gerrit van Honthorst.

“This is what I worked so hard for? This is what I prostituted myself for, gave up my teenage years for?” David then sat under a tree, thought for what must have been an hour, then pulled out his phone and ordered an Uber. “Logan Airport, please.”

David knew he’d not go to college, figuring that as a smart, hard working self-starter, the benefits of the diploma would be outweighed by his being able to hand-pick his learning opportunities and saving $300,000, which is the true full cost of four years at most selective private colleges. (Four years at a brand-name public costs, total sticker price, $200,000.) And many students take longer than four years to graduate. Plus, David liked that he would take charge of his life rather than toadying along the prescribed, boring, irrelevant, rite-of-passage path.

Nevertheless, David knew he had nothing to lose by, rather than turning down Harvard, deferring his admission for a year, which many colleges, including Harvard, allow. So he sent in the deferral form.

“But now what?” David enrolled in a top-rated Lynda.com course on entrepreneurship but felt isolated and so also enrolled in an honors American literature course at a community college. To see what it's really like to be a lawyer, he volunteered as a go-fer at his dad’s law firm but got to sit in on meetings and even ask questions. He applied for jobs as a personal assistant to a small business owner, figuring he’d learn a lot by seeing an entrepreneur in the real world. But the only person who would hire him, a mere high school graduate, was the owner of a one-person transmission shop who was longer on expedience than on ethics. Revulsed at seeing the owner spray paint a used transmission to make it appear rebuilt, David quit.

And in July, David felt no choice but...to yield. He wrote to Harvard’s director of admission: “I would like to withdraw my request for deferred admission. I’m excited to, this fall, begin my studies at Harvard.”  

I read this on YouTube.


Maria Lopez said...

Some critiques:
As far as I know determinants of eiganvectors don't exist. Also linear algebra is intensely relevant to machine learning as well as more academic things like classical and quantum electrodynamics.

The classical history class is, of course, irrelevant unless you want to be a professor.

My brother has worked in auto shops and got his first experience of this as a teenager.

While there are government regulations that provide perverse incentives to overcharge the customer if he was genuinely interested in cars he could have found a more honest ship.

David doesn't seem to have any interests of his own. Not even immature ones like anime.

Marty Nemko said...

Maria, I will trust you re the polynomial determinants of eigenvectors and so I've changed it to "proof of the Cayley-Hamilton Theorem."

I can't agree with you regarding his quitting the transmission shop. The story makes clear that his interest was in learning entrepreneurship, not cars. The article said that the transmission job was the only one he could get. Having, in his first experience working in a business, such gross dishonesty, he was chilled to the whole idea of being an entrepreneur.

He was interested enough to enroll in courses, including, for intellectual development, American literature so it seems a bit harsh to deride him as not having "any interests of his own. Not even immature ones like anime."

Nonetheless, I appreciate your caring enough to comment and for your years of reading my material even though you usually comment to point out the error of my ways.

Maria Lopez said...

My time to be humble. I know about linear algebra more than I know linear algebra although I regret not studying more engineering stuff.