Steve and David
Let’s try a simple experiment. Imagine that you’re an admissions officer at a competitive college, and you’re evaluating the following two applicants:
- David — He is captain of the track team and took Japanese calligraphy lessons throughout high school; he wrote his application essay on the challenge of leading the track team to the division championship meet.
- Steve — He does marketing for a sustainability-focused NGO; he wrote his application essay about lobbying delegates at the UN climate change conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Who impresses you more?
For most people, there’s little debate: Steve is the star.
But here’s the crucial follow-up question: Why is Steve more impressive than David?
The answer seems obvious, but as you’ll soon discover, the closer you look, the more hazy it becomes. To really understand Steve’s appeal, we will delve into the recesses of human psychology and discover a subtle but devastatingly power effect that will change your understanding of what it takes to stand out.
Steve is a real student, one of the many I profile in my new book on students who get into good colleges while still enjoying their high school lives. He currently attends Columbia University, which he describes as: “a school I would have never gotten into without my UN work.”
Here’s how his story unfolded…
As a high school sophomore, Steve stumbled into an opportunity to attend a UN conference in New York City, near where he lived. A believer in underscheduling, he had been “e-mailing every non-profit under the soon, looking for an unpaid internship.” Most organizations ignored him. One wrote back, however, and said they didn’t have a job for Steve, but they did have a slot for a student to accompany their delegation to an upcoming UN conference on children’s rights.
Steve jumped at the opportunity. He met delegates and learned about related NGOs. He even spoke up in a sub-committee meeting. This led to an invitation to attend an upcoming conference. And then another. In a short span, Steve became a UN insider.
“I loved it,” he recalls.
It was with this experience under his belt that, one year leader, Steve found himself in a conversation with a college student at a model congress conference.
“What sorts of things are you working on?”, she asked.
Steve mentioned the UN.
“The UN?”, she replied, “I work with them.”
As they continued to talk, the young woman revealed that she was involved with a non-profit called SustainUS — a group dedicated to helping American youth advocate for climate issues. SustainUS, at the time, had little money and no office — the employees were volunteers who worked virtually, mainly from college dorm rooms, organizing with Yahoo Groups and free web-based conference calls.
Steve proposed that he help the non-profit gain press coverage for their activism. “I like speaking with people, and I like writing, so that was a natural thing for me to work on,” he recalls. The group agreed.
“At 16, I was younger than the other members,” Steve told me. “But technology masked that.”
Over the next year, Steve called and e-mailed reporters, eventually scoring a few big hits, including a mention in Time Magazine’s Green Issue and a write-up in the Associated Press. As a reward for these efforts, the organization told Steve he could join the team traveling to the UN climate conference in Johannesburg to present a petition signed by American youth.
This was the experience Steve emphasized in his head-turning application essay.
Decoding Steve’s Story
With these details established, let’s return to our motivating question: Why is Steve more impressive than David? The obvious answers now spawn troubling complications:
- Explanation: Steve worked hard.
Issue: Being a varsity athlete requires many more hours of hard work than Steve’s efforts.
- Explanation: Steve revealed brilliance or natural talent.
Issue: It’s hard to identify any specific brilliance or talent in Steve’s story. His path required him to attend conferences and send pitches to reporters. Being captain of a varsity sports team, by contrast, requires great natural ability — both in terms of athleticism and leadership.
- Explanation: Steve showed “passionate” commitment.
Issue: So did David. He stuck with track through four grueling years and kept up his calligraphy throughout this same period.
- Explanation: Steve did something unusual, creative, and outside the structure of the school.
Issue: Japanese calligraphy is also unusual, creative, and outside the structure of the school.
Steve’s impressiveness is intuitive and inescapable, but as the above exercise reveals, rationalizing this reaction proves tricky. To sidestep this obstacle, we must appeal to the curious psychology of social comparison.
What happened inside your brain when you read the descriptions of David and Steve? According to a clever series of experiments conducted by G. Daniel Lassiter, a psychology professor at the University of Ohio, your first response was to look into the proverbial mirror. Or, as Lassiter describes it, somewhat more formally, in his 2002 paper on the subject: we have a “pervasive tendency…to use the self as a standard of comparison in [our] dispassionate judgments of others.”
Put another way, to evaluate a person’s accomplishments, we imagine ourselves attempting the same feat, allowing your own capabilities to provide a convenient benchmark for assessing others’.
(In Lassiter’s experiments, students took tests made up of difficult mathematical puzzles. He showed that when a student was asked to rate the intelligence of another student, this judging student used a self-assessment of his own intelligence, combined with how well he did on the test, to construct the rating.)
Let’s walk through the logic here. When you first encountered David and Steve, your brain began to compare them to yourself. In essence, your brain asked: “Could I do that? And if so, what would it require?”
For David, this question was easy to answer. Assuming you had more or less the same athletic ability, you could imagine yourself becoming captain of the track team: show up on time to practice, work hard, respect the coaches, etc. The Japanese calligraphy is even easier to imagine yourself learning — it requires only that you sign up for lessons. You might conclude that David has more natural athletic ability and is a harder worker than yourself, but neither of these assessments leads you to think of him as a star.
(Admissions officers would agree. They’re not looking to build hardworking and diligent classes. Instead, they want to build classes that are interesting.)
Then there’s Steve. Your attempts to mentally simulate Steve’s path likely derailed. How the hell does a 16-year old end up lobbying delegates at an international UN conference? Your failed simulation then lead to a powerful conclusion: he must possess something special. This conclusion is soon followed by a feeling of profound impressiveness.
I call this outcome the failed simulation effect, which I formally define as follows:
The Failed Simulation Effect
Accomplishments that are hard to explain can be much more impressive than accomplishments that are simply hard to do.
This is the secret of Steve. He’s not brilliant. super passionate, or ultra-hard working — instead, he accomplished something that’s hard to explain. This is why he is more impressive than David, even though his high school career required less time devoted to extracurricular activities.
“Stanford Doesn’t Take Students with B’s!”
To help cement this concept, let’s consider the story that inspired the title of this post…
In the late spring of 2004, Kara, a junior at an elite Bay Area private high school, felt nervous as she arrived for a meeting with her college counselor. Over the past three years, Kara had avoided the crush of competitive activities and AP courses that her peers suffered through to impress their reach schools. Even more galling to the hyper-competitive students at her school, she had even allowed the occasional B to creep onto her transcript.
(When her best friend tried to get Kara to drop a difficult linear algebra class, Kara, to her friend’s horror, simply shrugged and replied, “I like linear algebra.”)
“You’re on the cross country team, which is good,” the counselor began, when Kara sat down in her office. “But you’re not the president of any clubs, and with these grades, you’re just not going to get into your reach schools.”
Kara stammered a response, but was cut off: “Kara, Stanford doesn’t take students with B’s!”
This counselor, however, had not taken the failed simulation effect into account. It’s true that Kara had avoided an overloaded schedule, and in general enjoyed her high school experience. (“I was perceived as the relaxed kid at my high school,” Kara told me recently, grinning sheepishly as if admitting a crime. ) But her main activity, when described right, thwarts any attempt to be mentally simulated: she had developed a technology-based health curriculum that was adopted in ten states.
When you dig deeper, Kara’s path to this accomplishment was much like Steve’s — serendipitous occurrences developed, over time, into something inexplicable. But these details are irrelevant, because before you can ponder the reality of the story, the failed simulation effect has taken hold.
Indeed, in defiance of her counselor’s protestations, Kara did get accepted to Stanford — not to mention Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and MIT, where she now attends.
The Most Important Effect You’ve Never Heard Of
I devote an entire third of my new book to exploring the failed simulation effect. I also made it a cornerstone of Study Hack’s zen valedictorian philosophy. So it’s clear that I’m a huge believer in its power. This being said, it’s still fair to ask whether this neat abstract concept actually plays a role in real world admissions decisions.
To answer this question, I turned to Dr. Michele Hernandez. Dr. Hernandez is a former assistant dean of admissions at Dartmouth College and the author of the bestselling book, A is for Admission. She currently runs an elite college counseling service, and offers a popular 4-day application boot camp.
In other words, when it comes to figuring out what works in college admissions, Dr. Hernandez is the person to ask.
“College admissions officers are only human,” she told me. “If they stop to say to themselves as they read a file, ‘wow, I wonder how Nancy managed to do this,’ that will be a huge plus.”
Though the specific name, failed simulation effect, is new to Dr. Hernandez, the general concept is not: “In my private practice, I always push students to try something like this that will make them stand out. My most successful students are those that take me up on my offer.”
Such students, however, are surprisingly rare, and this is due to a thorny reality: it can be incredibly difficult to put this effect into practice.
A Simulated Catch-22
Like many students, your instinct on first hearing about the failed simulation effect was probably to think to yourself: “What could I do, like Steve or Kara, that will generate this same reaction?”
Unfortunately, the chances are slim that you’ll come up with a good answer.
Here’s why: If you’re able to think up an activity that will generate this effect, then, by definition, you were able to simulate the steps required to complete the activity — otherwise, it wouldn’t have come up as a possibility. If you’re able to simulate these steps, then it’s likely that other people could simulate them as well. The result: the activity will not generate the effect.
It’s a catch-22: if you can think up the activity, it won’t have the traits you need.
Fortunately, Steve’s story highlights an escape from this paradox.
The Insider Advantage
Sophomore-year Steve could not have woken up one morning and thought: “I got it! I’ll find a youth-focused sustainability organization and volunteer to work on their media outreach so I can earn a trip to a UN conference!”
But for junior-year Steve, who had already done work with the UN, leading him to meet a representative of SustainUS, this failed simulation effect-generating idea was completely natural.
The difference is that junior-year Steve had become an insider. We can generalize this observation into an effective strategy for finding similar projects:
- Choose a field.
If you have a deep interest, this makes the choice obvious, but don’t over think this decision: you don’t need some mythical perfect match with some equally mythical innate talents or passions — your interest will grow with your involvement.
- Get your foot in the door.
Join a community; volunteer; attend a conference: whatever exposes you to the inside workings of the field
- Pay your dues.
The more you exceed expectations, the quicker you’ll rise to insider status.
- Once you’re an insider — and not before — seek projects with failed simulation effect potential.
If you start this search before your an insider, you’ll end up with generic ideas that are easily simulatable.
In other words, devote your energies towards becoming an insider and head-turning project possibilities will eventually come along for free.
Putting the Pieces Together
As you age, the failed simulation effect becomes less relevant. At its core is the surprising juxtaposition of an impressive accomplishment and the young age of its progenitor. When you’re 25, by contrast, and trying to craft a remarkable life, the failed simulation effect won’t save you from actually becoming really good at something rare and valuable.
But for a high school student, this effect can provide a strong foundation for building an impressive college application without living an overloaded lifestyle.
As mentioned, I devote an entire third of my new book to detailed case studies and step-by-step instructions for how to realistically integrate this advice into your life. If you’re serious about this philosophy, you might consider pre-ordering a copy. In the meantime, however, the ideas laid out in this article should be more than enough to get you started: quit the key club; ditch the expensive mission trip; drop the 5th and 6th AP course from your schedule; and put your attention toward becoming an insider.
Then once you’re on the inside, let the failed simulation effect lead you to an uncluttered, meaningful, and happy high school life.
(Photo by Luke Redmond)