I am a volunteer alumni interviewer for Harvard College and work as a part-time college admissions consultant.
Last year, I interviewed more students with perfect SAT and AP scores than I can remember. Almost every student had a GPA in the 4-point-something stratosphere. There was a student who'd placed in a national math and science competition, an investment whiz kid whose portfolio gained 40 percent this year, and a prep school scholarship student who talked to me about being on welfare and standing up to his abusive father. Every single student I interviewed was the president of something, and many oversaw school organizations that had hundreds of members. There was a banjo player and a soccer star and quite a few who were in the first in their families to go to college.
Not a single one of the students I interviewed was admitted to Harvard.
Don't blame me. I didn't recommend every student I interviewed, but I did write positive reviews for about a third of them. The fact is, it has never been harder to gain admission to an elite school. The admissions process seems to defy gravity -- the applicants I see only get more qualified with every passing year.
"I've interviewed maybe 50 students over 15 years," an older alum told me recently. Despite some real superstars in the batch, only two (in those 15 years) were accepted.
But here's the thing: Students and parents never believe me when I tell them not to worry too much about the applications process, but where you go to school matters far less than it ever has before. Frank Bruni's recent article at the New York Times -- and his new book -- is about how students at slightly less selective schools go on to do just as well as their more elite brethren. And according to the Wall Street Journal, even big name banks -- one of the bastions of credentialism and old-boy networking -- are opening up their recruiting process to students from non-top-10 schools.
When I was a freshman at Harvard, Facebook had not yet been founded, Silicon Valley was still recovering from its devastating 2000 crash, newspaper revenue was still near its peak, Borders was still a company, and neither social media nor the "Uber economy" were a thing. It was a world in which it was not a questionable decision to major -- as I did -- in the humanities.
Am I ever sorry I did. Today, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the tech sector is so prevalent that everyone who does not work in it is viewed a bit skeptically. The important questions around here are definitely not "what school did you go to" or "what was your GPA" -- it's "are you an engineer?" and "how much is your startup worth?" Once upon a time, I was proud of being offered admission to Harvard. But today, my resume would probably be better off had I skipped those four years and spent the time at home learning how to code.
I credit the resurgence of Silicon Valley and the explosion of startup culture with the employer shift away from elite schools. The shortage of engineers in the Bay Area remains so intense that college pedigree is probably one of the last things on recruiter's minds. The demand for engineers has most notably sucked away talent from finance, but I know students who have dropped out of law and med school to join startups. I won't try to get into the valley's ongoing problems with diversity and sexual harassment, but relative to all things pedigree, the Bay Area is an impressive meritocracy. If you can code, you'll do relatively well.
A degree from an elite school does retain some value. A few pockets around the nation -- for example, institution-heavy Washington, DC -- still give preference to top-tier credentials. The main point of the Wall Street Journal article I mentioned above is how much harder students of second-tier colleges have to work to land interviews with big banks, which heavily rely on recruitment processes established at big-name schools. Harvard itself has taught me a poise and a confidence that I probably wouldn't have picked up a commuter school. And I now work in the tech sector despite my lack of a tech background -- the result of a career change I might have been less willing to make if I didn't have a Harvard degree to fall back on.
But overall, we live in a world that is constantly reinventing itself. More than ever, it's about what you can do -- not where you came from.