The Hungry College Admission Games

Like a lot of American kids, I read [Lord of the Flies] in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn’t get the additional message. I wish they had just told us outright that we were savages and our world was stupid. — Paul Graham

Dear Kids,

I went to see the movie version of The Hunger Games the other day. I’m glad I read the New Yorker’s book review first as it prepared me to appreciate it as an allegory of the college admissions process. And while I have heard the ancient rallying cry of my people that “The Book Was Better!” I’d like to take a few moments to highlight what crucial things about going from High School into College this particularly sadistic and murderous dystopia has to share with us. What I saw was:

  • You have to work to make a mentor an invaluable asset.
  • You have to compete on your own terms to stand out.
  • You can use reputation to substitute for charisma.
  • You can win and still fail.

Let’s start off by looking at Haymitch Abernathy. He won the games before Katniss or Peeta were born. He has, presumably, seen years of kids come to his tutelage and yet die in the same stupidly predictable ways. So while he is introduced as a coarse and abrasive drunk, his experience is that the abstractly dehumanized kids need to tap his well of experience far more than he needs to be involved with their soon-to-be-over lives. But what I love about this mentor is that he works hard for his kids in ways that they don’t even comprehend until after the fact — but only after their actions have convinced him that they’ll capitalize on the opportunities he provides them with. His actions save both Katniss and Peeta, but he eschews the spotlight while they claim they saved each other.

Now I can’t tell you what your mentor — if you’ve worked hard on getting one to pay attention to you — is doing for you that you don’t know about.1 But what I can tell you is that your mentor’s perspective is likely to be skewed in one direction which makes them awesome at something (which you presumably want to emulate) and deficient at something else (which you probably don’t). We call this unfortunate trade-off “being human,” and we are trying to figure out how to fix it. But in the meantime, you’ll need to be watching for the gaps in the advice rather than just taking advice because it was given. As I explained to one of my students, “I’m just telling you what I would do if I were you, but since you’re the one doing this thing, you have to decide whether or not you want to take my advice.” The flip side of this was horrifyingly portrayed in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

As far as college admissions goes, Abernathy would be giving the kids ad hoc essay writing lessons, advising them on how to choose a good school, and then writing letters of recommendation after he was satisfied that they had a sound strategy for getting into and through college.

The second lesson of the film — and this is where I decided that I liked this movie — is that getting a perfect score on a test isn’t good enough; you have to compete on your own terms to stand out. Katniss was feeling proud of herself for nailing the target in the heart, but then realized that the judges weren’t paying any attention. The judges weren’t paying any attention because after 74 years of kids doing target practice (some of them trained specifically for target practice), nailing the target in the heart is ordinary. So while you might have a 4.0 GPA and be the best in your District 12 High School, that 4.0 GPA stops being special when you realize you’re competing against all of the other 4.0 GPAs from all of the other High Schools. And while the school councilors will say “Do soccer! Do debate!” the fact of the matter is that all of those other schools have soccer and debate, too. This is ordinary advice and no matter how many extracurricular activities you’re told to participate in, you’re not going to get away from the institutional banality of them. Katniss solves this problem by turning and shooting into her crowd of judges: suddenly her performance involves them and is, stunningly, about them. By breaking the framework of the competition, she shows that she’s superior to everybody who is still stuck inside the expectations of the competition.

I recall reading an article a couple of years ago that described the judging psychology in college admissions when looking at achievement-capped kids. It basically said that if you’ve got ordinary achievements, then they’ll be discounted by the evaluator who is seeing similar achievements on other applications and thinking “this looks common enough, I think I’d be able to do it too,” but an abnormal achievement that catches the evaluator off-guard may get a response of “I don’t know how this kid did this, and thus I am intrigued and wish to subscribe to their newsletter.”

But “Compete Different” is the advice I give to my students. There are seven billion people in the world. Being the best at anything ordinary is very hard to do and rarely lasts very long. But mixing and matching constantly developing skill-sets to develop creative combinations of competencies can let you carve out an odd little niche for yourself. It’s worked for me so far.

The third lesson of the film is that reputation can substitute for popularity. Katniss seems to detest crowds and fanfares in a way that I’ve not felt since my senior year of High School, a weakness that Haymitch says will make it difficult to get sponsors. Put another way, it’s easier to tell the scholarship committees how you’re improving other people’s lives if there are other people involved. But Katniss has a bit of reputation going for her: Peeta knows her hunting skills and Cinna knows her valor. Both of those guys are good at being popular and tapping into crowd-commonalities that Katniss is simply overwhelmed by. But because they recognize her reputation for actual skills and qualities, they put forth the effort to make her look good — as Haymitch explains to her, “he made you look desirable” — which she can then flip around and cite as her actual popularity without having to really change at all.

This is important because in the increasingly networked age, the adage that “it’s not what you know but who you know that matters” is being replaced with “it’s who knows you’re not a complete screw-up that matters” when it comes to having other people present opportunities for your capitalization. And this, combined with cheap computers, books, cameras, and web hosting are making it easier for intellectuals and introverts to build a reputation without having to put any effort into the seemingly unnatural process of becoming popular. Start developing your reputation for competing differently and competently early and have a lot to show off when it matters.2

The last big thing I want to bring out with regards to college admissions is that you can win and still fail. Just look at Cato: he got all of the prep on what to do to win the game. But in the end he realizes that even if he wins the game by killing everybody as he’s been trained to do, he doesn’t know what he’d be doing with his life. At that point he gives up and gets himself killed. And this is what people are actually worried about when they bemoan “teaching to the test” or the “unfair advantages of college admissions prep.” It’s not that what’s on the test isn’t important to the curriculum, but rather that it’s only important to the curriculum. They’re not worried about the 12 or 16 or 18 or even 21 year old taking the test. They’re worried about the 26 year old that probably has a bachelor’s degree but ran out of tests to take and has moved back in with their parents; a kid whose adulthood is doing anything but emerging because they can’t figure out how to go from being in a classroom with obvious and set targets to being in the real world full of sneaky and camouflaged opportunities. In the end, Katniss is a better person than Cato not just because she’s less of a homicidal maniac, but also because she’s got the life skills to hunt down an opportunity, kill it, skin it, and wear its antlers as a trophy of her victory. (Of course opportunities have antlers. You clearly don’t know what opportunities look like if you’re questioning me on this point.)

But when it comes to taking advice from a mentor or teacher or parent, do be sure to ask not how it’ll help you with college admissions, but with life. Because every little framework that is worth codifying at a small level connects into the larger framework of civilization somehow, assuming (dubiously) that it’s being done right. So the precise question is: how will this improve my life if I’m doing it right? And the answer isn’t “you’ll win” or “you’ll get into a good college,” but rather “you’ll progress towards enlightenment.” If your advisor can’t tell you that, then they probably can’t tell you how to do it particularly right, either. But, then again, enlightenment may be a very personal thing, so be wary of advice that won’t work for you.

That’s what I saw represented in the movie version of The Hunger Games. My thinking has been extensively influenced by Paul Graham’s writings on “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” and “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” which I am thus perpetually advising my students to read.

Good luck, and this is how to make the odds be in your favor.

Jason

1 And I’m not going to tell you what I’ve done for my students, either, though my students are free to ask.
2 That said, don’t show off gross breaches of decorum — enjoy your immaturity on your path to enlightenment, but don’t put it where any stranger or scholarship committee can see it.