Novel Thinking in College Admissions - What Size Pond?

Chris Boehm
Hate to admit it, I didn’t read much in my childhood. Even resisted picking books up in college until well into my adult years (measured in age, not maturity). Perhaps, because I read at a snail’s pace or because I didn’t have the patience to appreciate the benefits of losing myself in a great book.
I’m happy to say I’ve grown to appreciate reading and the mental stimulation it provides. I’m happier and more fulfilled when I pick up a book and feel reading also reduces my stress, improves my focus, increases my knowledge, and makes me a better problem solver. I’m also told, at my age, it prevents cognitive decline – which is always a good thing. I also read to find nuggets of inspiration to make me better at my job and help our students with their college process. It’s amazing how, with an open mind, you can find resources that apply to the college process in almost anything you read.
This is the first entry of Novel Thinking in College Admission. I trust that my peers and parents navigating the college search and application process will find it thought-provoking and perhaps, just maybe, useful.
Entry One: What Size Pond? Inspiration taken from David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell (Chapter 3: Caroline Sacks).
The premise of Gladwell’s book is that in “lopsided conflicts,” underdogs can overcome insurmountable odds and create amazing moments by focusing on their strengths and attacking the weaknesses of a foe. He also examines how overcoming “desirable difficulties,” such as dyslexia, can create opportunities to excel. He uses the examples of the book’s title characters, Lawrence of Arabia, and Gary Cohn (then president of Goldman Sachs, and now vice chairman of IBM).
In chapter three, Gladwell compares the college education of Caroline Sachs (real student, fictional name) to Impressionist painters of the 1860s. Perhaps you’ve heard of Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas. They bucked the Salon (the largest, most selective, and restrictively critical art exhibition in Paris). Frustrated by the inability of judges to see beyond a particular style and the limit to how many pieces you could show, these starving artists started the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptures, and Engravers. This exhibit had no jury and no medals and the combined 165 pieces shown would now be worth over a billion dollars. The Impressionists decided to be big fish in their smaller pond rather than battling the smaller fish within the big pond of the Salon.
Caroline Sacks chose to enroll at Brown University as a pre-med student, inspired by the flexible curriculum, intellectually curious peers, and interdisciplinary options. Caroline had graduated at the top of her high school class, earned fives on all her AP exams, and took college courses in political science and multivariable calculus. By every indicator, she belonged at an Ivy League school, “in the big pond.” However, in her second semester she struggled in chemistry and retook the class in her sophomore year and performed toward the bottom of the class. The rigor and competition among classmates was intimidating and she realized that many of her peers were picking up the information she struggled to retain, with ease. Following general chemistry’s attack on her self-esteem, Caroline had another miserable experience second semester in organic chemistry, and despite her love of science, Caroline decided to change majors.
Gladwell hypothesized that Caroline, while struggling, was probably still in the 99th percentile of all college science students. She was unfortunately in the wrong pond; a big and deep one with amazingly gifted fish that she was comparing herself against. This comparison damaged her confidence and defeated her passion for science. Gladwell shared that what Caroline Sacks experienced was called “relative deprivation.” That Caroline didn’t recognize her talents on a global level, instead seeing her local performance against her fellow Brown students – a likening that’s hard to measure up to.
Gladwell shares that had Caroline swam in a smaller (perhaps more nurturing or less ruthless) pond, she would have a greater chance to graduate with her intended major. He compared the success rates of STEM majors in the bottom third of the class at Harvard to the top third at Hartwick College (a wonderful liberal arts college in upstate NY that accepts 90% of its applicants). The bottom third of students at Harvard had higher test scores and arguably better overall candidacies, but earned a STEM degree only 15% of the time. While the top of the class at Hartwick succeeded at a 55% rate. Interestingly, Hartwick’s bottom third succeeds at a similar rate to Harvard’s, and the success distribution (top, middle, bottom) is consistent across many colleges with few outliers. Students in the top third of schools across the country succeed at a 50 – 55% rate and a 15 – 20% rate in the bottom third.
What’s the conclusion? First, Gladwell’s theories do have some holes and use limited statistical data and ignore possible influential variables – however, there’s a lot of merit as well. Students need to know self and need to be truthful when deciding what type of an academic environment they will succeed in. We must be willing to change the statement, “I want to get into the best college possible.” and adapt it to, “I want to get into the best possible college…for ME!” If we don’t, students may end up swimming upstream from the start in their new communities. High school students need to decide if they thrive in an academically competitive environment and how they are influenced by – class size, teacher attention (nurturing and understanding), educational delivery (lecture, discussion, project based, co-op, research), talent of the rest of the fish in the school (pun intended), and their ability to be scholastically resilient. Through introspection and reflection students must be honest in their assessments of self. Parents, counselors and teachers can contribute to this discussion to help students. The college search and selection process is about finding communities that give a student the best possible chance to succeed academically, socially, and extracurricularly. Prior to enrolling, if Caroline Sacks was told she had a 15% chance of graduating with a science degree from Brown and a 55% chance at the University of Maryland (her second choice), what would she have done with this information? Would she have chosen a non-science degree from Brown or decided to stay the course toward medical school at the University of Maryland? No one enjoys the realization that they’re intimidated by the abilities of others or admit to failure – that’s why it’s better to have these discussions as hypotheticals prior to them becoming reality. Students, be frank with yourself, choose wisely, and know that honesty will increase confidence and improve results. Good luck choosing your potential ponds and learning more about what type of a fish you really are.
Archmere Academy is a private, Catholic, college preparatory co-educational academy,
grades 9-12 founded in 1932 by the Norbertine Fathers.