Gaming the Ivy League?

by / 0 Comments / 156 View / November 22, 2014

Two months ago, Businessweek published an article that sparked significant debate over what Ivy League and other top-tier colleges really look for.  Steven Ma is the founder of ThinkTank, a San Fransisco-based tutoring company that focuses on helping kids apply to top schools.  Ma claims that any child with the requisite grades, test scores, and extracurricular involvement can get in – he draws on his background as a hedge fund analyst to create an algorithm that he claims will accurately predict a given student’s odds of admission to a top college.

As the odds get longer, Ma’s prices get steeper; a “guaranteed admission” package aimed at an Ivy League school can cost up to $600,000, which is only partially refunded if the child isn’t admitted. Apart from Ma’s prices, his so-called guarantee of admission is falling under criticism from admissions officers and internet moguls alike.  Stanford’s dean of admissions calls Ma’s approach “gaming the system.”. CEO of SearchQuant Chris Zaharias has called Ma a cheater and says that he is perpetuating unfairness in admissions.

Ma acknowledges that his program might be  putting too much emphasis on getting into top-tier schools, but claims that the main perpetuator of this emphasis is the parents of the children that he works with.  Ma boasts a high success rate to back up his assertions about the efficacy of his tutoring and says that he feels better coaching his clients and acting as a patient mentor rather than leaving mentoring up to overworked and over-anxious parents. I absolutely don’t blame Ma for making money where he can and with fully informed clients.  It is quite ridiculous to me that some parents would pay over twice Harvard’s sticker price just so their child would get into the school.

However, Ma points out that immigrant parents in affluent areas generally view admission to a top-tier school as the primary indicator of success.  If the parents are truly informed about where their money is going and still want to patronize ThinkTank, then it’s their decision.  From the article, it seemed like many of ThinkTank’s services, like tutoring and guidance on extracurriculars, are available at much lower prices, but perhaps without the option of guaranteed admission. This raises an interesting question: can the qualities that top-tier colleges look for be quantified so precisely?

I think they can, to a point.  It’s common knowledge that most Ivy students have test scores and GPA’s within a certain range and extracurriculars with a certain degree of involvement, but I also think that algorithms can downplay certain qualities that might offset a shortcoming in any category.  Qualities like creativity, commitment, and overcoming adversity are touted as paramount to a stellar application, yet they are not easily measured.  In fact, for top-tier schools looking to create a well-rounded and diverse class, these “immesurable” qualities may even take slight precedence over measurable ones.

Considering Ma sets a requisite minimum GPA, SAT score, and level of extracurricular involvement, his guarantee doesn’t seem far-fetched to me, especially since he works with predominantly wealthy students who already have great opportunities to get involved in their community.  He already takes care of the measurable criteria in admissions and gives students more opportunities to showcase the immeasurable qualities. Ultimately, Ma is just acting as a knowledgeable (if overpriced) guidance counselor with a mind for statistics.  I think admission to a top-tier school will always be a bit of a gamble, but as Ma shows, it helps to have the cards stacked in your favor.