The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do ultra-selective colleges change lives? I say usually not, but this much richer author says yes.

Jamie Beaton charges up to $25,000 for admission advice, but his new book is only $22.

People walk on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 2018. (Charles Krupa/AP)

In the frequent debates over college admissions in the United States, an important point of contention has been this: Some people think it is fine to focus on getting into the most selective colleges and universities. Some don’t.

I wrote a college admission guide in 2003, “Harvard Schmarvard,” that argued mania for the Ivies was unhealthy and misplaced. I pointed to research indicating that the name on your college diploma has little effect on your success in life.

Now I have before me a just-published college admission guide that disagrees with me. It embraces our nation’s best-known colleges with a fervor I have rarely seen, even at their football games. The book is “Accepted! Secrets to Gaining Admission to the World’s Top Universities,” by Jamie Beaton. He is a good writer who grew up in New Zealand and who has, in his mid-20s, built an admissions consulting and tutoring empire said to be worth $460 million.

Beaton’s success charging $10,000 to $25,000 for admission advice has brought both admiration and controversy. I am evaluating him just by his book and our email exchanges. “Accepted!” is intriguing because it is the most intelligent and detailed justification I have seen for desiring the most selective colleges. I understand better what may have motivated parents charged in a 2019 college admissions bribery scandal involving several brand-name schools.

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Beaton’s book, like his company, is focused on the slice of college applicants who yearn for admission to undergraduate institutions that will make them attractive, when they graduate, to recruiters from private equity, artificial intelligence, management consulting, investment banking and other top-paying professions. His book will work best for college applicants with big-money dreams, but also has some smart tips for those with different priorities.

His chapter on how to write a good admission essay is excellent. He includes the need for self-deprecation so the applicant will not seem too conceited. He argues for depth rather than breadth in extracurricular activities. He advises rich clients — those who can afford his fees — not to mention as key activities on their college applications any summer visits to exotic climes that their parents paid for. He wisely recommends learning more about real life by working at McDonald’s or KFC.

Beaton avoids the whiff of snobbery that has ruined, at least for me, other books focusing on getting into top colleges. A 1999 college guide by a former Dartmouth admissions officer said this about Ivy League admissions officers: “The majority of this group did not graduate from any highly selective college, let alone an Ivy League one. [Many] are not expert readers … and most of them are not scholars or intellectuals. … What I am trying to say without shocking too much is that the very best of applicants will often be brighter than many of those who will be evaluating them.”

If anything, Beaton gives ultra-selective admissions people too much credit. In his book he says job recruiters should be grateful for the “heavy lifting” that admissions officers have already done for them “in assessing vast swathes of young people and deciding who can get in and who gets rejected.” The most candid Ivy admissions officers have admitted to me that each year they reject or put on bloated wait-lists hordes of young people for whom they don’t have room who are just as bright and accomplished as the ones they admitted.

Applications to such schools are a crapshoot, but so is much of life. What saves our higher education system is that there are many non-Ivy schools — including most of the big state universities — that have what the most promising applicants need to get where they want to go.

Beaton is an unusually bright and energetic person with Hobbesian views. “From the moment we are born,” he writes in the book, “we are trained to compete for all things — for food, for partners, for a place to live, for our beliefs and more.” A lot of us grow up without such training. His competitive streak leads him in some instances to analyses that seem to me out of touch with reality.

“If you have completed 20 AP [Advanced Placement] classes — and your best competitors have 17 or 15 with similar grades, the university needs to actively find a reason to admit the other students over you,” he writes. Many veteran admissions folk will shake their heads at that. They know if an applicant has a half-dozen or so APs, that’s enough. A few succeed without any APs. Much more important are the strength of their recommendations, the depth of their extracurriculars and whether they come from underserved groups that the university is trying to recruit.

In his last chapter, “For Parents Only!,” he argues correctly that Americans are wrong to apply the insulting label “helicopter parents” to people trying to support their children. His favorite example is his mother who “sat with me basically each week day and every weekend until I was 10 or 11 helping me foster strong academic skills.”

After 200 pages of extolling the Ivies, including his and my Cambridge, Mass., alma mater, he suddenly shifts gears. “Don’t tell your kid to aim for Harvard,” he writes. Parents should, he says, get their children to do their own research. If that includes his book, his pro-Ivy points will be made anyway.

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In our email discussion, Beaton quarreled with my view of what I consider the most important research on this issue. Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger found in 1999 that applicants who got into ultra-selective schools but attended less selective campuses were making just as much money as the selective school grads 20 years later. The exception was low-income students, who did have higher incomes if they chose the most selective campuses. The study looked at 14,239 students at 30 colleges. The researchers concluded the key to success in life was not college selectivity but character traits such as patience, humor and kindness, which students develop long before they ever take an SAT test.

Beaton told me I wasn’t reading the evidence correctly. “The conclusions often extrapolated from this research don’t reflect what the actual paper is saying,” he said.

“The data clumps all Ivy League graduates together, but if you cohort the graduates into finance, management consulting, technology entrepreneurship, law, medicine, academia and then other, what you see is strong salary outperformance across all student backgrounds relative to choosing a non-Ivy college for the listed careers,” Beaton said.

Dale and Krueger themselves told me my description of their results was accurate. The importance of character seems obvious to me.

Perhaps Beaton will feel differently further down the road. When I wrote my admission guide, I was three decades older than Beaton was when he wrote his. I had by then learned many lessons I never imagined when I was in my 20s. Maybe he will, too.