Earlier this year, just 2,300 of 32,000 applicants to Stanford University were accepted — a rate of 7.2%, the lowest in the school's history.
The students who survived this screening are phenomenally accomplished. A quarter had SAT math scores higher than 780, and over 90% had high school G.P.A.'s above 3.75, which works out, more or less, to straight A's over four years of schooling. [. . .]
Which is why Michael Silverman proves baffling.
When Michael, a student from Paradise Valley, Arizona, applied to Stanford, his G.P.A. put him in the bottom 10% of accepted students. His SAT scores fell similarly short. "Standardized testing isn't my strong point," he told me. Perhaps more surprising, Michael avoided the crushing course load that diminishes the will of so many college hopefuls, instead taking only a single AP course during the dreaded junior year. He kept his extracurricular schedule equally clean — joining no clubs or sports and dedicating his attention to no more than one outside project at any given time.
Michael's rejection of the no pain, no gain ethos surrounding American college admissions is perhaps best summarized by his habit of ending each school day with a 1 – 2 hour hike to the summit of nearby Camelback Mountain. While his peers worked slavishly at their killer schedules, Michael took in the view, using his ritual as a time to "chill out and relax."
Despite this heretical behavior, Michael was still accepted at Stanford. [. . .]
Starting as a freshman, he focused all of his extracurricular energies on a serial string of environmental sustainability projects. He started by submitting a model of a green house to a competition. This led him to discover that a local energy company offered a grant program for local high school students. He won a modest grant, and used it, with the help of a retired engineer from his hometown, to retrofit a golf cart to run on biofuels. Leveraging this success, he earned another grant which he used to install solar panels on his school's maintenance shed. This earned him press coverage, and the resulting Superstar Effect helped wow the Stanford admissions department into overlooking his borderline scores.
Notice that nothing about Michael's rise to stardom required a rare natural talent or overwhelming work load. His projects required, on average, less daily time investment than participating in a varsity sport. Yet, he was the best at what he did among all applicants to Stanford, and the resulting Superstar Effect earned him a disproportionate reward.
Michael wasn't alone in his success at hacking The Superstar Effect. Consider, for example, Maneesh Sethi (featured recently inTim's lifestyle design case study competition), who got into Stanford on the strength of having written a popular computer programming book, or Steve Schwartz, who got into Columbia by taking on the role of press officer for a student-run environment advocacy group. Both found uncontested niches that required only a reasonable amount of effort investment to conquer, but still triggered the full impact of The Superstar Effect.
"Merit" in elite college admissions
This story by Cal Newport from douchebag Tim Ferriss's blog goes well with this post from Half Sigma on Jewish "merit" and "leadership activities":