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Would you really want a future Feynman to be playing an admission lottery?



...kinda, yeah. Feynman's an interesting choice of example, actually; he wanted to attend Columbia, couldn't get in because of anti-Semitism, and then attended MIT before it was "MIT, Famous Engineering School", when it was still basically seen as a vocational school for middle-class students. I think the whole higher education system would benefit from having people like that scattered throughout it, rather than concentrated at a handful of elite universities.


The problem isn't that we miss out on some specific genius. The real issue with our system is that we have "Feynmans" working as waiters and driving taxis (and some other countries don't have that system and are maximising their talent).

It is interesting to critique this idea for introducing chance. Pitch this idea to a poor person, pitch this idea to a rich person...that is your answer. It is hard to understand if you grew up with opportunity but for poor people this randomness represents a tremendous improvement. From a system that is designed to crush them, to one in which everyone has the same chance.


Absolutely agree. I don't know how much this particular proposal would help them, though; I think catching those people would require a wholesale overhaul of the educational system: universal free pre-school, standardizing school funding nationwide (and specifically decoupling it from property tax revenue), fully subsidized university education for anyone who wants it...and then lotteries to get into elite schools.

Otherwise, I suspect this would primarily benefit middle class students who can afford to pay for test prep and tutors, but not for a month-long volunteering stint in Nepal, and primarily hurt the relatively-sub-par-but-well-off legacy admits (which, who cares) and students with a lower SES that currently get a boost from consideration for that status/the follow-up effects of growing up and going to school in poor areas (which I do care deeply about).


Yep, I agree. The reason we have this problem at all is because, at least in our part of the world, education isn't well-funded. I think we should still have a lottery system but yes, other stuff will produce better results.

I also think that all the volunteering and whatever should be cut from applications. Who gives a fuck if you played the oboe for ten years? Does that really matter? The point of music is enjoyment, the point of volunteering is to serve other people. I had a friend who was forced to play the saxaphone until university and it was tragic: he wouldn't talk about it, he only played to pass exams, he took no joy from it...like great but if you are being forced to do this then who cares? It has become another way to discriminate...and it isn't that much fun if you are a kid.


Would a future Feynman really do enough extra curricular that have nothing to do with their area of expertise to even get into a school like Harvard? Likely not... If anything a lottery would increase their chances compared to the status quo.

Harvard and similar schools have moved beyond just being smart. Everyone who applies is super smart. Now the yard stick is smart++ (meaning they want you to be "well rounded" which is code for having a bunch of self-driven/extra curriculars/special skills/x-factor etc to make you a stand out).


Do they actually care about extra curriculars though? Cannot remember of a single case in Oxford CS admissions where that was a factor, let alone a deciding factor. Usually those with loads of extra curriculars were not as good as those for whom maths/CS was their true passion. They would look like they had received better admissions interview coaching perhaps, but it was our job to see through that and it was not that difficult to do so.


Not trying to be unkind here, but you keep bringing up examples from Oxford in a discussion about the American higher education system. There's a big difference in culture between the two, and so discussing Oxford as a counterpoint doesn't really make sense. It's not an American outlier, it's a totally different system with its own issues and culture that don't have much to do with this conversation.

And yes, schools in the US do care, deeply, about extracurriculars. Harvard could fill every seat, every year, with the valedictorian of a different high school class. Since nearly every data point is tightly grouped on the most immediately available metric, they turn to other data points to make their decisions. (And there's a long history of using that flexibility for both exclusionary and inclusionary purposes.)


Fair enough. I wrongly assumed that they would have very similar approaches to admissions, but maybe not. If the extracurriculars don't have anything to do with the degree in question, it seems wrong for Harvard to be putting weight on them. Luckily, there are other Universities in the world to choose from.


> If the extracurriculars don't have anything to do with the degree in question, it seems wrong for Harvard to be putting weight on them.

Harvard ran out of other measures. When all of the applicants are capping out every academic measure, you have to start to look beyond.


But do they not interview applicants in person? You can usually tell a lot more about a candidate from an in-person interview than from a written test. For example, how genuinely interested they are in the subject - it is usually hard to fake enthusiasm. How they respond to hints during problem-solving. How excited they are when they get to a solution. How teachable and creative they are. How they think when faced with a kind of problem they (hopefully) had not seen before. Do they actually understand the subject, or do they just have a good memory.

On all these metrics I would be seriously surprised if they have many more amazing applicants than places. If that is in fact the case, they should make more places available. It almost never happens that you get someone that is 10/10/10 on all metrics.


Would you really want a future Feynman to be spending high school rushing between violin lessons, lacrosse practice, model UN and volunteering at the homeless shelter to pad up his college application resume?


That's why I was focusing on accomplishments over activities. You played violin? Great! Were you first chair? Did you ever have a solo at a performance?

You played lacrosse? Awesome! How competitive was your team? How many starts did you have? What are your stats?

I'm not looking for people participating in activities, I'm looking for them succeeding. That should cut down a lot on people rushing around participating in a bunch of activities in order to pad a college resume. You want people who focused on results and had both the talent and tenacity to pursue them. Those are your predictors of future success.


In the aggregate, yes - given the premise that most potential Feynmans are actually underutilized in society because they can't be reliably selected for. Then I think such a system could arguably be a net benefit, with a greater number of non-obvious Feynmans being selected. The very obvious Feynmans will likely be unperturbed by a lottery because the lottery is (hypothetically) per-school, and they have opportunities to shine in whichever school they join.




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