A reader writes:
The guidance counselors at my school were notorious for giving horrible advice for getting into college. When I was in high school, my school was considered one of the better public schools in the state and the nation. The bad advice that everybody at my school got was to be well rounded. This is crap. Most universities will take somebody that is very good at one thing no matter what it is over the class president. Anybody can join the chess club, the drama club, and everything else in between.
The most obvious place to excel is sports. And you don't have to be some high school prodigy in basketball or football. The Ivy League is loaded with bad sports teams that need warm bodies. Even the sports the Ivies are good at (wrestling and lacrosse) need warm bodies to sit on the bench, push the starters, and donate to the program when they hit Wall Street after graduation. The second, third and lower strings always donate more than the starters, so being average at your sport and nerdy doesn't necessarily hurt you.
As far as I can tell, the ideal students to admit from the standpoint of maximizing future endowment are the Duke lacrosse team-types: the real student-athletes, not the hired gladiators of the basketball-football arenas (although they have their uses too), but the guys who are a little under the SAT and GPA norm, but make up for it in future earning power and donating predilection: highly masculine, competitive, likely to make big money on Wall Street or in real estate development or the like, and get proud whenever Coach K gets the basketball team to the Final Four and writes a big check to the Development Fund.
Of course, as the Duke brouhaha showed, other elements on campus hate the lacrosse-types.
I wonder how well the admissions staffs really understand their jobs ... I met a prep school admissions director who really understood what he was up to -- he conducted rapid fire interviews of 8th graders to see how much they knew rather than the usual insipid dialogues that pass for interviews in America -- and he had succeeded in dramatically raising the profile of his high school in a decade.
But colleges are bigger and harder to change in less than a generation. The main way for a college to improve its reputation is to luck into a gigantic endowment, which it can use to buy smart students and famous professors. Insider trading has made more than a few college reputations. For example, my old college, Rice U. got the word in 1930 to buy land in East Texas from George R. Brown of Brown & Root, the oil field services giant that was the parent of Halliburton. Sure enough, one of Brown & Root's clients hit the biggest oil find of the era, only to discover that Rice U. had bought up a lot of the promising land in the field. Half a century later, I got a nice little scholarship out of it.
More benignly, Grinnell in Iowa, which now has the fourth largest per capita endowment in America, had two members of its Board of Trustees come looking for investments in the 1960s: alumnus Robert Noyce, who got Grinnell to invest in the little start-up he and Gordon Moore were launching to build his 1959 invention: Intel. And a local businessman hit them up for an investment in his firm Berkshire Hathaway. His name was Warren Buffett. So, now Grinnell pays professors an average of $100k annually to live in a town where $100k would buy a nice house.
But it still takes forever. I recall getting a lot of mail from Washington U. in St. Louis, which has long had a huge endowment, offering big scholarships to National Merit Scholars, but who wanted to go to a college that nobody had ever heard of? Well, by now, it's as fashionable as Duke or Northwestern or just about any non-Ivy other than Stanford. But, jeez, what a long time for its strategy to pay off ...
For the women, field hockey and volleyball are great for getting into good schools. Another obvious strategy is to apply to a major with low numbers (don't apply as a biomedical engineering major to Johns Hopkins or as a history major to Harvard) and switch after getting in. This can be easier at some schools than others. The football team at my school was notorious for football players applying to the nursing school.