Pre-scientific societies were said to make causal inferences from correlations. Which led to any number of major oopsies: I swung a dead cat around my head three times at midnight. Look at this bountiful harvest. A classic blunder: Post hoc ergo propter hoc--after this, therefore because of this. Timeless examples include: 1) The rooster crowed, therefore the sun came up. 2) Consuming water causes death. 3) There were no ebola cases before Obamacare. 4) Vaccinations cause autism. 5) My child went to a highly selective college, therefore she got a good job/was accepted to medical school/lived happily ever after. And my favorite for this essay: 6) Because I filled in my application in the following way, I was admitted to this highly selective college.
I wish that 21st century students have made significant progress figuring out the “because.” I used Times New Roman rather than Helvetica on my applications hence my favorable decision at Stanford. Or consider the perennial insanity surrounding the “scholarship instrument.” Percy plays the glockenspiel and was--thereby!-- admitted to Princeton.
Many counselors are no less misguided. They give spurious advice without data or design. The common application allows 650 words for the essay! Use all 650 words! Students who use all 650 words are more likely to be admitted than students who write only 500 words!
On what planet could this advice possibly be accurate? The longest essays are not necessarily the best. Imagine an admissions committee discussion at a highly selective school: We wanted to admit Susie with her 1600 SAT, seven advanced placement courses, and 400 hours of meaningful community service. But her essay was 550 rather than 650 words so we determined that she would not fit in at Dartmouth and have suggested that she instead matriculate at North Cornstalk State College or University.
There is some evidence to suggest that leaders in pre-scientific society made use of correlations. Someone who knew when the eclipse was coming could make a powerful impression. When I clap my hands, the sun will begin to disappear! Now, bow down before me! And while you're at it, give me all your chickens!
Counselors have a tendency to pull the same trick: I called my colleague at highly selective U. Therefore, Susie was admitted. Uh huh. Except that Susie’s profile was extraordinary before the counselor picked up the phone and remained so after the brief conversation ended. To say nothing of the counselors calling on behalf of the Susies who are subsequently denied. Not to mention the Percys and their glockenspiels who—gasp!—aren’t admitted. Mutual funds that don’t make money don’t get talked about; kids who are rejected from top colleges aren’t spoken about; quarters in slot machines that don’t lead to bells and sirens are not the subject of “I felt pretty good about pullin’ that lever when my toes startin’ itchin’.
Counselors should be ashamed. At least the rooster does not claim credit for the sun coming up after he crows in the morning.
The take-away is simple. 1) Let your children be who they are: not everyone needs to play the glockenspiel. 2) Understand that who your children are matters more than where they attend college. 3) Students who have the ability to read critically, solve problems and articulate the solutions, and behave honorably do well wherever they go to college. The causal inference behind that correlation—that good things happen to good students—is clear. And you don’t have to bow down before anyone or give away all your chickens!