Home > economics, education, feedback loop, modeling > Reverse-engineering the college admissions process

Reverse-engineering the college admissions process

September 8, 2014

I just finished reading a fascinating article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek about a man who claims to have  reverse-engineered the admission processes at Ivy League colleges (hat tip Jan Zilinsky).

His name is Steven Ma, and as befits an ex-hedge funder, he has built an algorithm of sorts to work well with both the admission algorithms at the “top 50 colleges,” and the US News & World Report model which defines which colleges are in the “to 50.” It’s a huge modeling war that you can pay to engage in.

Ma is a salesman too: he guarantees that a given high-school kid will get into a top school, your money back. In other words he has no problem working with probabilities and taking risks that he think are likely to pay off and that make the parents willing to put down huge sums. Here’s an example of a complicated contract he developed with one family:

After signing an agreement in May 2012, the family wired Ma $700,000 over the next five months—before the boy had even applied to college. The contract set out incentives that would pay Ma as much as $1.1 million if the son got into the No. 1 school in U.S. News’ 2012 rankings. (Harvard and Princeton were tied at the time.) Ma would get nothing, however, if the boy achieved a 3.0 GPA and a 1600 SAT score and still wasn’t accepted at a top-100 college. For admission to a school ranked 81 to 100, Ma would get to keep $300,000; schools ranked 51 to 80 would let Ma hang on to $400,000; and for a top-50 admission, Ma’s payoff started at $600,000, climbing $10,000 for every rung up the ladder to No. 1.

He’s also interested in reverse-engineering the “winning essay” in conjunction with after-school activities:

With more capital—ThinkTank’s current valuation to potential investors is $60 million—Ma hopes to buy hundreds of completed college applications from the students who submitted them, along with the schools’ responses, and beef up his algorithm for the top 50 U.S. colleges. With enough data, Ma plans to build an “optimizer” that will help students, perhaps via an online subscription, choose which classes and activities they should take. It might tell an aspiring Stanford applicant with several AP classes in his junior year that it’s time to focus on becoming president of the chess or technology club, for example.

This whole college coaching industry reminds me a lot of financial regulation. We complicate the rules to the point where only very well-off insiders know exactly how to bypass the rules. To the extent that getting into one of these “top schools” actually does give young people access to power, influence, and success, it’s alarming how predictable the whole process has become.

Here’s a thought: maybe we should have disclosure laws about college coaching and prep? Or would those laws be gamed too?

  1. September 8, 2014 at 7:32 am

    dear mathbabe

    if you think the ivy league admissions are crazy, you should see what happens here in india, and that too where the elite institutions are state (well-)funded!

    look at the admissions into the famous Indian Institutes of technology (IITs), which are really engineering colleges in India with global rankings in the 200+, i.e., way way low. the admissions are through a (crazy) competitive multiple-choice exam called JEE with odds 1-in-100. about 1.2 million kids write the exam and about 10,000 get into the famous IITs. this is of course, god-sent to a coaching industry of several billion dollars.

    the so called toppers, when they graduate, join the consultancies and global jobs. about 10% do engineering for indian companies. talk about subsidies! even worse, the JEE now defines the conduct of science and maths in our society!

    see:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fc5WsQBJqcs and the accompanying working paper which talks about the economics of such an allocation and its consequences for india’s development problems and also rising inequality.

    regs, milind.


  2. mb
    September 8, 2014 at 8:09 am

    Here’s the thing, this is nothing compared to legacy admissions. Are you willing to give that up for your kids? Also, take this away, the kid whose parents paid for this, probably had their child in all sorts activities that would make them stand out to admission officers. Are we going to start regulating those activities to make everyone equal (how many of those activities do you encourage your children to take part in?). I kind of wonder how dumb this kid was, and why it was not cheaper and easier to make a large donation to the university.


  3. September 8, 2014 at 8:13 am

    his payoff starts at $600,000!… hell, I’ll help these folks out for a mere $200,000 (out of the sheer charitable-nature of my heart). I hope there’s a follow-up sometime on his success rate… I am, shall we say, skeptical.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. September 8, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Why go through a middleman? Why not just donate $700k directly to the college and boost your child’s admission as a “development case?” At least then it would be tax-subsidized!


    • September 8, 2014 at 9:09 am

      Well then you would have to do that for a bunch of colleges on your list. And you wouldn’t have a money back guarantee.


  5. cat
    September 8, 2014 at 10:30 am

    “This whole college coaching industry reminds me a lot of financial regulation. We complicate the rules to the point where only very well-off insiders know exactly how to bypass the rules.”

    I think this is one extreme and purely focuses on the Ivy leagues and the Ivy Wannabes who mostly seem to be looking for a template, *cough* white upper class *cough*, with their ‘holistic’ approach to college admission.

    I read the article and if the services ThinkTank provide are indicative of what other college coaching is like I bet a lot of first generation college hopefuls would be greatly helped by even just a simple college coach program.

    I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to purse my passion which usually is unattainable non-college grads and I’ve meet many ‘hard science’ B.S. and above degree holders and a tiny fraction are first generation college attendees and their degrees are from state colleges. There is a lot of information intentionally and unintentionally passed down by the parents to their children that help them line up to get into and succeed in college.


  6. Josh
    September 8, 2014 at 11:14 am

    I am struck by the complete absence of the child involved in this process. They are being “packaged” to optimize their attractiveness to schools that may not be the right schools for them.

    I encountered one such coach who started working with 9th graders to choose their extra-curricular activities and summer programs to make the “product” most attractive to the target schools.

    The sad thing is, I suspect it does “work” in the sense of getting the kids into the target schools because I readily believe the process can be reverse-engineered and gamed.


    • cat
      September 8, 2014 at 11:19 am

      “I am struck by the complete absence of the child involved in this process. They are being “packaged” to optimize their attractiveness to schools that may not be the right schools for them.”

      From what I read in the article that’s down to the parents. In the article ThinkTank at least gives lip service to trying to talk the parents into finding schools that fit with the kids but the parent’s merely focus on a college ranks. Of course the rank of the school helps with ThinkTank’s ‘success’ wall so I have my doubts on how hard they try.


      • Josh
        September 9, 2014 at 12:43 pm

        I agree. The parents are the bigger culprit in this story.


  7. mrgeocool
    September 8, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    I’d think kids that have parents with this kind of money to spend already have a high chance of admission to a “top 100” school without any help at all from Ma. It reminds me of the one year (this was quite a while ago) that Amazon offered to guarantee delivery by Dec 25th for a mere $5 extra on your order. If the item didn’t arrive in time, you got your $5 back. Genius. Amazon has absolutely nothing to lose, but customers feel like they pretty much have to pay up or they will suffer.


  8. September 8, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    I pretty much agree with your feelings about this, but I think you’re being way to credulous about his/their effectiveness. It’s probably relatively easy (in the aggregate) to predict which HS students are likely to get into top schools anyway and charge their guilty and neurotic parents an arm and a leg unnecessarily. I’m sure that writing the college admissions essay helps a student’s application, but do you really think they’re adding anything close to $700,000 in “value”?


  9. September 8, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    Has there ever been a society where success wasn’t (unfortunately) influenced by some combination of the “ovarian lottery” (luck of birth) and “playing the game,” whatever the game is at the time? Maybe things are better today in that more people know what the game is, as opposed to only a few insiders. Not saying I’m content with so much energy being focused on silly games – I love to see this being continually fought—but on a historical timeframe I actually see progress. It’s new that everyone even has the right to play.
    Like most top-priced coaches, Ma probably isn’t worth it, but that’s good, right? Stealing from mercenaries with lots of money means less money for them to use in other mercenary ways.


  10. Savonarola
    September 12, 2014 at 7:37 am

    So here’s my college admissions plan for the offspring: I never told them they should go to college. I stressed plumbing as an infinitely rewarding career. Unfortunately, they run with a rough crowd — they got the idea that college is expected of them through their peer group. So I found it necessary to warn them that their parents can’t pay for that, in sharp contrast to their friends’ parents, and that they should start thinking now about how to afford that without a boat-load of life-sapping loans, if college is what they want.

    That was near the end of elementary school. They took what I have said to heart, and have a business plan (although they don’t call it that) complete with research into where they might go that will value them enough for a scholarship and thought given to what they want to be when they grow up and, for one kid, how he’ll make a living on the side while that evolves into a living. I didn’t have one eighth of the ownership and control of my education destiny that these kids do, and I’ve got a couple of advanced degrees.

    They made me take them to tour a couple of their top choices. These are pretty places that are a couple of hours away – seemed like a fun day trip. There was an audible gasp in the tour group when the kids had to introduce themselves and give their graduation year. They were 7th graders. If they are going to pay for it, they wanted to start kicking the tires and see what they are working towards. I have to tell you honestly, I’m not sure my husband and I can take credit for them. They are pretty amazing people with their own ideas about most everything. Between now and 18 I figure they might change their minds, and that would be ok.

    That relentless push from your parents will get you only so far. At some point, I’m going to fade into the horizon and they are going to need to own what they do with themselves. I figure that it might be harder for them to get in without all that coaching — but they aren’t aiming for the same places as the ubermenschen. I do have to wonder how this will go when my kids will have worked to craft themselves, rather than having a team of consultants do it. I figure we might have to count on interviews to let admissions offices figure out that these kids did it themselves. We’ll see. I honestly won’t mind if I wind up mother to a group of very determined plumbers.


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