The 2 myths getting students into ivy-league schools

Parand obviously meant to get me to react. He had one eye-opening experience while chatting with a famous professor. He reaches the conclusion that ivy-league schools are necessary to get this kind of learning experience. Mostly, his conclusion seems to depend on two facts.

  • Physical presence matters and it cannot be replaced by electronic means. If this were false, you could just go on the Web and interact with super-smart people from all over the world without having to pay Harvard-level tuitions. Well, I do claim it is largely false. The main differences between physical presence and e-Learning are bandwidth and latency, but these are improving rapidly. By the next decade, you will be able to chat with dozens of people on large high-resolution screens with high quality sound. You will have convenient and highly interactive tools. Physical presence will grow irrelevant unless you need to touch the skin and smell your professors.
  • Professors at non-ivy-league schools do not know as much. Paul Graham said it best: “you have to go pretty far down the list of colleges before you stop finding smart professors in the math department.” The smart local professor may not be as connected and he may not benefit from as much marketing, but he can dazzle most students.

More generally, if you want to know how to get really smart, go watch what really smart people do. How does the famous professor learn? Does he spend days in lecture halls listening to some colleague? Nah! I bet you will find him interacting with some of the smartest people in the world every day, and spending a lot of time working in his office, crouched over his desk. My point is that you do not get smart by sitting in lecture halls. You get smarter by working at it. Smartness is not contagious, at least not by physical contact.

Of course, perception can play tricks on you. If you know that the person in front of you is famous, you may feel like you are learning much more just by being in his presence. People may perceive you to be smarter because you studied with such a famous person. By knowing more famous people, you may also have more self-confidence. So there are economically sensible reasons to attend ivy-league schools, but they mostly have to do with branding.

Disclosure: I am a graduate of what I consider a Canadian ivy-league school. It did help me get my first professorship.

3 thoughts on “The 2 myths getting students into ivy-league schools”

  1. Your comments seem to go a bit too far in the other direction.

    Sure, professors mainly learn by reading papers and books. But I find it 10x more efficient to have a discussion with a colleague about their paper than to read their paper. At a good school, you will likely have more professors who are experts in their areas, and can do this explaining.

  2. A PS: in computer science, at least, it does seem that quality goes down more quickly (as compared to, say, math) as one looks at lower ranked schools. (Disclaimer: I am talking on average, not in any individual case.)

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