Harvard Veritas: interview with a recent graduate (anonymous) — #18
Steve Hsu: Welcome to Manifold. Today, I have an anonymous guest, so I'm not going to tell you his name and I'm going to do my best not to out him. He is a recent graduate of Harvard college. His major was in a quant-intensive STEM subject, and he's now a PhD student in an elite degree program, also in a quant field.
And we got connected as, as people do these days over the internet because he sent me an email. And in exchanging emails with my guest, I realized he's an interesting person with a lot of insight and thoughts about his Harvard experience, higher education today, all kinds of things that I think the listeners to this podcast will be interested in.
So, I invited him to be an anonymous guest and I wanted him to be anonymous, so he didn't have to self-filter. And not because he's going to say anything that's particularly transgressive or dangerous to him, but just, just to be safe, I thought we should keep him anonymous. So, welcome anonymous guest. Can you hear me?
Anonymous Guest: Yes.
Steve Hsu: Great. Well, welcome to the show, and let me just say why I think this interview with you will be interesting to my audience. You just graduated from Harvard college, which one could argue is the top undergraduate university in the world. It's played a huge role in the history of America and influenced the entire world.
I was at Harvard as a junior fellow, so that's after my PhD, but I lived in one of the houses, Dunster House, which is a river house. It's right on the Charles. And I lived there for three years, in an apartment. I had an apartment in Dunster House overlooking the river. And so, I'm familiar with what Harvard was like in the early nineties, but since I'm an old guy, I'm quite interested in how it's changed since then.
Steve Hsu: And so, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk to you about elite universities, university admissions, sorting young Americans by talent, all sorts of topics that I think my audience is very interested in.
So, are, are, are you ready to answer a few questions?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, definitely.
Steve Hsu: Okay. So, tell me a little bit about your high school background, and how you decided to go to Harvard.
Got admitted to Harvard, etc.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. So, I went to a suburban public high school in a fairly well off area, not, you know, I didn't grow up in one of the richest counties, you know, one of the richest towns in the country, but it was a pretty well-off area. So, I sort of knew a lot of people who had gone to fairly competitive colleges who had been in my high school before me. And I was like many students in high school, I wanted to go to sort of the best college I could get into. And my view was that that was Harvard.
And then another thing that sort of contributed to my decision was that Harvard had, and I think still does, very competitive financial aid compared to other universities. So, I think maybe Stanford is similar, but, you know, for me, it ended up being almost free to go to Harvard, whereas going to my state university would've been something like $20,000 a year. And so that was a very attractive aspect of it as well.
And so yeah, when I was in high school, I mean, I did kind of the same things as most Harvard students, like I did well in school. And then, I did a lot of extracurriculars to try to sort of stand out in the applicant pool. And I think I got in, in large part because of luck. I mean, there's, there's a huge amount of noise and, and random chance in the process. so, yeah.
Steve Hsu: Do you, would you characterize yourself as an academic auto admit, were your application that strong? Or were you sort of surprised a little bit surprised that and, and felt lucky that you got admitted?
Anonymous Guest: No, I don't think I was one of the academic auto admits, I think in order to, to be that you basically have to win. I mean, I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I think you have to win some sort of very competitive academic competition. Like you have to win some sort of math competition or like the science, you know, Intel science fair or something like that, which I not only, I mean, I didn't really compete in those things at that level, I did a little bit of math competitions, but I wasn't amazing. So, I was a little bit surprised. I mean, I think my high school had gotten a few people in, in each year preceding me. So, I sort of had some expectation that, you know, I had a pretty good chance. And I had done pretty well in some extracurricular things, not quite at that level. So, I thought I had a pretty good chance. Maybe if you had asked me, I would've said I had a 60% chance of getting in. So, there was, you know, there was some surprise, but not a lot.
Steve Hsu: And, what, what other schools did you turn down to go to Harvard?
Only two state universities. So at least when I was applying the way it worked was that during the early application round, you could apply to Harvard, you had to apply just to Harvard and then you could also apply to any number of public universities that you wanted to, so you could apply. Harvard was the only private university that you could apply to early. And the reason for that I think was because a lot of state schools will only give you a certain merit scholarship if you apply during the early round. So, Harvard didn't want to prevent you from potentially getting one of those merit scholarships in your home state.
But you couldn't apply to Harvard and Princeton early, you know, you had to pick just one private university. And so, when I got into Harvard in, in, I think it was around December mid-December, I did entertain applying to other, you know, Ivy League type schools, but sort of, I was being realistic about myself that I wasn't probably going to go there. And so, I decided not to do it. So, I only turned down just two state schools.
Steve Hsu: So, you pretty much got into your first choice through early action or early decision. So that's the dream outcome for everybody. Right?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Although I mean, we'll get into it more, but I don't know if the experience that I had while I was there was necessarily the dream outcome. But...
Steve Hsu: But at the time, you were probably like, oh man, I can relax now. My buddies are writing like 20. They're submitting 20 different common applications. I'm done.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, yeah.
Steve Hsu: That's great. So, and when, when you were thinking of Harvard as your number one choice, did you have a very well mapped out idea of what you would study and, you know, what the, what the advantages were in terms of the purely academic experience, what Harvard would be like?
Anonymous Guest: No, not really. I mean, when I was in high school, I did debate, and this was something that I was pretty competitive in. And so, I had some idea of, you know, who are the famous economics or political science professors at Harvard, like whose research that I had used in debate competitions. And I think I definitely had this perception of Harvard as being very good in terms of having a lot of really impressive researchers.
But in terms of what I was going to actually study, I was at that point, very undecided. And I actually think I listed on my application either government or economics. I forget which one was my first choice. because I was very interested in sort of political affairs and that sort of thing. And I still am. I didn't end up majoring in those things, of course. So, so no, I really didn't have a, a, a very firm plan. and in fact, I didn't really have a firm plan even throughout a lot of my freshman year at Harvard.
Steve Hsu: Got it. We'll get into that in a second. So, focusing more on the admissions process. Did you tell me that there was a football player in your high school that also applied to Harvard?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. So, he was a couple years before me. But I think most high schools have something equivalent to Naviance, which is a sort of a website that manages a lot of things about college applications and has a lot of data about, you know, people from your high school, who've applied to different colleges.
And so, you could go on Naviance, and it would show you a scatter plot. And the scatter plot would have one axis, SAT, or ACT score. And then on the other axis, it would have your high school GPA. And then each person from the last, maybe 10 years from your high school would be one point on this, on the scatter plot.
And then, the points would be colored. So, there would be like red, if somebody got rejected and green, if someone was accepted and then there'd be like blue, I think if they were waitlisted. So, you know, you could look at this and you could look at your GPA and your SAT score, and you could say, you know, people who have had similar stats as, as I have, have gotten into different colleges or haven't gotten in. And the scatter plot for Harvard, you saw like a huge amount of red all throughout the, all throughout the plot. And then in the very upper right-hand corner. So, people who had very high test scores and grades, there were a few little green dots mixed in with red in there.
And then if you went down, maybe on the screen, it was like a half an inch down to the left. There was one green dot. And now we, we all knew that there was like, you know, a pretty prominent football recruit from our high school. And so, you know, it didn't take a genius to figure out who that green dot might have been.
Steve Hsu: Right. So, for the audience, that's not obsessively, following college admissions, you know, a lot of this data was revealed in the lawsuits. The lawsuit students prepared admission versus Harvard. You have these different categories. So, for example, if you're a child of a professor at Harvard or a legacy, probably a legacy whose family has donated or has a high potential to donate to Harvard, or if you're an athlete or if you are from particular underrepresented minority groups, then, then your admissions probably go way up at fixed SAT and high school GPA. And so, for the audience, this story that we're hearing about the football player fits perfectly into that, sort of, description of the different buckets of how, of the categories, by which Harvard admits.
I remember when I was there, there was some kind of expose about there's some treaty between the different Ivy League schools, about how far below their own average admission standards they can dip to recruit athletes. And there's an actual negotiation between the schools, about how much of that they're going to allow, because obviously if one school goes really nuts for it, they can get division one level quality athletes and destroy the other Ivy League schools. And so, there was literally a treaty, some kind of, you know, actual explicit agreement. And what's interesting about the treaty is it also revealed the relative difficulty of getting into the different schools because the standards, the cutoff standards for Dartmouth were quite different for their athletes than what Harvard could do. And it was all published in the Crimson, I think, when I was at Harvard, many, many years ago.
Anonymous Guest: That's interesting. I hadn't heard about that. I knew there was something called the academic index, and they only had so many, I thought it was, they only had so many points to spend. Like it costs more points to get somebody, you know, the coach would have to spend more points to get somebody on their team who had lower grades and stuff. So, I don't know if
Steve Hsu: I think that's it. It might be called the academic index, but what's interesting is how it's negotiated amongst the different Ivy League schools.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. I mean, I should say that, like I knew a number of athletes in different capacities and they, there was a lot of variation. I mean, some of them were very good students. And so, you know, it's not like everybody who gets into Harvard is an athlete, is like a, is a total zero. I mean, it's not how it works. It's just that they, the minimum, is much lower. And, and I think it's probably true, especially true in certain sports, football being one.
Steve Hsu: Yes, football, hockey. So, that kind of brings us to the topic of how would you characterize the distribution of academic ability and maybe some other things like intellectual curiosity within a particular class at Harvard?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. So, this was something that I was really surprised about. I think a lot of people have this impression. If you meet people. In fact, I was just traveling this summer. I was in Europe for a while and if it ever came up, you know, I would say that I just finished college and they'd ask where, and if I said Harvard, they'd be very, very impressed. And certainly true, you know, all around the world, people are very impressed that if you're a Harvard student, it carries huge advantages in terms of getting recruited at certain firms.
So, you know, I think from all of that, I think I had, and I think a lot of people have this expectation, maybe this is less true with some of the revelations with the admissions lawsuit, that Harvard students are, on average, very, very smart. We're much smarter than students at other colleges. And, and that was what I was really surprised about when I got there was that, you know, just anecdotally, I felt like they were not on the level that I expected them to be. And in fact, even some of my friends from high school who had not gotten into Harvard, who ended up going to great schools, but had been, I thought much smarter than a lot of the people that I did meet at Harvard.
And so, I actually, I actually started looking at something pretty much every university reports their admissions summary, some admissions data on something called the common dataset. And so, you can see the 25th and 75th percentile SAT scores and ACT scores for different colleges. I started looking at that and I realized that there's actually not as much of a gradient as you go down the US news ranking, at least within the top 20 or so schools as you might expect.
So, you know, I actually, I pulled the numbers before coming on here because I just wanted to have things that were up to date. So, these are all from right before COVID these are all from fall 2019. If you look at the median SAT score at Harvard, it's like 1515 on the 1600-point scale. So, it's pretty high, but it's certainly not, you know, 1590 or 1600.
Anonymous Guest: And if you go to places that are certainly less prestigious, you know, and, and I'm not trying to, to, to attack these schools in any way, but that are, that don't have the same sort of, you know, people aren't as impressed if someone went to, for example, Vanderbilt, which is, 14th on us news, their median SAT is 1510. So, it's basically the same as Harvard's. If you look at Rice, which is 17th on US News, it's 1520. And so really the median Harvard student at least is not particularly strong on at least on standardized test scores. And, you know, that definitely changes as you go to the upper end of the distribution.
Steve Hsu: The right tail is very, very strong at Harvard. But at least at the median and certainly below the median. You know, they're good students for sure and they're smart, but they're not, some sort of unapproachable genius that you would just never meet if you weren't at Harvard. Yeah. Now, since you and I are wonks, we can get really wonky about this. And, you know, first of all, in terms of really off-scale kids, there's actually a very limited number. Even though there are maybe 3 million kids or something available each year, applying to college in the United States, the number of really off-scale kids is, is somewhat limited.
And so, yeah, not all the kids at Harvard are going to be off scale. Now, the other issue is that I think these different categories of people, legacies, affirmative action admits, athletes. When you tally up all of those kids, isn't it like 50% of the class?
Anonymous Guest: I'm not sure exactly. I know athletes are about 11%. I think one thing that's worth noting is even within unhooked. So, those things that you just mentioned are called hooks, right? So even within unhooked applicants, the selection is a lot of the selection is on nonacademic criteria. And so, I mean, if I just think of people, I know like, you know, people, friends that I've had from high school and things, they're definitely turning down people who are, who are much stronger than people that they're taking on purely academic ability. And not even just for the reasons, not even just for the reasons that you've mentioned. Maybe because someone has a particularly compelling essay or, because they've done more extracurriculars or, you know, any number of things, there's, there's a huge amount of randomness in the process.
So, I think you're right to point out that there are only a certain number of, you know, true geniuses in, in every population, but it's not like Harvard is saying, you know, let's get the best people we can academically, at least let's get the strongest academic students. And then, you know, it's, it's because of the limited number of geniuses that, not everybody at Harvard's a genius.
I think it's because the selection process is not very strongly weighted on cognitive ability or on academic ability.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think my impression is that there is a particular category. Actually, I know this to be true factually in the past. And I think it's still true that one of the buckets, one or one of the categories that you can get admitted through is first-rate scholar.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Yeah.
Steve Hsu: And so, for those people who, you know, maybe they won the IMO gold medal, you know, the International Math Olympiad gold medal or they won the Regeneron science prize or something like this, those people get in through that particular category. And maybe there are only a few thousand kids. Like I think that the number of kids who score close to 1600 are at 1600 on the SAT in, in, in each cohort, it's a few thousand kids or maybe 5,000 kids. And so, you know, there is a limited number of those kids if you spread them out over the, say the top 20, you know, universities or something like that.
But the thing that I'm curious about is for kids who are, who have good grades and SAT scores but are not in any of the favored, do not have any hooks. They're just unhooked. How does Harvard rate, how does Harvard weigh things like the essay and the activities versus just thepurely academic merit? And, and I suspect they're not just rank ordering, even in the unhooked categories, they're not doing anything close to just. Ranking people by academic strength and taking them that way. I think that they have a subcategory of off-scale kids, but the other kids are admitted through some mix of things.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, no, that's definitely true. I mean, I think if I had gotten 50 points lower on the SAT, I don't think that would've changed whether I got in, you know, I mean, I, of course, I can't speculate about that, but I think they liked my essay for whatever reason.
Steve Hsu: Right.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, and.
Steve Hsu: There's a certain, there's an element of randomness.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I mean, and when I was in high school like I remember thinking this right when I was going to apply like, and the sort of first-rate scholar category that you've described. I mean, that's not going to. It's only going to pick up people who, so, you know, suppose you have a kid who grew up in rural Nebraska and is just really, really smart. And they don't even know about the IMO, and they don't even know about the Intel Science Fair. You know, this is not something that people at their high school do. It's not something that they're really aware of. You know, they can score a 1600 on the SAT, but that's only going to get you so far because there are a lot of people who score very highly on the SAT, and the process has so much randomness in it.
Steve Hsu: So, you know, you're going to miss some of these people who are, are really, really smart, but don't go on those very particular paths that will get you into the, you know, first-rate scholar category that you've described. I mean, the number of ways that you can demonstrate to them that you should be qualified in the first-rate scholar category is limited and a lot of it requires special preparation and knowledge. Now in the old days, when I took the SAT, the ceiling, what the numerically, the ceiling was still 1600, but the fraction of kids who got 1600 was like one in a million. So, the ceiling was much higher. You could easily demonstrate, just by taking, just by sitting down like I did, and taking the SAT just once, you could easily demonstrate that you were like one in a hundred thousand or one in a few hundred thousand, if you, if you just scored high enough. And that's a very different situation than today.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. I mean, you know, I encourage people who haven't been in high school to go look up a math SAT you know, an old math SAT test from last year or the year before. I mean, the hardest questions on that exam are not particularly difficult. Like, and, and it even shows that when you get to Harvard, like, I know people who got 36 on the math ACT or 800 on the math SAT who, once they get to, you know, even just an introductory math or stats or CS class, it's, it's very clear that there's, that they're not at the same level as some other people, you know? So, like even within your first semester in college, you're going to start to see the difference between different people who scored at the 800 SAT math level because that ceiling is just not very high. And so, there's a lot of range of ability that gets kind of scrunched into that very upper end on the math SAT.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, in the old days, it was quite different. So, I think 800 back in the old days when I took it, 800 was a few per thousand kids who could get an 800 on the math SAT. So that was pretty hard. And most kids only took the SAT once, especially if you were from some backward state like Iowa, you didn't even realize you could take it more than once. And my best friend from high school must have missed a question because he was extremely strong in math and he must have missed a question because he didn't get 800, he got like 790 or something. And always felt bummed about that for the rest of his life. And he ended up graduating first in his class at Princeton as a math major and doing a math PhD at MIT. I think he was even honorable mention on the Putnam or very close to that. So, you know, he was extremely strong, but he didn't even get 800 on the math SAT back then. So, it was totally different.
I don't know if they've intentionally dumbed down the SAT. There are all kinds of theories about why it's convenient for them to lower the ceiling on the SAT. But, in any case, the ceiling has been lowered quite a bit.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Yeah. I think another thing that's interesting. I mean, the academic ability is much easier to measure, but I was also very surprised when I got to Harvard that the level of intellectual curiosity was not very high. I mean, there are obviously many exceptions, but I felt like most of the students at Harvard had very little interest in any sort of intellectual topic outside of what they were studying in classes, that, you know, is not the kind of person who is reading a ton of philosophy, you know, all weekend long, even if it's not assigned for one of their classes. And that was something that I was really surprised by because maybe I had just projected that, like from the other people that I knew in high school who had really high test scores and stuff that everyone who was, who was smart was also intellectually curious. And I was very surprised. I mean, even just about the lack of general knowledge that a lot of Harvard students had.
So, I distinctly remember when I was a freshman at Harvard, there's something called the Institute of Politics. So, it's run through the Harvard Kennedy School, which is the government school. And it's sort of an organization where people can do different political things. And I had a t-shirt from them with a picture of JFK on the front of it, who I thought was, you know, I thought anyone would know JFK was if they grew up in the U.S., you know. And someone pointed at my shirt and another student in one of my classes pointed at my shirt and said, who's that? And I said it’s JFK. And, and then they said, who's that? And I said, well, you know, he was president of the United States. And I was just so surprised that, you know, and, and there were many things like that where things that I thought were sort of basic general knowledge that, that people who got into Harvard would know, it turns out they, they didn't necessarily know them. So just the level of wanting to know about the world was much lower as well.
Steve Hsu: So, when I was there, I got the impression, I was only a few years older than, you know, a lot of the kids in the house because I finished my PhD fairly early. And so, I got to know a lot of kids. And I lived in the house for three years, so I kind of got to know an entire, like not even a cohort, but generation in the sense of, of Harvard kids and all the tutors that lived in the house as well. And it seemed to me that Harvard was many different worlds going on in parallel at the same time. So, you had, you know, rich kids going to finals clubs, you had the athlete’s living kind of in their own world. And then you had serious students that maybe were thinking about doing a PhD or getting into Yale law school or something. And then you had a lot of kids who were, you know, maybe probably going to go off into consulting or finance at the end of it all. So, what, what was, how would you describe the social Emilio that you were in?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I think your description is very accurate to the, I mean, still, still, definitely true. You know, the, even the thing about the final clubs, which are these sort of party houses, they're kind of like a frat. you know, I didn't know anyone who was in one of these, no one, none of my close friends or even, you know, people I would say were. None of them were involved in these. And yet I know they're a huge deal for some people.
So, I mean, I was definitely in a more academically serious group of friends. People who generally did pretty well in school and were more concerned with studying than the average Harvard student. And I think they were also probably more deep intellectually outside of classes, you know, just in terms of having a conversation with them about something that's philosophical and seeing that they've actually thought through this before that they, you know, have an idea where different perspectives might come from. So, I was able to sort of find that group after a year or two, but it wasn't everybody there, which is what I probably expected it would be.
Steve Hsu: You know, one of the things I discovered, you know, in the course of life, is that when I ran into people like in a business setting, some very non-academic setting, the one, the kids who had Ivy League backgrounds, even if they weren't in the serious clique that you described yourself as being in, even if they weren't in that clique in college, at least I suspect they weren't, they nevertheless had a, a kind of sincere and deep appreciation of, you know, intellectual ability or, you know, scholarly accomplishment, which, which I always find interesting. So, it was sort of like, okay, if you weren't in that serious clique at Harvard, nevertheless spending time with them and being an institution that at least to some degree valued that kind of accomplishment, kind of created some level of respect for it and appreciation for it in the other kids. Do you think that's a fair inference or do you think I may just, maybe just imagining that?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I'm not sure. I don't think I really detected this with students at Harvard when I was there. It might be true, maybe later in life, people developed this. But I was definitely surprised how people wanted to try to find the easiest class that they can. Right? And so, people call them gems. Right? So, a gem is like an easy class that you don't really have to do any work. You probably don't really learn very much, but they don't really care. So, when I was there, the two big ones were the Hebrew Bible, which was supposed to be really easy, although I think they've made it harder since then. And the Ancient Greek Hero, which was nicknamed heroes for zeroes. And this was like among a large portion of the Harvard student body seeking these out and getting sort of the easiest, the path of least resistance through the undergraduate curriculum was like a major goal for what they were doing while they were there.
So, I really don't know if I detect this same respect for, you know, scholarly accomplishment or, or anything like that.
Steve Hsu: I guess, just to refine my observation a little bit, it's not that these people themselves wanted to be.
Anonymous Guest: Okay. Yeah.
Steve Hsu: Or spent time, you know, trying to intellectualize or things like this, but they appreciated other people who had been able to do it. And, and so my feeling is like, if you do end up at Harvard and you realize, wow, everybody, a lot of people here are super smart and a lot of the courses are too hard for me. So, I'll find this, but Harvard is very smart. So, they are very wise, so they've provided a pathway for me through the university. and I have to take it, but I realize I'm surrounded by people who are doing something else. And I still later in life, maybe differently than say someone who went to Ohio State, I still have some memory and respect of that other type of person, because I was in close proximity with them for my college years. So that's kind of what I perceived.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. I think that's hopeful about it. I'm not sure.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I mean, I think if you, but I think if you, if you knew you only made it through Harvard by very carefully finding all the gems and avoiding locking horns in courses where, you know, these first-rate scholar kids were, you know, all concentrated, you kind of realize, wow, okay, there is something going on that these other people are doing and maybe you still have a respect for it, even if you, you didn't end up doing it yourself.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, yeah, that, that might be true. I don't really know. I never really detected this in [school]. I was just, I was really surprised how a large portion of the student body seemed in every observable way to be just like kids at my high school who I would've never thought were going to an Ivy League school, you know? I'm not sure exactly how they got in, but I guess maybe that gets into more of the admissions process.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I guess the question is how much of that is kids who did put together a very strong package. So, they had high GPAs and SAT scores or whatever, nevertheless are not really very intellectual. And maybe the scores, the numbers overstate their ability, or is it just that when you have these different categories of admission and, and lots of hooks, which are non-academic in nature, you just end up with a student body that doesn't, you know, isn't, isn't quite what you imagined.
It's not quite the Caltech or MIT student body. Right. So. not sure how, you
know which of those two effects is bigger.
Anonymous Guest: It could be some combination. I mean, yeah.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. So, tell us a little bit about your educational experience. So, what were the strong aspects of being educated at Harvard versus things that you didn't find so good?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. So, I think you need to sort of separate STEM classes from human humanities classes because I was a major in, in a STEM subject, but I was very interested in the humanities and I took, especially in French and philosophy, I took a number of those sorts of classes. I think in STEM, there was a very large variability in the quality of teaching. There were some professors who were very good, but there were a lot of professors who didn't really care very much about teaching, and, or, or, or just, weren't very good at it. so, you know, if you compare it to somewhere like MIT, at least from what they post on open courseware, which might not be a representative sample of their classes, it seems like the quality of instruction at Harvard is not as high.
In the humanities, the quality of instruction was much higher on average. I think most of the professors really did like to teach and were pretty good at it. But the sort of breadth of courses that was offered the, these were typically very specialized classes that sort of were close to their research interests of that professor. And there were not a lot of survey classes and there were often a lot of foundational classes that were sort of missing. So, like in philosophy, when I was there, there was never a philosophy of science class. There was epistemology, but it was only offered once every couple of years. And there were a lot of other important sort of broad areas of philosophy where there was no class, but there were just huge number of very specific seminars, which for an undergraduate education is not really what you want because you know, you want to be able to get a broad view of the subject, especially if you're not a philosophy major, like you want to be able to take. You know, a few survey classes and learn a lot about the broad areas of philosophy.
And then another thing that surprised me was that a lot of the teaching is not done by tenure track faculty. So, I don't have exact statistics about this, but like a, a large number of classes are taught by non-tenure track faculty. So, they're usually called lecturers or preceptors. And then there are even some classes that are basically taught by grad students where you'll have a professor who is technically in charge of the class. These are typically larger classes. But the class is almost entirely taught by a grad student. So like a lot of the math classes and a lot of the foreign language classes are taught under this model, which if you're, if you're thinking about, like, if you're a parent who's spending $75,000 a year to send your kid to Harvard and then have them be taught by a grad student, I mean, you know, , it's not exactly what you think you're paying for.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. You know what, when you mentioned that to me in an email, I was very surprised by that because, for example, after I left Harvard, I became an assistant professor at Yale. And I was actually teaching graduate classes in the physics department at Yale. But I guess I did teach some recitation. You know, this is, this is kind of how, what, how big the contrast was. I was actually, we were often asked by the department chair to teach recitation sections. So, problem-solving sessions for the undergrads at Yale. And I was a professor, I was a tenure-stream professor, not a, not a preceptor, not a grad student. And I didn't know of any class that would ever be taught. certainly not in physics by a graduate student. So that was very surprising. But then, when I thought back to my experience at Harvard, I did remember there were tutors in the house who would sometimes teach, like, not in physics, but they would sometimes teach like a full class.
So, I think, I think you're probably, I mean, I think what was going on when I was there was similar to what you described, but it had not registered with me. I think that's pretty unusual. Actually. I would feel pretty bummed out if I were paying 75 K for my kid to go to Harvard and he was being taught by a grad student.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, definitely. When I told my friends who went to other universities, you know, and typically other elite universities, they had never heard of this, or this did not really happen at their school. And I should be clear that it's not, you know, this is a small percentage of the classes. It's definitely not most, but it's all of the, at least when I was there, it was basically all of the like calculus classes, like, you know, first, second-semester calculus and multivariable calculus, and then a lot of the foreign language classes as well.
So, and there was always like a, there was always a professor who was officially the one on your transcript, someone with a PhD, not necessarily a tenure type professor who was the one on your transcript who was certifying that, you know, you had taken this class, but you almost never met them. Or maybe they sat at the back of the class once or twice, but there was very, very little involvement of them in actually teaching the class.
Steve Hsu: That's wild. Now, if you, if you were an academically focused kid and you say you knew you wanted to go to graduate school, could you get some kind of research assistantship and get some per close contact with one of the top professors?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, you probably could. And, and I didn't realize that that was something that you could do until later in my time at Harvard. I mean, if you really want to get contact with professors, this is something I realized later was that you actually have to seek it out and really make an effort. And you typically can get it there, although it depends a lot on the professor. Like, when I was in sophomore year, I was taking a, you know, not, not an intro economics class. It was like an intermediate economics class that was supposed to be one of the hardest ones at Harvard. And the professor sort of was aware of this impression that Harvard professors didn't really have much interaction with undergrads. So, he required that you meet with him at one point during the semester. And he sort of made it so like, you know, I'm not like other professors, you know, I'm actually meeting with the students. You know, I really care about teaching undergraduates. But then he would do it in a way where he would have lunch every week with like 10 kids. So, you know, you'd have lunch with him and nine other students. And then if you couldn't make the lunches, which I couldn't, for example, because I had a class during his lunch block, then you had to schedule in his office hours and he had two, two hours of office hours every week that were shared between grad students and undergrads. And so, you had to wait several weeks to get a meeting with him and his office hours. And at some point, in this semester, they were booked through the end of the year. There are some professors who are almost impossible to contact as an undergrad. But definitely if you really want to get that sort of interaction, because you want them to write a rec letter or you're really interested in, you know, doing a PhD, it is, it is possible, but you definitely have to make an effort.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I remember, when I was at Yale, the closest residential college to the science hill where all the science departments are, was Silliman College. And so, I was a fellow of Silliman College, as were most of the physics professors. And so, we got to go there and eat lunch for free there. So, we were cheapskates, so we would always go there and have lunch. But all the professors would form like a defensive perimeter. Like we would all just grab a big table and sit with each other and never talk to any undergrads, except for me, or one or two other people who liked talking to undergrads. You know, it was very unusual for the other professors to talk to undergraduates.
Anonymous Guest: I should mention because you just reminded me. I think you know Noam Elkies, right?
Steve Hsu: Yes.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I don't, I don't know him well, but he's a very famous mathematician, you know, very, very accomplished mathematician at Harvard. And he, I think, is the only professor who does something like this, where he hangs out at one of the houses and he'll just go up and talk to random people. So, one time we were eating, one of my friends and I were eating there, and he came up and talked to us, even though we, you know, had never taken his class, we didn't know who he was. But that is quite unusual for someone to do that. Definitely.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. He's also involved in the, what is it? What’s the orchestra called? HRO — Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra. Yeah. No, he interacts a lot with undergraduates. In fact, in the time that I knew him, just to tell you a Noam story, he got into weightlifting. I don't think I personally [got him involved]. Well, I don't know. I mean, I was involved in getting him into weightlifting, but I don't think I was the main cause. But that was when we used to work out at the, I think it was called the Malkin Athletic Center. I don’t know if that's still the weight room.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. So, we used to work out there and Noam started out. He's, you know, kind of a nerdy guy, not being able to lift weights at all. But then I just saw him and now he's old, but I just saw him not too long ago and he's pretty, he's pretty bulked up. And I said, he's, he told me, like, he could do like 15 pull ups. And I was like, no, you're, you know, you're a stud. So, anyway, so he, he actually, if you go to the, if you go to Malkin, you can see him pumping iron.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, but he's definitely the, I mean, he's a very, I don't know him well at all, but he's, he's a very, very unique individual, not the median Harvard professor by any means.
Steve Hsu: No, not at all, not at all. So, now I think you mentioned to me that you had some friends from high school who went to other Ivy league schools, maybe two liberal arts colleges and that they had a, you know, pretty different educational experience. Maybe you could say something about that.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. So, in particular, liberal arts colleges, and then I think Princeton is a little bit unusual with respect to the other Ivy league schools and having more of a liberal arts college type environment. But they definitely didn't have classes that were taught by grad students. And in particular, one of my friends who went to one of the top liberal arts colleges, seemed like she could almost whenever she wanted to, she could meet with a professor or, you know, she had an advisor who was a professor. I don't think I ever talked to you about the advising system at Harvard, but at least the freshman advising system, you know, I thought before coming to college that your advisor would be a professor, but the way that Harvard did advising for freshmen was that basically anyone who wanted to be could sign up to be an advisor.
They didn't, they didn't, I don't even know if they paid them. Maybe they did pay them some token. And so, you might get some random person as your advisor, who was in a completely different part of the university, didn't know anything about the classes you were interested in. You know, I think one of my friends had as an advisor, someone who worked in some sort of music in the music department or something like that, doing, you know, some sort of administrative job had very little interaction with the undergraduate curriculum or anything, whereas you know, my friends at liberal arts colleges, their advisors were professors, you know, and their professors in, in their area of interest.
So definitely the experience there is much more focused around undergraduate students because that's basically why liberal arts colleges exist.
Anonymous Guest: There's certainly other IVs that I didn't know anyone who went to, you know, so I don't know if, if all of them are more like Harvard or if they're more like Princeton, it's sort of hard to say.
Steve Hsu: When, I was in high school, it was already a, I don't know how to say this, but a, a bit of folk wisdom for people who were, you know, from academically ambitious families, that Princeton was much more focused on the undergrads and Harvard much, maybe a better, relatively better experience for grad students than for undergrads.
And so, some people actually thought that way, that, that, yeah, if you want a really good, if you want the professors who actually care about, or at least are forced to care about educating the undergrads, you're better off at Princeton than at Harvard.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I probably might have heard something similar to that, but I don't know if I really gave it much weight when I was considering colleges. I didn't really know if I believed it. But I think that's probably true. I mean, I only have one friend who went there and so I'm, I'm sort of going off of, off of their experience, but that's definitely the impression that I have that things are still like that.
Steve Hsu: You know, one, one big thing, which you, you mentioned in terms of the course selection, you know, at some of these schools, maybe, maybe it's still true of like Columbia or Chicago and certainly of some lax where they have some kind of great, great books, survey classes, where they, they basically cover all the things you're actually supposed to have read if you're an educated person, right. Plato and you know, whatever. I always thought that would be a good thing to have that we didn't have at Caltech. So there are plenty of books that I should have read that, you know, I had to read on my own. There was no course covering those books at Caltech, but it's, it's, a little disappointing that you couldn't find that breadth at Harvard.
Anonymous Guest: I should say there were two classes that had, there were something like that. One was in the history department, and one was in the government department, and they were both offered by much older conservative professors. I took one of them. And so, they were sort of an exception to the rule because these are both of the professors who are, you know, one of them is in his sixties and the other is probably 90 now. And so, there were those two classes and then there was another class called humanities 10, HUM 10, that was more literature oriented, but you had to apply to get into that class. And I didn't apply, but my freshman year, I think, you know, something like two or three or 400 students applied for 90 spots.
So, you know, you weren't guaranteed a spot by any means. So, there were things, if you were really looking for that, that kind of approximated that experience, but they were certainly not representative of something that everyone would get. They were not required by any means. And they probably won't be around in 10 years because these professors might be retired by then.
Steve Hsu: Right. You, you didn't, you didn't by any chance ever have a class with Harvey Mansfield, did you?
Anonymous Guest: No, I didn't. So, he taught what was called GOV 1060 and 1061, which was one of these survey classes. And I actually shopped in his class. I considered taking it, but I didn't, it didn't end up working out with my schedule. And I remember even on the first day of class, he was saying a lot of things that, you know, weren’t exactly modern in his sensibilities.
And this is also true of the other more survey type classes that I took.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. He's like the last conservative. I mean, he, I think it's true that he gives you the fake inflated Harvard grade. He says, I'm not going to penalize you for taking my class. I'm going to give you the fake inflated, a minus that you didn't deserve, but you meet with me privately. I'll give you your real grade. Like what, what grade we would've given you back in the day when schools were rigorous. Right.
So, or in my own mind, I translated as in my own mind, I translated it as the Caltech grade or something. so,
Well, Caltech wouldn't even have a humanities class in the first place, so. No, we do, we do, we have them, but, they were the easiest class, but I'm just kidding. But, a lot of kids who were very sharp got, you know, C's and stuff at Caltech, so.
Anonymous Guest: No, Mansfield is probably, I mean, you could Google it, but he is probably in his nineties now. And I think he might, I'm not even sure if he's going to be teaching much longer. there's a
Steve Hsu: Yeah, he's.
Anonymous Guest: I'll name, I'll name, his name, I guess. there's a slightly younger professor. He's in his late sixties named James Hankins teaches in the history department who is also very conservative. And he teaches this survey class that I took of what it's called Western Intellectual History. Which is sort of similar to 1060, you know, to Mansfield's class, just a little bit different. And, he's also sort of a dying breed though, because I think he's the only remaining conservative in the history department. And I doubt that a class similar to his, which covers in the first semester, covers ancient Greek philosophy, ancient Roman philosophy, and then in the second semester is a little bit more modern. I doubt that a class like that would be offered if he weren't there. You know, I think that's because he's choosing to offer it.
But, he's actually a very interesting individual. He's less, he's less famous than Harvey Mansfield, I think. But he told me when I was, I asked him in office hours, I asked. if, because he had written these conservative op-eds that were really outside the mainstream for Harvard. I mean a number of them criticized COVID policies. A few of them were about wokeness. You know, they were definitely things that were not majority opinions at Harvard. And he had written, he had written a bunch of these op-eds and, and sort of conservative publications. And so, I asked him, you know, have you gotten any pushback from other liberal Harvard professors about this kind of thing, you know, have, has anyone approached you about this? And he said to me, one thing that's good about people who are on the left is that they don't really read very much outside of their ideological bubble.
Steve Hsu: So, they don't know what he's up to.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. So, there's like, they're not even reading, you know, Law and Liberty or First Things or these sorts of conservative magazines. And so, they don't even know what I've said.
Steve Hsu: Was Neil Ferguson teaching at Harvard when you were there or had he left?
Anonymous Guest: He left, he left. He was actually good friends with James Hankins and others, but he left a couple of years before I got there, I think.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, so I know him a little bit and he told me that because of his, you know, not even, I would say conservative maybe now you would say he's a conservative. But at the time, it was more just because he was, you know, he wrote some, some of his books were about things like, you know, finance or how finance helped the British empire and things like this. But he was considered, you know, too far to the right. And they just, he told me they created a hostile environment for him in the history department at Harvard, even though he was a very prominent professor, and that's why he left for the Hoover Institution.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. I certainly believe that. I don't know how, how this, how James Hankins gets away with it. But that definitely sounds like something that would happen.
Steve Hsu: He said they even took it out on his graduate students. So, that was the final straw for him. He was like, I'm tough. I can take it, but I don't think it's fair for them to single out my graduate students.
So, before we leave the topic of the Harvard education, you know, so one of the, you know, like I mentioned, my buddy earlier, who, who, I guess he was first in his class at Princeton and the same year as Jeff Bezos, I think. And, you know, he went to Princeton because you know, they have a junior paper and they have a senior thesis and there's a lot of focus on the undergraduates and the graduate programs are smaller there. And now the retort is no, you go to Harvard because if you're really one of the top people you get to be with the other top people and you take math 55 and, and you benefit from soaking up, you know, stuff from the other students, even if you don't necessarily interact with the faculty that closely.
And to some extent, that was true at Caltech. Now at Caltech, we had a lot of access to the faculty because the faculty to student ratio is so small. It's a tiny campus. But I would have to say, I learned as much or more from the other kids. The other people that I had the classes with. And it was important that they were, there were a lot of really off scale people there on the campus.
So, the question is what's, what's the, what was the balance for you? Like did you feel like being around these other brilliant kids, taking the same classes as you did that compensate, did that more than compensate for any shortfall in the way that professors educated you?
Anonymous Guest: I think it was definitely very valuable. I think one way in which it didn't compensate was that I realized, you know, about a year before I was going to apply to grad schools that I didn't know any professors who could write me a recommendation letter. And I had to make a conscious effort to try to get to know professors better and really make really, you know, go out of my way to do that. So, I think in terms of learning, it's definitely very valuable, and even learning things that aren't, you know, on the, on the syllabus, just learning about, you know, a study that your friend has read or, you know, some sort of argument that they have about a political issue.
But in terms of, you know, preparing for grad school, it was certainly a pretty big disadvantage. I think the sort of right tail of student ability, it's not just the math 55 kids. I mean, I wasn't in that group by any means. And I personally was not. And I knew a few of them, but I wasn't, you know, I wasn't on that level. But there even, even when you get a little bit lower, there are still some very strong students, and very thoughtful students. So, I definitely benefited from that to some degree.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, my feeling was, maybe when you look back on it, like, okay, I realize like you're in the middle of your graduate career right now. So, things look a certain way. But I think later you'll look back and you'll say, yeah, that particular course wasn't that well taught. I too, you know, educate myself or pick it up later or et cetera, et cetera.
But you think about the bull sessions you had with, you know, the guys who were your friends and also very sharp, and maybe that was the special thing that wasn't going to happen if you hadn't been at Harvard. At least I feel that way about Caltech. And it's not just the bull sessions where we're actually discussing physics or mathematics, but just bull sessions about other stuff, too. Those were pretty unique conversations that weren't, you weren't necessarily going to get at, you know, Michigan State or something like that. So, I don't know if that
Anonymous Guest: I hope I'm not coming across as too cynical. Like I really do think I made friends at Harvard who were really smart and really thoughtful. And so maybe you don't find that as much at other places.
Steve Hsu: Right. So, so moving on to networking opportunities. So, another thing people often say is, well, okay. So, you know, the professors don't care about you so much at Harvard it's sink or swim. But you're going to meet people who, years later, they're going to fund your startup, or they're the ones who are going to give you the tip that, you know, this is what you should say at your McKinsey interview. Or the guy who comes for your McKinsey interview was in your house. And there's a lot of, you have a lot of common experiences, you know, all these networking kinds of things or peeks into what's happening in the world of movers and shakers that you wouldn't get if you hadn't been at Harvard. Did, did you, did you have any sense of that?
Anonymous Guest: So, I think it depends a lot on what you want to do. Definitely, if you want to work in finance or consulting. I don't know so much about direct networking as in, you know, a particular individual, but the Harvard name goes a really long way in terms of getting you an interview. and there are a lot of networking events with individual companies that are hosted, you know, near Harvard Square and different restaurants and things like that on a very regular basis.
I also think a little bit more broadly being at Harvard opened my sort of eyes to a whole set of jobs that I didn't even know existed before I got there. Just because they weren't the kind of thing that my parents did or that, you know, people that I knew did. So, you know, for example, I remember one of my, one of my favorite stories from when I was at Harvard is my sophomore year I was talking to somebody who was going to work at who was, I think, interviewing to work at McKinsey, and, and they were, they were interviewing to work at McKinsey and they thought about it and they said, that, that it was a low starting salary at McKinsey relative to their other, you know, job opportunities.
Anonymous Guest: And I said, I think I heard that they make $100,000 a year. And he was like, yeah, that's, that's a low starting salary. And at that point I was just firm. Because that was more than my parents made combined. I mean, you know, like I, that was, to me $100,000 seemed like a lot of money to be making right out of college. And that was before I realized that actually, no, I mean, if you work in tech or if you work in, in quant finance coming out of Harvard, you can make a lot more than a hundred thousand dollars and that he actually had a point.
So, I think in terms of opening your eyes to the kinds of jobs that exist, people will also recommend you, to a company if they've done an internship there, they can give you recommendation and then you'll be, you'll be a lot more likely to get an interview. So, in terms of getting jobs, there's definitely a big advantage. I don't know as much about that, you know, in 10 years or 20 years down the road, if I'm going to meet somebody, you know, I mean, I haven't gotten there yet, but, definitely for career success, there's a huge advantage to going to Harvard.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, you know, just some life advice for you because I'm old and you're young. Later on. You're going to you, I mean, if in academia maybe is, has a different flavor, but if you leave academia and you're in tech startup world or finance world or consulting world, guys that like, maybe you were at Harvard with them, but you didn't really know them, or you barely knew them. Nevertheless, they're going to have, on average, some warm, fuzzy feeling for you. They're going to know you went through kind of what they went through. You'll have maybe some friends in common, or you'll remember some things that happen on campus that in com and that actually goes a long way. It may be irrational, but you know, humans are just apes.
So, you'll get the benefit of the doubt from some of these guys, and you'll even get the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the guy even goes to Harvard, maybe Yale or, or Princeton, but he may give you a benefit of doubt because he kind of figures you're like him, or you went through something like him. Like he did. It, it will, it will actually pay off in, in kind of weird irrational ways.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's certainly one of the things that makes the admissions process to these universities so important to everybody else, you know, the fact that so much of the world is run by, that kind of dynamic, means that it's, it's certainly of a lot of interest to how corrupt the admissions processes are, but.
Steve Hsu: Now, this gap between the kind of special knowledge that you might get by attending Harvard as an undergrad versus say attending, you know, university of Iowa or something that was much larger when I was a kid, because obviously we didn't have the internet and the sources of information, much more limited.
Some Silicon Valley folks will make the following case that these days, if you're active on Twitter, or you just know a few people, you can still get a warm intro to almost any VC or tech founder. And furthermore, like this knowledge about what starting salaries are at McKinsey versus Two Sigma or something, ah, you can go on the internet and figure it out. And so, the playing field is much more level. And I'm not sure how correct that is. What, what do you think about that?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I think that might be correct. I'm not sure if you are actually looking for that information. You know, so when I was a sophomore in college, I was not thinking I was not looking this kind of thing up. I had just, you know, it was not even something that was on my radar. So, if I had heard that there was somewhere called Two Sigma, and I started looking up, maybe their salaries were on Glassdoor maybe. But I do know that it's actually quite hard to find public information about salaries at a lot of these companies, you know, on that point in particular. If you go on Glassdoor, I know that those are often not accurate. So, I don't know if the salary information is really particularly public. And I still think that actually knowing people probably does go a long way beyond just, you know, finding them on, on Twitter or that sort of thing.
So, I think there's definitely still a lot of information that is much more accessible to somebody who, you know, goes to an elite university.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, that's my impression too. I think that maybe a more precise statement is if you're a very canny guy, you know, very aware and using the internet, you can much more easily make up the delta between what someone got from attending Harvard than from attending their state flagship. But it's a subset of kids that would be that, you know, self-aware or ambitious that they would make use of these tools that are now available to them.
Whereas, whereas you might be aware, you might be made aware of things literally against your will while you're at Harvard. Like, like you, you're not trying to figure these things out, but you sit down at dinner and the other guy goes, yeah, I had my McKinsey interview and they only offered me this or something. And you're like, I didn't really want to know that, but now I know that. Right.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Like hearing the salaries for internships was, I mean, I would never have thought about going into quant finance or going into tech, you know, that was not something that was even remotely on my radar when I came into college. And then when I started hearing how much money they made, I was much more interested in it, you know.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, a aside from though using the Harvard, I premature to travel, you know, I don't want to say standard tracks because not every kid in America's aware of these tracks, but somewhat well-traveled tracks into the elite, were there actually things going on campus where you, like, you knew kids who like actually did a startup out their dorm room or like I guess Ken Griffin famously started trading bonds out of his dorm room before he started Citadel. Like where there actually things or, or maybe started Facebook, you know, were there things like that going on when you were there?
Anonymous Guest: Not that I can think of. I can think of, I know one person who I don't really know him very well, but he was in a hiking group at the beginning of, at the beginning, you know, freshman year you have a hiking group, and you can, this is one of the things that you can do before orientation. And I think he started some sort of FinTech type thing. There were a lot of startups that were a little bit cringe where the startup didn't really make a lot of sense. And it was just somebody who was kind of a startup growth type person who was getting into this. I don't remember really seeing anything that took off at least while I was there.
Steve Hsu: In that way, it might be that Harvard is a little more establishmentarian than Stanford. I think definitely at Stanford, there's, there's all kinds of, you know, aggressive entrepreneurial shenanigans going on, even among the undergrads. Like, I even, I know faculty at Stanford who, you know, like they're approached by some, not just by some grad student, but they're approached by some undergrad who wants to start a company using their research or something like that.
So, of course, I guess Theranos is the worst example of something like this, but you know, there are other examples that aren't fraudulent. So, maybe Stanford does have the edge in terms of entrepreneurship.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I also wasn't super queued into that type of thing. So, it might have been going on, but I wasn't really detecting it, you know.
Steve Hsu: Right. Any other reflections you want to make about the sort of distribution of cognitive ability or intellectual curiosity at Harvard, the right tail population, the left tail population, and anything you want to say?
I guess there were a couple things. One thing that was, I thought was very interesting was, you know, I always had this image, I guess this is more of a broader point of this sort of math 55, IMO type people as being these sorts of gods who are just above me in every way. And I could never really be on that level. And, and I think, certainly cognitive ability is, is real and, you know, affects success to, to a significant degree. But I did notice that there were certain classes in economics or in statistics or, or whatever, where I was really interested, and I really enjoyed it. And I spent a lot of time studying partly because I wanted to do well, but also partly because it was just something that I found really interesting and I actually did better than some of those kids occasionally, you know.
Steve Hsu: And so I think that that was interesting because I don't know, I think it may be a little bit complicated, there was certainly cognitive ability matter. But if, if you have a lot of interest and a lot, and you spend a lot of time on something, you can perform a little bit above what your sort of cognitive level might be. Yeah, I think by the way, if I could just comment on that, I think that's a great life lesson that you learned and, you know, had you not been in Harvard, you maybe wouldn't have close, proximate, experience with these off-scale kind of folks. So, so that's, that's something that's, I think, fairly unique to your Harvard experience.
And, and for the rest of your life, the life lesson is that, yeah, if you're interested in something and you really want to learn it and get good at it, you know, there's really no limit. There might be somebody who could have gotten to that super high level of capability faster than you, but it doesn't mean you can't get there if you really want to.
Steve Hsu: And so, you don't need to be intimidated by these other guys. They might be, you know, they might have some advantages over you, but it doesn't mean you can't do it yourself.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
So, I wanted to turn to the sort of the ideological climate on campus. So how, how woke would you say the campus was when you were there?
Anonymous Guest: Definitely pretty woke. You know, I felt like I was always on the avant garde of the latest, the latest trend, whether it was, you know, saying your gender pronouns or abolishing the police. All of those things were always at Harvard before I saw them, you know, elsewhere. I think the first time that I was ever asked to state my preferred gender pronouns to a group of people, it was like when we were at orientation, we would go around introducing ourselves.
So that, that would've been in like 2016 or 2017, which I don't think that the whole, thesort of announcing your pronouns was very common then, but it was very common at Harvard already. And then another thing that was funny was during COVID, there was this Facebook page, which I think a lot of other universities have something like this called Harvard confessions where you could post anonymously. So, people would anonymously post a few paragraphs or, or joke or whatever. And you would see this interesting dynamic where like, there were a lot of very woke anonymous posts. So, you know, one person was complaining about the lack of body size diversity at Harvard because people were too thin and they didn't, they didn't like that. You know, perhaps they wanted affirmative action on that basis. And then there were also a sort of non-trivial number of kinds of anti-woke posts that you would never have seen somebody say publicly, but because they were anonymous, people felt a little bit more comfortable expressing their opinion.
But just in general, there was a very strong stigma against anything that went against a sort of prevailing view. And outside of certain particular circles, you had to be very careful what you said.
Steve Hsu: How, how open, like among you and your best buddies, how open could you be about your true beliefs? And also, the observation that most people are, maybe many people around you are falsifying their preferences or beliefs out of fear. Like, was that something that people discussed?
Anonymous Guest: Oh, well, among my friends, my roommates, you could be very open. I mean, you know, so, so that was partly because of the friends that I chose though, of course. And I even noticed like people who I knew who weren't necessarily my best friends, but if I would talk to them in private, you would notice that there, they would make jokes that were kind of politically incorrect or they wouldn't necessarily make in public.
There was, there was definitely a, a great extent of hiding your real beliefs or, or hiding your real way of expressing yourself.
Did people ever say, hey man, we're in a generation where we have to actually hide what we believe, but guys like Steve Hsu in the eighties, they could just say whatever they wanted and nobody cared and, and you know. Like, were you aware of that? Like, did you feel like you were living in a special time or a time that was different than what previous generations had lived through?
Anonymous Guest: Well, I mean, it's sort of all I've ever known, so, you know, it's not necessarily something. It's like noticing that the sky is blue. I mean, it's not necessarily something that you remark on because it's just the way that it's always been for me.
Steve Hsu: But, well, okay. But you talked to your dad, and he shows you his yearbook photo and the sky's blue, this guy's red. Like, were you aware of that difference?
Yeah, I don't really have a good idea. I don't know what things were like 30 years ago. It's sort of hard for me to even imagine.
Steve Hsu: It's interesting, yeah.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I mean, I know that there were controversies 30 years ago about political correctness and that sort of thing, but I think it's come a lot further since then, so.
Steve Hsu: 30 years ago, the battles were over whether one should even allow something like political correctness. So, we used to fight battles about, you know, how dare you censor any speech for me. Like, it's a, it's a principle that, you know, and people on the left and right could say I'm just against any censorship of people's expression because that's what America's all about. And, you know, that it's shifted so much it's almost unbelievable to people in my generation.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I should say there was an effort while I was there. I think it started maybe a year or two before I got there called the open campus initiative. Have you heard of this?
Steve Hsu: No.
Anonymous Guest: So, this was a group, a student group, that aims to invite people to Harvard who would not have otherwise been invited. So typically, you know, Rite of center or otherwise sort of heterodox people, they would invite his speakers.
And they invited, I think before I got there, they invited Jordan Peterson. And then during my freshman or sophomore year, they invited Charles Murray. And this got a lot of attention. You know, a lot of people were aware of this. Uh, it was very controversial. The leader of it was a very controversial figure. You know, the student leader of this was a very controversial figure. And I don't think that they were ever, you know, they had a, generally the Harvard administration was very good in dealing with them as far as I'm aware. So, there was no attempt to shut them down or anything like that, but it just sort of fizzled out when I was there. And I actually looked before I, because I wanted to mention it. And I think the last time they posted on Facebook or hosted an event was November 2019. So, they’ve sort of fizzled out since then. But there was some attempt to sort of change this, but it didn't really last for very long.
I mean the reason you can't do that is because of a, just a genuine feeling among the students themselves, that it's not acceptable to have Charles Murray speaking on campus.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Yeah. I will say Charles Murray when he was there, there was a protest, and the protest was very respectful of him and did not interrupt his speech. They just got up and they walked out in the middle of the speech, and he remarked as they were leaving, this is a lot better than Middlebury. Because at Middlebury new school, you know?
Steve Hsu: Right. Or, or recent protests, not against him, but against other people, like at Yale law school, I think they were pretty, you know, in your face and trying to stop the presentation from occurring.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, nothing like that at Harvard while I was there. The university administration was, was, was pretty good at ensuring enough security and, and these sorts of things. And there were people who were very controversial. I mean, the Yale law school was someone, the event, there was someone who was opposed to same sex marriage, which is kind of, it's almost unbelievable that that would be the thing that would, launch so much controversy because it is an opinion that something like 30% of Americans hold.
Steve Hsu: Not only that, not only that I think Obama was explicitly against same sex marriage when he ran for president.
Anonymous Guest: When you're running in 2008, yeah.
Steve Hsu: It's not that long. Well, to me, not that long ago.
Anonymous Guest: Well, for us that's age history, but there was a, there was someone who expressed similar views at, at Harvard and, and there was a protest or something, but you know, that they were able to give their speech and there was nothing. So, I think Yale is definitely worse. I mean, if you look at the Halloween costume controversy and that sort of thing, you know, Yale is definitely worse than Harvard in this respect. I mean, so I guess this is the one, you know, thing I'll give their credit for is that the people who protest have either because they feel like it's the right thing to do, or because the administration has sort of reigned them in, they've never been really that disruptive.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, so that's positive. I mean, at least it's, it's better than some other places. You know, incidentally, if you go on, I think this video still exists on YouTube, but I'm not sure because I haven't watched it in a long time. But I think it was like the 20th anniversary or 25th anniversary of the publication of the book, The Bell Curve. Harvey Mansfield convened a little gathering, and it was videotaped, and it was in a seminar room, relatively small seminar room at Harvard, and Charles Murray was the guest of honor.
And they had a discussion about the book. And I remember when the book came out, I want to say late eighties, early nineties, it was a huge thing. It was discussed everywhere. You know, the whole issue of magazines and journals was devoted to it. And you know, most of the book was about cognitive stratification. There's only one part of one chapter that talks about differences in group differences, you know, by ancestry in intelligence. Most of it was about America. You know, white America says being stratified by cognitive ability, something that, you know, maybe in some senses comes true, in terms of economic success. And the book, the book was widely discussed and, and I was kind of amazed that, you know, 20, 25 years later, whenever they had this meeting only Harvey Mansfield would do this. And only a few people showed up. But there was no protest because this was probably like 10 years ago or something. So, there was no, nobody protested. It's just, nobody cared who showed up.
So very different today.
Anonymous Guest: While I was at Harvard, he did speak, this was very recent. You know, this was like 2020 or 2021. He spoke in a, in a class, actually. He was the guest speaker of a data science for government type class, which attracted a huge amount of controversy. I don't know if you've heard about David Kane or any of this sort of thing.
Steve Hsu: I know David Kane. Yeah.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. So, David Kane invited Charles Murray to speak. And there was a, there was a lot of controversy and then there was even more because of other, you know, blog posts that David Kane had made that became public. So, you know, Charles Murray did speak again, and I don't, I think there's, there's certainly a lot of interest. I mean, most people at Harvard probably know who he is, or they’ve probably never read anything that he's written. But he's definitely someone who people are aware of.
Steve Hsu: I'm curious about kids. This is not a Harvard specific question, but it is, is, is a question that I'd like to ask young, smart people, like where do you go for unfiltered information? So, if you, if you want to learn like, hey, what, what is the real story behind this news story? And you know, like the New York Times is going to shade it a certain way and all major media is going to shade it a certain way, where can you go to either discuss it anonymously or pseudonymously, or, or to learn about, you know, some underlying facts which are, which are, you know, being whitewashed? What is this website or the source of information where you can learn something like that?
Anonymous Guest: Well, that's a tough question. I mean, I don't know if I have a good answer. I mean, one thing I.
Steve Hsu: I mean, I mean, to some, I was just going to say to some extent, obviously there's 4Chan and stuff like that, where all kinds of unfiltered conversation happens. But on the other hand, you might say that's kind of got a lot of lowbrow, middle brow contamination. So, if you're looking for more of a high brow discussion of censored topics, where can you go?
Anonymous Guest: I mean, I have always been interested in the sort of rationalist type people, you know, people like less wrong is a forum where there is a lot of discussion around this, Scott Alexander, a blogger who's very well known in that area. You know, those people, I think generally have interesting thoughts or, you know, have interesting information. I mean, it's definitely hard to find it. If you mean more about the news in particular, or if you mean more about sort of scientific topics that might be relevant to the news, I guess those are sort of separate things.
Steve Hsu: Or, or social commentary, you know, about what's happening in society or dating anything? Any, any, anything? I'm just wondering if there's something I'm missing that young people know about that I just don't know about.
Anonymous Guest: No, I really don't think so, unfortunately.
There's no Twitch or pirate channel where all this stuff is, all this discussion is actually happening?
Anonymous Guest: Maybe there is, but I'm definitely not on it.
Steve Hsu: Okay. Okay. Well, I just thought I'd check because I thought maybe you would, you would turn me on to something good.
Anonymous Guest: But you're already familiar with wrong and, and Scott Alexander and those kinds of people.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I am. I actually know Scott, I've actually been to some of the rationalist events in the Bay Area, so super fun. I definitely recommend it if you're ever there.
So, I guess in themost sensitive question related to wokeism is what are the attitudes that Harvard students have about things like affirmative action or about, other people being at, you know, other categories of kids admitted through special hooks? Is it something people talk about? Is it, is it kind of verboten?
Anonymous Guest: Well, there's definitely a lot of discussion in a negative sense of things like legacy and preferences for donor kids and that sort of, you know, what's, what's viewed as a socially acceptable way to criticize the admissions process. Right. So, you know, even professors will make snide comments about legacies, not really being as good as the other students or things like that.
In terms of affirmative action, students are generally, I mean, I actually pulled up the survey statistics on this. Like in the most recent senior survey, 67% are favorable to affirmative action and 12% are unfavorable. So, you know, for affirmative action, there's, there's very strong support. I knew a few Asian students who were opposed to it, but they sort of, you know, didn't really want to express that opinion publicly. It's definitely a very hot button issue that, you know, if you say something publicly against it, you're putting yourself in, in some danger of cancellation or whatever.
Steve Hsu: If there were a tool that let you know, I would create this tool. Some web-based tool that, you know, verifies you're a Harvard student, but allows you to have a, you know, super secure, highly encrypted pseudonymous identity, but persistent, but say pseudonymous identity that you could use to express your opinion. Do you think you'd find stuff that's just totally at variance with what people, you know, publicly expressed?
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. I mean, I think to some extent, this is what happened with Harvard confessions. Of course, you didn't have to prove that you were a Harvard student to post; it's just a Facebook page. Anyone can submit something on the anonymous form they have, but I don't think there were really people who weren't Harvard students posting on there.
You could usually tell. And what would often happen was someone would express some sort of unorthodox view, you know, they'd make some sort of argument, whether the argument was good or bad, and then all of the comments, because the comments are Facebook, so they have your name on them, would be just very, very against whatever they said often without really responding to the argument.
So, I think you might be able to get more views. I mean, I think the interesting thing would be being able to have a dialogue that's entirely anonymous. Because, you know, you do see on, on Harvard confessions, you do see a lot of views that are sort of at variance with themainstream one, things that I'd never heard people say publicly. But there's very little good faith discussion of them or response to them.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. So, it just seems like there's a vacuum where there are certain things you can discuss with a few close friends, but you cannot go very much further than that.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Yeah, no, that's probably true. I remember at one point I said something in a class discussion, like global health class. So, we were discussing obesity in the United States. And I made some sort of point about how it might be one of the reasons why the United States has a lower life expectancy than other developed countries. I don't remember the exact context of the discussion. And just everyone was very hostile to even suggesting this, you know, which, which is, is, should be just an empirical question. And I think it's probably true, but I don't, you know, maybe there's evidence I'm not aware of. And, and people were, were very, very hostile to this just on, on sort of a mood affiliation level, not even, you know, citing any evidence or studies to, to refute what I had said.
Steve Hsu: Did the professor defend you or at least defend your right to pose the hypo? The empirical hypothesis?
Anonymous Guest: Well, this was just as a grad student. Actually, it wasn't a professor as with most class discussions. But they were not on my side. No.
Steve Hsu: Wow. Because I do some work in genomics and related to longevity and health and stuff like that, it's definitely true that obesity plays a huge role in, you know, your life expectancy and your susceptibility to certain diseases and things like this. And there's a genetic component to your predisposition for obesity. And then those alleles actually show up when you try to build a predictor for other health conditions. So, all this stuff is, I mean, your hypothesis is correct, actually, as far as I can tell.
Anonymous Guest: But not, it's not something that you can really openly discuss, for whatever reason. Yeah.
Steve Hsu: That's amazing because at least in this particular case in the science literature, one can still discuss it and write papers. I guess they're going to come. They're going to come for those epidemiologists who, who
Anonymous Guest: Be careful. Yeah.
Steve Hsu: Wow. That's insane.
Anonymous Guest: This was not a science class, really. It was a global health class. So, I don't know if the people were as scientifically oriented, you know, the people who were more concerned with social issues. And so, they saw this through that lens rather than, you know, evaluating any sort of evidence about it.
Steve Hsu: Right. Wow. So, are you in, in the time that you were at Harvard, did it at Harvard, did it get more woke? Like, do you have any projection for how this is all going to evolve, say over the next decade?
Anonymous Guest: Oh, that's hard to say. I mean, it was pretty woke the whole time that I was there. I don't know if I necessarily noticed a trend in one direction or the other. I mean, there was like a group of conservative students. Like there was a very recognizable group. It was very small percentage wise and, and they clustered in a particular set of organizations.
So, you know, obvious ones like Harvard Republican club, but then there was something else called the John Adam Society, which was this sort of a little bit weird debating society where you could go and, and debate things. And there were a couple of conservative professors who had their little, you know, corner that they had carved out.
So, I think that will probably persist because typically those people felt like they were kind of, you know, you couldn't cancel them because they were already canceled as far as they were concerned, you know?
Steve Hsu: They were out and canceled. Yeah.
Anonymous Guest: But in terms of, you know, in the mainstream at Harvard, I think it's about as woke, you know, I think it's about as woke as it. I mean, I shouldn't say it's about as woke as it can get, because it could always get more woke. But
Steve Hsu: Yeah. It could become Yale.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, that's true.
Steve Hsu: But did, did you feel that it, it, on just this wokeism axis, your college experience was materially different than say your high school buddy, who went to the state flagship?
Anonymous Guest: Oh, I think it probably was. I mean, I definitely think, I don't know. I mean, I didn't go to, I didn't spend a lot of time at a state flagship or anything, but even if I just compared to my high school, which was in a very liberal area, you know, by no means did I grew up in a red state, it was a deep blue area. Most people probably voted for Democrats. But the level of wokeism was completely different than it was at Harvard. I mean, there was, it wasn't, wasn't even close. The kinds of jokes that you could, that people would make, or the kinds of things that people would say about their political views. So, I think there's definitely a big difference between sort of the elite universities and the, and the rest, in, in that respect.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, that's my impression. I feel it's kind of dangerous since all of these are the institutions, which are the feeders into, you know, the power elite going forward. So, you're going to end up with a very filtered power elite in the future.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. And I mean, I should say, like even, you know, it's an interesting, dynamic, which is that the kind of people who represent different communities, often hold and, and these people are typically drawn from Harvard or similar institutions, often hold views that are very different than the community that they purport to represent.
So, for example, at Harvard, there's very widespread use of the term Latinx or Latinx. I don't, I never really knew exactly how you pronounce it. If you look at polls of American Latinos, they, they reject this by overwhelming margins. I mean, they think this is ridiculous by, by and large. And there are many things like this where the view that is predominant among the elite of that group is very, very different from the view that's dominant among the group itself.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, the thing is that what could happen though is that the elite views are that's the vanguard and it filters down and then becomes normalized for everybody else. And to some extent, all of this wokeism stuff, going back to the eighties and nineties, was sort of fringe campus ideation by a few academics, and then suddenly got managed to get normalized and take over whole campuses and huge parts of the country.
So, you know, the Latinx thing, I think I agree with you in terms of what I read about thesurvey, what the surveys say and such, but who knows how it's going to go in the next 20, 30 years.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I am a little skeptic. I mean, I, have you heard of this luxury belief concept Rob Henderson has, has sort of come up?
Steve Hsu: Yes.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, I think to some extent that's so another example would be, you know, at Harvard, the attitudes towards police were very, very negative. And if you look at polls of Black Americans, you know, certainly they're worried about police brutality and discrimination, but for the most part, they don't want to get rid of the police or they don't even want to. And most of them, if I remember the poll correctly, 20% wanted to increase the police presence in their community, 20% wanted to decrease, and 60% wanted to remain the same. You know, these are rough numbers of the poll that I saw. Whereas at Harvard, everyone would say decrease if not abolish.
And I think something like that, you know, to hold the view that is in vogue at Harvard would be a very dangerous thing to do for a lot of people. Or they would think that those ideas are very dangerous because they actually affect their lives. You know, if you live in a community with a lot of crime, then you're, you're probably going to be a lot more skeptical of what people at Harvard who live in Cambridge are telling you about how we don't need the police, you know.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. Well, I agree with you that would be wise, but I think in the wake of George Floyd, all kinds of reaction to that incident, you know, sort of handicapped policing in America. And so, we've had very high crime rates as a result for the last couple years.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Yeah, no, I think that's probably true. I don't know about the attitudes, you know, how attitudes of people have actually changed, in response to that. But
Steve Hsu: Yeah. But I, but I think crazy ideas that originated in Cambridge in 02138, certainly can do things to ordinary people that are actually against their best interests. I mean, that's happened more
Anonymous Guest: Did you say that intentionally to exclude MIT because they have a different zip code?
Steve Hsu: Oh, no, I didn't even think of it that way. I when I said, oh, two, one, why did I say 02138? Because I thought there was a show, a public television show when I was growing up called Zoom. And they always used to say, 02138 end of this. It is. Yeah. Yeah. So, I didn't even realize MIT has a different zip code.
Hey, let me, let me ask you one more question before we end. And, and certainly, if actually after I ask you this question, if there's anything more that you want to say, just go for it. The thing I forgot to ask you about is dating at Harvard.
So, you know, you could have two models, like when, when you have a highly selected student population, like everybody on this campus is maybe a very strong student on average and very ambitious, you might say, oh, well, great. So, I find, I put together this community and the nerdy girls find the nerdy guys and everybody's happy. And the dating situation is great. You know as opposed to being an isolated nerd in a sea of Ohio State students or something.
On the other hand, the other way to say it is no, these people are so obsessed with getting into grad school or law school or McKinsey that they don't date at all. And social life at Harvard really sucks.
Steve Hsu: And I'm curious what you think.
Anonymous Guest: I don't have a strong mind. So, I think it's probably true that fewer Harvard students are in relationships as a percentage of the population than, you know, people, their age, who are, are not students at Harvard. That would just be a very rough guess though. I don't, I don't know exactly. I will say, you know, at least in my experience, so I'm gay and I realized that there were very few gay students in my social circle of sort of STEM, you know, academically oriented STEM students, you know, in, in math stats, CS classes. There were remarkably few gay students at Harvard. I don't, and, and there were — I just found this distribution very interesting — there were a lot in the humanities and in that world, which wasn't really the social circle that I traveled in as much. But I knew that that's where most of them were. I'm not sure exactly why that dynamic existed.
But as far as the average Harvard student, I don't really necessarily have a good idea.
Steve Hsu: Was that a Harvard-specific observation? Like if you were at, you know, University of Michigan, would it also be true that among the STEM guys, fewer of them are gay, but not in the humanities?
Anonymous Guest: I'm not sure. I did actually try to find data about this, and it was not very easy to find. There hasn't been really good data about it. I think I had seen some things that were framed in terms of the LGBTQ community as underrepresented in STEM. So, maybe that's true elsewhere. But it was, it was very remarkable at Harvard, you know, especially in, in the, thesort of upper half of the STEM distribution, that there were very, very few students who were, who were not straight.
Steve Hsu: You know, I think I would've, if you had said, oh my wife is in the humanities, she's a professor in the humanities. And, and if you had said to me, oh, there's a disproportionate represented representation of gay men in the humanities. I would say, yeah, that's, that's clear. But if you had said, oh, there's a deficit of gay men in STEM, I would not really have known whether that was true or not.
Anonymous Guest: I mean, I'm also dealing with a small sample size here and a trait that is fairly uncommon in the population. So, I don't know if this, you know, this could have just been the few years that I was at Harvard, you know, because I'm, I'm talking about a couple hundred people and, you know, a trait that maybe 5% of the population has.
So, I shouldn't, you shouldn't draw too much of an inference from what I'm saying. It was just something that I sort of noticed.
Steve Hsu: But there wasn't, there wasn't that sort of cause celebre at Harvard when you were there where people were like, man, this place is a wasteland for dating or, you know, my, my, my friend who's at, you know, Williams or something says it's much better for social life then you, I, there was no like, general observation like that.
Anonymous Guest: No, not really. yeah, not, not that I picked up on.
Steve Hsu: Got it. Okay. So, are there any topics that I failed to cover that you'd like to chat about before we finish?
Anonymous Guest: I did have one thing. It's sort of unrelated to Harvard and I don't, you know, I'll just say, I don't know if you want to keep this in the interview.
Steve Hsu: No, no. Jump in.
Anonymous Guest: So, with regard to university admissions, are you familiar with the R Score system in Quebec?
Steve Hsu: No, you, you mentioned that and I don't know what it is. Tell me about it.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. So, it solves what I think is an interesting problem because you know, I'm sympathetic to the argument that admission should be entirely or, or almost entirely on test scores. But there is kind of an issue with this, like, you know, people have a bad day when they take the SAT, and then, you know, you're, you're changing their entire life or maybe they feel so much pressure when they take one exam. Or, you know, there's a lot of issues with having so much of somebody's life determined by one exam. But of course, you have the problem if you try to use high school grades that every high school has different grading standards. And, you know, it's really hard to compare across, across schools and, you know, at least in the U.S., almost everybody has a 4.0.
So, I think Quebec has an interesting sort of solution to this problem where they're able to use grades in a way that's fairly standardized. And what they do is they take basically, I think your audience is probably technically sophisticated enough to, to follow this, they take basically your Z-score within your class, you know, or within your school.
I'm not sure exactly which one. So, they take, you know, how many standard deviations away you are from the mean in your school. And they used to just do that. And that was what determined your university application, basically. But of course, the problem with that is, you know, a Z-score of two at a very strong high school was very different from a Z-score of two at a weaker high school.
Right. So, you can't, you can't directly compare these scores across different schools. And so, what they started doing about 20 or 30 years ago was they also took the mean and standard deviation of your high school on a province-wide exam, so on a standardized exam, and then they used that too, they, they basically transformed your Z-score back onto that scale.
So, they multiplied your Z score by the standard deviation for your school on that exam, and then added the mean of your school on that exam. So, so basically, they're putting everybody on roughly speaking, I mean, there are a lot of little issues with how you define the class and stuff like that. But they're putting everybody on basically a standard scale, but they're, they're using your actual grades to do that.
And so, they're taking away this issue of one exam determining the rest of your life. Also, you're often able to factor in maybe somebody is really good at working hard in a class and studying for an exam. And, you know, that's something that you don't pick up as well on, on basically an IQ test in disguise, like the SAT.
So, I think it's a very interesting system.
Steve Hsu: I was going to say that that is a good idea. And I'm actually aware of it. I shouldn't, maybe, I don't know if I should say this publicly, but I think Michigan State, for example, does that. So, they, they both, they both try to look at normalizing your GPA, Z-score GPA relative to, for example, the average SAT at your school, and also to, if they have enough data, the performance of kids from your school at Michigan State.
So, I think schools, good schools are, you know, they are trying to have a quality adjustment for the high school.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. I feel like you need a lot of applicants for any individual university to do this with respect to a high school though. You'd need a lot of applicants. I mean, Navy, Michigan State gets a very large number of applications from some schools in Michigan, so they can, but you know, in terms of, if you apply to, to Harvard from some school in Wyoming that hasn't sent to anyone even no one's even applied in the last five years, I mean, they can't really do that.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. For a state school to get to know the high schools in the state and be able to apply this correction in a pretty, you know, sophisticated way. I think that's very feasible. Now, for Michigan State to know what's going on with Arizona high schools is almost impossible unless there's actually some published average standardized score for that high school. And then you would have to wonder whether that data is accurate or, you know, should be relied on. So yeah, it's not easy to do, but definitely some version of what you're describing is actually practiced by at least some schools.
Anonymous Guest: I mean, I think it's a sort of good compromise because I do think there's something weird about, you know, some, I mean, there's something weird about having three hours determine the rest of your life, you know.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I'm not even, I'm not even for that. I'm, people might misinterpret me based on my blog or something that, that I am for that I'm actually not for that. I think that's just one factor in the overall package. And certainly, somebody who's a really accomplished athlete and has been spending a lot of energy training for that, or in drama or debate, you know, you should adjust their grades and SAT score for all of that energy expenditure in other areas while they're in high school.
So, in that sense, this sort of holistic way of doing things I think is not a bad thing. I think the Harvard people actually are very clever in general in the way they try to form their class and stuff. The only question is whether one of the factors should, one of the strongest factors should be your, you know, ancestry, your racial group and or, or whether your, you know, your parents are rich. You know, those are things which I think people could debate.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Yeah. I think the issue is that once you move away from a highly objective process, like some countries have that's entirely based on the exam, into a more subjective process, it's very hard to keep things like that from sliding in, you know.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I don't, I don't know if you, since you're interested in this topic, I don't know if you've ever read the book called The Chosen. It's called The Chosen and the author is named Karabel. If you Google around, you can easily find that book. He's a social scientist at Berkeley, or he was at Berkeley.
And I think I wrote a long blog post about this as well, but it's a history of admissions at Ivy League schools. And I think there's a very long treatment of the Harvard history of Harvard admissions. And it's pretty sophisticated. I mean, he actually has a coding system. Like it turns out S is the designation for scholar and there's some old terminology like H which stands for horse, which is for athletes.
Steve Hsu: And there's this old system that I guess is probably still in place, even though maybe the terminology has changed. But I thought it was very clever of them to say like, okay, they're these, you know, 10 different areas in which you could excel. And we are going to rate you across these areas and we're going to have different kinds of categories of students that we're admitting.
So, I thought that was quite, you know, nothing wrong with that. That seems quite reasonable if you want to have a diverse generalist kind of student body, and you're not Caltech or MIT. I don't have any objection to that.
But the problem for me is, if you say like, oh, we have too many Asians now, the Asian students seem really strong academically. Let's just apply a huge penalty to everybody based on their race if they're Asian. That, that seems to me just flat out wrong, which is why I'm very much looking forward to what the Supreme court does this fall.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah, it'll be interesting to see how that turns out. The admissions trial was a big topic of conversation, you know, well, at least the last couple years that I was there.
I think, you know, if you get to a situation where there's no race based affirmative action, the consequences of that are going to be very, very noticeable. And I don't know what the reaction of the public of, you know, of Harvard donors of, of, of these sorts of people is going to be if, if it's abolished. if, I mean, there's going to be some attempt to try to mitigate the change in student demographics that comes about from that. But
Steve Hsu: Well, they're already, I mean, these guys are clever, so they're, they're already preparing for it by getting rid of, you know, by not requiring test scores, for example. The data that was revealed at trial that they don't want to have that data around in the future, for future, you know, investigations.
So, you know, they're preparing for it. And I'm pretty sure they'll, they'll weasel out. Even if the Supreme Court does the right thing, Harvard is going to find plenty of ways to weasel around it.
Anonymous Guest: Was it your podcast where Richard Sanders was saying that the University of California has managed to have some sort of affirmative action, even though it's officially banned at the state level?
Steve Hsu: Yeah. So, Richard Sanders and I, and Richard Sanders, and I discussed this in great detail. My quick summary is that there are, I believe, nine states in the United States, including Texas, Michigan, and California, that I think typically through ballot measures have completely outlawed affirmative action.
It's just strictly illegal in Michigan. It's strictly illegal in California. It's illegal in Texas under the state laws, but it's still practiced by all the institutions. I will just tell you it's still practiced, and it can be practiced within impunity because as Richard said, who's going to sue the University of California. Who's got the deep pockets to sue the University of California system and win. Even if they're violating the law. It's extremely hard. And so, they can just, now they're not fully flouting the law. So, when Prop 209 was first passed, there was a big decline in underrepresented minority representation at the most elite campuses like UCLA and Berkeley.
And it's still not recovered to its pre-Prop 209 level, even though the university started inventing all kinds of ways of getting around it. There have been prominent academics at all of these schools who were serving on admissions committees, realized the university was violating the law and basically resigned in protest. And publicly said, you know, there's something wrong here. So, and those guys of course are all like all kinds of canceled, you know, academics now. So, anyway, so yeah, the Supreme Court decision is not going to change things overnight, but it's definitely going to move the needle, I think.
Steve Hsu: All right. Great. Well, we can end it there.
Anonymous Guest: Sounds good.
Steve Hsu: Okay. So, it's been great having you on the podcast. I hope we didn't out you. I don't think you said anything that was too damaging, even if you did get outed. And I really appreciate your time and wish you all the best in the future.
Anonymous Guest: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.