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Why elite students make serious career mistakes

Are you a student at an elite university? Have you fallen into investment banking/strategy consulting/other such elite occupations as a matter of course. If so, William Deresiewicz, a former professor at Yale University is reaching out to you.

Deresiewicz's new book, 'Excellent Sheep', expounds upon a theme he first addressed in 2008 - namely that an elite education isn't all that. Specifically, Deresiewicz thinks time spent in an elite educational institution can make you risk averse and push you into the waiting arms of investment banks and strategy consultancy firms, irrespective of whether they really offer the best career for you as a person.

"The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity," says Deresiewicz. Students emerging from the apparatus of an elite education have a, "stunted sense of purpose," he argues. "They're great at what they're doing, but have little idea why they're doing it."

Deresiewicz diagnoses the problem as one of mistaken aspirations. Elite students have passion, but it's only passion for success. "Growing up elite means learning to value yourself in terms of the measures of success that mark your progress into and through the elite,"  Deresiewicz adds. "The grades, the scores, the trophies. This is what you’re praised for; that is what you are rewarded for. Your parents brag, your teachers glow, your rivals grit their teeth."  The result is a kind of 'credentialism:'  the purpose of life becomes no more than the accumulation of gold stars.

Family pressure compounds the problem. "When your kid gets into a prestigious college, it’s as if you got an A in being a parent," says Deresiewicz. "It's a kind of family branding."

Excellent sheep go into banking and consulting 

Deresiewicz says elite students get so hooked on social praise that they become unwilling to take risks and do anything that might upset their elite status. And if you want to perpetuate your position as an elitist, which better careers to choose than banking and consulting?

"What Wall Street worked out is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids of have ample mental horsepower and an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next," he writes. It helps that investment banks are looking for exactly the same skills that elite colleges look for ('intelligence, diligence, energy, aptitude) and that the requirements of the work are similar ('rigorous analysis, integration of disparate forms of information, clear and effective communication’).

However, elite students who stumble zombie-like into elite professions aren't on a path to personal fulfillment. Instead, they're merely postponing a crisis over who they really are.

Advice for elite students who want to choose the correct career 

How can risk averse high achievers avoid the elite treadmill? Deresiewicz offers the following practical tips:

1. Take a gap year that will not embellish your CV and that cannot be bragged about on Facebook. ('How about getting a lousy apartment with a bunch of friends and supporting yourself with a part time job?').

2. Take some time off during college.

3. Take some time off after college.

4. Give yourself time to think (don't fall into the excessive extracurriculars trap).

5. Remember that college is only the start.

6. Hang around with people who didn't go to elite colleges and are still having happy and fulfilled lives.

Deresiewicz cites the example of 'Eunice', a Yale alumnus who went to work for Morgan Stanley and then left the bank to work doing an unspecified job in Shanghai. There, she found a 'hodgepodge of people...Not all of them had gone to elite schools, but all of them were enjoying their lives a lot more than the people she had graduated with," he claims.

Interestingly, Deresiewicz's advice for 20-something elite students is very different to that profered by Dr. Meg Jay, the clinical psychologist who specializes in the mental health of people in their 20s. Jay preaches that your 20s are crucial years - you shouldn't be coasting through them in a dirty apartment filled with a bunch of people who are trying to find themselves, but laying long term foundations for the future. '"You don’t want to be one of the people who says, “My 20s are almost over and I have nothing to show for myself – I had a better resume the day I graduated from college,’ Jay says. Unsurprisingly, it is Jay rather than Deresiewicz who has been giving pep talks to young bankers at Goldman Sachs. 




AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • bo
    bored banker
    4 September 2014

    finally my kind of article from Sarah!

    i 've saying this all along that elite students go behind success no matter what the game is...
    try jumping off the cliff successfully they would be the best to do that too...

    its sad to see smart minds being lead by narrow minded philosophies promising them the wonderland of M&A and strat consulting. i say everyone quit the primary market and go into secondary market if thats where the money is. lets trade paper rice and sugar and eat them too...
    alas, we wouldnt be even able to trade "paper" rice only "e"-rice. secondary market and the million "brokers" "middle men" thats all the elite students become these days.

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