Let’s imagine a very large company. It is a leader in its industry and much admired by its peers. It invests a tremendous amount of money—literally billions of dollars a year—in identifying, screening, and training its many employees. Those employees who are considered to have high potential are sent to special training programs at substantial additional cost. Happily, these top training programs are considered to be among the best in the world. After these employees complete their training, the company encourages them to choose for themselves the division in which they’d like to work. Employee preferences are deemed to be the most efficient way of deciding who works where.
This seems like a good system, and it works well for a long time. However, perhaps predictably, many of its most highly rated employees eventually become drawn to the finance and legal divisions because these divisions have very effective recruitment arms, are more visible, pay better, and are thought of as providing a more intellectual level of work. Over time, proportionally fewer of the top recruits go toward the management of the company or the company’s operations. The company’s basic training division is considered a backwater, with low pay and low recognition. And only a relative handful of employees go toward research and development or the launching of any new products.
Take a second to think about the company described above. What do you think will happen to this company as time passes? And if you think that it’s not set on a path to success, what would you do to fix it? This company reflects, in essence, the economy of the United States of America.
If you are a smart college student and you want to become a lawyer and go to law school, what you must do has been well established. You must go to a good school, get good grades (already accomplished, for many), and take the LSAT (a four-hour skill test). There is no anxiety in divining the requirements, as they are clearly spelled out. Most undergrads, even those with little interest in law school, know what it takes to get in. The path location costs are low.
The same is true if you want to become a doctor. Becoming a doctor is hard, right? Sort of. It is arduous and time-consuming, but it is not hard if you have certain academic abilities. You must take a battery of college courses (organic chemistry being the most infamous and rigorous of them) and do well, study for the MCAT (an eight-hour exam), and spend a summer or even a year caddying for a researcher, doctor, or hospital. These are time-consuming hoop-jumping tasks, to be sure, but anyone with a very high level of academic aptitude can complete them.
If you attend an Ivy League university or similar national institution, legions of suit-wearing representatives from the big-name investment banks and consulting firms will show up at your campus and conduct first-round interviews to fill their ranks each year, even in a down period (as with the recent years following the financial crisis). They will spend millions of dollars enlisting interns and educating the market annually. Most freshmen have no idea what management consulting is, yet seniors can rattle off the distinctions of different firms with little difficulty. All undergraduates have friends in the classes above them who have gone through this process and gained analyst or associate positions at major investment banks and consulting firms.
Again, the requirements are clear: you have to have good grades, be able to perform some cognitive tasks with words and numbers in the form of case studies that you should prepare for and practice, and hopefully look good in a suit. It is also very helpful if you spend a summer in college doing something that can be presented as relating to your professional interest; in many cases it’s necessary that you intern at the employer the summer before your senior year in order to get an offer. Summer internships have become vital for getting jobs in the most selective firms, so the process begins quite early—junior year at the latest. This path requires some early choices, but you don’t have to spend time taking another standardized test. Of course, many of the people who go into finance and consulting take the GMAT and go on to business school.
These structured paths are clearly laid out, and are pursued collectively by many—or most—of the students who have been screened and sorted as the academic and cognitive elite. These “prestige pathways” have become the default options. In 2011, 29 percent of employed Harvard graduates went into finance or consulting, while 19 percent of the class applied to law school and 18 percent applied to medical school. That’s a majority of the class. California (San Francisco), New York (New York City), and Massachusetts (Boston) were the only states that received over one hundred Harvard grads in 2012, with Illinois (Chicago) and Washington DC, being the only other destinations to receive fifty or more. The statistics from Yale, Dartmouth, Penn, and other top schools are similar.
Perhaps this is somewhat surprising—wouldn’t college students at these top schools be positioned to blaze their own trails and pursue less conventional routes with the access that they have been given?
Unfortunately, hardworking, academically gifted young people are kind of lazy when it comes to determining direction. If you give them a hoop to jump through, jumping through that hoop can take two, twenty, or two hundred hours, and it won’t make a big difference. But they are quite lazy when it comes to figuring out what path to take or—more profoundly—building their own path. They’re trained to get the grade or ace the application. That is what has made them successful in most every conventional respect each step of the way up to their senior year in college, at the point that this process is well underway.
“It’s doing a process that you’ve done a billion times before,” explains Dylan Matthews, a 2012 Harvard graduate who wrote for the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, before becoming a journalist. He adds, “Everyone who goes to Harvard went hard on the college application process. Applying to Wall Street is much closer to that than applying anywhere else is. There are a handful of firms you really care about, they all have formal application processes that they walk you through, there’s a season when it all happens, all of them come to you and interview you where you live. Harvard students are really good at formal processes like that, and they’re less good at going on Monster or Craigslist and sorting through thousands of job listings from thousands of companies whose reputations they don’t know. Wall Street and consulting (and Teach for America, too) turn applying to jobs into applying to college [again], more or less.”
Of course, the same procedural comfort level applies to law school and other graduate programs, and the same mindset pervades competitive campuses around the country.