How to Beat the Ivy League: Why You Shouldn’t Fear Top Schools, Top Pedigrees, or “Top” Anything Else
About a year ago, I was chatting with a new friend I had just met at an entrepreneurship/drinking event (yes, my two favorite things).
He had graduated from a Top 50 university in the US, gone to a highly ranked law school, taken a corporate law job, and then quit to accept a teaching job that involved 10-15 hours per week of “real work.”
When he found out where I went to school, he immediately asked a pointed question:
“Was it worth it?
I met quite a few students from Ivy League and similar schools at my law school, and I didn’t think there was a huge difference between them and everyone else.
It seemed like the emperor had no clothes.”
I laughed and gave him my thoughts:
“Congratulations. You just saved yourself $150,000+.”
I firmly believe that if you’re ambitious, hard-working, and good at hustling, there is little reason to attend an elite university.
I also think the graduates of such schools tend to be overrated.
So if you’re not at one of these schools, this is great news because it creates new opportunities for you.
And if you are at an elite school, here’s how you can beat out your competition:
Why Does This Matter?
I have seen many readers “discount themselves” for not attending a top school with comments like the following:
“Can someone explain valuation to me? I’ve looked at a bunch of textbooks, training courses, and other tutorials, but I just don’t get it.
I’m from a non-target school, which probably explains my incompetence/stupidity.”
This line of thinking is completely wrong, and if you adopt it you immediately put yourself at a significant disadvantage.
But even if you are at an elite school, you have to know the key strengths and weaknesses of your competition so you can outfox them in the recruiting process.
Your Strategy for Beating the Ivy League
You can follow this 3-step process to beat out graduates from elite universities:
- Understand why students from these institutions are not universally excellent.
- Grasp their weaknesses, and figure out which of them you can exploit.
- Beat them not by competing directly, but by going outside “the system” and pursuing lucrative opportunities they overlook or are not interested in.
Does an Ivy League Degree Make You More Capable and Increase Your Earnings Power?
There are many studies on the value of an elite college, and the evidence is mixed at best.
See: This NY Times article; this detailed paper on students’ economic outcomes relative to the school they attended; this Forbes article on the topic; you can search for more.
Yes, your degree definitely makes a difference in prestige-driven fields such as investment banking and private equity.
And yes, there is some correlation between the school you attended and your lifetime earnings, but causation is a separate issue.
There are many reasons why there’s no slam-dunk correlation between your school and your career, but one of the biggest ones is that the admissions process is fundamentally flawed.
Can you imagine applying to a finance firm, submitting a paper application, going through perhaps one interview, and then getting a job offer?
You would have multiple rounds of interviews, case studies, perhaps a short “trial” period, and then you’d have to win the approval of everyone in the team.
Universities simply can’t do that due to the volume of applicants.
But that creates a big problem: It is incredibly difficult to tell who is truly impressive from a paper application, grades, and standardized test scores.
And then there’s the other issue: often, high test scores are more reflective of your family’s wealth than your abilities.
I believe it’s impossible to tell which 17-year olds will go on to do great things and which won’t, simply because there isn’t enough data and things can change dramatically at that age.
As a result, the “standard deviation” in the student body at these schools is high.
I did meet a few real geniuses at Stanford – for example, one classmate was so good at programming he finished every CS assignment in 1/10th the time it took others.
But most people were merely “above average,” with highly developed skills in a few areas.
The Real Benefits of an Elite Degree
There are only two tangible benefits of a degree from a top school:
- The alumni network.
- The credibility and access to on-campus recruiting.
You could argue the “quality of education” is higher, but that’s a weak argument given the wide availability of online education today.
Also, let me assure you: plenty of professors at these places are awful.
Those two benefits are big ones… but they’re not as big as you think they are.
For example, the “alumni network” factor mattered far more 50 years ago before the Internet existed; today, it’s far easier to build your network via online methods, meetups, etc.
You may not always meet the same caliber of people, but you’d be surprised: previous interviewees have reported meeting executives and senior bankers at the gym.
But the second benefit is harder to match.
If you have your heart set on an industry such as investment banking, private equity, or management consulting, then yes, you should go to an elite school.
Technically you can “ninja” your way in via the unorthodox methods covered here, but it is still really, really, really hard.
However, if you are ambitious and hard-working, you want to earn a lot, and you don’t go to an elite school, there are plenty of other career options.
As you’ll see, some of those options might lead you back into fields like IB/PE that were “too difficult” initially.
But to understand how those options work, you first need to understand the weaknesses of graduates from these schools and how you can exploit those weaknesses.
Tell Me the Greatest Weaknesses… of Your Degree
I’ve interviewed and worked with candidates across the spectrum – from high-school dropouts to Harvard and Oxbridge graduates.
So I have a good sense of where graduates from elite schools tend to go wrong.
Before stepping through this list of weaknesses, I’ll qualify it in two important ways:
- These weaknesses don’t apply to “everyone” at these schools; they are just high-level trends I’ve seen.
- And yes, there are some really smart, hard-working students that could perform well in many jobs and do not suffer from any of these weaknesses.
Weakness #1: Inability to Honestly Assess Themselves and Act Accordingly
If you attend an elite school, you’re consistently told that you’re “the best and brightest” – in seemingly all areas.
To make things worse, you’ve probably been getting the same message your entire life from previous teachers, coaches, and family members.
The truth is, you are not exceptional in all areas.
You might be magnificent at 1-2 skills, you might be average at others, and you might be awful at still others.
For example, I’m good at content creation and teaching, but I’m terrible at inspiring people, leading large teams, and navigating office politics.
So it would make no sense for me to join a large company, while it makes a lot of sense to run this online business.
But I would never get that type of honest feedback if I asked the career counselors or professors at elite schools – they only tell you what you want to hear.
As a result, many students have little self-awareness and end up applying to roles and careers that do not suit them at all.
Weakness #2: Underutilization and Misallocation of Key Resources
One day I was at lunch with a friend, and he made a comment that almost made me fall to the floor in a fit of laughter:
“Brian, think about how lucky we are. We’re set for life just because of where we went to school!”
Yeah, we’re “set for life” in some alternate universe where financial, personal, family, and health crises don’t exist.
Students at these schools tend to think they’re “set” once they have the school’s name on their resume, not realizing that “getting in” is ~1% of what it takes to succeed in the long term.
As a result, they often underutilize resources like the alumni network and professors – when they could be exploiting them for outsized gains.
Misallocation of time and resources is another problem.
When so much is available at your fingertips, who cares how you allocate your time and money?
This is how students end up revising their resumes 46 times, or triple majoring in Economics, Electrical Engineering, and Computer Science, when they should just pick one and spend the rest of their time getting solid internships and networking.
Weakness #3: Reduced Ability to Relate to Other People
I expect this one will draw some controversy, but let’s be honest: many students at top schools come from wealthy, or at least upper-class, backgrounds.
Citation: This is not just my gut feeling – 46% of Harvard students come from families with incomes above $200,000. The lack of economic diversity is a major problem for elite schools.
Coming from a privileged background doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be raised as a “spoiled rich kid,” but it does increase the probability (Louis C.K. uses more colorful language to describe this).
Even putting that aside, though, if you’ve never had to worry about money or student loans, you will not be able to relate as well to someone who has had to worry about those.
The result is that privileged students at these institutions are often poor at putting themselves in someone else’s shoes.
This might sound like a small thing, but think about all the roles where this skill is critical:
- Sales – Good luck if you can’t empathize with prospective customers.
- Product Manager – Good luck if you can’t empathize with your users and clients.
- Founder/CEO – Good luck winning those initial customers if you can’t see things from their perspective.
Weakness #4: Analysis Paralysis
A few years ago, a flustered customer and Harvard student wrote to us, requesting a refund for the IB Networking Toolkit.
She explained that it didn’t work because alumni did not respond well when she “hyped herself up” and emphasized her strengths, and then she wrote a 2-page analysis of other possible reasons why it didn’t work for her.
Yes, you read that correctly: instead of simply asking for a refund, she wrote a short essay justifying her reasons for asking.
The funny part was that she had misinterpreted the course because we never encourage you to “hype yourself up.”
By analyzing why it didn’t work in so much detail, she overlooked how to use it in the first place.
This example is just an anecdote; not all, or even most, Ivy League students are like this.
But I have seen a lot of analysis paralysis among this group.
They tend to spend hours thinking about why one number is off by 0.3%, while ignoring a flawed investment thesis or presentation structure.
This weakness creates opportunities for you in roles that depend less on dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and more on getting stuff done quickly.
Weakness #5: The Post-Graduation Complacency Slump
One common pattern is the “post-graduation complacency slump.”
You’re a star in high school, you earn top grades and test scores, and you also find the time to be a world-class athlete/musician/scientist and to use that to get into a top university… after which you take a job at a big company (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.).
You then focus more on your life outside work and you have a pleasant, easy existence at the company, eventually settling into middle management.
Your Instagram account is full of food and vacation photos, along with a complete recounting of the best costumes you saw at Comic-Con.
There’s nothing wrong with this.
Heck, I wish I had an Instagram account with as many food photos as the average girl here in Korea (do they use their phones for anything else?).
It’s an easy path if you’ve worked hard before the age of 20, you have brand-name credentials on your resume, and you just want a comfortable life.
But if you’re NOT in this position, the fact that many graduates get complacent creates opportunities for you.
I believe there’s a special sweet spot at the “5-10 years out of school” mark, because this is when many graduates change careers or start focusing on family.
So How Do You Beat Them?
As I’ve said, you’re fighting an uphill battle if you’re from a lesser-known school and you’re aiming for jobs in prestige-driven fields like investment banking or private equity.
For the amount of time and effort you put in, I almost think it’s better to transfer to a better school if you want to do that…
…or you could go around “the system” altogether and aim for potentially lucrative jobs where your credentials matter less than your results.
Looking at the weaknesses above, you can piece together the qualities such roles would require:
- Results Over Credentials: This one ties into weaknesses #1 and #4 above – you want to be rewarded for measurable results rather than useless analysis or politicking.
- Social Skills Over Academics: This is where your sparkling social skills and ability to get along with people can help you come out ahead.
- Not Dominated by Insiders or Tight-Knit Groups: You shouldn’t be prevented from gaining access because you don’t have a brand-name degree. In practice, this means aiming for industries too large to be dominated by small groups.
- Requires Long Hours and Consistent Effort Over a Long Time: This quality lets you take advantage of the “Post-Graduation Complacency Slump” and “Underutilization of Resources” weaknesses.
These roles do exist; they’re not like unicorns.
In fact, I’ll present four options that meet some or all of these criteria and will allow you to earn a lot without an elite degree.
Option #1: Sales… Ideally Business-to-Business (B2B)
If your EQ is higher than your IQ and you can do whatever it takes to produce the desired result, sales roles are right up your alley.
We published a fantastic interview on sales at a tech start-up a while back, which I encourage you to read.
You don’t want to do retail sales or door-to-door knife sales, but selling enterprise software or professional services is a whole different ballgame.
Another benefit is that sales will often let you advance or move into other positions at the company.
So if your original goal was corporate finance or investor relations, you might get there by taking a sales role first (read this interview for more on that one).
Top salespeople at a company like Oracle or Microsoft could easily earn $1 million USD per year.
Best of all, no one will ask which school you went to as long as customers keep signing on the line which is dotted.
Option #2: Commercial Real Estate (CRE) Brokerage
As a commercial real estate broker, you are a salesperson, so in a sense this is similar to option #1.
While it’s still not “easy” to get your foot in the door, it is much easier to start out in commercial real estate than it is to win those elusive IB/PE roles.
We published a detailed interview on this topic a few years ago – here’s a direct quote from the interviewee:
“No one cares what school you went to if they are confident that you can get the deal done.”
If you like networking, chasing new leads, and closing deals, CRE is more exciting than investment banking and lets you skip some of the drudgery and the all-nighters.
The downside is that it’s harder to advance to mid-level and senior roles because you need to generate revenue.
The upside is that the “ceiling pay” is about the same as what senior-level bankers make: a few million USD per year.
Another bonus is that working in CRE can be a good path into real estate private equity, as it was for a reader I interviewed last year.
And an REPE role could, in turn, lead to other jobs in private equity, real estate, or related fields.
Option #3: Coding / Software Development + Trading
While the tech market is in a bubble at the moment, there’s no doubt that demand for software development itself will skyrocket in coming years, especially at non-tech companies.
I’ve seen some acquaintances go through “coding boot camps” and come out with six-figure job offers.
They’re not “cheap,” and the success rates of different programs vary widely, but they are a possibility.
On the surface, this option doesn’t seem related to finance.
But it can be, because many prop trading firms and hedge funds have jobs that require both trading and programming knowledge.
Many of the smaller companies with such roles also care less about where you went to school and more about how much money you can generate for them.
It’s hard to find and interview at such firms, but it’s equally difficult for Ivy League students.
There’s some coverage of this topic in this article on recruiting and this one on the benefits of prop trading firms over S&T at large banks.
So if you’re more interested in the public markets, a potent combination might be trading experience + programming know-how, leading you into a role that combines both skill sets.
As for compensation, all I can say is that 100% cash looks pretty good compared with stock/RSU/deferred/other nonsense at banks.
Option #4: Your Own Business or a Joint Venture with an Existing Business
Entrepreneurship is yet another area where your credentials don’t matter too much.
Sure, maybe if you’re starting a college or MBA-admissions business, the school you went to matters – but if you’re building an app or starting a yoga studio or building an e-commerce company, no one cares.
As I’ve pointed out before, there are some significant downsides – but this is another option that many students at elite schools “look down on” or are too risk-averse to pursue.
You could also “test the waters” by approaching an existing business and proposing a joint venture where you offer to expand part of the company in exchange for a percentage of the profits.
You probably won’t be able to do this as a fresh graduate, but it could be part of your longer-term plan.
In my industry (internet marketing), I’ve seen plenty of consultants go around and offer this type of deal to existing online businesses.
It lets these consultants capture the upside of businesses that are doing well, while avoiding the typical downsides of starting a company (i.e., failing).
Pay is so variable that I’m not going to provide a range, but if you’ve run your own business for years and years you are probably doing pretty well.
Does the Emperor Have Any Clothes?
So, does the emperor have any clothes?
Or are elite schools over-hyped and not the magical tickets to success they pretend to be?
Yes and no.
Not attending an elite school makes it harder to get into the traditional “high-finance” fields, but you could ninja your way in via other means.
More importantly, though, there are plenty of other ways to earn a lot in fields in which Ivy League graduates do not have a big advantage.
You just have to understand the how to counteract the benefits of an elite degree – the network and credibility – and how to exploit the weaknesses in elite degree-holders, and then aim for roles where you have an advantage.
And if you ever find yourself feeling inferior because you don’t have an Ivy League degree, relax.
You have one thing many graduates of those schools don’t: an extra $150,000+.
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