Prestige in US Today

Lauren A. Rivera’s Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs is a depressing book because it tells how the world works:

Pedigree takes readers behind the closed doors of top-tier investment banks, consulting firms, and law firms to reveal the truth about who really gets hired for the nation’s highest-paying entry-level jobs, who doesn’t, and why.

A big % of graduates of elite colleges take such jobs, and the other jobs they take don’t make nearly as much money. The other big employers, such as hedge funds, private equity firms, and tech firms, choose similarly. And elite colleges use similar criteria to pick their students. So this is a window into how we pick a big % of the top elites in the US today.

While I often assume that prestige is a big driver of human behavior, my poll respondents hardly admitted to putting much weight on prestige when picking experts. And many complain that I put too much emphasis on the concept. However, these elite employers strongly confirm my view, as they focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees.

They only recruit at the most elite colleges, and they want recruits to be attractive, energetic, articulate, socially smooth, and have had elite personal connections, jobs, and extracurriculars. They don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious.

I noticed several interesting patterns worth pondering. For example, employers have little patience with candidates who didn’t pick the most prestigious possible college or job, but were swayed by other considerations. Such as topics of interest, limited money, or the needs of a spouse or family. A “serious” person always picks max prestige. Always.

Yet for extracurriculars, you are not supposed to connect those to your career plans, as “nerds” do. You must instead do something with no practical value, but that is prestigious. Like varsity athletes in lacrosse or crew, sports that are too expensive for ordinary folks to pursue. Excess interest in ideas marks you as a “boring” “tool”.

An interesting criteria is that you must tell a mesmerizing story about your life, a story told almost entirely in terms of choices that you made to pursue your internal goals, without external constraints having much influence. And even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. You were instead pursuing other goals, and prestige just happened as a side effect. Lucky you.

The author convincingly argues that this is not that much of a “meritocracy”, in that the features sought are much easier for elite parents to promote in their kids, and many of them are not actually that useful to society. But it does look like an equilibrium, in the sense that firms who picked differently would probably be punished.

It seems that while these firms do sell concrete consulting services to their customers, what they are mostly selling is a prestigious aura around that advice. So firms that hired less prestigious workers would likely be punished. Customers who paid as much for less prestigious advice would probably also be punished, via others being less willing to praise or follow that advice. And so on.

All of this seems to fit my experience in academia, where at the highest levels the focus is overwhelming on gaining the endorsement of prestigious schools, journals, jobs, funders, etc. Whether the work you do is useful to society or even accurate is someone else’s job; your job to gain prestige and so you only do those other things if your prestige incentives encourage them.

Some of these features that these firms look for probably count for prestige in most any society. Such as looks, energy, intelligence, connections, and social savvy. But in other ways the particular packages of features most sought here now are probably a local equilibrium; other societies have valued different packages.

So a crucial question is: to what extent is it possible to move our prestige equilibrium to a different and more useful one? Where say it might be prestigious to actually do something useful for the world. Seems a worthy topic of study.

Some book quotes to confirm my claims above:

Evaluators frequently adopted an unconstrained view of university enrollment, believing that students typically “go to the best school they got into”. … Failure to attend a super-elite school was an indicator of intellectual failure, regardless of a student;’s grades or standardized test scores. Many evaluators believed that high-achievement students as lessor-ranked institutions (even top fifteen …) … must have slipped up. … In addition to being an indicator of potential intellectual deficits, the decision to go to a lower-ranked school was often interpreted as evidence of moral failings, such as faulty judgement or a lack of foresight on the students part. … even candidates who faced significant financial obstacles to attendance … “should be smart enough to invest in their future.” pp.88-89.

Those who participated in [extracurricular] activities that were primarily academically or pre-professionally oriented were perceived to be “boring”, “tool,” “bookworms”, or “nerds” who might turn out to be “corporate drones” if hired. p.93

Across the board, [evaluators] privileged [extracurricular] activities that were motivated by “personal” rather than “professional” interest, even when activities were directly related to work within their industry. This was because evaluators believed that the later types of activities served the instrumental purpose of “looking good” to recruiters, and they viewed them as “resume filler” or “padding” rather than evidence of genuine “passion,” “commitment” and “well-roundedness.” … Evaluators also preferred activities driven by desire and personal passion rather than necessity, such as paid employment or care for family members. p.97

Grades are often distrusted by employers in general. p.101
Most evaluators did not believe that grades were an indicator of intelligence.

There was a surprising degree of consistency as to how evaluators assessed the quality of prior work experience, whether it was a summer internship or full-time career: they focused on the job’s prestige. Prestige came in two forms: the category of employment and that of the specific employer. … research assistant or as a waiter or bartender, then that’s not usually some of the best experience. … emphasis on prior work prestige rather than content … Any employment outside of these [top] twenty companies was grouped into the “other” category and deemed unremarkable. There was no … [interest in] the tasks that applicants actually performed at a given job. pp.104-5

Interviewers used stories of the past to assess candidates level of “drive”, an evaluation criteria that combines ambition and a strong work ethic. They used stories of the future to assess a candidate’s level of “interest” in a career with their firm. … Candidates were expected to present their autobiographies as a series of coherent, meaningful, and (ideally) progressive steps uncertain to achieve a particular goal or goals. … An essential part of an effective story was to present one’s experiences as resulting from a series of personal decisions rather than from serendipitous circumstances, such as chance or luck, of from access (or barriers) to valuable opportunities. …the best paths and values were those presented as having been guided by intrinsic versa extrinsic motivations. …

Although firms prioritized individuals who participated in prestigious educational, extracurricular, and occupational activities, it was in a candidate’s interest to frame the pursuit of a high-status track in terms of decisions prompted by inner drives, loves, and values as opposed to external motivations, such as the need to make money, please parents, or maintain status among peers. … Each forward movement in the story was more than a job or an accomplishment. It was a step in the candidates self-actualization.

Individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to see their experiences as connected to others and shaped by structural and external factors instead of being the product of an array of discrete choices. … Narratives that were deemed good produced strong, positive, emotional responses, “pumping up” the listener. … Stories could be vivid because they had bizarre, unique, or dramatic context that the Interviewer found easy to imagine. … Training at Le Cordon Bleu for six months to satisfy a longing to be an expert pastry maker impressed evaluators in ways that narratives about doggedly working long hours at non glamorous jobs in order to pay bills did not. … Vivid stories could overwhelm other aspects of the interview.

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