(At least some of) the very smartest students aren't getting in, either
Thanks so much for this post, Aaron!! It covers a lot that desperately needs to be better-known by nerdy kids in the US.
Story time: in 1997, I was rejected from all five of "HYPMS" despite a 1600 SAT and a single-author paper in a major computer science conference. (BUT: I was 15 years old, had uneven grades and no sports or music or "leadership," and indeed had "escaped" from high school early, getting a G.E.D. instead.) Once you understand how undergrad admissions work, this outcome wasn't surprising in the slightest, though at the time it felt like a death sentence.
I went to Cornell, one of two places (along with Carnegie Mellon) generous enough to admit me with this bizarre record. I got an excellent education there, and ended up at my first choice of PhD program (Berkeley).
Truthfully, in the long run the rejections may have helped me, by filling me with a burning motivation to do enough in science that someday the rejections would be a point of pride. And whenever I get depressed, I can tell myself that at least I can now cross that particular teenage fantasy off the list -- having, e.g., been tenured faculty at one of the same fine institutions (MIT) that rejected me for undergrad.
These days I run the Quantum Information Center at UT Austin, where almost every year I meet undergrads who I would've been thrilled to have at MIT.
I'm sharing this here because I hope some nerdy, academics-focused kid who feels like their life is over because they got rejected from HYPMS will read it, and it will mean something to them.
I had 1570/1600 on the SATs and a fair number of APs.
I actually ended up attending a liberal arts college that wasn't even the most well-known liberal arts college in Iowa. Like RulerofFranks, I'd note that I wasn't clearly the smartest person in my college, and several of my peers went and excelled at elite grad programs afterwards (I didn't).
I don't have nearly as stellar a record of intellectual success as Scott after college, but I think I performed reasonably well compared to most people I know at Ivy-tier places. Certainly by EA lights I've done activities that are more likely to be highly impactful, and I do not think I usually come across as dumb, even in highly selective settings.
I think one difference I notice between my younger self and the people from elite universities I interact with these days is that the elite university undergrads by and large come across as substantially more *mature* than I was at that age. I'm not sure how much this is a pattern, but in retrospect, there's a certain story where it makes sense that selecting on real-world (or deep extracurricular) success would by and large produce more emotionally/socially mature people than selecting on raw intellect or academic success.
Fortunately maturity is something that appears highly changeable with age. :P
What a detailed post. i appreciate your caveats on intelligence. can i ask what your definition of intelligence is? you think it's important, though not a moral virtue, but what do you think it is, exactly? i'm asking because i don't know myself, and also because i disagree with your idea that SAT maps to intelligence. maybe SAT maps better to education-level, some matrix of class and wealth and obedience. both my parents and i have attended (different) ivy league universities, and it's not even a question that all of us (me especially, but all of us) are leagues and leagues less intelligent than my grandmother who never was educated past 3rd grade and wouldn't even have registered as a tick mark on one of these graphs. i took a look at the studies you referenced (general intelligence, aptitude tests, iq/eq). if she is not a high scorer in any of these, then what quality does she have, exactly? (of course you don't know my grandmother, but i'm trying to use her more as an index for a different social position here in opposition to our well-educated, earnest-ish, financially "comfortable" peers.) my peers at university seem, like myself, mostly smart, kind, and spoiled. one of my favorite authors describes us as: "generally well-off and generally bright and generally interested in the things worth being interested in like sustainability and creativity and equality and justice, but also generally keen on hooking up and cool beaches and cheap authentic-enough ethnic restaurants and making connections with people who might offer opportunities for cultural and professional experiences that were life-changing but hopefully not too much. We would return to the rest of our junior year and bear down and party that much harder in reward but also for being deeply anxious about the future, a future others before us have definitely ruined but that we would be responsible for, whether we wanted to be or not.” i'll graduate college and continue to jump through hoops, or not. but unless i answer for myself the question of what intelligence is, and why it matters, and what it isn't, and to what degree i want it, and to what degree i just want to be seen as it, i will continue to hang my hat and pin my self regard on these stupid, clumsy measures of competence - until some considerate stranger publishes a free blog post about on Substack Dot Com, that is :)