Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

July 23, 2009

Why great credentials won’t get you a good job (and what will)

Filed under: Credentialism — christinag503 @ 6:48 pm
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I first came across the works of Paul Graham when I was a teenager.  I somehow stumbled upon his marvelous essay, “Why Nerds Are Unpopular in High School.” Although I was fortunate enough never to have experienced high school as a social hell (we had a small class, and everybody mostly respected and liked each other, even if we weren’t all BFFs) his insights made a lot of sense to me.  I especially love his dog analogy; I have even shamelessly appropriated it in the past, but now I’m coming clean about the source!  At the time, I thought it was the work of a solitary, unknown genius, but I am now coming to find out that this guy is pretty well-known as a programmer and a venture capitalist, besides being a crackerjack essayist.  I can tell from the quality of the ideas and the writing that he spends a lot of time on his work.  I think he is a visionary in many ways.  He has wonderful insights about the future of the marketplace, and his work is a great source of advice for young people.  So I wanted to share with you all an essay of his that I read recently, entitled “After Credentials.”

He posits that small businesses are the ones advancing technology and driving the economy, because they can more easily reward, and therefore encourage, outstanding individual performance.  Larger corporations do not function this way.  He argues that because credentials were developed to select members for large corporations, and because there are so many cram schools designed to help students “hack” the tests to get the credentials, they will soon be obsolete.

I was, however, a little surprised at the introductory paragraph of this essay.  It struck Mr. Graham as “old-fashioned” that a South Korean parent said that “college entrance exams determine 70 to 80 percent” of a young adult’s future.  He says it reminds him of an attitude Americans held 25 years ago.  Perhaps because he is so immersed in the world of start-ups, technology, and results-oriented meritocracy, he doesn’t realize that the majority of American students today are still taught that “the right college” is the ONLY gateway to a decent life.  (Check out this post about $40,000 admissions advisors if you need further convincing.)

In my opinion, standardized tests are hyped up so much mostly to maintain the industry that has been created around them (the test producers, the graders, the monitors, the test-preparation companies).  It might have been a useful idea at one point, but don’t be influenced by advertising to pay for something that isn’t really going to impact your future!  There are a few colleges now who don’t require scores on standardized tests.  And for those that do, I think a thoughtful essay on why you chose NOT to take the tests would show an impressive level of insight for a high school student.  I think any college would be happy to accept a student who possessed such awareness.  Don’t forget, colleges are first and foremost businesses: they want to get warm bodies in the seats. So don’t worry too much about “getting in.”

In short: don’t waste your time and money studying and prepping for meaningless exams!  Spend the time learning and honing a real skill, instead.  That’s what the market of the next generation will reward, not just the ability to hack a test and get a great score.  Plus, it’s way more fun.



  1. […] standardized tests Paul Graham’s essay on credentialism, which I linked to and wrote about last week, points to imperialist China as the birthplace of testing. He argues that testing/earning […]

    Pingback by Extreme Credentialism « Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher — September 30, 2009 @ 5:55 pm | Reply

  2. […] never be able to cope with adult life unless we are forced to do unpleasant things; degrees and credentials are the only tickets to success; if we don’t get good grades, it’s because we […]

    Pingback by You heard it here first: I am Deeply Unqualified to talk about this stuff « Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher — January 5, 2010 @ 8:03 am | Reply

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