Earlier this year, just 2,300 of 32,000 applicants to Stanford University were accepted — a rate of 7.2%, the lowest in the school's history.
Sumo stable in Tokyo, Japan: you don’t need to be a superstar to use the Superstar Effect.
The students who survived this screening are phenomenally accomplished. A quarter had SAT math scores higher than 780, and over 90% had high school G.P.A.'s above 3.75, which works out, more or less, to straight A's over four years of schooling. And these weren't easy A's: the average applicant to a top-tier university takes an overwhelming volume of demanding AP or IB-level courses. (Not surprising, considering that the Stanford admissions departments ranks the "rigor of secondary school record" as "very important" in their decision.)
If you eliminate recruited athletes and the children of the rich and famous from this pool — categories that receive special consideration — these numbers become even starker. In short, for the average, middle-class American high school senior, applying to Stanford is like playing the lottery.
Which is why Michael Silverman proves baffling.
When Michael, a student from Paradise Valley, Arizona, applied to Stanford, his G.P.A. put him in the bottom 10% of accepted students. His SAT scores fell similarly short. "Standardized testing isn't my strong point," he told me. Perhaps more surprising, Michael avoided the crushing course load that diminishes the will of so many college hopefuls, instead taking only a single AP course during the dreaded junior year. He kept his extracurricular schedule equally clean — joining no clubs or sports and dedicating his attention to no more than one outside project at any given time.
Michael's rejection of the no pain, no gain ethos surrounding American college admissions is perhaps best summarized by his habit of ending each school day with a 1 – 2 hour hike to the summit of nearby Camelback Mountain. While his peers worked slavishly at their killer schedules, Michael took in the view, using his ritual as a time to "chill out and relax."
Despite this heretical behavior, Michael was still accepted at Stanford. To understand why, I will turn your attention to a little-known economics theory that changes the way we think about impressiveness. To get there, however, we'll start at an unlikely location: the competitive world of professional opera singers.
The Opera Singer and the Valedictorian
Juan Diego Florez cemented his reputation as a top operatic tenor during a 2008 performance of Gaetano Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment. Among professional singers, Donizetti's masterpiece is known as "the Mount Everest of opera"; a reputation due, almost entirely, to a devilishly tricky aria, "Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fete," that arrives early in the first act. The aria demands the tenor to hit nine high C's in a row — a supremely difficult feat. To avoid embarrassment, most performers resort to the far easier natural C.
In his 2008 performance of Donizetti, at the Metropolitan Opera House, Florez hit all nine notes. The acclaim was so overwhelming that he was summoned back to the stage for an encore, overturning the Met's long-standing ban on the practice.
As a top opera singer, we can assume that Florez does well for himself financially (likely on the order of 5-digit paydays per performance), but not lavishly well. Put another way: he's well-off but not wealthy.
Then there are the superstars.
In 1972, a young tenor by the name of Luciano Pavarotti also made a name for himself performing Donizetti at the Met. Like Florez, he too hit the high C's. But there was something extra in Pavarotti's voice. The audience at the Met in 1972 did more than demand an encore from Pavarotti, they weren't content until he had returned to the stage seventeen times! In writing about Florez's 2008 performance, the New York Times noted: "If truth be told, it's not as hard as it sounds for a tenor with a light lyric voice like Mr. Florez to toss off those high C's…[I]n the early 1970's, when Luciano Pavarotti…let those high Cs ring out, that was truly astonishing."
In other words, both Florez and Pavarotti are exceptional tenors, but Pavarotti was slightly better — the best among an elite class. The impact of this small difference, however, was huge. Whereas we estimated that Florez was well off but not wealthy, when Pavoratti died in 2007, sources estimated his estate to be worth $275 to 475 million.
In a 1981 paper published in the American Economics Review, the economist Sherwin Rosen worked through the mathematics that explains why superstars, like Pavarotti, reap so many more rewards than peers who are only slightly less talented. He called the phenomenon, “The Superstar Effect.”
Though the details of Rosen's formulas are complex, the intuition is simple: Imagine a million opera fans who each have $10 to spend on an opera album. They're trying to decide whether to buy an album by Florez or Pavarotti. Rosen's theory predicts that the bulk of the consumers will purchase the Pavarotti album, thinking, roughly: "although both singers are great, Pavarotti is the best, and if I can only get one album I might as well get the best one available." The result is that the vast majority of the $10 million goes to Pavarotti, even though his talent advantage over Florez is small.
Once identified, The Superstar Effect turned up in a variety of unexpected settings, from the sales of books to CEO salaries. It was found to apply even in settings that have nothing to do with financial transactions. In a particularly compelling example, a researcher named Paul Atwell, publishing in the journal Sociology of Education in 2001, studied the Superstar Effect for high school valedictorians.
Atwell imagined two students both with 700s on their various SAT tests. The first student was the valedictorian and the second student was ranked number five in the class. Rationally speaking, these two students are near identical — the difference in G.P.A. between the number one and number five rank is vanishingly small. But using statistics from Dartmouth College, Atwell showed that the valedictorian has a 75% of acceptance at this Ivy League institution while the near identical fifth-ranked student has only a 25% chance.
In other words, in many fields, it pays disproportionately well to be not just very good, but the best.
Hacking the Superstar Effect
Taking a step back, we likely agree that it's an interesting finding that being the best has a hidden advantage. If reaping this advantage, however, requires becoming class valedictorian or honing a brilliant singing voice — both staggeringly difficult feats — it's doesn't seem all that applicable.
This is where Michael Silverman reenters the picture.
The details of his story reveal a crucial addendum that makes the power of the Superstar Effect available to most people. I call this addendum The Superstar Corollary, and it's here I turn your attention next.
I discovered The Superstar Corollary in an unlikely setting: the extracurricular lives of high school students. I was researching a book on students, like Michael, who get accepted to outstanding colleges while still living low-stress and interesting lives. During this research, I kept noticing the same trait in these teen-aged lifehackers: they had accomplishments that triggered The Superstar Effect, but which revealed on closer examination to not require a rare natural talent or years and years of grinding work.