College is Pretty Great-Caroline Ellison ’12

Caroline Ellison graduated from North in 2012. She won numerous math awards, like placing top 10 at the Harvard MIT math competition and receiving an honorable mention from Math Prize, in addition to representing the North math team. Ellison graduated from Stanford University in 2016. She is currently working as a cryptocurrency trader at Alameda Research in Berkeley, California.

How would you describe your experience at North? How much did your time their shape you as a person?

As an adult, I meet a lot of people who hated high school, and talking to them makes me feel lucky because I think North was a pretty good place to go to high school. The friends I made at North were really great, and I’ve stayed in touch and good friends with many of them. I had some excellent teachers. I’m grateful I got to do things like take college math classes while I was there. I still miss the North math team.

What were your greatest fears about your post high school life? What were you most looking forward to?

I think I was afraid of being away from home, of not making friends at college, and of not knowing what to do with my life. I was excited about being independent, about learning cool stuff, and meeting lots of awesome and smart people at college.

As it turned out, being away from home is not that scary when you get used it, and independence is great; I did learn lots of cool stuff (though I had plenty of boring classes too); I sort of haphazardly stumbled into a career, and I met a lot of cool people at college, but people at North were pretty awesome and smart too.

Would you say North is sheltered from the real world?

I feel like this question has an implication that North is easy, and the “real world” is hard and scary, and I kind of want to dispute that.

There are some scary things about the real world—for example, you have to do taxes, and pay bills, and if you lose your job then you have to figure out how you will pay your rent and stuff.

But there are some great things about the real world too. You don’t have to sit in classes where you’re not learning anything, just because they’re requirements. You don’t have to spend all day at school, then two hours at sports practice, then go home and stay up until 2 am writing an English paper. Instead you can come home from work and go out for a beer with your friends. You don’t have to worry about being popular. If someone likes you, they will just ask you out on a date, instead of dancing around it awkwardly and creating months of drama in your friend group or something. You get to do things that have an effect, in the real world, and see yourself making a difference.

What advice do you have on college? How much does it matter where you go?

There are a couple well-known papers by Dale and Krueger claiming that the economic returns to attending a selective college disappear when you control for which colleges students applied to, along with SAT scores and high school GPA. In other words, students who attend elite colleges have better outcomes, but that’s because they were better students to begin with, not because the college they went to caused them to become more successful. (Their results don’t hold for black, Latino, and first-generation students. For them, college selectivity does matter some.)

There are probably other studies that get different results, and I haven’t looked into it too carefully, but probably you shouldn’t stress too much about what college you end up at.

My advice for college is that classes don’t matter that much (unless you want to go to med school or something) and friends and networking are really important. Probably the most valuable thing you can do in college is find the coolest people you can and spend lots of time hanging out with them.

What are your greatest accomplishments?

I’m kind of proud of how far I’ve come as a trader. I started working at a quantitative trading firm out of college and went from knowing nothing and struggling with the basics to being pretty competent. Now, I work at a 10-person trading firm where I have more responsibility than ever and have to solve problems quickly and make big decisions all the time, and it’s pretty cool.

What do you wish you knew when you applied for colleges?

I think an important thing to keep in mind is that college admissions officers are not good arbiters of your moral worth. They’re not even good arbiters of your academic prowess, conditioning on what you already know about your own grades, SAT scores, etc. They’re just people, who aren’t necessarily that smart or discerning, who know less about you than you do, and who make mistakes and bad decisions all the time. The correct response to getting rejected from a college is not “I have updated my beliefs on my goodness as a person”; it’s “okay maybe instead of spending four years at this place, I will spend four years at this other place that is very slightly different.”

Also, this is totally unrelated, but colleges do care about how many honors and AP classes you take. Just for the record.

I think a lot of what colleges focus on is easily measurable things, like SAT scores and GPA. A lot of it also comes down to randomness, like whether the admissions officer read your essay and thought you seemed like a cool person, or whether they hadn’t eaten lunch that day and were in a bad mood.

I would say the value of prestigious schools depends a lot on what you’re looking for. If you want to do research with the top mathematician in some field, it probably helps to go to MIT or something–but most students don’t actually want to do that, and maybe they’d rather have a lot of small anthropology classes with professors who are really passionate about teaching.

And as for the value of prestige for your success after college, I think it’s not clear that it matters. People will be impressed by prestigious names, but they’ll also be impressed if you go to a less well-known school and really stand out as a student there.

By Hannah Liu

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