Reaching Beyond – The Real Value of a Top College Degree

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My journey began with a letter of acceptance from Brown University.

It was exciting.  2 years before that day, two of my teachers judged me “unfit” to cope with the IB program in United World College (UWC) Singapore. My college counselor suggested I apply to 6 US colleges I had never heard of. But after a few emotional debates with my mother (which helped overcome my fear of rejection) I decided to reach.  I applied to 4 Ivy League schools.  “What the hell,” I said to myself, “At least I won’t have any regrets.”

That letter of acceptance became my battle cry to those skeptics in my school. What I am about to say may be controversial to many people. Here it goes:

For me, everything I have achieved so far is an extension of that acceptance letter. 

When I say this to people, many object – “Wait, Diem, getting into a good school isn’t everything, there are many success stories from no-name schools, even without college diplomas.”  To this, I simply nod and agree, “You’re absolutely right, but that is their story, not mine.”

I am who I am because I got into Brown University, simple as that.

Allow me to explain my logic.  McKinsey & Company only recruited from Ivy League schools at the time, and it was the onlyjob offer I received after applying to 8 firms. Meeting such driven peers and faculty members inspired me to apply to these selective firms.   If I did not get into McKinsey, I would not have had the skills and access to start Young Leaders for Indonesia (YLI) – a McKinsey-sponsored leadership program for local university students in Indonesia. This program allowed me to differentiate myself from the hundreds of other consultants who applied to Harvard Business School (HBS) but were not accepted. Without launching my first business with the help of my HBS peers, I would not have gained the confidence to spearhead the 3 startups I have established since then.

Harvard Business School, where the author studied.

This is the essence of my longwinded reflection – an amazing college experience lasts for 4 amazing years, but a top college degree last a lifetime.  It opens doors that otherwise would be shut, and creates a network effect that will propel you forward in the most unexpected ways.

In Indonesia, I see an increasingly inexplicable paradox: An explosion of talented Indonesian students who undervalue a top college degree, and a rapidly growing employment sector who consistently overvalue it.  And what’s worse, given the acute shortage of leaders in Indonesia’s private and public sectors, this gap will only widen over time.

There are so many talented Indonesian students who are capable of getting into top global universities but do not even apply. After surveying several high schools in Jakarta, I’ve discovered that the issue is first and foremost a lack of information, followed by a lack of motivation.  It is not, as many suspect, only about cost. On top of various private/public scholarships, many top universities in the US offer low interest financial aid to foreign students.  Most foreign graduates will happily tell you how profoundly  their degrees have impacted their lives, but not enough students get to meet these individuals. The experience of sharing your intellectual growth with a global and talented peer group is invaluable, not to mention incredibly fun.

I remember browsing through HBS’s enrollment statistics before I graduated.  Over 50 Chinese, over 40 Indians, 10 Singaporeans, 10 Malaysians.  There were only 2 Indonesians. I was deeply frustrated.

This pattern can be seen across all top universities in the world.  If we are to become the economic leader that we aspire to be, these ratios need to change, and they need to change fast.

But it can only start with a bold new mindset – the belief that it is possible.

11 years ago I convinced myself to reach.  I hope the next generation does the same.

Photo credit: Microsoft and Chensiyuan in Wikimedia Commons


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After working for 3 years in McKinsey Jakarta Office, Nadiem has started several ventures, inlcluding GO-JEK (professionalized ojek service in Jakarta), Zalora Indonesia (online fashion e-commerce), and Top Tier Academy (high-school leadership acceleration program). He is also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, and an advisor for several entrepreneurship projects in Indonesia. Top Tier Academy’s L.E.A.P program (Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Aptitude, Passion) is a 4-month accelerated leadership course taught by Harvard, Princeton, and McKinsey alumni for talented 11th graders in Jakarta who are aiming for top universities worldwide. www.toptieracademy.org

6 COMMENTS

  1. It is my own delight to see a post in IndonesiaMengglobal where the author studied exactly where I want to be. If it is not troublesome, I also would like to read and learn the process of how you could get accepted there that maybe could help me and other friends with the same needs later. Thank you, you have my regards 🙂

  2. Dear Nadiem, thank you so much for this post.

    I’d like to reaffirm your point that ‘reaching out’ seems to be a common problem for Indonesian applicants. I believe that this is mostly due to the lack of academic support that encourages students to aim high. My junior was blatantly told by our counselor that she had 0 chance of getting into her dream school (Wharton) and another was told the same about Berkeley. Thankfully, they had their good senses and applied anyway (they’re both at Wharton & Berkeley now 🙂 ).

    Personally, I decided not to apply to Brown even though it was my ultimate dream school back in high school, not because of anything my counselor said, but simply because I was too scared of rejection. I currently attend Vanderbilt and love everything about it, but looking back I realize how important it is to have that “what the hell” mentality..(so if you’re in high school and reading this, trust me, spend that $75 and please apply to whatever your dream school is).

    To conclude…I believe that Indonesian applicants are so rare that simply applying and ‘reaching out’ already put us at an advantage. We have so much to bring to the table that numerical statistics are less significant factors for admission and we shouldn’t be discouraged by what we see on websites/is told by our counselors .

    And yes, please excuse this super loooong comment 🙂

    -Marsha

    • this is absolutely true for me as a freshmen. I’m currently studying in a university in Indonesia but looking back I’ve regret my past about not to apply to a foreign university I wish to attend for. My teachers back in high school never gave us, students any encouragements of studying outside.

  3. Excellent post!

    Salam kenal, Nadiem. My name is Sonita Lontoh and I’m a green technology exec in Silicon Valley. For more of my background, please visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonita_Lontoh

    I read your great work with Top Tier Academy with strong interest. I myself have long believed in the importance of a strong leadership-oriented mentorship/education program. If there’s anything I can help with Top Tier Academy, please do let me know.

    With warm regards,
    Sonita

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