Don’t game the system; win the job game

If you’re among the 81% of middle or low-income Americans feeling left behind, once again, as those wealthy parents drop hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy their kid a coveted college slot, don’t be.

Let them spend their money cheating. Eventually it catches up, as this continuous unfolding scandal reveals. Worse, they’re putting their child in a precarious position of failing fast.

Already, 50 people are known to have taken part in the scheme involving either bribery or cheating on standardized tests to get schools to accept students as athletes – even when they have no experience playing the sport.

It’s not just the cheats who now face blame and embarrassment; the innocent victims – the unwitting institutions and the parents’ own children – have become collateral damage in this massive fraud.

Here’s the good news. If you’re feeling depressed, let it go.

I can’t count how many times I’ve had a parent tell me a story like, “I paid $200,000 for my daughter’s college education and now she’s waitressing.”

The big reveal is that gaming the system doesn’t guarantee success anyway. Many elite colleges admit that standardized scores are relatively unimportant in the end.

As Harvard’s College Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons pointed out, even elite schools have begun to reform the conventional admissions process beyond measuring test scores and grades. “Examples of applicants’ accomplishments in math or music, to name just a couple of areas, help us do that,” Fitzsimmons said.

Today more than ever, employers are asking: can you show me what you’ve done? Companies are in a rush to compete and innovate – especially with the pressures of early stage companies or the next “Silicon Valley of China” who can take them over. Thus, they’re looking for young people who have the skills and new mindset to help them get there.

What appears to be lost on so many parents is the wide lane open to our kids when they go into the admissions process armed with the right kind of experience. The wealth gap certainly won’t be conquered overnight. But learning academies that drill down on leadership — with pro bono offerings to families with financial need — are a major step toward bridging the divide.

Girls With Impact is already seeing teen girls from low- and moderate-income backgrounds – some even part of the foster care system – starting as early as age 14 to take control of their lives and futures.

Taking Fitzsimmons message one step further, these girls enter our program with an idea or an interest (math, music, or otherwise) and come out with a bona fide business plan. Their mindsets shift from student being told what to do to entrepreneur making the calls. And that builds enormous confidence.

The big surprise is that these girls aren’t just getting accepted to elite schools, they’re winning six-figure scholarships. Why? Because they’re getting hands-on experience being able to quickly articulate their understanding of business and its application to a meaningful project – just as one would have to do in the real world.

The ability to lead a conversation with college admissions officers and employers around business concepts – such as competition, SWOT and profits combined with an ability to execute – is what sets them apart from even their highest standardized test-scoring peers.

According to a Payscale survey, 60% of employers today say new hires lack the soft skills they need – the ability to connect, communicate, collaborate, and problem solve. Schools are starting to offer the kind of project-based education that can improve these skills, but these programs are hit or miss.

The Girls With Impact online mini-MBA academy, designed with Harvard Business School leaders, was created to fill the gap left by other programs. In the process of learning to become CEOs of their own ventures or just transformative leaders, our students report improved speaking ability, confidence, and digital and leadership skills. And while, yes, they are young, this practical learning gives them a foundation from which to build upon.

Finally, as leader after leader keeps telling me, it’s resilience that defines success. But we also know that real, transformative leadership requires the ability to meet failure in the eye, learn from it, pivot, and move forward. From Jeff Bezos starting Amazon from his garage to Oprah who took the risk to start her show without a traditional paycheck, these are the traits that our young people need to succeed.

Because whether they’re working for a large company or for themselves in the gig economy, it won’t be that $400,000 slot that made them successful, but a heavy foundational system of skills and values.