A Letter from the Founder of the Quest Scholars Network
Greetings. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I hope you will find it useful, as it draws on my 20 years of experience in working with many of the most talented low-income youth in America.
I encourage you to think in a significantly new way about what college is and what it represents in your life. I also urge you to consider the tools with which you will build a future that satisfies your own needs, those of present and future family, and the world as a whole. At QuestBridge we are enthusiastic about helping you to meet all these goals. But to make the most of our help, you will need to be willing to embrace your adulthood sooner than most students do.
I should begin by saying that as a talented low-income student with an opportunity to attend an elite college, you are in no way poor. This is true no matter what your income is.
I will explain why.
Only 1% of human beings are able to attend college—any college—even the worst one in the remotest area of the world. By simply aiming your life at college, you are already more fortunate than 99% of humanity.
But it gets better. As a talented low-income student, if you apply yourself and get the right advice, you can create the opportunity to attend a top-ranked American university. This gives you more opportunity than 99.99% percent of all students in the world. In other words, you will be offered tools and educational resources that only one in 10,000 people will ever have.
In short, as a 16-to-17-year-old human being goes, you will be in one of the most enviable positions in the world. At QuestBridge, we do not think you are poor, just less informed about how the system works relative to your upper-income peers. As I said earlier, being low-income is not synonymous with being poor. In terms of raw talent, smart upper-income students are certainly your peers. They are sometimes just a bit better connected and informed (usually through others in their circle) about the terrain of higher education and professional life than you probably are.
What's more, if you navigate your way in to a top college as a talented low-income student, you can essentially attend for free. Once accepted, most talented low-income students receive over $200,000 in financial aid to attend an elite private (or the rare high-endowment public) college or university. The university even covers most of your room and board. This makes it cheaper to attend an Ivy League college or other top private school than it would be to attend a community college—where you would have to pay for your own food and housing.
In this respect, as a talented low-income student, you are far more fortunate than your higher-income peers. If you can get into a well-funded, top-ranked, private or public (usually private) college, you will have few, if any, problems paying for your education.
Oddly enough, other than not knowing how the system works (unlike students whose parents went to college), you are actually better off attending a top college as a low-income student than a middle-income one. I report this fact not to vigorously support it but to show you that this is just the way things are. At your age, I was from a middle income family. So, when I attended Stanford, I had to drop out every other term after my sophomore year to pay for school in cash, with no real financial aid, and little financial support from home for the remainder of college, and none for medical school.
Generous financial aid also carries with it a trap. It can make it seem that life will be easier than it actually is. Full financial aid can lull you into a false sense of complacency. Attending an elite college presents you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for growth. The clock is ticking. You can use the financial-aid-backed time to grow, or to be lazy or short-sighted. With new instruments at your disposal, it's up to you to forge your own future.
Once you have a diploma, you will be expected to compete head-to-head in a workforce with people of all ages. No more free money.
At no time in your life are you likely to be presented with such generosity. For most of you, your transition to college will present a unique instrument for growth, but if you don't play it, the instrument will lie silent. In another way, college is like a slingshot: the further you pull back into your grit, foresight, exploration, and determination, the farther your life will fly. If you don't put the energy into playing the instrument artfully, or pulling back the slingshot as hard as you can with as much insight as you can muster, you won't go nearly as far.
And at no time are you likely to be presented with a larger apparatus with which to shape your life and build an enviable momentum for yourself—and for those in your life you choose to help.
Since 1987, I have taught students at Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford. I witnessed a truth that both saddens me and provides you with much unused opportunity.
Most students—upper-income, middle-income, or low-income—fail to seize the day. Many wander through college with blinders on, focusing only on classwork and/or socializing, rather than fully utilizing the incredible non-academic resources that elite and other well-funded American colleges offer their students.
I began this essay by saying you are not poor, and I will continue by adding that low-income students have all the raw talent of their upper-income counterparts. What you lack is an appreciation of how the American economy—and perhaps the world in general—work.
Many upper- and middle-income students also lack this perspective, but if their parents went to college or are embedded in elite jobs in the American workforce, such students have access to this professional life-knowledge. Moreover, if rich students fail to fully take advantage of college, their family's resources and connections may provide them with the chance to "reboot" or to obtain a job after graduation.
In many ways, college seems deceptively like high school. It has classes, homework, tests. But the two are really quite different. For talented low-income students, the purpose of high school is to help you prepare and get into college. Simple. One size fits all. The best students all congregate in the same top classes and subjects. Everyone takes English, Science, and Math.
Get good grades. Score well on the SAT. Choose compelling extracurricular interests. Compose a good application. Don't mess up your interviews. Get in. It may take work. It may be difficult. But the path and goals are clear. Conceptually, it's not complicated. Navigating high school is not elusive.
High school presents the transition to college. College presents the transition to life. In the first transition, there is essentially one pathway. In the latter, thousands exist. You may not know about many of these exciting life paths, let alone know how to prepare for them.
The incredible, and sometimes scary, part is that post-college life has so many potential avenues that you simply can't prepare for all of them. You have a life to choose and build. Often, the sooner you figure out what you want to do and begin scouting an artful path towards your future, the sooner you can begin to build momentum. The sooner you will be able to acquire skills, mentors, and connections that will bolster and infuse your life goals. This goes well beyond your college coursework.
Looking at it another way, college presents a transition time between childhood and adulthood—that is, childhood and life. For better or for worse, many young people use college as something of a delayed adolescence. It's used more as a social experience than a life-building experience. Many students use college to hold on to childhood, rather than to build their lives. I have known students more excited to attend a popular fraternity party than spend an hour with a Nobel laureate who teaches at their school.
Even the academically-focused low-income students sometimes miss the point to a degree. At the end of your college education lies life. An employer won't hire you just for just getting good grades. If you were an employer, would you only look at GPA?
The further you get in your life and education, the more you will be expected to have specific life skills rather than just academic skills.
I have spent a few paragraphs outlining the challenge you face, but the exciting thing is that at the elite colleges and universities in America, there are abundant—and sorely underutilized—resources I will elaborate on.
Earlier in this letter, I pointed out that low-income students often lack the family or social networks that provide professional knowledge for upper-income students. Upper-income students may have a relative who is a doctor and can advise them if studying medicine is right for them. There are jobs in banking that predictably have annual salaries of over a million dollars a year. Similarly, there are public service jobs that pay more than the medical profession. You can help people and still have financial control over your life. How does one become an architect? What is it like to be a lawyer? Is being a surgeon really like it looks on TV?
These are specific questions. A more general question is equally interesting. How will you build a future that you enjoy and that also allows you to generate enough momentum to meet all your own life's needs—so much so that you have some left over to help others?
In answering this question, I will begin by pointing out some pitfalls and giving you a little history.
In the 1800s, many of America's elite schools, which are now so eagerly recruiting talented low-income students, were nearly broke. It was not the original intention of schools like Amherst and Yale to tilt so far to upper-income students. In fact, it was written into the charter of many of them that they should serve the best students from all classes.
However, years ago, like any organization or business, these elite schools, low on funds earlier in previous years and hard times like the Great Depression, had to cater to students from the upper economic quartile to survive. The after-effects are intuitive. The student culture at Ivy League Universities and similar colleges evolved around the culture of the wealthy, and to some degree the personal development needs of wealthy students who were coming of age.
From this perspective, it is not a mistake that these colleges did not evolve robust counseling, professional, or networking instruction for students who are already hooked into circles of power in America.
To give you some numbers, at the top 146 colleges in America, 3% are drawn from the lowest economic quartile. 6% are drawn from the next quartile. 17% are recruited from the next-to-top economic quartile. A full 74% of students at elite American colleges and Universities are from the wealthiest economic quartile.
It would be a waste of time and energy for you, or QuestBridge, to get too caught up in the inequity of this division. (At QuestBridge, we are doing our best to find talented low-income students to even these numbers.) But from a historical perspective, it simply is what happened, largely because the colleges needed tuition dollars from those who could afford them, not by plan.
You are fortunate that many of these same top schools have performed well enough financially in the past few decades to be able to actively recruit the talented low-income students that many faculty within them had always welcomed.
The problem, which relates to your own life exploration, is that the counseling at elite schools is set up for its main clientele, which at this time remains wealthy students. It is no surprise that the counseling, advising, and support at most colleges is simply not set up to artfully meet the cultural gap that being low-income can present.
Although this is not great news, it should come as no surprise given the 3% figure we previously discussed.
I hope you will find, as many Quest Scholars have, that this realization is neither good nor bad, but simply liberating.
Basically, you have to do it yourself. Seize the day. Embrace your adulthood, and long before most students do. You should. You are responsible for building your life, and that building has already begun.
Here is where it gets really exciting. The hidden resource within elite colleges is not the listed classes, but rather the mentor energy within the faculty and the alumni network. Alumni, by and large, are supportive of their alma maters (their colleges) and of the students. In this case, you have a wide support network eager to help you simply because of the institution you attend.
Every elite college has accomplished alumni in pretty much every field. It is the dream of every genuine teacher to find sincere, bright, eager students who are more turned on by a new idea, or even creating their own new ideas, than they are by popularity contests in their dorms.
Until you get your college diploma at a top-ranked college, you are granted a unique status that you will have not have again, and you may not fully grasp. To say that you are a "student" is missing the point. You can pick up the phone and call a college alum, with a reasonable expectation that they will call back and genuinely consider helping you. If the first alum doesn't, call another. The second or third will, or maybe the fifth or sixth. Life favors the bold, or at least the politely persistent.
For those going into business, you will find faculty or alumni who will take you under their wings as mentees, or sometimes even as an apprentice. For those interested in medical school, a professor or alum can help you figure out which field of medicine, or even if medicine in general, is right for you.
To reach the mountaintop that lies before you, the paths will be varied. Get climbing.
This philosophy really ought to be the same for all students. In my experience, most of the student body does not take full advantage of the rich resources behind unintuitive corners. Upper-income students can better afford to make the mistake of embracing their childhood rather than figuring out their futures. With significant financial resources behind them, and professional mentorship within their family networks, it is less risky for them to avoid fully taking advantage of their education. Elite colleges even have travel and research grants—basically free money—to support the exploration and projects of their most vigorous and creative students. It is in your best interest to be one of these.
You don't have to make this mistake. The problem is, no one will remind you to build your life at a time when other students are more concerned with playing, or comforted that academic performance alone will secure their futures. What worked for the transition from high school to college will not build you the same momentum for finding a niche in the professional or educational landscape and pursuing it with vigor and the support of powerful mentors.
To say that good grades are important but insufficient to life success may seem unintuitive, but it makes sense if you put yourself in the shoes of an employer. Business, architecture, law, engineering, and medicine all have distinct cultures that are simply less elusive to those who have family members already in them. If you were picking someone to work for you, it is likely that you would also want to choose someone who already understood what to do and how to act. Your relative isolation from such cultural knowledge is a hurdle, but it has nothing to do with your inherent ability, potential, and strengths.
In sum, you have the same challenges as upper-income students: developing intellectual skills and choosing a life profession. As a low-income student, you face additional challenges that not only will be absent from the standard coursework but also will be ill-supported by your college's advising system. If you want to hit this ball out of the park, you will have to keep your eye on it.
In all this talk about active exploration, I have not meant to ignore other types of growth—inner development, friendship formation, and the like. Here, I think the same principles apply. I would suggest that you approach all of these with creativity and insight.
What are the odds, in your estimation, that the only people deserving of your friendship will happen to be randomly assigned to your hallway your freshman year? Yet most college cultures encourage you to focus on your social life in your dorm. You should be willing to find friends outside of your dorm as well as within it, within different grades, or even among non-undergraduates. Every top-ranked college has amazing people in it. Some will share your life views, while others will offer enriching contrasts to them. Search for sincere friends with a depth to their character and range of talent that will enrich both of you. Your close friends can eventually become like additions to your family. As you pick friends and colleagues, you will find enriching people in all age ranges and from all backgrounds. Pick your friends carefully, as good ones can last a lifetime.
In terms of socializing, why not arrange your own events? If you like hiking, go hiking with good friends—friends you choose with intuition and calm foresight rather than from random events like room and dorm assignments. Who are the diamonds in the rough? Which of your fellow students have deep character, energy, and talent?
Rather than going to a hallway event at an inopportune time in your schedule, why not arrange your own outing with the most special people you have met? At wealthy colleges, you may not be able to afford some of the recreational events, such as ski trips. No matter. If you are on fire about your future, you will hardly consider this a loss. A simple sincere conversation with special people of all ages is generally more enriching and enduring (and cheaper) than spending a weekend on the slopes.
The general principle of taking the reins of your own life and looking for the unseen and creative opportunity, is a general principle that can be applied to academic work, your professional exploration, finding friends, seeking recreation, and basically forging your entire future.
There is nothing "wrong" with taking the easy route in college. It is the road most traveled. Most water flows downhill on the path of least resistance.
With a simple diploma, you are likely to get a job of some sort. But let's look at this more closely. I like use the metaphor of professional baseball when explaining that life outcome is exponential, not linear. A pro baseball player who bats .300 might earn eight times as much as one who bats .250. One who bats .200 would be fired. But in real terms, it's only the difference between someone who hits the ball one of three times versus one in four, compared to one in five. Excellence is rewarded disproportionately in society. Again, I am not commenting that this is the way it ought to be; it's just the way it is.
If you are genuinely excellent in any area, you will be disproportionately rewarded. There is really no problem with this. The most creative and motivated add the most value. If you become one of these people, you will be creating quite an exciting life for yourself.
The range of life choices is staggering. This makes it all the more important to begin earnestly exploring. If you think you want to be a doctor, you had better spend some time in the hospital with doctors who can show you the ropes. Being "pre-med" can't show you this. The same is true with most professions: the preparation does not represent the practice. Your life decisions are important, and they ought to be informed ones. When I was your age I shadowed doctors, with permission, in 20 emergency rooms for 100 hours or so, to make sure I wanted to train in emergency medicine. It seems like a lot of time, but I wanted to do this before I entered (an invested thousands of hours) in an eight-year gauntlet of medical school and residency.
Sometimes, the most useful information is coming to a quick realization that you don't really want to do something after all. My favorite time to observe in emergency rooms was during the busy weekend shifts, which obviously meant I attended a few less parties than some college students, even though I also spent a great deal of time building strong friendships at other times.
Top-ranked colleges are like a workshop for excellence—the tools are hanging on the walls and tucked in drawers. But unless you pick them up, and decide what you want to build with your life, the genuine potential of this time in our life will remain dormant. For you, the workshop will lie silent.
There are many mentors waiting for the genuinely motivated to emerge. The most talented faculty and alumni don't have the time to help every student, nor do they even have the time to figure out who is more worth helping. If you were in their shoes, would you? Much more appealing is the student who shines with their own light and motivation. As a teacher or mentor, it is much more enriching to help polish a diamond in the rough than a pebble. But you are doing this polishing in the context of your own life and professional trajectory. The best mentees make it easy for you. They identify themselves. They are always on time, willing to make appropriate sacrifices, willing to take the road less traveled. In this case, it is the road to genuine life success. Becoming a leader, by definition, implies that you don't always follow the crowd, even if it's just being a genuine leader in your own life.
With all this context in mind, I'd like to return to QuestBridge and answer a few questions.
What are we doing? At QuestBridge we are trying to aggregate the resources and tools that you can use to build meaningful lives and help yourself and others. One set of these tools prepares you to get into a well-funded top-ranked college. We are also trying to aggregate mentors, internships, scholarships, and opportunities, matching those who sincerely want to help, with eager and mature mentees who want to embrace the full potential of their adulthood, and embrace it with awareness at an age when many students are more concerned with playing.
We want to help those who want to help themselves (and are most interested in those who also want to help others as well). Even this letter to you is an attempt to introduce you to what we feel represents the genuine potential you have to build an exceptional life. These ideas are tools themselves.
Why are we doing this? Why create QuestBridge? In this we are different than many non-profit organizations. We do not see you, a talented low-income student, as poor, nor do we feel sorry for you. As I have noted, if you fully engage with higher education, you will have more resources within reach than a middle-income student.
If all we do at QuestBridge is help talented low-income students become the next generation of talented rich people, then we have done little to really impact society. If we just transplant students who are acting only in their self interest, then we will not have succeeded in our mission.
What we would like to do is support a new generation of leadership, a mature one with so much vitality that students can help others as well as themselves. Not to sound like a cliché, but we sincerely hope that QuestBridge can make the world a better place. And we can't do this without the help and benefit of life explorations of students like you.
The success of QuestBridge will not be measured by you just making more money than you would have without our help. Rather, what did you do with your life in addition to artfully meeting your own needs? If QuestBridge scholars do not strive to better the world in creative ways, large, medium, and small, then arguably, we have done very little.
Knowing our goals, we ask that you do not accept our QuestBridge support unless you intend to give it back, and exponentially, to others. QuestBridge is not a handout to you. It's a contract. We are not helping you for free. It's just that we don't expect all your payment to come back directly to us.
We are willing to help you specifically with the thought in mind that you will use this assistance and tool set to better the world in addition to bettering your own future. If you build enough momentum in life, and we hope you will, there will be ample energy for both goals.
QuestBridge will not thrive unless you take the knowledge you have gained in college and mentor others. We are forging new ground, and we welcome you to join us in this adventure.
In this, we will need two kinds of help from you.
First, at QuestBridge, we want to collect every piece of useful information for talented low-income students. As an emergency medicine physician, my own life experience allows me to talk a bit about low-income students entering medicine. But even here, I only know about the resources at medical schools I attended or teach at. In these next few years, we will need you to be our scouts as you use our resources and knowledge. If you apply your curiosity the right way, we expect that you will uncover new resources and insights for talented low-income students that QuestBridge has not. We want our Quest Scholars to add to a growing pool of resources and knowledge that in turn will go to the next generation. This next generation will in turn build the QuestBridge knowledge and resource base for the next, and so on.
Second, especially once you have built a healthy life momentum, we will expect you to apply it in positive and creative ways. It will be fun for us to see all the imaginative ways that you can deliver on this promise. Some of you might do it through your church or neighborhood, others by regularly finding mentees of your own. We hope that some of you will create organizations of your own, both large and small, to help others. But we also know that many of you will fulfill your promise by regularly taking part in existing organizations like QuestBridge.
A few of you might even devote your entire careers to public service. To be clear, we do not need or expect this as payback.
Rather, for most of you, it will be your challenge to weave a service-oriented mindset into your regular professional life. Lawyers can always take on pro-bono work. Doctors can work in free clinics. Businesspeople can take active roles on non-profit boards. Anyone can mentor. Anyone can teach. It makes for an exceptional life, and our success at QuestBridge will be measured more by your future altruism than by the size of your pocketbook. But we certainly are willing to help you build a pocketbook that meets your needs if you are willing to adopt a service-oriented eye in building your efficacious life.
Still, it is important to us that QuestBridge is an exchange with you, not a handout. We want to help you, so that you can in turn help others. When you accept our assistance, you accept that obligation to give back in creative ways that make best use of your talents. We hope that you will become actively engaged in helping other QuestBridge students as well. In the growing world of Facebook and other online social networks, the potential for talented low-income students to help each other is greater than ever.
This wider view of college and life might take a while to digest, and I appreciate the time you have taken to read this letter. The most successful Quest Scholars we graduated in the last 15 years have been those who realized the genuine potential that college presents. Even before graduating, many of them have created exceptional projects, such as clinics in Nepal and Honduras. They have served in National Center for Youth Law, created translator corps serving thousands of local patients, been student body president at Stanford, explored the nature of courage, and even interned at the World Bank. They have been involved in outreach and service efforts of all kinds.
These same student creators are now in medical school at Harvard, law school at Yale, business school at Stanford, and working at places like the Wall Street Journal and NASA. Doing service and retaining excellence go hand in hand. The most attractive applicant to graduate schools and employers is one who can thrive academically and apply their creativity at the same time.
I hope all this talk of life, success, and service is exciting. It ought to be. Your life awaits you. It's a blank canvas, and you are the artist. Your top college presents you with material in unintuitive places. It won't be given to you.
Counseling services, which evolved over the last 150 years to meet the needs of upper-income students, will likely not remind you to seize the full potential of college. They won't prompt you to educate yourself about how the world really works and how this applies to your life.
Through QuestBridge, we will try to fill as many gaps as we can. Our resource center will grow over the years, hopefully with your help, and we plan to harness all the useful and practical knowledge for talented low-income students we can find.
Several Quest Scholars, not much older than you, took years off in the middle of college to make QuestBridge a reality. Hundreds of young people have spent thousands of hours building this set of resources for you. We hope you will choose to be part of this creation and to add to it.
We will round up scholarships, recruit mentors, line up internships, and build relationships with colleges and graduate schools. We are going to make it a bit easier for the self-motivated in your ranks to build meaningful professional lives.
In doing so, we are simply living up to our end of our partnership with you. We look forward, with eager anticipation, to watching you live up to yours and make an impact on society.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. We look forward to meeting many of you someday.
Take good care.
Michael McCullough, MD
Co-Founder and President