How to Harness the Superstar Effect to Land an Investment Banking Job or MBA Admission

Competition for investment banking jobs and admission to the top MBA schools is crushing. No doubt you’ve heard tales of candidates with gold-plated resumes and extracurricular activities who still didn’t get in.

So you may be interested in a guest article by Cal Newport, MIT Ph.D., an all-round whiz at competing against the odds, published on Tim Ferriss’ FourHourWorkWeek blog. In it, he describes the “Superstar effect” which bestows disproportional riches and recognition to those who are the very best in their field, even though they may only be slightly better than the next few competitors.

For example, he tells the story of the opera singer Juan Diego Florez who wowed audiences during a 2008 performance of a notoriously difficult piece, hitting 9 high C’s in a row. The acclaim was overwhelming, and Florez was summoned back for an encore at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

But back 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 the audience at the Met on that day demanded 17 encores. Newport notes that “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 Pavarotti died in 2007, sources estimated his estate to be worth $275 to 475 million.”

A paper published in the American Economics Review in 1981 by the economist Sherwin Rosen identified this as the “Superstar Effect.” The logic is simple: consumers reason that if Pavarotti is the best and they can only buy one album, they might as well get the best. The result is that the vast majority of purchasers’ millions goes to Pavarotti, even though his talent advantage over Florez is small.”

The same Superstar Effect works with class valedictorians. A researcher named Paul Atwell looked two students, both with 700s on their SAT tests. The first was class valedictorian; the second was ranked number five in the class. Rationally speaking, the difference in G.P.A. is negligible. But using statistics from Dartmouth College admissions, Atwell discovered that the valedictorian had a 75% chance at acceptance at the Ivy League college, versus only a 25% chance for the number-5 ranked student.

But here’s the point of the whole article. Newport also tells the story of Michael Silverman, a fairly average high school senior with modest SAT scores and only one advanced placement course. At a time when Stanford University is turning away students with math SAT scores higher than 780 and 3.75 G.P.A.’s, Silverman still managed to get accepted. Silverman found a way to “hack” the Superstar Effect and use it in his favor.

“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,” writes Newport.

To discover Silverman’s secret to “hacking” the Superstar Effect and getting into Stanford, you really should read the full narrative of Newport’s piece at FourHourWorkWeek blog. It could very well give you a leg up on competing and winning an investment banking job in a very competitive environment. Once you’ve had a chance to review it, we’d be interested in your comments below.

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