Shad Valley: In Need of an Admissions Overhaul?

I attended Shad Valley in the summer of 1990 at the UBC campus. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I met some extraordinary people who I struggle to stay in contact with to this day. I was then hired by the ‘Canadian Centre for Creative Technology’ (CCCT) which is now called ‘Shad International’ for the remainder of the summer, and for subsequent years as their ‘ShadNet’ administrator; a pre-internet BBS/e-mail system based on CNCP’s Dialcom.

I got a feel for the inner workings of the program, and got to know well the very committed –but small– team, running things behind the scenes of this nation-wide multi-campus program.

Whilst running statistics on program participants (part of my job that summer) I got a feel for the sort of people that get into the program. I was blown away to find out how close to the bottom I was, in terms of marks of successful applicants. At the time, I was a mid-80’s average student amongst 90 average students.

By that time, the program had already been running 9 years, plenty of time for many of the students to have established their careers and be identified as some of the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ or budding entrepreneurs: two of the target audiences of the program (I thought). I was a bit surprised to find that wasn’t really the case. Now, the sample size was small, with the earliest programs only numbering in the 10’s of participants so I suppose you could explain that away.

So what is the link? Well, I spent a lot of time then thinking about how marks relate to success. There is no question some of the people that attended the program with me are fantastically successful, but they were also academically brilliant. While there are brilliant successful people, you do not need to be brilliant to be an entrepreneur or change the world?

A recent Macleans article entitled ‘Do Grades Really Matter?’ by Sarah Scott triggered this debate again in my mind. One example cited regarded 210 Hunter College Elementary School graduates, who had IQ’s higher than 99% of the population: “By middle-age they had become happy, prosperous, community-minded citizens. But they hadn’t aspired to achieve great things.”

From what I recalled about the Shad selection process at the time, many other factors were considered aside from marks, but the easiest way to cull the massive list of candidates was through the easy numerical analysis that comes from an already established rating system care of the high school or CEGEP marks. If they were trying to identify those people that appeared to be the most ‘entrepreneurial’, this wasn’t the way to do it.

In fact, even if the Shad Valley staff had done the best possible job to identify those people, the pool of applicants was already tainted. The schools that promoted the program to their students typically only promoted it to those students that were academically gifted. Basically, these are people that are clearly smart enough to work inside the system, instead of (necessarily) having the traits associated with some of the most successful people: “Creative thinkers, the kind who transform ho we see things, have characteristics such as curiosity, appetite for risk, and an open mind.”

Perhaps it is adversity itself which drives some people to become extraordinary successes. If you are academically gifted to the point that the ‘system’ is always giving you scholarships, opportunities and direction in your career, the requirements for you to think outside the box are pretty limited.

So I went to the Shad Valley web-site to review both their mission statement and the application they use to evaluate potential students. I was very positively surprised to see their much leaner application had a bit less emphasis on marks than I remember, and more on other things such as personal accomplishments, career goals [I think that one is hokey myself, but more on that in another blog -ed.], essays, reference letters, and opportunities for creative inputs.

Cool! They clearly have evolved! But wait, what is with the mission statement?! (I have bolded some items):

Shad Valley is a diverse extended community of leaders dedicated to the development of remarkable youth, helping them to recognize, harness, and strengthen their talents.

At Shad Valley, we surround high-potential youth with excellence, and stimulate their creativity. We nurture their initiative, skills, values, and desire to solve important problems, while challenging them to meet the highest standards of ethical conduct, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability.

The Shad Valley programs build on an academic foundation of mathematics, science, engineering, and entrepreneurship to develop intellectual excellence in our students. These are the tools they will use to excel and to innovate, during the programs and in their futures.

Intellectual excellence? How about entrepreneurs, leaders of tomorrow? Do I remember things that wrong from 1990? That is very possible, I have a garbage memory, which is part of why I write everything down (including blogging). Part of the reason for this post is to stimulate some debate amongst the Shad Alumni, faculty and administration on this topic, and find out if I am all wet on this!

There are some hints about what I remember, the comment about ‘stimulate creativity’, ‘nuture desire’, ‘innovate’, but the leadership part gets lost for sure.

Don’t get me wrong, such a program is worthwhile. Programs like those described above need to exist, and probably more of them. But how about we challenge ourselves a bit more to find the Sam Waltons, Bill Gateses and (preferable) Steve Jobses of the world?

Would a program that tries to identify those that may have a positive lasting impact on our society and economy not be more lucrative for both applicants and the sponsors? If the program attempted to identify leaders and nurture that skill at an early age, would that not be more attractive to corporate and government sponsors, who are in dire need of such people?

How about evaluating some of the other attributes associated with success: emotional intelligence, drive, social awareness, ability to network, influencing skills, etc.? Would that lead to an even more successful program?

Anyway, ‘nuff-said. What do you think?

13 Responses

  1. Having attended Shad Valley in the summer of 2007, I have to say that I understand your frustration with the application process.

    I have to point out that even if there is a strong emphasis put on the grades, my discussions regarding the topic with my Shad program director (I attended uLaval) lead me to believe that passion is the ultimate quality looked for in Shad applicants. Shad taught students (well in my case) to harness their passion to do great things.

    I have the feeling Shad is not presenting itself in the best light. Leadership was a very important issue at my Shad. Even now when I do Shad presentations, I am confronted with this vague and elitist description of the Shad program.
    I hear it’s such in every campus except Laval. I wouldn’t know. Maybe it’s because we’re french…

    • I went to ULaval in the summer of 2009. It was indeed a great experience and it seemed like a more relaxed atmosphere. Granted there were people I met, who seemed I guess “out of my league” but the experience was unforgettable. Although I’ve moved onto other things, being an alumni, you get interesting opportunities for involvement (ie. Impact) Anyone else go to Laval?

  2. Hi Adrian,

    I’m an S85C alumnus. Shad gave me a great confidence boost. Socially, the world opened up.

    This confidence was key to starting my own company, but I got a late start after university and lacked the most basic tax, employee and loans information. I knew nothing of the corporate bidding process and received bad advice from government-appointed advisors that cost me dearly. And as with many entrepreneurs, my sense of failure made me shy from people who might’ve helped. When the opportunity arose, I dumped my fledgeling company for a corporate career. (A few years later, I resurrected the dream, now with better corporate experience. Three months into it, I dumped the business for a 6’2″ dreamboat. I’m still in the corprate rat race, but I’m a happy, socially-satiated rat with granite counter-tops.)

    In retrospect, if Shad’s mission is to encourage entrepreneurship then IMHO, creation of a company should be a prerequisite and the curriculum should be geared to growing, rather than starting a business.

    The great thing about Shad is that it hits kids at the age when making bad business decisions will (generally) not impact their livelihood. I’d like to see fewer future professionals in Shad and more grass-roots micro-brewery and cosmetics magnates in the classes.

    Otherwise, what Shad grows is what that Sarah Scott’s model reported: happy, prosperous, community-minded citizens. That ain’t bad, but it shouldn’t be Shad.

  3. I loved my Shad experience, but the main thing I took away from it was that I *didn’t* want a career in science, engineering or business. Good to know, I guess, because I was definitely heading down that path.

    But I would also say that I came from one of the poorest economic backgrounds at my campus as well – I have rarely felt so “poverty-stricken” in my life. “Leaders of tomorrow” I learned at Shad have to have access to capital – just ask your parents for a loan to start that robotics business in your garage…

  4. Hi Adrian,

    The never-ending debate about Using grades as a marker of potential success has long fascinated me. In a typical high school, or any other educational centre, it’s easy enough to point out who are the “smart” kids among everyone in the bunch. Those people who seem to easily cruise with a 90+ average throughout all their years in high school. I’m in grade 12, however I notice a common pattern with regards to this group. Kids who are smart, but do not do anything else but digest books. The ones who constantly focus on school, but not much else outside of it. That’s what I’ve seen in my school. Although, perhaps it’s a common thread in others. And then I sometimes wonder whether books smarts alone will determine your success in life. I mean, it’s the smartest kid that gets those scholarships and admissions right?

    I’m happy to see that universities start to recognize other aspects like service, and activities when considering people for scholarships or entrance. Looks like they figured out they don’t just want a “brain “in their schools.

    I got accepted for Shad Valley 2009, so I was really intrigued on how they used to select their candidates. I was keen on seeing what kind of people I would be stuck with, and what should I do to “upgrade” myself to be competent with the best. And I think for Shad, it’s hard to really distinguish who will definitely be leaders. Sometimes you can have the most talented individual ever in the program, and they may just be a normal, community minded person as you said. A leader doesn’t have to be Ivey league or Mensa material. In this case, street smarts would prevail.

    • A couple of books that discuss this topic in some depth are Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ and Daniel Pink’s ‘A Whole New Mind’. Malcolm (a Canadian who really should have been a Shad if he wasn’t) discusses on how marks are not a great indicator of success. He details several cases where there is a baseline level of intelligence that is correlated with success, but beyond that, many other factors make much more of an impact. For example he cites a person with a 190+ IQ who is clearly a genius based on standard convergence tests (like IQ) but is so poor at relating to people that he doesn’t get the success that you would expect. In another case, which to a great extent justifies the importance of affirmative action, many black students are admitted to a law school with (on average) lower marks than their non-minority peers. When a study was conducted of these people after graduation, the ‘success’ (read the book for how they defined this) of those students was NO DIFFERENT than those with the higher marks. In other words, you needed to be smart enough to complete law school, but afterwards other factors had much more impact.

      I have seen many examples of this in my own life as well.

      • >many black students are admitted to a law school with (on average) lower marks than their non-minority peers. When a study was conducted of these people after graduation, the ’success’ (read the book for how they defined this) of those students was NO DIFFERENT than those with the higher marks.

        Umm… there’s one significant problem with this comparison. The lawyers with lower marks who “succeeded” as much as the students with higher marks were black. You don’t know if their minority status helped them get equivalently-good jobs as their higher-marked white peers.

        Your conclusion that marks were not significant (“afterwards other factors had much more impact”) is faulty, given that there is a confounding factor.

      • Gladwell addresses this confounding factor in his book. Another good resource on this topic is ‘A Whole New Mind’ by Daniel Pink (see the reply to Crislana’s comment below); in particular Dan’s review of the ‘Termites’ study. Note that this study is in reference to IQ, not school marks (although there would be a correlation).

        Since I doubt that will change your mind anyway, lets try a different approach: What does your own life experience tell you about the relationship between marks and success?

        The point of this article is not that marks are an invalid way to screen candidates (they are), rather that it may have too strong an influence compared to other potential indicators of the kind of talents that Shad is trying to find and nurture. If Shad wants to find the entrepreneurs and leaders of the future, the process I remember needs another look.

    • im just wondering if you might have any idea as to how high o low your grades have to be to get accepted. Since I found out about Shad I’ve been so excited and interested in try to get in. Are there any tips you can possibly give me

  5. Well said Adrian. What really matters is HOW you use WHAT you learn.


    I went to Shad Valley in the summer of 2009 (just as Crislana did as well). I attended the program at the UNB. And obviously I’ll be an another fan boy who will certainly agree it has been a highlight of my life up to date. However hopefully my life has many more adventures just as exciting in store for me… 😛

    The story of my application was certainly one of those generic upper 90 kids in high school, who was nothing but book smarts and in the top ten for graduating marks. I applied to Shad Valley in grade 12, and expected nothing of it but to be a summer vacation before I began my post-secondaries here at the University of Ottawa (from where I’m currently typing this message). However I was certainly surprised of the heavy impact it has had on me.

    The essay which I wrote wasn’t a typical essay highlighting all of my endeavors and academic successes. I made that one of my objectives to make that clear in my piece. It was a single-page essay which I wrote which stated that I dearly wanted to put the arts back into my life that I had lost of the course of being nothing but a memorizing think-tank. It was a contract for myself to join our school choir and to re-commit to the Ultimate Frisbee team that I joined the previous year. Once the application was sent, I never truly committed to what I said I wanted to have been done. It wasn’t until I got accepted when I felt compelled to hold true to the pseudo-contract that I wrote in October. I joined Full Choir, the lowest tier of our choir ensembles, anyone could join it. The impressions I left on the choir teacher were so amazing that she allowed me to join Concert Choir (one which requires an audition at the beginning of the year). It wasn’t soon after until I made my way into Man Choir, the school’s first all male singing crew.

    The singing took place four out of five lunch breaks a week during the last three months of my high school year. As soon as the bell rang, that’s when Frisbee started. Ultimate as huge as it is in Ottawa, is still very low tier in terms of the high school level. We had arranged for two official practices a week, but we had the drive to make it out everyday after school generally for a two and a half hour practice. We ended up taking 2nd place (B Pool) in the local tournament. Now that I’ve graduated they’ve continued the success now snagging 2st in the A pool.

    Shad Valley had a lasting impact on me before I even went into the program. It led me to pursue things I wouldn’t have it weren’t for that essay. It certainly didn’t make me into an entrepreneurial genius, but of course this was all before the program began (and even then I’m STILL not even a entrepreneur :D).

    The programs vary every where and each campus doesn’t quite actually hone into the mission statement. I know here at UNB there were other seminars about philosophy, the idealogy behind proper teaching, and the general success of our program directors as inspiration. What was strange though was that the president of Shad Valley, Barry Bison, was flying over the whole country delivering his epic three hour seminar about business plans when the organization itself was facing the repercussions of the recession… They certainly could have saved a few bucks if he didn’t have to fly into a couple of provinces to visit the ten campuses.

    I left the program with an exposure to buisness and entrepreneurship. I was never one to take it in high school (but I am taking electives in the field now in uni), since back then I felt that if it wasn’t science it wasn’t for me. I was a close-minded fool then. I certainly left UNB as a better leader however, that is something I will agree upon. But it hasn’t been something I’ve exercised lately… *I should get onto to that*.

    As you might know, Shad Valley encourages it’s alumni to speak upon their behave and promote the program to their school, or potentially different schools across their local cities. They do this by offering a scholarship which is worth $2500.

    In my year there were only 6 students who were invited to a presentation given by 6 alumni. Only 4 applied and 2 got in (one of them being me).

    I wanted to change the system myself. I knew with the marketing skills that Shad gave me we certainly could do better. Glebe Collegiate Instiute (just at Bronson and Carling) is ranked 6th for the most alumni out of any high school in Canada. In 2009 we had 92.

    We opted for a much more different approach, in some ways you would disagree with Adrian. Instead of taking nominations from teachers to see who were the leaders of the class, we went to look at straight up marks. We invited the top 20 students from grade 10, top 30 students in grade 11, and the top 20 students from 12. A one short and simple page invite was created, sealed in an envelope marked with each of their names. I believe that if they were personalized the students would feel “loved” and would come because they were recognized for their hardwork, and they certainly did.

    Pretty much all 70 students showed up in our library. It was a tight crowd. There was no pizza for incentive either, no physical reward, it was all intrinsic. They were there since we told them they were the best and that we wanted them to be exposed to something called Shad Valley. We made the invite professional enough to know that students would show them to their parents to praise them.

    Out of the 70 who came only around 20 applications went in to Shad Valley. Only 9 of them were granted admission, and 8 of them had accepted the offer. Another 7 had gotten wait listed. These were all kids with fabulous back grounds academically and in their extracurricular activities. I knew the majority of them from Choir and Frisbee, but in a way wasn’t surprised – they weren’t all Shad material.

    They all had averages above 90, and still only 8/20 had gotten in. In a way I think this statistic does outline how Shad Valley does value other characteristics other than academics. Those who didn’t get in certainly had EC’s to back up their application. But they lacked the skills in leadership and actual motivation to make a difference.

    Hahah, this was a fairly long ramble. I’m sincerely sorry if some of this had a lack of relevance. nevertheless I’ll conclude it here. 🙂

    Adrian, I’ve noticed a couple of your blogs concern Ottawa. If you happen to live here and find yourself of a coffee/lunch break, I’m always in the downtown area. I enjoy meeting other alumni, and you certainly seem like a great character,but that’s not a surprise since you are Shad!


    K Nhan

  7. If anyone could give me any tips as to what my grades need to be and what kind of essay/creative page are acceptable I would be really grateful.


      Your grades these days will need to be around the 85+ range. Please note that if your average is below 90, you’re going to need to have a stellar amazing application package.

      In a typical selection process, there is usually an interview which accompanies it. However with Shad Valley you don’t have that benefit… Meaning all of your character, personality, and drive must be summed up into your application essay/creative page.

      The essay is limited to only your personal creativity. You can write about any topic you want… However remember that this application is there to outline how awesome of a person YOU are.

      Take your creative page seriously. If you like telling stories, write a story. If you paint, paint. If you love math, write a proof. If you love sand art, do sand art. If you like photography, print out an example, Photoshop is your thing? Include only past artwork. Again, do something which outlines your passion. Make sure it’s top notch material.

      Just to let you know… Shad Valley’s application is a rip-off of University applications. If you can impress them and prove yourself of getting into SV, you’ve more than made it into any University program in Canada.

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