How Do We Compare? The Jewish Intellectual Experience Beyond YU

By: Makena Owens  |  April 9, 2014

greenfield.noah_A Los Angeles native, Noah Greenfield is a graduate of Gush, the Yeshiva College Honors Program, Revel and RIETS.  He is a PhD candidate in Jewish Studies at UC Berkeley and a JD candidate at Yale Law School. He is also the co-founder and CEO of InGenius Prep, an admissions counseling company dedicated to helping students get into the colleges and graduate schools of their dreams. The Observer sat down with Greenfield to discuss his company, the unique challenges Orthodox students face, and advice for the future.

Observer: What motivated you to start your company, InGenius Prep, and what services does it provide?

Noah Greenfield: After getting into a bunch of doctoral programs, my friends applying to PhD programs starting calling and wanted me to look over their applications.  This took between 15 to 30 hours of my time, but I did it gladly, and they were all very successful in getting into graduate schools.  Once I got into law school, the same thing happened, and my friends wanted advice on getting into law school.

The summer before law school someone I didn’t know called asking me for help with an application. Since I didn’t know this person, and had just moved, and was really quite busy, I said I didn’t have time to help.  Then he offered to pay.  I had never charged the friends I had helped so I didn’t know what to charge this person, and he offered to pay the market rate.  I had no idea what the market rate was but after researching it I discovered it was pretty high. So I went for it.

It wasn’t until law school orientation that the idea of my company took form.  I was talking to the guy next to me and we noticed a market failure: there was a demand for high quality advice about getting into high quality institutions, but the market rate was much too high. Another insight we had was that the people providing these services were often sleazy.  So we saw an opportunity to offer lower prices to help more people and take the sleaze out of it.  This meant no admissions counselor would write essays for clients and fabricate test scores, because that doesn’t help anyone, especially not the students.  We hired over 100 deans, directors, and admissions officers from the most competitive undergraduate, graduate, medical, law, business, and liberal arts schools. This became InGenius.  The incredible professional experience of our employees ensures quality control and prevents unprofessional activity. Because the InGenius staff is composed of actual admissions counselors, they will call students out on lying and cheating instead of helping them sidestep the rules and dodge the system. And because they are the people who actually designed and ran the admissions procedures at the best schools, we are sure we are offering the very highest quality service.

O: Why do so many Jewish students get into top graduate schools?  Do you think this has to do with their undergrad preparation or rather something that the Jewish religion encourages or fosters?

NG: There’s something about YU and something important about Orthodox Judaism that is definitely a benefit to students in terms of higher education.  Just as an example, Yale Law School, the top law school in the world, is a very competitive place.  It receives the most applications and selects the fewest. Having that said, my class at Yale Law School has about 160 students—4 wear kippot and 3 are musmachim of Yeshiva University. Now, that has to be disproportionate to the general population.  Also noteworthy is that something close to half the school — both students and faculty — is Jewish.

But on the other hand, there are also things about Orthodox Judaism that can serve as drawbacks in terms of higher education.  Orthodox Jews have a great intellectual culture that helps train our minds: we place a lot of value on book education and intellectual ambition, and that all helps—especially for law, medical, and business school.  Those are places where Jews have done well in the past, and there is a natural draw there for us.  But something worth thinking about is that not so many Orthodox Jews pursue PhDs in anthropology, for example—certain fields just aren’t situated within our cultural norms, and that’s limiting in a way.

O: If it is undergrad that prepares them the most, what about YU helps students pursuing a graduate school education become competitive candidates for admission?

NG: Really intimate classes and close relationships with professors are especially helpful because your grad school application success will depend on recommendation letters.  YU is great in that way.  YU also gives students enormous opportunities for their own enlightenment while also providing opportunities to position students for grad school. But a lot of students don’t know how to navigate YU to that end— they don’t necessarily know how to take advantage of and how to make those opportunities.  So yes, having the small classes can be really helpful, but it isn’t enough. You have to understand how to maximize the benefit from the YU experience.

There’s so much to say about how students can take advantage of what they’re getting at YU, but one of the things that I regard about YU as absolutely superior to Yale College or Berkeley—or anywhere else I’ve been—is the following: not every student at YU is intellectually ambitious, but amongst those who are, you do not find the same level of determination and intellectual thirst at other colleges. For example when I got to Berkeley, I had an experience that made me realize how unique my undergraduate education was.  A student in my seminar gave a presentation and when he finished, I asked some questions politely challenging some of the material he had presented.  Suddenly I looked up, and this student was about to cry!  For the rest of the seminar, you weren’t allowed to ask challenging questions, only “supporting questions,” and it was so weird for me!  It was a new educational environment that was difficult to adjust to.

One of my graduate school professors once told me that he recognizes a big difference when he teaches Orthodox Jews and when he teaches regular college kids: the Jewish kids ask hard questions, push for an answer, read texts carefully, and take the text seriously.  When I was at YC I didn’t appreciate this quality in the students.  Those skills are invaluable, and the ability to hone those skills doesn’t exist anywhere else.  Some of my Yale professor friends complain to me that their students are good at getting A’s and writing papers, but they don’t have the type of care and engagement with a subject that is so powerful among YC graduates and Orthodox students.  At YC, I took this approach to learning for granted, and only realized its value in graduate school.

O: Are Orthodox Jews faced with any challenges getting into top schools?

NG: There’s a certain environment, network, and connection that they’re not getting. These missing components create disadvantages for grad school, because YU students don’t have the same privileges they may have at a place like Yale.  That makes it hard to really sell yourself to a grad school against students who do have those opportunities.

Another thing is that a lot of Orthodox Jews, even the open minded ones, are a lot more parochial than they think.  This doesn’t apply to everyone at YU, but for some, they don’t understand the way non-Jews or secular Jews perceive them.  They don’t understand that their values may not be valued in the same way, and they don’t appreciate the way those values may be received.  In a way that’s great because we have a nice community with imbedded values, but in another way when religious students want to go onto other competitive environments, it’s hard for them to understand how they would compare to their peers.

Something else true of both YU students and Orthodox Jews in general is that we all have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.  A lot of YU kids who want to go to law or medical school are very ambitious—and YU has all these great, talented, bright students—but there are also students who aren’t that.  And while it’s great that YU gets all these students together with common values, it projects the notion that it’s not so hard to get into YU—and people know that.  Maybe for those that don’t come in as strong academically they gain a lot, but for those that do come in with a strong educational background, they may feel that they miss out on what happens at Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton.

O: What experiences are you referring to?

NG: Well there’s one thing that I think is the most overrated—for whatever reason, American universities sell an image of the college experience: throwing frisbees on a grassy lawn in front of gothic buildings.  And that has come to define a college experience.  And even though that’s a really stupid way of thinking about colleges, there’s something beautiful about it that certainly doesn’t exist at YU.

People may also feel that they’re missing out on a social experience, one where they can become who they want to become through their peers and professors and all these great ideas floating in the air.  This is how students view intellectual growth—they view a college experience that’s less about test scores and more about personal transformation.  I think that’s overrated too.  For me, the “college experience” was staying up until 1:00 a.m. learning in night seder, which I think is an important intellectual experience.  I don’t think throwing frisbees is any sexier than night seder when night seder is so valuable for your intellectual growth, but somehow students see frisbee throwing as “intellectual growth” too.

O: Are there any disadvantages that students experience even earlier on in education—maybe even when applying to undergrad—that can influence their graduate school decisions?

NG: There’s some disconnect between what Ivy League schools are looking for and what Orthodox kids are looking for in a college.  If these kids are looking for a minyan and kosher food, while those may be good questions to ask, you miss out on some of the questions others are asking if you focus too much on those aspects.  What’s the intellectual culture at a school, what are the alumni doing?  If all you’re looking for is kosher food, you’re not going to be the ideal student and you’re not going be the ideal candidate for an Ivy League.  I’m not trying to downplay those elements of a school, but you’ll be missing out on the difference between Columbia and Penn— they are different institutions with different cultures.  But I think things have changed a lot since I was in high school, and if I were to choose an undergraduate institution again (other than YU, of course), I would choose the University of Chicago, which I had never even heard of at the time.  Looking back, though, the intellectual culture there is most similar to YU, but I didn’t have sufficient information to make that decision.