The Unheralded Splendor of the A* StrategyApril 10th, 2009 · 20 comments
Good Will (Not) Studying
One of my favorite scenes from the tortured genius weepy, Good Will Hunting, is the montage of Matt Damon working with an eccentric MIT math professor. The professor slaps a transparency on an overhead projector, splashing a series of graph structures on the screen. (There’s a professor on my floor here at MIT who actually does this.) Will stares at the screen for a thoughtful, brooding moment. Then he stands, grabs a marker, and adds some extra edges. They slap five.
To American students, this vision of the genius who instantly solves problems has become the platonic ideal for a star undergraduate. This leads to the belief that the best students complete even the hardest work easily. Therefore, if you want to prove that you’re a top student you need to take the hardest possible course load and get the best possible grades. The goal is to make it seem like your brain is so supercharged that you can swat aside problem sets and exams like Matt Damon solving proofs on the MIT blackboard.
I call this the Good Will Hunting (GWH) strategy for becoming an academic star. Here’s the thing about this strategy: if you can pull it off, it will yield rewards. People are impressed by the 4.0 student with the triple major. But there are two problems:
- Most people who attempt the GWH approach don’t pull it off.
- It is incredibly stressful and painful, and will probably send you into deep procrastination.
As far as I can tell, many students view the GWH strategy as the only way to stand out academically. (Here at MIT, I had a student tell me that if she didn’t take a killer course load people would just assume she’s not smart.)
In this post, I want to explain a different, more sustainable path to academic stardom…
The A* Strategy
I’m borrowing the notation “A*” (which I pronounce “a star”) from Dartmouth, where I spent my undergrad years. At Dartmouth, the star indicates a citation. If it shows up on your transcript it means that the professor thought you had done work so exceptional that it was beyond what could be captured by the standard grading system. In fact, Dartmouth transcripts come with a special citation sheet where professors can write out a short summary of what you did to merit the special grade. This is not an “A+”. It doesn’t automatically go to the top students. Most professors give them out sparingly, waiting for a student to truly blow them away; perhaps only once every couple of years.
The A* strategy for becoming an academic star is inspired by this idea. It works as follows:
- Choose a (single) major that you love.
- Build a course and extracurricular schedule that leaves you an abundance of time to tackle your major courses. (Note, this doesn’t mean you should take less than the normal course load. It means instead that you should choose a reasonable mix of courses that won’t devour all of your time. There’s no shame in balancing a tough pair of major courses with an elective or intro course in a field that fascinates you. Not every class has to be the hardest available.)
- Put an intense amount of energy into the 1 or 2 major courses you take each semester. For example:
- Spend time with your readings. Coming back to key passages again and again.
- Use the notebook method to refine your thinking.
- Explore related topics on your own time. Become an expert on the field.
- If it’s a non-technical class, start your papers early. Don’t treat them like an assignment to survive, but a chance to write something profound. Obsess over your writing and ideas. If it’s a technical class, dive deep into the concepts. Become an insight junkie.
I argue that the A* strategy can yield the same rewards as the GWH strategy. It generates a cadre of professors within your major department who see you as their best and brightest. These professors are going to write recommendations and open opportunities that are going to make you shine as bright as the hardest working GWH grind. In addition, you’ll begin to win awards and scholarships and all the other markings of a real talent. (If you want to go to an elite graduate school, forget the GWH altogether, the A* approach is the only approach that will work.)
What makes this strategy superior to the GWH, is that it’s significantly less stressful. The time demands are minimal compared to the load faced by the triple major. And even more important, the work is meaningful. When you’re out in the woods, with your notebook, trying to master a complicated piece of philosophy: that’s good for your soul! When you’re in the library at 2 AM, starting the second of three problem sets due the next morning: that just plain sucks.
I don’t want to preach. I just want to open your eyes to another option. If you feel the burden of talent on your shoulders, and you’re looking for a way to live up to your academic potential, then please, for my sake, before you dive into the stress-saturated morass of the GWH, give the unheralded, but equally effective A* strategy some consideration.