Study Hacks Blog Posts from August, 2008 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

The Genius Myth: The Danger of Worshiping “Exceptional” Students

August 29th, 2008 · 45 comments

The Young and ExceptionalGenius

In a recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor Rachel Toor asks:

Who feels at home in a place like Yale, where your roommate has already published a novel and the person down the hall performed on Broadway?

This question captures a familar trope: top schools contain a small number of exceptional genius students with whom the rest of us mortals must compete. This idea strikes fear into heart of those approach the college admissions process and sows insecurity for those already on campus.

But is it based in reality? Are there really geniuses — teenagers publishing books and performing on Broadway — who have innate skills that blow away their peer’s ability? And if it’s not true, what danger do we face in keeping this myth alive? This essay tackles these questions.

The Tale of Two Superstars

To aid our discussion, let’s introduce two students that seem to support the genius myth.

The first is a Stanford undergrad who we can call Mike. As Mike recently explained to me in an e-mail exchange, by the time he arrived on campus he had published four books, two of which were bestsellers.

The other student is author Christopher Paolini, who, at the age of 15 began writing the book Eragon which was eventually bought by Alfred Knopf for $250,000 and became both a New York Times bestseller and a big budget movie.

We can agree that Mike and Christopher are exactly the type of young superstars we have in mind when we think about the young genius myth. Four books by the age of 18? Writing a bestselling novel at 15? What else other than rare exceptional ability could explain such feats?

Mike’s “Genius”

As it turns out, Mike would be embarrassed to be labeled a genius. In out brief conversation, he went out of his way to emphasize that what he had accomplished, in true Zen Valedictorian fashion, was actually easier than the brutal workloads of his high school classmates. The full story on Mike’s books — the story you’d never get in the college press release — is that the books are computer manuals in a series written for and by teenagers. The “bestseller” status refers to a good day in the Amazon rankings.

What Mike should get credit for is boldness and discipline. As a 15-year-old attending a tech conference with his family, he fearlessly pitched the teen tech series to a group of publishing executives. When they turned him down he went ahead and wrote up sample chapters and sent them along. When they saw that this 15-year-old could write, they green lit the plan. Once the first book was complete, Mike stayed focus, pitching and writing three additional manuals.

Mike impresses the hell out of me because he not only has interesting ideas but he also acts on them; a rare combination for someone his age. He’s a perfect example of the Steve Martin Method. But as he would readily admit, he possess no special genius ability that surpasses those of his classmates.

Christopher’s “Genius”

But what about Christopher Paolini? His book was a mega bestseller and it was also a novel. He has to have a genius ability.

Let’s dive deeper…

When you read through enough interviews with the young author, a consistent view emerges: he was trained, from a young age, like a Chinese Olympian, to become a young novelist. He was home schooled by his writer parents who ran their own publishing house. As Christopher recalls, his mother, a former Montessori teacher, supplemented standard textbook lessons with creativity-boosting exercises and a large amount of writing. After receiving at the age of 15 — through correspondence courses — the equivalent of a high school degree, Christopher, with the blessing and support of his parents, turned his full-time attention to writing his first novel. No college. No job. Just writing. The young man who grew up being groomed to become an author spent the next three years working on nothing else but realizing this dream.

Once he finished, his parents published the book through their own publishing house and Christopher hit the road; doing over 145 appearances — in full medieval regalia — to help promote the book and spread the word. It eventually came to the attention of Carl Hiaasen, who passed it along to his publisher, which, in turn, liked the book, saw the fan base Christopher had built, and, more importantly, saw how much money they were making with Harry Potter, and then bought the rights.

The resulting book isn’t a great work of literature. In its review, The New York Times notes:

Paolini does not yet have the [strengths of classic fantasy authors]…He often slips into clichéd descriptions…and B-movie dialogue…The plot stumbles and jerks along, with gaps in logic and characters dropped, then suddenly remembered, or new ones invented at the last minute.

That being said, the story is gripping and authentic and caught the attention of the public at just the right moment when children fantasy was the rage — leading to a deserved bestseller status.

Once again, however, we don’t find a natural, untouchable genius ability. Instead, we find a young man, groomed from a young age to write this book, who followed through on this plan over three hard years, and ended up, with a lot of luck and even more elbow grease producing a break out.

No magic ability lurks here.

The Young Genius Myth Debunked

My experience working with the country’s most exceptional students has taught me that the genius myth is rarely justified. When you encounter a student who, when casually described, hits you as brilliant and beyond comparison with your own abilities, often, as with Mike and Chris, the following factors are in play:

  1. The “genius” accomplishments, when investigated closely, are less exceptional than they were at first described.
  2. The “genius” had been working toward his accomplishment for years, probably in an environment that afforded him insider connections and a detailed understanding of what exactly is necessary to make progress.

The Danger of the Genius Myth

The danger of the genius myth is that it unnecessarily muddles our discussions of student stress. When considering college admissions, for example, it helps no one to casually reference the “published authors” that you have to compete with. This deference to genius is a way to justify unhealthy behaviors — “I’m in 25 clubs because I have to keep with geniuses like Mike!” It also generates unnecessary insecurity, making you feel like your college acceptance was a mistake and that the work load is probably beyond your natural abilities. Finally, it helps foster the idea that intelligence and ability are “innate” traits. As Carol Dweck has shown again and again, adopting this mindset leads to much poorer academic performance and worse mental health.

Beyond Geniuses

Here’s the reality: there are few — if any — geniuses in this world. When you hear about a student who blows your mind, assume you’re not getting the full story. The key, as always, to standing out is to: keep a manageable workload, innovate, master a few things instead of juggling many, and use smart, efficient work habits. Don’t stress over your lack of a magic ability because, as much as this might pain Eragon fans to hear, there is no magic: Just hard work, focus, a dash of innovation and a healthy dose of luck.

(Photo by midiman)

Q & A: Coming Up With Innovative Activities, Skimming Fiction, and Making the Morse Code Method More Studyable

August 27th, 2008 · 6 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I read your article on activity innovation. Here’s my question: how do I find the “ultimate” activity for my field of interest? I mean, I look at the examples you give and think: “Wow, I would never have thought to do that.”

Cal responds:

Don’t expect to think up your awe-inspiring project from scratch. Instead, following the program laid out in my activity innovation article: you need to first gain access to the relevant insider world by joining a related club and then paying your dues. This will probably take at least a year. Maybe two. Just keep taking on projects and completing them.

As time progresses you’ll learn more and more about the insider details of this world. After you’ve paid your dues, you can then package some of this knowledge into a project custom-built to invoke the failed simulation effect in outsiders; i.e., defy their ability to explain how you did what you did. There is no shortcut here. You have to gain access and prove yourself first before you can think up the flashy stuff.

For example, you told me you’re interested in environmentalism. Let’s pretend that your college has a student club that publishes an environmental science journal. You join the club. For the first year or two, you climb the ranks; helping to edit and do layouts and sell ads. Eventually, you become an editor. At this point, one of your insider connections — let’s say the club’s faculty advisor — mentions that the college is hosting a big environmental science conference. He notes that it might be nice to have a student conference held at the same time. Because you’ve paid your dues, you jump at the chance and pull this together. You make it happen by using the access and connections you’ve built over your past two years in the club.

It would be hard for you to think up the conference right now, as a rising freshman with no insider experience. But two years into a club and holding a leadership position, such possibilities will abound.

From the reader mailbag:

I read your chapter from Straight-A about just reading the introduction and conclusion of your assignments and then skimming the material in between. That all seems well and good…but isn’t it only applicable to social sciences, hard sciences, or other non-fiction assignments with logical structures? With a few weeks before classes start I need to read The Odyssey and The Illiad, and a course I will be taking will be a humanities course in which I will have to read classic works which are also fiction. What do I do?

Cal responds:

You read the whole book. Carefully. And relish it. My advice is to find a quiet and contemplative environment. Preferably somewhere with wood paneling and musty old books. This will put you in the right mindset.

My tips for efficient reading, as you note, are only for non-fiction. If you’re taking a course that assigns literature, you have to read it.

From the reader mailbag:

I used the morse code method to take notes on my reading. How do I now study it? Do I put it into Q/E/C format or — gasp! — do rote review?

Cal responds:

For the uninitiated, the morse code method has you read an entire assignment at your natural pace without stopping. To take notes, you make pencil marks in the margin. A dot signifies “important point” and a dash signifies “detail related to the most recent important point.” The motivating idea is that more elaborate notations would slow down your pace, which leads to mental fatigue.

To study your morse code notes, you have to (eventually) go back and transform the dots and dashes into something more useful. My suggestion was to paraphrase in your notes the points indicated by the dots. For the dashes, also add a paraphrased note, but indent this with a bullet point to offset it from the relavent “dot” note. Typically, lots of internal editing occurs here. You’ll likely toss out 25 – 50% of your dots and dashes. Finally, try to throw in a question and conclusion around your points so that you can later study using quiz and recall.

Of course, this effort is only for articles you need to understand well; perhaps for an exam or a paper. If a passing familiarity is fine, don’t bothering taking any additional notes. Just skim your dots and dashes right before class to bring you up to speed.

Reporter from Money Magazine Looking for Students to Interview

August 26th, 2008 · 3 comments

A Major Choice

I chatted this morning with a reporter from Money Magazine (over 8 million readers per month). She’s working on an article about choosing a college major. She asked me to help her find students to interview.

Specifically, she is interested in people who match one of the following three descriptions:

  1. Recent graduates who landed jobs unrelated to their majors.
  2. Students who switched from a major they didn’t like to one they do like.
  3. Students who received good advice or assistance from their parents during the major choosing process.

If you match one of these three descriptions and want to be interviewed for the article, drop me an e-mail at author [at] I’ll forward your information to the reporter. I encourage you to participate as this is a great venue to spread some useful advice to potentially millions of parents.


As long as I’m writing an administrative post, I’ll note the following:

  1. I’ve chosen and notified the new college chronicles volunteers. Expect to hear more about the new season soon.
  2. In case you’re interested, I was recently interviewed over at Student Hacks about my path from high school through graduate school.

Monday Master Class: Five Pieces of Unexpected Back to School Advice

August 25th, 2008 · 22 comments

Advice, Advice Everywhere…Back to School

The good thing about this season is that back to school advice is available everywhere you turn. The problem, however, is that once you’ve read one article about smart course selection or staying organized, you’ve read them all.

In this post, I want to offer a collection of advice that’s off the beaten path; nuggets of wisdom you won’t find anywhere else. As always, don’t let me have the last word. If there’s an unexpected  tip you’ll be using this year, let us know by leaving a comment.

Five Pieces of Unexpected Back to School Advice

  1. Party Hard the First Few Weeks.
    Your social life needs a running start. Once the term progresses and schedules tighten, it becomes harder to fall in with new crowds. Build your social momentum by partying hard now, while you still have the time. This will make it easier to keep the invites and social options rolling in all the way to finals.
  2. Quit Most of Your Activities.
    I don’t know you. But I can assume you’re probably doing way too many activities, fueled by some vague belief that this makes you more impressive or is necessary to get into law school. Ugh. Here’s what you should do instead. First, read this article. Second, quit all of your activities except the one or two that you’ve been involved with the longest. Third, work hard during the fall semester to take on a difficult project within the activity, and follow it through to completion. Fourth, in the spring semester, use your newly earned respect to pitch an unusual project that will impress outsiders because it defies easy explanation. Fifth, read this article so you understand what the hell I’m talking about. Sixth, reap the disproportionate reward for replacing a laundry-list with focus and innovation.
  3. Buy a Fancy New Planner.
    A moleskin is nice. It makes you feel like a young Picasso. My new productivity crush, however, is the beautiful muji chronotebook (which will be released any day now). Whatever you choose, there’s a simple justification for upgrading: the excitement of buying a planner that’s cool and fancy will make you more productive. It shouldn’t. But it does. So treat yourself.
  4. Drop One of Your Courses.
    Once again, I don’t know you. But I will assume that your course load is tougher than necessary. You think this makes you look talented and smart. Here’s the reality: no one cares. So drop one of the tougher courses and spend your free time obsessing over your new planner.
  5. Apply for Something.
    Go to the building that houses your major department. Find a bulletin board. Read the attached flyers for fellowships, scholarships, and special programs. Choose one. Apply to it. The cooler sounding the better. Do it now, before things gets too busy. Great things comes to those who actually do things. Not just recognition, but also experience and connections and unexpected random future opportunities. So place yourself in the top 1% of your class by actually taking the time to try.

(Photo by dyobmit)

How Many Hours Do You Have to Work to Feel Productive?

August 21st, 2008 · 20 comments

Time Wasters

The Academic Productivity blog recently asked the following question: What are your one or two biggest wastes of time? The question was aimed at graduate students and professors — a group who loves to obssess over these issues. The initial responses were what you might expect:

  • Web-surfing
  • E-mail
  • Blog reading
  • Etc.

The commenters’ suggestions for solving these problems centered on tools like RescueTime — a fancy timer for figuring out how you spend your time — and LeechBlock — a Firefox plug-in that prevents you from visiting time-wasting web sites.

An important assumption, however, lurks behind this self-flaggelation: you should be working most of the day, so anything that eats up a significant amount of time without producing useful results is therefore a “waste.”

But is this true?

Tipped by the excellent Casting Out Nines blog, I recently explored the web site of UCLA professor Terrence Tao, a Fields Medal winner and arguably the world’s most talented mathematician. Terrence recently wrote an article about his time management habits. Here’s what caught my attention:

Another thing is that my ability to do any serious mathematics fluctuates greatly from day to day; sometimes I can think hard on a problem for an hour, other times I feel ready to type up the full details of a sketch that I or my coauthors already wrote, and other times I only feel qualified to respond to email and do errands, or just to take a walk or even a nap.

Terrence’s view on being productive differs from the junior academics responding on Academic Productivity. Terrence is happy if some days he gets in an hour or two of hard thinking, or, as he specifies later, a few hours working on a paper write-up. He also expects that some days he’ll do nothing.

And he has a freaking Fields Medal…

Last week, writer Matt Wood addressed this same topic in a guest post on 43 Folders. Matt recalled how recently “[I] stripped my daily routine down to the bare bones. I wasn’t happy with my word count, and I blamed it on the internet. ”

Here’s the rub: after a week or two, Matt’s ideas ran out.

He finally concluded:

My creative beast is restless and hungry, and I’ve learned that if I starve it by arbitrarily limiting its routine, it’s not happy.

In other words, for Matt, being a good writer did not mean working in monastic silence for 8 hours a day. “Wasting” a few hours surfing blogs was a key part of his routine. This is similar to Terrence Tao and his need to do his math his short, intense blasts, seperated by hours, if not days, of what we might call goofing off.

Did I mention that he won a Fields Medal?

Now let’s reconsider the responses on Academic Productivy in light of these two anecdotes. The responders to the AP post were upset by the time they spent not “working.” They were willing to resort to elaborate software that would force them to work. But this all rests on the assumption that a productive person is one who works for many hours every day.

Certainly this is required in some situations — such as a grad student running an experiment. But is it always true? As demonstrated by Matt and Terrence, there is no reason to expect this to be so. Perhaps an hour or two of focused work on some days — ignoring, for now, the normal administrative sludge — would prove sufficient. Perhaps not. But the key is that the answer is not obvious.

Everyone’s situation is quite different. But I guess the conclusion I’m stumbling toward here is the following: before trying to improve your productivity, first ask yourself how many hours of work do you need to spend to be good at what you do? When we avoid seriously contemplating this question, we end up acting as if the answer is: “every hour that’s available.” This can lead to self-loathing and frustation.

So ask yourself this question. Think very carefully about the answer. Then the next time you feel guilty about spending a morning blog surfing, imagine Terrence Tao, lounging lazily in his chair, closing his eyes for a nap, a relaxed smile on his face and a Fields Medal glowing brightly in the background.

Monday Master Class: A Crash Course in the Straight-A Method

August 19th, 2008 · 15 comments

Manila-Flavored AdviceManila Scene

I recently did an interview with the Manila Bulletin, in which I discussed the basic ideas underpinning the Straight-A Method (the framework for all of my studying advice). I thought it might be a good idea to reproduce some of the article here as a way to bring my newer readers up to speed on the type of good old fashioned study tips found in my books.

(The full article can be found here.)

STUDENTS AND CAMPUSES BULLETIN (SCB): What are some of the common causes of “underachievement” in school?

Cal Newport (CN): Student culture. It’s seen as uncool to be working hard. Also, there is often a fear that if you admit to working hard then do poorly then this somehow proves that you’re not smart. A lot of talented students develop terrible habits as a way of avoiding this fear. My advice to overcome this culture is “keep it yourself.” Study how much you need to study and don’t make it a topic of conversation.

SCB: How important is motivating yourself to study?

CN: The worse your study habits, the worse your urge to procrastinate – your mind tries to avoid activities that seem painful for no good reason. If you’re on top of your work, follow a reasonable schedule, and use efficient habits, it’s a lot easier to stay motivated.

SCB: What strategies can a student use in each stage of his school life?

CN: In grade school, get used to the habit of setting aside a little block of time each day – maybe right after school – during which you complete your homework.

In high school, overcome the cram habit by keeping a detailed deadline calendar and devising a study plan for papers and major tests; i.e., how you are going to study, for how long, and on what days. This is also a good time to expand your grade school habit and maintain set times, each day, in which the bulk of your work gets done. Finally, and I can’t stress this enough: never, ever do school work on a computer that is connected to the Internet. This is a complete waste of time. Finish the paper early, then you can dedicate your entire night – if you so wish – to facebook.

In college, always attend class. Spread out your assignments over the week (don’t leave them until the night before; this isn’t high school, the work load can’t be crammed into a few hours of intense effort). Study during pockets of free time in the morning and afternoon; definitely don’t leave everything until after dinner. Ignore how your friends study – they’re probably idiots when it comes to these skills – and, instead, run your own experiments to discover what techniques seem to be the most efficient for you. Top students often have crazy tool boxes of custom-built study systems that help them get work done fast.

In graduate school, the culture is more dangerous then the work load. Ignore how much you are “supposed” to be working and focus, during the early years, on getting the work done well. Later, when faced with a dissertation, avoid the “woe is me” attitude, and just get started early, and work consistently over time, with plenty of feedback, to develop something good.

SCB: How can a student be motivated to get good grades even though a boring subject or a teacher gets in the way of an exciting learning situation?

CN: Studying is like a game. You are faced with a source of information, you have to do some sort of processing, at the other end you take a test or write a paper and get a grade for it.

The challenge is to make that middle part – the processing – as efficient and effective as possible. Even if you don’t love the subject, there is always something fulfilling about watching your custom-built note-taking and review system suck in the info, process it, review it, and spit out top-scoring results on the other end.

SCB: What are the top five skills students must learn in order to get high grades in class?

CN: Pay attention in class. Capture big ideas in your notes, not a transcript of every word the teacher uttered.

Energy and focus is more important than time when it comes to studying. Work in focused chunks in the morning and the afternoon – not in long stretches after dinner.

Always have a plan. There is nothing worse than heading off to the library with vague ambitions to “study.” Always be specific about what actual work you are planning on doing and how long it should take.

Avoid rote review. Silently reading and re-reading over notes is a slow way to learn. Instead, try to recall big ideas, out loud, as if lecturing to a class.

Start working much earlier than your classmates. Work in smaller chunks spread out over more time. The results are better and the pain much less.

SCB: What can you advise students who are currently having a hard time in school?

CN: Last fall I wrote a blog article called “The Vital 5” which listed the following five steps for turning around poor academic performance:

1. Attend every class. Take notes on a laptop.

2. Set aside a fixed two-hour study block for every weekday and Sunday. Use this time to study, in a remote corner of the library, without exception, every week of the term.

3. Make a study plan for every test in every class at the beginning of the term. Decide what you are going to do and when.

4. Replace rote review with quiz and recall.

5. Attend office hours every single week to discuss the most challenging material from lecture, or the hardest problems from the problem set. Inform the professor that you are making a real effort this term to turn around your performance.

(photo by permanently scatterbrained)

Study Hacks Goes to Canada

August 19th, 2008 · 5 comments

Study, ‘Eh?

Greetings from Toronto! I’m here presenting a paper at a computer science conference. You would think I would have loads of free internet-connected time, but the opposite seems to be holding true. Accordingly, I won’t be keeping up with the normal posting schedule this week. I hope to get up a Monday Master Class tonight, and maybe one other post while here. But it won’t be the normal 3 posts a week with prompt comment moderation that I try to provide.

I’ll also be deciding on the College Chronicles volunteers while here and announce the the chosen students on Monday (I’ve had close to 30 volunteers so far!) I’m very excited for the new season.
Wish me luck on my talk…

Does Where You Go To School Matter? (And Why Reporters Get This Wrong…)

August 15th, 2008 · 29 comments

The Person or the Pedigree?Harvard

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reports the results of a major compensation survey. The clear conclusion was that students who attend selective schools make more money than those who do not. Specifically, they found that an Ivy League graduate will enjoy a median starting salary 32% higher than that of other liberal arts graduates.

(Interestingly, after this initial advantage, the rate of salary growth remains constant over time. Ten years after graduation, for example, Ivy Leaguers’ salary advantage over other students remains at 34%.)

In terms of which schools reported the highest earnings, I was quite pleased to discover that graduates from my alma mater, Dartmouth College, have the highest median income: $134,000 10 years after graduation.

Suck it Harvard.

These results, however, belie a more significant question: do Ivy League students make more money because of the school or because of their talent? That is, would a student who could get into Dartmouth make the same salary even if he attended somewhere less selective? Or is the pedigree more important than the person?

The Most (Mis-)Cited Study Ever.

The standard answer is that the person trumps pedigree. For example, consider this article from the Brookings Institute, written by Gregg Easterbrook, a visiting scholar and contributor to The Atlantic Monthly.

The piece is titled “Who Needs Harvard?” It starts with the standard admissions-season reporter condescension — “winning admission to an elite school is imagined to be a golden passport to success…” — then throws in the requisite contrarian idea:

But what if the basis for all this stress and disappointment—the idea that getting into an elite college makes a big difference in life—is wrong? What if it turns out that going to the “highest ranked” school hardly matters at all?

Easterbrook proceeds to break out the big guns: a 1998 study by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger, of the Mellon Foundation and Princeton, respectively. The study is titled “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College,” and as Easterbrook gleefully exclaims: “[it drops] a bomb on the notion of elite-college attendance as essential to success.”

He continues:

Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, “moderately selective” school. It turned out that such students had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges.”

Question answered! Right? Busting your ass to get into Harvard is for losers. Real talented people will find success regardless of whether they engage in the chaotic admissions-related activities that reporters like Easterbrook find so objectionable.

But is this true? Or did the reporter read only what he wanted to read…

Fun with Statistics

As the Half-Sigma blog puts it, the Dale and Krueger report is “possibly the most mis-cited study ever.”

I agree.

I recently re-read the report, and I came away with the exact opposite conclusion as Gregg Easterbrook. In my opinion, Easterbrook clearly cherry-picked the results to support the answer he wanted to find.

The statistic he cites has to do with students who got accepted both to schools with high average SAT scores and those with low average SAT scores, and then chose to attend schools with the low scores. As the researchers note, however: “the average SAT score is a crude measure of the quality of one’s peer group.” By contrast, when they analyzed the selectivity of the college — i.e., position in the Barron’s College Guide rankings — Dale and Kruger found:

Men who attended the most competitive colleges earn 23 percent more than men who attended very competitive colleges, other variables in the equation being equal.

Remember, this is a regression analysis. This means that the researchers are looking at students who were accepted at both highly ranked and less highly ranked schools, and then found that those who chose to attend the higher ranked schools earned significantly more than those who chose the lower ranked schools. The researchers argue that ranking is a better indicator of selectivity than average SAT score as it better captures society’s common understanding of the school’s prestige.

In other words, Gregg Easterbrook is wrong. He cherry-picked a value that the researchers themselves labeled an outlier, and ignored their main findings.

The New York Times Gets it Wrong Too

Easterbrook is not alone. In 2006, the New York Times published an article titled: “Off the Beaten Path.” Once again, it opens with the standard admissions-season reporter condescension: “If you live and die by status, if the name Harvard, Yale, Stanford or Penn must hang etched in sheepskin on your wall, then read no further.”

(Ouch! You really called us out on our foolishness! You’re so clever Mr. New York Times reporter!)

The article then cites — you guessed it! — Dale and Krueger, noting:

A 1999 study by Alan B. Krueger of Princeton and Stacy Dale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that students who were admitted to both selective and moderately selective colleges earned the same no matter which they attended.

This is 100% wrong! It’s clear that they’re just aping Easterbrook’s bad reporting without even bothering to read the original study. (The term “moderately selective” is used by Easterbrook, in the actual study, however, the range used was “most competitive “highly competitive,” and “very competitive;” the word “moderate” does not appear on the scale.)

Lest you think that the reporters merely missed a minor conclusion hidden in the middle of the study, let me quote the abstract — yes, the abstract, the very first paragraph of the report, the can’t-miss summary of its main finding. It states:

[The] rating of school selectivity and the tuition charged by the school are significantly related to the students’ subsequent earnings.

How do we get from that to the NYT’s conclusion that “students who were admitted to both selective and moderately selective colleges earned the same no matter which they attended?”

Whether We Like it Or Not…

I don’t know why reporters sometimes seem so desperate to discount the value of wanting to attend a top college. I’d like to think that it’s born of good intentions — helping to relieve the stress of the college-bound masses. But I get the impression — from the haughty tone of these articles — that it has more to do with the reporters thumbing their noses at what they deem to be annoying behavior by parents who live in their elite Manhattan or D.C. neighborhoods.

You know my thoughts on this issue. It’s not my role to judge your ambitions. Instead, I focus on helping you pursue your educational goals — whatever they are — in a sustainable manner. To me, the big problem with admissions season stress is not that so many students want to go to Harvard, but that they think joining 10 clubs is the key to doing so.

It helps no one to ignore data that we don’t like. We should start with the truth — regardless of what it says — and then work forward from there.

(Hat tip to Half Sigma for first bringing this topic to my attention; photo credit goes to bdjsb7)