Study Hacks Blog Posts from February, 2010 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Want to Get into Harvard? Spend More Time Staring at the Clouds: Rethinking the Role of Extracurricular Activities in College Admissions

February 18th, 2010 · 125 comments

Interesting Student

The Admissions Outliers

Olivia shouldn’t have been accepted to the University of Virginia. At least, not according to the conventional wisdom on college admissions.

Olivia attended a small private school near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She had good grades and test scores, but nothing phenomenal. More striking, she maintained a minimal extracurricular schedule. During the school year, she was a member of the dance team, which satisfied her school’s athletic requirement. She also joined the tech crew for the school musical and was the co-chair of her senior class’s community service organization.

Combined, her school year activities required only seven to eight hours of effort per week.

During the summer, she worked in a marine zoology laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, studying lobsters and horseshoe crabs with a research group run by her neighbor, a professor at the university. She started as a part-time, unpaid volunteer, but the position  morphed into a full time summer job when the professor discovered extra money in his grant.

“It was not a big commitment at all,” Olivia told me, reflecting on her high school obligations.

Students familiar with competitive college admissions tend to have the same reaction to Olivia: she’s a solid applicant, but certainly not good enough to earn a spot at a top-twenty school like UVA. Research involvement has become a standard item on modern applications — the 21st century equivalent of becoming student council president —  and her school-year activities are nearly non-existent by the standards of most competitive applications.

Olivia, however, defied this reaction.  Not only was she accepted at UVA, she also won the hyper-competitive Jefferson Scholarship – a merit-based award, given out by UVA alumni, that covers the full cost of attending the school.

Most high school senior classes have a student like Olivia – someone who defies our understanding of who should get accepted to competitive colleges. We tend to attribute these outliers to the “randomness” of the admissions process. Indeed, even Olivia was surprised by her own success: “I wasn’t stressed like the other students at my school, because I wasn’t interested in trying to impress colleges,” she told me. “I still don’t understand how I got into UVA.”

In this article, by contrast, I argue that the success of students like Olivia is not the result of randomness. It instead points to a surprising possibility: perhaps our understanding of extracurricular activities and their role in the college process is all wrong.

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Who Are You? Inquiring Minds Want to Know…

February 9th, 2010 · 28 comments

A brief interruption…

Study Hacks is switching to an advertising firm that specializes in my type of audience. They want you to consider filling out this short survey to develop a better idea of who you are. Here are two reasons why you should fill out the survey:

  1. I’ll give away a free signed book to a randomly selected respondent (the survey asks for your e-mail address expressly and only for the purpose of this drawing).
  2.  I give 50% of my ad revenue to charity, and this survey will increase the quality of my ads. Ergo, you’ll be helping charity.

That’s it. Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

On Great Teachers and the Remarkable Life: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

February 8th, 2010 · 38 comments


Predicting Greatness

The impact of teachers is profound. If you rank the world’s countries by their students’ academic performance, the US is somewhere in the middle. In a 2009 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell notes that replacing “the bottom six percent to ten percent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality” could be enough to close the gap between our current position and the top ranked countries.

“[Y]our child is actually better off in a ‘bad’ school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher,” Gladwell concludes.

But there’s a problem: “No one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.”

Or at least, according to Gladwell.

Teach for America, a non-profit that recruits outstanding college graduates to teach in low-income school districts, disagrees. This organization is fanatical about data.  For the past 20 years, they’ve gathered massive amounts of statistics on their teachers in an attempt to figure out why some succeed in the classroom and some fail. They then work backwards from these results to identify what traits best predict a potential recruit’s success.

As Amanda Ripley reports in a comprehensive look inside the Teach For America process, published in the Atlantic Monthly, the results of this outcome-based approach to hiring are “humbling.”

“I came into this with a bunch of theories,” the former head of admissions at Teach for America told Ripley. “I was proven wrong at least as many times as I was validated.”

When Teach for America first started 20 years ago, applicants were subjectively scored by interviewers on 12 general traits, like “communication” ability. (A sample interview question: “What is wind?”)  By contrast, if you were one of the 35,000 students who applied in 2009 (a pool that included 11% of Ivy League seniors), 30 data points, gathered from a combination of questionnaires, demonstrations, and interviews were fed into a detailed quantitative model that returned a hiring recommendation.

This data-driven approach seems to work.  As Ripley reports, in 2007, 24% of Teach for America teachers advanced their students at least one and a half grade levels or more. Two years later, as the organization’s models continued to evolve, this number has almost doubled to 44%.

I’m fascinated by Teach For America for a simple reason: the traits they discovered at the core of great teaching are unmistakably a variant of deliberate practice — not the pure, coach-driven practice of professional athletes and chess grandmasters, but a hearty, adaptable strain that’s applicable to almost any field.

Put another way, these outstanding teachers may have unwittingly cracked the code for generating a remarkable life

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