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

How to Get Into Stanford with B’s on Your Transcript: Failed Simulations & the Surprising Psychology of Impressiveness

March 26th, 2010 · 150 comments

The United Nations

Steve and David

Let’s try a simple experiment. Imagine that you’re an admissions officer at a competitive college, and you’re evaluating the following two applicants:

  • David — He is captain of the track team and took Japanese calligraphy lessons throughout high school;  he wrote his application essay on the challenge of leading the track team to the division championship meet.
  • Steve — He does marketing for a sustainability-focused NGO; he wrote his application essay about lobbying delegates at the UN climate change conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Who impresses you more? 

For most people, there’s little debate: Steve is the star.

But here’s the crucial follow-up question: Why is Steve more impressive than David?

The answer seems obvious, but as you’ll soon discover, the closer you look, the more hazy it becomes. To really understand Steve’s appeal, we will delve into the recesses of human psychology and discover a subtle but devastatingly power effect that will change your understanding of what it takes to stand out.

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How to Become a Star Grad Student: James McLurkin and the Power of Stretch Churn

March 15th, 2010 · 64 comments

The Famous Dr. McLurkinMcLurkin

In 2008, when James McLurkin graduated with a PhD in Computer Science from MIT, he was unquestionably a star. Four years earlier, Time Magazine profiled James and his research on swarm robotics as part of their Innovators series. The next year, he was featured on an episode of Nova ScienceNOW. The producer of the show, WGBH in Boston, built an interactive web site dedicated to James, where, among other activities, you can watch a photo slide show of his life and find out what he carries in his backpack. Earlier this year, TheGrio, a popular African American-focused news portal, named James one of their 100 History Makers in the Making — a list that also includes Oprah Winfrey and Newark, NJ mayor Cory Booker.

Perhaps most telling, even my brother, who finished his systems engineering degree in 2002, knew of James. “He’s the guy with the robots,” he recalled. “We watched a video of him in class.”

In other words, James is famous in his field. So it’s not surprising that in 2009 he landed a professorship at Rice University — one of the country’s top engineering schools — in one of the worst academic job market in decades.

With these accomplishments in mind, this post asks two simple questions: How did James become such a star? And what lessons can we apply to our own quest to become remarkable?

The answers, as  you’ll soon encounter, are not what you might first expect…

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Quick Hits: Rethinking Remarkable, Deconstructing Star Grad Students, and the Science of Interestingness

March 3rd, 2010 · 22 comments

Quick hits is an occasional feature where I take a breather between my epic big idea posts to share ideas, ask questions, and in general provide a catch-all place for me to catch up with you.

Rethinking RemarkableHighschool Superstar

A collection of recent articles dissecting the idea of remarkableness…

My Next Post

I’m in the process of writing a real humdinger of a post. It’s the next entry in my series on applying deliberate practice in everyday life. The focus is how star graduate students become stars (it’s built around an interview I conducted with James McLurkin, the famous MIT roboticist who just got hired at Rice.) The strategy I highlight, however, is wildly applicable to a lot of different fields.

Stay tuned. I hope to have it up soon…

My New Book is Available!

As you know, I have a new book coming out this summer. It’s called How to Be a High School Superstar, and it introduces the zen valedictorian concept to the students who arguably need it most: those suffering through the college admissions process. (See this article for more details.)

Though its primary audience is high school students, it also provides a general look inside the fascinating science of what makes interesting people interesting; so it will hopefully find a home with an even wider readership.

If you like my writing and are interested in this book, you should consider pre-ordering a copy on Amazon. (Fans of my red and yellow books know that I’m perennially understocked at bookstores — a large number of pre-orders will inspire the big chains to take my titles more seriously.)