Study Hacks Blog Posts on Case Studies: The Advice in Action

Case Study: How Tyler Aced a Difficult Course

December 31st, 2008 · 11 comments

Tyler Gets NervousA New Beginning

Our friend Tyler, whose quest for student simplicity I profiled last April, recently sent me a message. He was nervous about a course he was taking for his linguistics minor. The grade was based on bluebook essay exams. As he recalled: “The last time I took a bluebook course I almost failed it.”

We traded some e-mails. I gave him some advice and he sent back some updates. The final result: he aced the course.

In this post, I explain how…

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Case Study: How I Got the Highest Grade in my Discrete Math Class

November 25th, 2008 · 68 comments

A Hallway EncounterMath!

During my sophomore year at Dartmouth I took a course in discrete mathematics. The tests were not calibrated to any standard scale, so it was difficult to judge how well you were doing. On the midterm, for example, scores around 50 to 60 out of 100 were at the top of the class, whereas for the final those would be failing.

Rewind, then, to the end of the winter quarter, and imagine my surprise in the following scenario. It’s the day after the final. I’m walking through a hallway when I encounter the TA:

“You…got the highest grade,” he said.

“On the final?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“No, for the entire course.”

This was hard to believe. The course had 70 students. Three of them were from Eastern Europe where, educated in the old Soviet-style talent-tracking system, they had already studied this subject in high school!

I didn’t think of myself as a math person. Before this class, I had shown no particular talent for the subject. I was trying to just hang in there with a decent grade. My victory, as we like to say here on Study Hacks, was tactical.

In this post I will explain how I achieved this feat, and how following similar strategies can help you dominate even the most thorny technical courses…

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Case Study: How Scott Discovered That His Activities Wouldn’t Get Him Into Law School Then Harnessed Simplicity To Become a Star

September 19th, 2008 · 7 comments

Imagine if a stressed out, over-committed undergraduate failed to get into his top 11 choices for law school, and then discovered a new path to becoming a standout; a path built upon doing much, much less…

The Grind Who Learned to FocusLaw School

As an undergraduate at a large Midwestern university, Scott had has eyes set on law school. Following conventional wisdom, he assumed that the more activities he joined the better his chance for admission.

“I became very involved with my fraternity, eventually being the Vice President of Recruitment and then Vice President of Programming, ” Scott recalls. “I was also involved in: class honoraries, interfraternity council, student-alumni council, the Homecoming Court, and was an Eagle Scout.”

Then came his senior year and the mailing of law school applications.

“I applied early decision to Georgetown, thinking that my Jesuit high school education, being an Eagle Scout, and having been so involved in undergrad activities would make up for my decent, but certainly not stellar LSAT and GPA.”

It didn’t help. Scott soon realized that his GPA and LSAT were by far the most important piece to his application. The laundry-list of activities he had so painfully constructed impressed no one.

“I was rejected from: Georgetown, Michigan, Penn, Northwestern, Duke, Virginia, George Washington, and UNC. I was waitlisted at Notre Dame, Boston College, and Boston University.”

In fact, he was accepted to just one school — his undergraduate alma mater, and that’s where he decided, by default, to attend. On campus, he noticed that many of his new law school classmates were “getting overly involved in a lot of little organizations,” the same strategy that had just failed Scott. Taking a cue from the Zen Valedictorian philosophy (he had discovered Study Hacks around this same time), Scott rejected this laundry-list approach, and instead emphasized focus.

“I started to think about my area of expertise. I had majored in Economics and International business, and minored in French, I also had five years of Latin. So I applied to the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship to pursue Romanian and Eastern European studies. I won the fellowship for the next year. This will now help me to earn a certificate in International Trade and Development. It also scored me an internship this summer, working in Washington, D.C. at the International Trade Administration in the Department of Commerce.”

Like any good Zen Valedictorian, Scott couples this newfound focus with the power of underscheduling:

“I decided not to join a law journal, which most of my classmates will be starting in the next few weeks. I also avoided taking any active involvement in any other student organizations at the law school. ”

In his future, Scott looks to convert his focus into even more innovative directions. “I’m hoping next summer to work with either the WTO, the US Trade Representative, or another government agency. Then I’m hoping to take all of this and apply for a Fulbright to study in Romania after I finish law school.”

With such an impressive, focused resume behind him, Scott’s chances at a Fulbright are looking good.

From Scott’s Life to Your Own

Scott’s laundry-list of undergraduate activities — none of which produced the failed-simulation effect — generated stress in his life but few real returns. As he matriculated at a second-tier law school, he faced the grim prospect that three years later he might once again be flailing to find a spot; this time, in the notoriously tight law job market.

But he had learned his lesson. By focusing on a single point of interest — Eastern European international law — and constantly looking for innovation — the FLAS fellowship, the government internships, and, potentially, a presitigous Fullbright scholarship — Scott is poised to leap past his classmates and into a powerful, interesting career. Best of all, his life is much less stressful than those of his over-committed classmates — students who are battling it out to win journal editor spots and creep, painfully, ever-higher on the class rank lists.

Keep Scott’s story in mind as you sign-up for activities this fall. Are you becoming an expert in your own niche, or are you struggling to compete in the same big ponds as everyone else?

(Photo by blmurch)

Case Study: How Could We Save This Ridiculously Overloaded Grind?

September 12th, 2008 · 29 comments

The Tale of a Seriously Stressed StudentStressed Poster

I recently came across this note from a high school student. It was posted anonymously on a public college discussion forum:

I do a lot: I’m a costumer for the school play, I play three instruments, I take a dual enrollment class, I am taking 5 AP classes, I am being privately tutored in a foreign language, I am the president and founder of a club as well as a member of the debate team, I’m organizing both a multi-cultural fair and a book fair at my school, I’m secretary for the French club, I’m a member of the Honor Board and I founded a non-profit organization. But quite frankly, I don’t have room to breath and I’m feeling the effects of it physically.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know this student. But his story provides a purified, almost exaggerated example of the activity stress that plagues so many students. Because of this, I think he makes a great case study for our Zen Valedictorian philosophy. My goal for this article is to answer the following question: how could this student make his life much less horrible without hurting his college admissions chances? Is such a thing even possible? We’ll find out…

The Activity Lists

Let’s start by dividing this student’s activities into two lists:

List A

  • Costumer for a school play
  • Plays three instruments
  • Has a private language tutor
  • Has a heavy course load
  • Member of the debate team
  • Organizing book fair
  • Organizing multi-cultural fair
  • Secretary of the French club
  • Member of the honor board

List B

  • Founded and runs his own club
  • Founded and runs his own non-profit

We begin with List A. The sheer size of this list likely causes massive stress in this poor student’s life. But does it add anything interesting to his story? To answer this question, let’s remember the Failed Simulation Effect

Failed Simulation Effect: People are impressed by things that are hard to explain, not hard to do.

Apply this logic to List A. Is anything on that list hard to explain? Let me put this another way: is there anything on that list that you couldn’t do if you wanted to? The answer is “no.” Every item, in isolation, is something that anyone could sign up and do so long as he had the hours — or in the case of the language tutor, the money — to devote to it.

Accordingly, the impressiveness of List A is reduced to one thing: this student is able to juggle a large volume of relativity easy activities. But here’s the important point: juggling a large volume of relatively easy activities — though time-consuming — does not impress admissions officers. They want to build interesting classes; not diligent ones.

Let me go a step farther. This student could replace the entire List A with the following:

Equivalent to List A

  • Spends 20 hours a week transcribing the phone book

Okay, so I’m being a little facetious here. But I’m trying to make a point. Both would have roughly the same impact on an admissions officer: the kid can force himself to work for a large number of hours. (Actually, this revised List A might be better. As we learned in our study of the Laundry-List Fallacy, having a long list of easy activities can signal less value than doing no easy activities at all.)

The Magic of List B

Fear not. All is not lost for our stoic student. Turn your attention to the comparably svelte List B. This list, by contrast, strongly invokes the Failed Simulation Effect — how the hell does a high school student start his own non-profit or club? The effect is instant: he must be doing something amazing! (Remember: people respect hard work but idolize magic.)

The activities in List B are exactly the type of things that make admissions officers — and people in general — swoon.

What Would a Zen Valedictorian Do?

If I knew this student and he came to me for advice, I would tell him to take a page out of the Zen Valedictorian playbook, which recommends, at a high-level:

  1. Ditch all but your most inexplicable activities.
  2. Focus on what remains and wring out the most possible impressiveness.
  3. Resist the urge to fill in your newfound free time.

For this student, this translates to the following specific actions:

  1. Drop everything in List A.
  2. Turn your attention to pushing the two activities in List B toward new, cooler places. The more it makes someone say “How did he do that?”, the better.
  3. Don’t stress out about the fact that you now have abundant free time. Use it to explore or to relax or to try to impress girls at ill-conceived high school parties.

Think about this. With just a fraction of the time he’s wasting playing three instruments and being the secretary of the French club (really!? the French club?) he could be meeting interesting people and forming partnerships for his non-profit. Somewhere in there he’d probably be invited to speak at a conference, or a reporter would do an article on him. You know how this works. This type of random stumbling is what generates truly impressive students. Above all else: this slimmed lifestyle would be more impressive and exponentially less stressful than his current one.

Zen Resistance

Would this student accept this advice? Probably not. Giving up the security of doing what everyone else is doing can be difficult. And the cult of voluminous activities exerts a powerful hold. But I hope the case study provides you, faithful reader of Study Hacks, a little jolt; perhaps dislodging you from an activity rut that’s generating too much stress. Once you start questioning the assumptions behind your actions, you’ll often be surprised by the better options you discover that have been waiting there all along.

(Photo by rick)

College Chronicles Season 2: Meet Marina, the Liberal Arts Major Who Craves Simplicity

September 5th, 2008 · 7 comments

The New Season BeginsCollege Chronicles Season 2

Last fall I launched an experiment dubbed College Chronicles. It was a “blog-based reality show” that followed three students struggling to overhaul their study habits. You met Leena, the exhausted MIT student, Welton, the over-committed Harvard junior, and Jake, the Tufts rugby player looking to walk that fine line between frat-boy debauchery and academic excellence.

As I announced a few weeks ago, this fall will feature a new season of College Chronicles. This time, we’ll be focusing on three students who want to embrace the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle.

Thirty of you answered my call for volunteers. Whittling this down to a final group of three was tough; but I think I’ve arrived at cast that will provide us a semester’s worth of insight and entertainment.

But enough promotion. Today we begin by introducing you to the first of our three students…

Meet Marina

“I remember pulling an all-nighter in the library with a bunch of friends,” says Marina, recalling last spring. “[I remember] leaving for an hour to go to a meeting, coming back, phone conferencing with my sister [to discuss my paper], sleeping for 2 hours, putting the finishing touches on my paper, walking back to my room…finding a huge half-dead roach wiggling on the floor of my room, printing my paper, going to breakfast, pouring hot sauce on an omelet, poking at it with my fork and thinking, ‘This is NOT my life!'”

Marina is a rising sophomore at an elite northeastern liberal arts college. Her first semester as a freshman taught her a lesson about the difficulty of college-level academics.

“I remember the moment when I realized I was way in over my head academically,” she recalls.

“I’d just gotten my first papers back and had gotten B’s on both of them, despite having spent a reasonable amount of time on both of them. I’d also just gotten a grade too bad to print on my first math midterm because I’d had a huge panic attack during the test and hadn’t written anything for most of it.”

Marina’s second semester started with the concern that she wasn’t involved in enough activities, so she “signed up for a bunch of groups,” joined a club sport, and started up a woman’s shelter.

“I was pretty good about attending meetings at first, then proceeded to spend the rest of the semester feeling guilty for sporadic meeting attendance.”

The combination of her academic challenges coupled with her growing extracurricular soon became a drag. To put it simply: Marina’s ready for a change.

Marina’s Plan

At the top of her Zen plans for the new term: underscheduling. “I am not making any set-in-stone commitments this semester,” she promises. “Except for my club sport and volunteering at a women’s or family interest non-profit.”

On the academic front, she’s seeking more simplicity by embracing some of the strategies familar to Study Hacks readers. Among them, the student work day and studying using the quiz-and-recall method.

In terms of innovation, she’s has her eye set on the women’s interest non-profit as the insider world in which to start her path toward impressiveness. As we’ve discussed before, the most innovative accomplishments start with paying your dues in a world you enjoy, then, later, leveraging this access into something inexplicable. It seems like Marina will be taking the first step in that direction this semester.

Cal’s Commentary

Marina has certainly embraced some of the key ideas of the Zen Valedictorian philosophy. She’s simplifying her activity schedule and looking to make her studying more efficient.

From my experience, the hardest challenge of the near future will be helping Marina find peace with simplicity. Many undergraduates panic when they feel like their schedule isn’t filled with “enough” activities or work. I think she’s setup perfectly to launch an impressive, relaxed, Zen-style life. It’ll be interesting to observe how rocky this transition actually proves to be.

Stay tuned…

(Photo by peasap)

Case Study: How Skidmore’s Busiest Student Discovered the Secret to Happiness on the Other Side of the World

August 6th, 2008 · 6 comments

Imagine if the busiest, most overloaded student you know was sent to spend six months at a school that forbid hard course schedules or extracurricular activities…

The Obligation Saturation PointRelaxing Down Under

By the beginning of his junior year, Skidmore student Toph had reached what he called his “obligation saturation point.” He was taking five hard classes, three of which were at the 300-level — a designation for exceptionally advanced subjects. He had five paying jobs on campus: a feat that required special permission from the Dean. He was also active in two clubs and kept agreeing to time-consuming side projects.

“I expected that this onslaught of obligation would empower me and drive me to do even great things the next semester,” was how Toph explained this to me. But this is not what happened. He instead ended the semester drained and exhausted. He felt out of control of his time.

“I had a heartbreaking feeling that, while I had done a lot of things, I had actually accomplished very little.”

The Escape

Toph then did the unexpected. He packed his bags, kissed his girlfriend goodbye, and boarded a plane to Australia, where he would spend the next 6 months as an exchange student at the University of Sydney.

Enforced Simplicity

“It wasn’t a conscious decision that led me to cut back,” recalls Toph. If anything, he had no choice. True to his old form, he tried, at first, to sign up for several advanced 300-level courses, but, as an exchange student he could only get into two. He tacked on two additional courses for a reasonable schedule of four subjects, only two of which were high-level; a far cry from the previous semester’s academic bloodbath.

Toph then discovered that joining student clubs required a $200 fee, which he couldn’t afford. In addition, as he also recalls: “I had no connections at this new school, so I didn’t receive any request for ‘favors,’ thus ended up with no side projects.”

In a bid to earn a little pocket money, Toph took a part-time, “brainless data entry job” at a local software company. Because of a timing conflict, this required that he drop one of his courses. The end result: The once insanely busy student was taking only three courses and had no extracurricular activities.

He loved it…

The Beauty of Simplicity

I’ll let Toph explain, in his own words, what happened in the months that followed:

When I stepped off the plane six months later here’s where I stood: I had aced all three classes with a High Distinction mark in each. I could say with complete sincerity that I learned more that semester than I had in two full years at Skidmore.

Because I had more time to really fall in love with my topics of study, the contempt for “work” that begets procrastination was never given a chance to take hold. My productivity went through the roof.

Toph enjoyed more than just academic success. By giving himself the time to relax and really embrace his small number of obligations, the company where he had been working noticed his potential. Toph eventually met with the VP of Marketing who upgraded him from data entry to working with the marketing team for the entire Australian branch. He loved the new upgraded job. He loved his classes. All was well.

Perhaps most important:

I had grown as a person; my character was stronger, my energy radiated, my friendships were true and meaningful and my overall perspective had matured. There is no way I would have had this experience if I had been as ruthlessly busy as the semester before.

What Employers Don’t Care About

As Toph looks back on his experience, he sums up the wisdom he learned as follows:

Employeers could not care less about how many ‘things’ you did in collegethey don’t care that you were the president of 47 clubsthey are miles away from caring that you took ‘really hard’ courses…you will never get ahead by doing 1000 things well because there will always be someone else in the interview room who did 1001 things, better.

So what can you do? As Toph put it:

Develop an absolute mastery of one simple thing: you. Take a reasonable course load, work on only one truly inspiring project, and spend as much time as possible with the people you love and admire. As they say in Australia: Full stop. That’s it.

Toph’s Plan for Moving Forward

Since returning in June, Toph has planned his fall schedule. It’s a work of minimalist beauty. He was even so kind as to put together a graphic which compares a screenshot of his calendar last fall to his calendar for the upcoming fall: Toph’s Schedules — Before and After (click the link to see the image.) Notice how last year every day had obligations from morning until late at night. For this upcoming fall he has nothing scheduled past noon.

The approach has already returned real dividends. The company that he worked for in Australia — where he was able to thrive because he had nothing else going on — has offered him a full-time position after graduation. In the meantime, his extracurricular attention this fall is focused on a single passion-saturated activity.

Could This Be You?

Imagine for a moment what would happen if you too adopted a Toph-style Zen Valedictorian lifestyle. If you cut down your courses, and put your focus onto one activity — leaving the rest of your time free for exploration. Would your life fall apart? Or, like Toph, would you end up more impressive, and happy, than you are right now?

Given serious thought, the answer might surprise you.

(Photo by reinn)

Case Study: Why the Number of Hours You Spend Studying Means Nothing

July 3rd, 2008 · 36 comments

[Note: Because I’ll be away from technology tomorrow to enjoy the 4th of July festivities, I’m posting Friday’s post one day early. See you on Monday. Enjoy the fireworks…]

Troubles In PhysiologyFrustrated TA

A reader recently wrote me in search of some advice. He was taking an intense human physiology course and worried about his grade. This student is responsible and possesses amazing willpower. Accordingly, in an attempt to ensure top marks, he had been following an incredible study schedule:

Monday – Thursday
Class: 8-12 (Human Physiology)
Lunch: 12-1pm
Working out: 1-1:30
Library: 2- 7
Dinner: 7-9
Library: 9-11

Library: 8-12
Lunch: 12-3
Library: 4-10

Library: 8-12
Lunch: 12-3
Library: 3-6
Dinner: 6-8
Library: 8-10

Library: 8-12
Lunch: 12-3
Library: 3-6
Dinner: 6-8
Library: 8-10

My Advice: Stop!

With such an outrageous number of hours spent hitting the books, this student expected to breeze through the class. Then he took the first exam. He got a 70 — well below the average.

What’s going on here? There are literally no more waking hours left in the day for this student to study.

In response, here is the schedule I recommended he follow instead:

  • Study two hours after lunch, every other day, and a good chunk of time on Sunday morning.

In other words, my advice for improving his grade in this class is to study much, much less. Allow me to explain…

The Quantity Myth

A common myth plaguing college students is that grades are a function of smarts + hours spent studying. Since you can’t change your smarts, your only option to increase your grade is to study more. What I love about this reader’s story is that unless he is taking the absolute most difficult human physiology course ever taught in the history of mankind, his experience completely invalidates the study hour quantity myth.

In other words, if devoting every possible waking hour to a single course doesn’t budge your grade, there must be something else more important playing a major role in determining your score.

This is why I advised the student to significantly reduce his work hours. Once this slash and burn is complete, he can turn his attention to the real question at the core of the studying process: what’s the most efficient way to transform the inputs, arriving in the form of lectures, into outputs, leaving in the form of exam answers?

Here are some resources to jumpstart this thought process:

  • Studying is a Technical Skill
    Why do Olympic swimmers clock worse times when they try harder in the water? In answering this question we discover the crucial different between technique and effort, and why the former is where you should focus when planning your study schedule.
  • Pseudo-Work Does Not Equal Work
    When it comes to measuring how much work you’ve done, hours alone are a terrible metric. This article integrates intensity of focus into the equation and teaches you how to schedule productive work, not simply time.
  • The Focused-Question Cluster Method
    A specific study technique fine-tuned to the type of abundant material presented in the type of class our example student faces.

Beyond these existing articles, I’ll also mention the following specific advice:

  • Don’t think in terms of getting a 70 despite the number of hours you studied. Keep this in mind: most of your study hours were wasted. If you had studied a third of that time you would have probably made the same grade.
  • Concentrate more on understanding what is being said in lecture as it is being said. Ask questions if you need to. When taking notes, try to synthesize and then write the concepts your own words. Understanding is key. Rote transcription is worthless.
  • Eliminate all Rote Review. Also a complete waste of time. Your entire studying schedule should be focused on being able to synthesize and explain the material, out loud, without looking at your notes, as if teaching a class. That’s what indicates learning; not how many times you read the material quietly to yourself.
  • Above all: Relax! It’s human physiology, not the future of the human race. No one actually cares how you do. And it’s possible to sometimes screw up exams. I do it all the time. It happens. Live life. And keep this class only a small part of it.

The take-away message from this reader’s problem should be clear: hours are meaningless when it comes to studying. Keep your focus on learning the material and you’ll avoid landing yourself in a similar, terrible, over-scheduled situation.

Bonus Post: An Adventure Studying Case Study

May 13th, 2008 · 2 comments

Adventure Studying in ActionThe Falls

At the conclusion of last week’s post about adventure studying, I asked students, who were so inclined, to share photographic evidence of their most adventurous expeditions. I wanted to take a moment to pass along one such story.

The picture on the right (courtesy of cyrus_sj) captures the location of one Study Hacks reader’s favorite adventure studying destination. As she recalls:

Back in my senior year, I was about to have my finals exam in my Chinese class. I was having a lot of trouble studying for that exam; I felt like I needed a break, So I jumped at the chance to take a trip with friends to the nearest waterfall (about four hours away).

This particular falls was three levels high. We climbed up the mountain and crossed a few streams to get to the source. I still remember how every bit of nature we passed seemed so interesting.

Well, I struck a deal with my friends. I’d take care of their stuff under a crude cottage while they’d jump into the water. I got to make them happy, and get through a lot of material at the same time.

The change of scenery was just what I needed to concentrate. The place was so peaceful; I didn’t feel any pressure to cram things in my head since I wasn’t surrounded by panicked students. I ended up getting a perfect grade on that exam.

If you’re enjoying the type of sunny day I am here in Boston (I celebrated the end of a rainy stretch with a long run this afternoon), ask yourself: where could I be studying?

If it’s interesting, send me a photo, I’ll share it with the gang…