Study Hacks Blog Posts on Features: College Admissions

I’m Not Stressed About College Admissions, Why Are You?

July 27th, 2010 · 20 comments

I’m not stressed about college admissions, why are you?

Pub Day Arrives

I don’t want to belabor the point, so I’ll be brief. My new book, How to Be a High School Superstar, comes out today. You can read more about it here and here and here, or read an excerpt here. You can buy it here or at major bookstores. (If they’re sold out, tell them, so they’ll increase their order!)

My pitch is brief:

  • If you appreciate my philosophy and have a family member, friend, or relative in high school, please consider buying them a copy. 
  • If you like what you read, please consider adding an Amazon review to encourage others to follow suit. I’m following a strict no-fake-review policy for this book, so I’m leaving it to real readers to give honest opinions.
  • If you have a Twitter or Facebook account, perhaps tell your followers and friends it’s something worth looking into. An easy way to spread the word, for example, is to post a link titled “I’m not stressed about college admissions, why are you?” that connects back to the Amazon page for the book.

More importantly:

I can’t thank you enough for your support. This book literally wouldn’t exist without the extended and intelligent conversation I’ve had you, my Study Hacks readers, over the past three years.

Now back to writing…

(Note: The excellent artwork for this post was done by Arturas Petkevicius, an excellent freelance designer who you can contact here. If you want to help spread the word about my book, please feel free to post the image on your Facebook page or blog; send me a link if you do, so I can pass along my thanks.)

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.

Read more »

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.

Read more »

An Update On My New Book

May 29th, 2009 · 17 comments

UPDATE (2/17/10): My new book, which is scheduled for publication in July, 2010, is now available for pre-order on Amazon. If you’re excited about this title, and want to ensure that you get your copy the day it comes out, consider ordering it in advance.  (I have a feeling we’re going to sell more than they expect, and stocks will run low.)

The Relaxed SuperstarsBook Deal

I receive a lot of e-mails asking about my new book. I realize that I’ve only given a few vague details on the project to date, so I thought I would rectify that today by bringing you up to speed.


The book focuses on a group of high school students I call relaxed superstars. These are students who live low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. In the book I tell their stories and deconstruct how they pull this off.

To date I’ve interviewed around 20 such students. I can guarantee that their stories will change the way you think about college admissions. You’ll encounter students who enjoyed abundant free time (due to reasonable course loads and minimal junk extracurriculars), yet still breezed into schools like Stanford, Princeton, and MIT. Their secret almost always involves focused attention on an innovative project they loved.

Read more »

Does Being Exceptional Require an Exceptional Amount of Work?

November 7th, 2008 · 37 comments

The Obama MethodBarack in Crowd

In response to my recent article on Misery Poker, a reader commented:

I wonder about the really exceptional people. Does Barack Obama “build a realistic schedule”? … maybe extraordinary stress IS required to accomplish extraordinary feats

Another reader added:

I think extraordinary sacrifices are required for great accomplishments.

This is a fascinating argument. Study Hacks, as you know, is driven by the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy, which claims that it’s possible to be both relaxed and impressive. But these commenters are pushing back on this world view. It’s one to thing, they note, to have a successful college career that is also relaxed, but is it possible to have an exceptional career without overwhelming amounts of work?

In this post I claim it is possible. And I’ll explain exactly how…

Read more »

A Greek Philosopher Tackles Student Activities

October 22nd, 2008 · 22 comments

Epictetus: Student Success Guru…Epictetus

I’m intrigued by a second century Greek philosopher named Epictetus. He was a stoic. This means, roughly, that he believed the key to a good life is focusing on what you can control, not lamenting about what you cannot.

In other words: A stoic doesn’t sweat bad stuff happening. His concern is how he behaves when the going gets tough.

Because I’m weird, I recently skimmed two different translations of Epictetus’s The Enchiridion: a handbook describing 52 life lessons. There was one lesson in particular — lesson 29 — that caught my attention. It provides a piercing analysis of an issue that we discuss often on this blog: should you focus on a small number of things or experiment with many?

Here is what Epictetus had to say:

In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist.

In other words, think carefully before adding a new commitment. Otherwise, your initial energy is likely to flag. Something he calls “shameful.”

Read more »

A Simple Method for Developing an Innovative Activity

October 1st, 2008 · 40 comments

Innovation ConfusionClassroom

Judging by reader feedback, “innovation” is the most beguiling of the Zen Valedictorian principles. If you’ll recall, it states:

Activities that are hard to explain are more impressive than activities that are hard to do.

This principle holds great appeal because hard to explain activities don’t have to be unduly demanding of your time or talent. In other words, knocking the socks off an admissions officer might not require getting to Carnegie Hall or winning a national competition.

Many students, however, have trouble applying this principle to their own life. They often ask: “how do I find an innovative activity?”

In this post, I want to offer a specific activity innovation strategy targeted for high school students. It’s just one strategy of the many possible, but I hope its concreteness will help get your own thought process rolling. I should note: it’s not my idea. It was explained to me by a student who used it to get into Princeton. After I explain the details, I’ll tell you her story…

Read more »

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)