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Q & A: Beware of “Ducks” at Stanford, Forget About Your Senior Year G.P.A., and Become Interesting to College Admissions Officers

June 18th, 2008 · 5 comments

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

I’ve just finished my first year at Stanford University, and I’m not at all happy with my academics. My main concern is science. I’m a pre-med student. I was very enthusiastic about Organic Chemistry, among other classes, before taking the mid-terms and finals (and not doing well on them). I was wondering if you had any specific tips towards such science courses?

Cal responds:

Though I can’t tell for sure what’s going without actually knowing you, your e-mail smells to me of a standard study skills mismatch problem. It’s common for ambitious, smart students to arrive at a school like Stanford and assume that by simply putting in the hours — starting early and spending plenty of time on assignments — the good grades should follow. At these top schools, however, time alone is not enough: your study habits must match the classes. This is tricky to get right at first. It took me, for example, about a year to find a standard toolbox of study hacks worked pretty well.

My advice: run a post-exam post-mortem on your most recent finals. This should suggest some new note-taking and review tactics for your to deploy at the start of the next semester. Treat this as an experiment. After you get back your first graded assignments of the new semester, conduct another post-mortem, evaluate what worked and what didn’t, and make further changes.

I want to share one additional warning. A common complaint I’ve heard about Stanford, in particular, is that many of the students are “ducks” — they try to appear calm on the surface while their feet are paddling furiously below in the water to keep them afloat. In other words, be careful that you’re not taking on an overly punishing course load or too many activities just because it seems to be “standard” for your Stanford chums — they might be faking their serenity.

From the reader mailbag:

I have heard that the GPA is relatively unaffected by low grades in one’s final year. Is that true or is it an urban myth?

Cal responds:

Who cares!? Take a reasonable course load. Don’t have too many activities. Sign-up for classes that interest you, give them the attention they deserve, and, in general, enjoy life. Your GPA will do just fine, regardless of how it’s calculated.

(All of this being code for: “I have no idea how that calculation works…”)

From the reader mailbag:

Would you find starting a ping pong team at my high school to be interesting? Would colleges feel the same?

Cal responds:

My general rule of thumb: if your main criteria for participating in a high school activity is that you think a college will find it interesting, then, almost always, they won’t. The best way to get a college to think you are interesting — which is much more important than many students understand — is to actually be interesting. Cool stuff has a way of shaking loose from there.

Among other things, becoming interesting might mean that you:

  • Meet interesting people;
  • do interesting things just for the hell of it;
  • read interesting things solely for the thrill of motivation;
  • take crazy trips;
  • be spontaneous;
  • and, above all else, make a feeling of engagement and excitement the number one quality you seek in your daily life.

Though if you’re really good at ping pong, I know someone who would love a match…

5 thoughts on “Q & A: Beware of “Ducks” at Stanford, Forget About Your Senior Year G.P.A., and Become Interesting to College Admissions Officers

  1. Erik says:

    As for the GPA in your final year…

    Calculations are a bit more complicated than this, but this is a nice basic way of figuring out your GPA from year-to-year:

    (GPA*TotalHoursTakenSoFar)+(Class1*Grade)+(Class2*Grade)…/(TotalHoursTakenSoFar+HoursTakenThisSemester)

    Explanation follows…

    Think about it. In your first year, you have, say, 12 credit hours. You make A(4), A(4), A(4) , F(0). Your GPA your first semester is a 3.

    Now, let’s say that you’ve made it your entire career in college with a respectable 3.25 GPA. You have 110 credit hours under your belt, and you’re taking a final 12 hours in your senior year. 9 of those hours you desperately need to graduate, but those last 3 are just there to keep you at full-time status, and you couldn’t care less about the course.

    Now, there are much more complicated ways to calculate this, but think of it as though you’re taking one class that is 110 credit hours, and your grade is an A- (3.25). So, you have 5 classes this semester:

    110 hour class
    Math (3 hours)
    Science (3 hours)
    English (3 hours)
    Basket weaving (3 hours)

    Figure out the average grade at the end of that, if you make an F in Basket Weaving and an A in everything else.

    ((110*3.25)+(3*4)+(3*4)+(3*4)+(3*0))/122

    Your GPA drops from a 3.25 to a 3.22.

    An F in your freshman year dropped you an entire point. An F in your last year dropped you two one-hundredths of a point.

    Short answer: Bombing a class in your last year doesn’t hurt your GPA much, unless you are borderline to begin with.

    It’s been a while since I’ve had to figure that out. Does that make sense?

  2. Erik says:

    correction: My formula should have read:

    ((GPA*TotalHoursTakenSoFar)+(Class1Hours*Grade)+(Class2Hours*Grade)…)/(TotalHoursTakenSoFar+HoursTakenThis Semester) = New GPA

    Check your transcript. My undergraduate differentiated between Attempted Hours, Taken Hours, and Quality Hours. I’m pretty sure I could count Taken Hours in my GPA. Quality Hours was just hours that counted for graduation (I had to take a couple remedial classes that counted for GPA, but not graduation).

  3. Lee says:

    Hi,

    Regarding the question by the Stanford University student who had trouble with Organic Chemistry-

    By using the post-mortem technique, can one really improve their way of studying? I know the answer is obvious, but this assumes the professor won’t change the format of the test and what he/she decides to test on it, right?

    For example, on the first test, the professor decides to test key concepts, but on the next test, the professor decides to test detailed information?

    And for technical classes, the level of difficulty of the questions done in class will be similar to the level of difficulty of questions on the tests, correct? What if the questions done in class are easy but the ones on the test are difficult?

    Are these situations possible, or too extreme to happen?

    Sorry, and thanks

  4. Study Hacks says:

    For example, on the first test, the professor decides to test key concepts, but on the next test, the professor decides to test detailed information?

    That could be a problem. You have to sort of bank on the assumption that your professor has a fixed way of creating exams — which they typically do.

    And for technical classes, the level of difficulty of the questions done in class will be similar to the level of difficulty of questions on the tests, correct? What if the questions done in class are easy but the ones on the test are difficult?

    These are the hardest types of tests. The upside, however, is that everyone does pretty bad on these beasts, so your goal is to do less bad, not necessarily good. The key for such classes — in my humble experience studying math, where such tests are common — is to make sure you understand the concepts behind the problems in class, allowing you to mix and match skills on the exam.

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