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

September 12th, 2008 · 25 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)

25 thoughts on “Case Study: How Could We Save This Ridiculously Overloaded Grind?

  1. Cal,

    For me, the key to everything here is summed up by your question, “Is there anything on that list that you couldn’t do if you wanted to?”

    There are things we do and there are achievements. Founding a club or non-profit, managing a society, getting voted in as a true representative or leader…they are achievements (and bring out the failed simulation effect, as you suggest).

    That said, it doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be anything on List A. General interests and extra-curricular activities still have a place on a personal level. If they become a chore because you’re tired and running out of hours in the day, they’re no use to anyone. Therefore, moderation still counts, but where’s the fun in having no List A whatsoever?

  2. David says:

    @Martin

    Quite right indeed. Cal doesn’t say so in this post, but I think he would agree with you. I seem to recall that in one of his other case studies [I think it was a student at a Jesuit University] he thought that it was ok for the student to keep some non-obligatory activities which only required attendance and no time commitment outside of that. I think the key distinction is, as you said, moderation in proportion to how much time one needs to achieve the failed simulation effect with his List B type activities. Giving the List A type items first priority will keep the List B items in their proper place, namely to provide a break from school and the List A items and to make oneself a more interesting person.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    That said, it doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be anything on List A.

    I agree. For the sake of impact, I’m being somewhat excessively stark in this article. I think, however, I’m capturing your sentiments when I say:

    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.

    List A type activities can fall under the rubric of “explore,” but they’re just a small percent of a long list of options.

  4. Catherine says:

    Great advice. I had a similar realization at the end of my junior year, and I’m convinced that I got into Princeton by dropping everything in my own List A and only sticking with List B. I still attended some list A activities, but I focused most of my energy on my one particular List B activity. In addition, I dropped 2 classes so that I could end each school day at 11:30am and replaced those with an independent study in the area related to my List B activity. Not only did this allow my List B to become much more impressive (esp. in interviews), but I discovered that college admissions people were also impressed that I had the guts to drop all my List A activities. I got a lot of “good for you”s at the end of interviews.

    Anyway, for all those high school juniors scared to quit their List A activities, or at least cut back on involvement, DON’T BE. Listen to Cal!! It’s worth it to focus on ONE interesting, unique, impressive, hard-to-explain List B activity.

    P.S. It really was strange how people were MORE impressed that I left school at 11:30am each day than if I had stayed at school til midnight.

  5. Study Hacks says:

    I had a similar realization at the end of my junior year, and I’m convinced that I got into Princeton by dropping everything in my own List A and only sticking with List B.

    Now we’re all dying to know, what type of activity was on your List B?

  6. Kit says:

    Of course, if there are things in List A that this guy really likes doing, by all means he should keep them. But if there are things that are more like chores to him, he should drop them. He may be clouded by thoughts of responsibility and guilt over leaving these groups to fend for themselves, in which case he should reevaluate his priorities and personal expectations. That’s what I think.

  7. Nate says:

    Here’s another perspective from a college student’s (i.e. my) point of view:

    List A Activities – None

    List B Activities –
    1) Starting a co-ed service fraternity on campus; holding the VP of Service position
    2) Doing research in the biobehavoiral lab (mix of psychology and biology; I’m earning 3 credits of a psych research course even though I’m a biology undergrad.)

    Other than that, my time is divided into my coursework or social time. Simplicity is divine. In one semester, I am able to earn 16 credits with minimal stress and have fun with my other projects. I’m on my way to becoming the “Zen Valedictorian.” Even though I’m only three weeks into this semester, I can’t wait for what the next semester will bring. Obviously, I’ll keep the first activity, but I intend to do research in a different lab for biology credit.

  8. David N says:

    Ok, so I’m a senior in high school and I started to read a/b productivity/study hacks my junior year. I’m trying to incorporate Cal’s advice, but it is rather difficult in high school b/c we’re sitll trying to GET IN college. I would say that I do a lot at my school, and probably violate the warning of doing a bunch of unnecessary stuff. Unlike the student mentioned in this case study, I can handle it and it doesn’t take a physical toll…sooo i’m good for now. Once college hits, i’m going zen valedvictorian all the way.

    Long message short, its hard for high school students to adopt the zen v. philosophy, but i’m trying =]. k. sorry if i wasted ya’lls time.

  9. Study Hacks says:

    He may be clouded by thoughts of responsibility and guilt over leaving these groups to fend for themselves, in which case he should reevaluate his priorities and personal expectations.

    Good insight. I’ve been trying recently to better understand, and address, the emotional issues that get tied up with student stress.

    Other than that, my time is divided into my coursework or social time. Simplicity is divine.

    That’s a perfect schedule; very Zen! Enjoy your freedom…

    Long message short, its hard for high school students to adopt the zen v. philosophy, but i’m trying =]. k. sorry if i wasted ya’lls time.

    It is hard! I definitely understand that. My argument, however, is that the hard part is letting go of conventional wisdom that is wrong. For example, you may feel like you need to do lots of things to get into college. But the ZV philosophy says that you can increase your chances of getting into college by doing one or two “List B” things and dropping the “List A.” (This part is hard for students to accept, but it’s true, doing many List A type activities can actually hurt; see the comment from Catherine above.)

    This is the magic of ZV: it couples de-stressing with making you a better applicant. Think if there are any List B type activities in your life, and consider what would happen if you turned your focus on making them pop.

  10. David N says:

    This is true. Now that I reflect on it, I did adopt the semi ZV philosophy for my senior year. I opted out taking AP spanish (hard + i dont’ plan to pursue, even though colleges like) and I took a study hall, which colleges frown upon, and an online shakespeares course (which is really just simple busy work, nothing too deep).

    Cal, if you are interested in doing a case study of a H.S. senior, lemme know & i’ll tell you my story.

  11. supergirl says:

    What happens if all your activities fall under list A? Do you cut them all and go looking for a list B to replace them? Do you attempt to mould a list A into a list B? How do you decide which one goes in which list anyway? (some things, like editor-in-chief of the law review at a top law school, for example, are both (boringly) conventional AND really impressive (as in, presidential candidates still list it on their resumes 20 years later impressive))

  12. Tiago Paiva says:

    Another great post Cal.

    I read everything you write and I must say its impossible not to admire you.

  13. Study Hacks says:

    Cal, if you are interested in doing a case study of a H.S. senior, lemme know & i’ll tell you my story

    I’m always interested in ZV stories. Send it over (author [at] calnewport.com)

    What happens if all your activities fall under list A? Do you cut them all and go looking for a list B to replace them? Do you attempt to mould a list A into a list B?

    The easiest solution: drop most of the activities, leave behind one or two to attempt to mold into a List B using the type of advice I describe in my “Art of Activity Innovation” article.

  14. Sohbet mIRC says:

    Ok, so I’m a senior in high school and I started to read a/b productivity/study hacks my junior year.

  15. Ryan says:

    I completely agree.

    All these people I know are filling their lives with List A items (clubs, unimportant officer positions, etc)… And these students, valedictorians and 2300+ SAT scorers included, are now being rejected by all the Ivy League schools.

    I have some List A items (I’m a high school senior.) but focus mainly on List B–what I’m really passionate about. No doubt these other kids have more officer positions than I have. I got into Yale early, and I’m sure my clear focus had an impact.

  16. Raj says:

    Hi I just stopped by your website and this is the first thing I read and boy do I have say that I am exactly the type of person that is like this! I am a college student now. The funny thing is that I didn’t do anything like that during high school, I just focused on a couple things. But in college I’m overly busy. I am involved with in a leadership capacity the College Democrats, Model UN, Debate Society, Literary Society, Academic Integrity Council, Student Government, and I am a member in a few others. But it seems like a lot of my activities fall under List B. Maybe I can’t tell the difference.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    But in college I’m overly busy. I am involved with in a leadership capacity the College Democrats, Model UN, Debate Society, Literary Society, Academic Integrity Council, Student Government, and I am a member in a few others. But it seems like a lot of my activities fall under List B. Maybe I can’t tell the difference.

    They almost all fall under the “List B” category. Choose one or, at most, two things, and put all your attention on those. Drop the rest. Seriously, no one will care how many college activities you did.

  18. Allie says:

    I’m a high school senior in the UK. This summer I ended up on the worst end of deep procrastination. My school offers very limited courses; I have 5 subjects, 3 of which I detest (phy, eco and chem), but I don’t have the liberty of dropping them because it’d lump me with the very worst of students. This summer I ended up with a terrible form of deep procrastination; I sat around 12 A level papers, some on a single night’s preparation… Obviously, I’m pretty terrified about my upcoming results.

    I was losing interest with some of my ECAs too. I’m student co-ordinator of the Duke of Edinburgh award club (which none of the students really care about), vice president of the debate club and had tried founding & running a school magazine + writing club with my friends. However, since my school is really tiny, I wasn’t getting a very good response with any of these.

    Even before I stumbled onto Study Hacks a few weeks ago, I decided to evaluate my schedule. I’m thinking about dropping bio and taking further maths instead. And despite having reservations on quitting the debate, writing and Duke of EB clubs because of feelings of responsibility, I think I’ll go ahead. They take up a lot of my time and don’t really bring any results (the people I work so hard for don’t care!). Instead I’m thinking about working on a book of poetry that I’m trying to publish and spending more time volunteering at a charity that mentors disadvantaged children. I’d like to focus more on web-designing and searching for some research or volunteering opportunities. However, I’m wondering — do these new activities fall under the B-list?

  19. Claire says:

    I wish I had found this site sooner. It’s the summer before my senior year, and I’m one of those overachieving, hyper-involved students that’s probably not going to get into the schools she wants to go to because my ECs are utterly unimpressive. Honestly, I don’t even know how I can change it now. I’ve always involved myself in things that interest me– it just so happens that the things that interest me are what adcoms apparently consider “boring”– school plays, student government, NHS, service projects, dance team. I don’t know what I should do, or how I can possibly make myself more “impressive”, with so little time.

  20. Lindsey says:

    @claire, I’m in the same position as you are. I feel as though I’ve involved myself so deeply in List A activities that I cant figure out if I have a single List B one. I do XC, Squash and Track but am not recruitable. For squash I’m starting a fall season club, hoping that counts as something, also thinking that it really could be a lot of fun. That is really last minute though. It is especially nerve-wracking because I see how much doing ED benefits in college admissions and that deadline is only a couple months away.
    I’m debating whether Editor in Chief counts for List B as well as a study abroad trip in Spain and a leadership/hiking/environmental service trip to montana.
    @cal, what can we do to in the last bit of time we have before applications are due to make them shine?

  21. Anthony says:

    I am in the same boat as these Lindsey and Claire, just dound this site and it all makes sense, I wish I had known about all of these philosophies a couple of years ago, I am in a dozen clubs/activities and play 4 varsity sports, I went to nationals in one of my clubs, would that be a B list achievement? and what can I do my senior year to impress colleges?

  22. Sophie says:

    (really!? the French club?)

    I see you mock the French Club, but you consider founding and running a club a List B feat. Well, during my sophomore year I founded a French Club, the first and only club at my tiny boarding school, and I plan on running it my remaining three years. I’m really passionate about the language. What do you think?

  23. Claire says:

    well, never actually got a response from cal, but i guess at that point it wasn’t necessary. i was admitted to stanford university, my dream school, despite being overly “well-rounded.” i do plan to cut back in college, though, because the level of stress i’m under now is simply unsustainable

  24. neomeo says:

    @claire so u did all list A activities but still got in? care to list some of them please? :)

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