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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…


The Independent Study Method for Activity Innovation

This strategy for developing an innovative activity in high school works as follows:

  1. Get a student internship or volunteer position at an organization that does something that interests you.
  2. Pay your dues. Finish the scut work fast and well. Ask questions. Show a real interest.
  3. After establishing yourself as a fixture at the organization, try to identify a small open research question that interests them. Propose that you work on that question, under their supervision. For example, if you’re volunteering at an environmental policy organization, you might look into how effective a new strategy has been in your state; nothing that requires great experience, just time and organization. (For the environmental policy example, this might mean developing a survey then calling up places that have tried the new strategy and ask them about it.)
  4. Setup the project as an independent study at your high school, allowing you to do the work for course credit. Most high schools have IS programs. Typically, they allow you a reduced schedule so you have time to get things done on your project.
  5. At the end of the semester, present your findings to the organization. Bonus points if you make some little recommendations that they actually follow.

Here’s what’s cool about this approach:

  • It’s wildly impressive. When an admissions officer sees that you went off and did a piece of original research that changed the way an organization does business…well, let’s just say you’ll do better than the guy with 12 club memberships.
  • It’s not time consuming. In fact, it will probably make your life easier. You can take a reduced course load and only attend school for a half day. The research itself is entirely self-directed and there is no competition against other students for grades.
  • It’s fun. Assuming you choose an organization that interests you, it will be cool learning more about the field.

The Technique in Practice

I first heard about this technique from a student who I will call Sarah. Her interest was urban education (she went to a school in an urban area.) She got started with our technique by landing a student assistant position at a nearby charter school. She paid her dues. Eventually they let her tutor some younger students. She did really well. Finally, she proposed that they let her lead a student reading group that met once a week. She knew the charter school was interested in different methods for teaching advanced reading, so she proposed a research project to go along with it.

The school where she worked agreed and the school where she attended let her set this up as an independent study project. The result: she only attended school until 11:30 am each day, took only four classes — two A.P.s, two electives — and breezed into Princeton.

Sarah’s not alone. Another student I met, who I will call Eric, was a high school student in California who was an active member of a youth fire and rescue program. When the program hit hard times, he saw his opening, and volunteered to take over a leadership position and help nurse it back to health. His school let him tackle this as an independent study. Like Sarah, Eric was able to avoid the A.P.-saturated course load of his friends, and spend only a half-day in the classroom. He was easily accepted to Northwestern, his reach school.

One Plan of Many

This independent study route is not the answer for everyone. I hope, however, that by seeing a specific plan in action you’ll expand your understanding of real world innovation. Remember, there are a million ways to replace hard with interesting. Hopefully this helps you find the one that fits you.

(Photo by Eric James Sarmiento)

40 thoughts on “A Simple Method for Developing an Innovative Activity

  1. Alvin says:

    I was about to email you asking for advice on this very issue!

    What about starting a new club at school? I had once asked you about starting a parkour club, but I now think it’d be quite impractical; there’d be no formal “training” except from youtube videos and such. I’m now thinking about MMA or DanceSport, but I’m having a hard time deciding between them and there is a just they’d be subsumed under existing clubs (judo or group dance).

    As for an internship, the system here in Singapore is less flexible than in the US, it might be possible for me to get the school to recognize my intern job, but I wouldn’t bet on it. We are also required to take 10 academic units totalling 29.5 academic hours (not including recess and lunch breaks) so that will probably prevent me from realizing the Zen Valedictorian ideal.

    On the other hand, what about an internship just during the holiday period? I am thinking of a bank or a finance firm.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    On the other hand, what about an internship just during the holiday period? I am thinking of a bank or a finance firm.

    Just to play devil’s advocate, what about these ideas would invoke the failed simulation effect?

  3. Alvin says:

    Hmmmm, well, MMA is pretty out-of-the-loop, organizing a training trip to Brazil (or Thailand, Japan), or setting up international competitions comes to my mind.

    I confess I can’t think of much for the banking/finance internship idea; I don’t imagine they’d let me try my hand at managing funds, and especially considering recent events, it might not even be possible to land a spot.

  4. Study Hacks says:

    Alvin, forget about college admissions for a second. Name me a few things that really interest you…

  5. Alvin says:

    Martial arts, ancient languages, Japanese anime and manga, literature written by Dead White Men, Scandinavia, the former Soviet bloc, historical linguistics, archaeology, mythology, anthropology, human evolution, meditation, quantum physics, some Western comics (V for Vendetta, Y The Last Man, Preacher, Sandman, Rex Mundi etc), weight training, exercise science, acrobatics (parkour), dancing, acting.

  6. Study Hacks says:

    Martial arts, ancient languages, Japanese anime and manga, literature written by Dead White Men, Scandinavia, the former Soviet bloc, historical linguistics, archaeology, mythology, anthropology, human evolution, meditation, quantum physics, some Western comics (V for Vendetta, Y The Last Man, Preacher, Sandman, Rex Mundi etc), weight training, exercise science, acrobatics (parkour), dancing, acting.

    So why are you considering finance internships? You have cool interests, choose a couple and run with them. Try to master an ancient language. Find a way to support yourself to spend a summer in Scandinavia, or talk yourself into a free research assistanship with a linguist…

  7. Alvin says:

    The problem is that I don’t think I can leverage those interests into college admissions, besides the obviously academic ones, or can I?

    I have been an autodidact of Homeric Greek and Latin since 2005, but I don’t intend to go into Classics if it means I’m going to be trapped in academia. The same for linguistics and science. Private banking seems much more my thing, at least from what I’ve heard so far.

  8. Study Hacks says:

    The problem is that I don’t think I can leverage those interests into college admissions, besides the obviously academic ones, or can I?…I have been an autodidact of Homeric Greek and Latin since 2005, but I don’t intend to go into Classics

    Have you read anything I’ve ever written about college admissions!? 🙂

    Find somewhere new to go with your interest in greek and latin. Work with a local professors. Launch some project. Find some conference and wrangle student funding to go attend. Take action. Lots of action.

    College’s love this. You’ll love this. And your interests in high school don’t define your career.

  9. Alvin says:

    None of the local universities offer Latin or Greek or even linguistics. Heh. I do seem to be coming up with a lot of excuses. Well, I’m only going into the equivalent of high school next year, so I still have some time. :p Maybe I’ll go for Sanskrit, Tamil or even Classical Chinese (which is still rather mainstream here) instead.

    Thanks for your help.

  10. Bonnie says:

    “Most high schools have IS programs”

    Are you sure? Where are you getting this information?

  11. Study Hacks says:

    None of the local universities offer Latin or Greek or even linguistics

    I would suggest keep searching. Your next step is to get hooked up with an actual organization because they will open opportunities you don’t have access to now. There has to be some international group you could join…

  12. Study Hacks says:

    “Most high schools have IS programs”

    Are you sure? Where are you getting this information?

    Well, I don’t know if it’s true. My public high school had it. The guy “Eric” from california’s school had it. So did “Sarah’s” private school. I’m sort of extrapolating from there that it’s not super rare.

  13. David says:

    I don’t intend to go into Classics if it means I’m going to be trapped in academia. The same for linguistics and science.

    As someone who is studying both classics/linguistics in college I applaud you for being interested in the classics. I wouldn’t say that you’d be trapped in academia. For one, classics majors tend to do the best on the LSAT (the admissions test for Law School) and tend to get into some very prestigious law schools. But regardless, no liberal arts major will train you for a specific job (try Engineering for that one).

    None of the local universities offer Latin or Greek or even linguistics.

    As a start, see if you can get into Stanford’s Summer Program for high school students. It has Latin and maybe even (if there is interest) Greek. I’ll see if I can dig up some of my other online resources. This is a very good program, but there might be some other programs of interest…

    For Classics
    http://summer.stanford.edu/highschool/curriculum.asp

    List of Classics classes (They offer Latin AND Greek): http://summer.stanford.edu/highschool/crsClassgen.asp#CLASSGEN09

    Also, you might be interested in this for Linguistics:
    http://www.scs.northwestern.edu/summernu/courses/?Department=LING&Campus=Any&Day=Any&Course=Any&Submit=Submit

    I have been an autodidact of Homeric Greek

    At the University where I’m at, Homeric Greek is practically a graduate class. From what I’ve been told, it has a lot of irregularities that require really understanding basic Attic Greek first. It’d be cool to read in Greek, I’d admit, but you might think about starting with basic Greek first. Another possibility is to see if you can get into a class where they read Homer in English. Many times, this is just simply “Intro to Rhetoric” which serves as the Freshman English requirement at many universities (maybe even including your local one). In other cases, it might be a class such as Great Books or Classical Civilization, or Literature. You might think about doing a little sleuthing at your local University and seeing what you come up with.

  14. Ashish says:

    Is those two real world situations REALLY true? Call me crazy I find it hard to believe that somebody got into Princeton taking 4 classes, with only 2 of which being AP..

    If my interests involve reading blogs, and running, could a cool innovative thing being an intern for a blog?
    What running things could I do, I don’t want to be on the cross country team for personal reasons?

  15. Sameer says:

    Cal, your tactics definitely seem suited to top American universities — do you know if they work in getting into top universities in other countries? I’m not sure what Singaporean universities look for, or if impressive is impressive no matter where you go. (To give an extreme case, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) schools would not let you in even if you’ve started your own multinational corporation — AFAIK, they base application on their own standardized test, and nothing else.)

  16. Alvin says:

    @Sameer:
    For Singaporean universities, academics is the main factor too. We take a modified version of the A Levels and usually more subjects than what students take in the UK; extracurriculars help for admission into the more selective courses, but are not actually essential.

    I actually have little doubt that I’d be able to enter a local university, I just don’t intend to. American and British universities still offer the best university experience, possibly including some Japanese and European ones as well.

    Japanese universities are based on an individual selection test too, AFAIK.

    @David:
    Thanks for the links, I’ll check them out.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    Is those two real world situations REALLY true? Call me crazy I find it hard to believe that somebody got into Princeton taking 4 classes, with only 2 of which being AP..

    Yes.

    If my interests involve reading blogs, and running, could a cool innovative thing being an intern for a blog?

    Remember, the take away message of this post, and my earlier posts, is that you can’t tell in advance how the innovation will happen. You need join or start something related to an interest. Pay your dues. Then you’ll start noticing ways to innovate.

    Cal, your tactics definitely seem suited to top American universities — do you know if they work in getting into top universities in other countries?

    Short answer: I don’t know. Every country is different. I recently met with a student in Canada, for example, and up there the role of activities versus academics is much different. You’ll also notice in Alvin’s comments, that something similar holds in Singapore…

  18. andres jimenez says:

    in mexico, for physics grad school at top 2 research institutes, it only requires you to take 4 exams, electromagnetism, mechanics, thermodynamics, mathematical methods, if you pass them you are in. If not, you take a 12 week course and re take those exams. They do not care if you barely passed undergraduate or you had a magnificent thesis.
    If you pass the exams or the courses, you are almost guarantee to have success in their masters and phd program.

  19. andres jimenez says:

    Cinvestav and IFUASLP are the schools.

  20. Joe The II says:

    Do you have any tips for developing a literary (sci-fi and fantasy are my specialties, but I am well-acquainted with other types of writing) innovative activity? That is, without writing a thesis that revolutionizes the way humanity looks at theology and the human response to grief.

    -A worried High School Freshman

  21. While I understand why your focus is on existing organizations, what about venturing out on your own?

    I am very-much of an independent guy–I have often thought about starting a wide variety of business and organizations.

    However, I’m unsure whether they would evoke the “failed simulation” effect. From my vantage point, it’s not particularly hard to do these things: maybe because I’m doing them. Essentially, it’s hard to judge the failed simulation effect when the activity isn’t a simulation for you.

    I already run a 1-person web development studio, but I’m not sure how impressive that is. I’ve been thinking about expanding though.

    I’ve also been thinking of working with politicians to lobby for some youth law reform. It’s a small state (Vermont) and I’ve got some decent connections, so this isn’t out of the question.

    Do either of these sound impressive? I guess I’m concerned because there’s not really and “paying the dues” involved with either.

  22. Joe The II says:

    Sorry for the double-post, but I don’t think I can edit my previous post… I am part of my school’s literary magazine committee, and will soon (next week, in fact) attend the interest meeting for the sci-fi/fantasy magazine…and join. =)

    Can you think of any way to expand literary boundaries to such an extent as you descibed with a reasonable amount of work?

  23. Jeddy says:

    Question: How would you change up this routine for college once you’re already in? I am a sophomore on track for med school but I am guilty of a few of these laundry list activities (although to be fair, I’m only in 2).

  24. Study Hacks says:

    part of my school’s literary magazine committee, and will soon (next week, in fact) attend the interest meeting for the sci-fi/fantasy magazine…and join….Can you think of any way to expand literary boundaries to such an extent as you described with a reasonable amount of work?

    It’s too early. You haven’t even joined the second group yet. Spend some time paying your dues. Helping the clubs grow, taking on responsibility, getting a leadership position. Once you’re on the inside you’ll start to see cool opportunities that someone like me — or an admissions officer — on the outside would have never thought of. These are what pop.

  25. Study Hacks says:

    Question: How would you change up this routine for college once you’re already in? I am a sophomore on track for med school but I am guilty of a few of these laundry list activities (although to be fair, I’m only in 2).

    Check out the Zen Valedictorian category over on the right sidebar. There quite a few articles and case-studies about activities at college!

  26. supergirl says:

    What if you’re a classical musician, and you DO want to get to Carnegie Hall? (yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve got to practice :P) That’s what I always find intriguing about your theory – if you’ve been dead set on a specific achievement since you were 5 (as is common for elite athletes and musicians) any attempt to innovate it (e.g. setting up your own music school or after-school sports program for disadvantaged kids) can be a way to have fun with your interest, and an impressive fall back activity, but not quite the same as the real thing (that Carnegie Hall recital or Olympic gold medal). For some people, the real thing really can’t be replaced. I’m guessing the ZV philosophy isn’t for those people…

  27. Study Hacks says:

    That’s what I always find intriguing about your theory – if

    you’ve been dead set on a specific achievement since you were 5 (as is common for elite athletes and musicians) any attempt to innovate it (e.g. setting up your own music school or after-school sports program for disadvantaged kids) can be a way to have fun with your interest, and an impressive fall back activity, but not quite the same as the real thing

    Very true. I you actually are on track to be at the elite level in something, then innovation doesn’t need to be on your radar.

  28. Ashley says:

    I think the emphasis on “paying your dues” is a bit overhyped especially for the Gen Y generation. The most important thing is getting the information and experience to allow you to see the possibilities and take action on them. I would recommend contacting people about how they achieved what you want to do/think would be cool to do, research, information interviewing and job shadowing to see what’s out there and then try to replicate it on a high school/college/local level. Another idea is to think of what you want to change in the world whether it’s the elimination of a social injustice or a bad business model and work on ways to make it better, not limiting yourself to only being a student or a teenager or [insert excuse]. Find out what actions you have to take and make it happen while always trying to think out of the box.

  29. rupss says:

    What about writing a business plan for my high school’s robotics team…helping it grow and expand into the school community? I’m in the middle of that now…and a couple months ago, it is something I NEVER would have thought about.

  30. Study Hacks says:

    What about writing a business plan for my high school’s robotics team…helping it grow and expand into the school community? I’m in the middle of that now…and a couple months ago, it is something I NEVER would have thought about.

    You cannot predict in advance which path will lead to innovation — otherwise, it wouldn’t be so surprising! If this sounds like something really interesting to you, then go for it, follow-through, then see what new opportunities it generates.

  31. Claudia says:

    It’s easier to find an innovative activity if your into math and science, but what about a history nerd like me? I’m a high school freshman and the only thing I am really passionate about is history and psychology. How do I create a innovative activity with that? I can’t make a website or start a business. Any ideas?

  32. Sakhi says:

    Hi,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I really like it. However, this is the first time I’m commenting, mainly because I have a question about the american education system – do colleges for post-grad also consider exceptional achievements as those described above when taking in students? (I plan to do undergrad in one of the aforementioned countries, India, where you generally get into colleges only by getting amazing grades and passing common entrance exams.)

  33. Study Hacks says:

    I’m a high school freshman and the only thing I am really passionate about is history and psychology. How do I create a innovative activity with that?

    Follow the method from my original article on innovation: join a related community, pay your dues, than start searching for opportunities.

    do colleges for post-grad also consider exceptional achievements as those described above when taking in students

    Extracurriculars are much less important for grad school admissions. What dominates is your grades and research experience. Remember, grad school admissions is conducted by professors. They aren’t trying to build an “interesting” class; they’re trying to hire students who can jump right into their research projects and start making their life easier.

  34. Long says:

    what if the grad school you are looking at is for something creative, such as music composition or painting? and your grades are far from perfect, but they show an improvement towards the end? How would you distinguish yourself in that situation?

  35. Worried One says:

    I don’t know if questions here are still being answered, but regardless of that I’d just like to say THANK YOU so much for all of the information you post here! It’s really helping me a lot as I’m trying to figure out how to get those leadership roles and actually do something meaningful within my areas of interest.

    I’d also just like to ask you a few questions. If I am interested in activism and NGOs, but there aren’t any in my area that I can intern for, what should I do? And this question is more for the students who are here, but… do teachers/administrators at your school actually take you seriously when you tell them you want to start a club?

  36. Ashley says:

    Worried One: I’d start your own OR help out online with one. But yes, it’s pretty easy to start a club (how else did the clubs at your school get started?) The hard part is getting people to join and take action in it.

  37. Mustafa says:

    I’m thinking of joining a research firm as an intern or volunteer, but their immensity begs to differ. Meaning, they’re too big of an organization to enter as a grade 11 student.I have great research projects but need insight into squeezing my in with one of the researchers.

  38. jeffrey says:

    1.) I have read your absolutely helpful book “How to be a High School Superstar” yet I do not know how to find that one innovative volunteer position. I have been thinking about volunteering at the mayor’s office and will see if that’s not a dead end.

    Should I keep pursuing the mayor’s office idea or attempt to find a different position?

    If the mayors office idea is a dead end then how can I find a new idea to craft?

  39. Caleb Ntende says:

    I want to volunteer at my local library but I do not know if that is a “closed community.” I put in the wrong email for the first comment, sorry.

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