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The Unheralded Splendor of the A* Strategy

April 10th, 2009 · 20 comments

Good Will (Not) Studying

One of my favorite scenes from the tortured genius weepy, Good Will Hunting, is the montage of Matt Damon working with an eccentric MIT math professor. The professor slaps a transparency on an overhead projector, splashing a series of graph structures on the screen. (There’s a professor on my floor here at MIT who actually does this.) Will stares at the screen for a thoughtful, brooding moment. Then he stands, grabs a marker, and adds some extra edges. They slap five.

Proof solved!

To American students, this vision of the genius who instantly solves problems has become the platonic ideal for a star undergraduate. This leads to the belief that the best students complete even the hardest work easily. Therefore, if you want to prove that you’re a top student you need to take the hardest possible course load and get the best possible grades. The goal is to make it seem like your brain is so supercharged that you can swat aside problem sets and exams like Matt Damon solving proofs on the MIT blackboard.

I call this the Good Will Hunting (GWH) strategy for becoming an academic star. Here’s the thing about this strategy: if you can pull it off, it will yield rewards. People are impressed by the 4.0 student with the triple major. But there are two problems:

  1. Most people who attempt the GWH approach don’t pull it off.
  2. It is incredibly stressful and painful, and will probably send you into deep procrastination.

As far as I can tell, many students view the GWH strategy as the only way to stand out academically. (Here at MIT, I had a student tell me that if she didn’t take a killer course load people would just assume she’s not smart.)

In this post, I want to explain a different, more sustainable path to academic stardom…

The A* Strategy

I’m borrowing the notation “A*” (which I pronounce “a star”) from Dartmouth, where I spent my undergrad years. At Dartmouth, the star indicates a citation. If it shows up on your transcript it means that the professor thought you had done work so exceptional that it was beyond what could be captured by the standard grading system. In fact, Dartmouth transcripts come with a special citation sheet where professors can write out a short summary of what you did to merit the special grade. This is not an “A+”. It doesn’t automatically go to the top students. Most professors give them out sparingly, waiting for a student to truly blow them away; perhaps only once every couple of years.

The A* strategy for becoming an academic star is inspired by this idea. It works as follows:

  1. Choose a (single) major that you love.
  2. Build a course and extracurricular schedule that leaves you an abundance of time to tackle your major courses. (Note, this doesn’t mean you should take less than the normal course load. It means instead that you should choose a reasonable mix of courses that won’t devour all of your time. There’s no shame in balancing a tough pair of major courses with an elective or intro course in a field that fascinates you. Not every class has to be the hardest available.)
  3. Put an intense amount of energy into the 1 or 2 major courses you take each semester. For example:
    1. Spend time with your readings. Coming back to key passages again and again.
    2. Use the notebook method to refine your thinking.
    3. Explore related topics on your own time. Become an expert on the field.
    4. If it’s a non-technical class, start your papers early. Don’t treat them like an assignment to survive, but a chance to write something profound. Obsess over your writing and ideas. If it’s a technical class, dive deep into the concepts. Become an insight junkie.

I argue that the A* strategy can yield the same rewards as the GWH strategy. It generates a cadre of professors within your major department who see you as their best and brightest. These professors are going to write recommendations and open opportunities that are going to make you shine as bright as the hardest working GWH grind. In addition, you’ll begin to win awards and scholarships and all the other markings of a real talent. (If you want to go to an elite graduate school, forget the GWH altogether, the A* approach is the only approach that will work.)

What makes this strategy superior to the GWH, is that it’s significantly less stressful. The time demands are minimal compared to the load faced by the triple major. And even more important, the work is meaningful. When you’re out in the woods, with your notebook, trying to master a complicated piece of philosophy: that’s good for your soul! When you’re in the library at 2 AM, starting the second of three problem sets due the next morning: that just plain sucks.

Conclusion

I don’t want to preach. I just want to open your eyes to another option. If you feel the burden of talent on your shoulders, and you’re looking for a way to live up to your academic potential, then please, for my sake, before you dive into the stress-saturated morass of the GWH, give the unheralded, but equally effective A* strategy some consideration.

20 thoughts on “The Unheralded Splendor of the A* Strategy

  1. Derek says:

    I like this article, and I agree with you, but given the cost per credit hour at public universities, I’m afraid I don’t have the money to do this. I would love to just take 12 hours a semester and really focus on making great grades, but instead I have to try to graduate on time. This means I have to take 16-17 hours at a time and make mediocre to good, rather than great, grades.

  2. This is great, and so true.
    It is the difference between the person and the grades, be more than a person with fantastic grades, be a nice person, with good grades.

  3. Waladex says:

    Your ideas always seem so natural ! I would love to put them into practice, but it would be impossible in my uni (I’m studying in France). We got 13 subjects per semester. I would just dream of half the study load to basically have time to “dive” into interesting topics I’d love to know more about… But the system don’t give time for this.

  4. Grad Hacker says:

    I have to leave a comment for two reasons:

    1) Good Will Hunting rules. Like when he burns that proof and says “You know how easy this shit is for me?” What a great scene.

    2) The problem with the GWH strategy can be summed up in one simple statement: YOU’RE NOT THAT SMART.

    Trying to imitate it would be like imitating pickup lines from romantic comedies; doesn’t work in real life because you’re not as attractive as that guy and she isn’t as attractive as that girl (or vice versa).

  5. M. says:

    Great post – Last month I visited MIT as a prospective student, and a student bragged about how little sleep he got, how hardcore his schedule was, etc. Other students spoke with grudging admiration of people who took over 5 courses a semester and never attended classes, but got As anyway. It was laughable (although I liked the school). I’m sure this problem goes beyond MIT, but I bet it pops up quite frequently at tech schools in particular.

  6. M. says:

    Great post – Last month I visited MIT as a prospective student, and a junior bragged about how little sleep he got, how hardcore his schedule was, etc. Other students spoke with grudging admiration of people who took over 5 courses a semester and never attended classes, but got As anyway. It was laughable (although I liked the school). I’m sure this problem goes beyond MIT, but I bet it pops up quite frequently at tech schools in particular.

  7. I think the GWH tends to be a peculiar male trait. Women tend to admit (not totally, but more) how hard they have or have not worked. I suppose it helps being able to cry on a friend’s shoulder and complain that you worked way to hard to have gotten a C. Maybe men should cry more.

  8. RT Wolf says:

    Carol Dweck’s done some good research on this subject: people who tend to think that intelligence is fixed and that hard work actually means you’re not that smart. This obsession with being smart gets ingrained when well-meaning adults tell a growing child that they’re smart when they get the right answer. Too bad in real life you have to get the wrong answer, many, many times before you get the right one. So seeing a wrong answer as meaning you’re not smart just kills you. More info about this issue here:

    http://www.mind-manual.com/blog/index.php/2008/09/28/improving-self-awareness-to-achieve-your-goals/
    http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/
    http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2007/marapr/features/dweck.html

  9. RT Wolf says:

    BTW, I was just talking to someone the other day about being obsessed with intelligence and he said that he really admired Good Will Hunting. I realized that I did, too, when I used to think that intelligence meant getting it the first time or understanding it immediately or solving it in a brilliant manner.

    Instead now I try to look up to those who get their goals effectively and efficiently.

  10. Study Hacks says:

    given the cost per credit hour at public universities, I’m afraid I don’t have the money to do this.

    Important Clarification: I don’t advise that you take less than the normal course load for your school. I’m suggesting, instead, that you balance the courses you take so your schedule is not killer. For example, if you take 4 courses per semester, and two are major courses, than balance them with an elective that fascinates you, or an intro course in a new subject, or a seminar-based course that has its work concentrated in a final paper not weekly assignments, etc.

    Even just introducing variety into the type of material can make a big difference. At Dartmouth, for example, I majored in computer science and minored in Art History. Each semester I would mix the two types of courses. It’s not that one type of course was necessarily easier than the other, but they had such different demands on my mind that they helped prevent overload. When I got tired writing proofs I could shift to reading essays, and vice versa.

    I updated the post to include this clarification.

  11. Study Hacks says:

    Good Will Hunting rules. Like when he burns that proof and says “You know how easy this shit is for me?” What a great scene.

    At MIT, one of my favorite hobbies is to walk up to whiteboards where people are working on a proof, scribble ten lines of made-up equations. Scrawl qed. Turn and give them the “you know how easy this shit is for me” line. Then walk away.

    The problem with the GWH strategy can be summed up in one simple statement: YOU’RE NOT THAT SMART.

    Amen. There is a tenured professor down the hall who is my same age! He’s as close to a genius as there is in the real world. Here’s the thing: he can’t solve proofs in a flash either. No one can! Classes take time no matter how smart you are!

    I think the GWH tends to be a peculiar male trait

    I don’t know…I get a lot of e-mails from students neck-deep in GWH-fueled misery. The gender mix is pretty equal…

    Carol Dweck’s done some good research on this subject: people who tend to think that intelligence is fixed and that hard work actually means you’re not that smart.

    Thanks for the links. I love Dweck’s work. An interesting anecdotal observation is that this fixed intelligence mindset is specifically American. In other countries, grades and workload seem to be more connected with work ethic. If you meet a grind, you don’t think “wow, what a genius,” you think instead “what a diligent worker.”

  12. Hunmwei says:

    Omg!!! This is so like nothing i’ve read before…. Incredible!

  13. Andy says:

    One of my favorite bits from the TV show “The West Wing” is a series of scenes of Toby (smartest guy on the staff) figuring out that something is up with the President’s health. He’s mostly shown sitting in his office, bouncing a ball against the wall, Thinking – and the scenes are separated with captions such as “Two nights later” and “Two nights after that” …

  14. Sabah Shams says:

    I don’t want to preach. I just want to open your eyes to another option. If you feel the burden of talent on your shoulders, and you’re looking for a way to live up to your academic potential, then please, for my sake, before you dive into the stress-saturated morass of the GWH, give the unheralded, but equally effective A* strategy some consideration.—> this Sir Cal, just made my day!!

    Incredible post. 🙂

  15. rick says:

    Completely concur. Did the same while I was an undergrad: always took the minimum # of units. Definitely had more desire to get great grades rather than an insane courseload.

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