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Tycho Brahe’s Cognitive Kingdom

Deep (Work) History

Recently, I’ve been reading through the first volume of Simon and Schusters’ magisterial 1954 four-volume essay collection, The World of Mathematics (edited by James Newman). In a chapter on Napier’s discovery of logarithms, written by Herbert Turnbull, I came across a neat story about the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe that I hadn’t hear before.

I thought I would share it.

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How to Become a Star Grad Student: James McLurkin and the Power of Stretch Churn

The Famous Dr. McLurkinMcLurkin

In 2008, when James McLurkin graduated with a PhD in Computer Science from MIT, he was unquestionably a star. Four years earlier, Time Magazine profiled James and his research on swarm robotics as part of their Innovators series. The next year, he was featured on an episode of Nova ScienceNOW. The producer of the show, WGBH in Boston, built an interactive web site dedicated to James, where, among other activities, you can watch a photo slide show of his life and find out what he carries in his backpack. Earlier this year, TheGrio, a popular African American-focused news portal, named James one of their 100 History Makers in the Making — a list that also includes Oprah Winfrey and Newark, NJ mayor Cory Booker.

Perhaps most telling, even my brother, who finished his systems engineering degree in 2002, knew of James. “He’s the guy with the robots,” he recalled. “We watched a video of him in class.”

In other words, James is famous in his field. So it’s not surprising that in 2009 he landed a professorship at Rice University — one of the country’s top engineering schools — in one of the worst academic job market in decades.

With these accomplishments in mind, this post asks two simple questions: How did James become such a star? And what lessons can we apply to our own quest to become remarkable?

The answers, as  you’ll soon encounter, are not what you might first expect…

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Want to Get into Harvard? Spend More Time Staring at the Clouds: Rethinking the Role of Extracurricular Activities in College Admissions

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.

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An Argument for Quitting Facebook

Deactivating Facebook

A Bold Decision

At the end of his first semester at Penn, a student whom I’ll call Daniel was disappointed to learn that his GPA was a lackluster 2.95. Following the Study Hacks orthodoxy that study habits should be based on evidence — not random decisions or peer pressure — Daniel asked himself a crucial question: What are the better students doing that I’m not?

When he surveyed his classmates, he noted something interesting: “the high-scoring kids weren’t on Facebook.”

Emboldened by this observation, Daniel decided to do the unthinkable: he deactivated his Facebook account.

His GPA jumped to an exceptional 3.95.

In this post, I want to share the details of Daniel’s story — revealing what actually happens when you quit one of the most ubiquitous technologies of your generation. I’ll then make the argument that although most students don’t need to leave Facebook, every student should at least give the idea serious consideration.

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How Ricardo Aced Computer Science Using His iPhone

Midterm Prep Small Size

From 30 Minutes of Studying to a 4.0

I recently received an e-mail from Ricardo, a sophomore majoring in computer science at the University of Maryland.  For the past three semesters he has maintained a 4.0 GPA — a feat he accomplished “without stressing at all.” At the core of his success is an unconventional technique that makes use of a wiki, his iPhone, and my infamous stealth studying philosophy. This technique is so effective that he dedicates only 30 minutes to review on the day before his computer science exams — yet still aces them.

In this post, I detail Ricardo’s method, including step by step instructions and screenshots…

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The Grade Whisperer: Karen’s Overbearing Parents

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

The Parent TrapAdvice

I recently received an e-mail from a student whom I’ll call Karen. She is a sophomore at a top-20 university and is struggling with her parents’ ambitious plans for her college career.

As Karen explained: “Deep down my parents just want to make sure I have a better life than they do.”

But their relentless pressure for Karen to become a doctor (“they argue that doctors have stable jobs”) eventually became too much to handle.

“Second semester of my freshman year I put my foot down,” Karen recalls. “After a tearful and hurtful argument they finally relented and said I should try economics instead.”

But this compromise hasn’t gone well.

“I’m struggling…because I’m simply not interested in my economics courses,” Karen told me.  “My history of human rights course, however, is absolutely fascinating and actually made me seriously consider going to law school and maybe getting an MPA in Public Affairs, or even going to business school.”

Karen reduced her woes to three questions:

  1. “Should I stay at my school? And if so, should I change my major?
  2. “Should I transfer?”
  3. “Should I take a gap semester or year off?”

“I’m just sick of trying to be someone I’m not, but I have this deep-seated fear of being a starving person on the street if I follow my passions.”

Sounds like a job for the Grade Whisperer…

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The Grade Whisperer: How Jay Became a Living Incarnation of the Study Hacks Canon

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

The 25 Year-Old FreshmanAdvice

When Jay graduated high school in 2002, he bypassed college to compete with a professional drum and bugle corps, eventually becoming head of percussion and winning a regional championship.

Over time, Jay sagely realized that “this was not heading toward a long-term career.” So in the fall of 2008, he enrolled in college as a 25 year-old freshman.

Like many new students, he allowed his study habits to coalesce randomly into a half-assed jumble of procrastination and stress.

“My strategy was to earn a 4.0 through losing lots of sleep cramming for exams and saving papers until the last minute,” Jay recalls.

He was earning good grades this first year, but as he reports: “it was killing me both physically and mentally.” Around this time, his daughter was born, straining an already tight schedule.

“It was a disaster waiting to happen.”

His words proved prophetic. This fall, during his first semester as a sophomore, Jay “hit the wall” with a pair of tough upper-level classes.

“Not knowing how to study or manage my time put me behind,” Jay says. He bombed his first exams, earning a D on one of them.

“I realized that I needed to re-learn how to study,” Jay says. This led him to Barnes & Noble, where he stumbled across an intriguing, yellow-colored book. This, in turn, led him to Study Hacks.

Things began to change…

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The Danger of Black Box Studying

Note: Having handed in my dissertation last week, I guess, for the first time in over 20 years, I’m no longer a student. Worry not, however, Study Hacks isn’t going anywhere in the near future.

Economic Troubles

I recently received the following e-mail from a Berkeley student:

I left [an economics] exam positive I would get an A…The mean was a 77…I ended up getting a 55 — absolutely awful…I feel beyond frustrated by this and am wondering why, perhaps in your analysis, did I think I did so well when I absolutely nuked it?

I receive several e-mails of this type each week. They all follow the same basic format. The student is surprised by doing poorly on a test and is hoping that I can offer some ingenious strategies that will prevent the disaster from happening again.

I’m happy to answer these e-mails, but I’ve been fearing recently that a dangerous sentiment lurks beneath — a sentiment I need to combat.

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