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How to Get Into Stanford with B’s on Your Transcript: Failed Simulations & the Surprising Psychology of Impressiveness

The United Nations

Steve and David

Let’s try a simple experiment. Imagine that you’re an admissions officer at a competitive college, and you’re evaluating the following two applicants:

  • David — He is captain of the track team and took Japanese calligraphy lessons throughout high school;  he wrote his application essay on the challenge of leading the track team to the division championship meet.
  • Steve — He does marketing for a sustainability-focused NGO; he wrote his application essay about lobbying delegates at the UN climate change conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Who impresses you more? 

For most people, there’s little debate: Steve is the star.

But here’s the crucial follow-up question: Why is Steve more impressive than David?

The answer seems obvious, but as you’ll soon discover, the closer you look, the more hazy it becomes. To really understand Steve’s appeal, we will delve into the recesses of human psychology and discover a subtle but devastatingly power effect that will change your understanding of what it takes to stand out.

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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 Update On My New Book

UPDATE (2/17/10): My new book, which is scheduled for publication in July, 2010, is now available for pre-order on Amazon. If you’re excited about this title, and want to ensure that you get your copy the day it comes out, consider ordering it in advance.  (I have a feeling we’re going to sell more than they expect, and stocks will run low.)

The Relaxed SuperstarsBook Deal

I receive a lot of e-mails asking about my new book. I realize that I’ve only given a few vague details on the project to date, so I thought I would rectify that today by bringing you up to speed.


The book focuses on a group of high school students I call relaxed superstars. These are students who live low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. In the book I tell their stories and deconstruct how they pull this off.

To date I’ve interviewed around 20 such students. I can guarantee that their stories will change the way you think about college admissions. You’ll encounter students who enjoyed abundant free time (due to reasonable course loads and minimal junk extracurriculars), yet still breezed into schools like Stanford, Princeton, and MIT. Their secret almost always involves focused attention on an innovative project they loved.

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Does Being Exceptional Require an Exceptional Amount of Work?

The Obama MethodBarack in Crowd

In response to my recent article on Misery Poker, a reader commented:

I wonder about the really exceptional people. Does Barack Obama “build a realistic schedule”? … maybe extraordinary stress IS required to accomplish extraordinary feats

Another reader added:

I think extraordinary sacrifices are required for great accomplishments.

This is a fascinating argument. Study Hacks, as you know, is driven by the Zen Valedictorian Philosophy, which claims that it’s possible to be both relaxed and impressive. But these commenters are pushing back on this world view. It’s one to thing, they note, to have a successful college career that is also relaxed, but is it possible to have an exceptional career without overwhelming amounts of work?

In this post I claim it is possible. And I’ll explain exactly how…

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A Greek Philosopher Tackles Student Activities

Epictetus: Student Success Guru…Epictetus

I’m intrigued by a second century Greek philosopher named Epictetus. He was a stoic. This means, roughly, that he believed the key to a good life is focusing on what you can control, not lamenting about what you cannot.

In other words: A stoic doesn’t sweat bad stuff happening. His concern is how he behaves when the going gets tough.

Because I’m weird, I recently skimmed two different translations of Epictetus’s The Enchiridion: a handbook describing 52 life lessons. There was one lesson in particular — lesson 29 — that caught my attention. It provides a piercing analysis of an issue that we discuss often on this blog: should you focus on a small number of things or experiment with many?

Here is what Epictetus had to say:

In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist.

In other words, think carefully before adding a new commitment. Otherwise, your initial energy is likely to flag. Something he calls “shameful.”

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A Simple Method for Developing an Innovative Activity

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…

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