Q & A: Can a Relaxed Student Get into Grad School?

Grad School Without UlcersQuestions and Answers

I recently received an insightful collection of questions from a Study Hacks reader. In short, he was trying to reconcile my philosophy of radical simplicity with the ambitious goal of getting accepted to a good graduate program. I address his main points below…

You recommend that students not kill themselves doing obscenely hard work loads and working their butts off for straight-A’s. On the other hand you say that grades are important for graduate school admissions. Would you please write about how someone who wants to go to grad school can best apply your radical simplicity ideas?

This is an excellent question. I like it because it highlights a common misconception.

I’ll start by clarifying my position. Grades are important. You should get good grades. (This should come as no surprise considering that I wrote a book titled How to Become a Straight-A Student.)

If you review my recent radical simplicity manifesto or my open letter to new college students you’ll notice that getting good grades is a core motivation. The logic proceeds as follows: If you focus on one major, and a reasonable course load, and not too many activities, you will be able to really engage your courses and avoid the typical student assignment shuffle; i.e., spasmodically flailing from one deadline to the next.

The results of this engagement:

  1. You get good grades. It’s crazy how easy it is to get an ‘A’ when you like and understand the material.
  2. You do so without a lot of stress. This is especially true if you couple this reduced schedule with the type of efficient study habits preached here every week.
  3. You get really good at the material. Your professors will notice that you really understand and care about what they’re teaching. They end up writing great recommendations and offer interesting opportunities to you. (It’s these “department stars” that have the easiest time getting into graduate school. It’s somewhat ironic that the way to become a star is to do less. Ironic but awesome. )

This brings up, I think, a more important point. Why did this reader interpret the radical simplicity manifesto to say “don’t sweat grades?” The answer: students are deeply committed to the false belief that grades must be the result of a sacrifice requiring hard, stressful work.

This belief is so strong, that when this reader saw the idea that you shouldn’t work your butt off, he made the immediate, intuitive leap that this also means you shouldn’t worry about grades.

One of the key messages of this blog and my books is to dispel this myth. To get good grades with a reasonable schedule and reasonable study habits is not a hard task. To get good grades with a crazy schedule and a triple major and two thousand activities is near impossible.

Let’s move on to his next interesting question…

Other than research, what else does someone interested in grad school need to be doing — and not doing — and how do we free ourselves up to live a great life while not jeopardizing our chances of getting accepted?

I’ll share my understanding of graduate school admissions, which applies mainly to the sciences. (I invite feedback from those who know more than me on these topics). From my experience, to get into a good graduate school, you need:

  1. To get good grades in the relevant subjects.
  2. Be known as one of the best students in your major.
  3. Demonstrate, unequivocally, that you can handle the demands of research.

Notice that becoming president of 10 clubs and volunteering on the weekends does not make this list. In the few casual conversations I’ve had with professors who served on graduate admission committees, I’ve never once heard a mention of something outside of a student’s grades or research experience.

Practically speaking, this means the following advice applies to the aspiring grad student:

  • You should slash and burn your schedule to the point that you have more than enough time to really focus and engage with the courses in your major. Don’t double major. Don’t pile multiple hard courses into the same semester. You need to live and breath the core material. No one cares if your schedule was hardcore. Get over it.
  • Get started in research. Don’t be lazy. A common tale here at MIT: a hardcore (read: over-scheduled) student signs up to do undergraduate research because he heard it was important for graduate school. Because the student is so hardcore, this involvement soon becomes seen as an annoyance — one more thing among dozens eating away at his limited, stress-saturated time. The student does the bare minimum. Makes excuses. And, eventually, the professor forgets about him. Don’t do this! Instead, go beyond the bare minimum. Do good work fast. After a year or so of proving yourself you’ll be rewarded with the type of responsibilities that will, down the line, impress the professors reviewing your file.
  • Time permitting you can add back at most one serious extracurricular activity. This provides some non-academic balance to your life. But this all about you. So don’t do it unless it’s something you find meaningful. Also, don’t add more than one thing. It’s key that you leave a sufficient buffer of free time to relax, and decompress, and pursue random opportunities.

Take this all with a grain of thought. But I think these basic concepts are sound. To summarize, the key to getting into graduate school: focus on your major; be a good researcher; don’t do too much else.

The good news is that this lifestyle is quite reasonable. You like your classes, become an expert in your subject, don’t feel overwhelmed, and have plenty of time left over to relax. Not a bad way to spend your four years on campus.

So to answer the question that titles this post: Yes. And you’d be a fool to try it any other way.

19 thoughts on “Q & A: Can a Relaxed Student Get into Grad School?”

  1. Thanks for writing this up Cal, and for your kind reply to my initial questions. Both (email and the above post) are much appreciated.

  2. So, would it be better to do a study abroad (for a language) even though you wanted to get into a “good” science grad school? Or would you spend that summer doing full-time research for a prof.?

  3. I don’t know if the “radical simplicity manifesto” can be applied to pre-med students. As far as I know, hospital and physician shadowing experience is absolutely necessary for admission into any medical school. Do you have any ideas on how a pre-med can use the radical simplicity idea and still stand out among obsessive overachievers called pre-meds.

  4. Could I ask you another question then?

    Can a relaxed high school student get into Harvard (or the Ivy League/top schools)?

  5. I’m in grad school in the sciences and I would definitely say that to get into top grad schools in the sciences you can strictly focus on 1)research, join a group where there is a non-zero chance of having your name on a publication 2) grades, focusing first on your major’s grades and second on all others. 3) letters of rec from science teachers, which should be mostly taken care of from your research adviser(s). Yearbook, student body, music, etc. is 100% unnecessary if those 3 things are taken care of.

    Also,I went to a liberal arts college and am in grad school in engineering and learned that for those of us coming from small non-research schools, you’ve got to try to get a summer internship at a large name-recognized school. Unfortunately for us, name recognition matters to profs at big name schools.

  6. @jonny:

    Earlier this week I got an e-mail from a reader who has some connection to the admission decisions at a prestigious medical program. His observation: “I was suprised by how many of the [accepted] students reeked of radical simplicity.” I’m now working with him on a more detailed post about med school, but one of the basic observations is that, yes, you should expose yourself to the medical world. But this can be your main activity, or done over the summer, or done in a year between graduation and starting med school. There’s no reason why this necessitates an over-crowded schedule.

    More soon…stay tuned…

  7. Can a relaxed high school student get into Harvard (or the Ivy League/top schools)?

    Don’t get me started! I’ve been researching this question since the summer. Short answer: yes.

    Slightly longer answer: high school students who apply the radical simplicity manifesto, and really focus hard on at most one thing, and leave open time for random opportunities, end up begin really interesting. There’s nothing these top schools like more than truely interesting people.

  8. @Gradhacker:

    Thanks for chiming in. It’s great to hear other voices that have gone through this. It’s so true about the snobbery. I went to Dartmouth. That’s a pretty good school. But it’s not known as a science power-house. I’ve actually had (typically, non-American) researchers say to me: “what’s Dartmouth?” Not even on their radar.

  9. Thanks Cal for your reply… The thing is, my school seems to have so many projects! We have to do like, one for every single subject and they’re all pretty major ones, including research –surveys, analysis, reports, and all that, so if I want to do well in them I really have to put loads of effort in. Something which I can’t seem to escape…. I’m 16. And shit, my extracurriculars are like, zilch. Unless you count my writing/photography, which I seriously have not achieved much in. So how’s the radical simplicity manifesto going to help me? Are you going to have a new book coming out soon?

  10. Dear Cal,

    I’m sorry this isn’t related to your entry. I just couldn’t find your contact info even after some digging (maybe I’m less tech-savvy than I thought). I just have a question about a tip in your How to Win in College. Tip #60 says I should volunteer but not talk about it, not even in interviews. I’m not a fan of showoffs either, but aren’t there points in an interview when a big volunteer experience would earn you lots of points? For example, I’m applying for summer internships in non-profit organizations, and I can’t think of a way to convince them I’m fit for the job without bringing up how much volunteering I’ve done and how it has shaped my thinking, etc. Some more elaboration on this would be great.

    Before I wind up, let me reiterate the obvious: your book is amazing!

  11. @Linh:

    If you click on the “About Study Hacks” tab above it has all my contact info. But now that you’ve asked, I’m happy to answer your question here.

    The basic idea behind Tip #60 is that you should do some good just for the sake of doing good. Not for recognition. Now, if you’ve done a lot of volunteering then, of course, you can mention this in a relevant interview, as it’s a major part of your background. But for many students, who don’t really do anything along those lines, Tip #60 would say “go do something, just to be good, not for any other reason.”

  12. The thing is, my school seems to have so many projects! We have to do like, one for every single subject and they’re all pretty major ones, including research –surveys, analysis, reports, and all that, so if I want to do well in them I really have to put loads of effort in.

    First things first, you have to get a handle on your academics. Your school assigns a lot of work. Okay, kick ass with your work. How do you do this? Make sure you abandon the typical high school mindset that it’s just a function of how many hours of effort you invest. Read the study tips and productivity archives of this blog. Man up (or woman up) and take control of your time. Start making schedules. Start things earlier. Replace inefficient study habits with efficient ones.

    Once you have a handle on your courses, and you really feel like you’re engaging that material, and enjoy it, and are doing top-notch work, then remember the following: interesting things happen to interesting people.

    This translates, for you, to take something you’re interested in, like writing or photography, and start asking what would be the coolest f’ing things I could do with this? Then talk to people who have. Try random stuff. Go out on a limb. Just be interesting and constantly seek cool new places to take your interests.

    Good stuff — including, yes, success with college admissions — will follow.

  13. Thanks for this post. I feel enlightened to a lot of what I should be doing in my undergraduate years. Compared to my friends, who probably won’t differentiate between how grad school admissions work compared to undergrad admissions, they’ll just over-work themselves


  14. This was an excellent post!

    I just wanted to add something about people with lower grades who are aspiring to go to graduate school. I’m a fifth year undergraduate student doing a double major in biochemistry and microbiology which I will complete this April. My cumulative university average is between a B- and a B and yet I’ve been approached by several professors who said that they would be happy to become my supervisor for graduate school. How is this possible?

    Last summer I obtained my first ever research-oriented job and I enjoyed it so much that I knew I wanted to do graduate school. Initially I was worried about my gpa… But since I couldn’t do anything about the previous four years grades, I set about working as hard as I could (which didn’t seem that hard since I loved the research). In the end, the results I came up with over the summer ended up being added to their paper (manuscript in press now) with my name on them. The principle investigator of the lab has said he would take me on as a graduate student… And so have several other professors that I got to know and work with over the summer.

    Right now I’m completing my last year and doing a completely separate research project. Additionally, I was invited by the professors I worked with over the summer to give a brief talk about the summer work I did at a conference.

    Basically… all of these things look very good on my CV. Even if I DIDN’T have the publication/conference to talk about on my CV, I would still have two research job positions (which show experience with research) and professors who would write excellent references for me.

    For those hoping to get their foot in the door like I did, a post doc I worked with over the summer told me that I was hired rather than other students with significantly higher GPAs because of my enthusiasm for the work that I conveyed during the interview.

    In short, for those who are worried, it’s not always about the grades. It’s about experience, persistence (for that first research job I applied at lots of labs and only got an interview with a few) and networking.

  15. How does the point about research apply to *pure* Math graduate school admissions? Scrolling to my and other faculty’s websites it seems way less common. Being the best student in your major in terms of coursework seems to be the domindant theme with Mathematics.

    From the faq of Stanford Department of Mathematics:
    “Do I need to have gone to an REU? Do I need research experience?
    Although you’re certainly welcome to include letters from faculty mentors about research experience, we don’t expect you to have such experience or to have attended an REU.”


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