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Q & A: Getting into Harvard without Getting an Ulcer, Scheduling Research Time, and the Art of Becoming Good

From the reader mailbag:Questions and Answers

As a high schooler — a freshman actually — I was wondering if your radical simplicity philosophy applies to me? I attend a very good high school that is competitive for grades. I always feel the need to take the hardest courses and take as many as possible. I want to try the radical simplicity method but somehow I feel that if I do so, I’m working under my level and it won’t make me competitive for college. Can radical simplicity work for me?

Cal responds:

Here’s my advice for high school students:

  1. Improve your study habits. Most of your peers are terrible at studying. Having a decent set of habits can make a big difference in the simplicity of your schedule. Work some place that’s not your house. Don’t write papers with the internet on. Follow a schedule. You’re a Study Hacks reader, you know the drill
  2. Refuse to be overloaded. High school students sometimes ask me how to choose a course schedule. My advice: choose the most challenging schedule that you can handle without having to work late at night on a regular basis. Make this non-negotiable. If the schedule you want forces you to stay up late then it’s too hard for you.
  3. Slash and burn your activities. There is a lot of weird lore circulating through high schools about what sort of activities you need to get into a good college. Let me make this simple: it’s almost all entirely wrong. The whole laundry-list, I need to have many different activities to show off different aspects of my “personality” approach is dead. It doesn’t work. Here is who Harvard wants to admit: Bob Dylan with good SAT scores. In other words, they want a really interesting, original, innovative person whom they have no doubt can handle the academic challenge of the school. So take a reasonable course load. Do well. Then in your extracurricular life, cut out that stupid internship at the local science lab and the volunteering trip to teach good nutrition to crippled orphan nuns with speech impediments, and, instead, focus on becoming an interesting person. Talk to other interesting people. Go to interesting things. Try interesting things. Surprise people. You’ll be happier and the admissions officers will be pleased — finally! — to see real.
  4. Start studying for your SATs very early. If you want to maximize the schools you get into while minimizing stress, then the most time-efficient formula: be a really interesting person, that everyone likes, and that gets involved in weird, interesting things, and who did fine in his classes — but certainly not valedictorian material — and who, by the way, has an outstanding SAT score. Bonus points if you hit the score on your first try (they see how many times you took the test.) This fits an admission officer’s preferred storyline that you’re this fascinating, brilliant young person whose too busy living life to obsess over every last test in class, but, when faced with the SAT, blew it away no problem.

My final advice is to ignore your friends’ (and their parents’) theories about getting into college. If they’re anything like me at that age: they’re idiots.

From the reader mailbag:

What time management advice do you have for a student who’s heavily involved in research?

Cal responds:

From my experiences I can identify two big ideas for how best to integrate undergraduate research into your schedule. The first: stop making research compete with your classes. For example: I did a lot of my undergraduate research during two summers. (I dug up some departmental support to hang around on campus.) In addition, during two semesters of my senior year I arranged for my research to take the place of a regular class. One semester I got credit through the auspices of a “thesis writing” course offered by my department, the other semester I just took a reduced course load (I had some AP credits burning a hole in my scholastic pocket). This avoided me having to pit research against a full slate of classes.

There were some times, of course, in which I was taking a full course load and still had some research to complete. In these occasions I dialed back my obligation to my main extracurricular (writing) to free up some more time and then — this is key — integrated regular research time into my autopilot schedule.

This technique of reduce then regularize is the only way I’ve seen students make good progress on research during a normal full term.

From the reader mailbag:

I’m enjoying your book How to Win at College and I am intrigued by your chapter “Do One Thing Better than Anyone Else.” I’m having a difficult time thinking of what I do or could do better than any own I know. How should I go about finding a hidden talent of mine?

Cal responds:

Don’t get caught up on talents. Just focus on one activity that seems interesting and go above and beyond. For example, let’s say you like writing for the school paper. Make it your only activity. Go after better stories. Get more quotes. Don’t write the shit filler that a lot of young student writers do when they’re short on time and bored. Try to become an editor. Try to get articles picked up on college news wire. In short, become known for being really good at being a journalist.

The same logic applies to just about any activity that catches your interest.

6 thoughts on “Q & A: Getting into Harvard without Getting an Ulcer, Scheduling Research Time, and the Art of Becoming Good”

  1. So, starting and managing a parkour (something I’m interested in) club at school would be viewed more favourably by the admissions officers than the traditional option of holding down positions in a dozen more boring clubs?

  2. So, starting and managing a parkour (something I’m interested in) club at school would be viewed more favourably by the admissions officers than the traditional option of holding down positions in a dozen more boring clubs?

    Yes. But don’t sotp there. Get good. Once you have access to this insider world look for insider opportunities that to the outside observer are particularly unexplainable. For example, you might end up scrounging together financing to hang out in France trying to film your own parcour video. Etc. See my article on “The Art of Activity Innovation” for more information on take the focused idea and making it shine…

  3. I recently read your book how to win at college and one of the chapters seems to contradict what you had said about double majors on this blog. I apologize if you answered this question previously but I really wanted to ask because I felt confused. Which is it, double or not?


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