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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.

Beyond the List Quality Hypothesis

We’re surprised by admissions outliers like Olivia because their accomplishments fall short of the quality we expect from top applicants. This surprise, of course, requires the belief that the role of extracurricular activities is to signal important qualities about the applicant. It’s common, for example, to hear students talk about an activity demonstrating their “leadership potential” or “passionate commitment.”

I call this understanding the list quality hypothesis, and if you subscribe to this belief, Olivia remains a mystery; her activities don’t signal enough outstanding things to make her competitive at a top school.

Having spent the last three years researching outliers, like Olivia, for my new book, I’ve noticed a surprising trend: the greatest asset of these relaxed superstars is not the quality of their activities, but the fact that they’re genuinely interesting people. This trait, which I call interestingness, permeates their application – from their essay to recommendations – and has a profoundly positive impact on their admissions chances.

For these students, extracurricular activities play a different role than for their peers.  They don’t use activities to signal their qualities, they use them instead to transform themselves into more interesting people. In other words, what’s important about an activity is not its impressiveness, but its impact on your personality.

I call this idea the interestingness hypothesis, and it upends conventional wisdom on how to get accepted at a competitive college.

How Olivia Got Into UVA

In March 2008, when Olivia sat down for her final interview with the Jefferson Scholarship Committee, she was plagued by nerves.

“At the time, I felt really insecure,” she recalls. “Maybe I should have played varsity soccer and lacrosse, and you know, become student council president.”

Then one of the committee members turned to her. “So, tell me about these horseshoe crabs,” he asked.

Olivia began to talk about her research from the past summer, where she helped the graduate students in her lab try to match the movement of horseshoe crabs in New Hampshire’s Great Bay to the movement of the tides. They were pursuing the hypothesis that crabs use the tides to coordinate their migrations.

It soon became clear that over the past three years, Olivia had developed a deep interest in this work. It had started, perhaps, during the  daily commute to campus, which she made with her neighbor – the professor who ran the research lab. His enthusiasm for marine zoology infused their conversations.

“One morning — to give you an example — the professor began going on about a paper on some neurotransmitter in the brain of lobsters,” Olivia told me. “It wasn’t his area of research, but he was fascinated anyway.”

This enthusiasm, evidently, proved contagious, as Olivia began to pursue the subject on her own time.

The conversation with the scholarship committee shifted. Olivia began talking about the book Emergence, by Steven Johnson, which describes how simple small-scale decisions can aggregate into complex large-scale behavior (for example, dumb ants creating smart colonies).

Olivia had read the book for fun, and started riffing with the committee about how Johnson’s ideas might apply to marine zoology. “Was it possible,” she wondered out loud, “that the complex migrations of horseshoe crabs might also be an emergent trait?”

Most students, when faced with a similar interview situation, fall back on emphasizing their activities and the traits they signal. “Running my church youth group,” they might say, “is another example of my leadership ability.”

Olivia followed a different path. She didn’t emphasize her activities (which, in isolation, weren’t all that impressive) or the qualities they supposedly signaled, instead she let her natural interestingness come through – and her interviewers were entranced.

Put another way: she rejected the list quality hypothesis, embraced the interestingness hypothesis, and won a full-ride scholarship for her efforts.

Students Aren’t Born Interesting, They Earn It

The interestingness hypothesis is appealing — using a small number of activities to transform yourself into an interesting person is much less demanding than trying to build a long list of time-consuming commitments. But when I tell the story of relaxed superstars like Olivia, most high schools students balk.

“That’s great for her,” they say. “But there’s nothing in my life that I’m that interested about!”

They then go join the Key Club.

This reaction is based on the common belief that only a few lucky students are born naturally interesting, while everyone else has to prove their worth the hard way – one demanding extracurricular commitment at a time.

But is this true?

In 2001, a research team led by Professor Linda Caldwell of Penn State University, conducted an experiment that effectively put the idea of the naturally interesting student to the test.  They gathered a group of middle school students from four rural Pennsylvania school districts. A subset of these students were randomly selected to receive a six-week training course called TimeWise. The goal of the course was to teach the students to make better use of their free time (their theory was that less bored students are less likely to fall into dangerous behaviors, such as drug use).

One of the lessons, for example, taught students how to balance what they “have to do” with what they “want to do,” while another provided strategies for following up on an idea that seemed interesting.

After the course finished, all of the students were subjected to a battery of tests to assess their interestingness. As Caldwell described the results in a 2004 paper, the group that received the training showed “higher levels of interest (and thus lower levels of boredom) than the [control] group,” they also “scored higher…on initiative…the ability to restructure boring situations…and the ability to plan and make decisions [about their] free time.” They participated in more new and interesting activities than the students in the control group and were overall more happy.

This is an astonishing result.

We tend to think about interestingness as an innate trait possessed by a lucky few, but Caldwell and her team revealed that a half-dozen common-sense lessons were enough to make a significant difference in the measured interestingness of randomly-selected middle school students.

If these basic lessons had such an impact on bored middle schoolers, imagine the change possible for someone committed to the goal of becoming more interesting.

How to Become Interesting

Intrigued by Caldwell’s results, I called her to ask if she could distill some lessons from her research. I wanted her advice for a student hoping to become more interesting.

“You need to be exposed to many things – you should expose yourself even though you might not know if you’ll be interested,” she told me.

“You need some time when you turn off the phone and the instant messenger and take a walk to appreciate the world without something in your ear.”

(This should sound familiar to fans of Ben Casnocha, one of the most interesting people I know.)

In other words, to become more interesting…

  1. Do fewer structured activities.
  2. Spend more time exploring, thinking, and exposing yourself to potentially interesting things.
  3. If something catches your attention, use the abundant free time generated by rule 1 to quickly follow up.

Olivia’s story follows this structure. As a sophomore, she was a believer in rules 1 and 2; she kept her obligations light and maintained an addiction to interesting things. After getting a good grade on a chemistry project on nitrogen in marine habitats, she e-mailed her neighbor on a whim (demonstrating rule 3 in action). “I knew he did something with lobsters,” she recalls, “and thought ‘maybe he would want an unpaid volunteer over the summer.’”

He did. And two years later she won the Jefferson Scholarship.

Pulling The Pieces Together

My argument is simple:

  • High school students place too much emphasis on the qualities demonstrated by their activities. In a quest to demonstrate as many good qualities as possible, they end up stressing themselves with unwieldy lists of time-consuming commitments.
  • Students like Olivia highlight a different approach. They show that that being interesting can go farther than being widely accomplished. With this in mind, they use activities to build their interestingness – not their credentials – and therefore enjoy happier lives.
  • The research of Linda Caldwell supports a powerful corollary: any student can become more interesting – it’s not an innate trait possessed only by a lucky few. The key, roughly speaking, is to allow yourself more time to stare at the clouds, and then be prepared to follow-up when you spot something cool.

These ideas are so important that I dedicate the first half of my new book arguing their validity. I’ll also be returning to this territory over the next few months, as I continue this series on what really makes impressive students impressive. In the meantime, however, you can ease your mind into this counterintuitive conversation with a simple thought: Just because most students follow the same stressful strategy for becoming a standout, doesn’t mean that it’s the only strategy for reaching this goal.

Just ask Olivia, who quipped, when reflecting on her path into UVA: “I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world.”

(Photo by Greenmonster.)

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

  1. Cal,

    From your experience and what you’ve observed of other people, would you say that the same strategy of having “fewer-structured-extracurriculars-to-leave-time-to-pursue-one-highly-interesting-and-meaningful-activity” holds true for college students that want to get into med school or a competitive graduate school? That is to say, do you think that this strategy is applicable to ambitious college students as well?

  2. I’ll make sure to buy a book for my high school freshman cousin!

    A side question: Is there a way to turn a mundane part time job (e.g. fast food or retail work) into an interesting activity? It falls into the same category as a time-sucking-drudge club, but a lot of H.S. students need the spending money. I know you didn’t work in college… but maybe you can still comment?

    • I finished reading Newport’s book on this the other day, and he argues that students should join closed communities and clubs that not anyone could join with the slightest amount of diligence. I suppose it would depend on the type of job, but if it is one that anyone could join, I don’t think it would stand out as much.

  3. I second this. I got good (but not great) grades in high school. My extracurriculars were lousy. But, as I joked, I played Varsity History. It was my excelling in that subject, including winning both school prizes and contests for my writing, as well as interning in museums, that impressed the admissions office, and it’s what got me into a better (top 40 liberal arts college) school than I should have, with my grades.

    • The particular art regarding narrating an account is a real indication with the creativity of your person. Indian testimonies are packed with drama and also excitement. You can find tales concerning animals, concerning lost kingdoms, of demons as well as the traditional fests.

  4. Cal, this is a very interesting concept. From my experience in the corporate world I’m inclined to agree – deep engagement adds far more value than maximizing output volume.

    This article is timely for me, as I’ve been thinking of applying to the Info Security Master’s program at Georgia Tech which is quite competitive. My previous academic career isn’t particularly stellar, so I’ll need something else to differentiate my application. I’ll consider how the principles that you presented in this article would fill that gap as I build out my application.

  5. Heh, I started following a similar philosophy about a year ago, influenced by this site and others. It’s interesting that Cal’s philosophies coincide with the way i try live my life, though he does mature his ideas into something definite faster than I do. Still, nice to know I’m on a pretty good track for when i apply to college (I still have a few years.)

  6. Cal

    Great article. Your concept of ‘interestingness’ is something I’ve seen in myself and other students that I’ve tutored. I remember being blown away when I got a phone interview from Oxford even though I barely met their admission requirements. They said I had such a diverse and interesting resume – international sports, running two successful businesses, taking a semester off to reflect etc, that they wanted to interview me.

    I didn’t get to go to Oxford but a student I’ve been tutoring for two years just did. When he was making his applications to Oxford and Cambridge I helped him ‘interestingness’ up his resume. Even though he was initially unsure about my suggestions, it resulted in him getting accepted into both schools.

  7. Cal,

    Thanks for an interesting post. It is always such a pleasure to read your blog. Every piece you write shines like a diamond which lights up the night sky.

    What is this life/If full of care/If one has no time/To stand and stare. A poet once wrote this line and it rings true. Often, we are too concerned about externals. Instead, we should be driven by what motivates us from within. And we should pursue it. And take risks. And experiment.

    In order to be an interesting person, be curious. And we are all curious, just about different things. Pursue your curiosity, whatever catches your fancy. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” wrote Albert Einstein. Watch and wonder and travel by the road not taken, as Robert Frost reminds us.

    Unstructured situations can lead to new opportunities too.
    That’s why so many people land great jobs through the power of networking. Such people are not afraid to meet new people and shake hands. Introduce yourself to strangers.

  8. I admit that I always blink when UVA is listed as a top 20 school. I went there (and not longer ago either), and in my mind it was always “my pleasant, state university.” But they obviously like your interestingness criterion, since I make Olivia look like a go-getter, and they offered me Echols Scholar status (their honors program – Jefferson scholarships are only available to people going to certain highschools, so I wasn’t eligible).

    I don’t have a highschool diploma (despite having a physics degree, a math degree, and a masters in biology). I did a some karate, and play the violin, and I spoke five languages by the time I got to college admissions, but there was almost no way to document any of this. I’d been programming professionally for a few years by that point, but again, no documentation really to point at. The closest thing I came to being part of a club was being a Boy Scout, where I may hold the record for longest time without promotion (I was busy camping, thank you very much).

    By the “quality of list” criterion I should have been outright rejected, possibly with laughter. No degree? Good test scores, but what do those mean? No clubs? Computer geek declaring that he wants to study physics? (Back in 2001, UVA was somewhat biased against hard science applicants, though this may have moderated in the past few years.)

  9. This is certainly an intriguing idea, Cal. However, I do wonder about how much “interestingness” as a personality plus would factor into the probability of an academically average student being admitted to the most competitive (admissionswise) universities, i.e. HYP, when there are so many applicants who are overqualified in that area already. (Especially for international applicants – lately, students from China and South Korea seem to have stats, ECs and prizewinning histories that sometimes reach into a previously unseen stratosphere.)

  10. Continuing on the thought of Chris above, does this apply to life after college? Would limiting your activities to a very small number (say 2 or 3) that interest you increase your value to other people? I think it would, and I think that is how after college you start to become that person who is “remarkable”, as you call it, Cal. This is where deliberate practice should be applied. What are your thoughts, Cal? PS – I can’t wait for more posts on post-college use of DP.

  11. I must have been one of the interesting students. I was the only Canadian admitted to Amherst in my year. I had one extracurricular — life drawing (though my school’s… eccentric… PE program made things like “belly dancing” sound like extracurriculars). But I showed up at the admissions office with a portfolio of artwork under my arm, and as I recall engaged in a lively conversation with a senior admissions officer – who requested that I address my application directly to him.

    This may also explain why I averaged A or A- in my paper-heavy courses by mentally translating every “Write 4-5 pages on XYZ” to “Find something interesting to say about XYZ.”

  12. This post is very relevant to the internal struggle I’ve been having recently. I’ve found myself subscribing to networks and joining social media sites that I have no interest in being a part of. I’ve only joined because “everyone” keeps saying that’s what you “should” do to get ahead. Recently I decided I can’t go against my grain, and I need to just do what I’m interested in and what makes me happy, even if it’s not what everyone else is doing (ie. being a twitter guru). This post proves there IS another valuable way of doing things.

    Be interesting, not just “impressive”.


  13. God, I can relate to this. I had an uneven academic record and little extracurricular involvement (drama club) and people were kind of stunned — I among them — when I won a partial four-year scholarship to one of the most prestigious universities in Canada. But my deep involvement with my creative writing — to the point that my high school invented an award to recognize me for it when I graduated — made me ‘interesting’, and the humor essay I submitted with the application carried more weight than the resumes of the well-rounded valedictorian types. At the interview, not thinking I had a chance whatsoever and so feeling perfectly relaxed, I got into a discussion about Nietzsche and objective vs subjective truth with one of the professors, and when he wanted to know how I’d discovered Nietzsche I started talking about my taekwondo instructor, which got everybody laughing. When I came out, the other applicants were glaring at me, and I didn’t realize until later (when someone told me) that my interview had gone on for about 20 min longer than theirs. I have a better sense now of why this was — thanks, Cal.

    There are a *lot* of well-rounded valedictorian types, and they’re all competing with each other.

  14. Hey Cal
    awesome post as per usual! i have a few questions though.
    she was an outlier. doesn’t this mean that most people who get into uni’s like UVA don’t follow this method. Also, what type of interviewers did she have? I remember from my oxbridge (oxford and cambridge university) interviews that there were some old school stuffed shirts in there that thought very little of interesting and more of competent and strong work ethic. i love your posts and am a regular reader, but defining interesting is a difficult process and i cant see how your hypothesis is correct. For example in my own life, i study physics but my main out of hours interest is behavioural science, psychology, and how humans communicate verbally and non verbally. this has not once come up in an interview despite it being something that when i talk to people in an informal context, people love talking about and have very interesting wide ranging conversations about. instead i am only really asked about my academic ability, really not much else.

    i really want to believe that by being interesting its enough to get you in and above other students in academic spheres but i just cant see it. for me i am at my most comfortable and sociable in informal environments and interviews are not conducive to that.

    do you have any advice for me? or questions/comments etc


  15. The link to the book ‘Emergence’ links back to the studyhacks blog. Just in case you meant to Amazon link it or somesuch.

    Really interesting post. I’m digging the longer, more occasional postings like this that are clearly inspired by a lot of thought. The book sounds promising!

  16. Cal, this is great, great stuff. As a college freshmen, I remember all those horrible missteps I’ve taken (e.g. taking as many APs as I can just because everyone else is doing that, wasting time by joining cultural/sports clubs, etc.) and I wish that I’ve read this article back then. I feel the most important virtue high school kids need is being independent and having a say in what you do. It’s so easy for authorities and your peers to influence what you do, so they need to resist it and learn not to follow the crowd. It’s hard and it takes courage, but most essential.

  17. This is a very interesting theory. As the world shifts into different types of job roles and technology demands graduates to be able to adapt to a changing job market, it is no surprise competitive schools are looking for students who able to adapt and become pillars of knowledge in their respective field. I think schools are more willing to consider students who are creative and able to adapt to situations and thrive under new environments as opposed to coloring within the lines.

  18. Quick note: I’m loving these comments. I’m on the tailend of a west coast trip, but will be back to Boston soon and look forward to diving in with more detailed responses to your questions.

    – Cal

  19. On a side note:

    “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software” (Steven Johnson) is one of the most compelling books I have ever read! The concept of patterns emerging from self-organizing systems of entities that are following a simple set of pre-programmed “laws” is pretty much applicable to everything. And you start to see it everywhere.

  20. Hey Cal,

    First, I love the blog. I’m a phd student in economics, and your ideas have definitely helped me through some difficult times with the thesis. In fact, my current paper topic was partially inspired by reading what you wrote. Having said that, I’d like to draw your attention to some research that I think partially contradicts some of your theories. Not so much your theory of interestingness in this post, but more your theory that the key to a meaningful life is delving deeply into and mastering a single, narrowly focused discipline.

    Your theory is definitely correct for people who engage in creative work – academics, artists, inventors, and the like. Innovation requires mastery of a subject. However, in the modern world many ideas are so big that no one person can master all of the details necessary to develop them. This creates a need for a different class of people, who do not create new ideas themselves but who organize and assemble teams of experts. These are people whose jobs require not primarily creativity, but rather leadership, and leadership, I would argue, is best developed not through deep knowledge of one subject, but through passing knowledge of many subjects. Some jobs that require leadership rather than creativity include entrepreneurship and business more generally, and politics and government.

    A good example here is Steve Jobs. I think we can all agree that Jobs is a genius. But a genius in what? Not computer science – he’s not an engineer and has never written a line of code. Rather, Jobs is a genius at organizing – assembling teams of experts from varied disciplines who would not otherwise have met each other. For example, Jobs has often stated that one of the keys to the success of Apple was the fact that it was the first computer to include a variety of different fonts for word processing, and that Jobs got the idea for this from a single calligraphy class that he took at Reed. Jobs is not an expert in calligraphy, but because he has a passing knowledge of calligraphy he was able to combine the idea with his ideas about computers, and to find the necessary experts who could build a computer with multiple fonts for him.

    The economics paper that contains these ideas is “Entrepreneurship,” Journal of Labor Economics, 23:4 (October 2005): 649, by Ed Lazear. He argues that entrepreneurs are jacks-of-all-trades – the people who have hopped from job to job and who can’t focus on single subject in business school. Another paper that you might like, on the increasing need for teamwork in the production of knowledge, is The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Renaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder?
    Review of Economic Studies, January 2009, by Ben Jones.

    Anyway, like I said, I love your blog and I think that your project is fascinating, and I thought I’d try and contribute a little bit if I can.


  21. I agree with the gist of this article but would change two things, one stylistic and one more substantial:

    1) Please disabuse yourself of those management and self-help lit cliches (as in “use the abundant free time generated by…”). “Use the free time generated by…” sounds so much cleaner and more serious and gets your point across better.

    2) More substantially, perhaps you’d like to think again whether what you mean is “interestingness” or not really “interestedness” (or simply “interest” — see 1). The former seems to imply you need to work to become interesting to other people, as if that was the goal, when perhaps you only become truly interesting by being genuinely interested. At least, it is not being interesting to other people that will enrich your life but being interested. And again, I’d quickly lose interest in an adolescent who wants to impress me as being interesting rather than being actually interested in what he or she does. Then I’d ask myself, why is this so interesting what he or she does, have I overlooked something, can this person show me why,… and voilà, the person has become interesting!

  22. I agree with you Cal. Let me take your “interestingness” idea a bit further and why I think it is important. This might also be an explanation to why such people survive once “in” Ivy Leagues.

    Anyone is interesting because they are unique, diverse, and think differently. How that happens is probably because they have immense curiosity and interests in diverse arena. Exposure of many different culture, people and places and life circumstances count too. Therefore, “interestingness” yields “different thinking” and that leads to “ideas”. That’s what everyone is seeking in the so called ivory towers. They have enough of work horses, tests smarter and followers. That’s why interesting people do well if not better. Moreso, they have social networking and understand such dynamic better to succeed.

    It is probably why I’m at Hopkins and got an interview at Harvard this year. Let’s see if “interestingness hypothesis” still works.

  23. Thanks for this thoughtful and inspiring post. I follow this blog in Google Reader as I like to keep up with good college resources. I usually only skim articles related to admissions, but this one caught my interest, because of its applicability to life in general. Imagine a world where people sought to be more interesting (and interested in the world around them.) Wouldn’t that be cool?

  24. Salim — I just want to stress that ‘interesting’ doesn’t exclude ‘strong work ethic’. ‘Interesting’ people work very hard and deeply in the areas of their choosing — but they do it for the sake of the work itself, for passion, for that feeling of total immersion and ‘flow’, and the depth of that obsession leads to some unusual achievements (as a teenager I’d written novels, won writing contests and was having conversations with agents and editors about my work).

  25. It’s interesting seeing this from the third person 🙂

    I was not completely stress free during high school. I did worry about college and how to pay for it. I knew what kids did to get into college and I knew I couldn’t give up four years of my life for that. I did work very hard academically, but I can say that I was more focused on living my life than storing up accomplishments for college admissions. This wasn’t an easy decision, I struggled with fears about what would happen later. But it all worked out…

    As for the interviews, I think it was being unsure of myself that made me do well in the competition. After spending a weekend with really incredibly accomplished, polished high school seniors I was feeling very small by the time I walked into my interview. I welcomed the chance to talk about something else, about ideas instead of accomplishments. I think sometimes confidence is overrated.

    I would advise high schoolers to think about priorities. This is a really important time for figuring out who you are and being with your family and friends. I don’t think any college is worth giving that up.
    Start doing something that appeals to you on a deeper level than “this looks impressive,” and be willing to work hard at it, and maybe be seen as a little weird. The most important thing is learning to forget about how other people will see you and just focus on the ideas that interest you. It’s always a balance between smart planning and pure intellectual interest.

  26. Being interesting (mainly) was what got me a place at Cambridge. This, despite the substandard grades needed to even get an interview. It is possible to do very well at admissions, but one has to keep an open mind and try to think differently; part of which comes from “being interesting”.

  27. This is my favorite post since finding your blog several months ago. Well done! I forwarded it to my husband (UVA grad) who agreed and then forwarded it to his boss (also a UVA grad). Both are very smart, but had the traditional qualities that get you into a good school instead of Olivia’s quirkiness. They both found the post very interesting. His boss has kids who will hopefully find this blog. I sure wish I had when I was younger! Keep up the good work.

    For the past year, I have developed some new interests and thrown myself completely into them outside of my time spent at work. This had led to several unexpected and wonderful opportunities – so it’s very encouraging to read a story like Olivia’s.

  28. Hmm upon reflection as a current high school junior, I think that the main thing that defines me as a person outside of academics is singing and my community service. This is my fear: Is that enough for colleges to understand who I am as a person? Will they think that is ‘interesting’? The key in Olivia’s case is that she truly had a passion for her research that came out through her interview; she didn’t plan to advertise that.
    I guess that’s something that just comes out unknowingly; if you love what you do, anyone can see it. Now to implement that…

  29. I’m a junior in high school so maybe I’ll offer a slightly skeptical view of what you’ve written.

    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.

    … which further accentuates the fact that the only reason why she got into UVa was because of her interview. Doing well in an interview has nothing to do with whether you are interesting or not. It’s about knowing how to speak about the right things at the right time. It’s about having a great sense of awareness about how you’re being perceived by the admissions officers every second that you are being interviewed.

    In Olivia’s case, she mused about a book she read to relate it to her interest in research – and reading a book about a subject that you’re fascinated about doesn’t make you interesting. Every high school student does that – and it ranges from Japanese manga to porn.

    Olivia’s winning edge was that she let her interestingness shine through, not because she was interesting, but because she was sharp and opportunistic during the course of her interview, though she wouldn’t have realized it at that moment in time.

    Most high school senior classes have a student like Olivia – someone who defies our understanding of who should get accepted to competitive colleges.

    Just one. Why? Because they’re isolated cases.

    This trait, which I call interestingness, permeates their application – from their essay to recommendations – and has a profoundly positive impact on their admissions chances.

    How would Olivia have come across as interesting in her teacher recommendations if her extracurriculars were sub-par and research involvement is an activity that is considered just ordinary?

    Interestingness in an essay can be faked. All you need is good writing ability, which includes, among others, the ability to psychoanalyse how your words will be perceived by admissions officers.

    Do fewer structured activities.


    I run track for my school and I genuinely enjoy it. It’s a huge source of confidence for myself – because I was diagnosed with a heart condition at birth. Running a 400m race below 60 seconds for 17-year old girls takes about, on average, 8 hours of “deliberate practice” a week. And if I have the results to show for it, it would come across in my CV.

    Having said that, most of the opportunities presented to us (research attachments at universities, sports events, writing competitions etc.) are presented by our high schools. These are all structured activities. We’re not college students. For most of us, our social circle is very limited so we try and seize opportunities from the only medium in which we learn – high school. In fact, I would argue that unstructured activities are, for the most part, directionless and unproductive. Ergo, a fatty waste of time.

    So why are structured activities “bad”?

    Just ask Olivia, who quipped, when reflecting on her path into UVA: “I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world.”

    This, Cal, is the reason why most high school students balk at people like Olivia – because luck seems to be the only thing that got them through.

    Until you post more real-life examples to strengthen your interestingness hypothesis, I’d stick to running track and nonfiction writing – both highly structured activities, and maintaining good grades.

    Whether I’m interesting or not, well, I guess I’ll just have to wait for your 3rd book (i’ve been waiting for so long!) for a much better understanding – but right now, it all seems a bit too vague.

    In any case, thanks for a very mind-boggling post. I appreciate it.

  30. Cal, please make it clear that being interested, as opposed to interesting, is good in itself, it is not just a clever ploy for getting into a top-20 university. Olivia avoids the trap of being purely manipulative, marine biology-as-clever-admissions-ploy. HS also pointed to this difference when he or she said: “I’d quickly lose interest in an adolescent who wants to impress me as being interesting rather than being actually interested in what he or she does.”

  31. I’m enjoying these comments. I’ll start with the first 15…

    Answers to Your Questions…

    @Chris: In general, exposure to lots of inputs is how the seeds that lead to deep interests take root. That being said, such extracurricular pursuits don’t play a big role in grad school or med school admissions.

    @Anon: The new book comes out in July. You can pre-order it now at Amazon, if you’re so inclined.

    @Eddie: The most consistent trait of interestingness is that you can’t force it. The seeds that grow into deep interests are happened upon in exploration. What you’re really asking about is whether there is a way you can present your part time job on your application in way that helps you. I’m not an expert on applications, but I’ve heard that having to work a job is not a bad thing. I just wouldn’t depend on it to make you interesting.

    @Jane: To be accepted at a college, you need grades and test scores that fall comfortably in the middle 50% of students accepted. If you’re below this range, you’re probably out of luck. If you’re in this range, then you cross their threshold of being able to handle the work, and it’s up to the other parts of your application to do the rest of the heavy lifting. Keep in mind, for super-selective schools, this middle 50% range can be daunting.

    Also keep in mind that there are the obvious exceptions that allow you to circumvent these restrictions, notably: if you or your parents are famous; you’re a recruited athlete; or your family is mega-wealthy.

    @Rob: You’re exactly right to note that there are echoes between this pre-college advice and my post-college advice. When it comes to admissions, however, the fact that you’re interesting is disproportionately useful. Whereas after college, it doesn’t hurt, but it’s much more important that you’ve mastered a rare and valuable skill. In both cases, going deep is the right philosophy. But the challenge post-college is more difficult.

    Responses to your comments…

    @Eos: The foundation of an acceptance is having grades and test scores that fall within the middle 50% of accepted students. For the very top schools — e.g., HYP — this bar can be high, and unless you match one of the exceptions I mention above, it’s unavoidable. Once past this bar, however, interestingness can serve you as well, if not better than, the list quality approach.

    @Liam: We would love to hear some more details about how you made your advisee’s application more interesting.

  32. I agree with the thesis that being interesting is more important than having a long list of activities and accomplishments. But, as noted by a couple of people here, being “interesting” mostly means being demonstrably interested: in ideas abstract and concrete, in people’s lives and outlooks, in whatever you happen to stumble onto each day, whether it advances your self-interest or not. Whether it impresses admissions counselors or not. Tailoring one’s interests to impress the keepers of the prize is pragmatic, but ultimately craven and shallow.

    So, the paradox is this: Those most worthy to win the prize are those who are not really pursuing it, who see the big scholarship only as a means to feed a deeper — or broader – curiosity about the world around them.

    These issues are very much on my mind, for a couple of reasons. First, because I have three teenage children at home, and I struggle daily with how to guide them in preparing for the college admissions beauty pageants that await them, while at the same time exhorting them to remain true to themselves, follow their passions and care more about character than acceptance — either by peers or universities. The second reason is that I am Olivia’s father, so I have had a couple of years to ponder, in moments of quiet parental pride, what it was that made her so successful in her college search. And it wasn’t just UVA. She had several very good scholarship offers, though there was no doubt in her mind where she wanted to go.

    A couple of points that may help clarify or expand what Cal has written and perhaps give insight into what the admissions people found attractive:
    Olivia was in fact a stellar student in high school, took the hardest courses, did math club, Spanish and science competitions, and had top grades. Plus, she had traveled a fair amount, including to England and service trips to Puerto Rico and Louisiana. She was involved in our local church, and in addition to the lab job she did research and worked as a tour guide in several local historic houses. So the “list quality” was perhaps better than the article implies.

    Olivia’s personality might seem a liability in the college contest: She was very quiet and reserved, content in solitude and somewhat awkward socially. But by her junior year in high school she had developed a quiet confidence and leadership style that impressed peers and adults. (Credit here to Berwick Academy, which recognized her qualities and nurtured them.)

    She homeschooled for three years before high school. I believe homeschooling can help young people establish an identity that is less constrained by institutional thinking and structures and allows them to pursue their own interests, for their own delight, at their own direction. Not always, but in her case I think it helped free her mind from the tyranny of assignments and allowed her intellect to grow in a more self-directed way.

    Although she is reserved, her oral and written communication skills have always been exceptional. She is a skilled listener and can entrance a conversation partner with her attentiveness and interest in the other’s ideas. Her prose is agile, engaging, polished and passionate. I had no doubt that her admissions essays would advance her cause.

    I don’t want this to descend into parental boasting. My point is that the qualities that made Olivia a strong candidate have much more to do with intellectual engagement than quantitative accomplishment. Her “list” is only moderately long, but her ideas are endlessly fascinating. And I think Cal is correct in suggesting that there is a note of hope here for many other truly and irresistibly interesting people who don’t have a room full of trophies but do have passion for learning coupled with the intellect and character to say something that the world needs to hear. It’s passion and wonder that matter. Everyone has those things; they just need to be nurtured. And that’s not the key to college admissions success, it’s the key to a full and rewarding life.

    (Mine may be cut short when Olivia reads this.)

  33. And now I’ll keep going with next 25 comments…

    Answers to Your Questions

    @salim: The key to becoming interesting, is not just stumbling into something that really catches your attention, but also then following up on it aggressively, eventually letting it become a central part of your identity. The effects of such true interestingness permeates everything about your application — it’s not just a good conversation in an interview.

    @Jen: I think you’re falling into the list quality trap. You’re looking at your activities and wondering if they are saying the right things about you. The interestingness approach would have you ask: “are these activities making me into the type of person who would appeal to an NPR producer booking a 30 minute interview.” (The definition I use in my book.) When put this way, most people have a pretty clear answer. As several commenters have noted above, the key to this level of interestingness is not just to be interested in something, but to then throw yourself into that pursuit.

    Responses to Your Comments

    @Justine: I love that idea that it’s better to make your school invent an award for you than it is to try to win the hardest awards they already have.

    @Marc: Good catch! (My apologies to Steven Johnson.) I’ll fix the link. I also appreciate your comments on my new approach of doing fewer posts, but doing them better. It’s a side effect of my growing obsession with either doing something excellently, or not at all.

    @James: These are interesting thoughts. A few things are worth noting: First, leadership is a valuable skill that can be mastered like any other. In fact, in my new book I profile a student whose mastery of leadership led to all sorts of good rewards. Second, I know a lot of Apple employees that would dispute the idea that Jobs is a great leader. His skill is product development. He is really, really good at building beautiful and useful products that change the way things are done. Third, entrepreneurs can be used as an exception to almost any rule, because there are a lot of them, many are haphazard, and lot’s of unverified lore surrounds them.

    @HS: The actual trait that explains why students like Olivia did so well in admissions is the fact that people find her interesting. I’m wary of restricting myself to the term “interested” because it’s vague and not always enough by itself to generate the desired effect.

    (btw, it’s funny that you started on a comment on the importance of simplified language, with the over-complicated phrase “please disabuse yourself of…”)

    @brij: Keep us posted.

    @Sean: It would certainly make conversations at parties more bearable!

    @Christina: Can you share some examples of what it meant to throw yourself into an interest, and the type of opportunities it generated?

    @MCG: I don’t completely agree. Being interested in something is not enough. You actually have to be interesting to other people to generate a positive benefit in your admissions chances. This often requires that becoming interested is the first step, and throwing yourself into this pursuit is the second. It’s the fear of students missing this second step that prevents me from stopping at “interested.”

    @Mahirah: I ran out of time before I could respond to your comment. But I will soon…

  34. Olivia’s father talks about homeschooling as allowing students to “pursue their own interests, for their own delight, at their own direction.” It’s that delight that makes our interests an end in themselves, Cal. Perhaps I misunderstand you, but I hope you are not suggesting that every good intellectual or human inclination must be turned into a credentials-generator.

  35. This article came at the right time for me. I have been thinking along these same lines, but I have never been able to trust it. I’m always asked why I am not doing this or that pathway to boring success activity that everyone else is doing to accomplish similar goals. Rather, I often pursue activities for my own joy and to push forward my understanding.
    People tell me to show my good qualities in interviews. But I was thinking if I say, “Look, I am responsible and show leadership in this cookie-cutter activity and that one too” how these admissions people make any distinctions at all.
    I was hoping it wasn’t about TRYING to impress the interviewer, because that’s just dull. For me and for him/her.

  36. Answers to Your Questions

    @MCG: Again, I’m worried about stopping at “interested,” because I want to emphasize that you need to put in the time to aggressively pursue the thing you’re interested in. It sounds like you’re really worried about the motivations or intent of the students? I’m less interested in these issues, as I think, in the admissions context, they play a larger role in making us feel better than actually helping students. If a desire to get into Harvard leads a student to drop a crippling activity load and commit himself to something of true interest, I’m happy with that result.

    Responses to Your Comments

    @Mahirah: A few points…

    * Doing well in an interview (or writing a good essay; or having great recommendations) has everything to do with being interesting. They weren’t impressed with Olivia because she was well-spoken, they were impressed by what she had to say.

    * Talking about porn in an admissions interview is probably a bad idea.

    * Teachers recognize interesting students as being interesting, and tend to love them and really go to bat for them in their recommendations. It’s a trait that permeates your personality, and infect all who come close. I’ve seen it time and again researching my new book.

    * I was a 400m runner in high school! I’m impressed that you’re sub-60 as a girl! I stalled out around 52, which doesn’t really cut it for men in our division, but it was a blast.

    * The reason I say do fewer structured activities is that it’s the best way to maximize your probabilities of developing a lasting interest in something. As Caldwell advices: you need freedom to explore and follow-up. That’s not to say that a busy student might not also stumble into something. It’s just more likely if you’re flexible.

  37. @Rod:

    It’s great to hear from you. Hopefully Olivia won’t kill you for commenting. 🙂

    I really like your use of “intellectual engagement” as a description of what makes Olivia stand out. This might be a more concrete way of describing the trait of “interestingness.”

    I typically write from the student perspective — e.g., strategies for students to adopt — so it’s especially interesting for me to hear from a parent. If you’re still monitoring this thread, I’m wondering if you would be willing to share a few more tips for parents interested in helping their kids follow a more Olivia-esque path?

  38. Thanks for the intriguing blog post. As a professor in a clinical psychology Ph.D. program, I find that in admissions a number of candidates are indistinguishable in terms of high grades, GRE scores, and reputable school backgrounds. Thus, I look for the “oompfh” factor. Did they do something that shows they thrive amidst adversity? A child who faced hardships and overcame them, a student paying for college by teaching jazz guitar lessons at night, a competing bodybuilder with a love for classic literature, and so on.

    These notions of being interesting and creating interestingness are incredibly relevant to making a person indispensible to organizations from school to teams to the work world. With this in mind, I wrote an entire book on this topic detailing the latest science to support these ideas, titled Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. It was written to help people enhance the interestingness of their moments and create more meaning in their lives.

    Thanks for the brain food on a Monday morning.


  39. Cal,

    I’ve very much enjoyed reading the posts you’ve been focusing on lately that delve into mastery. Your “pyramid method” post represented a big shift in my own thinking, and I’m very much looking forward to your next book.

    Can you recommend where to start reading in the psychological or other research literature on those topics?

  40. I’d be happy to share any insight I may have. On the one hand I suppose I am (along with my wife) the authority on – but certainly not the author of – Olivia’s success, and I could say far more than anyone wants to hear. On the other hand, I have three more teenage children and feel just as clueless how to proceed now as I did when Olivia was thinking about college. I feel mostly like an astonished onlooker, albeit one who has seen quite a few things. So I will be happy to answer any questions you have (either on or off the blog), but I don’t know that I have any handy tips.
    As for parents’ perspectives in general, I think they would be crucial in your research for a full understanding of what students are experiencing. A student may be a brilliant virtuoso, but the parents paid for the lessons and sat through 15 years of recitals.

    (The flogging was bearable.)

  41. I’m not a regular reader of this site, but as Olivia’s cousin, I was forwarded the link. I concur that Olivia is a wonderful, interesting person, though I haven’t been able to spend much time with her the past few years. I’m biased, but my perspective is that much of Olivia’s ‘interestingness’ comes from her family background. Her parents are incredibly interested and interesting people and it is always an adventure spending time with them. They have never been afraid to do things a little differently than most, which has exposed Olivia to many ideas and experiences. They are all avid readers, which I highly recommend for developing an expanded view of the world.
    My college admission days are well behind me now, but I remember them well. For those students who worry about not having enough activities- I got into an Ivy League school with only a few extracurriculars and good grades. I would agree that intellectual engagement and interest in the world and people are some of the most critical factors for success in college, and life in general. Many high school students are so focused on getting into college and doing all the ‘right things’ that they lose sight of the bigger picture- gaining an education and the tools to live life AFTER college. Fascination with life and passion for what you are doing will always be valuable. I was offered my current job (which may be the best job in the world!) over a more qualified applicant because (as I was told later) my boss thought I was more interesting, and he preferred my enthusiasm for learning to the other guy, who had just played it safe and pursued a conventional education.

  42. I may have a further source of high school students for your book – Jefferson County Open High School in Denver, Colorado. It’s an alternative public high school, and my own alma mater. One of the teachers, Rick Posner, has recently compiled a book on the graduates, a large proportion are ‘outliers’, very successful on whatever path they have taken. The book is Lives of Passion, School of Hope … it’s on Amazon. Personally, I got in to University of Colorado with an 80-page written transcript summarizing my high school activities (no high school grades). It took two tries, but I did it. My life has definitely been interesting, sometimes in the Chinese Curse sense of interesting, but I credit the school for teaching me many of the skills I needed to survive and grow.

  43. @MB – it shows that you are a responsible and hardworking individual who is self-sufficient and can be trusted to do the work and have the dedication to stick to your degree.

    besides – the skills picked up at any job gives you valuable real-world experience – something that quite a number of kids lack these days – i was a substitute teacher – had to pay for my A Levels on my own – i didn’t have any special clubs or anything :).

  44. “Running my church youth group,” they might say, “is another example of my leadership ability.”

    I believe we can call this the Pharisee’s Fallacy, which is to take behavior as everything. And we know since the “right/left hand parable” that those who forget the real essence of stuffs will invariably look uninteresting.
    How to correct that?

    Do few things, but do them well. Heart felt works grows purely.

    I mean, read about Cal’s “do less; do better; know why” approach.

  45. I’m not sure I understand what makes Olivia different from most students at top 20 colleges, to be honest. She went to some kind of prep academy, had a high GPA, good test scores, was involved in some extracurricular activities such as Spanish club, Math club, research, etc. Most of the students in my high school who went on to good colleges were like this. They were overall strong students who pursued an interest in the arts, sports, research, or some type of activity.

    I don’t understand why you’re describing her as an outlier rather than the norm. (No offense to Olivia. I’m sure she’s smart and interesting in her own way.)

  46. I hate to keep asking this, but I want to assume people are not just ignoring me.

    How would you recommend studying for a technical drawing class? I am terrible at sketching, and need a save before my semester becomes disastrous.

    Thanks Cal.

  47. Whenever anyone refers to “interestingness”, Richard Feynman always comes to my mind. I love to read about people who manage to excel in vastly different fields and who do it all because they are curious, persistent and love life. If you haven’t, Cal, you need to read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”.

    I stumble upon these individuals in a haphazard way. I was happy to discover E.O. Wilson and went on to read almost every book he has published – and he is rather prolific! But these are oases in parched desert. I am really interested in successful people, so I look at a lot of autobiographies or biographies, and these people are definitely rarities.

    Cal, have you researched any such people to see what characteristics allow them to excel at everything they set their hand to? Their total work output over the course of their lifetimes is staggering, and despite this they never seem too busy to learn something new, take up a new hobby, meet other interesting people, etc.

    Alternatively, could anyone send me in the direction towards more people like E.O. Wilson and Richard Feynman?

  48. Hi Cal,

    I have recently started visiting your website, and I am intrigued by your ideas. I am trying to apply the idea of Commit to less. Do more. Know Why.

    Personally, I am a high school student in Canada who is interested in going into a biology major. I am a straight A student who is part of our region’s Red Cross Youth Council, and a part of our school’s Improv and Business Team, in which I play a key leadership role. Finally, I am a an active youth in my Hindu community and a lifeguard. Although I usually don’t feel overwhelmed, I sometimes wonder why I am doing something. I have recently started reflecting on these things more and realized there are a lot of other things I want to try because I’m interested in them such as DJ and kayaking. I feel like I am a strong scholarship contender, but not exceptional. Do you have any suggestions?

  49. I feel like I am a strong scholarship contender, but not exceptional. Do you have any suggestions?

    Ask yourself the following question: if you woke up and found out that everything had been canceled due to snow, where would you put your time. This instinct belies an interest with a foundation. Immerse you in it — letting the other stuff go.

  50. Ask yourself the following question: if you woke up and found out that everything had been canceled due to snow, where would you put your time. This instinct belies an interest with a foundation. Immerse you in it — letting the other stuff go.

    Thanks for that, Cal. I really needed that. =) It’s hard to describe, but it helped clear up some of the doubts in my mind.

  51. I have to say that mariah’s comment(in the blog) was quite good but Cal’s writing was good to. I also went through the blog in which I found olivia’s dad’s and her cousin’s writing good.

  52. The argument of mariah was true. Even though I do not know is olivia is interesting, She must have formed it in a way that the interviewers thought it was interesting. I do agree with Cal that most people who give their interview only talk about being the leader of this and that. Since I am only 10 years old and got this forwarded from my father I do not no much about this topic , but I do dream about going to harward since it is quite a dificult job.
    I end by saying that the way Cal expressed this was quite good
    PS I also enjoyed olivia’s father’s and cousins writing

  53. Cal,
    I must admit I was a bit skeptical when I chose to read this post. It simply sounded too good to be true, like many of the concepts I have encountered here on your blog. However, I was once again proven wrong, utterly wrong, in fact. This happens frequently when I read this blog, and it’s thrilling.

    On a side note, it speaks to the huge unpredictability of life that I accidentally stumbled onto this blog on Technorati, and it proceeded to change my life. 🙂

  54. Liam McIvor Ison- that’s not possible. You’re not allowed to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge undergrad so the chances that the kid you tutored was accepted into both are highly unlikely.

  55. Your article on the value of pursuing something deeply to be interesting is very inspiring and thought provoking. I enjoyed it.

    One question I have is, regarding high schoolers and college admissions, what if the high schooler still hasn’t found his passion yet? Is he, to put it honestly, screwed if he hasn’t developed a deep passion yet and instead still dabbling and trying out many different activities? I feel that many high school students face this dilemma in which they are pressured to devoted themselves to one focus when they still don’t know what they want to do.

  56. One question I have is, regarding high schoolers and college admissions, what if the high schooler still hasn’t found his passion yet?

    Read farther in the article, it discusses how “passions” are developed.

  57. Yes, I agree that passions can be found if you just expose yourself to new things. However, it seems like from the college’s perspective, the want applicants’ passion and commitment to be established already by the time you apply to their schools. Sometimes it takes people decades to find what they truly love. Isn’t it a bit absurd from the college’s perspective to expect a high schooler to be deeply involved in an interest and have done amazing things already at the tender age of 17 or so?

  58. Hi, I just bought your new book, How to Become A High-School Superstar and I’m almost done with it. Do you have any great tips to help me get into Harvard?

  59. “Danielle Says:
    March 5th, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Whenever anyone refers to “interestingness”, Richard Feynman always comes to my mind. I love to read about people who manage to excel in vastly different fields and who do it all because they are curious, persistent and love life. If you haven’t, Cal, you need to read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”.

    I stumble upon these individuals in a haphazard way. I was happy to discover E.O. Wilson and went on to read almost every book he has published – and he is rather prolific! But these are oases in parched desert. I am really interested in successful people, so I look at a lot of autobiographies or biographies, and these people are definitely rarities.

    Cal, have you researched any such people to see what characteristics allow them to excel at everything they set their hand to? Their total work output over the course of their lifetimes is staggering, and despite this they never seem too busy to learn something new, take up a new hobby, meet other interesting people, etc.

    Alternatively, could anyone send me in the direction towards more people like E.O. Wilson and Richard Feynman?”

    I love reading autobiographies and biographies. I agree with you. “their total work output over the course of their lifetimes is staggering, and despite this they never seem too busy to learn something new, take up a new hobby, meet other interesting people, etc.” I have read Richard Feynman’s books. I also Like “Madame Curie” by her daughter whose name I cannot remember. I am reading Robert A Milikan’s autobiography.

  60. Hi, I just bought your new book, How to Become A High-School Superstar and I’m almost done with it. Do you have any great tips to help me get into Harvard?

    That’s what the book is about.

    Cal, have you researched any such people to see what characteristics allow them to excel at everything they set their hand to

    Often, it’s a deep understanding of what’s required to get at something, so when they turn their attention to a topic, they dive in deep enough, and put in the hard focus, to do it at useful level. Though it seems like they do a lot, what’s more important is how much they tune out.

  61. Hey Cal,
    I recently bought your new book, and I found the ideas immensely powerful. One thing that is up for debate in my opinion is the laundry list-fallacy. You exult the idea that one must be be continually exposed to interesting things and not to be afraid to follow up on a new idea, yet you also emphasize the importance of focusing on one pursuit. I’m currently a high school junior who wrestling with the problem of reconciling my many interests with the pressure to just pick one activity and stick to it. I used to have an underscheduled lifestyle, but over time I found myself committing to numerous activities as I discovered interests through exploration. From appearances it would seem like my extracurriculars would fall into the trap of a laundry list, but I did so because I was genuinely interested in all those things. Since I’m sure you agree that high school is the perfect time in our lives to explore all that’s out there, how can I reconcile these passions with your message to prune all but one, this early in life?

  62. Cal,
    I’ve really been taking in all that you’ve said about creating more free time in my schedule. But I’m a bit confused as to when it’s okay that I maintain a busy schedule.
    Just from reading your book “How to Be a High School Superstar” I was inspired to follow my passion of modern science and nutrition and created a website ( as well as a school club. Even more I am contemplating whether or not I should start writing a book, not only to gather my own thoughts but to add a wow factor to the college admissions like Maneesh and his video game programming book.
    (Like Maneesh I would only sacrafice about 2 hours out of my week.)

    To be brief, would it still be beneficial for me to cut extra time out of my day though I’m maintaining a website, school club, and possibly a book?

  63. To be brief, would it still be beneficial for me to cut extra time out of my day though I’m maintaining a website, school club, and possibly a book?

    Cutting the time is required for exploration. If you’ve already found a deep interest, there is no need to cut further, but, like Michael Silverman, keep your schedule reasonable and focused on the small number of things you want to do well.

    Writing a book is an interesting challenge. Definitely search for and read my blog post on getting a non-fiction book deal before you invest *any* time diving into writing.

  64. Thank you for this article. I am just like Olivia. I have not take a billion APs or join numerous clubs. I am worried that I couldn’t get into my dream school (NYU) because of my low SAT scores and low extracurricular activities. For about a year(junior year), I devoted my time and energy into bacteria research. I am in the process of writing my reasearc for the Intel STS competition. Thank you for an encouragement. I will continue doing bacteria research because it is interesting to me.

  65. Emergence, like, evo psych, is one of those ideas that you can read in a pop-science book and then let your imagination run wild (whether or not your examples of “emergent phenomena” have any basis in reality).

    It sounds like Olivia enchanted the admittance committee by sharing a provocative concept from a book — a sort of ego-stroking.

  66. “Running my church youth group,” they might say, “is another example of my leadership ability.”

    What happened to not being a little bitch, and simply doing what you genuinely care about?
    It boggles the mind that people are learning instruments just to put it on resume, nowadays.
    Enjoy being another shark in the sea.

  67. Hi Call,

    Could not agree more with your point. That’s what education should shape people I guess, beyond the how to and all mechanistic strategies to become successful on study.

    Instead of treating the selection panel as a part of competition, Olivia found a momentum to perform her genuine interest.

    This may sound cliche but to become interesting is not something that you can train like how you can boost up your speed on athletics. Isn’t the ‘secret recipe’ lies on how we find inner peace? I always thought this is the heart of zen and the basic ‘skill’ that zen valedictorian should master. It is congruent to what you’ve elaborated on study, take the course/extracurricular activities/… you concern the most as it reflects yourself, define yourself.

    There is nothing interesting of becoming someone else even if we are excellent on it. Perhaps at this point Olivia deserved the prize 😉

  68. Hello Cal,

    I have recently been reading your book, How to be Highschool Superstar and I find it extremely interesting. However, it is difficult for me to drop my 5 AP schedule next year and continue Varsity Track. However, this summer I am expanding my horizons by volunteering at day camps and the library because I truly love working with kids. Also, I am interested in health/nutrition and am thinking of ideas to spread awareness. Any advice you can give me to attend my dream school, UC Berkeley or any other ivy league school??

  69. Hi Cal,
    I’m right now in high school and I am really interested in biology, but I have NO clue where to go with that. What organizations do you think will help me for innovative development? I’ve read your book, but I can’t seem to find a community I can join. Thanks in advance!

  70. SO interesting!! Although I think we are all born interesting…I know I was…then family, society, and irrational fears may cause us to bury our ‘interestingness’ with layers of these notions of what will bring us supposed “success” instead of following our natural rhythm/heart/God/vibes/gut feeling (whatever word you like to use for that power that is in every living thing).

    Can’t wait to read your book!

  71. I found this article strange and awful. The author repeatedly mentions how Olivia should have never been admitted to UVa because of how she didn’t measure up to nebulous, mysterious admissions standards. Is this a form of underhand compliment?
    In reality, as someone else has commented, Olivia is pretty typical of many high school students hell bent on attending University X (prep school, high GPA, AP classes, extra-curricular activities). Lucky her. Not all of us are fortunate to go to college prep schools that offer AP classes and have the chance to casually do research with our professor neighbors. Imagine if all a person had to talk about during his scholarship interview was his cashier job at Target. Dare I say the scholarship committee would be nonplussed.
    I shudder to think that this is the world we live in perpetuated by hucksters and snake oil salesman such as yourself and the US News Rankings… When did it become revelatory for a students to pursue his interests? I find it preposterous that engaging in personally fulfilling activities merits a blog post backed by citations from recent psychology research – as if science is needed to legitimate a basic human drive in order to soothe silly high school students worried about whether to do cancer research or play Carnegie Hall in order to get into Harvard. Makes me as depressed as these kids will surely be when the house of cards topples.

    • Bless you “Child.” I totally agree. The idea that 17 year olds must have decided on their “passion” to be “interesting” is sickening. I can’t wait to see this whole rotten system crash and burn.

  72. “Spend more time exploring, thinking, and exposing yourself to potentially interesting things.”

    I did this in my childhood. I now have no interesting extracurriculars to speak of, and I’ve already been deferred from my first choice school.


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