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…
- Do fewer structured activities.
- Spend more time exploring, thinking, and exposing yourself to potentially interesting things.
- 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.)