Friday, September 16, 2011

Reviewed: How to Win at College

In my off-time this summer, I've put a lot of thought into what I want out of college. There are a lot of typically expected things, sure: to find my academic passion, to make friends for life, to be exposed to a diverse population and, of course, to become smarter. How does one manage such daunting objectives in the midst of the excitement and pressure of freshman year? Plan ahead, stay focused, and process your life in small, manageable steps.

So says Cal Newport in his now widely accepted book How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country's Top Students. I have long been a follower of Newport's blog, Study Hacks, on which Newport, via interviews with and studies of a diverse group of successful individuals, attempts to "decode success" into concise patterns. How to Win at College covers much the same territory and proves to be, unlike so much other speculation on the topic, truly useful. Advice in the book is taken from hundreds of successful students at a wide variety of schools all over the country (from Harvard to the University of Arizona). Additionally, Newport knows a thing or two about college success himself. At the time of the book's writing, he was a computer science PhD student at MIT after graduating from Dartmouth Phi Beta Kappa (roughly top 10% of the class). As an incoming first-year at a school notorious for a heavy-to-unmanageable workload, I decided that this book had to make my summer reading list.

At first glance, many of this book's "secrets" sound like common sense. Start your work well in advance, don't rest on your laurels, think positive, and don't stress, right? The problem is, most of us don't do these things unless we're trained to. We assume that top students never leave the library and have horribly stressful lives. We assume that Rhodes Scholars had no social presence in college and that we could never aspire to an achievement that impossible. Worst of all, we assume that studying harder is the key to success. Newport dispels these misconceptions by clarifying that studying better is what we're really after, and that merely working harder at anything is a one-way ticket to a stressful, friendless, all-nighter-fueled college experience. On the contrary, top students are the ones who are not stressed because they have the best study habits and constantly feel in control of their own lives. The effect of this control is to boost students' ambitions. Rather than struggling to merely "get by" in their classes, these students now have time to work internships, do freelance writing, and get research published in their free time.

The book is organized into 75 useful rules for self-discipline and building ambition. Newport starts with an intentionally jaw-dropping
Don't do all of your reading (tip number 1)
that I can only see as a tool for selling books on controversy. Yet, this claim has a purpose that's central to Newport's methodology: do what you can in the limited amount of time, and you'll maximize your outcomes. Rather than staring blankly at your biology textbook, from which you are expected to read 40 pages by tomorrow, skim the text and take down the main points in half the time. During tomorrow's lecture, fill-in the missing notes during class.

In the category of de-stressing the college experience, Newport advocates forming a system of personal accountability that precludes procrastination. Students should start long-term projects the day they are assigned and break them into useful pieces, so that one always feels productive. Set daily goals for chipping away at long-term assignments and "record your efforts in a work-progress journal" (52), thus keeping yourself accountable. This feeds into another useful strategy of "setting arbitrary deadlines" (58) to keep yourself on track. Little steps like using a filing cabinet (68) and "emptying your in-box at the end of each day" (71) help keep your life in order and generally minimize the stress of disorganization. Tips like "not taking breaks from work between classes" (65) and "doing schoolwork every day of the week" (34) maintain one's academic momentum.

Yet, as intense and study-centric as the book's title may seem, How to Win at College also centers on having a rewarding life experience in college, suggesting that students
"Make friends your #1 priority" (tip number 44)
Additional tips include "seeking out fun" (53), "laughing every day" (50), and "staying in touch with friends" from home (37). Newport illustrates a social life that is rewarding and rich without wasting precious time. Far from the "work hard, play hard" system of raging on the weekends and cramming every weeknight, Newport's system is designed to give you the best of both worlds without sacrifice one's sanity. Academic and social lives no longer have to compete on the spectrum of lazy to stressed. Keeping your academic goals in center-view actually makes time for your social life without generating stress. There's a sort of mutual respect between these equally important components of life that I will surely take to heart once my classes start.

All of that's fine, but it only shows the reader the tools to being successful, not getting quite to the root of what got successful people where they are. By far the most overarching component of Cal Newport's philosophy is his insistence on challenge: setting ambitious goals, and always having a plan to achieve them. Some tips that stood out on this turf are to "always be working on a grand project" (16), to "seek out phenomenal achievers" (47), and to "do one thing better than anyone you know" (11). These are the steps that make up the difference between truly successful, groundbreaking individuals and what Newport dubs "grinds": people who work and work but lack that interesting spark. Ultimately, a burning ambition is what separates those who do phenomenal things in college from those who just get by. If your highest dream is to win a Pulitzer, take the steps to get there and don't settle for being average. Constant goal setting and the achievements that follow will only boost you onto loftier ambitions and destinations to come. Maybe winning at college is less about working hard and more about dreaming hard than you ever imagined.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

College Summer Programs for High School Students

As my own college-search winds down, I wanted to share one of the most important experiences outside of high school that got me to where I am today: college summer programs. I hope that sharing my own experiences with these programs will open some new doors for students in the college search. Ultimately, summer programs are an excellent opportunity for students to develop their academic resumes, prepare for the social environment of college, and get a grasp of what sort of college they might like to attend. (I apologize in advance: I'm a sucker for dreamy college view-book photos of library steps, outdoor classes et al.).

Throughout middle school, I attended two week professional conferences in business and law, which essentially proved to be little more than takes on the typical summer camp. Though these give students a decent sense of what certain career paths might offer thems, these programs are still run like summer camps, and students aren't given the academic or social freedom that will prepare them for college. For the summer after my sophomore year, I decided to look into more demanding programs by searching on the internet. Of the few programs I came across that actually offered college credit, Northwestern's College Preparation Program (CPP) program and the University of Chicago Summer Session sounded the most interesting, and I decided to apply. These schools were also close enough to home that I even considered commuting (but decided to live on campus for the full experience, more on this later). The application consisted of a short essay using the Common Application prompts and a preliminary course selection. This got me thinking about what to study, and I had a lot of difficulty making my final choices.

Though I was initially fixated on a dual-credit economics course, I realized that I could just take this course at my high school for free, and I decided to branch out to courses that would be unique opportunities, ultimately choosing "fundamentals of anthropology" and "global history: 1914-1991." This was one of the best decisions I have made, as these courses broadened my horizons dramatically from previously being set on economics and business. The following summer, I went for a very similar program: Harvard Summer School, in which I enrolled in two freshman seminars: "the Holocaust in history, literature, and film" at the divinity school, and "utopia and anti-utopia" in the English department.

Though Northwestern was a great opportunity and the courses were academically stimulating, the sheer quality of teaching between Harvard and Northwestern was leagues apart. My courses were the same size at each institution, both extremely small (ranging from 5-12), but the format of the classrooms was entirely different. Even though my anthropology class at Northwestern had only 7 students, it was still taught as a lecture by PowerPoint, and discussion was not facilitated. I realized after the program that next time, rather than focusing solely on the content of courses, I had to find courses with the the classroom format I really wanted: small, discussion-based seminars. Harvard provided just that though freshman seminars, which are designed to give incoming students experience in college level courses and are required of all Harvard College freshman. The classroom experience was second to none, with top scholars enthusiastically “re-learning” the material with the class and often taking time to meet with us outside of class.

Switching gears, I also wanted to discuss the residential and social components of the summer programs I’ve done. The courses really aren’t everything, though the programs are pitched as such. The real magic is the coupling of fantastic academic opportunities with a residential program that allows a student to relax and do that amount of work on his or her own schedule (thus my problem with commuting). At Northwestern, I found myself fairly distracted socially and didn’t quite get the same in depth experience I got at Harvard, where I was much more focused. I think this is due to Northwestern having a very active camp-like program feel, with a check-in meeting every night and an enforced curfew.

Harvard, on the other hand, offered me complete independence, which, though at first overwhelming, really pushed me to branch out socially and figure out my work/life balance (just as one does in college). Where Northwestern’s program added a certain social pressure to get out and enjoy the summer, Harvard allowed me the freedom to invest in my courses (for those of you who are curious, that’s 21 books in 7 weeks and a 23 page final research paper) while also living the social life I wanted. A weekday consisted of about 8 hours of reading (my only homework, given the nature of my courses), three hours of class, and still always some time in the afternoon to sit outside and read or meet someone for FroYo in Cambridge. At Harvard (as at Northwestern), I also participated in the summer school orchestra, which was an amazing experience in and of itself. The summer school program at Harvard also provided great outside opportunities, from weekly house cookouts, to outings all over New England, to a college fair, to dances, to our own "iron chef" competition.

What Harvard taught me (among other things):
1. What it means to really love learning
2. To find a social-academic balance that worked for me (without external pressures at work)
3. The wonders of a self-imposed (midnight) bedtime on weeknights
4. To build spontaneity into my life while maintaining long term priorities
5. The bigger the library, the better

And I’m going back for more. Why not (financial aid providing*)? I’ve decided to enroll in Yale University’s summer session to study philosophy in the courses “happiness” and “free will, good, and evil.” Living in a residential college should also give me a glimpse of what housing will be like at UChicago next fall, though I‘m admittedly most excited for the once-in-a-lifetime courses that should help me decide if I want to attend divinity school after college.

The best database of summer programs is linked here, complete with student reviews, to help you search for the program right for you. As you will see, almost all highly selective universities (especially the Ivies) offer summer programs open to high school students. I've applied to a good number of programs, so (as always) feel free to message me with any questions!

*A note about cost: these summer programs are prohibitively expensive, just like real college, and I get that. My take on this is that, financial aid, even if just a minor discount, can make the program of a lifetime a real possibility, and it did for me. Keep in mind when you see the tuition costs that  you are paying for actual credit from these institutions, and that credit may transfer to (or at least offer placement at) the college you end up attending.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Choice Has Been Made

After years of visiting dozens of colleges, sitting through far too many standardized tests, worrying about report cards, spending countless nights exploring reviews on in the wee hours of the morning, and boring my friends and family with long-winded rants about which college may be right for me, I have finally chosen a college. After a great deal of deliberation over my winter break, I sent my deposit to the University of Chicago on December 31st, just in time to have an anxiety-free 2011 with no more waiting.

As an accepted student in (likely) the most competitive class year to date, I am feeding what one education blog calls Chicago's "institutional ego" to become more on par with schools like Harvard or Stanford as far as prestige is concerned. Following up from my most recent post on application inflation, Chicago is the school most in the spotlight right now because it is moving up the prestige ranks (ironically determined by rejection rate) at an alarming pace. To put the school's growing competitiveness in perspective, a Chicago Maroon article detailing last year's admission season noted the fact that in 1993, the year of my birth, Chicago's acceptance rate was 77%. That means that during my short lifetime, this institution has become more than four times more selective. Harvard, by comparison has become roughly twice as selective in this same time period.

Is this the reason I chose Chicago? No. But this news is strongly correlated with what did draw me to the school as perhaps its greatest resource: a brilliant, engaging undergraduate population that I know will challenge me to become all that I can be.

The question then arises: how did I know that I would fit in with Chicagoans? A few reasons:

1. They accepted me. As strange as it may sound, I have long been prepared for rejection from this unique intellectual community. If I wasn't meant to be part of it, I would not have received an offer of acceptance, and I would have found my place elsewhere. The institution wanting me made me want it.

2. I had a fantastic time on my overnight visit. I discovered that life at Chicago had the social-academic balance I wanted in my college experience. This was made clearest by the house system (like that in Harry Potter) enhancing the academic experience I got from classroom visits.

3. The Facebook group for class of 2015 admitted students has been an extremely compelling advocate for my choice. I have, in two short weeks of this community existing, met several people I would consider true friends. Discussion questions on the forum such as "what is your favorite fruit?" turned quickly from taste to world history to literary devices and ended in foreign languages. I love the intellectual energy so apparent in what would be my future classmates. (Interestingly, it has also been noted that as the entering class becomes more selective from year to year, the Facebook group discussions have become more lively.)

4. Compared to the small liberal arts colleges I have been considering alongside Chicago, notably Swarthmore, I felt that Chicago could encompass the small school feel if I wanted it via the house system breaking up the undergraduate population into small families of around 40-100 students. Meanwhile, Chicago's unique position as a research institution (8th in the world) coupled with the "best undergraduate academic experience" in the nation (Princeton Review, 2007) provides me with the community feeling I want with room built in for the spontaneity that defines the college experience.

5. I just felt that it was right for me, and that I wouldn't regret the choice. It's obviously not a perfect institution, but it was one where I felt that I could work around the schools weaknesses.

Thank you for all of your support along my personal journey towards both finding the college right for me and being admitted to it. I can't tell you how many complimentary emails and comments from bloggers have made my day. On the sculpture picture below (Cobb gate), I have made it passed the admissions committee (the dragon gargoyle at the base) and am officially a puny first year, bound to metaphorically struggle up the slope until I have completed my fourth year, at which time I will apparently sprout wings and proudly fly out into the real world.

But it's not time for goodbye, and my work here isn't over yet. In the coming months, I plan on exploring and perfecting my own study habits in preparation for my college experience, inspired by what productivity genius Cal Newport has done on his own blog, Study Hacks.

Now, please excuse me while I dump out three file cabinets of college view-books and donate my Princeton Review books to the next generation of college searching students.