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.


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  2. Awesome review! I was debating reading Newport's book and now I have made the decision to definitely read it. Thank you!