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Monday, December 03, 2018

Review: How to Be A High School Superstar

I've been following with interest the recent lawsuit against Harvard about Asian discrimination. It's quite obvious that that being an unhooked Asian Applicant at any of the Ivy leagues or Stanford puts you at a severe disadvantage. Darwin Lo pointed me at Cal Newport's blog, including a fabulous post on the Failed Simulation Effect. I enjoyed the simple, no-nonsense writing style that Professor Newport demonstrated, so I checked out How to Be A High School Superstar. I was not disappointed. Professor Newport's direct, transparent, and to-the-point style is a great relief, compared to the pompous approach taken by many college admissions officers, who love to say things like: "Harvard isn't everything, you can have a good life without going to Harvard."

Newport makes several points:
  • There are many students taking the "do-everything" approach to college preparation: do all the AP classes, sign up for many leadership positions at various clubs, and pursue extra-curricular activities designed to look good for college.
  • Because so many students are doing so, the result is that if you take this approach unless you're at the very cream of the crop, you're going to look like yet another cookie cutter candidate. (This looks particularly bad if you're Asian, since Harvard applies a "Personal Rating" penalty to all Asians)
  • So doing the conventional "do-everything" approach is actually high risk. Not only is the field of competition larger, all it takes is one bad day at an exam to get an A- that will tank you.
Newport proposes the "relaxed superstar" approach:
  • Deliberately underschedule yourself so you have time to explore different interests, focus on one or two, and excel in them.
  • Find and join a "closed" community. Pay your dues in that community so that you're entrusted with bigger projects, and scale up from there.
  • Aim for projects that will be impressive and inspire admissions officers to think: "Wait, how did a high school student manage to do this?"
Despite the "relaxed superstar" label, You'll need discipline to pull this off. In particular:
  • Triage your classes. Yes, you'll need at least a couple of hard classes so that you demonstrate that you can handle college level intellectual rigor. Newport calls these your "showboat" classes. But you don't need to do more than 2 of these. Avoid "electives" that create a lot of busy work while not providing any value unless it's one of your avid interests.
  • Create a study schedule. Avoid wasting time on studying: when taking notes, don't just jot down what the teacher says, create question/evidence/answer-style notes, and study by explaining (simulated teaching) the concepts out loud as though you're teaching the class. Write papers in 3 days (1 day for research, 1 day for draft, 1 day for polish), spending no more than a couple of hours in each day. Separate the days so ideas have time to mature in your mind when you write. Don't cram. Aim to finish the work by 6:00pm each day. (Research shows that cramming is counter-productive to learning, so this is good advice objectively) Never Facebook when you're supposed to be studying or working on a project. Always approach a subject that you're trying to master as though you know nothing: find the best expert that's accessible to you and ask them how they achieve their results.
  • Triage your extra-curricular activities. Drop anything that requires an excessive amount of work without compensation in either emotional terms (i.e., one of your interests) or other social rewards (e.g., the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex).
Note that Newport never says that you can skip academic rigor. He says several times that you have to do well enough in your academics that you meet the GPA/SAT cut-offs for the schools you want to get into. That's just the price of entry.

Having done so, you now have the time to explore multiple interests. He points out that one early marker of success in this approach is the ability to read. Newport writes that most kids who're relaxed superstars are reading adult-level books by grade 3 or 4. Without the ability and interest to read, it's very difficult to explore interests sufficiently deeply to be able to impress a college admissions committee.

Newport provides so much material in this relatively short book that I can't summarize it all. Suffice to say that it's extensive and achievable, and is deficient in only a few areas:
  • No discussion of survivorship bias. In particular, there's no systematic study of how many people attempt Newport's "relaxed superstar" approach and failed, since presumably only those who succeed would report back to him with enthusiasm.
  • I suspect that the "relaxed superstar" approach would only work when the fashion amongst students is the "do-everything" approach. If the "relaxed superstar" method became popular, then it would become just as competitive as the "do-everything" approach and become just as high-effort/low-reward. Ultimately, there are only so many tv-spots, etc. that have room for high school students. (In other words, if this book ever got translated into Chinese, the approach could become swamped)
Someone once pointed out to me that the American college application system is the most corrupt possible system in all possible worlds. Suggest that a rich person could buy his/her way into say, the Chinese examination system or the French elite ecole institutions, and you'd be laughed at by their respective nationals. It is only in the US where there's a direct line from the donations system to the admissions office, and where the scions of the politically important get a free pass. While that criticism is valid, the situation is what it is. As a parent who doesn't plan to go all in on the "Tiger Parent" approach, Newport's book will be something I'd recommend my sons read when they're in middle school, and then I'll probably let them decide what level of risk they want to take.

This book comes highly recommended. It's a short and easy read and well worth your time. I'm intrigued enough to go look for Newport's other books.

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