It’s not about the total hours

I’ve met a lot of high school students who could benefit from embracing the message in this piece, The Outwork Myth. Just make sure that you understand the message before you take it to heart.

The message is not that hard work isn’t important or that people who become successful don’t get there without working hard.

The message is best captured in this paragraph:

“Hours are never the differentiator — it’s never about working more hours than someone else. It’s about the decisions you make. How you spend your time, what you do and don’t do. Especially what you don’t do. You’ll have more opportunities to waste time than use time. If you’re going to measure hours, the ones worth measuring are the ones you don’t waste, not the ones you spend.”

Here are some high school examples.

One student spends ten hours over a weekend studying for exams. But those ten hours also included constant interruptions to respond to text messages, answer phone calls, check social media, etc. Another student finds a quiet corner of her local library, turns her phone off, and spends the next three hours relentlessly focused—uninterrupted—on what’s she’s doing. She leaves completely prepared and free to get on with her weekend. The former student might claim that she worked harder—after all, she swore off the entire weekend! But the latter student spent less than half the time and left even more prepared. The total number of hours they spent doesn’t correlate with their results. What was far more important were the decisions they made about what to do—and what not to do—with that time.

A student who does a third or fourth round of test prep to eke out a few more points may have spent more hours preparing for standardized tests than many other applicants. But that decision comes at a price. What did she give up during that time? What else could she have been learning or impacting or leading during that time? Would those opportunities have made her happier, and more likely to be admitted to—and successful in—college?

Counselors also see the “hours spent” focus come up all too often with community service. Some students are entirely focused on accumulating as many total hours as possible. But those students who genuinely care about what they’re doing, who want to make a difference and actually help the people they’re volunteering to serve, they tend to be a lot less likely to lead with their total number of hours spent when you ask them to tell you about their volunteer work.

Yes, many colleges do ask students to list the number of hours per week and weeks per year that you spent engaging with each activity you list on an application. But it does not mean that the applicants with the highest totals for hours spent get an automatic admissions advantage. Colleges do this as one way to get a clearer picture of how you’ve spent your time, and more importantly, what you cared about most. They’ll also look to your descriptions of those activities, your honors and awards won, your essays, letters of recommendation, and interview to get a better sense of the impact that you made within these activities.

Total hours spent is just one measure of anything that you do. And it’s almost never the most important measure.