How great students are like Academy Award winners

Great students who get noticed by colleges don’t just have high GPAs.  They deliver great learning performances.

Lots of actors have great careers.  But the few who win an Academy Award are recognized for one particularly great performance when
the movie and the role and the script seemed to match perfectly with their abilities.  They’re not necessarily better actors than those who don’t win.  And they aren’t necessarily great in all of their movies.  But they work hard in every film, and when that one  perfect role came along, they made sure to deliver their best performance.

That’s a lot like how great students approach learning.

Yes, you should work hard in all your classes.  But the best students, the ones who love to learn and who will stand out to colleges are always on the lookout for their chance to shine in a subject.  They do more than just get an “A;” they actually turn the experience into an award-winning opportunity.

If you have a history teacher whose class you can’t wait to attend every day, jump in and deliver an award-winning student performance.  Put your hand up in class. Participate in the discussion.  Tell the teacher how much you’re enjoying the class, and be specific about what you find interesting.  Play the role of an engaged and enthusiastic learner, not just the kid who wants to get an “A.”

If you’re taking a video production class at school and you love it, find a way to deliver an award-winning performance and get really good at video production.  Read how-to guides about it.  Take a class outside of school at a college or community college.  Put what you’ve learned to use by producing great videos of water polo games, or the school musicals, or the graduation ceremony.

If you love Spanish, don’t stop at AP Spanish.  Go to Spain over the summer and come back fluent.  Volunteer as a translator or language tutor for recent immigrants.  Get a part-time job where your Spanish can be put to use.

And don’t do these things just because they’ll help you get into college.  That’s like an actor taking roles he doesn’t want to do just because he thinks they might earn him an award.  That doesn’t work in acting, and it doesn’t work in college admissions.

Award-winning performances come from someone doing what you love and flourishing at something you really enjoy.  That’s why it’s not realistic to be an award-winner in every class.  You’ve got to take the learning to new levels when the role is right.

Yes, it’s good to earn a high GPA.  That’s like an actor who always gets good reviews for his films.  But if you want to stand out to colleges, find the teacher, class and/or subject you enjoy the most and deliver an award-winning performance.

Back to school resolution suggestions for students

A lot of students are heading back to school today, so I'm suggesting 5 back-to-school resolutions to help you have a productive and enjoyable year.

1.  Study better, not more.

Most students who get the best grades actually study less than everyone else.  It's not because they're smarter–they're just better studiers.  So rather than resolve to "get a 4.0" or to "study harder," set a goal to become a better studier.   Here's one post that can get you started, and another to keep you focused.

2.  Stop doing activities that don't make you happy.

Extra-curricular activities should be a welcome part of your day, things that make your high school experience more enjoyable.  If you're doing an activity you hate just because you think colleges will appreciate it (they won't if you hate it, by the way), stop doing it.  If you're going to club meetings every week and feel like all you're doing is meeting, stop going and find something else.  If you dread going to track practice every day because you're broken down and it just isn't fun anymore, find something else to do that doesn't involve mile repeats.  Productive, successful students find and commit themselves to things they really enjoy doing.  They don't plod through life.   

3.  Find–and protect–your free time.

I don't know where so many students and parents got the idea that free time is a bad thing.  No college in the universe wants you to schedule every minute of every day with school and activities.  Successful people find and protect their free time, time when they can think, rest, or enjoy relaxing activities that can recharge them (like playing video games, hiking, or just reading something for pleasure).  If you watch seven hours of TV after school, you've probably got too much free time.  But there's nothing wrong with working hard during your work time, then enjoying free time for relaxing, thinking and having fun.

4.  Get excited about college for the right reasons.

A lot of students work hard so they can "get into a good college."  But they don't seem all that excited about the goal.  I think that's because they're scared the work won't pay off with an acceptance to one of their dream colleges.  The hard work that you're doing will mean more to you if it isn't tied exclusively to an admissions decision from one dream school.  Be excited about the opportunity to attend any college.  Have faith that your hard work will pay off in lots of ways no matter where you go.  And if you need some suggestions, here are 50 reasons to be excited for college that have nothing to do with ranking or prestige.

5.  Be nice to the kids other students aren’t nice to.
Once they get out of high school, most students realize that those kids who made fun of the socially less fortunate were secretly racked with insecurity themselves. So be nice. Say “hi” to the kid nobody else says “hi” to. Don’t join in when everyone else starts to make fun of the easy target. Your teachers and counselors will notice, the kid you’re nice to will appreciate it, and you’ll be in line for karma points later in life.

Giving the gift of undivided attention

How would you feel if you were in the middle of a conversation with someone and he or she pulled out a magazine and started reading it?  You'd probably think it was rude.  You'd probably be insulted.  The person might as well have just said,  "You are excruciatingly boring, so I'm going to do something else now."

But that's pretty much what you're doing when you check a text message on your phone while you're in the middle of a conversation. 

One of the ways the world has changed is that we're constantly
exchanging information.  If you're a teenager, you're getting bombarded
with messages in multiple formats throughout the day.  So you're constantly
having to make a choice.  Which is more important–what you're doing
right now, or stopping what you're doing to read and respond to that message? 

The choice you make in each situation says a lot about you. 

When a student types a text message during one of our
meetings, we let him know that's not OK.  Turn the phone off
until we're done here.  Your college applications are more important
than that text message.  And I think we've got an obligation to teach kids that teachers, professors and bosses interviewing them for jobs someday won't like it either.  We work with mostly good kids, so thankfully, we don't have to say that very often. 

But I'll let you in on a secret–we know who's likely to do it before it ever happens.

The engaged kids who are excited about college and really seem to want our help aren't on their phones during our meetings.  They're too busy talking about colleges, asking questions and making sure they understand their next steps.  But the kid who always looks a little bored, who treats his college process like a chore other people are making him do, that's your likely text-er, right there.   

One of the nice things about the information age is that it's easy to give someone a gift–undivided attention.  If you're talking with someone you like and respect, put the phone away for two minutes.  It's a gift that doesn't cost you anything and you'll get all kinds of subtle credit for doing it. 

The text messages will be there when you get back. I promise. 

What would you do for a million dollars?

Sometimes you say you can't do something because you really can't.  Other times, you're just making excuses.  A good way to tell which one it is is to use the million dollar scenario. 

When we have a student who repeatedly misses or arrives late to meetings but always seems to have an excuse (traffic, too busy, I forgot, etc.), I'll ask,

"What would you do if you knew you'd win a million dollars if you arrived at your next meeting on time?" 

I'm not looking for, "I'd be there on time."  That's too easy.  I mean what specific actions would you take that you're not taking now? 

The student inevitably says something like , "I'd write it down so I wouldn't forget" or "I'd leave earlier to beat traffic."  The million dollar scenario exposes when you're making excuses for things that you really could do if you wanted to.

I'm an equal opportunity user of the scenario; I'll use it to call myself out when I'm just making excuses, too.  People in my life would tell you that I often think I'm busier than I really am.  When I think I'm too busy to get a project done on time, I'll use the million dollar scenario, and it calls me on it.  Every time.  I used it 11 months ago when I thought I was too busy to write a post on this blog every day.  I haven't missed a day since.

I'm not saying you should necessarily always do what the million dollar scenario suggests.  If there were a million dollars riding on you getting a 4.0 this semester, but in order to do it, you'd have quit the jazz band you love and sleep 3-hours a night (probably not true, by the way), that's not improving your life. 

The million dollar scenario shouldn't push you to do things that will make you unhappy; it should push you to get out of your own way and achieve the goals that will make you happy.  It should help you prioritize your responsibilities and make better use of your time.

When it's important, knowing there's a million dollars on the line can really make you focus.  Give it a try and see what happens. 

To get into college, get off Facebook

Cal Newport
says that by working smarter, high school students can develop what he
calls an "under-scheduled life" that will leave you with better grades,
more college acceptances and–here's the best part–all kinds of free
time.  In fact, he says that students who do this right can finish all
their work by dinnertime almost every day and have the rest of the
evening to do pretty much anything.  Here's one of his most important


Rule #6: Do not, under any circumstances, do any work anywhere near an internet connection.

not do any work while online.  If you're writing a paper, or working on
math problems, or taking notes on your history textbook, with an
instant messenger window open, there's absolutely no way that you can
realize the ideal student workweek.  The work done in this state is
poor, it is draining, and it takes forever.  If you work while online,
you will end up staying up late, you will end up doing shoddy work, and
you will fail to achieve an underscheduled lifestyle–and therefore lose
all the benefits that it generates…When it comes to productivity,
there's no avoiding this truth: Facebook is the tool of the devil.  If
you want to significantly reduce the time you spend working, then you
absolutely have to keep the internet far, far away until you're
completely done for the day.

Page 68:  How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) 

*Note: Cal also makes it clear that he's not against Facebook or
anything else you might like to do–he's just arguing that you need to
separate your work time from your free time–and that letting them overlap just
ruins both.

How to dramatically cut down your study time

Why is it that the most successful students, the ones who always get the best grades, often say, "I barely studied for that test."

Sure, a few of them are just ridiculously, annoyingly smart, the type who seem to understand everything the first time it's explained to them.  I always hated (read "worshiped") those kids because I wished I were like them.

Most of the successful–but still mortal– students maximize their time in class, a technique I described in this January, 2010 post.

But one thing they all do is make the most of the time they spend studying.  As Cal Newport describes in this post, if you study in short, focused one-hour bursts, the total time you'll need to understand the material will be a lot less than if you try to do it all in one marathon session.

If you tend to procrastinate and study at the last minute, Cal's technique might inspire you to change your ways. 

Sizing a student up

Without seeing a transcript, test scores, or a resume, we can learn a lot about a student in 10-15 minutes.  I can't necessarily tell where he'll get into college without more information, but I can tell whether he's going to be successful in the college application process, and even in life after college. 

Here are a few signs (for us) that a student is going places.

1)  He smiles, looks us in the eye, and shakes our hand when we meet him.

2)  He's respectful of his parents, but doesn't let them talk for him.

3)  He's engaged in the conversation.  He doesn't look bored by a discussion of his education.

4)  He asks thoughtful questions.

5) He's self-assured, comfortable talking about himself, while at the same time not seeming too self-impressed.

6)  He admits what he's not good at, where he's made mistakes, or areas of his life where he needs to improve.  He doesn't blame those shortcomings on other people.

7)  He's genuinely interested in the things he's doing.  He can't hide his enthusiasm for water polo, drama or collecting stamps.

8)  He has a favorite class and teacher.

9)  He seems genuinely happy and excited about life after high school.

10)  He thanks us at the end of the meeting.  

I don't care of a kid is a C student with the worst scores in the history of standardized tests.  If he can show us some or all of these qualities, he's got potential, and the right college will help him fulfill it.

Any kid can develop and benefit from these traits.  Almost all of them are about attitude more than they are ability.  So even if your SAT scores are low, or you just can't seem to grasp chemistry, or you didn't make the varsity soccer team, remember that success in the college application process and in life are about more than just your numbers and your accomplishments.


How to get into Stanford with Bs on your transcript

I can't believe I'd never found Cal Newport's blog until yesterday. 

He's a Phi Beta Kappa grad from Dartmouth who also got a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT in 2009.  And he's the author of a new book, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out

But the real reason I was so happy to find his work is that he's all about showing students:

  • How to live a low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. 
  • How you can get into great colleges and have a successful life by simply doing fewer things, doing them better, and knowing why you're doing them
  • Why it's more important in college admissions that you be interesting than it is for you to be impressive.

And even if you're one of those students who has your heart set on a
highly selective college, Cal's techniques can work for you, too. For starters, check out his post, How to Get Into Stanford with Bs on your transcript.

You don’t get a second chance to make a last impression

People worry a lot about first impressions, which makes sense.  They set the tone of the relationship.  If you show up to the first day of soccer try-outs and have the practice of your life, your coach already believes you can contribute to the team.  If you have a great first day of Spanish class, your Spanish teacher already believes you're a valuable addition to the class.   Smiling and confidently shaking your college interviewer's hand, writing a good introductory email message, or showing up on time for a first date, you're off to a good start.  You won't need to make up ground.   

But good or bad, first impressions are temporary.  Last impressions, on the other hand, are permanent.

If you're the treasurer of the student body and you do a masterful job managing the finances for the entire year, but leave no accurate records for your successor when she takes over, you've made a bad last impression.  You won't be remembered as the treasurer who did a great job.  You'll be remembered as the treasurer who didn't care enough to set the next treasurer up for success.

If you have a great basketball season but lash out at your teammates during a tough loss in the playoffs, you won't be remembered as a good player, leader, or teammate.  

And if you do so well in your Calculus class that you're virtually assured an "A," so you slack off and disrupt the class for finals week, your teacher isn't going to remember you as a committed and engaged student.

It's easy to let your last impression slide when you feel you've got nothing left to prove or gain from the experience.  But remember, what you do last is what people will remember first. 

What's the last impression you're leaving with your teachers at the end of the school year?  What's the last impression you're leaving with your coaches at the end of the season?  Or your boss when you decide to leave your job?  Or your college interviewer at the end of the interview?  Or your school when you finish your tenure as the editor of the yearbook or columnist for the newspaper or the president of the junior class?

Finish strong and leave a good last impression, too.

Things your teachers notice about you in class

I'm not a high school teacher, but I do a lot of our seminars at Collegewise.  And it's hard not to make judgments about a student by how he acts during a class.  Whether you're an "A" student or "C" student, I imagine that your teachers notice these things, too.

1.  Are you writing things down?

When I say, "Here's the most important piece of advice I can give you about college essays," I notice which 3 of the 20 students in the room don't bother to write down the advice that follows.  And I know the 17 who do take notes are engaged enough to want to make the most of our time together.  It tells me who's serious about getting into college.  Imagine if I were a chemistry teacher and one of those non-note-takers got a "C" and came to me to ask for extra credit so he could improve his grade.  Not gonna happen, kid.

2.  Do you seen genuinely happy to be there? 

I'm sure my trigonometry teacher in high school knew how bored I was by math because I spent a lot of time yawning in his class.  Now that I'm up in front of the classroom, I realize how bad the sleepers look.  Students who pay attention, who have pleasant expressions, who even acknowledge you with a nod of the head or a courtesy laugh at one of my stupid jokes, they come off like engaged learners.  Imagine if you were on a date and the person was yawning during dinner, doodling on the tablecloth and generally looking bored.  Wouldn't you be a little insulted?  Doing those things in class is like saying to your teacher, "I don't want to listen to you, and I don't want to be here."

3.  Do you ask good questions?

"Do we have to do this?" is a stupid question.  "What's an example of a college with strange essay prompts?" is a good question.  Whether or not you ask, and the questions you raise, they both say a lot about you as a student.  Questions that seek to help you better understand the material, or that just show you're interested and want to more, are good ways to show your teacher that you are an engaged learner. 

4.  Do you participate?

At a seminar yesterday, I asked, "Who remembers from our essay seminar how you take ownership of a story?"  I could have predicted which kids were going to put their hands up–those that had been writing things down and were engaged in the discussion (see questions 1, 2 and 3). 

5.  Are you nice to other students?

If a student is having trouble understanding, or if he asks a question that seems silly to you, or if he's just not as smooth and socially successful as the rest of the class, do you roll your eyes, snicker at him, or whisper a comment to one of your friends and then giggle?  If you do, trust me, your teacher notices.  And I'll tell you something–the kid who does those things is never one of the nice kids.  The nice kid who leans over and offers to help the struggling one, who whispers, "Hey, want me to show you how to do it?"  I like that kid.  Extra credit for you.