A Nobel Prize-worthy study skill

According to Daniel Coyle’s “The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills,” the best way to learn from a book isn’t to read and reread. Instead, read it once and then write a one-page summary.

Here’s the passage as quoted on this blog:

“Research shows that people who (wrote a summary) remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow (repeatedly read). This is because of one of deep practice’s most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning. On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.”

To be honest, if someone had recommended this to me when I was in high school, I would have rolled my eyes and moved on with reading (and rereading).

But this exercise isn’t about writing—it’s about learning.

I’ve written before that the most effective way to really know something is to prepare to teach it. In fact, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feymann did it when wrapping his brain around concepts far more complex than high school homework assignments, as explained here by study skills author Scott Young.

To write a one-page summary of a book forces you to review the key ideas, to make distinctions between what’s important and what isn’t, and to explain how each concept ties into the overall message of the reading. If you can do those things, you understand what you’ve read.

So even if you take what would have been my high school approach and laugh off the idea of writing the summary (I don’t blame you), instead, just take 10 minutes and teach it back as if you were standing in front of the class. You won’t laugh it off once you try it.

And here’s a past post of mine with five habits of highly-effective students.

For students departing for college

For those students departing for college, here’s an article and a few past posts to help you get off to the best start.

A recent New York Times piece by Richard J. Light, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of “Making the Most of College.”

A past post of mine highlighting some of the advice in Light’s book mentioned above.

One of my most read posts, this one on how to build a remarkable college career.

And two final posts, here and here, with some advice if you’re concerned about getting a job after college.

You can’t earn straight A’s in life

The majority of your days as a teenager are spent as a student where you’re constantly measured by grades. If you do the work, get the right answers, and please your teachers, you’ll earn good grades. Do it exceptionally well and you might even get straight A’s. Perfection is an available path you can choose to walk down if you’re willing to work hard enough.

But the real world doesn’t work like high school.

Life isn’t graded on an A-F scale. Not everything has a right answer. You don’t always know what’s going to be covered on the test. Jobs, careers, friendships, relationships, marriage, parenthood—none of them come with a syllabus, study guide, or answer key. Sure, there are good ways and bad ways to approach all of those things. But you can’t summon perfection just by paying attention and studying hard enough. Sometimes you do your best, do seemingly everything right, and it doesn’t work out like you’d hoped. It’s not always fair. It doesn’t always make sense. But that’s life. The curve doesn’t always reflect who made the fewest mistakes.

It’s important to make your academics a priority in high school, and not just because it can help you get into college. Feeding your mind, setting goals, working hard and handling some stress–these are all valuable skills that will go a long way towards getting you wherever you want to go in life.

But getting a “C” on an exam, asking for and accepting help, and persevering through the end of the course without ever throwing in the towel? That’s worth a lot no matter what grade you end up with.

Congratulating the third baseman who gets the starting nod over you–that’s good life training.

Introducing yourself well to people you don’t know, writing good emails, and making good phone calls—they may not be graded, but they do earn you extra life credit.

Most adults who’ve looked for a job in the last 10 years would tell you that applying—and being turned down—for six summer jobs and still having the gumption to go land the seventh one is an experience that will come in handy someday.

Figuring out how to make yourself as valuable as possible while you’re volunteering, interning, or working, even when there’s not a lot of supervision telling you exactly what to do, should be required learning while you’re in high school.

What about asking a reporter at your community paper if you could buy her lunch one day to learn a little more about journalism? Or reaching out to ten non-profits and offering to create promotional videos of their work for free? Or writing the definitive guide to running a successful prom and making it available to any senior class president who wants to download it? They don’t earn you better grades. But I don’t care what your GPA or SAT score is now—the student who finds her own way to do things like these will be going places in life.

Accepting responsibility, apologizing when necessary, deflecting credit to people you work or rehearse or compete with–traits like these don’t show up on a transcript, but they influence your ongoing permanent record.

Grades and test scores have their importance, but they don’t measure everything. It’s important to recognize other opportunities to learn and grow, to occasionally put yourself in failure’s path, and to do lots of things that may not appear on your college applications, but will help you prepare for life.

The more often you’re faced with situations where there is no right answer, where you persevere, when you come back after a failure, or when you do the right thing rather than the easy thing, the smarter, savvier, more prepared and more resilient you’re going to be.

You can’t get straight A’s in life. But you get lots of credit just for showing your work.

On figuring things out

The ability to figure things out—and the opportunity to display that trait—is increasingly rare in college admissions.

I’m not talking about figuring out a math or chemistry problem, although those abilities are certainly valuable, too. I’m talking about a student who is faced with a challenge, conundrum, or other circumstance where there is no right answer, and no obvious path to a solution.

When you’re faced with something and don’t know what to do, do you freeze? Do you immediately call Mom or Dad and wait for them to swoop in and save the day? Do you punt ownership of the problem to someone else?

Or do you set out to solve the problem yourself and just figure it out?

I once worked with a student whose car broke down on the way home from a school trip. He was still 80 miles from home, his cell phone had just died, and unfortunately, he knew that both his parents wouldn’t be returning from visiting relatives until later that night. It was time to figure things out.

He spent the next three hours taking two buses and a train to get home. Figuring it out meant reading bus maps, asking drivers for information, discussing the best route with a ticket-taker, and fixing an errant choice when he got on a bus that headed the opposite direction of where he’d hoped it would. Before that day, he’d never taken public transportation. And it made for a great response to several short-answer prompts on his college applications.

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. If you’re getting a D in algebra no matter how hard you try, figuring things out means recognizing that you simply cannot do this by yourself. Successful students—and adults—ask for help all the time.

But before you send up a distress signal, consider whether or not this is something you could handle on your own. Skills take time to develop. They require experience if you want to hone them. And the only way to make this skill part of your arsenal is to decide that when presented with the opportunity, you’ll take the time and make the effort to figure things out.

A head start in the race

Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist, a professor at Harvard Business School, and the author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. And while Inc. shares Cuddy’s 10 Ways to Make a Great First Impression to help readers who are forming business relationships, any high school student who adopted and used these techniques would make better first impressions on just about anybody that they meet.

There are some skills that, while valuable to anyone, are actually secret weapons for successful teenagers. A teen who can confidently meet and carry on an interesting conversation with an adult is a student who will impress counselors, teachers, and college reps.

As the article points out, first impressions have to be backed up with substance if you plan on interacting with this person on a regular basis. But creating a great first impression is like getting a head start in the race.

Don’t start with the thank you

Here’s an easy-to-follow piece of advice to help you write a nice thank-you note, courtesy of this NPR story that appeared a decade ago.

Lemony Snicket’s Advice on How to Write a Nice Thank-You Note

1. Do not start with the thank you.

2. Start with any other sentence. If you first say, “Thank you for the nice sweater,” you can’t imagine what to write next. Say, “It was so wonderful to come home from school to find this nice sweater. Thank you for thinking of me on Arbor Day.”

3. Then you’re done.

And since I’m on the topic…

Here’s my past post on how to write a thank-you note, plus another that shares Simon Sinek’s reminder that the order matters when asking someone for a favor.

Bookmark them until you need them.

No right answer = more learning

Much of your high school life will be focused on right answers—studying them, memorizing them, identifying them, etc. But some of your best opportunities to learn, to lead, to make a difference, and to prepare yourself for a successful life as an adult come from your ability to solve problems when there isn’t an obvious right answer.

The day before the trip you organized for the Ski Club, you realize the club oversold tickets and there are now not enough seats on the bus.

Students on campus are feeling threatened by bullying, racism, or homophobia.

Your teachers just went on strike, and the AP Bio test is next month.

The baseball team hasn’t won a game in two-and-a-half years.

You took an internship at the gaming company, but your supervisor clearly does not want or intend to use an intern.

The homeless shelter where you volunteer was vandalized, and they do not have the funds for repairs.

You notice that a student in your English class regularly shows up to school with bruises that he’s trying to hide.

The leadership in the club you founded can’t seem to get along for more than five minutes at a time.

What are you going to do?

Some of these problems are far more serious and complex than others. But they all share one thing in common—while there may be plenty of wrong answers, there is no single correct answer guaranteed to earn you full credit.

It’s good to be able to find right answers when they exist. But if you really want to get smarter, make a difference, and set yourself up to be a successful person during—and even more so, after—college, go where there are no right answers. Those are the problems that really need solving.

And those problems are where the real learning takes place.

Complaining isn’t a strategy

In the early days of Collegewise, when I would spend my days meeting with families, there were always a few names that I was notably less excited to see on my calendar for the day. And for me, they all fit into the same category—complainers.

For these families, every meeting included time spent listening to who or what had somehow disappointed, frustrated, or otherwise seemingly worked against them.

My Spanish teacher won’t raise my B+ to an A-.

The counselors at our school don’t know anything.

The principal refuses to change our school’s class ranking policy.

Our point guard only gets to start because her dad is friends with the coach.

My son should have gotten into AP US History—he’s smarter than most of those kids in that class.

It’s not fair that I have to compete with kids who go to easier high schools.

Of course that kid gets straight A’s. His mother spends her days just standing over him.

(None of those examples are fictional or embellished, by the way.)

Sometimes it was kids. Other times it was their parents. And in the worst cases, the entire family would complain, feeding off each other’s negativity.

I’m not talking about customer service challenges. If a customer was unhappy for some reason, getting annoyed by it wouldn’t have helped me or them fix the problem. That’s part of running a business.

These complainers had goals in mind, and anything at all, real or imagined, that seemed to get in the way, they perceived as a personal slight, a misfortune, or an injustice. There was nothing that could be done to make them feel better. They were going to gripe about it, one way or another.

Here’s the most important thing I wish those, and today’s, complainers could understand—none of their complaining ever once improved their situation. In fact, they were actively working against their own goals by expending so much time and energy focusing on things that were in the past, out of their control, or inconsequential.

Life isn’t perfect, and neither is the college admissions process. The happiest, most successful, most productive people find a way to accept those imperfections as par for the course. If they can do something to improve their situation, they’ll do it. If they can’t, they’ll move on to other things.

If your family is feeling negatively about the ride to college, if you’ve traded excitement for anger or frustration, try to stop and take a step back. Is whatever’s eating you worth this energy? Will this matter to you in five years? Are you making it worse by focusing—and complaining about—something that’s done, or out of your control, or comparatively insignificant, or all of the above?

Complaining will always be an option. But it will almost never be a good one. And it’s never an effective strategy.

The best stress reducers

I’ve written a number of posts about how to reduce acute stress (often linking to articles on the matter). So as we’re coming to the close of the school year, when stress can be especially high for students, here are five stress reducers, and where appropriate, some links to past posts with more information.

1. Don’t assume it’s bad.
Some students assume that a stressful feeling is a sign they’re not prepared for what’s to come. But stress is often just your body’s way of rising to a challenge. See this past post, and watch referenced TED talk, for more information. Sure, if you’re worried because you haven’t started a huge project that’s due in 24 hours, you’ve got a problem worth addressing. But a feeling of worry about a big test you’ve studied hard for is likely just your body gearing up. Take it as a good sign.

2. Focus on the parts you can control.
Say you’re responsible for the junior prom, and you’re worrying constantly about things that could go wrong. What if the DJ doesn’t show up? What if it rains and the outdoor check-in tables don’t have any coverage? What if your classmates don’t like the décor or the music? A Harvard psychologist reminds you that the first step to addressing stress is to focus on the parts you can control (and let go of the parts you cannot). Confirm with the DJ. Have a back-up location for the check-in tables. And resolve to be resilient if some people don’t agree with the choices you and your committee made. You can’t guarantee everything will work perfectly. But directing some of that nervous energy into the parts you can control certainly increases your odds.

3. Attack what’s eating you.
Procrastination is not your ally in stress treatment. In fact, even one of the most successful CEOs admits that his stress often comes from ignoring those things he should be paying attention to. The good news is that relief is often just a little focused effort away. So acknowledge where inaction is making you worry, then use the advice in this recent post to attack it.

4. Sleep on it.
In the seven years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve seen an ever increasing number of experts—with scientific evidence in hand—praising the power of a good night’s sleep (even the US military agrees). In fact, an extra hour of sleep is more likely to improve your performance on a test than an extra hour of studying will (more on that here). And if you don’t think you can find the time for more z’s, you might try eliminating the snooze button from your morning routine.

5. Try just saying no to stress.
Sometimes stress has less to do with reality and a whole lot more to do with the way you’re reacting to something. If that’s the case, the good news is that you’re in charge of you, and you have the power to change how you’re responding, as this past post reminds you.

Some reasonable, and temporary, bouts of stress are normal—successful people just find ways to manage them. But if a feeling of stress is becoming your natural state of being, get serious about addressing it so you can redirect that energy to more productive, and hopefully enjoyable, pursuits.

Be a good teammate

Arun shares this (previously shared on the College Counselor Facebook page) from the women’s rugby coach at Quinnipiac University. While written for athletes hoping to play in college, many of the observations have direct crossover to non-athletes applying to college as well.

For example (though I do acknowledge the irony in the writer scolding a student for poor punctuation, but then making numerous errors herself, which I’m leaving unfixed here):

Our staff explained to your parents that we would prefer to connect with you directly, but they continue to respond on your behalf. This will be a red flag for any coach, so please be aware of this feedback being a possibility from any of your other options.

When you visited the campus with your parents, the first thing I noticed is that they [your parents] did most of the talking for you.

In the second half, when you scored I noticed you waited for the other players to huddle around you and celebrate. In contrast, when a teammate scored, you retreated to your position without acknowledging or congratulating them.

You added much depth in the scoring category with some impressive runs but when you made mistakes you became vocal and eager to point out where your teammates needed to improve.

Getting recruited isn’t just about athletic ability, and getting into college isn’t just about your GPA and test scores.

Parents, let your kids drive the process. Students, show the initiative to take the wheel. And remember that whether or not you’re an athlete, being a good teammate goes a long way.