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Getting into a good college doesn’t have to be a reward for extreme sacrifice; it can be, instead, a side effect of the much grander goal of building a meaningful and engaging life.Cal Newport, How to be a High School Superstar
Think of a typical high school student who gets into a world-class college or university, like Cambridge, MIT, or one of the Ivy League universities. You might imagine someone with countless extracurricular activities, perfect grades, and loads of stress. What if there’s another way? What if, instead of sacrificing all your precious free time, you could get into a world-class college as a byproduct of leading an interesting life?
In How to be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport presents the idea of a relaxed superstar, a high school student who gets into a world-class college by leading an authentic life, mostly free from the stress that comes with strict compliance with the stereotypical high achiever mold. After conducting interviews with numerous relaxed superstars, he extracted three characteristics they had in common:
Paradoxically, most of these students have unencumbered schedules, with plenty of free time to explore their interests. This entails having a solid grasp of time management and study techniques, which Newport lays out comprehensively (he has written multiple books on it!).
Another common feature of relaxed superstars is being very good at one thing. Be it a skill, hobby, sport, or academic pursuit, focusing intensely on one extracurricular interest minimizes stress while providing impressive achievements to add to your application.
Cal Newport provides a very useful way of judging how impressive achievements are to admissions staff: How hard is it to explain?
If you heard of two similar students, one of which was class president, and the other a member of the youth commission of the United Nations, which one sounds more impressive? Most people pick the second one, but why is that so? Cal Newport says it’s because it’s relatively easy to imagine how one could become class president, but people have no idea how one can become a member of the United Nations’ youth commission.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I first read this book in my second year of high school, and I got to implementing the methods outlined in the book:
- Underscheduling: cutting down the time I spend on schoolwork to a sensible minimum, improving my time management and study efficiency, getting permission from my school to “skip” some classes entirely and then pass them through end-of-year exams
- Focus: spending most of my time on engineering and competitive physics (I know, there’s two of them, but I couldn’t pick just one!)
- Innovation: passing an online course by Stanford University, and working on a bunch of complicated-sounding projects and experiments, like “Exoplanet Detection using Machine Learning” (which was my S3 project)
By the time I got to my final year of high school, I had accumulated a relatively sizable engineering portfolio (working on 3D printers, CNC, Arduino and various experiments) and participated in multiple physics competitions. At first I was aiming at Croatian universities, but I thought, “Why not try getting into a world-class university?”
In my final year of high school, I applied to Cambridge. I messed up badly because I didn’t do adequate research, and got rejected. US admissions were on the way, so I decided to try that too.
It was a last-minute decision, and I made plenty of mistakes during the admissions process, as I didn’t have an advisor and, once again, didn’t do the proper research. I took the ACT – arguably the most important test – on the last available test date, and it was so close to getting cancelled because of technical issues. I got rejection after rejection. The most eagerly anticipated day for me – and for many other students – was Ivy Day, when every Ivy League university sends out its decisions. Not a single one accepted me – except Harvard.
So, there might be a grain of truth to the book. Don’t think that reading it (or this grossly oversimplified review) will guarantee you a spot at a top university, but it’s a very good first step, and a must-read for any high school student who’s remotely interested in applying to world-class universities, or just school-centered stress reduction in general. If you implement the lessons in the book, the worst-case scenario is not getting accepted into Oxford, but at least having a more exciting and less stressful four years of high school.
Are you interested in how one gets admitted into foreign universities? Well, great, because in the next issue we’ll start writing about international college admissions. Until then, you might want to check out this handy guide, or my YouTube channel (which is in Croatian only), where I’m working on a tutorial series on US admissions. I think that my acceptance rate could have been much higher if I had done the proper research, so please don’t make the same mistakes as me!
Also, if you want to borrow the book, e-mail me and we’ll figure something out.