THE IDEA of drastically reducing your schedule probably sounds great in theory—who wouldn't want to enjoy an abundance of free time? But if you're like many students I've advised, you probably have reservations about the impact of such a lifestyle on your chances of getting into college. Running through the back of your mind is a simple logic: doing more is more impressive; therefore, by cutting back you're reducing your impressiveness, and this will hurt your admissions chances.
You will soon come to understand that this is a flawed belief. The number and difficulty of your accomplishments play only a minor role in college applications. Other factors are much more important.
Below, I introduce two students. The first, Olivia, dedicated only a handful of hours each week during the school year to extracurricular activities, yet still won a full-ride scholarship to the University of Virginia. The second, Jessica, was often able to finish her week's homework by Tuesday night—leaving the rest of the week free. She got accepted into the University of California, Berkeley, her dream school.
Their stories will help acclimate you to the concept that light schedules can correspond with admissions success. In the chapters that follow, we'll dive into the details of exactly why this is true and how you can replicate these results.
The Horseshoe Crab Effect
In late March of 2008, Olivia, a high school senior from a small town near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was ushered into a room. She took a seat across from a semicircle of five distinguished-looking men and women. The group greeted her with wide smiles, but their eyes were serious and appraising. The cramped dimensions of the room surprised Olivia. A desk, littered with the standard collection of photo frames and computer accessories, encroached on the floor space, leaving Olivia and her inquisitors almost uncomfortably close. "It was so small," she recalls. "It was just someone's office."
The mundane setting contrasted with the importance of the event taking place there. This was the final-round interview for the prestigious Jefferson Scholarship—an award that covered the full costs of attending the University of Virginia. Three months earlier, Olivia had been nominated by her high school for the prize. She had survived a round of regional interviews before being flown down to Charlottesville, Virginia—home to the university—for a battery of tests leading up to this interview. Over the past two days, Olivia had taken exams to assess her math and writing skills. She had also been given a packet of academic papers to read, and then placed in a conference room to debate their merits with other finalists while members of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation selection committee took notes. This final interview, however, held the most weight for the senior members of the foundation who would decide whether or not Olivia was Jefferson material.
To better understand what constitutes Jefferson material, consider a student whom I'll call Laura Gant, who won the scholarship the previous year. Laura liked to write. As a high school student she interned at Business Week and had several pieces published on the magazine's Web site. She also won the Victor L. Ridder Scholarship, the National Council of Teachers of English Achievement Award in Writing, and the Harvard-Radcliff Book Award. Not surprising, she boasted exceptional grades that had earned her an almost embarrassingly long list of academic awards and scholarships. In addition, she's an artist and a talented musician—both voice and piano—who studied her craft seriously at a special music school in New York State. She rounded out her activity list by being the co-president of a school club, a member of the National Honor Society, and the co-founder of a community service group, and she was heavily involved in both the theater and choir groups at her high school.
Laura is a sterling example of the standard thinking about college admissions. She distinguished herself in high school by demonstrating commitment to lots of activities. Her life, I imagine, must have been brutal—a constant stream of work driven by the persistent fear of falling short of perfection. In the end, however, the suffering paid off when she won the Jefferson. This is the type of student against whom Olivia had to compete.
Olivia had never heard of Laura Gant, and this was probably for the best. Olivia's extracurricular involvements looked nothing like Laura's. Olivia didn't win armfuls of awards. She was not a star musician or an artist. She didn't start any organizations,or, for that matter, even participate in that many. Here's what she did do: to satisfy her school's athletic requirement, she joined the dance team, a commitment that required only four to five hours a week.
"That was much better than the ten-plus hours you'd spend if you joined a real sports team," she told me.
During her senior year she joined the tech crew for the school musical, but this counted as an elective class. She also co-chaired her senior class's community service organization.
"In past years, the group marched in parades and held bake sales," she recalls. "My co-leader and I decided to not do that kind of thing. It really takes a lot of energy to organize high schoolers for things like that!"
Instead, she and her co-leader shunted their classmates toward an existing community service program that organized a service trip that would take place soon after graduation.
"Leading that group required, on average, about two hours a week," Olivia says. "It was not a huge commitment at all."
During her sophomore summer, she was also a part-time unpaid volunteer at the University of New Hampshire's marine biology laboratory. (The professor who ran the lab was her family's next-door neighbor.) You'll learn more about what sparked her interest in marine biology later in Part 1; for now it's enough to know that she returned to the lab her junior summer as a paid research assistant and planned on doing the same her final summer before college.
And that's about it.
If you're keeping score, the above entailed six to seven hours of activities per week during the school year—leaving Olivia's afternoons, evenings, and weekends wonderfully free. She had more than enough time to keep up with her courses without resorting to late nights or experiencing stress. And this still left abundant time to relax. Olivia enjoyed her underscheduled lifestyle, and she looks back on high school fondly.
She was not Laura Gant.
On the surface, it seemed as if Olivia's prospects for winning the Jefferson Scholarship were dim. She had avoided the stress that comes from an overpacked schedule, but as she sat before the five men and women who would decide whether to grant her one of their alma mater's most prestigious honors, she worried that she was about to pay the price for her happiness.
"At the time I felt really insecure about it. Maybe I should have played varsity soccer and lacrosse and, you know, become student council president," she recalls.
Some pleasantries were exchanged, and then the interview began in earnest. "Tell me," one of the men said, "about those horseshoe crabs."
With this question, the fear vanished from Olivia's mind. She knew how to talk about horseshoe crabs. The past two summers, she had spent every morning and every afternoon commuting to and from the UNH campus with her neighbor, the director of the lab where she worked, holding lively debates about the nuances of marine biology.
"One morning—to give you an example—the professor began going on about a paper on particular neurotransmitters in the brain of lobsters," Olivia told me. "It wasn't his area of research, but he was fascinated anyway. It helped me understand that being a scientist isn't just about focusing on one small area; it can also be about being interested in huge, broad topics." This interest had seeped into Olivia's personal life, affecting what she read and what she thought about.
The interview conversation soon turned to a book Olivia had recently read for fun: Emergence, by Steven Johnson—a look at how large-scale complex traits can arise from small-scale simple actions; for example, how thousands of ants following simple rules aggregate into an intelligently run colony. Olivia began to riff about the book. She discussed how studying the emergent traits of horseshoe crab populations, as Johnson had described researchers doing with ants, might yield new clues about the behavior of the crustaceans. She wanted to study both marine biology and environmental science at college so she could tackle interdisciplinary problems of this kind.
Olivia's idea about emergence was original, but to her it was not particularly special. She loved the field of marine biology and was used to coming up with and debating ideas about it. This was simply what you did at the lab where she worked. It was a natural by-product of being genuinely interested in the subject.
The five scholarship committee members, however, were entranced. They were used to students, like Laura Gant, who would enter that cramped office and give careful, official-sounding answers to their questions—never failing to miss an opportunity to highlight accomplishments from their lengthy resumes. They would say things like "My time spent volunteering at the local hospital taught me the importance of service." Or, "Being student council president is another example of my ability to lead."
Olivia, on the other hand, ignored this strategy. She exuded confidence and curiosity. Above all, there was real substance behind her words. Put another way, she was actually interesting, and this would take her further than she ever imagined.
The next night, after returning home to New Hampshire, Olivia got the call. This student from a small high school—a student with copious free time, who had never won major academic awards or competitions, or started any important club or organization,and who lived a happy, low-stress life—was informed that she had won the scholarship.
As it turns out, Olivia's story of interestingness trumping busyness is not unique. In the next section you'll hear about another laid-back student who transformed a love of life into admissions success.
The Forty-Minute Essay
Jessica, a student attending a private school in Upstate New York, decided as a sophomore to adopt an underscheduled lifestyle. This decision was prompted by a short-lived, ill-fated brush with entrepreneurship the year before. She had been paying fora deluxe Web hosting account, when she had an idea. She could rent an entire Celeron server from the hosting company for $59 a month. She could then resell a hosting account for around $90 to $100. The difference would be profit, which she could use to help pay her own server bills.
Jessica rented and resold her first server, and then soon thought: "Why not do this with more computers and make even more profit?" She discovered that a P4 rack server bought for $400 could be rented for $180, generating an even bigger profit after the initial cost was paid back. So she bought one—and then some more.
Things soon got out of hand. First there was the logistics of handling money and client accounts. Even today, years later, Jessica hesitates to talk about what she did wrong during that crazy year. She never incorporated the business and didn't handle the money well. With thousands of dollars sloshing in and out of personal bank accounts, more servers being bought, and bills mounting, the finances became complicated, and that bred stress.
The human problems made things even worse. On paper, renting a server for one price and re-renting for a higher price seems like automatic money. What this equation omits, however, is the late-night phone calls, from the companies paying those higher prices,when something went wrong.
Things often went wrong.
Jessica started bringing her cell phone to school to answer tech support calls in between classes. Her anxiety rose. The situation came to a head on New Year's Eve in her freshman year. Jessica was away for the holiday break with her family when her phone rang. "It was literally one minute before the ball was about to drop," she recalls. The call was from her business partner.
"Hey, big problems," he started. Jessica's stomach churned. "All of our customers just got their data wiped out by a hacker."
On the TV, the ball began its descent.
"I'm on vacation, can this—? Shit, this sounds really bad," Jessica replied.
It was possible that eight hundred companies had just lost their data. She knew the feeling well; earlier in the year the same thing had happened to the three hundred customers they had at the time. As the New Year officially began, Jessica punched in the number of the technician on call at the data center. It would be a long night.
A few months later Jessica found her way out of this self-created prison. A client offered to take over the servers and their accounts. Jessica wouldn't make any money from the deal, but the client would take on the outstanding bills. The agreement was made at five o'clock on a Tuesday morning over an MSN Web chat.
"It was sort of scary; it left a big gap in my life," Jessica recalls. "But it was also a relief. There is no way to describe what it's like."
The stress of this experience drove Jessica to vow that she would never lose control of her schedule again. She became wary, for example, about taking on too many commitments. She joined her school's model UN club and played in the jazz band. She also did some volunteering and was involved with student government. But these were her only formal activities. In fact, she even left most of these minor clubs off her college applications, explaining, "I thought they would clutter things." At the beginning of her junior year, she also started a blog to help work through some of her thoughts about the experience with entrepreneurship that had shaken up her freshman-year life. It was a way to stay connected to that world without actually running a company.
Jessica kept her academic demands equally light. "On a weekday, I might work until eight and then I was done," she told me. "I rarely worked on weekends. I would just hang out, work on my blog, or build random Web site stuff."
She was good at starting assignments early and taking advantage of slow periods to get ahead on her work. She was so good, in fact, that by her junior year she would often finish her homework for the week as early as Tuesday evening, leaving the rest of the week completely free for her to do whatever she wanted.
"It was such a relaxed time," she recalls.
Jessica was about as far from a grind as it is possible to be without failing out of school. So when it came to writing her college application essay for Berkeley, one of her dream schools, it didn't cross her mind to obsess over the task. Fortunately, Jessica had some experience with writing. Her blog had led her to devote much of her free time to informally reading and thinking about entrepreneurship and talking to interesting people involved with it. As I'll explain, it was this thinking and writing that made her genuinely interesting, and it was her interestingness that would make her application so unique and powerful—helping her get into this notoriously competitive school.