Cruise through College Admissions

What if I told you that all the pundits who are asking you to drown yourself and your kids in activities for college admissions are dead wrong.  What if there is a simpler and a more organic way to cruise through college admissions. I read a book written by Cal Newport on this topic and I totally buy this new philosophy. Buy the book here: How To Be A High School Superstar. Read below to find out how this works.


The basic premise of this philosophy is that admission officers are bored to death by looking at the same kinds of applications over and over again, with lots of activities in different fields. Nobody will disagree that SAT scores and GPAs are important but how should kids approach the extracurriculars. Cal Newport argues that there are three main laws to follow, to position yourself as an interesting candidate for college admissions.

  • The Law of Underscheduling.
  • The Law of Focus.
  • The Law of Innovation.

These laws can be explained with examples.

  • The Law of Underscheduling
    • This law argues that there should be plenty of time in High School for unstructured and leisurely exploration.
    • This kind of unstructured exploration has the potential of making you interesting. 
    • He gives the example of Olivia, who earned a prestigious full-scholarship at the University of Virginia. She was exploring marine animal life in her leisure time, which led to an internship at a Marine Biology Lab because a neighbor worked there and she had shown interest. This led to her exploring the behavior of Horse Shoe Crabs. When the scholarship committee interviewed Olivia, they were amazed by her depth of understanding of her research topic and she won full scholarship even when her competition was with other high school students with more activities under their belts. The scholarship committee found her very interesting. 
    • He also gives the example of a relaxed kid, who took a gap year after high school, published a book and became a public speaker at radio shows and universities. This guaranteed his admission at a good college.
  • The Law of Focus
    • The main premise of this law is that one should not be distracted by too many activities. This will lead to a better outcome and again, will make you more interesting. Also, one should NOT use the law of under-scheduling to be lazy and play video games all day.
    • Cal gives the example of a boy Michael, who while being in High School, focused on Clean Energy initiative (and nothing much else in the way of extracurriculars) and ended up prototyping and deploying solar-powered golf carts. He made it to a good college easily.
    • Cal suggests that when the kids start practicing “The Law of Focus”, three effects start showing up in their lives:
      • The Superstar Effect: There is plenty of research that suggests that the best beats the second best by big margins in overall outcomes, even if the two are separated by a very small margin in their performances. The Law of Focus helps you in getting the Superstar Effect.
      • Matthew Effect: This just means that Good Begets Good. When you focus on one or a small number of things and get good at it, many other good things start happening to you. An example would be that if you focus on your ability to help other kids at school, you will be naturally selected for many or all leadership roles at school.
      • Countersignaling: This suggests that once you get really good at what you are interested in, you don’t have to talk about your abilities and your work. Others start paying attention to you and your work and hence your side channels and your references do the talking for you (which is way better), instead of you yourself.
  • The Law of Innovation
    • The main premise of this law is that the Law of Underscheduling and Law of Focus have given you the opportunity to first explore and then hone skills in a particular area and with the Law of Innovation, you can innovate in that area, which will put you in a much better position, compared to the other children who are drowning themselves in myriad different activities to fill their resumes.
    • Failed Simulation Effect: Cal suggests that your innovation should lead to a Failed Simulation Effect. This means that when people read your accomplishments, it should not be easy for them to simulate in their minds as to how you would have achieved the results.  For eg., somebody won a violin competition. This does NOT create a Failed Simulation Effect since it’s not very hard to understand what a violin player would have done to reach such skill levels.  A lot of practice and a lot of training. However, if you hear that Kara designed a health curriculum for tackling diabetes, which was adopted by a few organizations; that leads to the Failed Simulation Effect.
    • Cal proposes three rules for innovation, for high schoolers:
      • Don’t think up innovations from scratch.
      • Innovators join closed communities and pay their dues.
      • Innovators leverage their way up to the innovation.
    • An example to explain the rules of innovation:
      • Kara’s curriculum for tackling diabetes was a revamping of a previous anti-drug curriculum of an organization where she was working.
      • Kara joined the organization in question and did a lot of small tasks for them (paying her dues).
      • Kara first finished a reasonably important project with full commitment before proposing the revamping of the curriculum project. Hence, she leveraged her way up to the innovation.

The overall summary is that if you follow the three main laws properly- Underscheduling, Focus and Innovation, you will come out with some interesting achievements, which will strongly differentiate you in the college admissions marketplace.