Tag Archives: college admissions

A summary and broad points of agreement and disagreement with Cal Newport’s book on high school extracurriculars

Cal Newport (personal website, Wikipedia page) is a moderately well-known author of four books as well as a computer science researcher. I have read two of his four books: How To Become a Straight-A Student The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less and How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out). I’m particularly interested in his book on becoming a high school superstar. My interest arises as part of trying to figure out how people can better use their extracurricular activities to have more fun, learn more, and create more value for the world. As Jonah recently pointed out, choosing high school extracurricular activities could in principle have huge social value in addition to the private benefits. And as far as I know, Cal Newport is the only person who has given systematic advice on high school extracurriculars to a broad audience. He’s been referenced many times on Less Wrong.

In this post, I’ll briefly discuss his suggestions in the latter book and some of my broad philosophical disagreements. I’m eager to know about the experiences of people who’ve tried to implement Newport’s advice (particularly that pertaining to extracurriculars, but also any of his other advice). First impressions of people who click through the links and read about Newport right now would also be appreciated. I intend to write on some of these issues in more detail in the coming days, though those later posts of mine will not be focused solely on what Newport has to say.

You might also be interested in the comments on this Facebook post of mine discussing Newport’s ideas.

A quick summary of Newport’s views

Newport’s book advises high school students to pick an extracurricular activity and shine at it to the level that it impresses admissions officers (and others). He offers a three-step plan for highschoolers:

  1. The Law of Underscheduling: Pack your schedule with free time. Use this free time to explore: In particular, avoid getting being involved in too many activities, whether academic or extracurricular. Use your free time to read and learn about a wide range of stuff.
  2. The Law of Focus: Master one serious interest. Don’t waste time on unrelated activities: Newport cites the superstar effect and the Matthew effect to bolster his case for focusing on one activity after you’ve explored a reasonable amount.
  3. The Law of Innovation: Pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not hard to do: Newport talked of a “failed-simulation effect” where things seem impressive if the people who hear about them can’t easily imagine a standard path to them. He then offers some more guidelines both on how to innovate and on how to make one’s innovation seem impressive.

Newport is targeting high school students who want to get into their dream college. He’s trying to get them to stop doing boring, depressing activities and instead do fun, creative, and useful stuff that both improves their short-run life (by making them more relaxed and less stressed) and impresses admissions officers.

Broad areas of agreement

  1. I think Newport is right to suggest that it doesn’t make sense to devote too much energy to boring schoolwork or extracurriculars that one is doing just because one is “supposed” to do them. I think he’s right that his approach is both less stressful and less wasteful of human resources and effort. And it is more likely, in expectation, to build human capital and produce direct value for society.
  2. Newport is correct to emphasize the link between free time and being able to explore stuff, and his advice on how to explore can be quite helpful to high school students.
  3. Newport’s ideas for how to focus on a particular interest, and how to rack up accomplishments in a particular area, seem broadly sound.
  4. When it comes to figuring out what impresses college admissions officers, Newport seems like he knows what he’s talking about, although some of his examples make less sense than he thinks they do.

Broad philosophical differences

Before getting into the nuts and bolts of what I think Newport gets right and wrong, I want to talk of some broad differences between Newport (as he presents himself) and me. A few things I find somewhat jarring in Newport’s writing:

  1. Newport seems very concerned with signaling quality to colleges. This is fine: that’s what his target audience cares most about, and if getting into a good college is important, then signaling quality to college can be quite important. What I find somewhat offputting is that he often confuses the signaling with the value of the activity itself, or at any rate fails to question whether some of the things he believes to be optimal from the signaling viewpoint could be counterproductive from the perspective of value creation (either personal or social). For instance, consider his observation of the existence of the failed-simulation effect. This points in favor both of picking things that are harder for other people to “see through” (rather than things that are straightforward but hard) and also in favor of making what you did seem more undoable than it actually is. I see these as downsides of the failed-simulation effect, and sources of genuine conflict between choosing what creates the most value (personal or social) and what impresses others. Newport seems to sidestep such dilemmas.
  2. Newport doesn’t adequately address the zero-sum context in which he is giving his advice. Top colleges have a limited number of places for students. If everybody successfully implemented Newport’s advice, only a small fraction of them would be able to go to a top college. Note that I don’t think Newport views his advice as zero-sum, and even if what I wrote above is correct, his advice could still be positive-sum in that it shifts people away from competing on stressful dimensions to doing activities that offer them more fun and learning and create more value. But again, the fact that he doesn’t really address this issue head-on is a disappointment.
  3. Newport seems to oversystematize in ways that don’t feel right to me. Even though I agree with aspects of the broad direction he is pushing people in, I feel he’s seeing too many patterns that may not exist.
  4. In general, I feel that Newport doesn’t go far enough. He operates within the standard set of constraints without questioning the logic of the enterprise or giving people a better understanding of the incentives of different actors in the system. He also doesn’t provide adequate guidance on the self-calibration problem, and doesn’t adequately encourage people to figure out how to calibrate their learning better in the context of the extracurricular activity where they cannot rely on standard measures such as grades to track their progress.

I’m curious to know what readers’ main areas of disagreement with Newport are, and/or whether my listed areas of disagreement make sense to readers.

Cross-posted to LessWrong and Quora.

What colleges look for in extracurricular activities

By Jonah Sinick

From High school extracurricular activities: factors to consider

We spoke with admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, Duke, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Williams, Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore, Brown, Northwestern and Caltech, about how they evaluate student participation in extracurricular activities, for 15 colleges total. We also consulted books and articles, such as Cal Newport’s How to be a High School Superstar.

  • Colleges generally don’t prefer some extracurricular activities over others: Seven of the colleges indicated that the nature of the extracurriculars doesn’t matter, as long as the student shows passion. Two of the colleges indicated that they have a preference for students who are involved in at least some activities with other people. Beyond this, no colleges indicated a preference for some extracurricular activities over others. In general, the colleges indicated that they define “extracurricular activities” very broadly, as anything outside of coursework, which could include work, sports, participation in online communities, etc.
  • Colleges generally prefer depth of involvement over breadth: Six of the colleges indicated that they have no preference for whether students engage in lots of activities or a few activities, as long as they show serious involvement in their activities. Seven of the colleges said that depth matters more than breadth. None expressed a preference for many activities.
  • Commitment can be important: Six of the colleges indicated that continuity of involvement and commitment matters. None said that these things don’t matter.
  • Achievement level can make a difference, but appears to be less important: Five of the colleges indicated that achievement level doesn’t matter as much as depth of involvement. Two of the colleges indicated that higher achievement helps.

College Admissions for Homeschoolers

By Jonah Sinick

Cross-posted from Quora and the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum

If you’re considering home-schooling for high school, you’re likely wondering how it will affect your college prospects.

Public Colleges

It can be difficult or impossible to get into public colleges as a homeschooler, owing to bureaucratic requirements. For example, UC Davis writes:

The courses of homeschools and unapproved high schools are not accepted by the University of California and cannot be used to establish minimum UC admission requirements. If you are a homeschooled student or attended a California high school without a UC-approved course list, you must establish your academic record through test scores or as a community college transfer student.

While it may be possible to qualify for the UC system via test scores, it’s unclear what one’s prospects are for getting into a campus of your choice. See University of California and homeschoolers at The Well-Trained Mind.

Other public colleges are more receptive to admitting homeschoolers. For example, University of Illinois writes:

We encourage home schooled students to apply to the University…We are very interested in having talented, well-qualified applicants from a variety of settings. Home schoolers would provide a diversity of academic experiences to the campus.

If you’re considering home schooling, be sure to check out what the situation is at the public colleges that you anticipate applying to, in particular, those in your home state.

Private Colleges

Elite private colleges accept home schoolers.  The elite private college students who were home schooled appears to be smaller than the fraction of high schoolers in the general population who are home schooled. About ~3% of students are home schooled nationwide. By way of contrast:

  • Princeton reports that only 0.5% of Princeton students were homeschooled.
  • A University of Chicago student on College Confidentialreported that 13 students in his or her grade were homeschooled. University of Chicago’s class size is about 1,400, so about 1% of the students were home schooled.
  • MIT reports that less than 1% of MIT students were homeschooled.

Some possible reasons for the discrepancy are:

  1. The fraction of homeschoolers who apply to elite colleges may be significantly smaller than the fraction of members of the general population who apply to elite colleges. For example, MIT reports that less than 1% of the applicant pool consists of homeschoolers.
  2. It could be more difficult for homeschoolers to get into elite colleges on average.

On the second point, even if it is more difficult on average, that doesn’t mean that it would be more difficult for you personally. With suitable preparation for the admissions process along the lines described below, homeschoolers could have equal or better odds for getting in (though the situation is ambiguous).

Something that pushes in favor of homeschooling for admissions prospects is that if you homeschool, you’ll have more flexibility in regards to how you arrange your coursework (for example, you can pick which textbooks to use), and if you use this flexibility well, your chances of excelling could increase.

Some points to keep in mind, based on a reading of webpages of elite colleges about applying as a homeschooler:

  • Standardized test scores are weighted more heavily for homeschoolers. Some colleges encourage homeschoolers to take more than the minimum requirement of 2 SAT subject tests, and some refer to AP scores as a way for students to demonstrate their achievement. If you’re unusually capable of getting high standardized test scores, the case for homeschooling is strengthened.
  • Taking college courses at local colleges or summer programs seems to help establish a homeschooler’s academic record. It also gives a homeschooler the chance to solicit recommendations from professors who can vouch for his or her performance.
  • If you homeschool, it’s important to document your academic program.
  • Colleges expect that homeschoolers study the standard academic subjects (math, English, social studies, science and languages): if you homeschool, you shouldn’t design an overly idiosyncratic program that doesn’t include these things.
  • Some colleges want evidence that homeschoolers can integrate well with other students, presumably in the form of extracurricular activities that have a social component.
  • If you homeschool and can give a compelling reason for why you’ve done so in your college applications, this will strengthen your case for admissions.


For our research, we looked at pages published by: YaleMIT,PrincetonColumbiaUniversity of ChicagoCaltechNew York University and Homeschool Success, as well as College Confidential’s forum with relevant threads. See in particularHomeschool students’ admission rate to Harvard/Princeton/Yale and How do homeschooled students attend Ivy leagues?.


You might find the following resources helpful for learning more about college admissions for homeschoolers: