If you’ve read my post on the series of books I read to try to understand my study-allergic teenager, you’ll know that I really care about school and my kid really does not.
School is important not only for the content (basic math, chemistry, biology, physics, literature, grammar, foreign languages, sports) but also for the skills it requires young people to learn: communicating in writing, explaining your reasoning step by step, memorizing information, analyzing and synthesizing, problem-solving, planning, organizing, reflecting.
Even if he goes on to study music, and forgets everything he knows about particle theory or Shakespeare, I want him to learn how to learn.
And that’s where Cal Newport comes in. When I first saw his book at our school library, I groaned inwardly, “Great. More advice to stress out our already high-achieving prep schoolers.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Cal Newport has been blogging for years about how to study more efficiently. His advice is mainly destined for college students, but high schoolers started to reach out to him to ask him for more specific advice about how to get into the college in the first place. So he set out to research students who had achieved their goals and still managed to have time to themselves.
How to Be a High School Superstar is a book of disruptive advice and true stories for kids who are under a lot of pressure to get into top universities. They know they need to stand out to be noticed in the sky-high pile of applications but they can’t do more. They’re already serving on student council, running at least one other club, doing extra-curricular sports, volunteering in the community, and getting all As in their extra-heavy course load.
The answer, says Cal Newport, is actually to do less. You have to work deeper, not longer.
According to his research, there are three steps to high school superstardom:
1. Underschedule your life.
2. Explore your true interests
Drop those clubs, abdicate your leadership positions, scale down your sports involvement, quit volunteering at the hospital with the other hundreds of high school students and drop all but the required courses, says Cal.
But what am I going to do with all that free time? whines the student. I’ll be too tempted to play video games all day.
Maybe, he replies. Or you could actively pursue things you might be truly interested in. Volunteering in a needy school. Blogging. Computer programming or designing apps. Doing an internship in a lab or other workplace to see if you like it. Learning a new language or instrument or anything else you love. Writing a novel.
Okay, then what? asks the student. How is this going to help me get into college?
What naturally seems to follow from a true interest, he says, is innovation. That’s another word for a long-term project that leads to real impact on the world. There are dozens of stories of teenagers who made connections to adults that led to important developments in their field of interest. One wrote a book on programming by teenagers for teenagers. Another did real research on horseshoe crabs. Another started a highly popular blog. Another changed the way reading was taught at a family of charter schools.
Impressive. (Partly because we can’t visualize how these students were able to accomplish such feats.) And none of these young people would have been able to do these impressive feats if they hadn’t had free time in their schedules.
So the message of How to Be a High School Superstar for high-schoolers and parents of high-schoolers is this: Busyness does not a superstar make. If you’ve done something truly innovative, you can even squeeze into the Ivy League with the blemish of a B on your transcript.
You’ll have to read How to Be a High School Superstar yourself to discover Cal’s specific advice for just how to condense your school work day, maximize your time, find something to explore, and make connections for innovation.
Have you met anyone who is an example of this philosophy? That kid who got good grades, never stressed about it, and did something really impressive even while in high school?
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!