April 23, 2015

How to Choose Impressive Extracurriculars for College Admissions

A few years ago, MIT professor Cal Newport featured me in his book, How to Be a High School Superstar (relevant pages: bottom of 220-222)*.

In his book, and in a related blog post, he argues that I got into Columbia due to what he calls the "superstar effect" or "failed simulation effect."

Cal defines this effect as:

Accomplishments that are hard to explain can be much more impressive than accomplishments that are simply hard to do.

He clarifies:

Being the best in a field makes you disproportionately impressive to the outside world. This effect holds even if the field is not crowded, competitive, or well-known.

What did I accomplish? The summer before my senior year of  high school, I went to a United Nations conference in South Africa.

Sure, it sounds impressive, but why does it sound impressive?

Because when you hear only the result (United Nations and South Africa) without context, it's hard to imagine yourself doing anything similar.

However, once you know how I ended up there, it's not nearly as hard to understand.

How I ended up lobbying government delegates in a UN conference as a high school student:

I worked with a nonprofit organization (run by college students) called SustainUS. They sent me as one of their representatives.


I joined them after meeting someone at a Model Congress convention who connected me with them.


She learned I was going to be on a panel at a different UN conference.


I'd spoken in a previous UN meeting I'd attended as a youth representative for Physicians for Human Rights.


When I was a high school sophomore, I'd emailed dozens of nonprofits asking about internship opportunities.


I was interested in international issues.


Many people read my story and still don't get it. Take this forum post, for example:

How Choose Impressive Extracurriculars College Admissions

My thoughts:

When I was a high school sophomore, I had no clue it was even possible for high schoolers to attend UN conferences. I didn't seek out this specific opportunity.

Instead, I was just interested in the world, so I emailed a ton of nonprofits with an international focus asking for a chance to get involved.

Sure, they didn't have a formal internship program, but I reached out anyway. I had nothing to lose by asking. All the formal internship programs I could find were for college students, and I knew I didn't stand a chance at those.

In other words, I went outside the system.

Most people stay on pre-defined paths, whether they're in high school, college, grad school, or the working world.

However, if you want to do something unique and meaningful, and you want to stand out, you can't follow a pre-defined course.

If you're asking "How to stand out easily," you don't get it. By definition, forging your own path isn't easy.

You don't "create a failed simulation effect" by trying to create one. By definition, it's something that's hard to relate to unless you've already done it, and the path to create one is seemingly random in nature.

I couldn't have predicted that emailing a nonprofit as a high school sophomore would lead me to South Africa nearly 2 years later. If I could've known that A would lead to Z, everyone else would, too. That nonprofit would be getting flooded with emails from ambitious high schoolers every day.

Sure, I was in the right place at the right time. You could say "I was lucky", but it's not really that simple.

I started at point A by doing something unique. Those nonprofits didn't get emails from high schoolers very often.

I made my own luck by taking a chance and exposing myself to randomness. While 99% of the nonprofits I emailed either didn't write back or said "no," it only took one of them to say "yes,"  and that made all the difference.

How you can "create a failed simulation effect":

By definition, you can't try to create one. At least, you can't have a specific goal in mind. Instead of starting at Z, start at A.

Don't compete with people like yourself, and don't work within established programs.

Instead, explore your interests, use your skills, and do things outside the system. Things other people aren't doing. This gives you the freedom to do things that will not only sound impressive, but will actually be impressive. And you'll eventually get to do something that leaves a mark on the world.


Email me and let me know what you end up doing. I'd love to hear your story.


Further reading: The High School Superstar Effect in College Admissions

*There are a few minor errors in Cal's account, such as the fact that I'd already graduated from Columbia when he interviewed me.

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