How to Be a High School Superstar:  A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out), by Cal Newport (Broadway Books, New York, 2010)

If I could recommend two books to help a 12-15 year old student prepare for college, it would be Alex and Brett Harris's Do Hard Things and this one.  Some of the political and religious views expressed in the former set my teeth on edge, but it's well worth the effort to get past that reaction, because Brett and Alex write well, and what they are saying is incredibly important, not just for teens who share their beliefs, but for everyone, of any age.

How to Be a High School Superstar is altogether different in focus, but I can boil the best of both books down to this:  Life doesn’t begin when you graduate from high school. or college, or grad school.  You can do hard things, good things, amazing things, now.  Or, rather, in a little while from now, if you are willing to put forth some effort in the right direction.

The good news from Newport is that the first step in the process is to stop putting so much effort in the wrong directions.  The standard college-bound rat race that overfills schedules with extra-curricular activities and turns a grade of A- into a tragedy?  Forget it.  Far from being a requirement for getting into your top-choice school, this will actually hinder your chances.  The admissions departments of the best schools are awash in applications from students with 4.0 GPAs and bristling with sports, clubs, and volunteer activities.  So how does a student stand out?

By becoming an interesting person.

Face it:  It’s hard to develop a personality when you spend most of your time surrounded by people your own age, doing mostly the same things in the same places.  It is interaction with the diversity and unpredictability of real life that sculpts and polishes us.  So the first step on the path to high school superstardom is to clear large swaths of free time in your schedule.  Get rid of those elective classes you think you ought to take but in which you have no interest, and quit those clubs you joined simply to impress some college admissions officer.  Drop out of the race for the valedictorian’s laurels—it’s true that being first in your class gives a significant edge with the colleges, but there are plenty of other ways to catch their eye where the competition is less fierce.  Being willing to accept a B+ instead of an A can trade a minuscule diminution of learning for a significant increase in free time.

I know, I know.  You’re envisioning sleeping till noon, endless video games, hanging out at the mall, or getting into trouble.  The devil finds work for idle hands to do.

Not a bit of it.  There’s a point to carving out all this free time, and that’s what the rest of the book is about.  Newport never mentions homeschooling, much less unschooling, but his strategy for becoming a person interesting enough to impress the toughest colleges is remarkably similar to the unschooling lifestyle.  It still requires effort—but effort that is different, less stressful, and more interesting.   It’s also, Newport insists, within everyone’s reach:  it doesn’t take a genius to do impressive work.  It does, however, require thinking outside of the standard high school operating procedures.

Neither Do Hard Things nor How to Be a High School Superstar has all the answers, but each presents a vision for encouraging ordinary students to become extraordinary human beings.

Don't leave middle school without them.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 7:02 am | Edit
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We haven't been able to get to a showing yet, but it seems like the movie "Race to Nowhere" might be good to see in conjunction with this.
Here is a review of the movie:

Posted by dstb on Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 8:00 am

A friend highly recommends "Race to Nowhere". Might be showing it at school this Spring, but no date yet. I'm hoping to get there if they do.

Posted by NMKB on Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 8:35 am

I forgot to mention, DSTB—thanks for recommending How to Be a High School Superstar to me!

Race to Nowhere could be interesting, particularly as a lead-in to this book. I think it would be a mistake, however, to think that Newport is recommending that we expect less of high school students. What he really expects is much more, albeit better and less stressful.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 10:13 am
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