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Aced all my classes in my first quarter at Stanford, took up blogging (again!) and used (social) pre-commitment techniques to stick with it, finished a timeboxing analysis and found some interesting patterns in how I manage my time, started deliberately tracking short- and long-term goals and established systems with which to track these resolutions, and began a segmented sleep experiment (and will continue for a week or more based on how things go).

Great point. I think my interpretation of the word in this context has drifted from the norm because I've built such a philosophy around it. How else can we describe the manifestation of "passion" that I wrote about? Is "focused ambition" any better of a way to name this?

"I liked band enough to stick with it for a couple years, and that's an Activity, and I can write something convincing about my passion for it. Therefore I can't quit band now that I've stopped liking it because then what would I look passionate about?"

Here's a virtual high-five for capital-A "Activity." This is the kind of thinking that guides otherwise brilliant students away from their ultimate potential.

I favor efficiency of discourse over tact

You'll notice "efficiency of discourse" is not my strong suit with this topic. My apologies—I have a lot to blather about that has been held in for too long. I've bolded the occasional important phrase to help the LW-skimmers of the future parse through my dense stuff. :)

I should amend my preface before continuing: I'm writing solely from the perspective of and about the top ~5% of a high school class. I assume that students taking the time to weigh the human capital growth prospects vs. the signaling benefits of an opportunity belong to this class. Among this group you can expect to see something close to (if not exactly) 4.0 unweighted GPAs.

I would have thought that getting into the top 1% of a high school class would require at least some choices that compromised personal development for the sake of signaling. Did you never encounter such choices?

These choices came up many times over. It's definitely tempting to seize at all opportunities that present themselves—I'd say the mere environment encourages such overinflated ambition. I've seen club advertisements and even heard teachers saying "It'll look good on your resume" as a major benefit of a program. Obsessive concern over signaling is widespread among honors students, and it's so common that they'll blatantly capitalize on the idea when trying to market a new club or class.

I ignored this common concern in my own major decisions. I took non-honors Intro to Graphic Design and Intro to 3D Graphics classes where I could've fit in extra APs. I dropped cross country (a great activity to have on a resume) in my senior year in order to dedicate more time to my work (something that wouldn't show up on a list of extracurriculars).

Within classes, of course, I had to make sacrifices for the Numbers (GPA and class rank). There was the occasional ridiculous English project I had to push myself through and chemistry lab I needed to rewrite. I didn't often connect this work with college admissions, however. I retained some amount of loyalty to the Numbers just because I felt it was the high-utility thing to do. [1] Going through the motions on silly projects could often earn the respect of a teacher, a useful thing to have when times got tough.

Why do you think that the admissions officers were telling the truth?

Good question. The situation was one where there was little incentive to speak untruthfully: a group discussion between incoming students and a regional admission officer (who knew that we had all been accepted). Admittedly, there is a chance that the officer had to hold her tongue due to internal policy about sharing admission strategies.

What information did you get from your classmates that gave you this impression?

No student saw grades as a central factor in getting accepted (I asked this of quite a few people while I was there, as I'm curious about much the same things as you are!). Of course, this is low-quality anecdotal evidence at best. I don't have anything more definitive to provide on this point.

According to Stanford's profile of the class of 2013, 7% of applicants who got a 4.0+ GPA were admitted, while only 1% of applicants with a GPA of <= 3.7 were admitted. Under some weak assumptions, in order for this to be consistent with written responses playing the dominant role, the odds of people in the in the latter group having sufficiently good written responses would have to be 7x the odds of people in the former group. Do you believe that this is the case?

I made a mistake in my previous post in not being clear enough about my scope. I mean to restrict the statements more in this post (see the first paragraph). The process I've built is likely to be useful to high-achieving students—the kind who are considering human capital growth prospect vs. signaling benefits, i.e., the kind that are likely already near a 4.0 GPA.

I don't mean to discount high school academics entirely. It's vitally important for a student to find subjects within the high-school curriculum which he / she enjoys and dedicate him/herself to them. What I'm against (and what is currently part of the norm for the top students, from what I've seen) is a student using signaling benefits as a deciding factor in any amount when selecting extracurriculars, classes, etc.

Why do you think that high schoolers do what they do if it's so poorly optimized for college admissions?

I see it as a long-term case of the "Failure to Evaluate Return-on-Time" fallacy. There might be a better name for this, or I might be using the wrong idea altogether—let me explain. (Forgive me for the imprecision… I'm new to contributing to this wonderful site.)

High school counselors often give presentations to 8th-graders at local middle schools and freshmen at their own schools. They describe the process of college admission and the various steps that need to be taken over four years at a high school. They often also present "strategies" for building up an impressive resume / transcript. Most, if not all, of the options provided in these strategies involve school-run programs: advanced classes, clubs, special STEM activities, and so on.

It's very easy to build a cozy box using all the opportunities offered. I might call this planning a "bounded ambition." Students measure their success and the success of others [2] by how many activities they can take on and how well they can do within those activities. Over time, their real passions are clouded over by the idea of taking that extra course, of joining that extra club.

I feel I'm getting ranty and too aggressive in my statements once again. I'll sign off for now.

[1]: Admitted possibility of post-hoc rationalization here.

[2]: Competition between students is a huge issue at this level and undoubtedly plays a role in making signaling effects more attractive than human capital effects. Gosh, we could write a whole book on this stuff.

Preface: I graduated from one of the top public high schools in Arizona and will be starting classes at Stanford in just a few weeks.

It's been my experience that the overwhelming majority of AP / honors students (the top performers at a US high school) are more preoccupied with the signaling effects of any given activity than its immediate or long-term effects on human capital growth. In the AP classes in which I was involved, I'd estimate 50–75% of the students enrolled in the class not based on genuine interest but rather driven by the will to "be an AP student" or "have a good-looking transcript." Even the majority of administrators and counselors focused on the signaling side of the equation, advising us to build rigorous schedules that "demonstrated" our academic persistence.

I avoided [1] classes, clubs and activities which were evidently abused for their signaling effects more than they were actually enjoyed. I was one of very few among the top 1% of my class who didn't force themselves into AP US History, AP Chemistry, etc. These classes were not of immediate value or interest to me, so I simply didn't take them. [2] I spent my time on more productive tasks that were of immediate utility and / or greatly increased my human capital: contracting as a web developer, studying foreign languages, linguistics, math, philosophy, … outside of school, and networking with developers online and in my city.

I can confirm after meeting fellow Stanford students and getting clear answers from admission officers that students can rarely, if ever, force themselves into a top-tier school with a strategy dominated by signaling. These schools [3] put an extreme amount of weight on essays. [4] Test scores and class load, areas which often earn the most focus from students, parents, and teachers, are all secondary to the image a student projects through his or her written responses.

Signaling should be far less central to a high school strategy than is currently the norm. Top-performing students need to realize that the surest way into a selective university is:

  1. Search out a field, idea or problem that fascinates you. Forget about how "significant" or "impressive" this issue might look on paper to an admissions officer. In fact, forget about admissions altogether.
  2. Pursue your own goals in this field relentlessly. If you like to knit, open an Etsy shop and start marketing or offering classes locally. If you like to cook, make your own YouTube cooking show or start a blog to publish your own recipes.
  3. Write clearly and honestly about your achievements in your application essays. Remember to show, not tell: use your accomplishments as proof of your work ethic, ambition, etc., rather than expecting a reader to trust you. (Your English teachers will likely have advice on how to include lots of information about your achievements while avoiding outright bragging.)

tl;dr: "Follow your passion" is really true. Students should rarely engage in activities solely for the sake of signaling. Evidence of a true passion can show through in application essays, and will mean more than 10 club presidencies or 50 letters of recommendation. Rip out of the chains of high school and do something that you're passionate about!

I'd highly recommend How to Be a High School Superstar for any current high schoolers. This book really changed my view on academics, and I'm not sure I would be at Stanford without it. (No affiliation, just a happy customer!)


  1. Explicitly so, as an intentional strategy.
  2. This earned me lots of confused looks over the years. People would ask, "Why aren't you in APUSH?" as if the accelerated class were the default choice.
  3. I speak for Stanford mostly, but I know (anecdotally) that schools of similar caliber have the same kind of philosophy regarding selection of students.
  4. Stanford's application had 10 writing prompts, 8 of which were short-answer (just a few sentences), carefully designed and refined over the years to suss out the real qualities of a student.

I've been writing a journal/diary-style daily reflection since Aug 1 as part of a quantified self project.

Interesting, could you elaborate on this "quantified self project?" How do you plan to analyze these entries quantitatively?