The Zen Valedictorian, Decreasing Your Stress without Decreasing Your Ambition

By: Ryan Kelly

When people hear the word ‘valedictorian,’ they might think of a hustling overachiever who participates in every possible organization or activity. Others might picture the opposite--the highly gifted coaster who gets by on nothing but his or her natural ability.

But the truth is, if you want to be a successful pre-med, you should find the happy medium between these two extremes.

That’s the message of Cal Newport’s blog post regarding how to stand out and impress others as a student:

“The big idea is to become less overloaded and less stressed without becoming less impressive. A student should be able to have an engaging, fun college experience, and still get into a top graduate program or professional school, and have the ability to choose between outstanding job opportunities. I lived this dream, and I’ve met dozens of other students who have as well.”

His system can apply to both high school and college students, and since pre-meds are among the most competitive groups of admission hopefuls, it especially behooves them to heed his advice.

According to Newport, Zen Valedictorians come in many forms, but they all follow three simple rules to being exemplary students: underschedule, innovate, and focus.

The first tenet seems counterintuitive. Underschedule? Are you crazy? How do you expect me to beat out the competition? But consider how little time those overachievers have for unprompted discoveries and unexpected adventures. By simplifying your obligations (one major and sparse extracurriculars) and developing efficient study habits, you can provide yourself the flexibility needed to pursue the random interesting opportunities that often lead to big positive results.

The second tenet about innovation is especially relevant to pre-meds, whose future careers as healers, scientists, and leaders will rely on innovation to solve problems and achieve breakthroughs. From an admissions perspective, innovation means identify interesting, unexpected directions toward which you can push your involvements. That way, you’ll stand out from the crowd by means other than simply outworking your peers:

“The Zen Valedictorian strives to be interesting not widely accomplished. The psychology of impressiveness reveals that people are more impressed by someone who makes them ask ‘how did he do that?’ than someone who has a sizable laundry list of standard activities.”       

The third tenet tells you to focus, but what does that mean exactly? That means valuing depth over breadth. Rather than being a jack of all trades, you should strive to be a master of few. The goal of this principle is to maximize the rewards and opportunities afforded while minimizing the time investment and “schedule footprint” (i.e. the total number of unique activities: a metric that strongly predicts stress):

“Being excellent at one thing can yield significantly more rewards than being good at many. Even though the former requires much less time than the latter. The world rewards experts. It is indifferent to generalists. And it could care less how hard you worked.”

Newport’s “college hacks” boil down to what makes someone impressive: doing things very well in a way that defies expectation. Even if you cram your schedule full of noteworthy experiences and sacrifice your sleep, socializing, and sanity for the sake of being Super Student, you’ll probably still only fit the pre-med mold, rather than meeting the goal of breaking it.

So strive to make your impact in a personalized way. Go beyond the obligatory collection of resume builders and truly dive into one of your passions with genuine interest and ambition. This will leave a dominant impression on schools and have them clamoring for your acceptance. All the while, you’ll be leaving other students wondering: “How did he do that?”

Read the full blog post here: http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/04/18/how-to-become-a-zen-valedictorian-decreasing-your-stress-without-decreasing-your-ambition/

As always, it’s highly recommended.