Cal Newport Interview – Student Success Series

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The Successful Student Series is an assortment of interviews with students who have worked hard and earned degrees from top universities. The purpose of this series is to learn about their study habits, college survival skills, and making the transition from college to career.

Featured Student:

Cal Newport

Undergraduate Degree/School:

Computer Science, Dartmouth College

Graduate Degree/School:

Working on PhD, MIT

The interview follows:

What was the transition from high school to college like for you?

I had pretty terrible study habits in high school. I tried to be organized when I first arrived at college, but had no idea what I was doing, so ended up exploring all sorts of craziness from mind maps to speed reading.

How did you decide on a college major?

Somewhat randomly. Seemed interesting to me.

How did you balance your academic life with social activities?

Im allergic to overload. I try to take balanced course loads and keep my extracurriculars both light and flexible.

Did you take any internships in college – if so – what types?

I spent a lot of my off terms working on undergraduate research projects.

At what point were you thinking about graduate school – and did you know what program you wanted to attend?

This all happened my senior year. I decided that might be a cool lifestyle. I applied to some grad schools, wrote a book, and applied to Microsoft. In the end I choose MIT because I thought it would be the most fun.

Any tips for college students planning on attending graduate school?

Only two things matter: your grades and your undergraduate research. If you want to go to a top school, drop your other activities, drop your double-major, and focus on becoming a departmental standout. The admissions committee could care less how many months you spent building houses in costa rica.

Did you take time off between college and grad school?

No. Some students get burned out. I find this stuff fun.

[Graduate School]

What was the application process like applying to your grad program?

You write some essays, get some recommendations, send in transcripts. I took the GRE at some point. Its all pretty low key.

Why do you think you were a good applicant to the grad program you applied to?

I had good grades. Good recommendations. And a good research resume.

Do you have any recommendations for students planning on going to grad school?

Focus on research, research, research. And do well in your major classes.

What do you plan on doing after your PhD?

The professor life is the one for me.

Can you tell me about your two books and how they can help students?

I was tired of seeing student guides that were written with the goal of surviving college. They seemed to have a lot of filler about things like packing lists and credit cards, and the tone sounded too much like a cheesy motivational speaker.

My goal was to write college guides that were more like business books: direct, unabashedly focused on doing really well, and based on real experience.

For my first book, HOW TO WIN AT COLLEGE, I interviewed award-winning students (Rhodes Scholars, Marshal Scholars, etc.) from across the country. I distilled their wisdom into 75 pithy rules.

For my second book, HOW TO BECOME A STRAIGHT-A STUDENT, I interviewed 50 straight-A students from a variety of schools. I honed in on how they studied and produced the first detailed look at the academic habits of *real* students how do *real* well. It busted a lot of myths. The most surprising observation is that these students studied less time than many of their peers.

Are you writing another book right now? Can you tell us about it?

Im finishing up a proposal for my third book. Whether or not my publisher picks it up is another issue. (Selling books is tough, the conditions and the idea and the timing all have to be just right.)

The most Ill say about it now is that it less tactical like my previous two books and more big picture. It deals with issues of stress and burnout, and how to build a successful student career thats also fun to live.

Thanks so much, Cal!

Check out Study Hacks – to learn more about Cal and to read his student productivity blog.