How to be more confident in college

I just taught a couple of classes in the Harvard Wellness Conference during Wintersession, and got this letter from one of the students:

“Thank you so much for speaking at our conference; it was really nice meeting you. Although I only had the chance to attend one of your lectures I felt like I learned a lot and was reminded of some things in my life that I should work harder to improve. I do have a question for you regarding confidence. I feel as though since coming to college I’ve become a lot more insecure and self-conscious, which I thought was the opposite of what was supposed to happen. Do you have any tips or suggestions for building confidence? Thank you so much and I look forward to hearing from you! — Virginia W.”

Well, Virginia, not to worry!  First of all, it’s perfectly natural for us to feel more insecure and self-conscious when we got to college.  Think about it: you left high school the Queen of the Hill! You were the senior, which means that you knew all the tricks and shortcuts.  And not just a senior, but a Harvard-bound senior.  That’s just about as good as it gets for an 18-year old.

Then, of course, you matriculated at Harvard or other college of choice — and got knocked down to the Continue reading

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Oh, the languages you will learn: which one to take at Harvard?

One of the biggest pieces of advice that I dispense to the rising Harvard freshmen is to take language classes.  Harvard does a fantastic job of teaching them, they’re a super-useful lifelong skill, and they’re generally an easy ‘A’.  You just can’t go wrong.

The big question is, which languages should you take?  Here’s my take on which to take, with a rough rating for each.  I’ve taken French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese and Chinese lessons, so those are based on firsthand experience:

Chinese. Everyone’s talking about how China is going to take over the world.  Whether or not that is true is irrelevant to the fact that if you become any kind of entrepreneur or businessperson, you’re certain to deal with China.  Printing, manufacturing, outsourcing, construction, finance — it’s all there.

Chinese business runs on the principle of guanxi — loosely translated as ‘relationships.’  Basically, it means that in a 2hr business meeting, you will spend the first 1:50 talking about your families, and the last 10min negotiating the deal.  Knowing Chinese in this situation will hold you in good stead.

Also, there’s a hierarchy of how good a deal you can get from a Chinese merchant: the gringo rate for those who don’t speak Chinese; the rate for the Continue reading

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Stress levels in college freshman at all-time high

An article in the New York Times discusses the results from a long-term study of stress in college freshmen. Conclusion: they’re all little stress-baskets. It’s been particularly bad for the women. Here’s how the article begins:

Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen


The emotional health of college freshmen — who feel buffeted by the recession and stressed by the pressures of high school — has declined to the lowest level since an annual survey of incoming students started collecting data 25 years ago.

A student activities room at Stony Brook University’s Health Services Building, where therapists meet with students.

In the survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” involving more than 200,000 incoming full-time students at four-year colleges, the percentage of students rating themselves as “below average” in emotional health rose. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell to 52 percent. It was 64 percent in 1985.

Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened. Continue reading

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The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

My good friend brought this article to my attention, and all of you who are getting started on your college careers at fancypants universities need to read this.  I was always struck by how my classmates could ace exams but weren’t able to fight their way out of a wet paper bag once they were put in the real world.  Don’t be that person. Do not turn into one of the ‘really excellent sheep’.  Do not be another exponent of entitled mediocrity.  Read it here.  Here’s an excerpt to get you started:

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers

“It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house. It’s not surprising that it took me so long to discover the extent of my miseducation, because the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy. As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly…” Continue reading here

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The science of good study habits

This article in the New York Times summarizes some well-known but seldom-practiced techniques for effective learning.  For example: Vary the places you study.  Vary the type of material studied in a single sitting.  Have shorter, more regular study sessions instead of monster cramfests.  Here’s the beginning of the article:

Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits

By BENEDICT CAREY, Published: September 6, 2010 in

Every September, millions of parents try a kind of psychological witchcraft, to transform their summer-glazed campers into fall students, their video-bugs into bookworms. Advice is cheap and all too familiar: Clear a quiet work space. Stick to a homework schedule. Set goals. Set boundaries. Do not bribe (except in emergencies).

And check out the classroom. Does Junior’s learning style match the new teacher’s approach? Or the school’s philosophy? Maybe the child isn’t “a good fit” for the school.

Such theories have developed in part because of sketchy education research that doesn’t offer clear guidance. Student traits and teaching styles surely interact; so do personalities and at-home rules. The trouble is, no one can predict how.

Yet there are effective approaches to learning, at least for those who are motivated. In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most: how much a student learns from studying.

The findings can help anyone, from a fourth grader doing long division to a retiree taking on a new language. But they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and they have not caught on.

For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on Continue reading

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Awesome lectures: Science and Cooking

This may very well be the coolest thing Harvard has ever put on.  The course itself is open only to current undergrads — hey, wait, that’s you!  You can also attend the public lectures in Science Center B on Monday nights, for which you need to acquire free tickets, because it will be mobbed by every foodie within a 100 mile radius.

Now I know you may have never heard of Ferran Adrìa or Harold McGee, but you have to understand that these guys are the giants of the culinary world — bigger than Bono!  I kid thee not.  And besides, I can’t go, so you must.  Simple:

Science and Cooking Public Lectures at Harvard

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The Tao of breaking up before college

I’d like to do a brief clarification of our most controversial and most proven piece of HUGS advice — namely, to end your hometown relationship before going to college (or “before you go, let go of your sig-o”).

We are not saying that your boyfriend or girlfriend is not the bomb.  We’re not saying there’s no such thing as true love.  We are saying that 100% of people who have a BF or GF from home eventually end up breaking up with that person while at Harvard.  In our 6 years of doing HUGS, there have been no exceptions to this.

What I like about Taoist philosophy is that it’s more descriptive than prescriptive.  It doesn’t have some kind of rigid ideology saying, “This is the way the world should be.”  Instead, it has a curious, observant approach to the world: “Ah, this seems to be the way the world works.”  Water flows downhill.  It’s easier to swim with the current than against it, to cut wood with the grain than against it.  What goes up comes down.  All things, good or bad, come to an end.

And so it is with high school relationships.  There are two possibilities: staying with your sweetheart, or breaking up.  If you stay, chances are that the pressures of distance, deprivation, local distraction in the form of hot new classmates and just plain horniness will precipitate a break.  Then you’ll have a potentially messy breakup, with accusations and recriminations flying across mobile phone lines, possible cheating, one or two hurt parties, many tears, and an emotional scar that will affect your next relationship.

Or you could take the mature approach of breaking up in broad daylight, in full possession of your senses, knowing that you still love one another but are setting each other free.  We’ve observed it’s going to happen anyway; why not make it nice and clean instead of mean and messy.  Maybe you’ll get back together next summer or get married in 10 years.  Maybe you’ll be really good friends for the rest of your lives.  We can’t know any of that for sure.

What we do know is that it’s a much more elegant solution than a doomed long-distance relationship that would deprive both of you of opportunities to meet others and grow.  It’s also the best chance of preserving the very real love you have between you.

I strongly believe that a long-distance relationship is no relationship at all (consult my Tao of Dating blog for more on that), so do yourselves a favor and set both of you free.  Before you go, let go of your sig-o.

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How to be a douchebag in college: 5.5 ways

Generally, I prefer to talk about what to do, as opposed to what not to do.  That said, I feel a rant coming on, so here we go.

Before we start, I want you to go ahead and look up what a douchebag really is.  Got it?  Great.  That should convey the full import of how bad these following behaviors are, since engaging in them puts you in imminent danger of becoming an insta-douche:

1. Be a mindlessly competitive automaton.

You worked pretty hard to get into Harvard (or wherever else you are).  We get it.  And now you’ve got your sights set on that grad school or hot job.  Good on you.  Now chill out already.  There’s no shortage of jobs or grad school spots for Harvard people — really.  If you do even reasonably well, the world will be seeking you out.

In fact, there’s not a shortage of anything.  You live in a world of abundance. So be the one who helps out with problem sets, shares notes and resources, tells people about the class with the cool prof and the easy A.  The competitiveness tends to manifest especially in extracurriculars and the social sphere where you have to comp everything, which explicitly means ‘beating other people out’.  But, unlike poker, college is not a zero-sum game.  If you do your best, you win.  And no one has to lose.  As Gandhi said, “Full effort is full victory.”

If you didn’t get picked for the Seneca, the Lampoon, Let’s Go or the Dins, big deal.  It may even be Continue reading

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How to pick awesome courses: use the magic number

In this here HUGS (aka Enter to Grow in Wisdom) Video #6, we introduce you to the concept of the Magic Number and the real way to pick truly awesome courses.  It ain’t by reading the descriptions in the course catalog, people, so sit up and pay attention.  Check out the unauthorized interjection Michael put in at around 1:21 (go Cabot, grrr), and if what we talk about at around 2:25 doesn’t crack you up, you get your money back:

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