Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Solitude and Leadership, pt. 2

Last week, we began to investigate the lecture Solitude and Leadership, which William Deresiewicz delivered to West Point students. His main points: conformity leads to stupidity and stagnation. Distraction leads the same way. You need to spend time alone, with thoughts or focused work, in order to discover who you are and what you stand for. And only with that self-knowledge can you trust yourself to do the right thing. And only if you choose the right path, even against criticism, can you be called a leader.


I want to be a leader. Of course I do: I'm smart and arrogant and have suffered only minor failures before. I've noticed that I get excited reading about how to be an effective leader, that being in positions of power where I can play to my strengths makes me happy, and that I love control. Mostly, I want to be benevolent, the kind of leader who gives power to "subordinates" who then test their own limits and go on to do great things.

Women in leadership positions, I have read, face a set of challenges that male leaders don't contend with to the same degree. They are seen as pushy and overbearing and out of line for actions that would go uncommented-upon in men. I can only imagine that the prejudice is stronger in male-heavy fields like engineering (where I'll be).

Awareness of these challenges makes me angry, which means motivated. Because I know, personally, many young women who are excellent leaders, who are smart and charismatic and organized and decisive and confident. And I know myself, and though I don't do well with megaphones, I do lead well in the sense that I can leverage the strengths of the people below me.

A couple of months ago, I read the book Quiet, by Susan Cain, about introversion and introverts and what we contribute to society. This may seem like a strange tangent in the middle of a post about introversion, but really, it isn't, because there is more than one way to lead, and in certain cases, introverted leaders do better.

Introverted leaders, Cain notes, are most effective with a proactive (as opposed to passive) team beneath them:
"Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. Having benefited from the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motivate them to be even more proactive. Introverted leaders create a virtuous circle of proactivity, in other words." (57)

This approach may seem to have little in common with Deresiewicz's article, since he argues that leaders must know themselves thoroughly before being fit to lead. But it takes courage and self-confidence and self-awareness to admit that someone else has better ideas than you--to consider improvements and then implement them.

Directions that flow from the top should be questioned. Suggestions that rise from below should be considered dutifully. In other words, think of superiors as wrong until proven right, and inferiors as right until proven wrong.

(Does this post seem rambly? Of course it does. I am exploring ideas.)

How do you judge in/correct in such cases? Sometimes an idea's worth will become obvious when tested in the field: for example, in my volunteer club a freshman suggested we ask a bakery for donations, which worked splendidly. But to judge a conceptual framework, or an idea that doesn't have immediate and concrete results, then, Deresiewicz's thesis comes in: you have to have an internal concept of 'good' and 'bad' against which to judge other ideas.

Conformity can end poorly; conventions generally decrease in usefulness as you get farther away from the context in which they were created. That's why I want to emphasize the importance of your "inferiors": because it's easy to discount ideas that come from someone without status-clout, a shame because that's where a lot of good ideas grow.

Perhaps ironically, Deresiewicz's address to the West Point students leads me to thought circles inhabited by tech startup people. Specifically:

The Graham essay is all about why the marginal, the edge, the outsiders, often do better than the complacent crowd within the borders. A big part of it is that when you are on the outside you don't have people watching you, making you justify your every move. You are more alone than someone in the middle, and so you are freer to follow your own judgment even when it goes counter to what is expected.

The Newcomb essay--or manifesto, more like--discusses how to attract the best people to your team and how to keep them happy enough that they stay. This centrality of your team perhaps seems to oppose this post's focus on what the leader does, but I'd say that this approach falls squarely into the introverted leader's effective range.

Being a leader isn't about forcing your ideas down other people's throats. It's not about delivering ultimatums to a docile, browbeaten mass of subhumanity. It's about mobilizing people in order to solve problems.

By that definition, Deresiewicz and Cain and Graham and Newcomb intersect in that they all offer methods of solving problems better, with and through other people. Deresiewicz perhaps falls a step farther along in the process, because as he says:

The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

Or maybe he's farther ahead? Because the leader always has to make choices. What problem are we going to try to solve? What do we do next? Team members are vital in supplying the "how" but let us put up as a hypothesis that the leader picks the "what."

The team supplies the strength and skill; the leader chooses the direction. And while others' input on the "what" question helps, because others' perspectives always offer something different and perhaps valuable, in the end the leader decides. The leader evaluates the options and applies her, or his, judgment.

Leader means point person, means the person who gets blamed if something goes wrong--because the leader chose.

A summary: to lead effectively, listen well, take care of your people, and cultivate your sense of discernment so that when you make decisions, you make them well and honestly.


Since I've been talking about it so much on this blog, I might as well tell you all the final word on my college decisions. I have enrolled in the Stanford class of 2018!

A factor in my decision was that I see a Stanford education as better enabling me to be an effective leader, whereas at Caltech I'd get major technical chops but perhaps not the auxiliary skills.

A note about the next couple of weeks: I'm not as busy this year as I was last, when I took three weeks off active blogging. Only four AP tests (ha). I plan on writing a post on Friday, but the next two weeks I may have scheduled posts. They'll be good, though.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Game: (Fair?) Weather Friends

Let us play a game. I'll make the rules up as we go along.

  1. Generate one random word (generator).
  2. List two people you know whose names start with that letter.
  3. These two people now have weather-based powers. Whether these are superpowers or the people are elemental spirits or have constructed weather-altering weapons is up to you. Describe these powers, what the person does with them, and from where they originated. The character can morph away from your friend however much you want.
  4. These two people get into a duel. Why are they fighting, how does the fight progress, and who wins? Use the original word you got as a jumping-off point.


I got the word "rebuilding," which made me think of the people Robert and Rachel.


Robert is a wizard who controls the wind. He is very tall and wears a magnificent blue cloak, embroidered with geometric figures and, at the edges, feathers. With this cloak he can fly long distances; though he has never attempted an ocean crossing, he can easily fly for eight to ten hours at a time.

He learned how to control the wind after years of hard study (begun when he was twelve) in the mountains with his mentor, the mysterious sorcerer known as Giovanni, who reportedly has visited hell. Giovanni loves the wind because it allows him to be free. Robert likes it because it gives him a different perspective of the world, letting him see how interconnected and vast everything is, and how small.

Robert uses his powers of wind to power turbines, which generate enough electricity for the four small villages in his area. He looks forward to taking on and training apprentices so that he will be able to fly farther away to conferences on magic held in the big universities farther south.


Rachel, by contrast, is a sun magician. She can also fly, but does so by turning into a large creature that looks like a cross between a phoenix and a dragon, with burnished bronze and golden scales, and startlingly blue eyes. One limitation on her powers is that she cannot fly, cannot even transform, during the night of new moon.

Sun dragon magic can only be gifted, not inherited or even truly studied. Rachel, an intrepid young girl, rescued a young dragon once when she was eight and quested with it to help it back to its true home in the Valleys of Sol. There the dragons took her in as one of their own, giving her the power to change her form.

In practice, her sun magic is mostly used in concentrated form at the forge, where she is now apprenticed to a blacksmith. (Despite being short and slim, Rachel is very strong. Dragons tend to be so.) The ores she smelts gain powerful properties, and in each tool she forges (she lives in a peaceful part of the world, and does not often need to make weapons) she puts one of her feathers. These wonderful tools have allowed the artisans of the district to attain great renown for their fine craftsmanship, and Rachel to grow rich on commission rates.


"Wizard Robert, you have to come quick!"

The wizard looked up from the letter he was writing to the president of the University of Analoum. "What is it?"

The boy--a scrawny shepherd with scabby knees--said, "It's a dragon! It's going to eat all the sheep!"

The wizard's wife, who had previously been absorbed in reading legal case studies, said, "My dear, you had better take a look at that."

Wizard Robert looked longingly at the letter, then sighed and stood up. "Lead the way."


The dragon, its scales a mosaic of glimmering metal tones, was circling lower and lower over the terrified flock. Wizard Robert could hear the distressed sheep baaaing from all the way at the bottom of the hill. He would not have time to climb up, so he spread out his blue cloak and muttered the incantation that made threads of light streak through, the geometric figures glowing and the feathers beginning to stir.

He ran forward and then leaped into the air. The wind caught him and the wizard soared upward, headed straight for the dragon.

It noticed him coming and narrowed its bright, sky-blue eyes. The color around its mouth began to rise--not good. Increasing temperature probably meant it was about to breathe fire--

Robert performed an elegant barrel roll and thus avoided the burst of flames that rippled by. He banked his wings and then threw a blast of wind at the dragon, which could not maneuver fast enough and careered backwards, its wings flapping mightily.

Contrary to their fierce appearance, dragons usually don't stick around once their prey has proved difficult to catch. Robert brushed some flecks of dust off his shoulder and congratulated himself on a job well done--

And then reeled, as the sunlight reflected unnaturally bright off the returning dragon's scales and blinded him. He threw up his arms to block the glare.

So of course he couldn't dodge the dragon's tail, which whipped into his side with alarming force. Robert flew backward--as a projectile, not under his own power--and crashed into the ground.

"Ow," he said, as the stars swam before his eyes.

The sheep bleated noisily, but they sounded more confused than terrified. Robert heard footsteps, which were lighter than the shepherd boy's would have been. As confused as the sheep, he rubbed his eyes and looked up.

"Sorry about that!" said a girl he had never seen before. She must have been about fourteen. Her dark brown hair was tied back practically, and she wore a soot-covered tunic and trousers cut in the style of the southeast. "Didn't expect you to fly that far."


"Then again, you attacked me first, so maybe I shouldn't apologize."

Wizards are generally smart, and even though he had just been thrown to the ground, Robert needed only a second to put two and two together. "Wait--you're the dragon?"

"Yes, isn't that obvious?"

"But you were trying to eat the sheep. Why were you doing that?"

The girl smiled ruefully. "I got hungry. I've been flying all day and all night. You're going to ask why. Well, I'll tell you. We ran plumb out of the good timber and there are too many orders to wait for the next trading caravan. I take good care of my customers, so I volunteered to come get it."

Parts of the story made no sense. But the girl didn't look as though she was malicious. "In any case, though, you shouldn't have tried to eat the sheep. That's destruction of private property."

"I would have paid the shepherd back," said the girl indignantly. "After. I was hungry." As if on cue, her stomach rumbled.

Robert sighed and shook his head, but smiled. "Why don't you come join me and my wife for lunch? It'll be a lot less messy than a sheep."

"Really?" said the girl. "Thank you. That's very generous. What are you making?"

Wizard Robert got to his feet, and a convenient breeze blew the dust off so that his cloak shone blue and bright as ever. "Sandwiches. Boar sandwiches--they're my wife's favorite."

"Boar," she repeated, with a pensive expression. "I can work with boar." And the dragon and the wizard traipsed down the hill.


So I completely forgot about the "rebuilding" part. Oops. But as anyone who has been playing for a while has noticed, the rules are only really important in the beginning.

Try it out if you like. And have a good weekend.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Solitude and Leadership, pt. 1

I'm writing this post on Saturday evening. I got back early in the afternoon from Caltech's Prefrosh Weekend, two days of panels and free food and crazy antics (crazier than one would expect from Caltech).

First thing I did once home and on wifi was check my email, naturally. What did I discover but a load of Lit homework I missed: read and take notes on an essay, then write a rhetorical precis identifying the author's main point.

I groaned. And then I clicked on the link to the essay and stopped groaning.

The essay: Solitude and Leadership, a lecture that William Deresiewicz delivered to West Point students. Please read it. This post will still be waiting for once you're done.


Deresiewicz's main points, as I identify them: conformity leads to stupidity and stagnation. Distraction leads the same way. You need to spend time alone, with thoughts or focused work, in order to discover who you are and what you stand for. And only with that self-knowledge can you trust yourself to do the right thing. And only if you choose the right path, even against criticism, can you be called a leader.


That essay hit me like a freight train. I actually did the homework because I wanted to think more about the ideas contained therein. Why?

As I keep on talking about, because it is the single largest thing that I must contend with right now, I am deciding between Caltech and Stanford. My parents really want me to go to Stanford, and I've gotten into arguments with them about it because what I need is to talk to someone who will help me evaluate objectively the pros and cons of each school, and my parents are unable to provide that because their bias toward Stanford is immense.

It is understandable: it's a great school and my dad had a wonderful experience there as a postdoc (for the record, I forgot to mention this at all in my application, so no, I'm not a legacy admit). Of course they have opinions and want to share them.

But, at the same time, I am 100% justified in wanting a fair, balanced sounding board for a decision that will shape the rest of my life.

Perhaps the above explains why Deresiewicz's essay hit me so hard. Other people's perspectives and information are certainly important. I don't have all the facts yet, and I need other people to help me collect them. But the opinions that others form based on those facts are useless. If I have the facts then I don't need the opinions.

Because this is my life. How I interpret the facts, how I weigh the pros and cons of each school, depends on what I want to get out of my education. This is a task too personal and too important for me to delegate to anyone, especially to people whose prior opinions will lead them to use a scale already weighted to one side.

As for me, I am still evenly split. After my visit, I really like Caltech, but I got no gut feeling that this is the place I belong. As a small school, Caltech presents distinct advantages and disadvantages. I can see myself going there and being successful and happy, but I can see myself being successful and happy at Stanford too. It all comes down to how things go at Admit Weekend, what new knowledge I gain about Stanford and its strengths and weaknesses.

When I say it all comes down to the data, I mean it. I don't want my parents' bias toward Stanford to influence me in either direction: rebellion is as reflexive and mindless as conformity. I just want to gather all the data I need, including the subjective data of my (and ONLY my) opinions of the schools, and then be alone to process it. And then decide, on my own, drawing my own conclusions based on what matters to me.

As Deresiewicz said,
The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

My decision will mean nothing unless it is truly mine.


I am getting mildly sick of hearing myself talk about my decision, so on Friday we'll play a game. Next week I'll probably get more into the leadership aspects of Deresiewicz's lecture, because that's a rich discussion I've neglected here.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Hunting

Look at the art of Mikhail Vruben.

Mikhail Vruben

Reading about random ethnicities is interesting. See: the Adyghe, or Circassians, originally of the North Caucasus.

Old Goss post on valuing yourself.

putting yourself down is cowardly. It’s a way of making yourself safe, of hurting yourself before anyone else hurts you. Although, again as I mentioned, it doesn’t actually work, does it? It doesn’t make you feel safe, just sort of sad.

So how do you value yourself? It’s difficult to change your mental state, but it’s easy to change your actions. And changing your actions changes your mental state. So you must act as though you are valuable. You must act as though you are the best friend you’ve known and loved since childhood. When your best friend is sad, what do you do? Tell her how wonderful she is. When your best friend is sick, you bring her soup. You listen to her, you care about her, you buy her presents on her birthday. You draw her bubble baths. (All right, maybe not. Think of yourself as a friend even better than your best friend. After all, you were there when you were born, you will be there when you die. Who is closer to you than you are?)

If anyone insults her, you stand up for her. You never put her down or allow anyone else to do so. If she puts herself down, you tell her to stop. You tell her you won’t tolerate such behavior.

And you would be honest with your best friend. If the dress really was ugly, you would tell her, you wouldn’t let her wear it, you would take her shopping for another. You would certainly not stand there and insult her! You would tell her the truth and help her become the person she wants and deserves to be.
Surreal illustrations by Andrew Ferez. This one is my absolute favorite:

While I was in Hawaii I saw an exhibit of Herb Kane paintings. I rather loved this one:
Peleleu War Canoe
Herb Kane

How to Remember Things:

  • Become interested in what you're learning.
  • Find a way to leverage your visual memory.
  • Create a mental memory tree.
  • Associate what you're trying to learn with what you already know.
  • Write out items to be memorized over and over and over.
  • When reading for retention, summarize each paragraph in the margin.
  • Do most of your studying in the afternoon.
  • Get adequate sleep to consolidate and retain memories.
  • To decrease the risk of dementia:
    • Exercise your body.
    • Exercise your mind.

Hey, Federalist Papers. I had an ambition of reading all of them but ended up only going for summaries of the essentials.

While researching Ubermadchen ver. 1.0, I read up on the Biedermeier period. I like the "clean lines and utilitarian postures" of the furniture, while seeking something a bit more...disruptive, engaging, in the art.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

New Recruits

I'd rather not be that one boring senior who keeps on being nostalgic all the time, but everything going on seems to point through the future toward the past, or through the past toward the future. In robotics I spent about half an hour this afternoon explaining what the programming team does to a new recruit, an awesome trombone sophomore who knows zilch about coding but is eager to learn.

As I talked through the robot control system (which programming team wired), I could see his eyes glazing over. When I talked through the field control system, same phenomenon. This is a very bright kid, but getting thrown an existing system all at once is really, really overwhelming.

And I get that feeling. At the beginning of the year, I looked at the programming leads and thought that with people with that much experience around, I'd be able to contribute absolutely nothing to the team. But luckily, these enlightened fellows implemented the policy that they wouldn't touch the code, that they'd just advise, and let us learn through doing.

I remember thinking that this was my lucky break. I also remember thinking that I was about to screw up really badly and lose my reputation and be marked as a failure and a quitter. Because that's what school trains "smart kids" to do: to play it safe. Not to take challenges. To guard their reputations for faultlessness, because universe forbid you take risks and fail on your way to learning a new skill.

But what kind of way to live is that? When given a huge, looming challenge, the solution that had never led to internal peace is to run away. Whereas getting in there and fighting and making mistakes and getting embarrassed at least are transient shames.

These days, everything I do loops back to the decision I have to make about which university to attend. Caltech v. Stanford. My preference oscillates by the hour, and I need to talk it out with myself, so of course I'm putting it on the internet.

The notorious difficulty of Caltech is the hugest point in its favor: I remember reading in some forum that hiring managers at engineering companies note that Caltech grads are "complete geniuses" and that the core curriculum at Caltech is the equivalent of a mathematician's major requirements at other schools. That the difficulty of being a Caltech undergrad outweighs the difficulty of running a startup.

Whereas my sister, who as a Cal engineering student works regularly with grad students who went to Stanford for undergrad, reports that the consensus is that Stanford engineers are entitled wimps. That Stanford engineering is far, far less rigorous than Caltech's.

But Stanford has a lot going for it as well (I am known for understatement). Broad v. deep. The alumni network is far vaster, they have my first choice major (civil engineering) with several research labs that align very well with my interests, and the focus is upon practical application to real-world problems.

Even the school mottoes reflect this difference. Caltech: the truth will make you free. Stanford: the wind of freedom blows. Power (I equate freedom with power, perhaps simplistically) through discovery/knowledge v. power/choice as a force for change in the world.

Do I want to be an intense wizard living upon a rock in the stormy sea, or do I want to be a knight-errant magician traveling in more congenial climes doing good deeds directly?

When I phrase it like that, I realize that I want to be the sorcerer that travels around casually saving lives. In other words, I want both.

I do not seek to exaggerate, so I won't say that this is the worst feeling I've ever felt, but I will say that it hurts to realize, after they've rejected you (not even waitlisted), how perfect your dream school would have been. Just read these stereotypes:

Stanford has the laid-back, social folks.
Not me.

Caltech has the hardcore science nerds.
An incomplete picture, though somewhat closer. But wait for it:

MIT has the hacker engineers.
Dagger through the heart. Ever since I started reading Paul Graham essays I've identified "hacker" as one of my aspirational self-images. And I want to be an engineer. I realize that I have no right whatsoever to complain about my admissions results, so I'll spend no more time crying about MIT (to my relief, I actually didn't ever cry about the rejection), but...MIT. //aight, done now.

I seem to have strayed from the original point of this post. New recruits. Huge challenges that are best gone at tooth and nail. Ah, yes.

This is a liminal moment (or month, or year) for me. I look toward my past and see people who stand where I once stood, and I feel qualified in advising them, in offering my experiences as a guide. Then I look toward the future and see infinity, see challenges that I do not know if I can overcome, see difficult problems that I want to solve but for which I don't have the right practical or mental tools...yet. Either way I look I get vertigo, which is why much of the time I just buzz out and think about proximate challenges, like prom or AP testing.

I am recruiting others, and I am being recruited. I say "it's doable and you will be fine" and I do not hear myself, and I know I cannot necessarily choose "wrong" but I still want to choose right.


I realize that I haven't written about writing or creativity in a few weeks. Real life is somewhat too real right now, and I'm finding it harder to escape into the wilds of my mind. But I shall do my best.

Friday, April 11, 2014

How to Ask Someone to Prom

The Coward's Edition. + introspection later on in the post


  1. Write the proposal on a sheet of paper. If you prefer, disguise it by writing it in equations.
  2. Hand it to your target.
  3. Run away.
  4. Wait nervously for the response. If it is yes:
  5. Hug your date (!).
  6. Begin to grin like a dork.
  7. Do not stop.


Senioritis is starting to kick in. I've spent more hours this week talking/thinking about prom than studying for my four AP tests. To be fair to me, only one (chem) counts at either of the schools I'm considering. On the other hand, I don't like to do things poorly, so I'd better get on the studying wagon again.

But prom. Senior prom. I know it's been played up way too much in every single high school movie ever, and I still find myself getting hyped up about it, acting very out of character. For example: when in my life have I ever proposed going shoe shopping? Yet, guess what I'll be doing this weekend?

//Downside of borrowing your older sister's gorgeous navy blue dress: if she is taller than you, that means that you will have to get--urk--four inch heels. Luckily, your Eagle Scout date is too nice to laugh at you even if you are not the epitome of grace.

This situation--nearing the end of high school, planning for senior prom--has made me introspective. And I am considering the extent to which my high school experience has differed from the stereotypical version portrayed in movies and such. No drugs, alcohol, crazy parties, boyfriends, horrible fallings-out with friends. What I've had instead: band, band, stress over tests, quieter and still painful driftings-away from friends, band, loneliness, impostor syndrome, half a crush in freshman year, robotics, falling in love with math again.

Do I regret anything? There are the usual academic regrets--why didn't I start working on my own projects earlier? Why didn't I start learning programming in freshman year? Why didn't I at least try to self-studying Physics C?

But--and I am taking a hit to my pride admitting this--I do have social regrets as well. I regret the way I clung limpet-like to my elementary and middle school best friends, because I know now that I wouldn't have been good for them, and we would have drifted apart anyway. I regret letting other friendships fall by the wayside. I regret not pushing myself out of my comfort zone, because even now I am ill at ease in social situations. I regret not getting my driver's license earlier. I regret not trying harder to get a job last summer, pushing through the failures.

On balance, though, I think I've come out of high school all right. We still have two months left, so my opinion may change, but I've made some good friends, I've learned a lot, I've finished two novels (second draft of The Utopia Project and Orsolya), and...well, even if I did it in the most chicken way possible, I asked someone to prom. And yes, I am still grinning like a dork about it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Initial Descent

Mako Shark
My last six weeks of high school have begun.

Spring Break wasn't enough of a break for me, since Thursday through Saturday I was at the Silicon Valley Regionals for the FIRST Robotics Challenge, or FRC. The rest of the month likewise refuses a normal schedule, since this week standardized testing for the middleclassmen is rupturing the schedule, while the next two weeks after that I'll be gone for admitted students' weekends. And then there's Prom (a good friend said yes to me yesterday, so hurrah!).

Then AP testing...and then, essentially, I am free. One last summer, and then college starts and I'm thrown back into the never-ending cycle of work, only for higher stakes now.

With my entire future distracting me, it's no wonder that my creative work has fallen by the wayside. But I can't let that happen: I need to fight against the senioritis I feel encroaching, and make sure that I continue to write, to create.

I find it more difficult to concentrate when I have loose ends hanging, so one of my priorities is to get all my ducks in a row. But I'll need to learn how to work in the midst of chaos, so, since I didn't get a chance to conduct system maintenance during Spring Break, here is a plan to carry me through the next month.

In every organization in which I take part, prepare for the transition to the next generation. Robotics: heavy recruiting must happen, and in programming we're making resources lists for the new kids. Band: I want the Teal Knight to have an awesome staff, so I'm going to make sure that certain people run for band staff, and if any of the assistant drum major candidates take the initiative and ask me for help, then I'll help. Volunteer club: since I'm going to be gone a lot this month, it'll force the underclassmen to take on more leadership roles.

Study for AP tests by reading notes and following in-class study programs. The only AP test I'm taking this year that will get me any credit is AP Chem; in fact, I'm considering getting a refund on the gov test since that was a semester ago. I still do want to take the stats and econ tests, because I have finals to study for in those classes anyway and--look, see how high school conditions us?--taking tests for which I've prepared is a good feeling.

Attend PFW and Admit Weekend with an aim to drinking in everything about the schools' cultures and opportunities. I know I can't pick wrong, necessarily--that is, no matter which school I go to, I'll be able to do what I want in the future if I work hard and take the opportunities that come. So I need to pay attention to my gut and, though I try to minimize my subjective tendencies, how I feel on campus.

Keep my grades up. I've come too far to screw up now.

Write Ubermadchen, following the timeline I created. Finally, finally I am at the point where I can get down to the business of writing, and though I've already gotten stuck a few times (domestic scenes don't seem to be my forte) I am still exploring this world, and I never thought this would be easy anyway. I just have to keep on finding ways to make the story interesting and engaging and something I enjoy doing.

Write indulgence pieces. Principally, the black dragon story I discussed last month, though I could also see myself going back to the pure fantasy world of GW.

Read. Fiction, nonfiction, everything. That's one of my perennial "could be doing better" items: reading more. I need to stop getting distracted by friends' Tumblrs, because that kind of ooh-shiny mental state isn't good for my creative work. Aim to read at least two books a week--it's not as though I have a ton of homework to take up my time anymore.

I know I get irritable and irrational when I am unable to create, so I must get better at carving out time to sink into my personal creative projects, for the sake of my mental health. It's easy to float along the surface of things, but it's better for me if I challenge myself. So deep I must go, deep into the dark waters of the mind, wandering those varied landscapes grotesque and fascinating.

High school is going to end in less than two months, but, if I'm lucky, my creative practice is going to last the rest of my life. I need to take care of it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

College App Advice, pt. 2: Periphs

Part Two of the series "In Which I Think I'm Qualified to Talk About College Apps."


Assorted Application Requirements:

You're probably going to have to run around a lot in the first couple of months of senior year getting all the side pieces in. I know it's a pain, I've been there, but you don't want your application disqualified because you missed some little thing.

Here are the things I had to deal with:

  • official school transcripts
  • standardized test scores
  • letters of recommendation
  • teachers
  • counselor
  • midyear reports

I might be missing something from that list...remember, the big important thing is that you must do your own research. I'm going to put that in caps: DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH. Source data >> hearsay, even if that hearsay is from articles like this.

Transcripts: at my school, we had to turn in a transcript request form and payment to the school's transcript office (not the official name).

Test scores: sorry, you have to deal with the College Board if you took the SAT or any SAT Subject Tests. This is an expensive pain but many schools require scores.

A post I wrote in September (with the same title as this one) has some links to LoR stuff.

Essentially, be super-organized to make it easy for other people to help you. This is the stage where it's most important to have lots of communication with your school counselor, who has probably handled this process hundreds of times and will be happy to guide you through.

Midyear reports need to get turned in after first semester grades come out. Some schools, like MIT, have their own forms. Common App schools have a form that you can ask your counselor to turn in for you.

Remember, these items, though not usually part of the main application, are usually needed for the school to come to an admissions decision. Taking care of the details is not fun, but you have to do it anyway. I'm sorry.


I confess that when I had to email my alumni interviewers, I looked up models of how to do it. Writing emails is nerve-wracking--what if they misinterpret my tone? What if I wreck my chances?

Some common questions:

  • What do you intend to major in?
  • Why do you want to come to this school in particular?
  • What are you strengths/weaknesses?
  • What are you involved in at school?
  • and so on

Your interviewer is probably not out to get you. Just be yourself, relax, laugh if they say something funny but don't laugh at everything. Something that helped for me, personally, was using a notebook as a crutch: you can write down questions to ask them, and take notes on what they say.

Questions I asked:

  • What was your favorite part of this university?
  • What opportunities do you wish you'd taken?
  • What advice do you have in general?
  • What's the school culture like?
  • take advantage of the fact that they have first-person data

An additional benefit of taking notes: if you write down things that the interviewer really enjoyed about the school, you might find an opportunity to weave that into an essay.

Remember to send a thank-you afterwards. I just sent emails, since that was how I'd communicated with all my interviewers previously. These are busy people who took time out of their schedules to talk with you--they deserve kudos.

Financial Aid:

Fill out the FAFSA and the CSS Profile sooner rather than later. Warning: they are annoying, draining, and involve tax information. Slog them out on separate days, maybe over a weekend or two, with a parent.

If you have very, very low chances of qualifying for need-based financial aid, for some schools the CSS Profile might not be worth it. However, at other schools you need it even for merit scholarships. As ever, do your own research.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

College App Advice, pt. 1: Pre-work

College admissions season is now finished. I keep having nostalgic flashbacks to this time last year, when I was just starting to think about college, when my mind felt as though it would cave in from the stress of studying for AP tests, when the seniors around me one by one found out where they would spend the next four years of their lives.

Now I am one of those seniors, and I am proud and excited and half-dazed to say that it's my turn to decide now, and that I get to decide between Caltech and Stanford. Now all of a sudden I think I'm qualified to give advice on the college app process, so here we go.


The main idea: do your own research.

Getting Organzied:

Researching colleges is a miserable business, because there are tons and tons of universities, all with their own specialties, all with opportunities for an enterprising young person to take to launch themself to future success. You can never exhaust the font of information.

In general, everything about the college application/admissions process is a slog. You don't want to look up schools. You don't want to make a calendar of dates. You don't want to make checklists for yourself. You don't want to write essays.

Recently I've been setting aside dedicated "debriefing" time for myself every week, when I just sit down and get done as many unpleasant-but-necessary tasks as I can. It's not much fun, but I would have benefited immensely had I begun doing this last year. An hour, an hour and a half a week, two hours, just to look up schools and--as mentioned above--make calendars, checklists. I didn't do enough system maintenance, enough list-making, and so there were days when I panicked because something important hadn't gotten done earlier and had slipped between the cracks.

Remember: this is your future. Get organized. I highly recommend spreadsheets. Just have a few columns: school name, required materials with deadlines, and so on. Keep it up to date, color code if that will help, it doesn't matter what system you put in place for yourself as long as you have one.

This quote from Julien Smith's blog In Over Your Head applies to almost any situation:
Preparing for a tornado is a good idea. You don’t just ignore it, because doing so would be stupid. You plan and work with best practices. You ask what others have done. This is normal.

If you are ever panicking before something you see as cataclysmic, it’s probably cataclysmic because you haven’t thought it through, or planned, or worked on it enough.

If you have planned enough, you should be significantly calmer.

Maintaining a reasonable mental state is damned difficult at this time. Help yourself out.

Making a List:

How important is it to have a solid list of schools? Hella.

Of course, building your list can seem a futile task, because if you get accepted to *one* great school, then none of the others will matter. But working off the assumption that things are going to go spectacularly well probably isn't going to work long-term.

Parroting the usual advice: the bulk of your schools should be targets, with some safeties and some reach schools.

My addition is that you want every single school on your list to be one that you could actually see yourself going to. Even your safeties, yes. The definition of a safety school is sometimes given as a school that sucks but has a high acceptance rate.

I'm going to say that this viewpoint is counterproductive. What's the point of getting accepted somewhere if you won't want to go there under any circumstances? I'm lucky because in my major, civil engineering, a lot of the top programs are at public schools with high overall admissions rates. For others, applying to less selective universities might indeed involve accepting an inferior program.

But choose safeties that will still let you do what you want in the future.

Target schools: ask your counselor (at school) for a fair assessment of where a student with your numbers could reasonably expect to get accepted. Or do research. These should be the majority of items on your list.

Reach schools: I know, I know, it's tempting to load them on. But select only the schools that would really help you do what you want. For example, my reach schools were Caltech, MIT, and Stanford, and no Ivies, because as I mentioned, I'm applying under engineering and the Ivy League schools have different strengths. Somehow I got lucky at two of the three...but working from the assumption that this will happen is no good, because luck is definitely a factor in admissions at the super-selective schools.

Advice from a MIT admissions counselor whom I once heard speak:
Don't fall in love with a school until you have their acceptance letter in your hand.

I didn't quite follow this sagacious advice, but you can. Don't set your heart on one school. Don't think that your future will be ruined if you don't get into that one school. You're going to be fine.