How can you get into a top college or university with the least amount of effort?

Let’s work backwards.

Goal: get into Harvard or Stanford (without your parents donating a new library).

What do you need?

  • Top marks

  • Distinguish yourself

Try very very hard to go to one of the best colleges or universities in the world for your chosen field. Don’t worry about being a small fish in a big pond—you want to always be in the best pond possible, because that's how you will get exposed to the best people and the best opportunities in your field. If you can’t start out in one of the top schools for your field, then work your butt off and get great grades and transfer as fast as you possibly can into a top school.

-Marc Andreessen

Top marks

How can you get 100% on every test? You must understand the material perfectly and recall it perfectly.

For perfect recall, mnemonics are memory aids that establish meaningful links between unrelated things. For example, the phrase “Man Very Early Made Jars Stand Up Nearly Perfectly” helps remember names and order of planets in the solar system.

Another mnemonic is creating vivid, unusual images. For example, let’s say you want to memorize parietal lobe, occipital lobe, and cerebellum. Parietal sounds like “petal”, occipital sounds like “capitol”, and cerebellum sounds like “Sarah Bella”. You visualize a girl named Sarah Bella wearing the Capitol Building as a hat, with a glowing purple petal on top.

Human memory has tremendous capacity for images. For example, researchers showed people 2,500 images for 3 seconds each over 6 hours. Afterward, they accurately remembered 90%.

In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, journalist Joshua Foer learned visualization techniques from British memory champion Ed Cooke. After only 1 year of practice, Foer won the 2006 U.S.A. Memory Championship. It’s easy to learn—researchers trained 23 ordinary people for 30 minutes per day for 40 days. At the beginning, participants remembered 26 words from a random list of 72. By the end, they remembered 62.

The general idea with most memory techniques is to change whatever boring thing is being inputted into your memory into something that is so colorful, so exciting, and so different from anything you’ve seen before that you can’t possibly forget it.

-Ed Cooke

For perfect understanding, researchers have found that practice tests are the most effective study method. Your score reveals what you actually know. For every mistake, figure out what you missed. Then do more practice tests until you’re perfect.

Over 80% of students study by re-reading class notes. Don’t waste your time—studies have shown this method is almost completely useless.

Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

-Vince Lombardi

Distinguish yourself

Imagine you’re an admissions officer at Stanford. You’re bored from reviewing stacks of applications that all look the same: valedictorian, swim team captain, hospital volunteer, yearbook editor. You desperately want students who will add variety and sparkle to the class.

You can be that exciting student. Here are 3 paths to distinguish yourself:

  • Become a national champion

  • Start a business and grow it to $50,000 in annual revenues

  • Become a recognized expert

Few students have the talent and motivation to become an Olympic athlete or play at Carnegie Hall. It’s also a huge amount of work and the probability is low.

Instead, learn how to start a low-risk high-profit business in the chapter on “Financial freedom”. Your real-world entrepreneurship adventures will make a standout admissions essay.

Alternatively, become a recognized expert:

  • Try lots of activities and see what energizes you

  • Find a community that shares your interest

  • Pay your dues to the community by helping with small projects

  • Leverage small projects into bigger ones

  • Get media coverage and apply for awards

For example, let’s say you’re energized by environmental sustainability. You join an organization whose mission is greening the city’s waterfront. You pay your dues by writing the weekly blog and filming social media videos. Over time, you get involved in fundraising. You organize an event at your school. It’s successful and you expand to other schools. The funds help renovate a bike path. You’re featured in a local newspaper. A businesswoman reads the article and helps you raise money from companies. Ultimately, you win an award as one of the country’s most promising young environmentalists.

For inspirational step-by-step stories of average students getting into top schools, read How to be a High School Superstar by Cal Newport.

Communities act like interestingness incubators. If you join a community, you’ll immediately encounter a variety of small projects you can adopt, and little actions you can take to advance them. These small steps generate larger and more exciting opportunities. The community gathers these opportunities, combines them with the resources and support needed to realize them, and then doles them out to its members as they’re earned.

-Cal Newport

Personal notes

In high school, I graduated with a 99% average. My secret was buying old tests from the smartest older students and practicing until I got them perfect. Teachers often repeated questions and sometimes entire tests.

I spent my free time working on science fair projects. I made it to the national fair in 3 different years. For my silver-medal project, I e-mailed 10 university professors until I found one who helped me.

In university, I graduated in the top 1% of my class of 1,000 students. Again, I bought years of old tests for practice. I also studied with top students. We would try stumping each other with questions.

I worked every summer in research labs. I got my jobs by e-mailing professors with the subject line: “National science fair winner seeks summer job”.

I got into medical school with only a 3-year undergraduate degree because I had top marks and a track record of scientific research in high school and university.

When I graduated medical school, I won an award for skipping the most classes and still graduating. I spent my time in the lab inventing DNA testing technologies. Also, I got summer research jobs at Harvard and Stanford. It was my Stanford experience that inspired me to become a biotech entrepreneur.

I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination…It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything.

-Freeman Dyson

As an employer I want the best prepared and qualified employees. I could care less if the source of their education was accredited by a bunch of old men and women who think they know what is best for the world. I want people who can do the job. I want the best and brightest. Not a piece of paper.

-Mark Cuban


Brady TF et al. (2008). Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 105(38): 14325–14329.

  • 14 ordinary adults were shown 2,500 images of real-world objects for 3 seconds each over the course of 5.5 hours

  • Afterward, they were shown pairs of images and asked which one they had seen

  • The previously-viewed object was paired with an object from a novel category, an object in the same basic category, or the same object in a different state or pose

  • Recall accuracy was 92%, 88%, and 87%, respectively

Dresler M et al. (2017). Mnemonic training reshapes brain networks to support superior memory. Neuron. 93(5): 1227–1235.

  • Researchers trained 23 ordinary people for 30 minutes per day for 40 days with a memory visualization technique called the “method of loci”

  • Participants increased recall from 26 to 62 words from a random list of 72

Adesope OO, Trevisan DA, Sundararajan N. (2017). Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing. Review Educational Research. 87(3): 659–701.

  • A meta-analysis of 118 studies found that practice tests increased learning more than all other methods, such as re-studying, re-reading, and concept mapping (effect size = 0.61)

  • Mixed-format and multiple-choice practice tests were superior to free-recall, cued-recall, and short-answer tests (effect size = 0.70–0.80)

  • Testing effects were strongest when practice and final tests had both a common format and a different format (effect size = 0.75) vs. identical (effect size = 0.63) or dissimilar (effect size = 0.53)

  • Ideal time to do practice tests was 1–6 days before the final test, although practice tests were effective across all time points (effect size = 0.82)

  • 84% of college students studied by re-reading (54% used it as their main study strategy), but it was almost completely ineffective and gave a false sense of mastery

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