Learning On Your Own

Here's how to make the most of your time at home
April 14, 2020

We get it. It’s not easy to learn on your own. Having teachers who structure your assignments and hold you accountable is really valuable. But for most of you, access to your teachers is limited right now, so learning is more challenging. What are you going to do in the face of that challenge?

1. Celebrate and devote yourself to the longest spring break ever?

2. Shrug your shoulders and just wait until you get assignments from your teachers?

3. Step up, use your initiative and creativity to figure out a way to keep learning, and maybe even go deeper and further into a subject than you could if you were constrained by the same old daily school schedule?

Any one of these responses is possible, and we expect that many of you will opt for #1 or #2. However, if you have your sights set on being admitted to a selective college, then you should choose #3. Selective colleges want excellent students and excellent students are so crazy in love with learning that nothing can stop them!

Don’t believe us? You only have to check out what admissions officers look for and value in applicants. This list of questions that Harvard uses in their application process is representative:

Have you been stretching yourself? Have you been working to capacity in your academic pursuits, your full-time or part-time employment, or other areas? Do you have reserve power to do more? How have you used your time? Do you have initiative? Are you a self-starter? What motivates you? Will you be able to stand up to the pressures and freedoms of College life?

In other words, slackers and followers need not apply.

Okay, so you’re convinced, but you’re still a bit unsure about how to go about taking responsibility for your own learning. After all, until a few weeks ago, being a good student meant doing your assignments and conquering tests. True enough, but we’re confident you can do it. Here are our tips for stepping up to the challenge:

  1. Take yourself to class online. Thanks to the many free online resources out there, you can choose to learn from world-renowned experts. Make a commitment to watch at least one lecture per week for each of your core subjects. We bet you’ll get sucked into more. This curated list of TED talks on fiction will only take a few hours to watch in its entirety, and it may change how you approach your literature classes forever. Likewise, Richard Feynman’s lectures on YouTube are an amazing way to learn Physics.

  2. Read, read, read. Put a couple of hours into reading every day. You’ll be expected to do at least this much reading in college, so practice now. At a minimum, you should read your high school textbooks through to the end. But why stop there? Pick 2-3 subjects you really like and expand your reading list beyond your high school textbooks. You can get ideas from syllabi (the list of reading and assignments) for college courses on these subjects. MIT has a super-expansive collection of syllabi from more than 2400 courses. They even have a resource specifically for high schoolers that will help you find materials relevant to your current courses. You can also check out websites for colleges on your list and see what syllabi you can dig up: they are often posted in the course description.
  1. Assign yourself projects to ensure that you are really learning stuff. We all know that it is one thing to watch a lecture or read a book, but an entirely different thing to have to write a paper, complete a problem set, conduct an experiment, or take a test on what we watched or read. If you really, truly want to learn, then you are going to have to assign yourself projects related to your various subjects. But don’t stress – these projects are designed and assigned by you, so structure them in a way you can enjoy. For example, you could do chemistry experiments that use the kitchen as your lab. Test yourself on your understanding of the Maillard reaction by figuring out the best way to get crispy golden French fries. Or decide that you will write a short essay in response to the weekly poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction prompts on the Poets & Writers website.

Bottom line: Step up and keep learning. Not only will it help you on your quest to be admitted to your dream college, it will make your daily life much more interesting!

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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