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A Realistic Look at Deliberate Practice - Ivy College Consulting for College Admissions

We talk a lot about Geoff Colvin here at IvyZen. The full title of the book is Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. In it, Colvin breaks down our misunderstandings about how people like Mozart and Olympic athletes achieve fantastic success. He argues quite convincingly that it is based on deliberate practice and that talent has a lot less to do with it than we think.

The idea of deliberate practice comes from the research of John Hayes, a cognitive psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon. He studied greats we consider as having extraordinary talent, e.g. Mozart. What he found in his research on great composers was that not one, not even Mozart, produced great work until at least ten years of practice. This pattern was found in famous painters and poets as well. Similar research was found by others and then popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.

But these researchers discovered that there was another ingredient and it was theway the time practicing was spent. The time was spent practicing in a veryspecific way. Deliberate practice is defined by four characteristics:

1) There must be motivated effort. It takes concentration, effort and a bit of inspiration.

2) The practice tasks must be based on pre-existing knowledge or experience, i.e. it cannot be something so new that your student is spending most of the time trying to understand it.

3) Clear feedback. Did he/she do it well or not? If not, what exactly did he/she do wrong? If well, how was it done well?

4) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

One note about this last one: often when a skill is mastered, it’s not fun anymore. That’s part of the difficulty of mastering skills. Remind your student that this is not play, it’s work. But it’s good work because it’s meaningful and purposeful.

What does this have to do with College Admissions?

Colleges want to see students who are dedicated and passionate. That’s no secret. But for some reason, many don’t seem to understand how to actually demonstrate that. One of the biggest mistakes students make in their essays is to talk about the future (only). They talk about how much they love biology because they want to become great doctors later down the road in the distant future and at that future time they will work on cures to help society. These types of descriptions are the very essence of “weak” essays. They don’t really show that you care about biology. What would really show that you cared would be accomplishments you spent years working on. Skills expressed through lab work, research papers, club activities and  academic competitions really show that you care.

IvyZen is the ultimate source to know the Ivy League acceptance rate. Learn about Early Decision rates, accepted application rates, and Ivy League standings with our statistics. At IvyZen, we mentor students and help them create a theme and work on the specific activities to build out that theme; when we work on these activities, deliberate practice is our modus operandi.

For example, a student with a number theory theme is going to have to do well on the AMC (American Mathematics Competition). One of the skills he must master is exercising judgment on which questions to skip. The point system awards 6 points for a correct answer, 1.5 points for a blank answer (skipped) and 0 points for a wrong answer. Also, it’s a timed test and the questions increase in level of difficulty from start to finish. So a student must work on this skill alone, taking test after test and measuring his performance.

We’ve worked with students for years on this and almost all students have a frustrating time in the beginning. But our mentors are skilled at encouraging students to continue on while pointing out specifically what they need to improve on. They go over the test results one question at a time and show what students did wrong. A one hour tutoring session is exhausting, but six months of it and scores go up, consistently with almost every one of our students.

Final Tips

We suggest parents to spend some time going over activities and identify 2-3 specific skills that students show some aptitude for. Also spend some time researching to confirm that the top schools your student is aiming for actually want those skills. You can tell by looking at the majors available at the school, research centers on campus and other programs.

Then come up with a simple, but systematic plan of action to get better at those skills. Learning how to do deliberate practice is a skill in itself so give yourself and your student time to learn. Focusing here will pay huge dividends within six months and can help a great deal in gaining admissions to the top schools. IvyZen is the top academic consultants for Ivy League schools. Get into top colleges and grad schools with secrets from our college and Ivy League admissions experts.


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