Learning from Good Will Hunting

It’s summer time. For some students, this means you’ll finally have a chance to kick up your heels and enjoy all those concerts, festivals, and pool parties you haven’t had the time to attend. Other students will be exploring summer camps, finding summer jobs, and getting in shape for athletics. All of these are good things, but they rarely set you apart when you’re applying to college (ridiculously cool summer jobs aside). And, they don’t help that much with your SAT and ACT prep, whether you’re a junior or senior.

 Now, doing straight SAT or ACT Prep will help your scores, providing you have a good instructor (or book or app) and that you actually put the work in, but that isn’t going to give you an interesting summer story to tell for your admissions essays. Obviously, it’s preferable to do work that strengthens both your essays and your scores. How, though, do you find such work? Well daring learners, your best introduction to such thinking can be found in the classic example of autodidacticism, Good Will Hunting.

That’s right, kids. For a buck fifty in library loans, you too can be a self-taught Wunderkind. While it’s doubtful that you’ll gain Will Hunting’s eidetic memory, you can certainly turn to your local library and pursue the character trait lauded by entrepreneurs and academics alike. Whether you’re applying to Harvard University or Beloit College, colleges appreciate the self-motivated learner.

Of course, most of us struggle with motivation in subjects we despise. And that’s the beauty of using the library in the summer: we can study whatever we desire. If you love math, you can find scads of free material to study. If you’re intrigued by startup culture, a host of business books can be found for inspection. As you explore your interests, you’ll find little sidebar attractions that will both strengthen your intellectual abilities and expand your test-taking abilities. These sidebars, along with your core studies, will help to equip you with the dexterity required to dominate any curve balls the ACT and SAT throw at you. Choose the subject that interests you most–dance, hockey, journalism, whatever–and explore that subject when you aren’t busy with your summer festivals and work. Aside from the obvious benefit of increasing your knowledge in an area you find exciting, you will now be able to understand one of your passions more deeply, and you will be a better reader when you’re taking your SATs and ACTs.

(For those wondering, I’m not advocating for a Will Hunting approach in lieu of test prep. But if you’re relying upon test prep to replace the benefits of studying broadly or specifically, you’re likely limiting how much you can improve. Or, if you’re one of those OCD, I-need-a-perfect-score types, you’ll be limiting your dexterity with those fringe, one-or-two questions that involve seemingly-arcane domain knowledge. Test prep should partner with your academic adventures, not replace them.)

Are you ready for the best encouragement for your SAT and ACT summer preparations? You have a distinctive advantage over Will Hunting. No, I can’t tell you the secret recipe that gives you an eidetic memory. I can, however, share the advantage you possess over Will Hunting. You see, he had to use the library for every inch of his improvement. You possess that advantage just like him, but you also have a 21st century advantage: MOOCs.

Not only can you use the library to advance your learning, but you can also use one of the many available MOOCs to demonstrate just how serious you are about college or your passion. Many of these MOOCS are available for free and even their certificates are inexpensive. Image yourself applying to Harvard University and writing in your application about how you already passed its introductory course on computer science. Or, imagine applying to the University of Pennsylvania and writing about how your understanding of Legal and Political Philosophy has been transformed, even though you took AP U.S. Government and Politics last year. Want something a bit more specific? You can always find a credentialing oddity like Climate Science Connections from CU Boulder. Explore the sites and find what interests you. If you think you want to study business or entrepreneurship, Poets & Quants curates the best available courses for you, so you don’t even have to scroll through hundreds of other courses to find ones in your niche.

In a sense, the world is your oyster. You can pursue Ivy League-calibur instruction during your summers and use it to both enhance your knowledge and your attractiveness to universities. While it probably is harder to get into the Ivies than it used to be, that doesn’t mean that you have to abandon all hope before entering the Ivy-League-application rat race. It does mean, though, that you’ll probably need to think about it strategically. Just doing a few AP courses and generating an above-average ACT or SAT score won’t be enough. But, with the advantages you possess with library access, MOOCs, and other, local opportunities, you can find a way to narrate your own success story. And while you’re constructing your narrative, you can use those opportunities to enhance your ACT and SAT prep, which should contribute to even better scores on your fall tests.

So reimagine your test prep. Learn like Will Hunting. That buck fifty in late charges at the library will be the best investment you make.