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Preacher, Politician, or Prosecutor?

Do you consider yourself to be an expert on any given topic? If you’ve ever spoken with authority about it, you may have assumed one of these flawed postures. (I have, but I’m working on doing better.) In Think Again, organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant stresses that thinking flexibly is the only way to grow our knowledge and effectiveness. While preachers often speak from faith alone and politicians and prosecutors attack the opposing side, scientists operate from constant experimentation and the belief that causation is not correlation. They expect to be wrong, not the other way around. (As an aside, their necessary flexibility angers those who search for one definite answer.)

I try to think like a scientist as I help my students and their families (with occasional lapses). Too much changes every year in college admissions for any of us to speak with certainty. I would be ignoring the data if I advised every Cornell-hopeful to be confident of admission when the math proves the opposite. Applying to the “highly-rejective” colleges only makes sense if you, like a scientist, expect denial and rejoice in the unlikely event of admission. But, happily, thinking flexibly is often about all choices, not just limits.

Although I encourage students to be open-minded about majors and careers, many choose large public institutions where they feel compelled to pick a school within a college and/or a major. For pre-professionally-minded students, that’s fine. The problem is that others feel pressured to craft a path and career before they are ready to do so.

Liberal arts colleges and even large research institutions like Tulane have long-offered interdisciplinary freshman seminars to small groups of students. These are creatively-blended academic, fun courses that stimulate critical thinking.

This week, a friend told me that the University of Wisconsin Madison offers FIGs (First Year Interest Groups), and that one of my incoming freshmen has chosen this smart way to make a large school smaller and understand the connections between academic fields. For example, the First Year Seminar Rainforests and Coral Reefs requires enrollment in chemistry and Spanish. It’s obvious that this course might stimulate a student’s interest in Environmental Science or Engineering as well.

I just learned about FIGs this week, which proves that there will always be something to discover even if it’s not brand-new. Learn to think flexibly to avoid Armchair Quarterback Syndrome, another one of Grant’s classifications. Particularly prevalent among privileged groups, those who have it confuse confidence with competence. Stay open-minded as you consider college options!


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