As a current junior in high school, I feel like I've matured years beyond my 9th grade self. High school has made me realize what is important to give my time to and stress about, and what I should simply let go of.
The truth is that most of the life lessons we learn in high school are things we need to experience ourselves in order to fully take in their importance, but I've compiled the most important lessons I've learned so far in hopes they will guide you in the right direction.
1. It’s not like the movies--and that’s OKAY!
As a preface, high school is put on an enormous pedestal, and TV shows and movies drill it into our heads that high school will be the best time of our lives--an epic culmination of our childhoods.
Newsflash: that’s probably not the case. My biggest piece of advice is to go into high school with zero expectations.
Your high school experience may be just like the movies, but it might not, and entering 9th grade with extremely high expectations is inadvisable, because the chances are they won’t be met. The most important thing to bring to your first day is an open mind
2. Get a Google Calendar. Now.
Many college students and busy adults say that if an event isn’t in their Google Calendar, they’re probably not going. They say this with good reason. Even if you find it easy now to keep due dates, club meetings, or simple tasks stored in your head, that system won’t work forever (trust me, I tried).
Getting into the routine of entering events into a calendar early enough will allow you the time to determine how you like to use your calendar and which app works best for you. Any online calendar works, but my personal favorite is Google’s. It is super user-friendly and customizable (plus, they have some pretty fun colors).
As a busy junior who has experimented with paper calendars, I wouldn’t recommend them long-term. I love using a handheld planner or bullet journal for to-do lists and to keep track of long term planning, but calendars are always changing, and the editability of a virtual calendar completely trumps the annoyance of scribbling out canceled events or continuously rewriting the weekly or daily events that an online calendar can easily repeat for you.
With that being said, you shouldn’t have to work for your calendar, your calendar should work for you, so don’t feel pressure to use Google Calendar if it doesn't work for you.
3. Be nice to your teachers
This should obviously go without saying, but what I mean by this is that you should become accustomed to making the extra effort to forge genuine bonds with your teachers.
We all (hopefully) know that it is common courtesy to be polite and easy to work with your teachers, but it is also really important to learn what it takes to become close enough with at least a few teachers so that you feel comfortable confiding in adults on campus and can turn to your educators for emotional support.
Plus, being friendly and close with teachers is an important life skill--whether you need to find someone close enough to write you a letter of recommendation, job opp, etc--so it’s always a good idea to start early.
4. People are not thinking about you as much you think they are. (And that’s a good thing!)
As we enter high school, there is a whole new pressure to almost reinvent ourselves or become “cooler” than we were in 8th grade. Passing kids in the halls who can finally drive or have full-on beards can make 9th graders feel pressure to grow up or fit in.
Navigating life as a high schooler can become really confusing at this time, so I want to assure you all that I promise you nobody is thinking about you or worried about the minuscule choices you make as much as you probably think they are. At this time in our lives, we are all so worried about ourselves, and nobody is analyzing your every move the way you’ll think they are.
I cannot stress how important it is to internalize the fact that nobody is thinking those thoughts you’re worried about them thinking. Wear that one jacket you’re scared to wear; speak up and make mistakes in class; get a unique haircut; eat whatever you want at lunch.
And still, if you’re convinced that people will judge or make fun of you, another really important reminder is that in 4 years, you will have the ability to never seeing these people again. There are 7 billion people on this Earth: there’s no reason to get so worked up about what a few dozen will think about you when you’re 15.
5. Plan your course selections early
It’s never too early to have a plan for which classes you want to take as you become an upperclassman. Of course, your plan will be subject to change, but laying out the general idea will make clearing prerequisites and choosing which year to take a lot easier.
For example, when I was a freshman, I knew I wanted to do AP Chemistry. Since my school strongly recommends that I have Honors Chemistry under my belt before the AP version, I took Honors as a sophomore. Also, I knew that I wanted to take AP Calculus AB in my junior year, but I was not on track in my sophomore year to reach that goal. So, because I had a clear plan, I knew I needed to do Algebra 2 and Pre-Calculus / Trigonometry on my own so I could clear myself for Calculus.
If you plan on taking a lot of APs, having a clear plan on when you will take what can help you balance out your coursework a lot. However, even if you plan on doing mostly regular courses, a thought-out and temporary plan will make your life a lot easier.
Also, if you are pretty set on a particular major (no pressure if you aren’t!), you can talk with your counselor or a college planning expert at your school because they’ll probably have some advice on which classes you should definitely be enrolled in. In my instance, I want to major in Public Health, so when I was picking between AP Physics and AP Biology for my senior year, my counselor made it clear to me that I need to take biology.
6. Learn to ask questions and speak up in class
Right now, my AP Chemistry grade would honestly be 3 or 4 percent lower than it currently is if I was afraid to ask questions and speak up in class. When you get into harder classes, especially APs, the rigorous schedule dictates that class periods and units will probably run way quicker than you are used to in your other classes.
If you are scared to ask questions--whether that be virtually clicking hand raise on Zoom or actually raising a hand in person--you can easily get behind. Being proactive and asking clarifying questions when you are confused will ensure that you are not forced to learn an entire unit on your own the night before the exam.
The sooner you stop being afraid of speaking up, the better position you’ll be in when you are taking challenging upperclassmen courses.
7. Find study buddies in your classes
Not only does finding friends in your classes mean an automatic seating partner or someone to go to when your teachers let you work in groups, but finding someone reliable will be invaluable when you find yourself lost in a class (and trust me, you will be at one point).
In all my classes, I try to make it a point to have someone in the back of my mind that I can go to if I am unsure when something is due, what the directions are for an assignment, or if I forgot to write something important down in class.
Additionally, befriending that one kid who sits in the front and seems to know everything can be really helpful in those moments where asking your teacher for clarification only confuses you more.
8. Do not work for college. Work to better yourself.
I know that this sounds cheesy and that everyone preaches about how important it is to not pile on extracurriculars or courses you don’t like simply for college. But what I mean is that we can not sign up for every activity or AP course in existence with the expectation of a college acceptance in return.
The admissions system is simply too random and hyper-competitive for teenagers to push themselves to their absolute limit because it will “all be worth it once I get into my dream school.” It takes hours and tons of work to put yourself in the position to even have a chance at the very top colleges, so if decision day comes around and the college of your dream tells you they cannot accept you, all the work you did in high school will feel pointless if you only did it because you want to go to a top school.
However, if you work hard because you know it will make you a better, smarter, more driven person, a rejection will still hurt, but it won’t mean that everything you did in high school was for nothing. Trust me, I know how hard it is to actually internalize advice like this (I’m not sure if I’m even internalizing this advice), but consistently reframing your mindset is going to be incredibly important.
When you’re taking on a new club, signing up for the hardest science class, or staying up really late studying, tell yourself you're doing it because you want to become a better person, not because you know it’ll get you into Harvard (because chances are it probably won’t).
Especially in competitive high schools, maintaining this state of mind will take lots of conscious effort, but I promise you that not only will it ease some stress of college admission, but chances are doing things because you want to do them and not just because it’s good for a college application will make you better and more dedicated to what you do decide to take on.
If you take any piece of advice from this article, I want you to understand the fact that you just have to let high school be what it is. The moment you stop trying to curate your romanticized envision of what high school needs to be is the moment that everything will fall into place.
I spent my first two years of high school obsessing over what others thought of me, and now in my third year, I'm obsessing over which colleges will accept me, but the only thing we can do is be friendly, remember that this is all temporary and try our best. And, when the anxiety of applying to college is looming over our heads, the only way we'll find a light at the end of the tunnel is if we view working hard as an act of commitment to self-improvement and self-love, not a means of squeezing ourselves into our dream schools.