Students across the United States are currently filing back into school. People are jostling to get to the best lockers, and syllabi are being tossed into the laps of nervous kids. The stress of a new academic year can cloud the long-term goals of young people, and make everyday issues like who has the coolest shoes seem more important than the tent poles of personal and financial success that high schoolers should be shooting for.
I recently graduated from high school myself, and am now headed to college. There are a lot of ways I messed up, and a few things I did right. Here’s a list of advice for those headed to the halls of secondary education.
Things I did right
1. Study and advocate for yourself
Your teachers and administrators, as much as it may seem otherwise, want the best for you. It is in their best interest to send you off diploma in hand and much to look forward to on the horizon. But they can only empower you if you advocate for yourself. For many, high school is the first place where students actually have to speak out and ask for what they want. Don’t let yourself be ignored. I learned quickly that I was never going to be the best athlete or scholar in a room, but I could put in the most effort.
2. Ask questions
Ask how you can be helpful to the teacher, and how you can improve. Thomas Friedman’s 2016 book Thank You for Being Late features a quote from IBM Executive Vice President John E Kelley that illuminates how important asking questions is: “In the twenty-first century, knowing all the answers won’t distinguish someone’s intelligence — rather, the ability to ask all the right questions will be the mark of true genius.” Asking well-reasoned questions can help cut through the extraneous details of what a teacher is communicating, making you more likely to excel in class and gain your teacher’s respect.
3. Stand out
Apply to all the competitions and showcases you can. Of course, don’t let your work become sloppy, and don’t stress yourself out to the point that you can no longer tend to your primary school work. But if you have the time and resources, getting out in front of other people is always a great idea. There are a plethora of ways to explore your own creativity while making yourself known to people who could contribute to your career at some point in the future. C-Span’s Student Film competition, the Holocaust Center for Humanity Student Art competition, the Congressional Student Art competition, and submitting to your school publications are just a few ways to increase your exposure to smart people doing cool things.
4. Apply for scholarships
Scholarships will serve as the reward for all the hard work you put in throughout high school. College is ridiculously expensive. Those who can secure an inexpensive education are liberated from the stress of being tied to the massive weight of debt just as life gets going. I spent most days after school my senior year writing essays, filling out applications, and doing anything else I needed for scholarships. I personally applied for Naval and Air Force ROTC programs, as well as a number of LBGTQ+ and social justice scholarships. It was a ton of work, but it paid off. Good grades, impressive extracurriculars, and a little volunteerism goes a long way into wooing organizations hoping to invest in the next generation of leaders to help you financially. Now, I had the privilege of not needing to work throughout my senior year, as well as a consistent home environment, allowing me to allocate all my stress to scholarships and college applications. If your circumstances preclude you from applying to scholarships on a near-constant basis, that’s okay. There are groups dedicated to awarding scholarships to working teens and disenfranchised individuals. Scouting and local service organizations are a good place to look for these sorts of aid.
Things I did wrong
1. Study and advocate for yourself
I am terrible at math. I have yet to learn long division. Calculus confounds me. I failed out of math every single year of high school. I spent my summers stuck in summer school rather than having fun or self-improving because I didn’t study math. Sometimes there will be subjects in high school that don’t interest you. Do not let this dissuade you from studying.
As NYU Stern Professor Scott Galloway states: “Boring is sexy.” People who put the time in to understand boring subjects often utilize that knowledge to do interesting things. I still don’t understand math because I never reached out to a teacher to ask how I could improve. Don’t make the mistake of thinking struggling in a subject excludes you from the respect of your instructors. Good teachers value students who work hard and ask for help.
2. Save a little time for you
High school can often feel oppressively busy, which can wick students of their sense of self. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 30% of high school students reported symptoms of depression in 2013. That is a devastating problem. I certainly didn’t enjoy myself enough in high school. While all the stress students feel may be warranted, young people should practice putting all of the issues they experience at school at the door. Whether it be a regimented hour of Netflix, going to a religious service, or talking to a family member or friend, it proves productive to intentionally budget some time for you.
3. Stay healthy
We create lifelong habits in our adolescent years. Don’t let poor health be one of them. You should always value your body, and never let anyone else shame you for who you are — that being said, treat yourself with respect by remaining fit. It will mean a longer, better life. When I (finally) started working out my senior year (ironically, for some military scholarships I didn’t end up taking), I noticed my energy levels were better and I was happier. Health is a great investment. Make it.
4. Don’t get stuck in the past
I have spent a lot of time dreading that I made the wrong college decision, or that I didn’t apply for the right scholarships, or prioritize the right extracurriculars in high school. There is no reason to do so. Life is defined by opportunity cost. Once an individual has chosen one path over another, there is no point dwelling on the past. If we spend any significant amount of time calculating the opportunity cost of our actions after they have been made, we are choosing to remain stationary rather than to move into the future. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t get stuck dwelling on them.
The school year gives us an opportunity to expand our minds and grow as people, no matter whether or not you’re a student. Education offers us the immense privilege of becoming better family members, better coworkers, and better citizens. It can also be stressful if we don’t do it well. While nothing is ever perfect, choosing to invest the effort of being a great student will make life more rewarding, and open up exciting opportunities for college and beyond. I hope the lessons I’ve dispersed here help you on your journey through academia. Good luck!
Andru Zodrow is an undergraduate student double majoring in Econ and Poli Sci. He was a featured artist at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival in 2019, and won first at the Washington State Debate Tournament in the Extemporaneous division in March. He likes to write about policy issues and literature. You can follow him on Instagram @andruzodrow.
Image via Unsplash