Work at being good at high school
Everyone’s experience is different, I get that. But there’s a really good chance that this semester is going to be your Golden Age. For one, you’re almost half way through high school and have got the hang of it. You’re not a clueless and picked-on Freshman any more. You’ve cultivated relationships with fellow students and, hopefully, a teacher or two. And also, the big jump to more rigorous courses and more college pressure usually doesn't begin in full until the 11th grade.
So now is your time to shine. There are a few things you should do:
Improve your grades. Set modest and achievable goals--like improving your grade in each class by just three points--and track your progress at that goal. Do this in a positive way by studying a little harder and giving an extra half hour of effort, but also do this in a negative way in the sense of working to eliminate one bad habit or time-waster.
Continue to explore your interests. By now you don’t need anyone to remind you that school is about more than the classroom. 10th grade is when a lot of people make the move to leadership positions in clubs and teams, to getting after-school jobs, to driving, to dating. It’s also when you see a lot more people get into parties, alcohol, and drugs. You know all this, so just let me remind you to stay focused on you. Think about your interests, explore new ones, and work toward building some kind of expertise. Whether moving toward High Achievement or Dropout Prevention, it’s all too easy to get caught up in some Flow that doesn’t really fit you. Resist this. Get help when you need it.
Build confidence and clarity. There are dozens of ways to actively reduce your stress and build your confidence. If you haven’t yet, try at least one. Practice meditation; begin a workout routine; join a book club; take a low-stress online course; take on an art project; volunteer; write a short story; find a mentor; be a mentor.
Make summer plans
This is the same advice I have for 11th graders.
If you need to work or want a job, that's great. As far as college is concerned it really doesn't matter what that job is so long as you work hard at it and are reflective about what you learn from the job. As you go to work, remind yourself to work as hard as you can. And when you're done, ask yourself what you learned from that day's work. Those two things matter so much more to everyone than the job title or name of the company.
If you don't need to work, then make other plans. And here's the trick: treat it like a job, in the sense that you decide to do your best and be reflective. Even if you have the cushiest summer imaginable--maybe you're going to spend two months as a VIP on a cruise ship sailing around the Caribbean--you can still get a lot out of this. Just begin each day reminding yourself to make the most of the day, and end each day reflecting about what you learned. Whatever is you do, it can be useful for your college applications and useful for your productive and interesting life.
Another way you can make sure you make the most of your summer is to give yourself a goal of 20. Make 20 visits to local museums or parks. Have 20 intentional interactions with older members of your family asking them about their experiences. Read 20 books. Watch 20 of the best movies of all time. Find 20 items to donate to charity. Run 20 miles, spread out over as many days as you need. The number 20 is arbitrary, but an arbitrary number helps make a vague idea an achievable goal. Every time you knock out one of your 20, remind yourself to be deliberate and reflective.
Sitting around "doing nothing" is the enemy of any smart and ambitious student.
Make fall plans
In his 5th century B.C.E. classic The Art of War, Sun Tzu says that the battle is won or lost before it even begins, because it is the preparation that wins the battle. Sports coaches love to repeat this wisdom about games being won during practice. The same principle applies to you and college admissions: the more you prepare now, the better it's going to be when the deadlines come.