Work at being good at high school
You're half way through your first year of high school, and there's so much to deal with. There are often a lot of positive things associated with this time: establishing new friendships and networks, trying out interesting electives, learning practical skills. But there's also plenty of negative things to deal with: disappointment, feeling overwhelmed, feeling disorganized, having difficulty figuring out where you belong. Take time--not just once but at least once a week--to identify what's going well and what isn't. What are the positives to accentuate and the negatives to eliminate? Being self-aware and honest with yourself is going to help you get through this year, and if you'll stay in that habit will help you every year of high school and beyond.
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.
Look for a mentor. Maybe you've already got a teacher, coach, or counselor who is a mentor to you. If not, go find one. You need to have at least one non-family adult who you trust to give you advice, to listen to you, and to have an academic relationship with beyond the time in the classroom. Maybe your school has provided you a mentor though some sort of advocacy program, but maybe that teacher is not really going to be a mentor to you for whatever reason.
Continue to explore your interests. Remember that the whole point of education is to help you be a productive, happy, and interesting person. You can’t and shouldn’t wait until some future date to start working on those things. Explore activities and interests that you haven’t before. Try out a new club, sit somewhere different for lunch, find an interesting question to ask a teacher you haven’t connected with yet. The great thing about high school is that you get to do a lot of growing and changing and developing—you’re not stuck being the same person you were at the beginning of this year. But the hard part is that you are in charge of that growth and development; it can’t happen passively. So try new things, read new things, listen to new things, talk about new things, think new things.
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 and 10th 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.
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