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Tips for your high schooler: advice from recent grads

GreatSchools staff weigh in on their best advice for high schoolers.

By GreatSchools Staff

High school students have a lot to think about, from math tests to sports games to new social situations — not to mention the big "Where will I go to college?" question that seems to be on many a teen's mind. So we asked the under-30 set here at GreatSchools to come up with their best advice for students now that a few years have gone by since graduation day.

Pass along our top 10 tips to your son or daughter, and help them survive — and thrive — in high school.

1. Pursue activities that truly interest you.

"If there's anything I regret, it's that I never tried to do more during my free time," explains Bona Kang, a GreatSchools summer intern who attends UC Berkeley. "I was tempted to join Mathletes but never did because of the general unfavorable status... Later I realized that probably would have been a great experience."

Don't make decisions about extracurricular activities based on what other people think or what might look good on an application. Pick something you find interesting and get involved. Evidence of genuine passion and commitment to any activity is one of the most valuable aspects of a college application, and when you do arrive on campus, it will be easier to join an arts group, sports team, or club if you have some previous experience. Student groups are a great way to find your niche early on in college and may even lead to some of your closest friendships and most meaningful experiences.

2. Make the most of high school academics.

Take advantage of the opportunity to form strong relationships with teachers. Even in large classes, a little extra effort goes a long way. "Get to know your teachers... Go talk to them after school or at lunch. They can help you navigate high school and manage the college application process," suggests Sheryl Linsky, GreatSchools summer intern and graduate of the Yale School of Management.

Sheryl also advises saving a few of your best essays and projects that might come in handy for applications. "Keep track of the coursework you're proud of — you never know when you might need a writing sample or an essay topic." Finally, try to avoid stressful competition with others. Instead, focus on doing your own best work. Sheryl says, "Don't measure your academic success against your friends and classmates. Challenge yourself and dive into things you find interesting!"

3. Work hard in language class.

Many college students have opportunities to study abroad that may be partially or wholly subsidized by a university program, and language fluency can increase your opportunities to explore different parts of the world. Although language classes might seem abstract or boring, the hard work in high school will be worth it later on.

Elise West, GreatSchools summer intern and a graduate of the Darden Graduate School of Business, learned the hard way. "I dreaded my French classes throughout high school, but then I couldn't study abroad in all the places I wanted to go... Perhaps if I had taken French class more seriously, I would be fluent now."

4. Be yourself, seriously.

This tip might seem cliché, but there's a reason why you hear it so much - it's important!

You'll get the most satisfaction out of high school if you focus on the people and activities that feel right to you, regardless of what seems cool or acceptable at that moment. As Alastair Brown, GreatSchools education data specialist and a Cornell University graduate, explains, "Anyone can do anything with their lives - students should not define themselves by their place in high school."

The social aspects of high school can be particularly overwhelming, but Megan Fox, GreatSchools executive assistant and a Sonoma State University graduate, encourages high schoolers to try to accept and even embrace those interactions. "Your teenage years are incredibly emotionally charged... I wish somebody had told me to be as present as I could in those moments instead of feeling embarrassed and stressed out."

5. Take practice standardized tests.

The SATs and ACTs are an important aspect of your college application, and if you study you're much more likely to have higher scores. Sheryl points out that "It's not about innate intelligence - you can learn to take that test better."

Check out test prep books from the library and work on a few practice problems or vocabulary words a night, then take a timed practice test every other Sunday. If you've been studying, chances are your scores will start to go up, and you'll be much more prepared and confident when test day rolls around.

Comments from readers

"thank you so much for your tips on high school. i really appreciate it! school is nearing and i've been getting nervous (yet excited for new experiences). im starting freshman year so i was really desperate for tips. i found them right here!!! if you have any more tips for high school students like me, i'd love to hear about it!!!! thanks again!!! ^_^"