10 Powerful Lessons I Wish I Was Taught Before High School

By Cindy Chanin On March 25, 2014

For many a high school senior, the months of March and April are all abuzz with the excitement of recent college admissions offers. Yet let us not forget the legacy about to be set into motion by those who are next in line: the 8th-graders. They, too, are facing their very own important transition, wondering what the high school saga might have in store for them. Whether having withstood ISEEs and HSPTs, having earned a blackbelt in junior high survival arts, or having memorized the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution or paraphrased the Bill of Rights as part of their 8th grade social studies rite of passage, they are all the more prepared to embark upon this journey.  Though it will not always be easy, the stakes will feel high, and the workload might cause the most levelheaded of individuals to implode, I promise you that it will all be worth it. In hindsight, I find that there were a few key lessons that if I had known while still in high school, would have made my experience far more manageable and less anxiety-ridden. Below, I offer 10 important lessons I wish someone had told me BEFORE I began my freshman year. I hope these guiding tenets will serve you in your precious moments of growth.

1. Now is the time to begin asking the BIG questions
You are probably sick of hearing people ask you what you want to be when you grow up. Well, let me tell you even as an adult I’m still being asked that question and still have no clue how to answer. I’ll let you in on a little secret: What we want to be when we grow up is important, but not that important. It’s far more useful to take a healthy inventory of who we are now, who we were before, and who we want to be. Who we are changes, so check in with yourself often. If this is too difficult of a question to answer, start with asking yourself questions such as “what do I like?” “who are my friends?” “what are my dreams?” or even “what do I post about on social media?” These answers can give us clues. Once we understand who we are, it’s much easier to figure out what we want out of high school. And, having a clear idea of what you want to accomplish in high school will make the experience far more fruitful and fun!

2. Learn how to study the summer before
High school is difficult. However, if you’re well prepared, the academic transition can be much easier. But, you’ve got to understand how to do several things first. Spend some time this summer looking up youtube videos on how to take cornell notes, outline, map, and notate readings actively. Then, become familiar with online tools such as Quizlet and Google Drive. Finally, ask an older friend or sibling to show you how to write a research paper with citations (if you know someone in college, they would be the best person to ask). If you can master these few study techniques/tools before fall, you’ll be off to a running start.

3. It’s not all about GPAs, APs, and standardized tests
All humans tend to measure success by things that are measurable. Why? Well, because it’s easier to do it that way, but this doesn’t mean it’s the most accurate. Success encompasses things like GPAs and SAT scores, but it goes MUCH deeper than that. The qualitative experiences you have, the lessons you learn, and the ways in which you grow as a person will be far more influential in how successful you are. Don’t believe me? Ask your mom what her SAT score was. I bet you she won’t remember, but I guarantee she can tell you a story about a life changing experience she had as a teenager that shifted her perspective on life. Don’t get so bogged down in looking perfect on paper that you miss out on those life changing opportunities.

4. Know that your relationship with your parents may change… and that’s OK
Everything changes when you become a teenager. You wake up one day and suddenly you’re uncomfortable in your own skin. The people, places and things you once loved might suddenly irritate you in a way you can’t quite comprehend. You may very well feel this all-consuming urge to distance yourself from everything that reminds you of your childhood, and this often includes your parents. “Why are my brain and hormones doing this to me?!” you might ask. Well, they’re helping to prepare you for adulthood when you’ll have to be your own person. As you begin to form your own identity, it is natural to start to distance yourself from the identity of your family. Most people go through a few rough years with their parents, but if you had a good relationship with them as a kid, you’ll likely develop a stronger relationship with them once you’re in college. If you’ve always had a not-so-great relationship with them, know that in a few years the distance of being in college will likely help to bring you closer together. As you grow, you will learn communication skills that will prepare you to foster meaningful relationships with your family. Embrace the changes and see them as part of the journey.

5. Be open to meeting new friends, and know when to let go of ones that harm you
Making new friends is hard, but the first year of high school is the best time to do it because everyone is in the same boat more or less. The key to making good friends is to treat the process like trying on clothes. Don’t be afraid to try on lots of new friendships, but if you find they don’t fit, don’t feel bad for putting them back on the rack either. Also, remember that you may outgrow the friends that fit you in middle school. Friends make us who we are, so make sure that your friends are people you admire and want to be like, because you’ll end up being like them the more you hang out with them.

6. Try something new every day, ESPECIALLY if it scares you
Every successful person in the world takes risks. Steve Jobs dropped out of college to follow his dreams, Martin Luther King and Ghandi literally risked their lives for what they believed in, Beyonce stepped away from the girl group that made her famous and her dad-manager to gain more control in her career. In fact, an ability to take calculated risks is one of the biggest predictors of success. So, start practicing in high school. The stakes are low (they may not seem like it, but they are, I promise), and every time you fail you will learn something that is priceless. Don’t know where to start? Start small — talk to a new person, break out in song and dance in the middle of Yogurtland, write an anonymous love poem and send it to your crush, volunteer to kill the spider in your living room, post a filterless selfie right when you wake up. The more you do this, the more you’ll realize that you can do anything that seems scary and survive. It’s a wonderful realization indeed.

7. Become really good friends with at least one teacher and your college counselor
I wrote a pretty lengthy post on the importance of letters of recommendation last week, but this is especially pertinent for young high schoolers. Your freshman year is the time to form these relationships. If you start early, they’ll be strong come college app time, and you’ll be able to build them organically so you don’t feel like a leech when you have to ask for an endorsement. You don’t have to be teacher’s pet in every class, but try to find someone that seems interesting to you, and ask them to be your mentor. In a few years this will pay off tremendously.

8. Don’t do things just because everyone else is doing them
Peer pressure. Ugh. It’s the worst. This one is pretty simple. If your friends are doing something that feels off to you, just don’t participate. If you being your own person and sticking to your beliefs causes them to not like you anymore, then they weren’t your real friends from the beginning. There are 7 billion people in this world, and life is too short to waste time doing things that make you feel icky with people who don’t have your best interests at heart. You may feel a genuine urge to experiment, however, and this is a natural part of being a teen as well. Just know your limits, be smart, be safe, and be confident enough to know when something or someone just isn’t the right fit for you.

9. Make mistakes… then own up to them and look for the lessons
Elbert Hubbard once said, ““The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” He was 100% right. Mistakes are part of being human, and they’re part of growing up. In fact, the more grown up you are, the more accepting you are of your imperfections. You will make mistakes, and people will forgive you more quickly if you own up to them and can articulate what you learned. And when the shoe is on the other foot be compassionate and forgiving of the mistakes of others, for all of us are continuously growing and learning together.

10. Get involved on campus and in your community in ways that inspire you
Many of you will have to fulfill volunteer requirements to graduate. Those of you who don’t will feel pressure to volunteer so that your college application will have a few “gold stars” on it. However, don’t fall into the trap of being a do-gooder for the sake of looking good. That kind of phoney can be smelled miles away. Be genuine in your desire to give back to your community and be empathetic to those with whom you share this world. Find ways to get involved that get you excited. Not everyone wants to feed the homeless on the weekends, and that’s ok. There are plenty of ills in society that need fixing — find the one that bothers you the most and dedicate your time to it. Can’t find an opportunity to address the problems that are most distressing to you? Well, you just won the leadership lottery, my friend. Nothing looks or feels better than creating a solution to a problem that has yet to be solved.

If the above words of wisdom resonated with you, consider signing up for our Paving The Way To The High School Experience Of Your Dreams workshops in which we will explore all of these ideas, and more, in depth.

Are you a high schooler with some words of wisdom to pass down to those who will follow in your footsteps? We’d love to feature your advice on the blog. Leave a comment on our Facebook Page, via Twitter, and in the comments section below!