At my parents’ cajoling, I ate dinner with some really adorable incoming high schoolers a few weeks ago to give them advice. One of the kids just came from China two years ago; the other came four years ago. They were full of potential, yet they didn’t have anyone to guide them, to be their mentor.
I’m so grateful to have an older sister—not to mention loving parents and wise grandparents—that have helped me find my own direction. Honestly, a little bit of advice goes a long way. Just knowing what courses to take, what clubs to join, and how to study can be the difference between excelling and being mediocre.
It breaks my heart to know that there are so many people around the world who don’t have the same opportunities, who aren’t reaching their potential. I don’t know what one’s full potential is, or if it’s ever attainable, but I do think that everyone should at least have the opportunity to be the best version of themselves.
In these four years of high school, I am most proud that most of my decisions were not enforced upon me—I took the classes I wanted to take, not because I felt like I needed to, or because my parents wanted me to. I did the things I wanted to do. When I failed a test, it was because of my own bad habits. When I aced an exam, it was because I pushed myself to do so. My faults, my own. In this way, I take ownership of my life.
Yet, leaving high school gives me a tremendous sense of relief. Though I tried to take control of my life, I also spent a large part of high school jumping through hoops that were created by others. Taking the ACT. Taking SAT Subject Tests. AP exams. Maintaining good grades. As I enter the next phase in my life, I want to jump through fewer hoops made by others, and instead, do things on my own volition.
My advice to high schoolers are the following:
- Get enough sleep. (I have yet to follow this advice, but I’m working on it…) But seriously, sleep is not for the weak. We are weak without sleep.
- It’s better to have a few friends who care about you—who you would do anything for, and who would do anything for you—than to have a multitude of friends who don’t really care. Find friends who are authentic, who bring out the best in you, and who you deeply respect. In many ways, this helped me escape from the competitive Gunn environment that I find toxic and overwhelming.
- Figure out the why in every class you take, every action you make. Find out what you value. Find out who you are. Find out what your pitfalls are. Self-knowledge may be the most important trait in success and will help determine your priorities. Be deliberate.
- Aim for a solid A in every class. That way, you have some buffer if you feel like slacking off at the end of the semester. It’s so much easier to start well than to catch up.
- Take initiative, show up, and do good work. This is surprisingly rare and can get you far in life.
- Don’t (or at least try not to) give a crap about what other people think/do/say. You are your own person.
- Romantic relationships are overrated and honestly quite distracting. Instead, foster close relationships with your family and friends. Focus on being the best version of yourself—the rest will come later. And if it does come, don’t force it.
- To get into an “elite” college, my best advice is to differentiate yourself. Do something really unique and/or do something really well. Develop your story and find your theme. Be someone you admire and respect.
- Prioritize. These priorities may change over time and may be circumstantial, but whatever they are, put your heart into them.
- You’ll never feel ready for research, a leadership position, taking a risk, etc., so just do it. It’s okay to doubt yourself, but don’t let that stop you (especially if you’re female: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/).
- Develop self-confidence. It took me a long time to realize what self-confidence is: it’s knowing that you are different. Not better or worse. Just special. Hold yourself to high standards.
- Make stress your friend (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcGyVTAoXEU). Learn how to deal and respond to it.
- Question authority—rules aren’t always meant to be kept. Also, know that adults can be pretty nonsensical and even immature at times.
- Zoom out. Think about philosophy, of why we’re here. Remember our insignificance. Think about community and the world at large. Think about what you mean to your parents, and what your parents mean to you.
- Develop a growth mindset. You have more power than you think and, at a young age, more freedom than you know.