Are you a freshman about to start high school? Are you a high school sophomore, familiar with the ropes but ready to do more? Are you a high school junior, swamped with your classes and standardized tests, trying to figure out tips to stay organized? Or are you a senior, ready to graduate but not yet over the college application hurdle?
In this article, we’ll offer specific tips for high school freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, including college application advice, the study habits of successful students, how to maximize your college experience, how to resist burnout and what NOT to do in high school. Read on for your high school survival guide: both general high school tips and tips specific to your grade.
How to Survive Freshman Year (9th grade)
1. Learn how to study.
Generally, the workload of high school is heavier than in middle school. You want to make sure right away that you’re developing good study habits to stay on top of everything and minimize procrastination.
Plus, the study habits you develop now will stick with you throughout the more challenging years, like junior and senior year, and even college. It’s more challenging to break bad habits and reform new ones, so start off studying responsibly.
Read further into the article for the study habits of successful students. Integrating “smart” study habits early on will help you work efficiently throughout your college career.
2. Join a few extracurricular activities.
Even though you don’t have to think about college for a few years, joining extracurricular activities now will help you out immensely down the road when it’s time to apply.
Having activities that you’ve committed to for several years demonstrates lots of positive qualities colleges look for. Colleges like their students to get involved on campus, and when you show previous involvement in high school, they know there’s a good chance you’ll make the most of your experience at your school.
Plus, extracurriculars are fun! Join things you’re interested in — do you like politics and debate? Join mock trial or Model UN. Are you a science or math-lover? Join your school’s Math Team or Science Olympiad team. Are you a writer or photographer? Try the school paper.
On top of being positive outlets and helping you develop new skills, extracurriculars are also a great way to make new friends, especially if you’re nervous about meeting new people. You already have some common interests with everyone else!
Sports are another awesome extracurricular to join. Many students write off sports as too time-consuming or competitive, or something colleges don’t care about, but that’s not true. Involvement in a sport shows dedication and discipline, as well as an inclination for teamwork.
Plus, you don’t have to be the best at a sport to join it. You don’t even have to be good. Most schools have no-cut b-teams for the students that just want to have fun and play low-stress competition. Try to find the right sport for you — if you love playing as part of a team, soccer, football, basketball, volleyball or lacrosse might fit well for you. If you’d rather compete as an individual, try tennis, track, cross country or swimming.
Being on a team means you’ll make friends, have fun, and stay in shape.
3. Don’t overwhelm yourself.
It’s easy to underestimate the workload of high school, especially if you cruised through middle school. That’s not to say high school classes are overwhelming difficult — most of them aren’t — but maybe don’t load up with 3+ AP classes right out of the gate.
Most freshman only take 1 or 2 AP classes during their first semester as a freshman, which is a great way to develop a sense of the necessary workload while not overloading yourself. Feel free to dip your toes in harder classes, but also take some time to establish good study habits without having to stress out. It’ll be much harder to survive high school in the long run if you’re stressed right out of the gate.
4. Take a wide variety of classes to see what interests you.
You might think you know exactly what you want to do with your life as a freshman, and that you’re ready to take all the specific classes necessary to stay on track towards that goal. However, the chance you’re going to keep the same career goal throughout high school, let alone college, is close to zero.
Accept that your plans will probably change often and dramatically — and that’s fine! Start exploring a wide variety of classes and topics early, and take advantage of any interesting electives your school offers.
You’ll likely have to take classes in every subject anyways, so keep your mind open, even in subjects you might think you hate. Pay attention and try your best in every class; you never know what you might find interesting!
Specific High School Tips for Sophomores
1. Start studying for the ACT or SAT.
Most students take the ACT or SAT their junior year, but it never hurts to start familiarizing yourself with the content of the test early on. Take a practice test to figure out which areas you’re going to have to study more in the long run.
As it gets closer to your test date, practice timing yourself. Sometimes it’s the timing of the test that’s more challenging than the actual problems — develop a strategy to complete each section in the allotted period, and make sure you understand how much time you have to attempt each question.
2. Browse colleges, start thinking about a major.
You don’t have to know where you want to go to college, or even where you want to apply, but you might want to start thinking about some of the broader questions. Big or small school? Private college or public university? Do you want to live in a city, or do you like a small-town feel? What academic programs interest you? What extracurriculars? Are you interested in playing a varsity sport?
There are lots of broad questions you can start thinking about that will eventually help you narrow your list when it’s time to apply.
Plus, if you have a few schools you’re interested in, you can look at their academic requirements for admission. Are you on track to get in, or will you have to raise your GPA and study extra hard for the ACT/SAT?
It’s a good idea to at least be aware of the kinds of candidates for admission they’re looking for, so you can make sure to take the right steps throughout your high school career.
3. Start taking on harder classes and more significant challenges.
Now that you’ve established good study habits, it’s time to put yourself to the test. Sign up for some more challenging courses — especially ones that you’re interested in, since it’s easier to pay attention in those, and you might get college credit later on if they’re AP level.
4. Build relationships with your teachers.
You don’t have to be a teacher’s pet, but start connecting with teachers who might be good letters of recommendation down the road. If you have questions about class material, talk to them after class, or if they teach a subject you might be interested in studying, start a conversation with them about it.
Building positive relationships with teachers won’t just help you out in the classroom, it’ll come in handy down the road too, when you need a recommendation or even just advice.
Tips to Setting Yourself Up Junior Year
1. Crush the ACT or SAT (or both).
It doesn’t matter whether you take the ACT or the SAT since colleges will accept both, but if you’re disappointed with your score on one, or you have trouble with the way one is set up, you might benefit from trying the other one, since they are set up slightly differently.
If you take the ACT/SAT more than once, make sure to study the sections you need a higher score in extra hard, and if you had trouble managing the time limit, practice timing yourself while doing sample problems.
2. Start thinking about college applications.
Even though you don’t have to apply yet, start thinking about some of the application logistics — what topics could you write your personal statement on? What teachers can you ask for letters of recommendation?
Make a spreadsheet with some of the schools you’re thinking about applying to and compare the materials needed for their application. Have you taken all the right classes, or do you need to modify your senior year schedule to fit their requirements?
Making sure you’re on top of the ball early helps prevent heartbreak later when you realize you weren’t prepared enough.
3. Recognize and resist burnout.
Are you stressed to the point of apathy? Can you hardly bring yourself to study, even when you know how important an upcoming test is? These are key symptoms of burnout.
Burnout happens when you’ve worked yourself beyond your mind and body’s threshold for academic experiences. It’s especially common in college students and high school students in a disproportionate amount of difficult classes like APs or IBs.
If you overwork yourself trying to get everything done and the work just keeps piling up, it’s hard to stay motivated — everything starts to feel miserable and pointless. But how do you prevent this from happening?
The best way to prevent burnout is to know your limits. Be real with yourself. Don’t take 5 AP classes if you know you work a part-time job and have a ton of extracurricular commitments — something’s going to have to give when work piles up and there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.
Pick what’s most important to you — is it worth quitting that sport you love, so you have time to study for both college calculus and AP physics? Probably not. Your mental health and happiness matter. Another key to preventing burnout is having an outlet like a sport or a creative hobby that keeps you genuinely happy.
If you’re partway through the semester and you feel yourself starting to burn out, slow down. Talk to a teacher or counselor about it, and don’t let anyone pressure you into taking on commitments you know you can’t deal with.
Resisting burnout can also be as simple as taking frequent study breaks and keeping your health intact. Make a habit out of exercising and eating right, and study for tests in advance, instead of cramming the night before.
4. Chat with your academic advisor.
Academic advisors are great, often underused resources. Schedule a meeting to chat about college options, classes to take, and what steps you should be taking to be ready for college applications.
If you know your advisor well, they might be able to write you a recommendation for your college applications too. They have an idea of how you perform in all your classes, whereas a teacher only knows about your performance in one subject.
How to Survive Senior Year (12th Grade) Tips
1. Apply for college, but do it smartly.
Let’s be honest. It’s expensive to apply for college. This means you have to be strategic. Don’t waste hundreds of dollars on application fees applying to thirty colleges when you’re only going to go to one. Plus, remember you have to write supplemental essays for every college you apply to, which is time-consuming.
Draft a list of colleges, but try to keep it short, probably under 15. If you’re not sure exactly what kind of school you want, you can apply to a range, including large state schools, small liberal arts colleges, medium-sized state schools, medium-sized private schools, and ivy leagues/top 20 schools, as reach schools.
However, if you already know you want a city school, don’t bother applying to colleges with rural campuses. If you know you want a big school, don’t apply to small schools. It’s pretty intuitive. Give yourself options, but don’t go through the application process for a school you know you won’t be happy attending.
To keep yourself organized throughout the process, make a spreadsheet with every college in a column and a row with every application material you’ll need to send. If every college uses the Common App, you’re in luck, and your application process should be pretty straightforward, but lots of colleges have their own application software, you’ll have to go through instead.
It’s important to stay organized, so you don’t forget anything and end up getting rejected for an incomplete application.
You can also use Early Admission and Early Decision to your advantage — but make sure to know the difference. Early Admission means your application is due November 1st, and you’ll probably receive your decision around the holidays, but it’s not a binding decision. You can apply EA to as many schools as you want, and you don’t have to go to any of them if you don’t want to.
Early Decision means your application is due November 1st, and you’ll probably hear back around the holidays, but the decision is binding. If you apply ED you sign a binding contract, and if you get in, you have to go to that school. That means you can only apply ED to one place, so pick wisely. Make sure it’s a school you can afford, and you’re 100% sure you’d like it there.
You don’t have to apply ED anywhere if you don’t want to. It is a little bit risky — you might later decide you liked another school better
2. Keep your grades up.
The senior slide is real. So real. But senior slide too hard and you might get a college acceptance withdrawn for poor grades — yes, it’s a real thing. Keep studying, even when it seems like nothing matters anymore.
Getting into your top college doesn’t mean high school’s over. Plus, ace your AP exams now, and you might get out of some general education requirements in college.
3. Spend time with your friends.
Senior year is the last year of high school. But that means it’s the last year you’re going to be in close proximity to everyone you’ve grown up with and bonded with throughout high school. Don’t spend all your time studying or working on college apps, make the most of your last few months with your friends.
The memories you take with you to college probably aren’t going to be all the late nights you spent in the library. They’re going to be the crazy adventures you went on with the people you love. And it’s sad, but this is probably the last time you’re going to be this close to everyone.
High school is weird. You go to school with the same people and hang out with the same people and study with the same people. You bond through the good and the bad, and unless all your friends decide to go to the same college, once you go off to college, you’re never going to have this same proximity or environment with everyone again. Take advantage of it.
4. Apply for scholarships
You can start applying for scholarships before you even get into college. Actually, you probably should. It sounds a little crazy, but every scholarship you get can save you hundreds to thousands of dollars, which is not an insignificant amount. Start early and continue applying throughout your college career for maximum affordability.
Advice on What Not to Do in High School
1. Don’t overload yourself academically.
Again, overwhelming yourself with challenging classes and extracurriculars is just going to make you miserable, and then your grades might drop anyways because you’re stressed. It’s a vicious cycle. Work to find the right balance of difficult classes to easier classes. Talk to your academic advisor if you’re struggling.
Your mental health will thank you, and you’ll have more energy to focus on your work and other commitments outside of the classroom.
2. Don’t lose sight of your goals.
Is your goal to get into your dream school? To have your dream profession? Remind yourself, whether through journaling or meditation or reflection, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how your hard work is going to pay off in the long run.
You’ll find it easier to study when there’s a long term goal you’re working towards.
3. Don’t put others down just to lift yourself.
This tip becomes especially relevant after tests. Don’t ask everyone what grade they got on a test so you can flex your top grade or validate yourself. Everyone’s doing their best, mind your own business.
During college application season, don’t be that person who asks what everyone got on their ACT/SAT, or brags about all the ivy league schools they’re applying to. Stay in your lane. Everyone’s just trying to find the right fit for them, and not everyone can afford fancy colleges.
4. Don’t forget to have fun!
Go to school dances, football games, and pep rallies. Get coffee with your friends on the weekends. Take time to spend time with the people you’re close to, and don’t pretend to be “too cool” or above any of the school spirit stuff.
Let yourself have fun. High school is only four years. You can’t spend every minute doing homework; it’s just not worth it.
What are the Habits of Successful Students?
1. Use a planner.
Whether you prefer carrying around a physical planner in your bag with you or keeping everything organized with software, having some sort of planning system is essential for students.
Organizing your work helps you break down large assignments throughout the week and prioritize the most important work.
2. Study every day.
Again, make a habit of doing your homework every day after it’s assigned, if possible. When you know you have a test coming up, study for an hour or two every day a week or two before, so you don’t have to cram the night before.
3. Set goals and follow them through.
The best way to maximize your day is to set a few short goals — is there an assignment you’d like to get done by the end of the day, or a paper you want to outline, or a quiz you want to ace? Routinely look over your day ahead and identify a few key goals to help your productivity and your grades.
4. Study smart.
The most successful students know how not to waste time studying. Make sure your study routines are smart study methods that actively engage your brain. Ever notice how reading something over or highlighting a text doesn’t help you remember the material for the test? Those are passive study methods — your brain tends to just go on autopilot instead of diving deeper and thinking about the text on a deeper level.
Try taking notes or asking questions about the main ideas of the reading. Draft a mind map to make connections between concepts. Don’t waste your time reading a text if you’re not going to think deeply about it and store the critical information for later.
The same thing goes for rewriting your notes — while it works for some students, recopying information you’ve already written down isn’t always the most helpful unless you’re making connections between pieces of information and sorting out the essential parts of the material.
Similarly, if you’re doing math or science, avoid backsolving problems from the solution. Your brain can learn from failure, but it learns more when it’s thinking out-of-the-box and analyzing a problem.
General High School Tips and Tricks
1. Don’t make procrastination a habit.
Do your homework as soon as you can when you get home. Don’t put it off to play video games or watch Netflix. You can do that stuff — and enjoy it, without the stress of incomplete homework hanging over your head — later when your work is finished.
If you start procrastinating regularly, it’s going to become a habit, and then when finals roll around, it’ll be way harder to motivate yourself to study.
2. Make friends in your classes.
Making friends in your classes will reap several benefits for you. The most obvious one: having a friend in class, which makes the class a thousand times more bearable.
But having friends in your classes also means that when you inevitably get sick or have to miss class for another reason, you have someone to borrow notes from, or help fill you in on material you might have missed.
Plus, when exams come up, you can get together with friends in your class for a study group to review the material together and keep each other accountable.
3. Get involved in purely fun extracurriculars.
Join a sport even though you suck at it. Try theater just because you’ve always wondered what it’d be like to act as another person. Join the video game club, or the drone-flying club, or the Harry Potter club, or whatever geeky alternative your school has just for the pure fun of it.
High school’s too short not to spend time doing something you genuinely enjoy, even if that thing may not help you out later. Making friends and having fun helps the whole high school experience pay off.
4. Take dual-enrollment college classes if you can.
Taking dual-enrollment classes through a local college will help you out when you get to undergrad — you might get to skip an intro class, or having extra credits under your belt might allow you to register earlier. Plus, most dual-enrollment options are no harder than Advanced Placement courses.
Wrapping Things Up: Key Takeaways on Surviving High School
1. Challenge yourself, but don’t overwhelm yourself
Again, taking more challenging classes, especially in areas you’re interested in and might want to study in college, is never a bad idea. You can get college credit and develop better study skills.
However, burnout is real. Take time for yourself, and make sure your schedule is manageable. Overwhelming yourself now is only going to hurt more down the road.
2. Don’t compare yourself to others
It’s tough to watch other people doing better than you on tests, or getting into a college you didn’t get into — and it’s easy to celebrate about acing a test or getting into a top college.
But comparing yourself to others is toxic, and you’ll only get yourself down or inadvertently hurt others by drawing constant comparisons. Remember that everyone’s doing their best, and everyone has their own challenges and strengths. Plus, having self-esteem that relies on outcompeting others or repeated validation by others isn’t healthy.
3. Study hard, but take time to have fun
Join extracurriculars you love with people you love, go to football games and school dances with your friends, read books, watch Netflix or play video games sometimes. You’re young, and you deserve to take time for yourself.
Hopefully, whether you’re a freshman or sophomore early in your high school career or a junior or senior just trying to get through, this article helped you learn how to study smart, challenge yourself, navigate college applications with tips, battle procrastination, destress and resist burnout.