How to survive high school
Last January (2019), I graduated high school early. I took the spring semester of my senior year to work & travel before I started at NYU last fall.
High school featured my worst & best times all next to each other. I started as an isolated, tiny human interested in escaping high school as soon as possible, and left as a full person with much broader ideas, a real identity, a career, and many strong opinions on the world. I feel really happy about how my high school career went in the end, but I struggled continuously. The persistent question: How do I balance between being a boring person with all A’s and being an ultracool person with a startup & no options outside tech?
I (somehow?) managed to get decent grades in all-advanced classes, graduate early, and accomplish a decent list of things on the side, while devoting an enormous amount of energy & time to developing my professional skills. I’ve written this for people like me: people with ideas & ambitions other than just getting A’s & getting into a good college, but who simultaneously want to apply real effort in high school.
A note on putting in effort: Plenty of tech kids consider their work outside school more important & don’t apply themselves at school. This is a valid choice, but it’s not the one I wanted to make. I think keeping options open is the best thing we can do at this stage: it’s hard to see how any one path is going to pan out, so we should prepare for the possibility of going down various other paths (academic, tech professional, other professional, enjoying life prior to inevitable death, etc). If you realize in a few years you’re more interested in another industry, having dropped out or done poorly may be a hindrance. Live your life, but I wanted to leave all the doors open for myself.
Also: This article is coming from a position of privilege. Personally, I was coming from an upper-middle class family enormously valuing education and willing to support me regardless. I didn’t have to take care of siblings/family or hold a job to help pay bills. I had a fast computer and internet at home. Those were crucial for me, and it’s completely not fair many students lack them. But if you also have them, make the most of it.
I stumbled into a process of school that worked for me. No guarantees, but here’s what I did.
- Take mostly/all-advanced classes. In eighth grade I started taking high school classes, so I was a year ahead in core classes and finished all required credits by my junior year. (Note: This has social implications—you’re the little nerdy kid, which can cause making friends to be more difficult.)
- Do most of the work in classes, & make some exemplary. I always felt pressured to & guilty that I wasn’t, but I rarely studied 100%. You have to find the 80/20 point—enough studying to do pretty well, but not the nth degree that requires an enormous investment of time.
- Participate in class a ton. One way to make classes less boring is to talk! It also has the side effect of establishing you socially, and if you have smart things to say, your teacher liking you. This is both extremely useful when you’re challenging the system and makes the day-to-day way more bearable.
- Get to know teachers personally.
- Every so often, make standout, incredible assignments. I wrote some cool web essays, and spent a lot of time on my writing.
- Re-invest your time. I always felt like I was “competing” with A+, all-AP students. Going for A-, at least for me, freed up an enormous quantity of time, which I poured (accidentally, then later very purposefully) into design, code, & working on community projects I cared about.
- Though obviously you can never (and shouldn’t aim to) optimize your life 100%, and spend all your time working, you need to put thousands of hours into whatever you’re trying to be world-class at. Focus is absolutely critical. There’s no shortcuts there.
Being an ambitious student is already a challenging schedule, but doing creative work in high school is fighting the system on a daily, hourly basis. It takes an enormous toll—I got very little sleep, had some really rough periods of mental health, got subpar grades, and felt incredibly stressed. One critical thing to not lose is social time—especially if you do a lot of isolated work, spending time with friends is crucial for mental health. Take breaks, both while you’re working & longer-term. Exercise. Don’t skip meals to work, ever. Spend real time with friends. Go to some parties. But the schedule can be excruciating: having homework piling up, feeling like you’re behind on projects, running on no sleep, staring into the void of Twitter for long periods. I never had a therapist, but if you can get one, probably recommendable. And as hard as creative work in high school is, at least you’re (probably) not having to pay rent & hold up a job at the same time.
At the beginning of high school, I really wasn’t sure my plan would work—am I actually good at design/code/tech things? The answer was not obvious for awhile, & it required enormous courage of convictions. Later on, it became obvious where I’m going & what works for me.
Looming over all these discussions (in the U.S. at least) is college applications. A key realization I made at one point: I’m not getting into college on grades. There are thousands upon thousands of applicants with A+’s. You have to be absolutely standout for that to be impressive. Personally, my grades were decent, but they didn’t at all define me. And I neither wanted to spend way more time on school nor intrinsically cared about grades. Instead, it made sense to devote my time to projects I actually care about (& that help the world). They’re uniquely impressive, make me happy, and leave good in the world. My path here is not the popular one, and there’s certainly risk, and you have to consider what institutions you’re applying to. But I knew a purely academic college wasn’t in the cards, and I wanted to do my own thing.
Junior year, the Big Year, I got a C+ in calculus. Even if colleges aren’t thrilled with it, I spent that time organizing our area’s first high school hackathon, working on Hack Club, opening gender-neutral bathrooms at my school, and writing a lot. Honestly, when I’m looking back at my life, I think I’ll take that any day. I was all-in on leading my clubs, organizing events, making art. Even I can’t beat everyone in academics, I did unique things elsewhere, that also kept me from being depressed & angry all the time & help the world as a bonus.
The challenge can then be selling yourself to colleges. A few tips…
- Explore all non-traditional avenues. How can you present yourself incredibly compellingly? Can you make a little movie about yourself? A website? (You might be shocked which I picked.)
- You need great letters of recommendation. This is where having gotten to know some teachers & doing standout work helps. Foster relationships especially with the teachers who can write for you, so they really know you.
- Spend a lot of time writing the best essays you can. (Mine are linked on my application site.)
- If you can visit some campuses, go for it, and schedule meetings with professors or admissions people from the departments you’re interested in. If you find students in those programs on Twitter, they might be down to meet up & take you on a tour of the places students actually go (the official tours usually don’t take you to the dorms, dining halls, lounges you’ll actually be living in every day).
- Apply early. If you get in, it saves so much stress, fees, & wasted work on other applications.
My parents have always been supportive of my creative endeavors (obsessive knitting grades 2–6, many side projects throughout childhood). However, they were consistently “not thrilled” about my sidelining schoolwork. Honestly, I get it—going to an elite institution used to be a key part of a successful career, but we’re in a new economy, and that path is broken now. Going to an Ivy League doesn’t guarantee career success (or happiness).
Even when my family was less supportive, I was always been hellbent on seeing my own ideas to the very end, sometimes to my own surprise and/or detriment. Over time, as I found more success with my projects, the path forward became more clear for us all. They probably just want the best for you.
- Keep your options open.
- Take advanced classes & challenge yourself academically.
- Find the 80/20 point with school, & re-invest all the rest of your time into your creative passion.
- Take care of yourself as well as you can.
- Don’t take base assumptions about college for granted.
Graduating high school intact, even if it’s expected of you, is a major accomplishment, and one to be proud of. Especially taking a non-traditional route, it’s incredibly challenging. Working hard isn’t the only goal in life. Take some moments to celebrate. <3