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The Top Nine High School Tips

By Stephen Sokolowski

The following article was originally scheduled for publication in the June 2002 issue of the Village.  After Village publication was suspended indefinitely, the article has been posted on the website due to public demand.

9. Life isn't fair

Unless you've been living in a cave, you've probably been warned that life isn't fair. The saying is uttered so much that everyone begins to forget exactly what it means, and nobody stops to consider its meaning.  Is life not fair when you're passed up for that promotion for which you've worked for months? Is life not fair when your neighbor can afford to buy a more expensive car than you can? Or, is life not fair when a close friend or relative is stricken by a serious illness but you are left unscathed?

In all of the above circumstances, life certainly isn't fair, and this statement applies to high school as well. Life isn't fair when you're rejected from the National Honor Society because you participated in more out-of-school activities than in-school. Life isn't fair when someone sitting next to you can solve an equation in two seconds, while you ponder over it for two hours. Life isn't fair when athletes receive all the recognition while other clubs and activities are forgotten.

Not only is life not fair, but no matter what you do, you can't make life fair. Most of the important decisions are completely out of your control and you have no power whatsoever to change them. There are those who are gifted in every respect, and there are certain people who fail utterly even though they've tried their hardest. And finally, even though several teachers told me that they disagreed with many of the school's policies, their efforts to change them were in vain.

So therefore, in such an unequal world, how can one strive to succeed against all the odds? Some people would say to "try hard," but sometimes trying hard is not enough in such an unforgiving environment.  As long as you've tried your hardest, however, what does it matter to everyone else? Sure, you could worry about what happened, but as an English professor once told her class, regret is an empty emotion. If things don't go your way, there's only one action you can take:

Accept defeat, and try again.

8. Take a wide variety of courses

Whereas many of the top ten on this list were prompted by my regrets or by experiences that I didn't have, one of the positive decisions I made during my high school career was to take a variety of courses.

I would recommend that everyone take a wide range of courses, regardless of intended college major. For example, my parents and I were browsing through the course catalog in eighth grade and we stumbled upon a woodworking course. Even though I had no intention of becoming a carpenter when I graduated, I had enjoyed "industrial arts," as it was then called at the Upper Moreland Middle School. While I was nervous on the first day of class as to whether I would benefit from the course, by January I had produced several pieces, all of which are still in use in our and other family members' homes four years later.

I was also hesitant about putting AP Government on my roster at the end of my junior year. Again, I didn't know whether I would benefit from taking a government class when I could have taken any number of easier courses. While I had some luck in that I took the course during what could have quite possibly been the most eventful presidential election in history, I enjoyed the class thoroughly and learned much general knowledge about political systems that will help me in the future as an American citizen and voter.

AP courses are also a great benefit. Through these courses and the related tests, I was able to accrue 18 credits before attending college and will be able to graduate in seven semesters. With the exception of one course (which didn't even count for college credit at Penn State), I would recommend highly all of the AP courses that I took. Be cautious though - some of these courses do require quite a bit of work, and those who don't think they can keep up would probably be best with a lighter schedule.

In conclusion, if you see a course you might enjoy or think might be of benefit in the future, take a chance and schedule it. AP courses are also a great chance to earn college credit in high school, so take advantage of these opportunities!

7. Keep your grades up in 9th grade

The Upper Moreland School District has a very good "transitional" program for helping students succeed in their freshman year of high school after attending the middle school for three years. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the high school, I didn't have any idea of how difficult the workload would be.

For reasons that escape me now, I somewhat slacked off during 9th grade, earning a B average. While some of the courses I took were very difficult, I should have been able to earn better grades if I had tried harder. After I was ranked 59th in the class (in about the 22nd percentile), I decided to pull everything together and work harder, eventually graduating in 10th place. While a final GPA of 99.59 wasn't bad by many standards, it wasn't good enough to earn scholarships at Penn State or (even though I had decided against it before I received their final decision) to attend the University of Pennsylvania.

Most likely, I was misled into believing that 9th grade wasn't important because of what some seniors said at an orientation day the year before I began high school. On the contrary, a poor performance in your freshman year will haunt you for the next three (or possibly even seven) years. Therefore, treat each course as if it could determine the rest of your life.

Depending on your goals, it could.

6. Ask around before taking courses

One of the worst mistakes I made in the past four years was not investigating the courses I was taking. Having no information on what a course was actually like or how it would benefit me in the future, I was blindly thrown into situations for which I could have been better prepared.

Three courses in particular come to mind when I look back at experiences I may have been better off without. While I won't go into details, I will say that I gained little or no lasting benefit from these courses and could have better spent my time doing something else. However, looking at the past, I now realize that courses in which teachers attempt to "prepare students for college" are most likely not worth taking.

Throughout high school, I continuously heard certain teachers state their goals to "prepare students for college." As far back as 9th grade, I took a class where the teacher asked students in the class to define hundreds of terms in a single weekend. While I spent hours completing the assignments and "preparing myself for college," I remember very few of the terms now and have realized that college is actually easier than those teachers would have students believe. College teachers don't require students to define hundreds of terms for homework credit.

I encountered the last and worst class of my high school career in my senior year. At times, the teacher of this course assigned over 10-15 hours of homework in a single weekend, and I received the lowest grades of my twelve years of school. In short, what I didn't know was that most colleges, including Penn State, didn't accept the AP credit for this particular course (even though I scored a four on the test), and that scholarships were awarded for higher grades as opposed to tougher courses. Therefore, my work was in vain - but I could have discovered all of this information by simply doing a little research before creating my schedule.

Therefore, while I'd like to say that the attitude of the teacher of a particular course shouldn't have an impact on whether you roster the class, there are certain courses that simply aren't worth the effort. Becoming an informed student is another step on the road to success.

5. Don't be intimidated by college planning

In today's world, successful people plan well ahead of the times. The typical retail chain, for example, begins ordering Christmas inventory in early January. Look at any celebrity's success story and you'll discover a hidden story where someone was outstanding in some activity at a very young age. Therefore, it's not surprising that high school students are flooded by college propaganda. Somewhere in a pile of old papers I have a college admissions "road map," which details how students can prepare for college as early as seventh grade!

Obviously, such a flood of information can be overwhelming. Between preparation for the SATs, decisions about which college to attend, and the pressure to keep the grades up, those I know who were inundated with this information took one of two paths of action: began their college search as early as tenth grade or put off the process until the last minute.

First, don't check the box on the SAT's which gives you the option of receiving information directly from colleges. Not only will you receive a thousand useless pamphlets that will require hours of your time to review, but you're probably more likely to make the wrong decision because of a nice looking picture or an unsubstantiated promise.

Believe it or not, you probably already know where you want to continue your education. As early as the beginning of eleventh grade, my dad first brought up the idea of my attending Penn State. I pushed it aside, figuring I would look through all the pamphlets, attend visitations, and eventually make a grueling decision in crunch time. As a result, I visited ten colleges and spent a hundred hours or more of my time writing nearly twenty essays, having them proofread, and completing application after application.

In the end, I decided to attend Penn State anyway, which required no essays, and from which I had already received a decision before I even began applying to the other colleges.

I also took an SAT preparation course, but in truth, statistics agree that SAT preparation programs rarely, if ever, improve a student's scores. Finally, as I discovered, attending an ivy league school doesn't assure success in the real world - as I've heard from stories involving those who attended such schools. In most cases, a more reasonably-priced university will be as good as, if not superior to, the education offered at an ivy league school. One of my teachers at UMHS once told his students that the only reason private high schools appear prestigious is because they can afford to reject those who won't succeed no matter how much guidance is offered. The same applies to ivy league universities - they appear exceptional because their reputation allows them to reject less capable students from their larger pool of applicants.

So, in essence, the college admissions process is simpler than you might think. Ignore all the rhetoric and decide where you think you would succeed and be happy, and stick to your decision.

4. Learn to drive at 16

The headline for this tip is somewhat misleading. Let me state that if I were the dictator of the world, the legal driving age would be 18. Since the driving age in Pennsylvania is 16, however, I have to include advice to learn to drive as soon as reasonably possible.

With the enaction of the new six month wait laws, however, I waited until I was 18 to learn how to drive. It wasn't until after I knew how that I realized how important the skill of driving is to everyday life. It had never occurred to me how many seemingly insignificant tasks that would normally require days to be completed could be finished in a short time when one has the ability to drive to obtain whatever is needed. More importantly, I discovered that many of the commonplace activities in which many young people participate frequently (such as going to the movies), while not all that difficult before, become infinitely easier with the freedom to come and go as I choose.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that everyone obtain a license to drive back and forth from school every day. Driving to school is one activity I strongly recommend against. However, if you have the money to hold a license after you are 16½, then do so. While it might not seem important in the beginning, having a license earlier rather than later will save a lot of hassle when you really need one.

3. Don't be afraid to pursue romantic relationships

Of all the tips I've included in this feature, this one is by far the most difficult to comprehend. Not only is it an awkward topic to discuss, but you probably won't listen to what I have to say anyway. Hey, I didn't listen to what anyone else had to say either.

While a number of experiences shaped my opinion on romance, one that stands out occurred during the fall of my senior year. Someone with whom I was enamored suddenly began making idle conversation and showing all the traditional signs of flirting. As the person in question was quite possibly one of the most "popular" students at UMHS, had won about every award imaginable, and most importantly had at least two other guys I knew swooning over her, I figured that what was happening was impossible. For weeks, I battled within myself as others attempted to convince me to ask her out, but eventually decided to give up because the embarrassment of rejection would be too great because of her "social status."

It wasn't until well after these events (and a conversation with some fellow students) that I was able to remove the dust from my eyes and realize what had actually been happening. Contrary to my belief, I wouldn't have died had I decided to take a chance, and so-called "popular" people aren't any different than anyone else. A girl doesn't stare at a guy throughout an entire AP Government class for no reason!

On a side note, I was never very enthusiastic about attending school dances. While I had danced somewhat in the past, I ridiculously assumed that dancing was a laborious task that required years of practice to master. Therefore, I was nervous that by dancing, I would make an idiot out of myself. To make a long story short, since I hadn't danced much before the senior prom, I believed that my lack of experience would be painfully obvious. As you can see by the picture of me that somehow made its way into the 2001 yearbook to be preserved for all eternity, it wasn't that hard after all.

I should also note that I know someone whose parents "strongly recommended" against dating until the junior or even senior year of high school. This person was forced to reject four girls' questions during his freshman year and not attend the annual dances and formals. As a result, this person was completely unprepared for later experiences when many of his peers had been associating with members of the opposite sex since they began high school.

And finally, one last tangent - if you're stuck in a bind and a major dance is approaching, ask a friend. I made an entire weekend out of the senior prom to meet old friends, and I can say (as my "date" probably can as well) I had much more fun doing the things with the group that weekend than I would have looking across the table and smiling at a first date.

So in conclusion, if you're in doubt, just ask. This statement applies to a number of life's lessons, and it applies to relationships as well.

2. Be your own person

College, like many universities boast in their propaganda, is a place where you will meet people with a variety of interests. In high school, by contrast, everyone is (or appears to be) startlingly like each other.

Peer pressure is referenced constantly by the media. For example, parents are urged to talk to their children at a very early age to prevent them from being talked into taking drugs by their peers. All of this attention is given for a simple reason: peer pressure plays a huge role in high school life.

In college, however, the pressure vanishes overnight. There aren't any popular "cliques" that are exclusive to certain people, nor is there a group of forgotten academics who put their grades above everything else. Whereas a student who sits alone at a cafeteria table in high school preparing for the next day's classes would be labeled "weird" by those who care more about sports during high school, college students make no such divisions because there is one purpose to attending a university - to get good grades and graduate.

A fellow student and I joked about the state of the world's affairs one day during my senior year. The premise was simple: one day, the jocks, who were the most "popular" kids in the school, would be the average joe, while the "nerds," scorned by a large number of people for their studiousness, would be running the world.

At your fiftieth high school reunion, nobody will remember who was the most popular or who was involved in the most activities. Even Mr. Daher recognizes the impact of these social "cliques" when he said that each class tends to "pull together" around the time of the senior prom. It's true - the social divisions vanish, and everyone is left with a realization that the "in" group wasn't much different than everyone else who was trying to be accepted.

In short, if someone thinks you're "strange" because you are unique among everyone else, it's not the end of the world. Just because you aren't part of the group that everyone looks up to doesn't signify that you're any less intelligent, attractive, or "cool" than they are. Be your own person and do what you want to do.

1. Get involved

"That's the number one tip?" you ask. That's right - my number one pointer is something that your teachers, parents, older siblings, and just about everyone else says every day. I must have heard this phrase at least a hundred times during my high school orientation process.

Unfortunately, I didn't listen, at least in the beginning.

One of the biggest changes I swore that I would make when starting college was that I would become involved from the beginning. For some reason or another, in 9th grade I limited myself to the school orchestra. What high school orchestra, you ask? Actually, the orchestra fell apart at the end of the year, leaving me out of the loop in tenth grade.

During that summer, I had a revelation that I was missing one of the most important parts of high school life. As a result, I came back sworn to become involved, and that was one of the best decisions I ever made. I discovered an entirely new aspect to high school life. Why is it important to become involved early? Most of the upper positions in clubs are chosen from those already involved in the clubs, as one would expect. If you want to be the captain of the football team, join the team in 9th grade. If you want to be class president, join class council in 6th (!) grade. In short, as is true in the working world, the important positions are reserved for those who have been with an organization the longest.

I should note, however, that while I joined activities that I enjoyed, I also joined a few organizations for the sole purpose of being accepted to colleges. Attending meetings of these clubs was a chore that I didn't enjoy, but I persisted because I believed that my résumé would look more impressive to college admissions officers and employers.

I found out too late that most admissions officers would prefer a fewer number of activities toward which a prospective student dedicates him- or herself rather than participation in every club imaginable. And even though I participated in so many activities, I still was unable to obtain a paying job during the summer of my senior year. Therefore, I recommend participation in activities that you enjoy to add a new dimension to your life, but don't join clubs because some college in Indiana told you to "participate."

Also, becoming involved in out-of-school activities isn't a bad idea either. Myself, I was involved in more out-of-school activities than in-school organizations, and I enjoyed both equally. However, don't expect to be nominated as Student of the Month or be accepted to the National Honor Society if you're involved in out-of-school activities, simply because many of the awards at UMHS are given to those closely associated with school clubs.

Speaking of the NHS, however, I should add a word of caution. In eleventh grade, I was rejected from the society because I had concentrated on my out-of-school involvements. I immediately decided that I would get involved in so many clubs that they couldn't possibly turn me down the following year. Surely enough, I was accepted, but into an organization that met once a month for five minutes and held one event during the entire year. Universities, for some reason, boast of the NHS as a club for the best of the best, while in reality the only goal in which it succeeded was to provide another means of further separating the all-around students from those who were more reserved in their participation.

In conclusion, get involved early. If you don't, you're missing out on exciting experiences that could never be had otherwise. But be involved because you want to be involved, not because you want to satisfy an admissions requirement.

(Added June 18, 2011) 0. The popular people are like everyone else

On the eve of a 10-year reunion, I reflected upon perhaps the most important lesson of all: The popular people are people, too.