By Maya Abdel-Wadood

Freshman year is a rollercoaster – from new classes to new activities to an entirely different social scene, the transition can be overwhelming. Although I didn’t have a traditional freshman year experience, since it was tainted by Covid and online classes, looking back, I realize I learned a lot during my first year of high school. It is an opportunity that you can use to your advantage setting yourself up for a successful high school experience. Consider solidifying your study habits, falling into a routine, and taking the time to learn about yourself and your interests. Although there is a plethora of advice I could give high school freshmen, here are the top six things I wish I knew during my first year of high school.

    1. Your grades matter.

Although it may seem like an obvious and arbitrary piece of advice, it is easy to let the overwhelming transition to high school affect your performance. It can feel exciting and new, and graduation probably seems like the distant future. Many people tend to forget that their freshman year grades appear on the transcript that will be sent to most colleges! Do not let the illusion of time and distance to writing your university applications deter you from maximizing your effort in your freshman year. 

2. You do not need to make any university-related decisions yet.

With the transition to high school comes the ever-looming question of “Where do you want to go for university?” Friends and family members can be curious, and you may suddenly feel pressured to begin researching and making important decisions. Although there is nothing wrong with exploring your options, remind yourself that you have plenty of time. During high school, your interests and passions will evolve, as will your preferences. What you value in freshman year may not be what you value when application season rolls around 3 years later. Personally, the ranking and reputation of a school mattered much more to me as a freshman than as a senior, and as I began my application journey, I found myself being more critical about whether the colleges I had shortlisted were the best fit for me – academically and personally. The “dream school” you commit yourself to in freshman year may not be the right fit for you as you approach the end of your high school career.

3. Do not blindly sign up for every club.

When the club fair rolls around early in freshman year, refrain from signing up for every club because you think it will strengthen your college application. In the long run, it may do just the opposite. By attempting to engage with too many activities at once, it is almost impossible to truly invest time and energy into any of them. Rather, pick a few clubs you are genuinely interested in and STAY involved throughout the years. Whether that means committing to a regular volunteer role, helping organize a club event, contributing original ideas at meetings, and eventually applying for a leadership position, significant engagement in a single activity is more impressive than minimal engagement in many. If you have a general idea of what you would like to study at university, my advice would be to use it as a frame of reference for your extracurriculars and classes. Using your passions to guide you is not only a great way to ensure a focused application, but will prevent you from wasting time on activities you do not enjoy or care about. If you aren’t sure what activities you should commit to, take the time to explore the options available so that you can narrow down your focus by the end of the academic year.

4. Figure out what excites you.

My last point may have freaked you out a little if you have no idea what you want to study – don’t let it. This is the year for figuring things out. Take a variety of classes, and take note of those that you are not only good at, but that you look forward to exploring further. Finding the intersection of your strengths and interests is the key to eventually determining your applications’ “theme” later in high school. Determine which clubs excite you and target issues you truly care about. Get some work experience and talk to professionals and students in a variety of fields. Commit to learning about yourself and your passions – your future self will thank you!

5. Get to know your school counselor.

School counselors see dozens of kids a day – that’s why it’s important to differentiate yourself, to not get lost in a sea of names and faces. By the time senior year comes along, your counselor will be writing a letter of recommendation on your behalf – an especially difficult task if they’ve never exchanged a word with you. Meet periodically with your counselor to share your university aspirations, preferences, and to receive recommendations for classes and activities. They can be incredibly helpful and provide needed clarity through a potentially stressful process.

6. Do not get hung up on bad first semester grades.

When the end of your first semester rolls around, there will likely be at least one letter on your transcript that bothers you. Don’t let it – if I learned anything in high school, it’s that a lot can change in a semester. Adjusting to change is difficult, and it is perfectly reasonable to not be earning straight As within your first few months of high school. Use your mid-year report to your advantage – determine which classes you may need extra help in, and use the next semester to obtain that help. Ask your teacher questions, attend office hours, and reach out to tutors or peers who are well-versed on the subject. You have a few months to raise that grade and turn it into a letter on your transcript that you can truly be proud of – use them wisely!

Freshman year is a pivotal year in more ways than one. By creating a strong foundation in this first year of high school, you will ultimately set yourself up for success. Just remember that change can be hard, and nobody should expect to adjust immediately and seamlessly. Be patient with yourself and with others, and good luck!

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