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High school: opening message

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This page provides a brief introduction to why high school is a critical phase of your life, and a few big ideas to keep in mind. Read it, and then proceed to explore our range of advice offerings.

You here will refer to a high school student, typically an early high school student.

How high school matters

High school is a critical phase for reasons to do both with biology and the structure of academic systems, because of the juxtaposition of two facts:

  • You are still officially a minor (a child) so that you do not have any of the responsibilites associated with adulthood to weigh you down, and your mental capacity is still growing and malleable.
  • You have entered a period of life where you are sufficiently mature to do important activities, and others expect you to act responsibly. Your actions have consequences for yourself and others.

The negative: getting into trouble

In high school, you can get into trouble in ways that could radically alter your future life trajectory in ways that are (for the most part) bad. Examples:

  • Drugs, alcohol, or smoking, both the activities themselves, and getting caught doing them.
  • Getting pregnant, as well as other problems related to sexual activity, such as getting in trouble with your school for sexual activity, getting a sexually transmitted disease, etc.
  • Getting a police record due to violent or property crime or gang activity.

As a general rule, we recommend avoiding these while in high school. A couple additional points:

  • Some of these activities are not unsafe or undesirable in principle but they can be started later. Delaying parenthood (and sexual activity) to after high school is better both biologically and socio-economically. Moderate alcohol consumption is claimed to have health benefits, but that too can be begun later.
  • In some cases, it is not the activity itself but the implicit social context and the maturity level of the other people around you that makes it dangerous. The examples of drugs, sex, and alcohol are particularly noteworthy.
  • While it may be the case that some people are unwilling to be friends with you if you don't engage in these activities, you should weigh this downside based on the probability (generally low) that you'll need to rely on their friendship or being part of their social circle over the long term. There may be ways of navigating these issues while minimizing social friction.

The good news is that avoiding trouble of the above sorts is generally easy if you put your mind to it -- the hard part is just deciding to avoid them.

Some people gravitate toward trouble because the day-to-day academics and school activities feel boring, and they do not have an outlet for their creativity and sense of adventure. if that describes you, then look below at the section The positive.

There are also somewhat more mild forms of getting into trouble, that do not leave a permanent black mark, but can still be a big liability in the short term. These generally center around relationships with your teachers and fellow students and your academic performance in specific subjects. We go into these in some detail.

The neutral: your high school academic record

A strong academic record in high school is critical for college admissions, scholarships, and summer internship opportunities. In addition, college applications typically require letters of recommendation, at least one of which comes from a high school teacher. Therefore, in addition to doing well in the courses, you also need to have good relationships with teachers. Maintaining a good high school academic record and maintaining good relations with teachers (and, to a lesser extent, peers) can be quite important for your future.

The positive: combine deep exploration and impressive accomplishment

If you use your high school years wisely, you might be able to rack up impressive accomplishments and build a huge amount of knowledge and skills, valuable both directly (so-called human capital) and in terms of convincing colleges and others of your potential (so-called signaling). And in the process, also experience the consumption benefit of accomplishing something impressive.

A number of people who find school boring gravitate towards dangerous activities. Others overdo studying their existing school subjects to the point of diminishing returns. Yet others tune out completely. By focusing on something different to do that is both important and interesting, you can avoid all these depressing fates.

Start early with our advice