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Thoughts on high school activities

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High school is an important time in your development. It represents 4 years during which you're growing rapidly, and what you do in high school plays a major role in shaping your future prospects.

Your high school experience will include:

  • Coursework
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Standardized tests
  • College applications


The basics

High schools have graduation requirements. Depending on your high school's requirements and your future ambitions, your coursework will likely include at least the courses required for admission by the University of California:

  • World history and United States history
  • Four years of English
  • Three years of math, including Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2.
  • Two of biology, chemistry and physics.
  • Two years of foreign language.
  • One year of visual or performing arts.

In order to get into prestigious colleges, you'll almost certainly have to take more demanding courses than the minimal requirements for University of California admission. For example, Stanford University's department of admissions says:

We expect freshman applicants have engaged in a rigorous curriculum and chosen from among the most demanding courses available in secondary school. It is not necessary to have loaded your schedule with every advanced course offered; but if such courses are available to you, we expect you have taken advantage of many of them. Our most competitive freshman applicants often have four years (grades 9-12) of English, four years of math (including calculus), four years of social studies, four years of science (including biology, chemistry and physics) and four years of a foreign language.

The courses that you take, and the grades that you get in them are said to be the most important input into college admissions decisions. For example, Yale University's admissions department says:

Yale is above all an academic institution. This means academic strength is our first consideration in evaluating any candidate. The single most important document in your application is your high school transcript, which tells us a great deal about your academic drive and performance over time.

As such, if you want to go to a prestigious college, you should give heavy weight to getting good grades in challenging high school courses.

On a separate page, we discuss the question [How much does going to a prestigious college matter?]

Good study habits

Some study habits work better than others. Cognitive psychologist Stephen Chew gives guidelines as to which study habits work best. Some key points from his writeup are:

  • Always plan in extra time for assignments and plan to finish reading material enough in advance to allow for review
  • If you want to be successful, reduce or eliminate distractions while studying.
  • Shallow processing involve studying meaningless, superficial properties of what you are trying to learn, like mindless re-reading or memorization. The deepest levels of processing involve thinking about material meaningfully, interpreting the information and relating it to your prior knowledge or experience, or creating a mental image of the information. Deeper processing leads to better recall. (Chew gives strategies for engaging in deeper processing in the PDF.)
  • When you study a subject beyond the point where you can recall it successfully; you study it until you can recall it quickly and easily. Overlearning information helps prevent forgetting and it makes recall fast and easy.
  • Studying in a group can be effective, but it is also one of the easiest ways of fooling yourself into believing you are prepared when you really aren’t. If the group norm is that everyone studies hard and uses good study strategies, then the group will succeed. If the norm is that group uses bad study strategies and has many distractions, then you won’t learn. Everyone should come prepared and ready to contribute.

Using these study habits can substantially improve your ability to learn the material in your courses well.

The importance of learning math well

Out of the subjects that you'll study in high school, it's unusually important to learn math well. You should consider learning math well beyond what's necessary to get an A in a course.

Some reasons for this are:

  • The main reason why learning math well is important is that many courses depend on mathematical knowledge, so that learning math well improves your ability to perform well across the board. With the exception of some parts geometry, the high school math curriculum is very hierarchical, so that doing well in a given course requires solid knowledge of earlier courses. The main limiting factor to students doing well in chemistry and physics is often mathematical subject matter knowledge. Knowing math well makes economics easier. If you end up majoring in engineering, you'll benefit substantially from a solid knowledge of calculus (which hinges on a solid knowledge of the math that's covered earlier in the curriculum, with the exception of some parts of geometry).
  • Other subjects have more limited applicability than math does. Doing well in United States history isn't highly dependent on having learned world history well. English classes can build general reading and writing skills, but aside from that are not very hierarchical — understanding a book that's covered in a given English course seldom depends on knowledge of books that have been covered in previous courses. High school chemistry doesn't depend on high school biology, and while knowledge of high school chemistry helps with high school physics (and vice versa), the interdependence isn't strong. Foreign language courses are hierarchical, and it's important to learn the material in a given course well enough to do well in subsequent courses, but in contrast with math, learning a foreign language doesn't help much with learning subjects other than foreign language. Studying an art won't help very much with courses outside of art.
  • Knowing math well helps with the math section of the SAT, and the math SAT subject tests. There are high school math competitions that offer students the opportunity to stand out. So learning math well offers you unusually good opportunities to showcase your abilities.
  • Mathematical thinking is closely connected with general reasoning ability. Many subjects outside of math depend more on memorization and less on abstract reasoning than math does. Math is often taught in a way that requires students to memorize and regurgitate, but this is because of poor teaching rather than an inherent feature of math. By using [math learning resources] such as select books and videos, you can learn math in a way that disproportionately develops your abstract thinking skills, which can then be transferred to other subjects.

Of high school math courses, geometry is the least important to learn well. The material in high school geometry shows up much less frequently in other contexts than subjects such as algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

Coursework and SAT subject tests

If you're applying to selective colleges, you'll probably need to take a couple of SAT subject tests. In preparation for these, you should pick out two tests early on, and commit to learning the material in the corresponding courses really well (possibly beyond the level of mastery needed for A's in the courses), and take the SAT subject tests immediately after completing the courses.

For example, if your favorite subjects are history and science, you could pick US history and chemistry to be the two subjects, and learn them like the back of your hand, to maximize your chances of getting outstanding scores on the SAT subject tests in US history and chemistry.

Balancing personal growth and looking good to colleges in course selection

Some courses help you grow more than others. Some courses look better to colleges than others. In an ideal world, the courses that help you grow the most would be the same as the courses that look best to colleges. Unfortunately, this is not the world that we live in. A couple of examples of this are:

  • Many students will take AP Art History to fulfill their art requirement, not because they're interested in or will benefit from learning art history, but because taking an AP course looks better to colleges than taking a non-AP course.
  • Some teachers are easier graders than others, and some teachers are better teachers than others. The best teacher usually won't be the easiest grader, and the easiest grader usually won't be the best teacher. So taking the course where you'll learn the most doesn't necessarily guarantee you the best grade, and vice versa.

You probably want to grow personally and get into a good college. In order to do so as well as possible, you'll have to think about how to balance the two things when choosing courses.

In general, when balancing, you should try to make the smallest sacrifices possible. Some specific points:

  • You should place high priority on personal growth when it comes to taking classes on subjects that you're interested in, or that you'll use in the future. If you're not interested in United States history, and don't plan on doing anything that requires knowledge of it, then it might be good to take it with the easiest grader possible, even if he or she isn't the best teacher. Similarly, if you're planning on becoming a historian, it might be good to take US history with the best teacher possible, even if he or she isn't the easiest grader.
  • While colleges view AP courses favorably, some elite colleges don't favor applicants who have taken the most AP courses possible over other applicants. For example, Stanford University's admissions department says We want to be clear that this is not a case of "whoever has the most APs wins." Instead, we look for thoughtful, eager and highly engaged students who will make a difference at Stanford and the world beyond, and we expect that they have taken high school course loads of reasonable and appropriate challenge in the context of their schools.

Selecting good teachers

In choosing courses, you should give careful consideration to who's teaching them. Teachers differ significantly from one another in terms of their quality of teaching and ease of grading. Teachers are also candidates for writing recommendations for colleges, scholarships and summer programs. Some points to consider:

  • Try not to judge a teacher primarily based on how entertaining he or she is. Entertaining teachers aren't necessarily the ones who you can learn the most from: some entertaining teachers offer a very superficial coverage of the course material, and some dull teachers challenge students to absorb the material deeply and think about it. You may enjoy an entertaining teacher's class more, but depending on the teacher, you may not grow as much as you could have if you had taken a class with another teacher.
  • Just because you find a teacher easy to understand doesn't mean that you're learning a lot, and just because you find a teacher hard to understand doesn't mean that you're not learning. Some teachers appear to be clear precisely because they don't spend time on the parts of the material that are hardest to understand — they teach students material that they don't need help with rather than material that they do need help with. Some of the teachers who are hard to understand are ones who you can learn the most from. Of course, there are teachers who are hard to understand who you can't learn from even if you try, and you should avoid them, but you should be aware that this isn't always the case.
  • Students often incorrectly believe that teacher who are harder in terms of the material covered or in terms of the work they assign will be harder in terms of the final letter grades they assign. This is not necessarily true: it can happen that an teacher challenges students while grading leniently, and it can happen that a teacher who doesn't challenge students also grades harshly. You can learn more about how leniently a teacher grades by talking to students who have already completed a course than by talking to students who are currently in the course, and may b

Extracurricular activities

Colleges are flexible when evaluating student involvement in extracurricular activities

Some students are under the impression that outside of their school work, they should participate in as many activities as possible. A common reason for this is that students believe that colleges are looking for students who participate in as many activities as possible. Similarly, some students think that colleges want applicants who have participated in specific extracurricular activities.

Our research hasn't turned up any evidence that supports this, and we've come across many indications that colleges don't look specifically for students who participate in as many activities as possible. Here are some representative examples:

  • Stanford University admissions department says: Students often assume our primary concern is the number of activities in which one participates. In fact, an exceptional depth of experience in one or two activities may demonstrate your passion more than minimal participation in five or six clubs.
  • MIT's admissions department says says: Choose your activities because they really delight, intrigue and challenge you, not because you think they'll look impressive on your application. Go out of your way to find projects, activities and experiences that stimulate your creativity and leadership, that connect you with peers and adults who bring out your best, that please you so much you don't mind the work involved. Some students find room for many activities; others prefer to concentrate on just a few. Either way, the test for any extracurricular should be whether it makes you happy - whether it feels right for you.
  • The founder of adMISSION POSSIBLE wrote: When it comes to extracurricular involvements, it doesn't really matter what the content is. Anything from doing a major DNA research project to volunteering at a school that serves low income students to excelling at fly-fishing is legitimate fodder for college application grids. No matter the activity, colleges look for quality of involvement rather than quantity of activities. In other words, it is better to be consistently involved in one, two, or three activities and/or sports over a number of years, than superficially involved in eight, 10 or 12 for shorter periods of time. Simply said, activity laundry lists do not impress.

Suggestions for extracurricular activities

Because colleges don't appear to favor applicants who are involved in a large number of extracurricular activities, or specific extracurricular activities, you should take advantage of the opportunity to choose extracurricular activities in areas that will interest you, and/or extracurricular activities that are conducive to personal growth. Some extracurricular activities that we recommend are:

Creating something new

One of the best ways to learn about the world and about yourself is to work to create something new. Creating something new is also good for college admissions: it shows greater independence, initiative, and originality than participating in school clubs.

  • If you're passionate about writing, this could be a book.
  • If you're passionate about math, this could be a mathematical research paper.
  • If you're passionate about programming, this could be a computer software.
  • If you're passionate about education for underprivileged children, this could be starting an after school educational enrichment program for them.

Participating in online communities

One of the great virtues of the internet is that it enables people to find others who share their interests. Because the population of people who use the internet is large, participating in online communities can give you access to some very knowledgable people who you can learn more from than the people who you know in person. Some ideas for online communities that you might participate in are:

  • Quora — a question and answer website where you can ask and answer questions about any subject that interests you.
  • StackOverflow — a computer programming question and answer website.
  • LessWrong — A group blog where participants discuss psychology, philosophy, self-improvement, artificial intelligence, and the far future.


You can learn more about careers that interest you by doing internships at companies and nonprofits.

Earning to give

A lot of community service work and volunteer work isn't an efficient way of helping people. An alternative that you should consider is [earning to give]. If you get a job, or work a few extra hours at your job, you can save up money that you can donate to charity. Some charities are very impactful. For example, GiveDirectly gives 90% of donations to very poor Kenyans with household incomes that are about ~$1000/year. If you donate ~$1000 to GiveDirectly, you can double a poor Kenyan family's income for a year, enabling the family to buy things like a metal roof to replace a leaky thatch roof.

Standardized tests

Most colleges require that students take the SAT or the ACT.

Scores on these exams have a very significant impact on college admissions prospects. Princeton University's admissions department says that students who score between 2300 and 2400 on the SAT (out of 2400 total points) are over twice as likely to be admitted as students who score between 2100 and 2290. The students who have higher SAT scores will, on average, also have more impressive applications in other respects, so the difference in admissions rates can't be entirely attributed to SAT scores. Still, it suggests that that doing well on the SAT and/or ACT is very important for college admissions.

You can raise your SAT and/or ACT scores through judicious preparation. For example, the SAT tests knowledge of vocabulary words that are repeated year to year, and by learning these vocabulary words, you can answer more questions correctly.

Books such as

have been very favorably reviewed on Amazon, and working through them plausibly boosts your scores.

If you have difficulty staying motivated on your own, taking an SAT/ACT prep course or getting SAT/ACT tutoring may boost your scores. Aside from this consideration, it's unclear how much value SAT/ACT preparation courses add beyond working through the books above.

It's been said that the SAT is more of a test of short-term memory (relative to the ACT), and the ACT more of a test of long-term memory (relative to the SAT). If the colleges that you'll be applying to accept either one, you should take the test that plays to your strengths. You can also take both tests. Depending on your circumstances, you may be able to choose which scores to release to a given college, allowing you to submit the higher of the two scores.

Selective colleges often require that applicants take SAT Subject Tests. We give suggestions for how to prepare for these above. You can take a practice test for a given subject by obtaining a copy of The Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests.

College applications