Feature image from psychologytoday.com.
For me, sophomore year of high school was more like freshman year: part two. I still really didn’t know what I was doing or where exactly I was going. To give you an idea of just how misguided I was, sophomore year was the year that I told everyone I wanted to be a doctor — because I was doing pretty well in AP Biology and “doctor” seemed like a sensible, safe answer to mollify my parents with.
(Junior year, I discovered that I absolutely hated dissections, and that there was no way that I could bear the psychological burden of being responsible for someone else’s life. Especially if I happen to screw something up.)
As you can probably expect, I ended up with a healthy dose of regret about sophomore year. If I could go back right now and tell my high school self a few things, they’d probably have to be these:
“Hey, you. Start studying for the PSAT now. The ‘practice’ part is a lie.”
By sophomore year I thought I knew the system well enough to game it. Everybody who’s ever tried to test me on anything in the American K-12 system always started with a “diagnostic test” to see how stupid I was first. Which means that this was a test that I wasn’t supposed to study for, because how else would they know the extent of my natural ignorance?
So when I heard about the “practice” SAT, I assumed it was a diagnostic test. It sure sounds that way, doesn’t it? This would be a practice test to highlight your strengths and weaknesses for the actual test, so you’d know how to study more effectively, or so I thought.
I took the test blind and scored about as terribly as you’d imagine.
See, I had no idea that an entire organization would be evaluating me for the receipt of one of the most prestigious scholarships this country had to offer based on what I scored on said test. When I first heard the words “National Merit” used in this context, I was already a senior.
If I could do things over, I’d definitely prepare more seriously for the PSAT. Having “National Merit Scholar” on your college application is something that makes you look really good, and all it takes is getting a certain score on a certain test. It’s a pretty sweet trade-off, and something I really regret missing out on.
But hey — on the bright side, I was made very, very aware of all of my weaknesses for the actual SAT.
(If you want to not to what I did and start early, we do have a diagnostic test you can take at CollegeVine. Click here.)
“Follow your passions, but go all the way, won’t you?”
Right now, I am absolutely certain that I cannot get any farther from doctor-hood if the National Board of Physicians and Surgeons tried to beat me away with a baseball bat. It really goes to show just how ridiculously open-minded I was as a high schooler — a doctor, really?
But it wasn’t just “doctor” that I was open to: I was open to pursuing literally anything. Back in high school, everything seemed possible, and not just in the academic realm. There was a while where I wanted to be a professional digital artist and focus my efforts on growing a DeviantArt following over everything else. I even started a webcomic for a while and then gave it up.
A few months later I also wanted to be an author on the side, writing about 50,000 words into a story before deciding that, for a lark, I wanted to start my own web design firm. Becoming a YouTuber, starting a cover band, dancing, going into eSports — all things that I picked up and then put down within a span of months.
In the end, it was a lot of work, but I had very little to show for it. I never finished any of these things, and even now, as a junior in college, they’re only skills that I take out once in a while when I have the time (which I don’t).
I mean, if you don’t plan on going to college and really want to make finding yourself a priority first, there’s nothing I have to say against doing what I did. It’s a quick way to find out what you like and don’t like, and I think I have a much more complex and detailed understanding of myself for it. Plus, college isn’t for everyone and it’s perfectly okay not to go.
However, if you do plan on going to college, and especially if you’re aiming high, please don’t do what I did. Colleges like looking at finished products, not the time that you spent bouncing around between pastimes.
Find something you like (or something you’re good at), and take it all the way — become truly devoted to it, and actually commit yourself. Do something great with it so that you can look back and say it’s something you’re proud of; it’s what I’d tell myself if I could.
“Learn to compete with yourself, not others.”
This might seem like common sense at first glance, but you’d probably be surprised to hear that not taking this to heart was one of the reasons that I didn’t do as well as I could have sophomore year.
Aside from the fact that this could result in jealousy and anger and all sorts of negative emotions, it was a bad habit that made me complacent. Because when I finally beat out my target of choice, I saw no need to push myself any more.
Case in point: at my high school, all sophomore Honors students had to write a research paper that analyzed the interactions between history and literature. It was one of the hardest assignments that every AP and Honors kid at my school had to complete, and it had achieved infamy as a sort of “trial by fire” to preemptively rank the academic abilities of the high-achieving kids at my school before senior year.
I scored the highest out of anyone my year, with a 96. And after that, I got lax.
That year, I ended up not studying for my history final and scoring in the high sixties. I also ended up blowing off a final essay, scoring the lowest possible number of points out of five: a one. Though both were calculated risks that I took, knowing that I could still manage A-minuses even if I failed (back in those glorious days when A-minuses counted for whole grade points), it really sucked in the long run because I ended up stagnating, both in my writing and as a student.
College showed me that just because I was ahead of the pack in high school, what I had going on could still be vastly subpar compared to what my professors were used to reading. It took a few C’s and a particularly stringent law professor to really kick me out of it and take my writing to the next level. Even though I ultimately hated that professor as a person, I have to admit that she was kind of like my Mr. Miyagi—she put me through brutal torture, for sure, but my writing’s so much better for it.
Plus, if the only person you’re competing against is yourself, you won’t feel as bad when other people have their successes, and you’ll be able to share in their accomplishments. It makes Decision Day a lot easier, that’s for sure, and it’s a lesson that I really wish I had learned earlier on.
“It’s perfectly okay to say ‘I don’t know’ when people ask you things.”
Yeah, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the whole world-and-a-half believing that I wanted to be a doctor.
And yes, I’m still mildly upset at myself for that. It made life so much harder for a year — every Tom, Dick, and Harry would advise me on the best route to med school. I’d be bombarded with links from Business Insider, from Forbes, from wherever people decide to write about premeds. Parents other than mine watched my grades like hawks, comparing against their kids who actually were looking at the medical track.
But it was hard to admit that I didn’t know. It was hard to be the only one who didn’t have a sensible answer when all the parents line up together at a house party and decide to quiz the kids. I couldn’t tell these people that I was seriously considering becoming an ‘Internet personality’ or deriving my future income solely from Patreon; I couldn’t tell these people that I was ‘experimenting’ or ‘finding myself.’
Because that’d make me look stupid.
Now, looking back from somewhere older and wiser, I definitely think it’s better to be honest to others — and yourself — about the things that you don’t know. There’s no point in hiding your ignorance, really, because we’re all human and we all don’t know things to some extent. Plus, it makes it harder for people to help you if they don’t know whether or not you need help.
To steal a line from Confucius, “To know is to know. Not to know is not to know. That is to know.”
“…and above all, if you screw up, it’s okay. It’s only sophomore year of high school.”
So I didn’t start seriously settling down and thinking about college until the end of my sophomore year, when I was almost a junior. It was kind of a natural thing — my parents knew that I was not the dumbest kid alive (though I do cut it pretty close sometimes), and they hoped that I’d have some semblance of a stable future.
They also knew that I was too clumsy and indelicate to ever take on a trade (I once installed an IKEA bookcase backwards and inside out, all while reading the right-side-up manual), and too lazy for the military (though my father had pushed West Point as a dream school to me many times).
Therefore, college seemed the only reasonable option.
I didn’t go into the process with high hopes. I knew there were people going to SAT camps, who’ve used academic consultants since middle school. I knew there were people out there with more money, more prestige, more connections — who have done remarkable things and gone remarkable places and met remarkable people. There were people who were already miles and miles ahead of me in the college game, and try as I might, I’d never be able to catch up to where they are now.
Yet, I somehow made it to Cornell. I thought back then that I’d be lucky to get into UC San Diego.
I guess it just all goes to show that it’s never too late. People start prepping for college earlier and earlier every year, but it’s possible to do well even if you don’t. Whether that happens because you actually screwed up, or didn’t realize college was an option until later on, it’s definitely possible to get into a college that you’re happy with as long as you’re willing to put in the effort — even if you do start a little later than most people.
After all, during sophomore year, you’re barely not a freshman. It’d be crazy to expect you to get everything right.
(You can do it, we can help — here’s a college planning checklist for sophomore year, if you’re so inclined.)
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