Studying at a small private school that strongly emphasizes competition and GPA, I knew I had to rely on myself to explore different areas outside of academics since my sophomore year of high school. Luckily, I was able to connect with supportive peers and mentors outside of school by developing habits that would allow me to better prepare for my college years. Below are two important tips I learned outside of high school that will help you thrive in an academically challenging environment.
1. The importance of keeping a journal and freewriting daily
I quickly realized the lack of emphasis my school put on writing other than assignments that were academic and formal. As an anxious teenager, I began to search the different components of college applications and noticed the significance of personal statements and supplemental essays. So I began keeping a journal during sophomore year to start tackling some past essay prompts; I wanted to see whether I had the ability to write and complete an essay (knowing there would not be a lot of time for me to complete all my essay prompts as my senior year approached).
It turned out every time I brainstormed an essay topic, I saw a different facet of my personality. As I wrote more and more outlines and essays for different prompts, I had more ideas that I could reference back to once I was in the final stage of writing application essays and applying to colleges. I was also able to pick up some thoughts and inspiration by looking back at my pages of freewriting that I started daily since sophomore year. Thus, it’s imperative to develop a continuous habit of freewriting as early as possible since research and academic papers in high school don’t adequately prepare you for this phase of essay writing for college applications. With a journal in hand, you can always reference back to the ideas you’ve thought of or even develop from what you already have.
The benefits of carrying this habit into college
Freewriting is also a useful habit for you to keep throughout your college years. It’s a way for you to self-reflect upon the actions that you take by putting your thoughts on paper. Going to college is such a giant leap from high school, which causes most college freshmen to feel overwhelmed by the sudden amount of freedom and responsibility in their hands. The pressure of adjusting to a new environment and the occasional longing for home when facing difficulties are also factors that add weight to your shoulders. That’s why a journal comes in handy: journaling prevents emotions from piling up inside by shifting those thoughts onto paper, and this works for both happy and unhappy thoughts. Recording happy moments helps you remember them, while recording unhappy moments gives yourself a way to think them through. In my opinion, visualizing your emotions can really enhance logical thinking.
2. Life isn’t a competition
When you attend a small, competitive high school like I did, it’s inevitable for both teachers and students to compare your academic progress and grades. A lot of times, students easily have the idea that our competitors are the ones sitting next to us. This compels many students to develop an unhealthy, ruthless mindset that causes them to be afraid and cautious around their peers, worrying that others could outweigh them in terms of academic and extracurricular achievements. My school’s motto constantly stressed the significance of student discipline and achieving outstanding grades in all academic fields since we were young, so it was common for students to strive for the best GPA and grades (even if it was a pop quiz that had nearly no bearing toward our GPA).
Although my school viewed competition as the key to motivate students to study and work hard, unhealthy competition ultimately leads to mental health issues. Many times, my peers and I felt extremely stressed when we’d see other classmates trying to learn our scores for each exam and planning ways to outweigh us academically. The lack of emphasis on mental health has become a problem for many teenagers nowadays, especially when we don’t realize the importance of mental wellness and where to search for these resources.
Balancing stress and your workload
I believe studying in a competitive environment has allowed me to develop a strong awareness of my own mental well-being and an open-minded perspective. I used to constantly experience instances of vomiting and headaches throughout my middle and high school years, and I couldn’t help but realize how constant competition reinforced by my school had severely affected my mental health in the long run. For those who are experiencing similar situations, try to find an outlet to release the loaded amount of stress, whether it’s through writing, listening to music, scrolling through random videos, having a conversation with your parents or someone else you trust, or any other method that you find the most suitable and relieving. It’s important to realize when to take a break from your academic studies to recharge your mental well-being. When facing mental discomfort and not knowing who to seek help from, the easiest solution is to make a visit to a health professional, such as a trained counselor or therapist. After being diagnosed with vertigo in middle school, I learned to reach out for help from professionals whenever necessary. Learning new methods of relieving stress really helped me cope with the constant competition that I was facing at school.
Not everything in life can be taught in a classroom. Among all the AP and honors classes I took throughout high school, the most valuable lessons I got during these years weren’t taught in any of those classes. Instead, I reached my own conclusions about things by being aware of my surroundings. From my experiences, I realized the importance of developing personal narrative writing skills and taking care of my mental health. These lessons may or may not apply to you, but I’m sure you can come up with your own lessons by being self-aware of your surroundings too!
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