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5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Freshman Year of High School

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Two students sit at a desk in a classroom doing work.

There’s no better way to describe the start of my freshman year of high school than rough. I logged onto my first Zoom of ninth grade in sweatpants and my uniform polo, unenthusiastic and largely unprepared for the semi-truck that was high school that was about to hit me.

To some degree, high school–and all years of school and stages of life–will always be difficult. But, there are certainly some lessons–five, to be exact–that I learned the hard way in my first few months of freshman year.

Though the following tips likely won’t save you from all the inevitable stresses and lows of adolescence and education, they can hopefully minimize them. 

Remember quality over quantity – always

The age-old adage holds true for nearly everything in high school: friends, extracurriculars, classes, the list goes on and on. 

One of the biggest switches I noticed from middle to high school was that I suddenly had many more options of clubs to join, sports to play, classes to select, and people to meet. While the choices were in some ways freeing, I also found myself overly spread out and not truly committed to anything in a meaningful way. 

For me, I’ve found the most happiness and success in not doing everything but rather trying to intentionally select and fully dedicate myself to the activities, groups, and projects I do choose.

Though it can be hard to not succumb to the pressure to “take advantage” of every opportunity that comes knocking, especially when it comes to classes, I’ve realized that I much prefer and ultimately do better when I take a smaller amount of challenging classes that I can fully apply myself to and work hard in rather than taking on six advanced classes that’ll make me too thinly spread out to put effort into.

Quality over quantity even applies to some friendships. I’ve found that I’m happier with a close-knit group of friends than with a large network of people I’m not especially close to.

Learn to say no and not feel guilty about it

On a similar note, the hardest thing that I had to learn to do in ninth grade was to say no and get comfortable doing it. I, for one of the first times in my life, simply did not have the time nor energy to always volunteer to last-minute edit a friend’s lab report or take on an extra project for a club.

More and more frequently in my freshman year, a last-minute request would be asked of me on a day when I was already swamped with homework and meetings. I simply couldn’t do everything that I had already committed to and take on a new task.

So, as uncomfortable as it was and at times continues to be, I learned to politely say no to requests that I couldn’t complete without sacrificing something else on my to-do list. I learned to ask for compromises if I still wanted to help, even if I couldn’t offer the level of assistance asked of me, and replace my usual “yes” with “no, but I can do…” 

Ultimately, learning and getting used to saying no to people when I couldn’t reasonably help them without de-prioritizing my own work was a challenging but necessary part of my start of high school.

What I Learned My Freshman Year Of High School

Create your own downtime

Just like being able to say no to people, shutting off my phone or not checking my email obsessively was a challenge for a long stretch of freshman year. I found that people were constantly “on” but that such constant alertness wasn’t sustainable.

The school day ending doesn’t mean that school ends for the day, but that also doesn’t mean that school needs to take up most of your brain all afternoon.

Being able to do your homework, tend to all your tasks, and then truly pause your “academic” course of action till the next day is, in my experience, essential to avoiding burnout. If a group project member is last-minute finishing up their slides at 9pm, it’s okay to not reply right away to their text. In fact, it’s okay if you silence your phone for non-personal messages after a certain hour. 

In a world that’s constantly go, go, go, it’s healthy and vital to set your own boundaries of when you can give your brain and yourself a true break. 

Find out what studying method works for you and stick to it

If there’s ever a time to learn how to study in a way that works well for you, it’s freshman year. Or, ideally, earlier.

Studying is a different process for everyone. Whereas one person may love practice tests, they might be a useless endeavor for others who prefer being orally quizzed on vocabulary.

You can’t take advantage of every resource available to you, so finding which ones click and which ones don’t will not only save you time and work but also will set you up for optimal success in your classes.

Figuring out if you can successfully cram or if you need to study a little bit every day for a week, if flashcards or review videos work better for you, and if study groups are your key to an A or a waste of your time? Those are all questions best answered early on so that by your second semester of freshman year and for the rest of your academic journey, you know what works and what doesn’t.

If you establish your studying routine and methods in ninth grade, some of the panic and stress of harder classes that come further down the high school road will subside and you’ll be able to approach difficult tests with a foolproof plan.

Get into routines

I’ve always done best with structure; I love to-do lists with boxes I can check and timelines that outline when everything needs to be completed. But, it wasn’t until high school started and much of my free time vanished that I realized that structure could be helpful in non-academic areas of my life, too.

In addition to deciding on a routine time and place to study every day, I established casual routines that I’ve kept for the most part, with some alterations made for the return to in-person school.

For instance, I give myself 30 minutes to make a snack, text friends, check social media, or otherwise relax every day when I get home from school. I try my best to take a short walk every weekday sometime before dinner. I read, even if it’s only three or four pages, right before I go to bed every night.

Creating a habit that helps you de-stress, settle down, get your mind off homework, or whatever you may need a daily dose of establishes a structure that makes the task much easier to consistently stick to. 

I likely wouldn’t give myself the 20 minutes I try to walk around my neighborhood for every day if I didn’t have it as an established part of my daily routine. But, because it’s as much on my to-do list as my math homework is, I don’t feel guilty giving myself a short break from notes to go outside and enjoy the fresh air.

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Author: Maya Henry

Maya Henry (she/her) is a happy crier and cherry tomato enthusiast attending high school in California. She aims to be a political journalist or policy analyst when she's done with school, and when not taking pictures of her dog, you'll find her reading a historical fiction novel, baking pumpkin bread, or debating the merits of communism with her brother.