What if it counted toward your grade?

I think too many high school students are over-scheduled and over-measured. Too many commitments. Too much strategizing about whether or not your choices will help you get into college. Too much emphasis placed on the outcomes rather than the effort. And far too little time spent relaxing, having fun, and just being kids.

Time off—and I mean real downtime that is just for you, the kind that has absolutely nothing to do with getting into college—is just as important to your future success and happiness as time on-the-clock is. When you’re relaxed and recharged, you’ll have the energy and focus you need to make the work hours even more productive.

If you meet with your counselor, why not respect her time and arrive eager to learn and to take her guidance?

If you take a part-time job, why not make the effort to thrive?

If you attend a meeting for your club, why not behave like a leader even if you don’t have an official leadership position?

There’s no need to apply performance measurements to everything. Your time should be your time, without grades, scores, or comparisons.

But the things you do at school, within your activities, and other commitments in the name of getting college-ready, treat them like they count toward your grade. You’ll get more out of—and give more to—your commitments and responsibilities. And if you stumble, there’s almost always an opportunity for a retake without hurting your GPA.

Who you are–and want to be

I still remember receiving one of my high school yearbooks and noticing that the yearbook staff had taken one last jab at a graduating senior who’d spent four years as the butt of a lot of people’s jokes. They’d replaced his chosen senior quote next to his portrait with one proclaiming that he was the king of all nerds. Not funny or original, but still plenty mean-spirited.

Today, that former student is a graduate of Berkeley and Harvard Law School, and a bestselling author with a wife and family. His life is full enough that I’m sure he never thinks about (or even remembers) that last high school slight. But if he does, he must feel pretty triumphant.

For some students, high school is just about the most unpleasant experience that you’ll ever need to survive (surpassed only by junior high school for similar reasons). The good news is that you’re pretty much certain to find a different experience in college.

Yes, cliques, barbs, and social pressures still exist in college (far less so at some schools than others), but not nearly to the degree that they do in high school. Fitting in is an abstract concept in college. Between the diversity of backgrounds and interests, the maturity that comes after leaving high school, and the fact that there’s almost always someone at college who looks and acts weirder than you do means that there’s a place—and a group—for everyone.

My freshman dorm at college included two former high school football stars, a fan of Medieval Times who wore authentic clothing and jousted with fellow warriors, a drummer in a popular local band, a rock-climbing engineering major, a collegiate basketball standout, two fraternity members, three bespectacled pre-meds, a (computer) hacker, and a Marine Corps ROTC recruit. That was just on my floor alone.

Every college bound student has a lot to look forward to (here are 50 examples). And for some, the top of the list might be the opportunity to finally escape high school and be in a more accepting environment.

If that’s you, high school might seem like it’s lasting forever. But don’t worry. It will pass and eventually become just a distant memory in your life’s rearview mirror. Hang in there and look forward to the new world that college will present to you, one where you’ll have the freedom to be who you are and the opportunity to become who you want to be.

Try the right self-talk

When you’re nervous about an important event—like taking the SAT, going to your college interview, playing in the finals on the tennis team, etc., what does the voice in your head say? Second-guessing yourself with thoughts like, “I should have studied more” or “I’m probably not as good as the others” definitely won’t help your performance. But pumping yourself up with positivity like, “You can do this!” isn’t actually as effective as a third option.

In this short video, author Dan Pink explains interrogative self-talk, a simple, easy-to-use technique to improve your performance in pressure situations. Research shows that simply asking yourself, “Can you do this?” and then answering the question with all the reasons you’re likely to succeed actually improves the chances that you’ll do just that.

If your nerves sometimes get the best of you before that big test, big game, or any other situation where the pressure is on, why not give interrogative self-talk a try?

The cost of quick checks

If you’re still convinced that you can get your best work done while constantly switching your attention to incoming emails, texts, and other distractions, the research on “attention residue” says otherwise, as this article points out. Bottom line: you’re sharper and more productive when you commit to long blocks with no interruptions (not even a quick glance at your inbox or phone).

You pay a price for all those “quick checks.”

More deep work = more success in less time

Study skills author Cal Newport set goals to (1) become a professor by the age of 30, and (2) become tenured by age 35. He attributes his success in meeting both those goals to one skill. In fact, it’s the same skill he claims also got him into Dartmouth. And best of all, it’s available to any student, with any GPA. Newport calls it deep work, and he even wrote a book about it.

Turn off the distractions. Set aside quiet, uninterrupted time. And focus on doing difficult, important work.

If the return on that investment meant you’d get more done with more success in less time, why not give it a try?

A Nobel Prize-worthy study skill

According to Daniel Coyle’s “The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills,” the best way to learn from a book isn’t to read and reread. Instead, read it once and then write a one-page summary.

Here’s the passage as quoted on this blog:

“Research shows that people who (wrote a summary) remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow (repeatedly read). This is because of one of deep practice’s most fundamental rules: Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning. On the other hand, closing the book and writing a summary forces you to figure out the key points (one set of reaches), process and organize those ideas so they make sense (more reaches), and write them on the page (still more reaches, along with repetition). The equation is always the same: More reaching equals more learning.”

To be honest, if someone had recommended this to me when I was in high school, I would have rolled my eyes and moved on with reading (and rereading).

But this exercise isn’t about writing—it’s about learning.

I’ve written before that the most effective way to really know something is to prepare to teach it. In fact, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feymann did it when wrapping his brain around concepts far more complex than high school homework assignments, as explained here by study skills author Scott Young.

To write a one-page summary of a book forces you to review the key ideas, to make distinctions between what’s important and what isn’t, and to explain how each concept ties into the overall message of the reading. If you can do those things, you understand what you’ve read.

So even if you take what would have been my high school approach and laugh off the idea of writing the summary (I don’t blame you), instead, just take 10 minutes and teach it back as if you were standing in front of the class. You won’t laugh it off once you try it.

And here’s a past post of mine with five habits of highly-effective students.

For students departing for college

For those students departing for college, here’s an article and a few past posts to help you get off to the best start.

A recent New York Times piece by Richard J. Light, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of “Making the Most of College.”

A past post of mine highlighting some of the advice in Light’s book mentioned above.

One of my most read posts, this one on how to build a remarkable college career.

And two final posts, here and here, with some advice if you’re concerned about getting a job after college.

You can’t earn straight A’s in life

The majority of your days as a teenager are spent as a student where you’re constantly measured by grades. If you do the work, get the right answers, and please your teachers, you’ll earn good grades. Do it exceptionally well and you might even get straight A’s. Perfection is an available path you can choose to walk down if you’re willing to work hard enough.

But the real world doesn’t work like high school.

Life isn’t graded on an A-F scale. Not everything has a right answer. You don’t always know what’s going to be covered on the test. Jobs, careers, friendships, relationships, marriage, parenthood—none of them come with a syllabus, study guide, or answer key. Sure, there are good ways and bad ways to approach all of those things. But you can’t summon perfection just by paying attention and studying hard enough. Sometimes you do your best, do seemingly everything right, and it doesn’t work out like you’d hoped. It’s not always fair. It doesn’t always make sense. But that’s life. The curve doesn’t always reflect who made the fewest mistakes.

It’s important to make your academics a priority in high school, and not just because it can help you get into college. Feeding your mind, setting goals, working hard and handling some stress–these are all valuable skills that will go a long way towards getting you wherever you want to go in life.

But getting a “C” on an exam, asking for and accepting help, and persevering through the end of the course without ever throwing in the towel? That’s worth a lot no matter what grade you end up with.

Congratulating the third baseman who gets the starting nod over you–that’s good life training.

Introducing yourself well to people you don’t know, writing good emails, and making good phone calls—they may not be graded, but they do earn you extra life credit.

Most adults who’ve looked for a job in the last 10 years would tell you that applying—and being turned down—for six summer jobs and still having the gumption to go land the seventh one is an experience that will come in handy someday.

Figuring out how to make yourself as valuable as possible while you’re volunteering, interning, or working, even when there’s not a lot of supervision telling you exactly what to do, should be required learning while you’re in high school.

What about asking a reporter at your community paper if you could buy her lunch one day to learn a little more about journalism? Or reaching out to ten non-profits and offering to create promotional videos of their work for free? Or writing the definitive guide to running a successful prom and making it available to any senior class president who wants to download it? They don’t earn you better grades. But I don’t care what your GPA or SAT score is now—the student who finds her own way to do things like these will be going places in life.

Accepting responsibility, apologizing when necessary, deflecting credit to people you work or rehearse or compete with–traits like these don’t show up on a transcript, but they influence your ongoing permanent record.

Grades and test scores have their importance, but they don’t measure everything. It’s important to recognize other opportunities to learn and grow, to occasionally put yourself in failure’s path, and to do lots of things that may not appear on your college applications, but will help you prepare for life.

The more often you’re faced with situations where there is no right answer, where you persevere, when you come back after a failure, or when you do the right thing rather than the easy thing, the smarter, savvier, more prepared and more resilient you’re going to be.

You can’t get straight A’s in life. But you get lots of credit just for showing your work.

On figuring things out

The ability to figure things out—and the opportunity to display that trait—is increasingly rare in college admissions.

I’m not talking about figuring out a math or chemistry problem, although those abilities are certainly valuable, too. I’m talking about a student who is faced with a challenge, conundrum, or other circumstance where there is no right answer, and no obvious path to a solution.

When you’re faced with something and don’t know what to do, do you freeze? Do you immediately call Mom or Dad and wait for them to swoop in and save the day? Do you punt ownership of the problem to someone else?

Or do you set out to solve the problem yourself and just figure it out?

I once worked with a student whose car broke down on the way home from a school trip. He was still 80 miles from home, his cell phone had just died, and unfortunately, he knew that both his parents wouldn’t be returning from visiting relatives until later that night. It was time to figure things out.

He spent the next three hours taking two buses and a train to get home. Figuring it out meant reading bus maps, asking drivers for information, discussing the best route with a ticket-taker, and fixing an errant choice when he got on a bus that headed the opposite direction of where he’d hoped it would. Before that day, he’d never taken public transportation. And it made for a great response to several short-answer prompts on his college applications.

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. If you’re getting a D in algebra no matter how hard you try, figuring things out means recognizing that you simply cannot do this by yourself. Successful students—and adults—ask for help all the time.

But before you send up a distress signal, consider whether or not this is something you could handle on your own. Skills take time to develop. They require experience if you want to hone them. And the only way to make this skill part of your arsenal is to decide that when presented with the opportunity, you’ll take the time and make the effort to figure things out.