Introduction: Hi! I’m Annie, I recently graduated as valedictorian of a class of almost 700, and I’m about to be a freshman at Johns Hopkins (go blue jays!!). High school was some of the best and worst moments of my life, and looking back, there are so many things that I wish I’d done and things that made me successful, so I wanted to share them! Of course, disclaimer, these tips may not apply to everyone!
(These tips generally apply to all classes, but if you have a specific subject you want tips on, I’ve taken these AP courses: european history, world history, us gov’t, macroeconomics, lang, lit, calc ab, chemistry, physics 1, physics c, environmental science, art: drawing, biology, human geography, chinese, and art history. Feel free to message me!)
College applications are a crapshoot- I can’t begin to tell you the number of incredible, brilliant people with extraordinary, international level achievements that got denied at top schools in favor of those lacking those accomplishments. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean those who got in don’t have qualities that earned them a spot, it just speaks to the unpredictable nature of the college application process. When deans of admission at top schools openly say they could reject all admitted students and build the same exemplary class from the waitlist, or that they have enough qualified applicants to fill 3 or 4 classes with, there’s a certain amount of luck involved. Therefore I urge all rising seniors to go into this process realizing that the odds are not in your favor. I went into the process with too much blind hope, too confident in my ability to be that lucky 1 in 10 (or less) that would gain admission, and I was sorely disappointed. So that leads me to my next tip…
Don’t do things just for your college application- Those slim acceptance rates are the exact reason I urge you not to join things solely for how good they look on a college application. It seems counterintuitive; wouldn’t they give you a better chance of acceptance? However, my point is not to dissuade you from extracurriculars, but rather to commit to ones that genuinely make you happy. As I wrote above, the process is so competitive that even international achievements may mean rejection, so don’t waste your high school experience by dedicating so much time and effort to something that you feel obligated to do.
Try everything your freshman and sophomore year- My biggest regret is not joining clubs where my passions lie simply because I was too lazy or scared of things like public speaking my freshman year. It’s much more intimidating to join as upperclassmen, and you may not be able to participate at all the levels/in all the ways people who have dedicated 3-4 years can. Even if you don’t think its for you (like debate for me because of my fear of public speaking), I urge you to expand your horizons and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Many clubs give you great opportunities to build leadership, public speaking, etc. skills and to find your passions.
Know both sides of the flashcard- I learned this tip from my organic chemistry class, and I’d never though about how useful it is. For example, if you’re memorizing polyatomic ions, it’s extremely important that you know both the formula and the name, as either version may show up on the exam. Not doing this also makes the weaknesses in your memorization evident- whenever I study vocab, I tend to glance at the side with the term and only memorize the definition. This meant that when I was given only the definitions, I couldn’t remember the word they defined, because I was so used to being given the vocab word and responding with the definition.
The first lecture of the unit is one of the most important for STEM classes- I know the beginning of the unit can often seem like the perfect time to tune out, as it goes over information you’ve previously learned or the easiest material of the topic, but it often forms the foundation for everything else in the unit. For example, the first lecture on a stoichiometry unit will probably teach you dimensional analysis, a skill integral to calculating molecular or empirical formulas, moles or grams of a substance, etc.
Buy/sell books secondhand- Everyone knows how expensive college textbooks are, but between SAT and AP prep books, and books for English, high school books can cost quite a bit of money too. Unless they redesigned the exam recently, you absolutely don’t need the newest edition of the review book, so buy from upperclassmen and then sell it to underclassmen the following year.
Learn to self study- Unless you’re really lucky, you’re guaranteed to have a teacher who doesn’t teach, teaches badly, or whose teaching style just doesn’t work for you. Personally, I find that self learning, especially if I’m struggling because resources such as textbooks and online explanations, and videos seem to contradict, really helps me understand the topic throughly. In AP bio, my teacher had us create claymation videos on the processes of cellular respiration and photosynthesis independently. It was incredibly frustrating and confusing because all the resources described the cycles in varying degrees of details, but I felt like I genuinely understood the topic, instead of having been spoon-fed the information and memorizing it. Obviously, this method isn’t very efficient for frequent use, but the key is to try to understand the material independently instead of going to the teacher the moment you hit a snag.
Keep your backpack/binders/notebooks reasonably organized- When teachers ask for homework to be passed up and you have to dig through mountains of papers in your backpack, not only is that super stressful, but a lot of teachers won’t let you turn it in after they have already collected all the papers. I was definitely guilty of being lazy and just stuffing papers, once I got them, into my backpack instead of taking a few seconds to slide them into a binder, and as a result I got 0s on lots of homework because either I couldn’t find it at the time or because everything was so messy I didn’t remember there was homework. Try to have some sort of organization system going on or at least a homework folder, because those 0s add up and can be the difference between an 89 and 90.
You’re gonna get senioritis, badly, and that’s ok- I’ve always been the type of person who did every homework assignment and was very focused on grades, so the idea that I would completely let myself ago seemed absurd to me. Don’t underestimate what senior year does to you. I can honestly count on one hand the econ worksheets that I actually turned in during senior year, and I made my first B in a grading period during the spring. I was very stressed about how awful my grades were, but unable to muster the energy to do anything about it. And you know what, it’s ok. It’s senior year, you can give yourself a break. Yes, your senior grades are still important for college applications, so don’t go from straight A’s to straight C’s, but for the most part, all the hard work is behind you. Do keep in mind that these habits may haunt you when you’re a college freshman. I haven’t started classes yet, but based on how little I studied for the math placement exam for my college, senioitis doesn’t magically end when you graduate, so don’t let it get completely out of control during the year.
Learn how to do math without a calculator- If you take either of the AP Calculuses or the SAT, you need to master this skill because there are sections of the exams that are strictly non-calculator. Beyond that, when you get to calculus, you’ll be introduced to complicated concepts, where not being able to multiply by hand will drag you down.
Keep old notes- Not only for finals, but some topics are very interdisciplinary, like biochemistry, so it’s very important that you have a working knowledge of both biology and chemistry. As you take advanced classes, such as for me, taking physics c after physics 1, it will be assumed that you have completely mastered the basics, and they will be skipped or referenced very quickly. It is very useful to look at notes on the basics, which provide the foundation for the advanced material you learn.
Invest in a whiteboard- Whenever I was learning about processes or cycles, from the Krebs cycle to organic chemistry mechanisms, it was really useful to practice drawing the steps over and over again. Then when it came to the test, I could do a brain dump and draw out the information as a reference.
Understand formulas instead of blindly memorizing- This basically has physics and calculus written all over it. In physics, you should be given formula charts during exams, and in any case, something like F=ma isn’t terribly hard to memorize. The problem comes when there are a multitude of formulas that are derived from one of the fundamental equations. Of course, deriving from scratch each time is incredibly tedious, but I want to dissuade you from simply memorizing it or storing it on your calculator, because that means you probably don’t understand the physics behind it. What makes physics so difficult and different from any other subject you’ve taken is that every problem will have a slightly different scenario that tests your understanding of the physics behind it.
Use all the time given to you during tests- I know I hate looking back through my test because I just get so bored halfway through, but missing points because of silly mistakes is honestly the most frustrating thing ever when you had plenty of time to check. Depending on if I have time, I like to cover my original work and resolve the question. If checking answers is not your thing, try slowing now when you first see each question, and checking your work briefly each step.
Form study groups- Talking about something, especially teaching it to someone, always helped me remember something so much better than reading it on paper. It’s also so important to have second interpretations of the information you’re studying to ensure that you don’t make a huge misconception.
AP students: released/practice exams are your best friend- Obviously, they’re the best resources for studying for the AP exam, but they’re also a great tool for a hint at what your teacher’s tests may look like. AP teachers have access to tons of College Board material and will often use questions directly from old exams.
If you start getting confused during a lecture- Many times this is because I didn’t pay attention during the very beginning, so I’m missing that important foundation I talked about in the previous tip. Of course, I typically wouldn’t recommend doing things other than listening to what is currently being taught, but in this case, I would just get more confused and it’s a waste of time. So I discretely go back to my previous notes and focus on understanding them.
The most stressful part of schoolwork is just thinking about your assignments- There’s always specific period of time that threatens to kill me- a week where I had two competitions simultaneously, in cities 3 hours apart. When you’re taking 7 AP classes at the same time, just reading over your to-do list will make you want to cry. Even on a normal day, as I go to classes throughout the day and my list of homework gets longer and longer, it makes me so stressed to where I’m planning out how to finish everything and I’m no longer listening in class. It overwhelmed me so much that I just wanted to take a nap and avoid school. But every single time, stressing about the work I have is 1000x worse than sitting down and actually going through each task. I find that what had seemed impossible before was very doable, and many times I even finished early enough to relax before bed. Keep a positive mindset, don’t underestimate your abilities, and have the discipline to start working immediately on the hardest days, and you’ll be fine. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the workload that is able to be handled by one person can work for another, and things like mental illnesses are things I have no experience in, so this is definitely just something that worked for me and is not applicable to everyone.
Best of luck with high school! If you have any questions, feel free to send me an ask!