Monday, April 18, 2011

High School Lessons Learned

To start at the beginning, some lessons learned that might save you some time and energy getting into the "real" world:

1.) An honors diploma of any kind from your small local high school is meaningless once you graduate. A regular diploma or GED is all anyone cares about (i.e. employers, colleges, and the military). It will not help you get into any school (especially Ivy League) and it will not go onto your college transcripts. Unless you are interested in the classes offered anyway, don't bother! One caution, a GED, while technically equal to a diploma, carries a certain stigma with it until you get your first college degree or job experience. If you are looking for entrance to a more prestigious school, program or job, I would advise that you do everything in your power to get the diploma.

2.) Advanced placement (AP) classes are also often worthless; although there is some potential for getting college credit from them and the college-like class structure is somewhat valuable as an experience. It all depends on your expectations. When I was in high school the teachers and counselors always touted that we would get college credit if we took the AP classes. This was misleading, because what they didn't tell us (until the first day of class) was that you had to take and get a good grade in the class, pass an AP test at the end, and pay an extra fee to actually get the credit. What we didn't find out until after we took this test was that only two or three people from our class actually passed. What we didn't find out until college was that for those two or three who passed the test, all they got was general elective credit, and not specific class credit towards their degree. Using the above example to illustrate, the AP Biology credits (which usually transferred as 100 level elective credits) did not take the place of Biology 101 (the introductory biology class for non science majors) so you still had to take the same content over again if you wanted credit for it. Those general elective credits may or may not count towards your degree, and probably won't count towards your cumulative GPA. So basically, if you take an AP class in high school you are spending money for credit that has very little value once you get to college, and quite likely, you will have to spend more money to get recognition for the same class content.

All that being said, AP classes are often taught differently than your average high school class. Most of your classmates have the same goal of getting to college. This allows your teacher to treat you more like adults and provides an opportunity for you to take greater control of your education. For example, when I was in my AP Biology class in high school, I chose to work with sharks. My teacher ordered for me a REAL (preserved)  three foot shark to work with. It was a really cool and enriching experience. If you do choose to take an AP exam, be sure to use a study guide other than your text book before sitting for it, such as those provided by Barron's or Princeton :
Cracking the AP Chemistry Exam, 2008 Edition (College Test Preparation)
AP US History Flash Cards - AP US History Review with 1400+ flashcards. APUSH For PC/MACBarron's AP World History5 Steps to a 5 AP US Government and Politics, 2010-2011 EditionCracking the AP Biology Exam, 2011 Edition (College Test Preparation)
Cracking the AP Biology Exam, 2011 Edition (College Test Preparation)

3.) Graduate EARLY! Talk to your school's counselor, and figure out exactly what it takes to graduate a year ahead of time. It usually doesn't take a great deal of sacrifice,  nor a super high IQ - just careful planning. You get to college a year before your peers and increase your eventual lifetime earning potential by a year. Assuming you can make $20,000 in a year at even the smallest job, that gives you an extra $20,000 to add to your lifetime income! Plus, you can escape all the high school drama a year ahead of time. You can usually even come back and walk with your class at graduation if you want to.

4.) Unless you are the next Joe Montana, Brad Pitt or Glee cast member, extracurricular activities like sports, drama, and band  are probably not going to get you a scholarship. Most of the guys on my teams were offered partial scholarships, which they probably could have earned the equivalent of by working part-time during summer break. These after school activities provide a good chance to socialize and to experience competition, but don't devote your entire high school career to them. I promise you, after you graduate, the experience is quickly forgotten. Employers and colleges don't care that you started for you high school football team, or went to state in wrestling.

While I'm on the subject, if you do decide to do a sport, do one that doesn't involve concussions and broken bones. Stay clear of football, wrestling, boxing or any other sport that might involve a strong knock to the head. These hits can cause permanent brain damage, and while I was lucky enough to escape this, I do have a few nasty injuries to my joints that I could do without now that I'm 30. And as far as band and drama club goes, I would suggest that you do, at some point, take part in a school play (maybe even learn to play an instrument), but don't get so into that scene that people start making fun of you for it. I am friends with a few people who went through that particular bit of high school hazing, and they still carry the scars and resentment around with them.

5.) Work a job and save money for college. Don't waste your money on a fancy car, clothes above and beyond what it takes to fit in, or any of the other crap you buy at the mall. I'll be honest, what you save from this probably won't be nearly enough to last you through your first year of school, but it will help quite a bit in getting you through your first term.

6.) Don't bother with letters of recommendation from your teachers unless your colleges or universities  specifically requests them, but do ask three or four of your favorite teachers to be references for you. Often when schools ask for a letter of recommendation, they have a particular form they like your references to fill out. So having them written ahead of time is a waste. Also, when you apply for a job, most of the time you can simply list the names and contact information of your references, you don't need a whole letter. Make sure you get phone numbers, addresses, and emails of everyone on your reference list.

7.) The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is due at different times depending on which school you decide to go to. Familiarize yourself with this form and attend any college nights put on by your school to learn about how to fill out this application. The deadlines for your school can be found here:

FAFSA is the means by which most financial aid is distributed by post secondary institutions in the USA. If you don't fill it out you will miss out on  a whole bunch of low interest or interest free loans and grants. You fill out the form (which you can do online before you even apply to a school), and then after a fair bit of time get an award letter in the mail. Each school you sent your application to, as indicated when you filled out your FAFSA, will send you an award letter indicating how much they are willing to offer you in aid. You respond by the date indicated on the award letter indicating whether you will accept or decline the award. More on this in later posts. Just be sure, if it is your terminal year, that you know about FAFSA and its deadlines. A great place to find out more can be found in the book 101 Tips for Maximizing College Financial Aid: Definitive Guide to Completing 2011-2012 FAFSA.

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