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How to have a fulfilling high school experience

Profile picture of Laura GaoLaura Gao
Apr 12, 2022Last updated Jun 23, 202316 min read

You’ve been sitting at this black science bench for what feels like hours, drumming your pencil against the biology test Ms. Hermanovsky just handed back. You’re dying to move on, but all you hear are shouts of, “Can I get back the 0.25 marks for question 14?” You look at the mob of roaring classmates around your teacher, post-test anxiety strewn across their faces, and you wonder if this is what ambition at what Maclean's magazine calls the “top-ranked program [in Canada] for students pursuing science or mathematics” is supposed to mean.

You came here so you would escape the low standards of your middle school, where the majority of class time was spent getting kids to behave. But now, you realize you’ve only moved from one prison to another.

The failures of the education system are often talked about. Schools fail to inspire their students because they’re too focused on grades. High school has become a "four-year-long audition" to get into college. The education system is a remnant of the Great Depression’s need to pump out factory workers. The list goes on.

However, I rarely hear people talk about how a student can improve their experience in their own education.

If you're a high school student, you're spending 7 hours per day at school whether you like it or not. 6 if you’re lucky. You can complain like a Karen, but if you don't take action, the only person who loses 180 days a year is you.

If you're going to sell your soul for grades, you might as well extort as much value out of the system as you can. This post is about how to do that.

Update: I wrote a more concise version of this post in a twitter thread, if you'd like to read that instead

Prioritize learning

During lectures, soak in as much information as humanly possible. (You might as well, since you must spend hours in class either way). "A rational function has a vertical asymptote at x-values where the denominator is equal to 0" is not merely a fact to memorize and regurgitate on a test. Instead, admire the fascinating curve that shoots off to infinity faster and faster as it nears the invisible line, but never reaches the impossible target. Maybe even draw connections to your own life by contemplating how rational functions are like a student's quest for good grades, burning themselves down to infinity as they near the elusive asymptote of a perfect score.

An in-class annotation activity isn't simply a task to vomit as many craft moves as you can fit in the margins, or saying them aloud in the class discussion so Ms. Lajeunesse, your English teacher, knows how smart you are. Instead, notice how crazy it is that in the text you're analyzing, Ibram X. Kendi makes a compelling argument for racial equity without explicitly listing any arguments (like you've been told to do in all your persuasive writing thus far). Think about how you'd feel if you are able to write with diction so effective that it sends chills up your readers' spine, and dare to dream you'll be closer to that by the end of the course.

Measure your success in each class by how much you learn from it instead of the number that goes onto your report card. One is wealth, the other a short-term status game. One's value builds on top of itself over time like compound interest, the other's is inversely proportional to time elapsed. One matters 30 years later, the other's importance diminishes faster than campaign promises when politicians come into power.

After all, this was the original vision of public education - providing everyone with equal access to the search for truth and knowledge. Even if the system has slightly deviated from the bold objective, it doesn't mean you have to. Where else in your life will people be paid to help you learn?

Understand success ≠ grades

A tragedy of high school is how the students with the best grades often don’t retain the material after an assessment. They have no reason to, ‘cuz what’s good is there in curiosity if it won’t help you get into university? The students who study 8 hours the night before a test are the same ones who throw down their binders after the test is over, exclaiming, "God, I'm so glad I never have to think about mycorrhizae again!"

A similar thing happens in university: “Those students were sometimes the ‘best’ students and were often the ones who least wanted to engage in intellectual conversations. Ideas served a utilitarian purpose: getting good grades. Getting a 3.5 GPA was the benchmark, and if you hit it, you could drink guilt-free on the weekends”.

When you look at these students, it's hard not to see grades for what they really are: a number on a piece of paper that you won’t have in 3 years, a zero-sum game, a measurement of how well you gamed a particular test instead of how much you’ve learned. This is especially true when students are anxious about grades due to college admissions, so teachers feel compelled to inflate them like a blow-up bouncy castle. Like performative activists, they scream for your attention but say nothing of value.

Learn from your mistakes

"Numbers are for quantifying, while words are for qualifying," Jacob Cole, founder of Silicon Valley startup Ideaflow, tells me. "Numbers make you numb to the thing you are quantifying," he continues. This is the difference between feedback and grades - one helps you genuinely to improve, the other urges you to tuck away the assignment into the abyss of your backpack.

If you're a high school student, you're familiar with the anxiety when marks are handed back, hanging like a thick fog in the air whose moisture you can feel clinging to your skin. An average drop of one percentage point is able to ruin a student's mood for an entire day. "C'mon, girl, you have to fight," a classmate tells another after a particularly devastating biology lab was returned, scheming about how to convince Ms. Hermanovsky to give back even just 0.25 marks on an analysis question.

It's not a fun time for the biology teacher either. She told our class that the part of her job that gives her the most anxiety is handing back tests.

However, my relationship with assessments changed when I started paying more attention to the feedback than the grade. Every single time a test is handed back, your mistakes are meticulously pointed out by someone else’s labour. Embrace that. Instead of fighting for more marks, why not take the same amount of time to learn from the mistake? Then you’ll save countless marks from never making that error again.

Buddha once said, “He who renounces both victory and defeat is happy and peaceful.” (What the Buddha Taught, Rahula, 86). The key to serenity is to not get attached to external things, to the good grades or bad. Just like any war, the fight for grades leaves even the winners worse off.

Do meaningful work outside school

"The real problem is the emptiness of school life," Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham writes, "If I could go back and give my thirteen year old self some advice, the main thing I'd tell him would be to stick his head up and look around. I didn't really grasp it at the time, but the whole world we lived in was as fake as a Twinkie".

The problem with the work we do in school is that almost all of it feels empty. Purposeless. When the learning behind assignments is not emphasized much by teachers themselves, it is easy to lose sight of the greater purpose, especially when you’re laser focused on making sure your essay hits every point of the rubric. When my teachers introduce a test, they spend the bulk of the time talking about how many marks will be distributed to different questions. It’s easy to feel like the purpose of all your schoolwork is grades, when the river of teachers and students around you is flowing in that direction. And if you feel that all your effort is ultimately for raising a hollow number, it’s difficult not to question if hard work has any meaning.

I think what many adults don't see is that most teens don't know how to do fulfilling work. Many teens themselves don't see it. Many problems that teens have - average teens spend 7 hours on screens outside of schoolwork per day, video games are played in class as the teacher is teaching - have this as the same root cause. When the only work you know is a rat race for grades, video games or social media popularity contests provide the only goals that you’re excited to achieve. “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed,” David Graeber writes in his book Bullshit Jobs, “It is a scar across our collective soul”. Similarly, students feel that their schoolwork is purposeless, which degrades the collective soul of the student body.

When I started building my first webapp, it changed how I look at work. There’s something special to me about developing software - every line of code is written with your vision of what your end product will look like. I found myself thinking about JavaScript promises and async functions during meals. And then I’d jump away from my favourite dishes to try this bugfix I just thought of because maybe that will fix the broken follow requests. “If left unattended, I would spend the full day in my closet on VSCode and never come out,” I wrote to a friend that night. The work consumed me. I was working maybe 10 hours a day, yet I’d never been happier.

A good target to having a fulfilling high school experience is to do fulfilling work, work that you can feel in your bones is helping someone else, work that makes you excited to jump out of bed and get on your laptop. Find the equivalent of what writing code is for me. And this isn't just for high school - a big component of having a meaningful life is to work on what you're interested in.

"To the extent you enjoy working hard, do," writes Stripe CEO Patrick Collison in his advice to young people. Once you have something to work on that you are emotionally invested in, it’s hard to get back into the grades-fuelled rate race that many high school students are stuck in. ‘Cuz then, you’ll see the importance of grades in perspective. Then, it just feels logical to not get anxiety over pieces of paper that, as my friend Dickson says, “are fucking useless now that I'm in [university]”.

There’s also the added benefit that the imp of procrastination no longer becomes an issue. You no longer feel a pull to put something off till tomorrow, or to check what’s popping on Discord, when you care more that your web app gets published. Even the great philosopher-mathematician Wittgenstein said he “had no self-discipline” and was not “able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.” But he still produced plenty of great work, because “once [he starts working], interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.”

Align school with personal goals

When Sigil Wen was in grade 9, he struggled with public speaking. "I would practice for hours and I'd still be the worst in the grade," he told me. "Other kids in the class had done DECA or debate and they could just go up and speak, but I was one of the only ones who always needed a script".

So when he was assigned a geography presentation, he opted to make a video. "I was able to record myself tens of times in front of the camera to get a clip without stuttering, and no one would have to know," Sigil told me. He decided to have some fun with it too, making a VSauce parody. When a presentation for English class came around, he did the same.

It started off with avoiding live presentations, but soon, Sigil discovered a love for video creation. After class, he continued to make videos about machine learning algorithms he built, his entrepreneurial journey, and whatever he's interested in. Now, he has a promising YouTube channel with over 3000 subscribers and 100,000 views.

I like to think of assignments as forcing functions that can accelerate your progress towards your personal goals, if you choose to make it that way. Have you ever wanted to try something entrepreneurial, or learn to make YouTube videos, but never started? As personal projects have no external deadlines, it's easy to put them off to tomorrow, day after day after day. As Tim Urban puts it in the third-most popular Ted Talk of all time, “In all of these non-deadline situations, the Panic Monster doesn't show up… so the effects of procrastination just extend outward forever.”

But if you're an aspiring YouTuber, and you say you'll make a video for a school project, you’ll eventually be thrown into a panic to finish it. By aligning school assignments with your goals, you are outsourcing discipline to your assignment's deadline!

For instance, I wrote this article for an English class. Without the due date to force me to get it done, I might’ve never sorted out one of the biggest problems I face. Even if you’re not particularly passionate about anything, every assignment is the chance to explore something new. Sigil may have never overcome his fear of public speaking if it weren’t for school. As Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius would say, “What stands in the way becomes the way” (Meditations, 60).

Build good relationships with teachers

Teachers don't like grading either. Ms. Lajeunesse, my English teacher, would choose to not hand out grades if she could. “It’s the worst part of my job,” she tells me. Teachers don’t like it, students don’t like it, but we’re all trapped in this system that makes grades of utmost importance.

You, however, don’t have to buy into the system. Show your teachers that you are genuinely hardworking and curious about the subject that they’re teaching. Did your biology teacher mention that she’s fascinated by a certain type of virus? Stay around for a few minutes after class to ask her about it!

Remember that marks aren’t the only things from teachers that matter, even from a utilitarian college-admissions standpoint. Because Sigil’s guidance counsellor took an interest in him, she wrote him a 7-page recommendation letter. The qualitative feedback likely contributed just as much as the quantitative ones to his acceptance at the University of Pennsylvania.


Contrary to the beliefs of the student body, devoting more energy to non-school work does not mean you’re screwing over your college prospects. Cal Newport, writer of How to Be a High School Superstar, has a different theory on what it means to be impressive. “If you’re interesting and you’re doing something that people are like, ‘Wow, how did you do that at that age?’ that goes much farther than, ‘Look at how much I did’, or ‘Look at how far I got in a well-defined competitive structure’,” he advises on the 80,000 Hours podcast.

Even admissions officers can see through those with picture-perfect report cards but passions hollower than a chocolate Easter bunny. “I'm sure admissions officers are tired of reading applications from kids who seem to have no personality beyond being willing to seem however they're supposed to seem to get accepted,” Graham remarks.

It's easy to get dissolved into the mist of the grades-fuelled anxiety around you, but you need to have some trust. Trust that if you work hard on what you enjoy working on, any college worthy of your attendance will be able to see that. Trust that your teachers will not fuck you over if you make it known that you are genuinely passionate and seeking to learn.

Even if you don't get into your dream university, trust that your passions will carry you over to whatever success you want to achieve. Employers don't care much about where your degree is from, but they do care about the drive you bring to their team.

Trust that if you relentlessly work hard on what you enjoy, you'll live a much richer life than if you had become a grade-optimizing robot. Because at the end of the day, when you’ve graduated and you’re away from home, the cold numbers on your transcript aren’t the things that will give you solace. Instead, the hard toil you’ve endured along the way is what you’ll remember.

. . .

You didn’t choose to be born into a 12-year-long mandatory prison sentence disguised as an education. We don’t choose the cards we are dealt, but we can choose how we play them. You can choose to get swept up by the current of grades-obsession, to treat high school as the four-year-long audition. Or, you can fight back, to recognize that the meaningful connections you make with your work are what will make your life worth living.

I’ve given you all the tools you need to make high school one of the best times of your life. Now, it’s up to you to use them.

This was originally written in December 2021 for an assignment for English class. | Share the twitter thread

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