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The Art of Being Productive in High School to be a More Attractive College Applicant (Part 2)

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In our last blog post on this topic, we explored why today’s high school students must be so productive in high school. Getting good grades isn’t quite enough anymore. You need to show a variety of interests and ideally achieve leadership positions outside the classroom to maximize your chances of admission to a top college. We offered a six-step process to being more productive in high school:

  1. Identify the activities and subjects you value and are genuinely interested in
  2. Identify key areas of alignment between what you value and what colleges would also value to create “leverage”
  3. Set goals and build a plan to meet them
  4. Get organized
  5. Prioritize and re-prioritize
  6. Get help when you need it

In this blog post, we explore each step in more detail.

Identify the activities and subjects you value and are genuinely interested in.

The first step in becoming more productive is to think about what you value and enjoy. If you are trying to get the most out of each year of high school, a major consideration should be your personal preferences. You want to do things you enjoy with people you like hanging out with.

If you enjoy writing or taking pictures, the yearbook or school newspaper is a good option. Obviously, there are lots of different sports to consider. It’s also important to think about which subjects you’ll target for more advanced study (i.e., AP classes, etc.). If you’ve always been pretty good at math, then make an actual or mental note that AP calculus is in your future. If you don’t like reading or writing, consider for now that perhaps AP English isn’t for you.

At this stage, it’s just important to realize that, for better or worse, it’s important to be involved in a range of activities during high school, and you want to build a list of what interests you and put yourself in a position to take a leadership role in some of them eventually. At the same time, you want to take a reasonably challenging academic course load that you can both handle and do extremely well in.

Identify key areas of alignment between what you value and what colleges would also value to create “leverage.”

Next, and this is perhaps new to some students, you want to think about how those activities fit into a normal high school or college curriculum. This should start with an understanding of the primary importance of GPA, but with the sometimes-contradictory secondary importance of taking advanced, difficult, challenging classes. In other words, you’d be well served to get a perfect, 4.0 GPA. If you take all average classes though, and never take an honors or AP class, that 4.0 GPA is worth a lot less. On the other hand, when I was in high school, I loaded myself up with tons of AP and honors classes, and then didn’t put in the work – and perhaps really didn’t have the time - to get enough A’s. I was left with an “OK” GPA matched with a long list of challenging classes. That’s not ideal either. You want to look at your course of study and put your potential classes into categories:

  • Required, core classes that you must do well in
  • Optional classes that you choose, and again expect to do quite well in
  • More advanced classes that you know will be a challenge, but which help your academic resume look challenging and impressive

You’ll want a mix of courses across those categories. Next, consider the extracurricular activities in which you are interested, and note what opportunities might exist to build your resume while also covering required academic requirements. This creates “leverage,” allowing you to accomplish multiple objectives with one endeavor.

For example, participating in the student newspaper and/or the yearbook development process often includes taking classes which count towards your English requirement. So, you are taking a class, but also getting involved in an activity. Similarly, if you are planning on taking AP level math or AP level French, there is probably some overlap with a math club or French club in which you could get involved, where part of the time you spend on the activity occurs during class. If you play a varsity sport, perhaps gym class is waived, making time for you to study during school. Students are often surprised at the opportunities they have to “kill two birds with one stone.” Obviously, it’s more than OK to get involved in something just because it seems interesting or a friend suggests it, but you should also be thinking about your options and interests in a structured way to identify these points of leverage.

Set goals and build a plan to meet them

The last step is about generating your list of options. In this step, you work out an actual plan. Now, if you are reading this early in your high school career (or, more likely, are a parent reading this earlier in their child’s high school career), you are in a better position. But it’s relevant for any student. Here, you realize that you only have X many classes you can take and Y many hours after school, and you decide what you are going to do, keeping in mind the “leverage” opportunities above.

But before you can do that, you should consider your academic goals. If you want to go to Harvard, you’ll really need to do it all. High GPA, high ACT or SAT score, tons of activities, leadership, and community service. But, if you want to go to an excellent state school, a high GPA and test score will probably do the trick. If you are targeting a high selective liberal arts school, GPA and test score might be a bit less important relatively speaking and demonstrating unique and deep interests in a few activities is likely more important. The key is to identify where you want to end up, acknowledge the requirements, and then start planning.

Your goal is to design an academic course of study that is challenging but reasonable, and supplement that with extracurricular activities that put you in a position to demonstrate a breadth of interests, skills, and leadership ability.

Get organized

One you have your rough plan, inclusive of courses you are going to take and activities in which you are going to engage, the key to success is staying organized. What does it mean to be organized? I like to think of organization as being driven by two fundamental concepts: a) filing systems and b) to-do lists. Filing systems are the physical or digital folders on your computer where information from each class or activity is kept.  Your locker and your back-pack are also filing systems. To-do lists help you manage your time. I generally keep three different types of to-do lists, which help me best use the time I have in any given day: long term, medium term, and daily. In other words, I have a list of things I need to accomplish in the next 3 or more months, things that must get done in 1-4 weeks, and then things I want to accomplish today. An academic planner is a popular form of to-do list that I recommend.

Prioritize and re-prioritize

One of the hidden keys to truly high levels of productivity for a high school student is prioritization. You should pause at the beginning of each week as well as the beginning of each day to review and update your to-do lists and think about how you truly need to spend your time. You’ll be surprised how important it is to take a deep breath, step back, and decide what to do after comparing all of the things on your mental plate and on your to-do list. You might have that big project on your mind, but should you really spend another 3 hours working on it? Or, should you start studying for that quiz tomorrow? You may want to go hang out with your friends, and you should find time to do that. But if you have a big test tomorrow, what is more important?

Get help when you need it

I think students tend to vastly underutilize after school time with teachers, getting help from each other, their parents, and even private tutors. If you studied for a quiz but did not do well and are feeling your grasp of a concept slipping away, don’t just assume it’ll all make sense at some point before the mid-term exam. Go get help from the teacher. Spending the time to get that help earlier rather than later is a critical way to save time and increase your overall productivity. If you wait, you’ll end up spending even longer going over old concepts that you didn’t really understand at the time, and which you now have completely forgotten as you try to get up to speed before a big test. Don’t get too lost. Get help and support early.


Motivated high school students need to be highly productive in today’s competitive college admission environment. Productivity comes from working hard, yes. But it also comes from planning your academic course load and extracurricular activities carefully.