Please, Before You Graduate

Cody Capella
Sep 24, 2015 · 21 min read

Advice for high school students looking back at my last four years

Walking down the stage at graduation in the heat in clothes that are really too long and flowing for the sole reason of getting a piece of paper that sums up the last four years of your life (and the final four years of your youth) shouldn’t be the only thing you remember from high school. I just graduated last June, in the class of 2015. I went to high school up in northern California. And I had an incredible time those four years. Maybe it was my school, maybe where I’m from; maybe I just have a certain type of personality. Whatever the case, I really loved high school. And I spent the last few months of summer looking back at what made up my high school experience.

I’ve been meaning to offer some advice to the graduates of the next few years (I have a younger sister who soon will be graduating herself) and have been trying to write this article for the past couple weeks. So, I’ve laid out ten pieces of advice I’ve kind of come across by way of experience the past four years. My hope is that if you’re a student in some kind of education system, whether that be public or private, high school or college, these little snippets of advice and personal stories will mean something to you. Maybe you’ll be able to pick up a couple and use them to make your own experience something you love.

A quick disclaimer: This article assumes a few things — a relatively stable home/school environment being the largest of those assumptions — and I realize that not all students have that. I hope for those who don’t that things improve or you are able to find the help you need. And I encourage all those who do to realize how fortunate they are to have that environment.

With that, here goes.

1. Challenge Yourself

The reason I say that you should challenge yourself is simple: it helps you grow. Clichés aside, I’m actually being serious. I’m not saying take every single Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate or honors class that you possibly can. Heck, you can challenge yourself without taking any of those. What I mean is to take advantage of your education while you still can. You’re not paying for it (unless you go to a private school). Taxpayers are, so make the most of it while you still can.

In my case, I’ve for some reason always liked going to school ever since I was in grade school; homework, waking up early, and everything else that went along with it was a different story, but the school part I enjoyed. For the most part though, my curriculum up until high school was pretty much preset for me, what with state standards and being limited to the courses my grade schools offered. There was a path that everyone took and that was the way it was, no big deal. When I got to high school though and had some more control over what kind of classes I took and when, it was a pretty cool experience. As the oldest in my family, I had no one to really go off of for guidance class-wise, so my friends provided some helpful insight. They were the ones who actually told me I should consider taking my first “advanced” course during my sophomore year, which was Advanced Placement World History. It ended up being one of the best choices I made in my four years at high school not because the class was life-changing or anything — it was just world history with a slightly larger workload, after all — but because it challenged me and kept me engaged. And it put me on a path to keep pushing myself later on the next two years by making me realize that I was both capable of doing something designated as “advanced” and giving me the confidence to take control of my own education and keep signing up for those types of classes.

I mentioned before that little anecdote that you don’t have to take a bunch of advanced classes to challenge yourself. That’s also true. You don’t. In fact, you could challenge yourself by taking that art class you never thought you would, or signing up for choir when you know you’re tone-deaf. Take on a job after school if your time allows for it, or go out for a sports team (some of them don’t even cut players, so anyone can join regardless of skill level). Any way you can push yourself either through academics or through an extracurricular (or several) will help teach you how to be resilient, how to manage your time, and how to be confident enough in yourself to stand up and say “Yes, I can take on that challenge” when it counts.

On the flip side of this topic comes another side note: don’t overextend yourself. And that goes for any of the advice that preceeded this or will follow it. There’s a limit to what you can do, and a big part of learning yourself is learning your limits. No matter how tempting it might be to take that extra shift for your job or sign up for another club, you have to make sure you aren’t sacrificing your health or your well-being, both at school and at home (or anywhere else you might be). So I guess you could say challenge yourself, but within reason.

2. Learn to Make Art

Branching off from the “Challenge Yourself” advice is this one that I realized entirely by chance. Making art is really fun. And there’s more to art than just flinging paint at a canvas with a lopsided beret on top of your head (though that certainly qualifies as art if that’s what you’re into).

Back before the start of my freshman year, everyone in my eighth grade class received some paperwork with the different high schools in the district that we could go to. It asked us to select one (there was really only one option for most of us unless driving 30 minutes each morning to the next closest high school was feasible, which it wasn’t) and walked us through our required courses. We all had to take Freshman P.E., English, some kind of science class, the next level of math (whether that be algebra, geometry, etc.), and had two electives to pick for ourselves. We had a foreign language requirement that we had to clear so I signed up for French for my first elective as I’d already had a year or so of it in middle school. I had no idea what to do with my last elective though. I ended up making a list of electives out of the course booklet we all got, my first choice (I don’t even remember it now) followed by four alternates. I took the booklet home and asked my parents what they thought I should put down for alternate electives — on a whim, my dad told me, “Why not try photo? That sounds fun.” I thought its appeal was lukewarm at best, but I was confident I’d get my first choice so I put it down.

The week that school started, I picked up my schedule, and to my surprise: no first choice elective. I’d ended up stuck in that Introduction to Photography class my dad suggested. I sat through the first couple days of it pretty unsure, but be it either the fault of my (incredibly awesome) teacher or the general allure of the medium, the class grew from one I tolerated into my favorite period of the day. I ended up loving photography so much that I took Intermediate the next year, and Advanced my junior and senior years. I started experimenting with different cameras, films, and techniques. I started my own photo blog (with the urgings of my teacher to our whole class to do so). One of my photo buddies and I became co-presidents of our school’s photo club and helped teach others, run free photo booths, and all kinds of fun stuff. And now I intend to minor in photography, one of my greatest passions, in college.

It’s crazy to think that one class in my freshman year changed my school career so profoundly for the three years following it and provided me with so many opportunities, led to meeting so many incredible people and made so many memories. So, take that art class. Even if your experience isn’t quite as impactful as I found my time in photo, you at least have the chance to get a taste of working with a medium different than what you might’ve been used to, to acquire a new skill, and to get those creative juices flowing. And who knows — it might become one of your biggest passions (or at least give you some really awesome “Dude, you won’t believe my art teacher!” stories if yours is really eccentric; my photo teacher was pretty laid back, but I’ve heard my share of tales).

3. Get Outside

My third piece of advice is to get outside — erm, well, or inside, depending on the sport. Honestly though, playing a sport can be a great experience, whether that be on a high school team competitively or a club or recreational team.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding sports in high school is the “I’m not good enough” stigma with athletics. It’s true. Some people seem as if they are born athletes and can just as readily go from running a mile at a breakneck pace to being the star player on the football, soccer, or water polo teams without much effort at all. Then there’s the rest of us. I fall into that category: the rest of us. I’m not a “jock” by any means and I don’t even really consider myself athletic — fit, yes. Active, yes. But not athletic. And that didn’t stop me from playing two seasons of sports (tennis for four years, nordic skiing for three) during high school.

And the whole part about not being good? I meant it. I decided to go out for varsity tennis as a freshman because I’d played a bit with my family and taken a week of lessons or so, so I figured tennis wouldn’t be all that difficult. I went to the first day of practice and was surprised to find that everyone on the team was both older than me — I was petrified to be the only freshman — and also a whole lot better than me. It was then that I realized how poor of a tennis player I was. And I mean I was bad. Really bad. Like, I was just happy if I could get the ball over the net. If it happened to be in, that was an added bonus. I was pretty discouraged, but the team wasn’t big enough to justify making any cuts anyways, so the coach said I should stick around and practice so I could get better. I ended up finishing out the season and actually played in matches (a couple kids dropped out so I ended up playing doubles) and, even more surprisingly, had a ton of fun. So yes, I was terrible (and even four years later, I’m certainly still not going to the US Open or anything), but it didn’t matter. The biggest thing was that the team was there to encourage me and help me get better, and that was what made it all worth it.

That’s why I advise everyone to play at least one season of one sport. You don’t have to be the best player on the field (or court, or whatever else you use) just so long as you get out there and play. Not only will you likely get better the more you practice, but you might find something you actually truly enjoy doing. And more than likely, you’ll meet a great group of people to do it with. High school is probably one of the last times, if the not the last time, that you’re able to walk on to a sports team and play competitively even if you don’t know the first thing about it. Take advantage of that.

4. Involve Yourself

By now, you’ve likely heard it again and again, that one piece of advice that everyone seems to get when anyone older or more experienced talks to them about high school: get involved. A lot of people think of getting involved as devoting every waking moment of your time to community service and bleeding your school colors, which it is, but taken to the utmost extreme. What getting involved should do is give you something to do during some of your free time without compromising your school work, and in so doing strengthen the connections you have to your school, community, and the people who make up each.

Most high schools have quite a bit to offer, from clubs and sports to different activities, student government or council positions, and opportunities to work in the larger community. While all of the options can seem overwhelming, having choices as to what to do is good: it lets you narrow your focus and join groups that matter to you. I didn’t do a whole lot my freshman year compared to my later years in high school: I added things on once I kind of figured out my way around and knew what I was capable of fitting in with my schedule. However you want to tackle the whole task of “getting involved” is up to you, but here are a couple of suggestions to get you started.

Get out in the community. Join a group on campus that will help get you out into the community at large, if possible; you don’t have to be helping out at whatever events are going on every single weekend, but getting together with a couple friends and helping out now and then doesn’t just “look good” — it actually feels really good, too. I remember helping set up and run a pumpkin patch each October with one club I was in, which was one of my favorite events: we built a maze out of hay bales for little kids to run through and helped them pick out different pumpkins to take home. Another was working at the games booth at one of our community’s bigger events, the annual Duck Race, in which rubber ducks were floated down the local creek with cash prizes for the winners and an activities fair for families to go to. Community service doesn’t have to fit into that strict image that everyone has for it; there’s a ton you can help with, and people are truly appreciative to see not just volunteers but young people out there doing things, however small those things might seem.

Join a club at school. It could be an interest-based club (like an art club, or a cooking club, or a club sport, or a student band) or an academic club, or maybe student government. In fact, you could join several clubs if you have different things you want to try out. High school is the time to explore different interests and meet new people — if you end up not liking it or can’t make the time to be as involved in something as you’d like to, you can always drop the club. The world won’t tilt on its axis or anything. Clubs on campus help you connect with other students who might share your interests, or even help you discover or hone one of yours. In my junior and senior years, I was part of the Photo Club at my high school, which was a blast: we ran photo booths, sold lemonade, and helped teach other kids what we knew about photography (and vice-versa). And it helped me make those connections. So go out there and find a club you like. Or if you don’t, you can always start one of your own.

Participate. I think one of the seemingly simplest, but also one of the rarest, traits to see in students is school spirit. I don’t mean shut down for a week and a half if your team loses a game, not at all. I mean go to the events at school. Wear your school’s colors and sit on the home side with some buddies. Cheer on your friends who are on the team. When you have spirit week, dress up. Go to the dances, whether it be in a group or with a date (both of which are a great time, contrary to popular belief). Show up at the rallies and be a positive influence on those around you who might not be as “peppy” as you. If you’re emotionally invested in your school, it will be a whole lot more fun to attend. Helping out at events or just attending them in the first place isn’t just fun; it makes you feel like you are a part of the bigger school culture as a whole. Some of my favorite moments are brief snippets from different events at school — selling potatoes at the football games on Friday nights or fundraising for polio vaccines; snapping photos for the yearbook at soccer, or basketball, or volleyball; running a booth at Club Rush; dancing at junior prom and senior ball — all of those little details are what you remember. Those are the good ones. So please, go to that game and that dance and that event. Get involved.

5. Try Something New

High school is full of new. New people, new environment, new teachers and classes, new activities. There’s a lot of change going on that first year. But after we adjust, we kinda tend to settle back into our comfort zones and “go with the flow” or find a routine. We do what we know. So, my fifth piece of advice is to try something new at school. Something you haven’t ever done before, whether that be a sport, or a class, or a club, or a job; whatever it is, try something that will either teach you something new or create meaningful connections with people (ideally it will do both.)

It doesn’t have to be weird — sometimes something that’s pretty “standard” can still be new to you — but if it is, that’s great too. As long as it directly benefits you and pushes you in the right way, you’ve found something that fits the bill.

My new was a little unusual for some I guess, but maybe not so much for others: in my sophomore year, I joined my high school’s nordic (cross-country) ski team. I’d never cross-country skied before in my life — except for one time during a field trip in second grade or something — so I was pretty hesitant to do it, but a couple people I knew were on the team and they suggested I check it out, so I did (with the encouragement of my parents, because they were just as curious about it as I was.) For those who don’t know what nordic skiing is, it’s different than alpine (downhill) skiing because you kinda go all over with nordic. You strap on your skis and race on a course, similar to downhill, but the races are much longer (typically 5 kilometers) and cover different terrain (up and down hills and over flatland.) I ended up being pretty awful at skiing when I first went out for it. But the team (and coaches) were fun and quirky and I started to get better; by the end of my first season, I loved the sport so much that I was set on doing it again the following two years.

I think one of the most interesting things about nordic is how much it ended up influencing my time in high school; it grew from just a winter sport to be year-round training on roller skis. It tied in with my love of photography (my dad and I became the unofficial photographers at our races and practices — he’d do video and photos of the guys’ race and I’d do photos of the girls race.) It even became the focus of my senior project. And it’s become a lifelong passion and created connections with a bunch of incredible people I would have never met otherwise.

So what I’m saying is this: try that new thing. Find some activity you haven’t done yet and do it. Regardless of whether or not you love it or hate it, at least you’re gaining experience. It might even become one of your biggest passions.

6. Connect with People

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but seriously: connecting with others is something you’ll have to do for the majority of your life, so it doesn’t hurt to get good at it now. Actually, you probably already are. You’ve likely been around people in school for the past 8+ years, so high school’s not too different. What is different about high school is the number of people you can connect with.

When I say “connect with people,” I don’t mean that you have to go up to a certain number of new faces every day, introduce yourself, and refuse to leave them alone until they’ve added you on Facebook; what I mean is to make meaningful connections with people. And to do that, you have to be open to making new connections.

I had a group of buddies that I hung out with every day — they were the ones I ate lunch with, and the ones that I had in my classes, and the ones that I’ve known for years — and that was great. Of course, have a group of best friends. People who you’re really close with. That’s crucial. But the whole making connections thing comes in when you’re creating new circles or new groups of friends; smile and chat with the people in your classes. Find people who share your interests and get to know them. Peers in your classes, members of clubs you’re in, and athletes on the sports teams you’re a part of are prime candidates for making connections with. You probably won’t know everyone right at first, and that’s okay. Get to know them. Those are the people I’m talking about when I say “connect with people.” You don’t necessarily have to include them in your circle of best friends. They might move into that circle, or they might not. In either case, you’ve made a friend you otherwise wouldn’t have, so don’t be afraid to connect.

Something else worth noting is that connecting with people doesn’t have to have the end goal of becoming friends with the person. Sometimes connections are much more tangential: they’re those moments when you pass by someone in the hallway and smile at them, or hold the door open for them. That’s equally as important, as those actions you do in moments like that set you up for making more lasting connections down the road, whether they be with your classmates, your teachers, or some random person you held the door open for.

7. Read a Book

All I’m asking for is just one book. It can be whatever you want, the only condition is that you have to pick it out for yourself. It can’t be required reading. I know you have a ton of bookwork and textbook memorization you already have to do for school and so reading another book is probably one of the last things you want to hear, but there are a couple reasons I say this.

Firstly, it will give you something to do that’s constructive during your down time. Pick an author or genre you like or ask a friend for a recommendation. Whenever you have a spare moment or two, sit down and read a couple pages. Instead of scrolling mindlessly through your social media feeds (it’s okay, I do it too) you’ll be learning something, or traveling somewhere, or gaining a new experience, all without leaving your couch.

Secondly, it will help you with testing. To be honest, you do a lot of testing in high school. Too much. But that’s the way it is. Having a decent reading speed (and probably even more importantly, decent comprehension of what you read) will help you plow through those tests faster and with less time spent studying beforehand. The way to bolster your reading speed and comprehension is by reading more frequently. So reading more makes you a better reader.

Lastly, it’s fun. Like, actually fun. I didn’t read a lot during the first couple years I was in high school compared to how much I’d read prior. I loved reading and being read to when I was little, but as I got older I stopped reading as other things got in the way. I forgot how much I actually used to enjoy it. If you don’t believe me, try it. Read that one book. It has to be a good one — I still can get bored if a book’s too technical or its vocabulary is a little too over my head. More than likely, you’ll end up agreeing with me by the end of it.

8. Don’t Play for the End Game

A lot of the time, students go through high school with the idea that they want to get in, get out, and move on to whatever might be waiting for them after graduation: college, work, travel. And it does sound tempting — all of those bring new experiences, newfound “freedom,” different opportunities — but when you stop enjoying the time you spend in high school and start playing solely for the “end game,” whatever that might be in your case, you’re giving up the last four years of your youth.

College admissions are tough nowadays. I get that, I went through it just under a year ago myself. It’s rough: They want you to have a perfect GPA, a 2400 (or now 1600) on your SAT, and enough extracurriculars to fill 72 hours each day. With all of the stuff you have to do to get where you want to go, who has time for enjoying themselves? For being a kid anymore? Looking back, I know I could have done more to “woo” the colleges I was looking at going to; sure, I got accepted into some, got denied by others. Some I was pretty bummed about. But even knowing that I could have changed what I did in high school to change my college outcome for the better, I don’t have any regrets. I wouldn’t change anything about my high school experience, not even if I could have the guarantee of getting into those schools I got denied from. That might sound a little odd, but it’s true. Here’s why: I loved every minute of those last four years. In my mind, it’s not worth giving up four years in high school to have a stellar four following in college, when you can enjoy all eight by doing what you love.

The thing that everyone forgets to tell you is that once you leave high school, there is no longer is a set path for you to follow. Work will always be there. College will always be there. You can apply in your fifties, if that’s what works for you. You can never get back the time you sacrifice doing what you think you need to do instead of doing what you love. And often times, doing stuff that looks good on applications for college or for work ends up being stuff you love. Those examples I gave previously — art, sports, clubs, community service — all of those are a little +1 to your application and a +1 to your high school experience. So do stuff, but don’t do it solely because you think it matters for what happens after high school. Do stuff because it matters to you now.

9. Enjoy the Simple Moments

One of the things it took me a couple weeks post-graduation to realize was that a lot of what I’d known for the past four years was over. Not the big things. I didn’t go through any massive self-transformation or awakening. I mean the little things, the simple moments that had made up my daily routine and that I now realize had meant so much to me. They might sound stupid, or trivial, or insignificant, but, to paraphrase the infamous saying, you don’t really realize how much you miss them until you don’t have them any more.

At my high school, we had a giant grass hill that made up our amphitheater in the middle of campus. Every day my buddies and I would sit on that hill and chat, eat lunch, enjoy the sun. That’s one of those moments I won’t get back. My walk down the halls each day where you see and recognize the same faces on the way to class. That’s another. Sitting outside of French for my first three years and “doing homework” which really meant plowing through it in the first five minutes and chatting for the next forty. Chilling with our teacher and groupies in the back of the classroom during group projects in Applied Physics. Friday nights at football games and cowboy bacon cheeseburgers. All of these things I took for granted as always being there built up a world for me; they created the experience that I loved, the one that I’ll remember.

Look for those moments. Know them for what they are and make the most of them while you still have them. Because while you will definitely remember the big things — the dances, the awards, the once-in-a-lifetime wins — it’s the small things that you’ll miss.

10. Get All You Can Out of It

The last one is more of an all-encompassing tip rather than a specific piece of advice: get all you can out of your time in high school. Don’t go through it with the “I’m here because I have to be” mindset and don’t let your experience start with the bell for first period and end with the bell for last. Go beyond that. Make your time in high school count. Make it something you’ll remember.

Find people who matter to you and connect with them. Push yourself to learn something new, to do something new, to overcome those challenges. Get involved with what’s happening on campus and in your community. Discover new interests and new passions. Do what matters to you. And don’t be afraid to try. That’s what makes those memories. This is the only time you get to do the whole high school thing and the last time you get to be undoubtedly, 100%, will all your being, a kid. That’s one of the best feelings ever. Don’t waste it.

High school can be an incredible experience. I hope all students have access to that, to four years that provide more than their share of memories. One of the biggest takeaways for me after my four years was that high school is what you make it. I heard it from my parents, my teachers, and older graduates who heard it from their parents, their teachers, and older graduates. So I encourage you to please, before you graduate, find some way to make your high school experience great. Do what you love, meet people who matter, and enjoy the ride. It only happens once in your life.

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