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A Guide to Being Politically Engaged in High School
Many high school students find themselves with a budding interest in politics. As you learn more about the world around you, it’s only natural that you form opinions about important issues in the world and start thinking about how you can actively get involved with them.
When contemplating your career ambitions, you may conclude that your future lies in the field of political science, or in related fields like law and history. You might even hope to someday hold an important governmental office.
Whatever your eventual plans, you may be wondering how you can get involved in politics while you’re in high school, particularly if you’re not yet old enough to vote. While your age and lack of experience may bar you from certain positions and activities in the political sphere, there are plenty of other ways that you can formally and informally develop your political knowledge, gain valuable experience, and have an impact on your community—or the world.
In this post, we’ll provide some guidance on how you can get politically involved during high school and what you need to know to prepare for greater political involvement in the future.
The benefits of political engagement
First of all, being politically active carries many of the same benefits as other extracurricular activities. You can learn more about why extracurriculars are so important by reading our blog post Everything You Need To Know About Extracurricular Activities in High School.
Like other extracurriculars, being politically involved enriches your high school experience and provides you with opportunities to demonstrate your dedication, special interests, and ability to engage with a long-term project. It can be an excellent learning experience and look great on your resume, particularly in the context of supporting your specialized interests.
Political engagement also has its own special features that make it worth your consideration. You can use it as a way to develop your communication and leadership skills, as well as your comfort in front of an audience. In addition, it’s a chance to put in effort to shape and improve your community, and to see that effort translated into visible real-world effects.
As we’ve noted above, your political involvement can help you to prepare for careers in fields like law, political science, and history. Even if you’re not interested in becoming a politician, politics is an important force in these fields and many others. It’s always a good idea to have a strong understanding of how the political process works.
Most importantly, perhaps, political engagement shows that you’ve taken an interest in the world beyond yourself. As we’ve previously mentioned in our post Ten Skills to Highlight on Your College Applications, this is an important quality.
Colleges like to see that applicants are projecting past their college years and considering how they might eventually have an effect on the world at large. Whether or not you become a politician, your precocious interest in politics indicates that you’re already thinking about what issues are of importance to you.
What challenges can I expect to encounter?
Of course, as a high schooler, there are some ways that you can’t be involved in politics yet. Sometimes, this is due to explicit age limits. Since minors can’t vote and can’t sign contracts or other legal agreements, they’re excluded from most elected or appointed political positions.
Even if you’re of legal voting age, your relative lack of experience as a high school student means that you simply won’t be qualified yet for many positions. (We’ve all heard stories about teenage mayors, but those are by far the exception rather than the rule.)
You’ll need to seek out ways of getting involved that are specifically open to people of your age. Often, these are lower-profile roles, but they’re still very necessary. There’s a perennial need for staffers and volunteers to get out the word about an issue, candidate, or upcoming election.
Raising awareness in the political arena is a task that can be especially difficult for young people who are shy or introverted, so be prepared for that possibility. Phone-banking, canvassing, and similar forms of publicity require a certain skill set and a tolerance for interaction with strangers. (Our post The Introvert’s Guide to Networking might provide you with some useful tips.)
A final challenge is that in politics, your range of opportunities at a given time will depend heavily upon local, state, and national election schedules. There are always ways to get involved out there, but in the run-up to a particularly contentious vote on a candidate or issue, obviously, more staffers of all ages will be needed for various campaigns.
What can I actually do as a high schooler?
Now that we’ve gotten the challenges out of the way, it’s time to discuss what you can do in high school to get politically engaged. . Below, you’ll find a number of ways to pursue your interest in politics while you’re in high school.
Join extracurriculars that incorporate political issues.
Explicitly political groups may already exist at your high school, whether they’re party-specific, issue-specific, or designed to provide space for discussion and debate. Many other extracurriculars are or can be related to politics, such as debate team or the student newspaper.
Can’t find any existing groups that fit your political interests? Create your own! For more information on starting a club, check out our blog posts How to Start a Club in High School and Organizing Your New Club.
Start small with your local government.
There’s no better place to start than where you are. Local politics has its quirks, but it’s far more accessible than national-level politics. The competition to be an intern in your town’s mayoral office or a youth representative to the City Council is likely less intense than, for instance, a place in the Senate Page program.
Look for opportunities in your city or town as well as your county or state. Your neighborhood, borough, or other geographical area may also have its own political scene, even if it’s part of a larger city, so make sure to look into these options as well.
Get involved in the voting process.
Voter registration drives and informational campaigns about voting dates and procedures provide a valuable service by encouraging involvement in the democratic process. Just because you can’t vote yourself doesn’t mean that you can’t help to inform others and facilitate the process.
Recruiting voters and signing them in at the polls on election day are tasks that always require volunteers. Some high school students might also like that these positions are totally non-partisan—in fact, you’re expressly not allowed to take a visible political stance while you’re acting as a poll worker.
Tackle issues that are directly relevant to your status as a high school student.
As a politically involved student, you might worry that, due to your age and comparative lack of life experience, others—especially adults—won’t take you seriously. One way to assuage this worry is to get involved with issues that are specifically relevant to high school students and about which your opinion will be particularly valued.
Start out by getting informed about how your school or larger school system is governed. Who is on the school board, and what kinds of decisions do they make? What educational matters are up to the voters? Once you have a strong knowledge base, reach out to local groups working on educational issues, such as your school’s PTA or local issue-specific groups, to find out how you can help.
Seek out internships and similarly specific opportunities in governmental offices and political campaigns.
Formal internships are a good idea for many reasons, and one of those is that they’re explicitly designed with youths in mind, so they’re more likely to be a good fit for your experience level, abilities, and needs. Jobs and other opportunities also exist that are specifically geared toward high school students.
To find these positions, check out the websites and offices of local political groups and government offices. You can also ask school officials like your guidance counselor for advice, or perhaps pick the brains of your social studies teachers.
Explore formal and informal types of activism.
There are all kinds of ways to make your voice heard, and they reach well beyond rallies, petitions, and coming up with the perfect clever sign for a protest march. You might write about a political candidate in your school’s newspaper, call your elected officials to urge them to take certain positions, spread the word about an issue on social media, or many other possibilities.
Political statements can be especially strong when you speak along with a group, but don’t discount the value of individual activism. Even discussing important issues with friends and family members can be helpful—regardless of your age, you’re capable of informing and convincing others.
What else can I do to prepare for deeper involvement in politics later in my life?
Whether or not you take up explicitly political activities in high school, you can also use that time to work on skills that will be valuable in your future political pursuits. Here are a few ways that you can use your high school years to prepare for the political opportunities that you’ll encounter in college and beyond.
Stay informed and keep learning using a variety of reliable sources.
You may be too young for certain kinds of political action, but you’re never too young to learn. High school is a great time to build up your background knowledge of political issues and their historical contexts. It’s also the time to begin seriously considering where you get your information and the limits and biases of these sources.
If you’re interested in politics, you should keep up with the news and learn to evaluate news outlets for their veracity and point of view. In college and later in life, you’ll be expected to analyze and think critically about your sources of information, and it’s a great idea to start practicing this skill early on.
Along with keeping up with the news, studying history and the social sciences will allow you to better understand current events. Even your knowledge in other fields can end up being helpful— if you’re interested in healthcare policy, for example, a background in biology and medical science will help you better understand the topic when it comes up in political settings.
Use your extracurriculars to hone skills that will be useful in politics.
Your extracurricular activities don’t have to be explicitly political in order to provide you with useful experiences. Any activity that improves your communication skills, encourages you to get a better understanding of current events, and allows you to develop your leadership skills can be helpful.
Speech and Debate can help you to get comfortable arguing your positions with your peers or presenting them to an audience. Model UN can build your knowledge of international issues and parliamentary procedure. Journalistic media, like the school newspaper, can help you learn to research topics and express yourself in writing.
Many other options are out there as well. No matter what extracurriculars are available to you, whether at your school or in your larger community, there’s certain to be something that will assist with your political path.
Learn to discuss and debate political issues with maturity and respect.
There’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions and defending them passionately. However, civility is an important factor when you’re engaging with family, peers, and community members on political topics. It’s a marker of respect for another person, and it will often result in a more compelling argument or thought-provoking conversation.
In addition, most spaces where you might engage in political discussion, from your classroom to a city council meeting, have established standards for how you’re supposed to behave. Emotional outbursts, name-calling, or similar hazards of tense political discourse usually won’t be tolerated in these settings.
Fruitful political discussions with people from a variety of viewpoints are predicated upon mutual respect and good communication skills. You don’t have to agree with someone to try and understand their position and respond to them in a way that’s appropriate for the context and setting, and this should always be your goal.
What about political topics and activities that are potentially controversial?
As we’ve just discussed, and as is clear in our world, political topics can engender strong feelings. When you’re in high school and interested in these issues, you might be reluctant to actually engage with them for fear of inciting conflict or judgement. This can translate into being concerned that colleges will view your political activities negatively.
For the most part, being involved in politics will not be a liability when it comes to college applications. As long as your political activities are not patently offensive to the average person, and you handle and speak about these activities with care and respect for others, you’re unlikely to scare a college away.
What matters most is that you explain and discuss your potentially controversial political activities politely and maturely. It can also help for you to emphasize the work you’ve put in rather than the topic itself. No matter where you land on contentious issues, you can demonstrate your dedication, leadership skill, and hard work in pursuit of your passions.
A few colleges may scrutinize the nature of your political activities more closely. For example, some colleges (especially very religious schools) may require students to adhere to a specific behavioral code, and may be concerned about previous extracurriculars that are not consistent with this code.
In the end, though, this boils down to a question of fit and whether you’re a good match for that college to begin with. If a college institutionally disapproves of your positions on issues you’re passionate about, to the extent that it might affect your chances of admission, that may be a sign that it’s not the best school for you.
If you’re worried that your political engagement might be considered controversial, check out our blog post Controversial Extracurriculars and Your College Application for more advice on how best to approach these activities when applying to college.
For more information
No matter what you’re into in high school, the CollegeVine blog is here to help. If you’re interested in the subject of politics, or in pursuing related subjects like government, law, and history, the following posts may be relevant to your needs, especially as you consider your college goals and the college application process.
Looking for more in-depth help in discovering your passions, setting appropriate goals, and bringing them to fruition? CollegeVine can match you up with an experienced mentor with similar interests. To learn more about what we offer, visit the CollegeVine Mentorship Program website.