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How to Effectively Balance Your Time in High School
With so many different components to consider in applying to college – GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, essays -– it’s difficult to know how exactly how much time should go into each. It’s important to take a challenging course load, but earning good grades in challenging courses can be extremely time consuming. Heavy involvement and leadership positions strengthen your application, but between club meetings, volunteer activities, and out-of-town competitions, there’s very little time left for school. Factor in studying for standardized tests, having a social life, and getting enough sleep, and you may feel like you have no free time at all!
There’s so much to juggle in high school if you’re serious about being admitted to an elite school, which is only complicated by the fact that you don’t just need to perform passably in every area to gain admission – you need to excel. The mistake many students make is that they fail to balance their time, devoting excessive energy and hours to schoolwork or extracurriculars or studying without taking the time to fully develop other, neglected components of their applications. This can be disastrous when it comes time to report your shaky GPA or (lack of) extracurricular activities on college applications.
A misstep many students make is overloading their schedules with difficult classes in the race for a 5.0 GPA or the honor of being named valedictorian. While taking 5 APs, 2 IBs, and an honors course might seem like a foolproof way to impress admissions officers, it can hurt more than help. Of course, it’s always objectively better to challenge yourself (within reason), but if your schedule is so difficult or your homework load so large that you need to spend every second on completing your work, you’re putting yourself at a significant disadvantage. Devoting all your time to one aspect of your application, your GPA and class rank, leaves other, equally important factors neglected and results in an application that ultimately seems one-sided and weak. Yes, a great GPA and a spot in the top 10 of your class can be a huge advantage to you, but if you can’t demonstrate aptitude beyond the academic, admissions committees will be largely unimpressed.
Another common mistake is overcommitting to extracurriculars and allowing academic performance to suffer. Being a dedicated, passionate member of a club takes time; being a dedicated, passionate member of 5 clubs takes 5 times as much time; being a dedicated, passionate leader of 5 clubs can take up all your time. Demonstrating involvement and leadership in multiple activities is important, but you shouldn’t be so involved in extracurriculars that your grades take a hit as a result. Grades aren’t the only thing that can slip when you overcommit to activities; membership or leadership positions in too many clubs, teams, or activities compromises the quality of the work you put into each of them. If you’re struggling just to complete the minimal requirements for each activity, that’s a red flag that you’re spreading yourself too thin. It’s smarter to seriously commit to only a few activities and perform at your best than complete subpar work in many because you don’t have sufficient time to devote to each of them.
It’s easy to get caught up in a tough schedule or overcommit to extracurriculars without even realizing it. Thankfully, we at CollegeVine have some tips for avoiding these pitfalls and best managing your time in high school.
Understand the Law of Diminishing Returns. Class rank and GPA don’t matter a whole lot beyond a certain point. The difference between a 4.4 and a 4.5(weighted) GPA, or a #6 and a #4 spot in class rankings on an application is pretty minimal; either way you’ll have demonstrated significant academic aptitude and a capability to complete college level work. The effort you spend jumping your class rank by 2 spots could be better spent on developing your extracurriculars, applying to scholarships, or competing for honors and awards.
Choose a few activities and stick to them. As mentioned before, the quality of involvement is more important than the quantity. Don’t join groups just because you think they’ll look good on college apps, and don’t apply for leadership positions just because there’s an opening. Pursue lengthy, meaningful commitments to groups you actually care about and that are pertinent to your potential major or career field. If you’re involved in too many activities at once and you can tell that the quality of the work you’re putting into each is dropping, don’t be afraid to reprioritize and drop one or more activities. Ultimately, colleges evaluate performance in groups on both time and accomplishments within the context of that group, so if you’re only putting in 10 minutes a week and not contributing to the broader goals of whatever club, organization, or team you’re a part of, you can seriously consider dropping it. Remember, the Common App Activities List only has 10 slots for extracurriculars (inclusive of clubs, sports, volunteering, and work experience across four years – try counting your own, 10 is not as many as you think), so if you have already hit this number, there is really no benefit to doing more.
Utilize your summers. Summers provide an excellent opportunity to compensate for areas of weakness in previous years. If you had an extremely rigorous schedule and excellent grades the previous year, but your extracurricular involvements were scanty, consider spending your summer volunteering or interning to build your resume. If your extracurriculars were strong, but your GPA wasn’t, academic tutoring for the classes you’ll take in the fall can boost your GPA. Taking a challenging class or two at your local community college that are relevant to your academic interests can also help the academic component of your application. If you have summer homework, use the few months to begin developing habits that will bring you success during the school year and ensure your initial grades for your classes will be strong. Not putting off all your work until the week before going back to school is a good start!
Get organized. Time management is one of the most important skills you’ll learn in school and in your career. Find a system that works for you – be it a planner, calendar on your phone, or a to-do list – and document your academic and extracurricular responsibilities. Remembering homework assignments, test dates, and deadlines for major assignments can be overwhelming, and writing or typing it all down is a smart way to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. Scheduling out your time is also a great way to hold yourself accountable and to ensure you don’t spend an undue amount of time on any one task.
Work with others. Planning study groups, club meetings, or extra practices can be immensely helpful if you’re a student who struggles to balance time. If you’re liable to spend all your time volunteering or writing speeches for your debate team, schedule study groups with classmates. Being accountable to other students will encourage you to actually devote the time to studying or doing homework, and working with others is more engaging and oftentimes more conducive to learning than working alone (granted you don’t allow study sessions to devolve into gossip sessions!). The same goes for extracurriculars – if you’re someone who usually spends weekends cooped up studying, try organizing a meeting or event for a club you’re in, or an informal practice for the athletic or academic team you’re on. Not only does taking initiative to organize outside meetings demonstrate leadership skills, it also helps you form closer relationships with the peers you work with and be a more active, engaged member of whatever group you belong to.
Give yourself a break. While this blog post may be mainly about how to balance school and extracurriculars, these shouldn’t fill your every waking moment. Give yourself to spend time with family and friends, to develop hobbies, to think about things other than school or college for once! If you don’t allow yourself reasonable breaks and a decent amount of sleep, you won’t be able to perform at your best in school or in extracurricular activities. You’re a person, not a robot, and in spite of the enormous amount of pressure that accompanies seeking admissions to an elite college, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself.