There's a lot of pressure in high school to prepare for the future, but between classes, extracurriculars, and trying to have a social life, thinking about what comes after high school can feel like being told to climb a mountain with no help.
Instead of fixating on the future, success in high school means thinking about what you can do now. Being on top of things in high school is a great foundation for success in the future.
But what does being successful mean? How can you get started today? What should you worry about, and what should you let slide?
This guide will help you learn how to be successful in high school no matter where you are in your education. With tips and goals to strive for, you'll be prepared for the future at any point in high school—it's never too late to start getting a plan together.
What Does Being Successful in High School Mean?
"Success" is a tricky thing to aim for—everybody has different goals and priorities, so the first step of how to be successful in high school is to determine what your goals are.
It's important to understand that success won't look the same for everybody. Not only is every person coming from a different background with unique abilities and hindrances, but people also don't all want the same thing. Some have high career aspirations and income goals, while other people want to travel the world, and still others want to improve their own communities. Every one of those things is a kind of success.
Regardless of what your individual goals are, one thing is true—the earlier you start to prepare, the better equipped you are to achieve those goals. Whether you're shooting for the moon (literally!) or sticking close to home, planning your roadmap to success means you understand not just where you're going, but how to get there. You don't want to be scrambling at the last minute to finish everything you need to do, so start as soon as you can.
Your goals don't have to be this literal, but they can be!
How to Set Goals for Success in High School
Take some time to brainstorm what you want for the future. Don't be afraid to dream big—if you want to be an astronaut, write it down! If you want to solve world hunger, write it down! You'll figure the rest out later. Brainstorming gets your ideas down on paper, and later you'll refine them into actions.
Once you know for certain what you want, you can start figuring out how to get there. Say you want to solve world hunger—that's pretty abstract, so you need to figure out how you can tackle such a big problem through concrete actions. Do a little research to find out what efforts are already being made. What skills do you have? How can you use those skills to add to the work in progress?
If you're aiming for a particular career goal, do some research into how the best of the best got where they are. What degrees do they have? What colleges did they attend? What interests do they have that lead to their career? Match these up with your own desires and factor them into your goals.
For example, let's say you want to become an astronaut. You don't just become one by doing a job interview—you need a few more things before you'll be accepted into NASA, like a bachelor's degree in a science or math field. That means getting a degree should be a high priority for you.
Part of goal-setting is determining which colleges best suit your needs. Make a list, and start researching what criteria you need to meet to get accepted. Each item you list will need its own set of goals, such as reaching a certain GPA or getting a particular SAT score. Write all this down—you'll want to keep it for planning concrete steps!
Next, you need either an advanced degree or 1,000 hours of in-command time on a jet aircraft. Consider which you'd rather do, and plan accordingly.
If you want the advanced degree, repeat the search above for grad schools and doctoral programs. These later goals may not be things you can do right now, but you can break them down into smaller pieces that you can start working on as soon as today.
If you'd rather go for the 1,000 hours of flight, joining the military or becoming a commercial pilot are both options. Again, each of these comes with its own set of goals to accomplish, so keep breaking those into smaller and smaller achievable pieces, such as getting your physics grade up or joining science-related extracurriculars.
Lastly, becoming an astronaut means you need to be in prime physical fitness. This is something you can start now, especially with NASA's requirement for swimming—if your shuttle makes a water landing, you'll need to be prepared to swim! Setting physical fitness goals (or any type of goal) now gets you into the habit of practicing them, something that will serve you well as you progress through your life.
No matter what your dream career is, you can follow these steps. And even if you don't make it into your dream school or you find that the field you once aspired to isn't right for you later in life, you're still set up for excellence! Aim high, and you'll have your pick of options—don't limit yourself now because you're unsure if you can reach your highest goal.
Your organization session doesn't need to look anywhere near this fancy.
The #1 Key to Being Successful in High School: Prioritization
Prioritization is one of the most important skills you can have as a student. Being naturally gifted or having a great work ethic doesn't mean much if you can't figure out where to direct your skills. That's why setting goals should always be your first step to success.
Once you have a list of goals, including ones for the long- and short-term, you can start to prioritize them. Look at where you are in comparison to where you need to be. What can you do to get there? What can you do right now that will make the most meaningful difference?
Obviously, if you're aiming to be an astronaut, you can't just walk into college and ask for a degree. You have to work to get there, which means asking yourself what you can do to get to your dream school. You can apply, of course, but that application needs to be polished. How do you polish it? What can you do right now to get your application into shape?
For example, say your physics grade has slipped. You need a good GPA—especially in science courses—to make it into a program that will help you become an astronaut. What can you do to fix that?
Studying more is an obvious choice, but "more" isn't a concrete goal. Two hours per week is a good starting point, but you can break that down even further and make it actionable. Two hours per week equates to about 25 minutes per day, so let's round that up to a half hour. Studying an extra half-hour per day is an actionable goal, one that's not so big that you'll have to entirely rewrite your life to achieve it, but not one so small that it won't make any meaningful difference.
Upping your study time is more immediately important than being able to swim three pool lengths in astronaut gear. You've got time to work up to that—your Bachelor's degree will take you four years, and whatever training you do beyond that will add on time—so focus on what you can fix right now. Not only is your physics grade something you have control over, but you also have less time to fix it, so it needs to be higher on your priority list.
Prioritizing will allow you to plan out milestones and tackle them in an order that makes sense. Rather than trying to do everything—swim three pool lengths, get into college, raise your physics grade, rack up 1,000 hours piloting jets—you confront them one at a time, crossing one off and moving to the next.
Get yourself some highlighters and colorful tabs, because it's time to start a planner.
How to Keep Track of Everything You Need to Do
All this goal setting is great, but you have to keep track of them or you'll be stuck spinning your wheels without direction. Consider getting a planner or making use of a calendar to stay on top of everything.
Passion Planners are a great choice. They're goal-focused and contain lots of tools for getting inspired and breaking your goals into actionable items. This structure is great for those who have big dreams but struggle with getting started and following through. There's even an academic version that only covers school months, and there are tons of tutorials online for how to best use (and decorate) them.
If the structure of Passion Planner doesn't work for you, plenty of other people swear by Bullet Journaling. This system uses a series of symbols to dictate what should be done now and what should be done later, as well as encouraging you to break tasks into actionable items. If you prefer to be a bit more free-form in your planning, Bullet Journaling may be for you.
Whatever route you end up taking, the important thing is that you give yourself structure and a means to execute your goals.
Set due dates. If you need to raise your physics grade, set that goal sometime in the future—say, raising your B- to an A by the end of the quarter. Since you've already asked yourself what you can do to get there, you can assign your goals, such as studying an extra half hour per day, joining a study group, or turning in missing assignments, to specific dates. Write that extra half hour down on every day, and write another reminder once per week, for example, to complete a missing assignment.
Essentially, keeping track of everything means setting goals, breaking those goals down into actionable items, setting deadlines, and following through. Aim high, but all the little stops on your roadmap are important, too. Think of the small tasks as steps in a large staircase with your goal at the top—you can't leap directly to the top, but you can get there one step at a time.
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How to Be Successful in 9th Grade
Planning for specifics is how you achieve big goals, but general planning is great too. Even if you're not sure what you want to do with the rest of your life yet, there are still big steps you can take to make sure you're on track for success later in life. It's never too early to start thinking about college, even if you're not ready to settle on one school or field of study yet.
One of the best ways to ensure that you're ready for college, even as soon as ninth grade, is to make sure you're taking challenging, useful courses. If you don't know what you want to do with your life, that's okay! Elective courses can help you figure that out.
Your course load in ninth grade should be a mixture of required classes, electives, and challenging classes. There's no magic number of AP or honors courses that will magically get you into your dream school, but colleges do want to see you making the most of what's available to you.
That said, if you find yourself struggling to keep your grades up, it's okay to reassess. You need to pass the classes in order for colleges to take them seriously, so be sure you're taking on a workload that you can handle. For a freshman, one to two AP courses is a great place to start.
Ninth grade is also a great time to start getting involved—really involved—in extracurriculars. If you're into journalism, you may not get a coveted editor position as a freshman, but you can start taking on additional responsibilities and writing stories that matter to you. To return to the astronaut example, you can consider joining a science or math club at school, and going for a leadership position down the road.
Don't be afraid to start thinking about college choices. That doesn't mean you have to make concrete plans, but doing some research into what requirements schools have and what features appeal to you is a great way to start narrowing down your choices early on. Instead of looking through every conceivable school junior year, you'll already have a possible list narrowed down.
In tenth grade, keep up good habits and keep forming new ones.
How to Be Successful in 10th Grade
Tenth grade is a time to start thinking seriously about your future plans. It’s a good time to research schools and potentially start narrowing them down. You have plenty of time to apply, so don’t stress about whether or not you’ll get in—use this time to think about how you’ll set yourself up for success rather than worrying about whether or not you’ll succeed.
As with ninth grade, you’ll want to focus on keeping your grades up, getting involved in extracurriculars, and taking honors and AP courses in tenth grade.
Shoot for one to three AP courses in your schedule, but always keep in mind that your grades come first. If you’re struggling in your regular classes, it’s okay to cut back. You want to find a healthy balance of schoolwork and extracurriculars, which may sometimes mean letting something go to fix where you’re struggling. It may feel a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole, but prioritization and goal setting will help you focus on what’s most important.
Now is a good time to take the PSAT or PreACT for the first time. If you have a sense of where you’re starting from, you’ll know where to focus your studying efforts as you get closer to taking the real thing. Even better, you’ll have more time to study. Instead of crunching junior and senior year, you'll be able to focus on weak points rather than trying to bring all your scores up at once.
If you’re not 100 percent on track with where you want to be, that’s okay! Spend some time thinking about how you can correct course and get back on schedule. There are no hard and fast rules for success, as every person is unique.
Things get a little more serious in eleventh grade.
How to Be Successful in 11th Grade
Eleventh grade is why it’s important to start planning early. Suddenly you’re faced with the very real task of college applications and standardized tests, and it can feel like things are closing in on you.
Still, don’t panic. Even if you haven’t started preparing yet, you can get yourself back on track.
In eleventh grade, it’s time to start thinking seriously about college applications. That doesn’t mean filling them out—though you can start early, applications won’t be due until the next year, even for early decision.
Instead, focus on your standardized test scores. Take an SAT or ACT test if you can and see where you’re at, compare that to your college of choice’s average score, and start working to make sure your score is at that level. If it’s already there, great! You can instead work on getting a higher than average score to look even more impressive in your application.
Junior year is the most important one for your GPA. Every year is important, but junior year is the last full year you have to impress colleges before applications, so make it count. To be competitive for college, aim to take two to four AP courses in eleventh grade, and keep those grades up.
If you struggle your junior year, it’s not the end of the world. You will need to explain things to colleges you apply to, and also demonstrate that you’re working to fix anything that’s slipped. That’s why it’s important to have a plan—when you know where you’re going, getting back on track is far easier.
Get started early so you can look this excited on graduation day.
How to Be Successful in 12th Grade
If only senior year was the time to relax after all your hard work. Instead, now is the time you’ll be putting all that hard work into action, applying to colleges, seeking leadership positions in the extracurriculars you’ve been involved in, and continuing to maintain your GPA.
If you’ve been on track until this point, congratulations! Just keep doing what you’ve been doing, with the added responsibility of applying to colleges.
If you’re coming at this a little late and are worried about your odds, don’t panic—you still have options. Maybe you slipped in junior year, or maybe you just didn’t know that you had to get started early. You can still achieve success, even if you’re a little late to the game.
Identify any weak points in your grades, extracurriculars, and courses. What can you correct? What will make the biggest difference right now?
If you haven’t started SAT or ACT prep, do so now. Take a practice test and start working to get your score up to your target. Though your social life might suffer with these additional demands, it’s important to make the most of the time that you do have. Don’t burn yourself out, but do be sure you’re putting in the work.
No matter what, don’t feel like it’s the end of the world. Maybe you don’t get into your dream school. Maybe you don’t get into most of the schools you apply to. That doesn’t mean a great future is out of reach—it just means you need to reassess. Consider enrolling in community college and transferring to a four-year school when you’re ready, or starting at a lower volume school and transferring later. These are perfectly legitimate options that can lead to a wonderful and lucrative future for you—getting started late is better than never getting started at all.
It’s important not to let yourself give up. You might run into obstacles and need to change plans, but it’s never too late to strive for more. Keep making goals and reaching for new milestones, because there are always options.
You might not see results right away, but good planning and effort will be rewarding.
5 Tips for How to Be Successful in High School
Making goals and prioritizing them is a great way to be successful in high school. But there are other skills you can cultivate, too, that will help you on your path to success.
#1: Start Planning Early
The earlier you start getting your plans together, the better. Your plans can change over time—don't be afraid to be flexible—but you simply can't achieve your goals if you don't have any.
Making goals early and breaking them down into digestible pieces gives you clear milestones to achieve. It's far easier to hit a bunch of small goals leading to a larger one than to jump right from a C to an A, so the earlier you can start, the smoother your path to success will be.
#2: Follow a Schedule
Figure out what you need to do, how long you have to get it done, and break that into smaller achievable goals. "Raise my grades," is a good goal, but you can't jump right there—instead, commit to studying two hours per week or completing one missing or extra credit assignment per week.
Set a schedule for when you need to get things done, but also schedule in time for work and for breaks. If you work at a specific time every day, you'll find yourself settling into a more efficient pattern. And giving yourself regular breaks ensures that your brain is always performing its best rather than struggling to focus after hours of studying.
#3: Designate a Study Space
It sounds strange, but picking one particular place to study in can actually be a big help in focusing better. If you have a desk or a quiet place in your home, decide that that's your studying zone and clear it of distractions—no phone, no magazines, no video games. When you sit down there, you'll start to associate it with studying, and your brain will find it easier to shift into work mode.
If you can avoid it, don't make a place that has a different purpose, such as your bed, your dining room table, or your noisy living room your study space. If you try to use the same place for multiple purposes, it loses its association with studying. Find somewhere that you can get work done and only use it to get work done.
#4: Find Unique Ways to Practice
Studying is good, but you have to study smart. Reading the same things over and over again won't necessarily help, so find ways to really engage with what you're learning.
Flashcards are a popular study method for a reason—writing the information down and quizzing yourself on it repeatedly can drill it into your mind a whole lot easier than reading and re-reading the same page of notes. But you can try other things, too, such as coming up with your own mnemonics or even teaching the material to somebody else. If you're struggling to understand or memorize something, get creative with it rather than forcing yourself to keep studying in a way that isn't working for you.
#5: Find a Study Buddy
Not only is studying easier when you have somebody to quiz you, but accountability is also a great way to motivate yourself. It's far harder to cancel plans with somebody else than to cancel plans with yourself.
Of course, be sure you find somebody who isn't just there to hang out. Your ideal study partner should be somebody who also has goals and who isn't going to distract you when you're trying to work. Tell each other what you're going to get done, and hold each other accountable for achieving it. Check in to see what their progress is, and tell them what you've achieved. When you share your goals with others, you get them involved and invested in your success, making you more likely to keep going when you feel like giving up.
All these tips for success will help you prepare for college, but you still need to apply. This guide to college applications will help you understand exactly what schools are looking for.
Even if you don't want to go to Harvard, you can still study like you do. If your application is Harvard-ready, you're also ready for most other schools—the higher you aim, the better your chances are no matter where you want to go.
Grades are a crucial part of a successful college application. This guide to getting a 4.0 GPA will help you plan effective studying habits, giving you a better chance at getting into your dream college.
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.