Hacking Your Traditional High School Experience

03/20/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated May 18, 2015

Dan Cardinali

When I was in school way too many years ago, the DIY option didn't really exist. You could pick a public school or a private school, but that's where the choices stopped.

Today, if you're under the age of 25 or so, you can consider yourself a charter member of GenDIY. You have an incredible range of options for customizing your education to suit your interests and abilities. You can take control of your future in ways that your parents never dreamed of.

Or can you? When it comes to the future, it turns out control is an illusion. No matter how hard you work or how meticulously you plan, there's just no way to guarantee that things will work out as intended. No matter how much you love coding or acting or inventing or designing, you can't be certain that your passion will pay the bills 20 years from now.

That's why it's dangerous to get too specialized too early in life. American education is built on the notion that young people need to know a little bit about a lot of things. That way, if Plan A doesn't work out, you'll have the skill set or the knowledge base to pursue Plan B.

Think of a high school diploma as a letter of recommendation. It's like your city or town is saying to potential employers, "We vouch for this person. We guarantee that he or she has certain baseline skills in a broad range of subjects."

But a diploma says something else, too: It says that you stuck it out, that you figured things out, that you navigated "the system" and made it work. A diploma proves that you have persistence and resilience and determination. We call those things "non-cognitive skills," and they're hugely important for predicting your success as a productive, well-rounded adult - even more important than academics, in some ways.

It turns out high school and college - like life - is about more than just book smarts and academic credentials. Through clubs and class projects and after-school programs, high school and college gives you the opportunity to acquire people skills and character qualities that will help to determine your success in life. You won't get a grade in this "social-emotional learning." It's more of a pass/fail thing - and your diploma says that you passed.

So no matter how smart or gifted or ambitious you are, I believe the broad curriculum and the daily interactions that you get in school will make you a happier, more successful, more productive adult. Technology might make it possible to narrow your educational focus and do all your study outside the classroom, but technology alone can't replace the holistic development that is such a critical part of your high school years.

Does that mean you have to be content with the existing offerings at your school? Absolutely not. I'm 100% in favor of hacking your education within the traditional school setting. Internships, mentorships, clubs, independent study - if you really want to DIY, there are hundreds of ways to pursue your passions while getting a broad-based education and building your non-cognitive skills at the same time.

Here are just a few examples:

Let your teachers surprise you. You think they spend all their free time thinking about tomorrow's lesson plan? You might be surprised to know that your English teacher does community theater or your math teacher is an expert coder. Whatever it is you're interested in, try approaching a corresponding teacher to see what help or advice they might offer.

As a principle, ask the principal. Even more than teachers, principals tend to be very well connected in the community. Let your principal know what you'd like to pursue, and ask if she knows someone who might help. Chances are, she can point you in the right direction and make some calls on your behalf.

Work the alumni network. The most successful adults in your community probably know what you're going through, because not so long ago they were walking the very same halls. If you want to approach someone about an internship or a mentorship, visit the library first and look up some old yearbooks. Playing the "alumni card" might help you get a foot in the door.

Pick up a club. No drama club, chess club or computer club at your school? Maybe that's just because no one has asked recently. Clubs tend to come and go based on demand. Round up some other students who share your interest, then approach the administration to see about a sponsor, meeting room, and so forth.

Do well by doing good. Internships aren't the only way to learn by doing. Whatever the field you're interested in, there's probably a corresponding nonprofit in your community. Volunteer to teach basketball at the Y or computer literacy at Goodwill. Stuff envelopes for the symphony or work the phone bank during your local PBS fund drive. Believe me, the adults will notice your effort, and they'll want to know your story. Share your goals and dreams, and you might be surprised at the doors that open up to you.

So please, don't feel like you're stuck with only one path through high school. Take control. Make your own opportunities. Hack your education and your future. But do those things while keeping the big picture in view.

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Dan Cardinali is president of Communities In Schools, Inc., the nation's largest dropout prevention organization. Follow Dan on Twitter with @DanCardinali.