How to Survive at an Ultra Competitive High School

01/26/2017 02:17 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2018

What are some tips for making it through an ultra-competitive high school? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Sabrina Ali, went to a competitive high school, on Quora:

Either play the game or stay away from the game.

The "game" is the quest to get into a highly-ranked college. That's why certain high schools are competitive, after all -- they offer you the chance to get into a top university, but only if you check the required boxes better than your peers do.

I went to a competitive high school, and I've found that there are two schools of thought about the "game":

  • School of thought #1: The "game" is terrible for students. People with this mentality believe that ultra-competitive high schools push students to game the system rather than learn -- they think that test scores are less important than knowledge and that your resume isn't the total of your worth as a human being.
  • School of thought #2: The "game" is a means to a worthwhile end. There's a reason these schools promote an atmosphere of "working the system" -- because colleges do care about test scores, GPA and the like. So people in this camp are fine with students doing what it takes to rise to the top of the pack, because going to a highly ranked college is a worthwhile goal.

If you're at a competitive high school, you should figure out which of the above schools of thought you believe in. You might not wholly subscribe to one or the other, but most people I've met lean towards one of the two camps.

If you believe the "game" is terrible and you want to avoid the rat race as much as possible (school of thought #1):

  • Don't share your grades/scores with anyone. And don't ask other students about their grades/scores. Yeah, some annoying kids will make sure everyone knows their GPA, but you can mostly avoid this. Mostly.
  • Maintain some contact with the world outside of your school. It's easy to forget that you're in a competitive bubble and that there's an outside world where people aren't all hyped up about their SATs. Try to orient your free time around the outside world. Remind yourself that there's a life waiting for you after the madness is over.
  • Find like-minded friends, i.e. friends that are similarly disinterested in winning the rat race. They'll help keep you grounded, validate your choices, and insulate you from the people you don't want to deal with.
  • Be very selective about your extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities are a massive time-suck. Don't spread yourself too thin; choose ones you want to participate in. And if you really don't like the activities you're involved in, don't be afraid to drop them and try new ones.

If you want to work the system and out-compete your peers (school of thought #2):

  • Study those who came before you. Take a look at the current seniors and the recent grads who got into top colleges. What did they do to get there? You need to do some benchmarking to figure out what it will take to achieve what you want.
  • Every hour of time is valuable. Don't waste time -- your after-school and summer activities should all be adding to the "story" you're building for college applications. Your classes need to be part of this "story" as well, so make them count. This line of thinking will nauseate a lot of people, but remember, I'm speaking to the people who are focused on "School of thought #2" above.
  • Know what makes you different. You don't have to be a prodigy at anything, but if you're at a competitive high school, you are to some extent being judged against your peers. Find an unoccupied niche if possible. Do what it takes to differentiate yourself and showcase what you're good at. Make sure your teachers really like you and that you're not just one of many.
  • Don't take anything for granted. Unless you have some "hook" into a top college, you're probably going to have to work hard, and it's going to be painful. At some of these high schools, lots of students have near-perfect GPAs and are doing prestigious internships every summer. That's what you're up against. But I think this dynamic is true after high school as well, so there's no harm getting used to it early.

Going to a competitive high school can be tough, but as long as you clarify your feelings about the "game" you've been thrust into, you should be able to find a way to make it work for you. You should just make sure you're not playing a game you don't want to play. And if you are playing, you shouldn't apologize for trying to win.

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