Letter to Myself as a High School Freshman

The Slice – May 2013: In Our High Schools | In Our Middle Schools | In Our Elementary Schools

For six Palo Alto students who recently exited their secure high school lives for unknown futures in college, the news from the afterlife is good.

After surviving the intoxicating rush of the first semester of college – and all the attention lavished on them by orientation, faculty mentors, freshman dorm communities and events – most of them are having a wonderful experience. However, they all noted challenges in figuring out the formula for success and happiness in college as they looked back on high school.

Melanie and Thomas Wade – “Paly Prepared Us Well For College”
For Paly 2012 graduates Melanie Wade and her twin brother Thomas Wade, their post-Paly college experiences couldn’t be more different. Melanie is an undeclared freshman at the sprawling Seattle campus of University of Washington, where she is playing NCAA Division 1 volleyball in the competitive Pac10 league. Although she lives in a dorm, Melanie says she has little time to befriend non-volleyball students or take advantage of “cool things like study abroad” due to her unrelenting training schedule and travel. She hopes to compensate by playing professional volleyball in Europe after graduation.

As a recruited athlete committing to Washington at the beginning of her junior year, she “could have coasted her junior and senior year,” she says, but didn’t, and recommends that high school athletes take challenging courses in order to succeed in college. “Paly’s advanced courses prepared me very well for college, but I also wish I’d taken more regular lane classes and had more fun,” she says, suggesting that Paly students should enjoy high school more. “Focus on your writing,” she states. “I’m loving my anthropology class, but have had to learn a completely new way of writing for assignments that they don’t teach at Paly.”

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, her brother Thomas hones his vocal performance technique in classical music and opera rehearsals while attending general education classes. The conservatory’s entire campus is one building with eight floors of practice rooms and concert halls. “Freshmen are housed in a ‘faux dorm’ that’s really an urban apartment building near the school. I moved out after one quarter – too much drama – now I’m living in a shared-apartment on Nob Hill. I’ve grown up so quickly. If I lose my key I have to deal with it like an adult – there’s no campus security. We have rehearsals and go out for coffee, not boozy frat parties. It’s like I’m a working adult, living in San Francisco, and my job is performing and going to classes,” he says. “I absolutely love it!!”

Thomas also took AP classes at Paly and says the main benefit was learning how to manage his time and get homework done when he got home from school. “There was such a work ethic at Paly; you felt like everybody was all in about academics,” he recalled. “College is easy compared to Paly. I have less work and more free time now, but I’m actually taking more classes than I did in high school and have better grades. I over-worked myself at Paly.”

PiE_HighZ_Will4_201305Will Lichtenger – “Start Early on Your College Application Process”
University of Southern California (USC) Freshman Will Lichtenger is also delighted with his college choice after graduating from Paly in 2012. “The key to making the college application process painless is to start really early. I started working on the Common App essays the summer before senior year with a college counselor so I was able to keep my grades up during my fall semester senior year.”

The business major resides in a VERY social freshman dorm at USC, “but it’s also clean, which is very important when it comes to dorms,” he says. Fortunately, despite USC’s reputation for tough academics as well as great parties, Will said that Paly prepared him well.

“I took AP US History, four years of high lane math, AP Spanish and pretty challenging courses at Paly and the courses are not harder here, there’s just more work,” he says. After playing varsity tennis at Paly, Will is now focused on intermural basketball, and advises students to explore more than one sport or extra-curricular activity in high school while still getting good grades.

Alice Rochette – “Take Advantage of College Counselors”
PiE_HighZ_AliceR_2013052012 Gunn grad Alice Rochette loves the University of San Francisco (USF), and says it’s the perfect fit for her. Describing the college application process as “very stressful,” Alice says that her PiE-funded Gunn counselor Ms. (Myesha) Compton was a lifesaver. “She was very helpful, patient and always explained something twice if needed and helped me research schools and figure out what I needed to do,” she relates.

Alice was glad she made time to explore different clubs and activities at Gunn, including theatre, gardening club and the Gay-Straight Alliance. “Looking back, I wish I had taken more interesting classes at Gunn instead of prep periods and enjoyed high school more,” she says.

“I was working so hard at Gunn I missed time I could have enjoyed with my friends or really focused on my education. I was more worried about getting the good grade instead of actually learning the content, if that makes sense,” Alice explains. She says that Gunn prepared her well for college math courses and the workload, but not for the freshman English and rhetoric courses at USF. “College writing is a lot different and is much harder than I imagined. Perhaps if I’d taken AP Lit at Gunn I would have been more prepared, but I’m not sure I could have handled another AP course.”

Ashley Shin – “Focus on Learning Time Management and Study Skills”
PiE_HighZ_Ashley_201305Carleton College freshman Ashley Shin shares Alice’s assessment on the difficulty of college writing and English. “Despite Paly’s intense academic rigor as a top high school, the level of excellence expected at Carleton is extremely high,” the 2012 Paly grad says. “Even though we only take 3 classes per trimester, it’s more work than I have time for.”

Ashley is also playing volleyball at Carleton, but was admitted based on her academic performance. “You have to work three times as hard in a Carleton class as you did in an AP class at Paly to receive a similar grade; however, due to all the fantastic, intellectual conversations we have, I feel smarter just by being here,” Ashley says. She recommends having fun with extra-curricular activities, but really focus on time management and study skills: “That way you’ll have time to participate in all the really cool things there are to do at college.”

Paul Blanchette – “Be Realistic About How Hard You Have To Work To Be A Recruited Athlete”
PiE_HighZ_PaulB2_201305Gunn 2012 grad Paul Blanchette is also a recruited athlete who signed with Loyola Marymount University (LMU) to play soccer in the fall of his junior year. Paul only played soccer for Gunn his junior year, choosing instead to play for De Anza Force Academy to develop his soccer skills. He applied only to LMU, after spending months talking to college coaches and at recruiting events, finishing his college application in a single night.

Paul does not regret his decision. “It’s perfect!” Paul says. “I love the university’s medium size, the weather, and being in small classes where the professors know my name. As a recruited athlete, I only had to have a 3.0 GPA and a 1500 on my SAT to get into LMU, even though my GPA and test scores were higher.” Paul didn’t take AP classes at Gunn. His outlook was “not just to excel academically. I took auto shop for two years and art, which was fun and relaxing and learned how to draw,” he says. The good news is that Paul says he is keeping up with his fellow students in class.

Paul advises being realistic about how hard you have to work at your sport year round to be a recruited athlete. “Do what you have to in order to get good grades, including getting a tutor or extra help if you need it,” he says. “College is harder than high school because you have to be much more self-motivated. No one tells you what to do with the material. There are no study guides, or Power Points to help you decipher how to learn; you must figure out the professor’s style and form of testing. It takes awhile to be successful with grades in college.”