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Class of 2012 has some grad advice for underclassmen

By Kandice Head
Rich South

Blink once, and it seems your four years in high school are over. So how do you spend them to make sure you’re prepared for your next four years of college and beyond?

Freshman, sophomore and juniors, now is the time to build strong relationships with teachers, learn how to make plans for your financial future and take the time to get properly organized with applications well in advance of college deadlines. Savor every last second you have left in high school before it’s gone and use the time to prepare for life after high school.

Soon, you’ll look back on this time in your life, and you’ll remember it much more fondly if you do your best to set yourself up for success now. Don’t look back and wonder about the “what ifs.”

The Mash compiled six pieces of key advice from graduating seniors, college students and experts to help you navigate high school and make the most of the time you have left.

BUILD A STRONG BOND WITH YOUR TEACHERS
Are you the type of student who always sits in the back or makes a teacher groan when you walk in the classroom? If so, you might want to break that cycle.

Preparing for college can be a long and difficult process, but with help from other people—especially your teachers—it doesn’t have to be. If you work hard, stay focused and contribute positively to a teacher’s class, you’ll learn more but you also increase the chances that your teacher would go the extra mile for you when you need a college recommendation letter.

These letters are important for your future—college admissions counselors and scholarship committees will use them to determine if you have qualities that make you likely to suceed. Letters of recommendation speak about your character, work ethic and what makes you stand out from the crowd. Grades and test scores matter, but colleges also want to know about your personality and character to determine if you’ll fit in, as well as what you have to offer the institution.

“Having strong relationships with teachers has given me lots of opportunities,” says Krystal Clayton, student body president at Rich East. “I got a special recommendation for this job at a camp this summer because one of my teachers I always talked to knew I did (Operation) Snowball, (an alcohol and drug prevention program). He also told me I could use him as a reference.”

Teachers also can introduce you to other adults who can serve as mentors in your field of study. Although students move on each year, teachers typically stay in the same place, so it’s always nice to keep in touch; teachers appreciate hearing what you’re up to.

GET ORGANIZED—AND STAY ORGANIZED
Strive to always have a clean environment, whether it’s your locker, your room or your computer. This comes in handy when juggling scholarship applications, college brochures and recommendation letters.

Jada Woodly, an Illinois State University freshman and 2011 Rich South graduate, says, “Start working on time management skills if you haven’t already because you will definitely need them.”

It’s important to manage your time if you want to fit in everything you need to do plus everything you want to do. As you get older, time management and organization will help you succeed as a college student and in your career.

MAKE A PLAN
College isn’t the only big expense on the horizon—senior year can be very expensive, with activity fees, exams, prom, graduation and more. Communicate with your parents and create a plan to save money for college and senior expenses.

GRADES AND CLASSES MATTER
Make sure you take advantage of a wide variety of academic courses such as fine arts, sciences and foreign languages.

Nick Dalser, an admissions representative at the University of Missouri, says that many colleges have requirements for the courses you should take. For example, the University of Missouri requires four years of math and English, three years of social studies, two years of science and foreign language, and one year of fine arts such as music, drama or art. Make sure you communicate with your guidance counselor to select the right courses so you’ll be eligible for any school you wish to apply to.

Also remember that it’s important to excel every semester. Make sure you balance your workload so your GPAs don’t suffer. Don’t wait until junior year to start pulling up your GPA. It may be too late by then.

“Always remember that your academic history will follow you,” Dalser says.

RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH
If you think you want to pursue a specific career, do some research online and find out how much it pays, the degrees needed to do that job and what kind of employment prospects you’ll face after graduation. Then, research what colleges or universities have the best program for that career.

When researching this, it’s important to keep in mind the program’s national ranking, types of financial aid available, cost of attendance and types of internships available for your career path.

Even if you’re not sure what you’ll major in when you go to college, make lists of possible career choices, colleges and scholarships you plan to pursue. Making lists will help you figure out your options, and you should always have backup plans.

If you’re unsure what kind of career path you might want to follow, explore possibilities that relate to your hobbies or subjects you’re good at in school to get started.
If you’re a freshman or sophomore, outline a plan for what you want to do in life and how you plan to accomplish it—and get a feel for what it might cost. For example, if you want to be a doctor, find a local hospital where you can volunteer or shadow a doctor for a day. Talk to them about how they got through school and how they found opportunities as well as how they were able to pay for it.

There are tons of opportunities available for high schoolers to help you get involved and learn about professions that might interest you.

As for scholarships, apply for many of them—there are many scholarships available and not all of them are  for graduating seniors.

VOLUNTEER
There’s more to school than grades, test scores and extracurricular activities. Colleges also want to see how you interact in the world outside of school.
It’s really important to set yourself apart from other students who may have grades and scores that are as good as yours. Although it’s great to participate in community service organizations such as Key Club or academic clubs that require community service as part of being a member such as National Honor Society, volunteering doesn’t have to end there.

Volunteering is a great way to get involved in your community and gain real-life experiences that will help shape your character. It can even lead you to finding a career path that you didn’t consider before.

>> What advice do you have for underclassmen? Leave a comment here, visit The Mash on Facebook and tell us there or tweet us your advice to @MashChicago.

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About The Mash

The Mash is the Chicago Tribune's newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free each Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.

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