Advice for Freshmen, part 2

Shape your story.

In part 1, I talked about why in freshman year you need to find your academic footing, and flagged some fundamental skills that all freshmen need by the end of the year.

In part 2, I turn to why freshman year is about shaping your story—both in academics and in extracurriculars—and why you should think about how to leave a brilliant track record behind you.

In freshman year, you’re setting yourself up to recognize what you genuinely think is interesting and worth pursuing, and you’re trying a variety of potential interests on for size. You’re trying out sports, clubs, activities, and extracurriculars that make you excited–genuinely, palpably excited–and demonstrating your wholehearted commitment.

You don’t need to be an ace at everything to be a fantastic college applicant. While some measure of well-roundedness is super, students who are the stars of their own stories–those who delve deep into a small subset of activities–have truly compelling stories to tell, and they’re interesting people to boot. You’re going to find the things you absolutely love, and start plotting a path to see how far you can take them. And you’ve got to love them; otherwise, working hard at them is going to feel like drudgery. As a freshman, you’re figuring out what these areas of deep interest are, and starting to map out the path that will let you pursue those activities seriously.

It’s worth stopping for a second here: there’s a difference, subtle but important, between developing deep interests that produce a brilliant track record, and letting the quest for a perfect college application drive your interests. Even as a new high school student, you can direct your own learning and pursue a set of interests enthusiastically and persistently—with no downside. This kind of work is motivating and fun because you find it fascinating. In the lingo, this “growth mind set” is a skill set you’re going to develop as a successful high school and college student. It helps you put your least favorite classes into perspective and to exploit your own strengths to address the things you find less intuitive.

Produce a brilliant track record.

In freshman year, you also need to figure out how your track record of achievement will shape your story. This track record provides natural material for college applications, a handful of activities that show you’ve spent significant time developing serious know-how. Some things leave their own track record: if you’re an Intel Science Talent Search finalist, a member of a nationally-ranked chess team, or a state volleyball champion, you have a brilliant track record of achievement. Some things don’t create a brilliant track record without some extra effort, though. The solution? You’re going to make it happen yourself. Writing magnificent short stories isn’t enough in itself to set you up for a strong application; start sending those creative pieces out to be reviewed for publication in literary magazines.

Your freshman year is the right time for this academic and extracurricular exploration, because you don’t suddenly find yourself on a nationally-ranked chess team; you work consistently hard to get there. You don’t magically end up with an app that goes viral; you write a lot of code and produce some duds and figure it better versions through a lot of practice.

Many of us will end up with a couple specialized interests that take most of our time and effort, and some (seemingly) oddball extracurriculars that don’t fit perfectly with our main interests. That’s okay—in fact, it’s more than okay. The danger lies in trying to be so well-rounded that you don’t shape your story to develop areas of deep expertise, and that your track record won’t show deep achievement.

The summer between freshman and sophomore year is a great chance to follow a specialized interest or two, to shape your story. A relevant internship, a service project for a cause that you’re passionate about, a college class in a subject you adore, a job in a field you’re fascinated by: these are ways to figure out what you love and want to explore. You’re laying the groundwork for the ambitious work you’ll take on later in high school.


In part 1, I show that the freshman year is about finding your academic footing.

In part 3, I talk about standardized testing in freshman year.

Got a story to tell about figuring out freshman year? Drop me a note!