While there will always be moments in life you wish you could go back to and do differently, the four years of high school can seem particularly rich with regrettable moments. The fecundity of shame felt in high school—both real and imagined, deserved or not—is so recognized and shared that Hollywood has practically created a genre for it. From The Breakfast Club to Superbad, the self-conscious anxieties and regrets of high school have become well-documented cultural trope. And with good reason—lots of mistakes are made in high school, from the merely embarrassing to the truly damaging. It is not an easy time.
I certainly have my own list of high school regrets, both minor (some cringe-inducing clothing choices; giving a boy I liked a prized record from my step-dad’s collection because I thought it might make him like me back,) to the more weighty (a real attitude problem; not trying harder). I used to think of these regrets and embarrassments a lot, fixating on what I could do if I could travel back in time and handle everything differently.
But time has passed, and I’m currently approaching my 10th year reunion eager to reminisce (and commiserate) about high school with those who lived through it with me. And as I’ve grown up to make loads more contemporary mistakes, I’ve come to realize which of my high school regrets are legitimate enough to warrant a warning to others:
1. Not trying new things out of fear or pride.
Out of all my regrets from high school, my biggest is my teenage hesitancy to explore beyond my comfort zone. Whether it was out of self-consciousness or fear of failure, I passed up many opportunities that I now wish I had experienced. It may be trite, but a lesson that almost every adult can attest to is that the biggest regrets are often your untaken chances. In fact, the thing I most hate to hear from my students is that they maybe want to try a new class or difficult hobby or risky idea, but they don’t want to sacrifice their GPA or “waste time” on something that won’t work out. This is exactly the type of students colleges do not want to admit—those who don’t take chances or push themselves in new or unexpected ways. And beyond college applications, this is a bad habit to get into for life. Trying new things is the only thing that keeps us growing. I truly believe that the best thing you can do for yourself is say yes when you want to—even if it’s scary, or seems like a long-shot.
2. Confusing disdain with sophistication.
It sounds like such an obvious lesson to have to learn, but only after high school did I really realize that it’s okay to just be nice to people. For years I was quick to bristle and retort, convinced that I could beat people to the punch that was likely never coming. I was judgmental and eager to point out when others were wrong. I thought I was being strong and independent, but throughout college I began to realize what a farce that was. Now I understand that to be accepting and approachable is not only most often the best option, but the one that really takes the most strength. To develop healthy relationships takes openness and emotional courage; to advance in your career takes humility and receptiveness, not defensiveness. Every time I see a high school student fronting with meanness or ferocity, I empathize with their attempts at self-assertion but want to tell them, relax—being mean doesn’t put you ahead of the game. It just makes you the kid no one wants to play with.
3. Obsessing about the fishbowl.
Another thing you will start to learn in college is that everyone is not watching you all the time. In high school, it can certainly feel like that’s the case—so you think about who you eat with, what you wear each day—and it can be exhausting. I think the best lesson I learned in college was that very few people actually care about what you do, (at least not in a bad way). I remember getting to campus and realizing that eating lunch at a table by myself was not lame or isolating or embarrassing… it was ridiculously normal, because everyone was on their own schedule and had their own list of 10,000 things to do. Perhaps if high school students can realize even earlier that the fishbowl—the perception that everyone is watching you from all sides, all the time—exists mostly in their own heads, they can grow into their adult selves with less self-consciousness and more confidence and self-possession.
A part of me wishes I had learned all of these lessons sooner, but regretting at least parts of your high school experience is practically as much of a rite of passage as graduating high school itself. Still, perhaps these warnings can help current students avoid the big regrets, so they only have to worry about the little ones—tragically bad outfits and unrequited freshman crushes. Because really, by the time your 10th year reunion rolls around, those will have already become fond and funny memories.
By Taylor Cox , ThinkTank Learning Admissions Consultant and Academic Counselor