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Class Struggle by Jay Mathews, Education Columnist

10 Ways to Survive 11th Grade

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006; 9:15 AM

Two weeks ago I wrote a story for The Post about the horrors of high school junior year. One student compared 11th grade to having her feet nailed to the bottom of a six-foot-deep pool full of . . . . Well, I better not say what she said it was full of. My editor cut that from the story. But you get the point.

I did not have enough space in that article to explore ways to handle what is, in my view, our kids' most difficult year. All the worst emotional, intellectual, occupational and familial pressures seem to peak in the 11th grade, when students are too young and inexperienced to make confident judgments about what must and must not be done.

I can't promise to make that grade easier, but for years I have been interviewing teenagers and the adults they blame for their troubles, and I was an 11th grade parent myself three times. That has given me some ideas for keeping the stress of junior year to a minimum. Here they are:

1. Do your homework and listen in class

That sounds dumb, simple and parental, doesn't it. But it is the key to a less painful junior year. To succeed in school, you don't have to be brilliant. You just have to show up and do the problems and essays and reading you are asked to do. Give that first priority, and everything else falls into place.

It is best if you study at the same time and the same place every day. Some days may be worse than others, but a two-hour homework time block, if you follow that schedule every day, including weekends, should keep you on track. Two thirds of college freshman say they never did more than a hour of homework a day in high school, so two hours should give you a competitive advantage and a sense of confidence that will relax you. (If you think you need a three-hour block, go for it, but actually using the full two-hour block every day, and working ahead of schedule when you run out of daily assignments, will bring rewards that will surprise you.)

2. Think of the SAT or the ACT as just another test

Your parents, and the companies that market test-prep courses (including Kaplan Inc., a major part of The Washington Post Co.), have led you to believe that the SAT or the ACT will make or break your college dreams. That simply isn't true. If you do your homework, pay attention in class (see number 1) and go over a few of the practice tests in the school library, you will do fine. A score in the 2000s on the SAT or the 30s on the ACT will give you a shot at an admission letter to Yale, just as drawing a 7 or a 4 will improve your Super Bowl pool chances, but getting in will still be a matter of chance. If you get a lower score, you will have plenty of opportunities to get into good colleges that cater to students with your interests. There are fine schools that are happy to see a score over 1500 on the new SAT and over 20 on the ACT.

3. Two extracurricular activities are enough

Joining French club and the debate team and Safe Rides and the volleyball team and church choir and Key Club and volunteering at the hospital every Friday is a bad idea. That is too many activities. The colleges don't want to see thick resumes. They want evidence of deep passion for some pastime. Two activities would be fine, as long as your commitment to them is strong. So pick a sport you like (see number 6 below) and something else that you enjoy, and focus just on them. If you like basket-weaving, enter your stuff in the county fair. If you write poetry, organize a regular Thursday afternoon reading in the junior class corridor. And with all extra time you have, . . .

4. See your friends

And when I say "see," I mean be in the same room with them and talk and laugh and play music and watch dumb DVDs and work at being 16 years old. Telephoning and instant messaging don't count. You are 21st century Americans, so I can't stop you from doing that stuff, but I think you will be more cheerful and less stressed if you have regular times to interact in person with your friends, just as we primates have happily done for several million years.

5. Remember that getting into a good college is not that difficult

It may not be a college that your grandmother has heard of, but you have a better choice of colleges and universities here than in any other country in the world. You might pause for a moment and appreciate that. Notice all those young people moving here from China and Korea and the Philippines and Egypt and Nigeria and other places? They know that you can get a splendid education in the United States with nothing more than a basic understanding of English and a willingness to work hard. The vast majority of colleges accept most of their applicants, and some good ones still have empty spaces in September.

6. Exercise regularly

You say, "Who has time for that?" Make time. Every study ever done shows that people who make a regular effort to get their bodies moving briskly feel better and do better the rest of the day. If you pick a sport that requires some physical effort, then you are taking care of this and half of number 3 at the same time.

7. Go to bed an hour earlier than you usually do

My wife suggested this one, and I can hear what you are saying -- "That sounds like my mom. She doesn't know anything either." But it will cut back on the exhaustion you sometimes feel, and if you have already done your two-hour block of homework, why stay up? Rather than going past 11 p.m. to instant message all of your computer-addicted friends, leave an away message saying you are doing your homework so they don't think you are a total sleep freak, and then hop into bed with a book that you WANT to read about something unrelated to school.

8. Pay more attention to how you feel about yourself then how others feel about you

If you carefully read Post columnist Carolyn Hax, who dispenses wisdom to people under 30, you know what I am talking about. You cannot be attractive to other people if you don't like yourself first. To do that, just follow all the suggestions above.

9. Treat others as you would want to be treated

This taps into religion and ethics and making a world we all want to live it. My own children grew weary of my asking, when they came home from school, if they had learned the Golden Rule. But I think they eventually figured it out, and that lesson still pays dividends.

10. Remember that this will likely be the hardest year of your life

I don't expect anyone to follow any of the suggestions above, but perhaps the best defense against stress in junior year is to recognize that it is going to be over soon. Senior year has its difficulties, but your grades won't count as much, the SAT or ACT ordeal will be history, and you will have more time for friends.

In college, you will be able to follow your own dreams and interests more than you are able to now. You will still be busy, but you will be happier about it.

The same goes for the rest of your life. Just consider 11th grade crazy, to use a favorite junior year adjective. That is usually a temporary condition. The rest of your time on the planet is unlikely to be so bad.


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