Dear Vicky, You’re a junior now…

vicky and catDear Vicky,

You’ve just started your junior year of high school.

I wrote you a letter on your first day of freshman year, two years ago, and it kind of blew up. I guess a lot of people want advice for starting high school.

Then I kept the tradition going when you started sophomore year, and the letter advised you to grow, branch out and explore.

Ugh, and then I missed the chance to write to you on your first day of junior year, but you’re only a few weeks in, so publishing this is still appropriate.

Even though you have your license, I’m still spending these last few days sending you to and from school everyday while I’m still in town, because

a) I’m still jetlagged and can bear waking up that early

b) it’s our special tradition.

I know you hate it when I play my obnoxious music, and sometimes my driving may be deemed “unorthodox”, but we spend these moments in the car talking about all sorts of things, driving along a familiar route that we’ve been driving for years. Sometimes we spontaneously decide to get Chick-fil-A fries and a milkshake and sometimes when we see a homeless person, you’ll give me a single look and I’ll reach for my wallet.

Already I can see that junior year is starting to stress you out. I remember that it was pretty awful for me as well, so here are a few things to keep in mind:

Junior year is the perfect opportunity to start collapsing down to fewer, more focused objectives. I’ve always believed that the first half of high school was prime for exploring, joining random clubs and just getting out there, discovering something you never though you would enjoy. Junior year doesn’t mean that you’re not exploring, growing or branching out. In my eyes, it means that you begin to evaluate your priorities, pick and choose a handful that are meaningful to you, and pursue those. Within them, you explore and grow, going deeper. The rest should be put on the backburner.

When I was a junior, I decided to drop private lessons with my beloved violin instructor, Miss Laura. We had worked together since I was in 5th grade, and she’s seen me grow through puberty. I knew that I’d have to give up lessons eventually, because it didn’t make sense to make time for them if I didn’t practice enough. I still played in my school orchestra, but began to focus more time and effort towards policy debate. I have no regrets about how things ended up.

The way I see it, our time is limited. It’s crucial to stay passionate, but work hard. The goal isn’t immediate profit or outcome, but rather, learning and taking as much away from your extracurriculars as possible.

My friend Michael and I invested a lot of time into Think North Korea and Liberty in North Korea, but oftentimes without immediate results. That’s what I expected when committing to a startup project. We didn’t meet our monetary goal, but I’m still immensely grateful and proud of what we did accomplish. We were able to pass on the project to younger students, and in return, I learned so much. In college, I find myself referring back to this experience to explain why I worked with non-profits, or have a campus job that involves asking for donations. These skills…they stay with you for a lifetime, and will build on each other, if you let them.

In essence, Vicky, I urge you to consider the big picture when you pick and choose how you’re going to spend your time, and think about an opportunity’s value not just in the moment, but in five, ten years from now.

Oh, but also, grades are important. It pains me to say that, especially for people like you and I, who are stereotypically expected to perform above average,  they matter a lot. Your GPA gives a relatively accurate estimate of your knowledge and work ethic through high school, unlike the SAT or the ACT, which is a snapshot measurement. But I’m sure you’ve heard all of this before, from our parents, teachers, and peers. My addition to this is that challenging yourself is equally important.

In an academic context, this means taking difficult courses that may not guarantee you an A, but will certainly force you to develop better study habits. Yeah yeah, but GPA! College! Believe me when I say that competitive schools strongly value students who not only get “good grades” but also challenge themselves while doing so, and don’t always just go with the easy A.

You’re caught in the SAT/ACT frenzy…I remember having to do practice tests constantly, with no end in sight. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, but the sad reality is that there’s no getting around it, so the realistic thing to do is push through. Keep pushing, because I believe that all of this is worth it. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Oh, also, don’t text and drive. Simple enough. Don’t gamble with your life, and don’t gamble with others’!

When all else gets too overwhelming, take a breath and remember that there is a world outside of high school. Life goes on outside of these boundaries as we speak! You will be through with all of this madness ~soon enough~.

Love, Cat

You’re right, this song is pretty good:


  1. Pingback: To my sister, on her first day of college | Catherine Zhang
  2. Pingback: My sister’s last first day of high school | Catherine Zhang

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