A Letter from the Editor: What I Learned About High School & the College Process  

Lena Armstrong

I remember walking into the Radnor High School building for the first time and being utterly confused. I remember my first LM pep rally, where I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but still loved every minute of it. I remember my first Radnorite meeting, where I was in awe of the senior editors who seemed to have their lives so together.

As I walked out of high school on my last day, I was surprised to find a feeling of confusion once again. When I had cheered at my last LM pep rally, the school spirit no longer held me as tightly. When I spoke at my last Radnorite meeting, I realized that I (like the senior editors my freshman year) did not always have my life perfectly together.

The road to this point has been long, convoluted, and filled with potholes. There were good days and bad days.  There were times when it seemed that everyone had it together but me. In reality, I have learned that no one really has it all together. We are all just guessing at high school and at life. We tend to hide from the world when we are struggling because we think we are alone, but this is a common experience. I hope to share my perspectives and insights from the past four years, in order to help those who did not have the mentors I had or just want to hear me ramble.

Pushing Myself

The most important thing I took away from high school (and if you read no further) was to force myself outside of my comfort zone. Whether it was cliff jumping when I was absolutely terrified of heights or joining Model UN when I was afraid of public speaking, I found those experiences to be the most rewarding. I certainly failed at many things the first time I did them, but that made me all the more motivated to keep trying.

I also learned how amazing the world could be a few inches above my phone. Frequently, I find myself surrounded by people on their phones, scrolling through instagram or snapchatting someone miles away, when there are friends right next to them. I have learned (from probably one too many articles I researched for my independent study) about the addictive nature of technology and social media. According to Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of several books on the societal implications of technology, social media short-circuits our drive to be social and alleviates boredom, but these are our natural triggers to seek meaningful interactions. Consequently, the paradox exists where we are more connected and lonely than ever as a result of temporarily overriding our social instincts through technology. I found my interactions with other people, not their profiles, more meaningful. I loved when I put my phone aside and pushed myself to engage with those around me at the moment.  Even if it was initially uncomfortable, it ultimately lead to more gratifying relationships and memories.

Getting My Life Together

Figuring out my goals was quite a challenging task. How on earth was I supposed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life when I often struggle to pick a breakfast cereal?  I started off by adding “be happy” to a blank piece of paper. Admittedly, it was vague, but figuring out how to achieve it has continued to be my overarching theme.

I found writing my small and large goals down to be very cathartic, almost as satisfying as making the color-coded lists for my lists.  While I am quite guilty of procrastination at times, I discovered several strategies to combat it. I learned to start an assignment on the first night I received it, even doing something as small as writing the header. This lessened the overwhelming effect of the endeavor that usually lead to my procrastination. I also tried to break assignments up into small pieces, so they became easier to complete and because it is so satisfying to check multiple things off of a to-do list.

One of the best pieces of advice I have received is “just be yourself and ignore what other people are doing.” Sometimes I fell prey to wanting to look and act like everyone else, but in reality I was always far happier when I stayed true to myself.  In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” While it can be hard to make new friends or let go of toxic ones, I tried to build relationships with people who lifted me up, not tore me down. I found it very important to surround myself with people who made me happy.

The College Grind

The college process defined and consumed most of my time at Radnor. While I am very excited to be headed off to Penn next fall, it took me a long time to figure out that is where I wanted to go and what steps I needed to take to get there.

Academics

On the academic side, the most important thing I learned was how to use my resources. I really appreciated talking to teachers, looking online for additional explanations, and asking my friends for help. I  learned that most people are very willing to share their expertise and experience with you. A class or assignment was made exponentially easier by just asking for help, instead of struggling through it alone. I had to discover the hard way that asking for help or using additional resources is not a weakness, but a way to improve your knowledge and yourself.

I learned that it is okay to do poorly sometimes as long as I was trying my best. There were times when I got one too many Cs in math or a D on a physics test, but I found it was what I did with those grades that mattered. When I got a grade I wasn’t proud of, I went out of my way to understand why I made the errors I did, frequently talking through the test with a teacher and using my resources to study harder and improve in the future. I realized that I did not need to get perfect As, and that colleges really do mean it when they say they’d rather see you challenge yourself.

Pre-Applications

For college admissions, I found that it is important to figure out what you are genuinely passionate about and have activities that reflect that. It becomes easier to obtain leadership positions and make an impact within a club or organization that you care about. It is meaningless for you to do activities purely for the sake of filling lines on an application.

Leading up to the college application process, I was completely lost about the timeline. I avoided the subject entirely in freshman year and began to broach it in sophomore year. In all honesty, though, I still opted to take the hardest classes, strove to get the best grades, joined too many clubs, and obtained leadership positions with college in mind. In my junior year, I tried to visit as many schools as possible. (I found I didn’t have a good frame of reference or idea of what I wanted when I looked at schools before this point.) I also talked to as many people as possible about the schools I was interested in. Through a couple thousand google searches, I poured through school statistics and read about the environments at different colleges. Staying over with a family member or friend at college and attending class with them significantly elevated the experience. The best advice I received for college visits was to take notes after each one, detailing the pros and cons of each school. These notes became the core of my “Why Do You Want to Come to Our School?” essays.

Standardized Testing

For testing, I took a practice ACT (out of 36) and SAT (out of 1600) to see which format I preferred. I personally chose the ACT because it was a little bit more concrete and felt less “out to get you.” I learned that different schools have different testing requirements and did many internet searches to figure out what I needed to take. There seemed to be the greatest variation regarding Subject Tests. I chose to take the Subject Tests and ACT as soon as possible to get them over with (or have time to retake them). I wish I could say I took the ACT in one shot, but it took me three: first during the fall of my junior year, again in the spring, and lastly in the fall of my senior year. I used a highly acclaimed online tutor the summer before my junior year, but wound up receiving the same score on my first ACT as I had on my very first practice test. I was so upset with myself and thought all was lost.

Fortunately, I learned you can pretty much redo anything. For the next one, I studied independently, taking as many practice tests as I could find. I did do something extreme and got up every Saturday to take a practice ACT at 8am for a month leading up to the test date. I improved my score by 3 points. I was fine with my score, I told myself. But when August of my senior year rolled around, I decided to take the September ACT one final time (and raised my score another 3 points). As someone who hates the pressure of timed tests, I found it very helpful to practice in test-like conditions (in a temperature-fluctuating, strange room with a timer).  Since Radnor does not offer the ACT, I did a practice run and drove to the actual test location days prior to the exam. I really did not want testing to consume my life, so I tried to balance other summer activities and my social life with studying for these tests. It took up a larger portion of my time than I wish, but it did ultimately help me get into college.

Applications

I was dumbfounded when I opened up the Common Application and realized how few characters they give you to explain yourself. It felt weird to have my entire high school experience cut down to mere sentence fragments. When I sat down to write my personal essay, I did not know where to start.  I read college essays featured in the New York Times or the Washington Post, which only served to intensify my writer’s block. Ultimately, I had to stop trying to write the greatest essay and just start writing my story.

I tied myself a bit too much to this process. When I saw the application, I couldn’t fit all of myself onto the lines. My high school experience was not 10 activities and 5 awards, it was so much more. In the same vein, I had to realize that college was not an all or nothing entity and the admissions process was not a reflection of worth.  I came to appreciate a saying that was repeated to me more than once during this process: “college is not a prize to be won, but a fit to be found.”

Stress & Mental Health

I found myself and others in a cycle of stress, especially in junior year and the beginning of senior year, checking HAC way too many times and running to get the five extra minutes for a math test. The best ways I found to manage stress were to pursue hobbies I cared about, spend time with friends, exercise, and go outside. I found even walking home from school each day significantly reduced the monotony of schoolwork and the “grind” mindset. Finding the balance between academics and mental health can be challenging. There is no shame in getting emotional help from relatives, friends, guidance counselors, or other professionals. Someone told me you can only get two out of the three S’s (sleep, schoolwork, and social time) in college, and I found the same to be true in high school. Fortunately, Radnor students will get a little extra time to sleep in the morning next year.

I had to figure out what worked best for me, prioritizing and sacrificing a bit to achieve my goals. There were many nights when I stayed up way too late doing homework, and there were many weekends where I had to turn down social events. I tried to get sleep and hang out with friends as much as I could, in order to attempt some balance and happiness. It wasn’t always seamless, but I had to stop wishing for perfection.

RHS In Hindsight   

It still hasn’t hit me that this is the end. I will always remember my years at Radnor, playing with the band at football games, goofing off in the halls, avoiding cockroaches, and editing Radnorite articles. At Radnor, I learned that it can be not just okay, but good to make mistakes and fail because it allows for growth.  As I left the building on my last day of high school, it felt so anti-climatic. I had expected to have it all figured out and to feel relieved.

My last Radnorite meeting brought me a bit more closure. The Radnorite represented my navigation of the truth and meaning within my own community. At my first meeting, I had sat in awe of the upperclassmen who seemed to understand the world, and their place in it. I had hoped to achieve that level of impact and assurance someday. While time did not do all the wonders I had anticipated, the Radnorite and other Radnor activities gave me avenues to contemplate myself within a larger community. I have loved my time as the name behind the Radnorite Distribution List, but I am ready to see yet again what life as a freshman has in store for me. I am ready to meet new seniors who seem to have their lives put together, and discover once again that no one really does.