If I had to describe secondary school, I’d probably call it a journey. In the sense that, the person you are when you collect your GCSE results will be entirely different to what you were like in year seven; you’ll look and sound different, you might have different interests and your friendship group is likely to have grown. Five years is, after all, a very long time, and there are points in that time where things will probably become difficult. Half the time I wanted desperately to just quit and drop out, which unfortunately is both impossible and unlikely to fix anything. That’s the annoying thing: there is no instant fix to make secondary school a leisurely jaunt – but with the power of hindsight there are some things I picked up that will make your life considerably easier.
As obvious as it is, just be nice to people, including your teachers and school staff. Being angry and resentful will never get you very far; school staff are the people who are there for you, your success and wellbeing. When you're kind and respectful, you’re far more likely to get an extension for a piece of work, because you're presenting mature and professional behaviours. Even the often-forgotten librarians and receptionists are fountains of knowledge whose help can become invaluable. In general, avoid making enemies: your life becomes easier without playground feuds and rumour mills. You are very likely to become known in your school, don’t let it be for the wrong reasons.
When something does go wrong, honesty is going to get you far further than scrambling for excuses. This also comes back to forming positive relationships with your teachers, because if for some reason you didn’t get to complete something in time or you’re concerned about a test, they’ll understand. Talk to them in advance where possible, and explain what happened. People do sometimes forget things, that happens no matter how hard you try. You are after all allowed to make mistakes; you can completely bomb a test (try not to make it your actual GCSE paper) - learn and identify what went wrong and find strategies to improve on it.
When you’ve identified problems find solutions. Say you find yourself forgetting to do homework a lot, use the tools that are out there to help. Your school might already upload assignments online, see if you can set reminders to check what needs doing. Or try your own tools, a physical planner, doing work with someone else, an app – find what works and customise it to your needs. There are tools for almost everything; notes, to-do lists, calendars, revision, it’s all there. Learn how to make the most of them and it’ll help considerably.
Figure out an effective revision strategy for you, try diagrams, flashcards, online tools, teaching another person, or learning with friends: throw it all at a wall and see what sticks.
If you find yourself forgetting to pack things, make a checklist and pack your bag the night before. Your brain is a really cool thing, but it can have shortcomings, it’s all about figuring out how to overcome them.
Planning and organisation are such a huge part of improving your sanity – this is again about finding what works for you. Split big projects into smaller goals and work on them across a few days. It’ll feel less overwhelming and like you're making more progress. Everyone you ever meet will tell you this, but start work early, even if it’s only doing part of it – do not leave everything to the last minute. It will come back to haunt you – trust the serial procrastinator on this one. Rushing and cramming will only stress you out, especially with tests, space revision out. Don’t give in to the temptation to revise what you find easiest first, find a topic list, rank it from what you know best to what you know best and start at your worst area.
Yes, reading your textbook or just copying out notes once and never looking at them again feels productive, but it isn’t really – it might help you retain that one key concept you keep forgetting in the short term but it won’t get you through your GCSEs.
You’re allowed not to get things, when you don’t, ask a friend or teacher to go over it again or see if there are explanations online. There’s a great level of courage and respect in admitting what you’re not so good at and what your limits are.
Don’t ever push yourself to a point where it becomes unhealthy, you have to be realistic about what you’ll achieve in any given day. Grades are important but don’t make yourself miserable, space things out, take breaks and try to enjoy yourself. It’ll help avoid burnout and a deep-rooted hatred for education.
Secondary school isn’t just about your GCSEs, you do a great deal of growing up too. You’ll probably do a lot of figuring out what you do and don’t like. It’s perfectly fine if you decide you really don’t like geography, but don’t ruin the experience for yourself or other people. I’d still encourage you to try; it absolutely doesn’t mean forcing yourself to get 97% on every test (most school exams don’t actually measure a host of valuable skills anyway), but don’t completely knock the experience either. It's much easier to take some interest than to take none at all.
School is about finding a balance, and figuring out what you want and what you need. You don’t have to have your entire life planned down to the month, but say you know you want to do A level French and you need a specific grade, you might put extra revision time into French instead of history. That isn’t to say ignore every subject other than French or don’t complete your history homework, but consider your priorities.
I’d also say don’t make academics your entire life. If your school hosts talks or optional trips or extra-curricular activities, take part! Worst case scenario you discover you don’t like something and you don’t go back, but at least you’ve tried it. If you’ve got the time, try out for leadership roles, they can be incredibly valuable experiences. Equally, none of the extra stuff has to be wholly done in school hours either. See if there are local sports clubs, youth groups, volunteering opportunities, or arts clubs nearby – really anything that piques your interest and contributes to your learning experience is viable and worth pursuing. It’ll become a break from school and allow you to connect with people other than your classmates.
Above all else, take care of yourself; get good sleep, eat well and listen to your body. Find a support network of people who’ll listen to you and give you support. And, be ready to listen in turn.
I know the temptation to rebel or stay up late is there, almost everyone I know and knew did that. And, I’m aware what I’m saying isn’t going to stop you, but coming from someone who fixed their sleep schedule and routine - it helps. When you're anxious try taking a shower or going for a walk, and remember to talk to other people, don’t isolate yourself. Your priority is you, not what other people think of you, focus on getting yourself where you want to be. If you work on getting this bit right, you're doing pretty well at secondary school!