If you’re alive and living in the Western world, you've probably heard about all the January craziness called New Year's Resolutions, right? It’s often marked by people—young, old, male, female, non-gender-conforming, etc.—making outlandish goals for themselves: either too lofty to complete in a year’s time (go from committed couch potato to winning fitness competitions by next Christmas!), or such a rigid routine (Lift weights! EVERY. DAY.) that by nature, they’re doomed to fail at that “resolution” within a month. And usually, that means they say, “well, I already failed at lifting weights EVERY DAY for 2018, so I might as well quit! After all, even if I lift weights for the remaining of the calendar year, I’ve already failed.”
And then they quit.
Quitting is a bad idea for anyone, anytime, but it's a particularly bad idea for one group of people I see an awful lot of: high school juniors. The spring semester of your junior year and the fall semester of your senior year aren't just important, they're crucial. And unlike your fitness resolutions, which you can always make all over again the next time a new year rolls around, with this crucial stretch, there are no do-overs.
So you need a way of setting goals that you can't quit. A way that will carry you through the year committed to doing your best, pushing yourself to reach your potential—without the escape hatch of giving up. That means that for you, my dear high school junior, we are NOT going to focus on “resolutions.” We are going to focus on something called “intentions” instead.
New Intentions, Not New Year's Resolutions
While resolutions are all about outward actions (“lifting weights!”) and crossing items and routines off your to-do list (“every day!”), they tend to fail because they don’t address what really matters: the feeling you’re actually chasing and the mindset you need to adopt to reach the goal in the first place. Intentions, on the other hand, are more of a North Star, guiding the way towards your desired outcome. They are the desired emotion or principle that rules what you decide to do next. Sometimes the path is clear, but often it is convoluted, and you’d probably never know exactly what action steps to take on January 1st anyway. After all, is the most important thing to lift weights every single day, or did you really just want to feel strong and confident in your physical ability and not get winded lugging your upright bass to the 4th floor band room every day? The point wasn't the to-do list, it was the big picture...right?
Intentions are about where you put your energy and your focus, NOT just about the to-do list items you cross off your list. When you commit to an intention, it keeps you coming back, day after day, to do whatever you can do. It keeps your eye on the prize and your head in the game. That's exactly the attitude you need to survive—and thrive in—the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the two semesters ahead.
On that note, here are the intentions that will get you where you want to go: into your dream college!
Intention #1) Focus on improvement, not perfection.
You will never be perfect. Perfection not only can lead to lowered test scores, but can seem so daunting and pressurized that it gets in the way of achieving the big—albeit do-able—goal you DO have.
Is your target score on the SAT a 1450? Then DON’T WORRY ABOUT BEING PERFECT. You don’t NEED to be. You need to find the easiest and most streamlined path to getting your 1450. Likely, that just means improving several points. Which just means getting a few more questions correct in each section. Which probably only equates to mastering a handful of content (grammar, math, etc.) topics. Anyone can do that! So just focus on being better than you were.
Intention #2) Don’t focus on the score…focus on becoming the type of person who earns the score.
Did you happen to notice that in the previous paragraph, I never said to focus on “quick and dirty tips” to rack up more points…I mentioned “mastering a handful of content” in a focused and streamlined way? If so, pat yourself on the back, because no one ever made significant improvements by cramming. This intention is about setting your sights not on just an end goal (a 34 on the ACT!), but to learn and stretch yourself emotionally and intellectually so that you’re the type of student who earns a 34!
Let’s see…what does a “34-earning student” look like?
She probably learns all the content she says she will. She probably tries to connect the dots between concepts. She probably doesn’t wait for her tutor or teacher to dictate how to solve a problem; she probably makes several attempts herself, even if she fails. She is probably careful and catches herself on careless errors. She probably DOES THE WORK.
The nice thing about this intention? It's win-win. First of all, in my experience, there is NO WAY to ace any of these tests with "tips and tricks." The ONLY way to ace the test? That's right, become the kind of student who earns that ace score. And I say this as an expert in helping students ace the test. And even if you become that kind of student and don't ace the test? You'll still improve—both your score AND your attitude.
Intention #3) Don’t Waste Effort.
Junior year is challenging and a huge juggling act of schedules, energy, and brain cells. While you DO need to do plenty of work, be strategic about it. Can you pare away any unnecessary tasks? (Do you really need to take BOTH the ACT AND the SAT? Do you actually need to do the SAT essay for your college list? Or Subject Tests?) Once you’ve cut away any tasks that are actually redundant and you now have fewer items on your vision board, hone your resources and commit to doing the necessary tasks well. Really well. As in, maybe not perfect, but MUCH improved, and you grew in the process. (Need help figuring out which tasks are necessary and which are pare-away-able? You know how to reach me.)
Intention #4) Ask for the help you need!
You might not know how to do all of this yourself! Like, figuring out a strategic plan to pare down the “unnecessary” tasks, or how to learn what you need to “really well” to make it count. If you need help with learning what you need to know, and even figuring out what you should be learning in the first place, ask for help! There is no reason to go it alone. Your parents or school counselor can likely match you with the right tutor, program, class, etc., that can give you the answers you need. After all, there are tons of people who have WAY MORE experience than you do, and know all about the SAT and ACT and the college process. You don’t have to re-create the iPhone (talk about wasting effort!): allow yourself to receive their expertise instead.
So this year, my dear high school junior, don't quit on your goals—intend to succeed.