What a thing to be a high school student! Academics, activities, athletics, all ask for your time. Family and fun are important too. It is a true juggle!
As a former head of school, teacher, IB EE coordinator, research instructor, and current college counselor, I have seen many high school students do this dance. I have seen first-hand what the pressures of not getting the balance right can do to student well-being. Here at Collegewise, we are focused on bringing more joy and sanity into the college application process and have helped thousands of students navigate these years. Tips on how to manage your schedule come naturally to us! Balancing your school work, extracurricular obligations, family time, and social life is key.
How to Balance Academics & Extracurriculars
High school can be a time of great discovery and learning, combined with growth and fun. It is also really busy. You are expected to perform well, across a rather broad spectrum of academic disciplines, while also paying attention to who you are and what you enjoy, while also excelling at athletics and extracurricular interests. You’re doing this all on a schedule that you have little control over - likely determined by the hours of the school day. It is exhausting to describe, let alone to live!
How to get it all done? How to balance the school day with homework and activities and sports and maybe even part-time work? And, how to determine when it is too much. This juggle can be tough, and most high school students face this quandary.
An important first step is to reflect. Are you doing things you care about? Are you pursuing interests that you enjoy? At Collegewise we understand that the default assumption can be “the more the better!” But the reality is that being the best version of yourself is what will ultimately make an impact - for you and your time in high school. Being incredibly busy is not the goal! Being involved and curious and interested and active in what matters to you - that is the goal.
To get to the other side, and still enjoy what is important to you, requires planning: your time, your schedule, your tasks, your system, and some solid reflection on how and when you work best. Take stock of your activities, and then check out these tips to make the best use of your time and set yourself up for success.
Below are ideas - some you have likely seen before - some are reframed. Try some on for size - see what works for you - and go for it. With the proper structure AND flexibility in place, you can enjoy the socializing, activities, (and school work), that add up to mean high school!
Find Your System: Planners, Calendars, and To-Do Lists
You have heard it over and over, likely even in middle school when teachers did a daily "planner check." Get yourself a planning system. Your dad might use Google. Your bestie might use their iPhone. Your teacher might use a notebook or paper planner. That’s great for them, and you are welcome to listen and nod politely when they tell you it is the BEST and THE ONLY way to go.
Just as we recommend finding the best way for you to study, discovering your learning style and study skills that are a match, you can explore and try on different ways to organize yourself. Try some methods until you find what works for you.
As research evolves to show the benefits of writing vs. typing, it is worth exploring a nice, paper planner. Be sure it includes the full year as well as monthly and weekly sections - and what a bonus if it has blank pages as well! Use it to plot out long-term assignments, your daily schedule for work or athletics, and to set aside time for friends. Seeing the scope of days, weeks, and months as your school year progresses is really helpful. This system also gives a solid visual of how you spend your time.
Electronic calendars have advantages as well. Setting reminders, inviting others, storing contact info - these all make an app on your phone a viable and productive system. There are many to choose from - and digital planners combine the benefits of electronic calendars with the chance to write, using a stylus. Try color-coding your time: activities, school, work, fun, etc. - and you will be able to see the larger picture of where you are dedicating your efforts. You might not be able to doodle in the margins as you can with a paper calendar, but an electronic system could be a solid match for you.
Ultimately, what counts is that you find the system that works best for you. If it supports your productivity and helps you keep on track - go for it. Create a calendar with due dates of assignments. Schedule homework time, and free time. See a ton of work shifts coming up the same week as a research paper deadline? Either organizer makes it super easy to catch it - and make necessary changes.
No matter which way you go, be sure to include a running to-do list. This action can calm anxiety, provide structure, and serve as proof that you are getting through it all. It can be positively thrilling to cross items off of a list. In my years in education with teenagers, I have seen massive Post-it notes on walls, a dedicated binder section, a dedicated planner section, and a phone app all work to support students as they balance extracurriculars and schoolwork. And while it can do in very specific scenarios, like reminding you to take your dirty clothes downstairs, I don’t recommend writing your to-do list on your hand!
When it is time to add the college application process to your to-do list, having these structures already in place will help you fold in the additional work more easily.
How to Manage Your Tasks
The term ‘time management’ is tossed to high school students regularly. But to me, it means managing more than just time.
It is helpful to understand how and when you are at your best. When are you most able to pay attention and produce your strongest efforts? Early risers who are clear-headed and ready to go first thing in the morning can consider completing an intense writing analysis before leaving for school. Those who struggle to make it out the door in the morning but feel crisp and energized after school can save that writing for the early evening. Both types of students can save creative and less structured tasks for the times of day when they are not at 100%.
Your planner can help you here, too. Leafing or scrolling through your calendar can help you see not just when you spend your time but how - what is most important to you? You can use this reflection to curate your schedule of things you love to do AND to help you sort through obligations that you must do, but are not your favorite.
Getting solid rest and exercise, engaging in self-care, and having a dedicated work space all also play a part in boosting task/attention management. And, as much as you may not want to hear it, putting down your phone and stepping away from social media will help too. Can Instagram be a nice way to relax? Sure - but it can also suck away your time - so be careful!
When you balance your time by prioritizing tasks and attention, and by learning your best time to produce specific types of work, you will find a steady path ahead!
When to Change it Up & Re-Prioritize
The color-coded calendar that lets you keep track of your life and visualize what matters to you can also help you decide when it is time to make adjustments beyond shifting your work schedule when a big meet or assignment is coming. If you see a consistent pattern of changes it might be time to reflect on what matters most to you. Work? The track team? Academics? Calendars, planners, and to-lists can help you organize and prioritize your time, but they can't tell you if you're spending your time in ways you find meaningful (although if you feel a sense of dread as you look at your next block of time, that could be one indication).
If you find yourself overwhelmed and not quite as into your activities as you have been in the past, it might be time to take a step back and reflect. Is it hard to find time to do your school work? Maybe you keep having to cancel on friends? Overcommitting is common. And there are solutions.
Let your grown-ups know. Sit down with your parents. Talk to your school counselor or favorite teacher. And, if you are working with a private college admissions counselor, ask them to help you prioritize. Even the most organized and balanced among us need to regroup. My career spans 30 years, and this is a classic conversation I have with students. You are not alone if you feel stressed and overloaded; lots of people care and can listen and help.
Doing what matters to you helps you be the best version of yourself you can be! And that is what colleges seek. So, find your system, manage your attention and tasks, find your productive time, and go for it. Take care to reflect and make choices as needed. Before you know it, you will be doing this and more - but with a much more open schedule - at college!
Do you or someone you know need an extra pair of hands when it comes to balancing academics, exploring extracurriculars, and preparing for college applications? We're here to help!
About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the family. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for your student to be their best self - whether in the classroom, the applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, lead to 4x higher than average admissions rates.