10 Things to Focus On at School Beyond Your Grades

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School isn’t just about the grades. The path to your future career begins at school, and there is a great deal to be learnt along the way.

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All the same, if you have a competitive mindset and you’re ambitious, it can start to seem that way. Focusing on your grades exclusively offers you real, quantifiable results when you start to see your test scores going up; no one gives you marks out of ten for social skills, non-competitive hobbies or life experience. However, when you leave school, you’ll discover that these broader, less quantifiable skills are actually very important for your success in later life, as well as being hugely valuable in and of themselves.
So, if you’re not going to focus solely on the numbers on your report card, what should you be thinking about? Here’s our list.

1. The subjects you aren’t graded on or don’t do well at

Perseverance is a valuable life skill. As Robert the Bruce learnt from a spider building a web: ‘If at first you don’t succeed try, try again’.
Perseverance is a valuable life skill. As Robert the Bruce learnt from a spider building a web: ‘If at first you don’t succeed try, try again’.

Whatever your curriculum, there are probably some subjects that you aren’t graded on at all, or that you’ve decided aren’t your strengths (perhaps to the extent that you have decided to save your effort for other classes). In some cases (not all), this can be a fairly sensible approach: if you’re determined to become a doctor, say, it’s unwise to put all of your effort into a pass/fail Religious Studies class at the expense of your Chemistry grade.
At the same time, trying hard when you don’t need to, or when it’s especially hard, is a valuable life skill. If you allow yourself to be motivated only by the possibility of getting a top grade, you’ll struggle in the parts of life where there’s no such thing as the equivalent of a top grade, or where you’ll never be more than passably good – but where you need do the thing all the same. Learning to motivate yourself when there isn’t an immediate payoff is something that will definitely pay dividends later on in life, whether that’s in compulsory courses at university or in learning to drive.

2. Preparing for your future career

Even if you aren’t sure exactly what you would like to do as a career, most work experience will show future employers that you can be punctual, responsible and able to work with others.
Even if you aren’t sure exactly what you would like to do as a career, most work experience will show future employers that you can be punctual, responsible and able to work with others.

We’ve written before about all the things you can do at school to prepare yourself for your future career. For some careers, such as becoming a doctor, it’s important to start early on getting relevant work experience alongside getting top grades; for others, such as programming, your skills specific to that job will make far more difference to a future employer than your grades in unrelated subjects. Of course, we’re not suggested neglecting your grades if they don’t matter so much to your chosen career path – what you plan on doing now might not be what you end up doing in adult life. Even if it is something you do for a while, most people change career at least once in your lifetime and you don’t want to be held back from that because you were too single-minded at school.
All the same, there are some career preparations that will be useful whatever you end up doing. Getting work experience of any kind is valuable, in order to demonstrate that you can turn up for work on time, work to the instructions you are given, and impress your boss – skills that frequently correlate with success at school, but not always. If the work experience you can get is relevant to the path you want to follow, so much the better.
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3. Cultivating your friendships

Having a good group of close friends is always something to be valued.
Having a good group of close friends is always something to be valued.

Of all the things that it’s desirable to focus on while you’re at school, this is probably one of the more enjoyable ones! But there are benefits to cultivating your friendships beyond just having fun (important as that is). Getting on with other people, and navigating the politics of one set of people falling out with another set, are valuable skills that you will need time and time again in adult life, in the workplace especially.
For the really Machiavellian, it’s worth remembering that a close circle of friends is invaluable come exam time: revision is much easier with friends to share the pain, you can compare notes on essays, and when you really need to stop working and relax, it’s much easier when you know other people working towards the same exams as you are doing the same thing. Not everyone is naturally sociable and many people also prefer to have their closest friendships outside of school, but at the very least learning how to be friendly, if not necessarily friends, with your classmates will make your school life easier.

4. Learning how to get on with your teachers

Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as giving an apple to your teacher.
Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as giving an apple to your teacher.

Rather harder for most people than making friends with their classmates is figuring out how to get on with their teachers. Yet for most of us, our relationship with our teacher is more alike to the relationships we will have with employers and managers later on in life even than the relationships we have with employers as teenagers.
There’s a simple reason for this: when you’re working as a teenager, unless you’re very lucky, you’re probably not working in a particularly skilled job, and your role will be mostly to do what you’re told and not much else. By contrast, an adult employed in a professional capacity will be expected to take charge of their own work, innovate, take the initiative and occasionally push back against the manager’s instructions if they think they’re unwise. Learning how to do this appropriately – without overstepping the bounds of professionalism or being rude – is something you can begin to learn at school in your interactions with your teachers.

5. Sport, drama and other extracurriculars with teamwork

In any career, one of the most valuable skills you can have is learning to work well with others.
In any career, one of the most valuable skills you can have is learning to work well with others.

Unless you’re planning to run a one-person business that somehow avoids all interactions with clients and also to become a hermit, teamwork is probably the most crucial skill you will need, both in school and in the rest of your life. Sport and drama are two of the many things that help build on these skills in an enjoyable way.
Sports teach teamwork in a very obvious way: if one person isn’t trying in training, they’ll let the whole side down. Drama is similar in that it’s very people-orientated, and if one person struggles – for instance, by forgetting their lines – it’s up to the rest of the group to rally round and support them.
But if you don’t like the sound of either of those, there are plenty of alternative options. You might be part of a volunteer group campaigning for a particular social change in your local area, or you might start a band or join a choir. Any of these offer the opportunity to work with a range of people with different skills and experiences, allowing you to take on roles of particular responsibility and learn how to make the most of the contributions of others.

6. Learning how to work with people you dislike

Unfortunately, not everyone you work with will be a good person. This is something you need to learn to deal with tactfully and maturely.
Unfortunately, not everyone you work with will be a good person. This is something you need to learn to deal with tactfully and maturely.

If there’s one chief benefit that conventional schooling offers over, say, autodidactism, it’s probably that it requires you to work with people you dislike. They might be fellow students, teachers, or any of the other people with whom school life requires you to work. Once again, this is something that will be required time and time again in adult life. Employers do generally try to hire people not just on the basis of their skills but also their fit within the organisation – in other words, they will try to choose people who will get on with everyone else more than a school management is able to choose its pupils – but it doesn’t always work perfectly and in any size of organisation there will probably be at least one person who you don’t like.
In school, it’s generally OK to have people you’re known to like and people you’re known to dislike. In a work context, if you make it plain that you dislike a colleague (especially if they haven’t done anything to deserve it), you’ll be seen as the problem – and that might have consequences for your career. Get better at keeping your opinions to yourself, or better yet, working to improve them, while there are still fewer consequences for showing your dislike.

7. Clubs, societies and developing hobbies

When you’re a young child, much of your personality is shaped by your parents. They decide the sports you play, the music you listen to, the types of films you go to see and they probably have a fair degree of influence over the friends you have as well. By the time you go to secondary school, you’re in a position to start figuring out what you’re interested in for yourself and developing your own character more independently.
One thing that’s great for this at school is clubs, societies and other hobbies. School offers a great opportunity (probably second only to university) to try out a wide range of activities, quit the ones you don’t like and pursue the ones you do with minimal cost and effort. You can learn what activities you enjoy and what you don’t, find new ways of relaxing and ultimately get to know yourself a little better.

8. Seizing new opportunities and travel

No one ever regrets doing more travelling. Take the opportunity while you have the time.
No one ever regrets doing more travelling. Take the opportunity while you have the time.

There are two key reasons why your schooldays are a great time for new experiences and travel. Firstly because you have more spare time now than you probably will until you retire. Universities might technically have longer holidays than schools do but your holidays will be full of catching up on reading lists (or preparing for the new term), internships, and possibly paid work. Your school holidays are likely to be comparatively empty. So this is a great time to explore the world if you’re able, whether that’s by going on holiday with your parents, older siblings or friends, or engaging in independent travel such as attending a summer school.
There will be other opportunities open to you as a school student that you won’t encounter later on in life – for instance, experiences specifically limited to school students, such as Young Scientist, Lawyer, Astronomer or similar competitions and similar things such as scholarships that might be limited to people under the age of 18. It’s worth focusing on these while you’re at school simply because the same sort of opportunity won’t be available when you’re older.

9. Living more independently

No one wants to be the person at university who has to send their washing home to their parents, has to download instructions on how to boil an egg or messes up their finances because they’ve never had to manage their own budget before. There are plenty of other basic life skills that some people pick up as they go along while they’re at school, others are taught by their family and a third category have to learn on the fly when they first live on their own.
It’s always nice instead to be the person who actually understands how interest rates work, as well as all the other practical things that won’t earn you higher marks in school but that will definitely make things easier for you in later life. While you’re at school is a great time to start working on these things before they really matter and while your parents are still on hand to help out if you get stuck (rather than, say, having to phone them from university in the middle of the night because you can’t figure out how the fuse box works).

10. Languages and other skills that benefit from brain plasticity

This clever little guy is getting a head start on practising those difficult-to-pronounce Italian verbs.
This clever little guy is getting a head start on practising those difficult-to-pronounce Italian verbs.

Finally, there are some skills worth focusing on while you’re in school simply because they will get a lot harder if you try to work on them later in life, so it makes sense to work on them now while they’re still easy. There are lots of areas that benefit particularly from the brain plasticity that makes it easier to learn things when you’re younger: languages, musical instruments, and some sports, for instance. The younger you are, the better, so if you’re thinking – say – that you’d love to learn Arabic when you go to university, it’d be better for you to start classes to lay the foundations now.
 
 
What things have you found it valuable to focus on in school other than your grades? Let us know in the comments!
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