This the first part of a series. Read the introduction here.
In our elementary years, school—and life, really—was simple. There wasn’t an insane emphasis on grades or extracurriculars; we were just told to learn things the best we could and not misbehave as much as possible.
But as the prospect of college draws closer, the mindsets regarding the future that are imposed on us become more focused and realistic. The pressure to get top grades, demonstrate leadership, and score well on standardized tests begins piling on.
Consequently, high school often ends up getting viewed as a game where our success is largely determined by what college we get into. Grades, test scores, and extracurriculars are reduced to variables that strategies are built around, and learning is no longer seen as an objective, but rather, as a means to an end—after all, the education system doesn’t track intangible knowledge.
To better understand the game of high school, we have to first understand the concept of a metagame: the game of the game.
At the beginning of a chess game, there are twenty possible moves for White.
On paper, there’s no inherent reason to favor one move over another. But when you observe what players actually do, it’s clear that White prefers certain moves over others. Per chess.com’s database of nearly three million high level tournament matches, over two-thirds of these games started with the moves e4, d4, or Nf3. Take a look for yourself:
Why is this? It’s because over time, players have studied the outcomes of certain chronological moves, developed some overall strategies, and determined that when chess is played most optimally by both sides, moves like e4, d4, and Nf3 give you the best shots of winning.
None of this is ever mentioned in the chess rulebook. The chess rulebook just tells you how to play the game. But figuring out how to win the game is essentially another game in itself.
And that is the definition of the metagame: a collection of the best player developed strategies that are used to increase one’s odds of winning.
Chess has a uniquely healthy metagame that has stood the test of time. While most games aren’t like this, the point is that balanced metagames consist of various equally-powered strategies and fluctuate based on player versus player interaction. Sports are also a great example of this, as players and teams have to constantly adjust to their opponent’s game plans.
On the other hand, in stale metagames, a few strategies or characters completely overshadow the others, which usually result in the game becoming less fun. Normally, stale metagames are addressed through reworks to polarizing aspects of the game (nerfs and buffs) or discoveries of counters to the current meta. And if none of this happens, then players will quit.
Now that we know what a metagame is, it’s time to turn our attention to the high school metagame.
If the game is high school, and if the goal is getting into a prestigious college, then the metagame consists of the best ways to increase our admissions chances.
The basic game of high school is simple:
But there’s an additional, unspoken stipulation here that gives rise to the metagame:
Being good enough doesn’t cut it; no, you have to be great at something else, too. You have to surpass your own standards of what’s good enough and excel academically, extracurricular…ly, or in both ways.
While everyone’s standards are going to be different, there’s always progress to be made.
So, the high school metagame is all about taking those four conditions (grades, extracurriculars, test scores, exceptionality) and discovering the optimal strategy that maximizes our chances of getting accepted into our desired college.
Generally speaking, there are three methods:
(Continually improve on academics, set a limit on extracurriculars)
This is the meta-defining strategy that most of us end up using throughout high school. It’s very simple to understand:
This strategy is all about doing everything we can do in an academic sense to look good to colleges. So we take the harder classes, put in the extra studying hours, and hopefully come out with straight A’s.
We still preoccupy ourselves with extracurricular activities, but spend less time on them. As such, we approach them with the mindset that there’s a point that’s good enough for us: making the varsity team is good enough. Acquiring the president position in that club is good enough. Volunteering for community service hours is good enough. Being in the school orchestra for all four years is good enough.
To be clear, we do actually enjoy the activities that we’re involved in, but we wouldn’t exactly mind missing a few practices or other obligations in favor of getting some homework or studying out of the way. Yes, we’re committed to them in the most genuine of respects, but they’re not our main priority in most cases.
The ideal outcome of the Academic Route is a student profile that boasts the ability to do well in rigorous classes, but also demonstrates distinct interests, leadership, a willingness to participate in the community, and that altogether, we’re not a robot:
The best part about this strategy is that we always know what the next steps look like, and continually improving is simple: if our schedule is too easy, then we should take more classes. If regular classes are too easy, then we should take more AP and honor classes. If we still have time leftover, then we can consider doing more extracurriculars.
The Academic Route is the meta. But there are other strategies.
(Continually improve on extracurriculars, set a limit on academics)
This strategy is centered around a primary focus on pursuing our interests while keeping our academics afloat:
Some examples include being recruited for sports, building a film or art portfolio, or just doing anything that deviates from the strictly academic (robotics, debate, etc).
This doesn’t mean that we can completely disregard our academics. Rather, it means that instead of constantly trying to improve at them by packing harder classes into our schedule, we do what the Academic Route did with extracurriculars and draw a line on academics somewhere.
Maybe we deem a 3.6 grade point average acceptable (or a 2.8, or a 3.3, or a 4.0, whatever). Maybe we are okay with a lower SAT score, or with taking fewer AP tests than everyone else. Whatever our academic expectations may be, the idea is that once we hit them, we only have to worry about maintaining them, not continuously nudging them higher and higher.
Through this strategy, we still display academic competence with a willingness to learn, and highlight a part of us that shines in a particular activity, which exhibits authenticity, responsibility, and creativity in its own way.
Unsurprisingly, most of us don’t take this route, simply because most conclude that there are no extracurricular activities worth spending more time on over academics—or at least, we haven’t found one yet.
The steps forward may not always be so clear, either. For some pursuits, like music or sports, progress may be more obvious (practice 40 hours a day), but it’s not always the case with activities like film, art, or writing.
This doesn’t mean that the Passion Route isn’t a viable strategy—it just isn’t a favored one.
And finally, the last strategy present in the metagame…
(Continually improve on both extracurriculars and academics)
There really isn’t much to say about this; it’s taking the best aspects from the previous two routes and meshing them together.
This is what most of us strive for, but struggle to achieve in reality. Obviously, it’s hard to have both a passion that we genuinely enjoy and the ability to get top grades in the hardest possible classes. That being said, there are always going to be people who meet both criteria, but it’s a very small number.
For the sake of the series, the emphasis of throughout will be placed on the split between the Academic and Passion Route; those of us who are super good at both probably have got things pretty figured out already.
(Also, it’s important to note that the ‘strategy’ that one goes with is based on intent, not accomplishments; you don’t have to boast a certain GPA or number of AP classes to be considered to be going down the Academic Route, for example.)
These are the three general strategies that make up the high school metagame: the Academic Route, the Passion Route, and the Ideal Route.
While this all seems healthy on paper, the metagame is actually very stale: the Academic Route completely overshadows the other two strategies in terms of viability and thus, popularity.
Unfortunately for us, there is no upcoming patch (the education system is staying the same), there is no countering the meta (doing something new just raises the bar for everyone else), and there is no quitting (we’re literally bound by federal law to attend school). This means that the problems that the high school metagame causes—stress, toxic competition, burnout, self confidence issues, yeah, yeah, yeah—are here to stay, for who knows how long.
As such, a lot of well-meaning people who have been through high school understand that it’s not worth sacrificing immense mental or physical health over. They instead emphasize that we should use this time to search for interests, make mistakes, and hopefully, find something we enjoy doing.
Essentially, these people are telling us to take the Passion Route—or to at least dedicate some time towards exploring potential interests—because it will give us a sense of purpose and open up new opportunities in the future. While this is a great proposition in theory, most of us still feel inclined to go with the cookie-cutter Academic Route anyways. We’ll explore the underlying reasons why in the next part.