Dear My Freshman Self

Each year, when Menlo School welcomes its new ninth graders at the freshman retreat, students are asked to write letters to their senior selves. The letters, which include the students’ greatest hopes and fears about high school, are saved and opened and read during the senior retreat. As the Class of 2017 was preparing for commencement festivities, a few students volunteered to write letters to their freshmen selves, sharing some thoughts, in their own words, about what they wish they’d have known as ninth graders.

Dear Freshman Lauren,

I recently read the letter you wrote to me, your senior self, when you were about to start high school at Menlo. You were long-winded, idealistic, and, yes, very nervous. You included two pages of motivational quotes, a long list of goals including a 4.0 GPA and a desire to start on the water polo team, and even predictions about the four years that lay ahead.

Well, I’m here to tell you: at no point in my Menlo experience did I have a 4.0 nor did I continue with water polo past sophomore year. Most of your predictions did not come to fruition. At first my heart dropped a little when reading the letter—I had disappointed you, my hopeful freshman self—but then I kept reading. You continued, “If you didn’t accomplish all your goals that’s ok. I’m sure you have done a lot in your four years of high school and reached many goals that you didn’t even think about setting for yourself!” At that moment, I felt a deep love and gratitude for you. Not only did you take the time to write an astoundingly thorough letter to me, you gave me permission to deviate from your preferred path before I even had the chance to. You wrote to me like a friend, not a drill sergeant with a whistle and a timer.

Freshman self, you didn’t know me when you wrote that letter, but I knew you when I read it four years later. So I thought I’d write back and tell you about just a few of the unexpected and wonderful lessons you will learn in the next four years.

  1. Just go to bed. Seriously. I made this my mantra junior year, and I hope I chant it to myself in every future late-night study session in store for me in college. If you’re tired, then sleep! If you don’t think you can study anymore for the math test, then don’t! Everything will be fine. You won’t remember this final. You won’t remember this homework assignment (and you definitely won’t remember it if you only get six hours of sleep). Just. Go. To. Bed. Prioritize nothing over your own health and balance.
  2. Always err on the side of believing in yourself. Do the thing that your brain tells you that you can’t but your gut tells you that you can. Take the hard math class that’s incredibly interesting and exceptionally difficult. Be just as proud of yourself for a B in a challenging class as you would for an A in a straightforward class. Taking a chance on yourself is rarely a miscalculation and never a mistake.
  3. If you can’t believe in yourself, find people who believe in you and then believe themwhen they tell you that you can do hard things. Find the friends, coaches, and teachers who just might be able to convince you that you’re kind or intelligent or strong or capable of taking an 80 percent male engineering class, and surround yourself with them. (Of course, return the favor and reflect back the light they send your way.) Also, I know it’s hard, but listen to Mr. Schafer when he tells you that virtually all Menlo alumni are exceptionally happy and well-prepared for whichever college they end up at. Don’t ignore all that data. You’ll end up in the right place.
  4. Right now, you think compromise is simply a watered-down form of failure. Silicon Valley likes to tell people that safety nets will keep you from reaching your goals. Actually, having a Plan B is a perfectly legitimate way to live your life. If quitting water polo is the best way to be a healthy human being, then find other ways to be active and be satisfied with those. If honors math is causing debilitating stress and you need to move down a track next year, move down with your head held high. The all-or-nothing approach will only leave you paralyzed and guilty. Trust yourself to course-correct.

So, my dear, naive freshman self, I think you wished that I would be completely, unrecognizably different and “perfect” by graduation. But believe me, while I’m different now and while I didn’t accomplish all of your goals, we actually still have most things in common—and I couldn’t be happier about it. Thanks to you, I’ll keep writing to my future selves, and I know we’ll keep remembering the hilariously high expectations, intimidating transitions, and happy mistakes of our life.

Savor friendships with your teachers, try things you’re terrible at (hip-hop!), start a knitting club with no prior experience, and don’t forget to play. Take advantage of everything the Menlo community has to offer and give back everything you have to offer. If you do, you will know Menlo better than you ever thought you could, and you will know yourself better than you ever thought you could.


Graduated Lauren

Lauren Chan graduated from Menlo School in June, 2017. This piece was originally published by Menlo School, and both the school and author granted Challenge Success permission to post.