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How to Survive High School Popularity

Yup, the dreaded back to school season is here, and along with academics, popularity and making friends seems to be a universal concern among many incoming students. As a junior in high school, my view towards the social hierarchy of high school has been a long time coming since middle school where I struggled with fitting in and social anxiety. While this isn’t a topic that I talk about often on my blog, here’s an ultimate guide to social hierarchies in high school, and whether or not they matter to help out nervous students!

This chart shows a pretty accurate depiction of the social hierarchies in high school! Image Source

Profile: My High School

First, let me paint a picture of what my high school is like. My high school is like any average public high school, with around 1,800 people and 400-600 people in each grade. However, as an International Baccalaureate (IB) school (which is a program that offers advanced classes for high school students), we have two different hierarchies between the IB kids and the non-IB kids. For me, I’m exactly in the middle. I’m an IB student, but I went through middle and high school with the non-IB kids, so I’ve witnessed the social hierarchy of both sides. While talking with students from different schools across the country, it seems like this is the case in different schools that there’s a divide between AP/IB and non-AP/IB students. But within this general divide, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Texas at Austin identified 12 social categories in modern high schools, which included: populars, jocks, floaters, good-ats, fine arts, brains, normals, druggies-stoners, emo/goths, anime-manga kids, and loners, which I’d say is actually pretty accurate description of social circles within our school.

How Do I Become Popular?

  1. The biggest determinant for popularity is…. Money. It’s ironic that as middle and high school students, what we care about is our parents’ money, but at my school it’s well-known that the most popular kids are quite rich. This is even more evident within the popular boys, who used to (and still do) brag about the cost of their clothing and what neighborhood they lived in. Being able to follow trends, wear name brands, and go on trips with their friends comes from having money, and ultimately that’s what people think is cool.
  2. Being popular also requires social skills and charisma. Many would say that being likeable is important to being popular in high school, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Instead, social skills are needed because popularity requires being social by having a large friend group, going to parties, and knowing lots of other people.
  3. Of course, as with the stereotype, popularity can also be who throws the largest parties.
  4. Studies have shown that attractiveness strongly correlates with popularity among teenagers, and being attractive has all sorts of lifelong benefits such as higher wages and happiness. So… Yes, looks matter.

As with society, it’s important to note that what we see in society is very much present in our high school social hierarchy. At least 90% of the girls who are considered to be the most popular are conventionally pretty, blonde, and White, and there are many different social groups that have a majority of one race or ethnicity. When considering the statistics, my school is considered to be pretty diverse, but there is a noticeable divide between race and ethnicity groups, which was also noted in the study on high school cliques. Some of the students I talked to found this to be a safe community of students where you already have an identity in common, which can be a good thing when trying to find friends in high school. This also brings up interesting questions about why our high school social hierarchy is reflective of what we see in the “real-world” with the division involving race and class, since most of us grew up in similar environments and learned the same language and communication.

One of the most interesting case studies when observing who becomes popular in high school are new students who start school in the middle of the school year. With new students, it’s interesting to see what social groups they eventually settle in, and I’ve noticed that new students who become popular typically conform to develop traits like the popular kids – expensive clothes, a sense of “exclusivity,” and amusingly enough, a reformed, aesthetic Instagram page seems to be part of the package of being popular.

What Does Popularity Influence?

Popularity influences group trends – most notably clothing trends, but sometimes students will end up doing something because the popular kids are doing it. This can turn into something really nice as well. For example, we have a class of special needs students at my school who most people didn’t pay much attention to at first, but once a couple popular kids started being nice to this particular student and high-fiving him in the hallways, a lot more people started doing that. I also saw a post on Twitter about how students at a high school collected Hot Wheels cars for a special needs student because he loved them to give to him for his birthday, which is also an incredibly heartwarming story. But with clothing trends, some of the trends that I’ve seen at my school have been Yeezy shoes, Brandy Melville clothing, lululemon leggings, checkered Vans, Nike Air Force Ones, and so many more.

People also expect popularity to come with privileges such as winning elections like class office, Homecoming court, or Prom court. As the current junior class president and former sophomore class president, I can tell you, that’s not the case, at least at my school. I’m definitely not the coolest person in my grade, and rather, class office and ASB elections are typically won by students who know the most people and are well-liked – doesn’t necessarily mean the popular crowd. My school doesn’t have Homecoming or Prom court, so I can’t tell you how that’s run. Since popular kids don’t always win elections, if you’re interested in winning a student government position, take the time to get to know as many people as you can from all social groups.

As for other privileges? Being popular typically means a bigger social group, so yes, being popular would likely mean that you have more friends. Yet, that doesn’t always mean having close friends, which are incredibly important for having a support system in high school and beyond. Having connections? It depends, with the impact money has on popularity, you might just have some popular kids with rich parents that have tons of connections. But that’s incredibly unlikely depending on what school you go to, so it’s probably better to just join a pre-professional or academic club if you’re interested in forming professional connections. Joining activities that you genuinely enjoy could give you even more benefits in terms of future success and connections, especially since it’s more specific about your own goals. High school popularity definitely doesn’t determine, or even matter much, in success in college years and beyond. In fact, some studies have shown that it’s worse to be popular because high school popularity doesn’t translate to likeability in real-life. Finally, the “cheer captain dating the football quarterback” trope – relationships in high school. This one’s somewhat true, the popular kids do date more at my school, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily because of their popularity. However, it seems like most people date within their own social groups, although the movie trope about cheerleaders dating football players doesn’t come true at my school.

3 Common Stereotypes About Popularity – Are They True?

  1. Popular girls are always mean

While years of teen movies have taught us that popular girls are always mean, hence the movie Mean Girls, the popular girls at my school aren’t actually mean or dumb. They’re actually quite nice, a bit exclusive sometimes, but also good students. We also don’t have an “it girl” or “Queen Bee” mean girl with a cult following, like shown in movies like Heathers or Mean Girls.

  1. Everyone is obsessed with what the popular kids are doing

While gossip about popular kids usually travels fast, since after all, a lot of us know them, there’s no Gossip Girl-style obsession with the popular kids. However, if you’re less well-known, there’s less of a chance that your personal business will be widely talked about by other students. There have been multiple Gossip Girl-style “spilling the tea” Instagram accounts popping up for my school, but none of them have ever really succeeded and they usually die down after a short time.

  1. Popular kids do drugs and drink

This is a huge concern among parents and students alike, and that’s for a good reason. Peer pressure and hazing is no joke. As a high schooler, I know that drugs definitely exist at my school, which typically means marijuana, vaping, and sometimes alcohol and hard drugs. Studies have shown that there is a greater consumption of drugs among popular kids to maintain their popularity, compared to non-popular kids. While I don’t know whether or not that’s true, I can say that I’ve so far never experienced peer pressure to do risky behavior, although I don’t go to parties and the group that I hang out with are mostly IB students who don’t do risky behavior either.

My Story of Navigating Social Hierarchies in Middle and High School

In elementary school, we didn’t have a “popular crowd” at school. We had some students who some people would label as being cooler, but there wasn’t that much of a difference. When I reached middle school, my family had moved around so much that as an impressionable and insecure pre-teen, fitting in and being popular meant so much to me. For two years, I would spend much of my time trying to be popular and fitting in by trying to wear what they wore, acting like them, and trying to make friends with the popular girls. In seventh grade, I became friends with two girls who were also obsessed with being popular. We would spend hours taking and editing photos for Instagram, which looking back at it now, I find it funny that I caved into that pressure considering I absolutely despise taking photos now. Yet, the same friend sold me out by having me do people’s homework in exchange for her getting to hang out with the popular girls. Because of this, I left them and met a new group of friends in eighth grade who are my friends today. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, I’m so glad that I have my friends today, because they’re all incredibly supportive and amazing people, and finding new friends also helped me realize how toxic my previous friends were. Having great friends meant I didn’t care that much about popularity anymore, but I still was far from the person I am today.

By this time, I had reached high school. This was one of my greatest periods of change. Firstly, it’s important to note that my parents have never paid much attention to my academics or accomplishments – not in a bad way, but they’ve never pressured me to achieve. Secondly, before this period of change, I never had much ambition and mostly did what other people did. But freshman year, a series of personal tragedies in my life as well as the COVID-19 pandemic completely transformed me. The personal tragedies made me realize how superficial popularity was and what truly mattered in life. Being quarantined for a year helped me rebuild my confidence since I didn’t have social pressure from school anymore, and it gave me the confidence to apply for one of the most important driving forces in my life – class office. I applied as a joke at first, thinking I’d never make it anyway since I was up against one of the most popular girls in my school. So, imagine my surprise when I opened my email to find that I was now the sophomore class president. I did consider resigning, but my mom encouraged me to try it out, so I decided to follow her advice and do it. And guess what, I completely, absolutely, loved it. Being sophomore class president meant I had to host fundraisers and events for students in my grade, and organizing these events helped me discover a hidden talent – I’m very good at turning an idea into reality step by step. This was so important to me because I had never had anything that I was truly excellent at, so discovering that I was excellent at project management gave me a sense of self-worth. Of course, there were a variety of factors as well, including conducting my own research project and starting this blog, but to this day I’m still incredulous as to how I changed from being aimless and superficial into actually having self-confidence.

For any young kid I knew reaching middle school, the advice I always gave was to start out by joining a group of students, such as the school band or the advanced program, that they knew they could fit in with. Exploring middle school on my own was devastating to me and my self-esteem, and while I’m proud of where I ended up, I know this might not have been the case if I had made some different choices in my life. This is also a reason why I started my blog. I had to navigate middle and high school on my own, and I constantly feel like the path I ended up on is on a delicate balance. Just one wrong action would’ve meant that I would’ve never had all of the personal development I’ve gained over the years, and I’m terrified of reverting to my old self. I’m also fiercely independent, since after accomplishing everything by myself, I tend to keep going on the same path. But, it doesn’t always have to be that way, so I wanted to help share the things that I had to learn the hard way so other students don’t have to be independent like I was.

I also stopped trying to be popular and hanging out with the popular crowd. I had barely anything in common with them, and if I had to force myself to be someone else in order to be liked by them, then it wasn’t worth it. In the end, it’s that – conformity. Because it’s so desired, the popular crowd seems to be the least accepting of differences. Most of the popular kids have defining traits that are similar with other popular kids, such as being known for wearing expensive shoes, having stylish clothes, or hosting expensive parties. I’m sure everyone has a unique trait, but whatever their true interests are, popularity doesn’t showcase that, and instead, it’s defined as being able to conform with what people think is cool. I also met this student who was a huge biology lover when volunteering one day, and we had so much fun talking the entire time even though we had never really met before. I think she’s such an amazing person, and I realized the difference between hanging out with people you truly enjoy being with and forcing yourself to conform to be liked. Hanging out with people that matter to me made me so much happier than the happiness I could ever get from the prestige of popularity.

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