What is American High School really like? The basics from an expat parent’s view in NJ

LIVING IN NEW JERSEY: When you think of American High school, there are lots of images that are conjured up from TV shows, movies and news stories that have been shown around the world including in Australia. Shows such as ‘Mean Girls’, ‘High School Musical’, ‘Heathers’ and ‘Clueless’, help to develop biases and pre-conceptions about the reality of American high school life for non-locals such as expats. 

Many are exaggerations, but there are some elements of truth in them which are only obvious when you see US high school in real life or at least second-hand. After all it is my children who attended school rather than me.


Of course, there is much more to American high school than just what these movies convey. For newcomers, some things can be a big surprise. So here is an overview of some basics. 

American High School Basics 

  1. High School grade names

No one talks about 9th graders or 12th graders when referring to high-schoolers. They are designated by the historically used terms of:

  • freshmen (first year of high school, usually 9th Grade) – used for all sexes;
  • sophomores (second year of high school, usually 10th Grade)
  • juniors (third year of high school, usually 11th Grade)
  • seniors (fourth and final year of high school, usually 12th Grade)

These terms are used identically for college or university students as well i.e. freshmen for 1st year of university etc. This takes a bit of getting used to but soon it will roll off your tongue without delay in conversation.


Freshmen induction at high school

  1. Clothes

Oh dear, where to start? Firstly, most people know that all traditional public-school kids get to wear almost whatever they like to school. There are though, always a few school rules about clothing. However, believe me, in a lot of schools these truly are guidelines, rather than strictly-enforced rules. Examples might include the requirement for no spaghetti straps, no cleavage or bare shoulders showing, or ’short’ shorts. Additionally, students are required not to wear a cap or hat in school, not to sag their pants and not to wear aggressive, violent or racist messages on clothing such as t-shirts.

In practice, school dress rules are primarily directed at girls, making most guidelines heavily gender-biased. Males are not often affected, and it seems at times, rarely picked out. The punishments can be either to wear spare school office clothing that covers the offending area (you can imagine how flattering these second-hand pieces are) or in case of males to pull their pants up! Otherwise, students may be sent home.

Naturally latest fashions dictate what is worn, with a bit of local flair and age-reflective styles.  Personality styles or which clique you belong to, can determine some of the rest. These groups are slightly different for each high school and can be dependent on the location i.e. a mid-west high school is going to be different from a California or NY high school. Some generic high school styles include preppy, indie, lazy/outsider, emo, goth, athletes/jocks, nerds and hipsters. Many students wear something more generic though that might fall broadly in the category of ‘casual.’ However, my own family ‘experts’ (my opinionated children) tell me, that there are a lot of subtleties that escape a parent’s unknowing eyes, and you can’t make generalizations about what category kids fit into or even their clothing.

Other factors affecting clothing include socio-demographics such as financial status, cultural background, political leanings and value-set of the township population. 

  1. Drugs

It may shock some people to know that virtually all American high schools, including those in NJ have some type of drug use, whether it is alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs or cigarettes. Sure, the amount varies in different school districts and locations but so do the drugs used. Locations of drug use change frequently in swings and roundabouts, although there are some regular black spots. For example in NJ, Paterson and Elizabeth frequently top the worst drugs area lists.

Drugs that are generally available include illegal drugs such as heroin and legal prescription painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone. Use of the latter, is part of a growing epidemic across America, not just in schools. Marijuana, cocaine and alcohol are also frequently used, with alcohol use reported in nearly 1 in 5 in youths 12-17 years age, and more frequently in high school age students. Ritalin or Adderall may also be used to help specifically for study, in the belief they will make students more effective.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether your school district is rich or poor, there are going to be drugs. Sellers of drugs can be visitors from out of town or other students who have access to marijuana or oxycodone from their parents. Luckily students receive detailed lessons about the dangers of drugs. Some might say too detailed with lots of explanations of what each drug is, how it is made etc.

  1. Cars

A big surprise for me was to find out how many students drove a car to school in junior and senior high school years. This varies a lot. Students in urban areas tend to drive less while those in rural or semi-rural will drive more frequently. Even so, the average proportion of student drivers is quite high at approximately 75%. Student drivers attending high school either have their own car park or some allocated parking areas nearby to cater for the volume of cars. As a parent, it is hard to get used to your teenager being driven about so much by other inexperienced teens with new licenses. It’s not a bad idea for parents to impress their children with the dangers of accompanying anyone under the influence while driving, even though alcohol is technically not legally available till 21 years of age. 

Styles of cars driven by students often reflect the school area’s wealth and demographics. For instance, in wealthy, often-white towns, the student car park is likely to include a lot of flashy cars such as BMWs, Audis, high-cost 4-WDs etc., which may be the parent’s car or may even belong to the student. In more diverse socio-economic areas though, there is more of a mix. There will still be some students with the swanky cars but equally as many others with average/old cars, as well as some who have no car. Students may find it socially easier being one of many in the group with a dumpy car in a diverse town, than being one of the few with a less luxurious car, in the rich white town, as students do make comparisons. It can be quite expensive keeping up with the Joneses in some NJ towns, when it comes to getting the right car for your child to drive.


High School Driver parking in the USA

  1. Exams

Unlike Australia, there is no single big exam that is done to enter university held at the end of school. Instead there is a mix of university entry exams that cover multiple subjects (SAT, ACT), together with subject-specific exams e.g. AP exam, SAT subjects, CLEP exams etc, which are held throughout Junior and Senior years. This means exam preparation at several stages throughout high school.

Currently many states do not technically have an ‘exit’ exam, as the others (SAT, ACT exams) are done well before school-end to meet college submission dates. In most states, the requirement for a high school graduation or exit-exam has changed a lot in recent years and likely to again in the future. There are some states though still implementing standardized state-set exams but this is changing quickly. NJ under the previous Christie administration were implementing the PARCC exam system, with many other states but a number of states have stopped this program due to many complaints. It is likely the new NJ state government will also stop PARCC use as well in the future.


  1. Homework

American high school involves a lot of homework. This increases as students move towards Senior year but can be at its worst in Junior year because of the number of higher-level classes that students try and cram in early on, to maximize their GPA and AP best scores before college submission deadlines, as take place before school finishes. Amazingly, it is not unusual for Juniors and Seniors to be given homework that requires them to work until early hours of the morning. This means with early starting times (many start at 7.30-8.00am), that they do not get enough sleep and run on a sleep deficit throughout the year. From a parent’s viewpoint, this is rather annoying as teachers and schools turn a blind eye regardless of the health issues surrounding sleep deprivation.

The other reason for a heavy study load is that preparation for the ACT and SAT exam programs require study out of school. This is in addition to the student’s normal homework load and starts from Sophomore year onwards. All in all, students can feel an enormous amount of pressure in high school, for 2-3 years, as they manage a heavy schedule of work, and exam prep. This can perhaps explain the need for stress relief via drugs and alcohol. In wealthy towns particularly, where parents standardly have hopes of Ivy League college entry (therefore high results in all their exams, GPA), children can feel extremely pressurized, and the school atmosphere can be very competitive/serious. 


  1. Food

One of the most popular reasons for complaints in American High school is the food. Lunch is the main meal served, which occurs in the school cafeteria. Many students avoid school lunches unless they are getting their meals for free or at reduced price, as part of the National Lunch Program, which assists low-socioeconomic families.

Cafeteria food is often considered unappealing, stale and somewhat unhealthy. ‘Mystery meat’ is an oft-used ingredient in cafeteria food for lunch meals. One look at it is enough to realize – you won’t solve that mystery and still keep an appetite.

High school cafeteria in Washington DC: Wikimedia Commons

Luckily older students are allowed off-campus in some school districts and can walk to nearby shops, cafes, restaurants to order something more appealing. Food trucks also hang outside the schools’ borders to sell a variety of freshly made options to eager students who can afford it.


Even though this is a long post to read, there are still many things not covered here-these are just the basics of American high school. We will elaborate on some more of these areas, particularly exams, food, high school subjects, in future posts. In the meantime, if you want to catch some TV programs that represent American high school more realistically, try watching ‘Freaks and Geeks’, and ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower.’

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