Last week as I was making sure I answered all of the questions from my most recent Facebook Live session on college admissions, I came across a message I missed from a parent of a 9th grader. The mom explained that she wanted to make sure she wasn't missing something for her son who was about to start high school. She simply wanted to know what to do now to ensure that her son was well-prepared to apply to college.
We can all relate. But when I worked in college admissions, I downplayed that mom's question. We expected the world from students yet we made it look like getting into their dream college just “happens” one day during senior year. When I became a college counselor at a high school and now as a private college counselor, I realized that families need to plan sooner than senior year.
Here is what every parent needs to know well in advance of the college process:
Whether we want to face it or not, the college process truly begins in 9th grade. Colleges ask for a student's high school record from 9th grade on. Students are required to list their extracurricular involvement on their applications from 9th grade on as well. It doesn't mean that a student needs to have everything figured out as a freshman in high school, but what they do academically and in their free time even in 9th grade influences their college list and ultimately their college choices.
So, make sure your child is placed in the right curriculum for them starting in 9th grade. Too many advanced classes too soon can affect a student's confidence if they begin to struggle; too few can limit their ability to take more challenging courses as high school progresses. While 9th grade is often a transitional year for students, what courses they take, grades they receive, and activities they do set the stage for what is to come.
Loyalty (in extracurricular activities) matters to colleges. A student who commits their time to the same few activities for all four years of high school is valued more than the student who dabbles with no clear commitment or passion. The number of activities is meaningless without measurable impact. Measurable impact translates in the form of an activities list on college applications. It allows a student to list the hours per week and weeks per year they devote to the activity, and any leadership titles they have acquired.
Better yet, though, is something concrete that the student has done on their own or led: spearheading a community project, individual research, a collection of poetry, a portfolio of artwork, a promotion at McDonald's, a younger sibling being cared for every day. Students should ask themselves what their legacy is going to be in high school. Change agents, visionaries, and global influencers show signs of impact as early as high school when they have the confidence and support to be bold with their ideas and actions.
When it comes to standardized tests, practice frequently yet take them rarely. Before junior year, I tell students to take a practice ACT and a practice SAT under normal testing guidelines on their own to determine which test is better suited for them. That allows them to focus their test preparation for one type of test rather than two. Register to take the ACT or the SAT at least once during junior year. Take practice tests leading up to the official one. This helps the student plan, prepare, and manage their time for the official test.
If the student feels like they can improve their score (and they usually can with time and dedicated preparation), they can retake the test once more in junior year and even a final time in senior year. Subject Tests may be expected if a student plans to apply to certain highly selective colleges. The best time to take Subject Tests is in June right after the student takes the AP exam in the particular subject matter.
The letters of recommendation from the high school matter much more than letters from outside the school. Students should invest in their teachers, especially their academic teachers who are used to writing letters of recommendation to colleges. The opinions of these teachers are highly respected by college admissions officers as they are the people who see the student day in and day out. As impressive as it may seem to get a letter from a VIP, boss, coach, or community leader, they very rarely will make a meaningful contribution to the application.
College essay writing is different than high school writing. It's not about citing references properly or analyzing data and literature. A college essay is personal in nature and reflective of lessons learned or an appreciation of oneself. Students often leave the essay until the end. That's okay as long as they have a good topic to write about.
I recommend that students begin keeping a list of distinctive characteristics about themselves, experiences, moments of clarity, or objects of meaning to them in high school. This can provide them with possible topics when the time comes to start writing. Almost any topic will fit a general essay prompt, but some topics develop into deeper and more meaningful essays than others.
Save your money for college. Expensive summer programs for high school students and even private school attendance does not pave the way for college acceptance. It used to, especially with the latter. Nowadays, colleges try not to show preferences based on a student's socioeconomic status or high school they attend. It's not what school/program a student goes to that determines college acceptance; it's what the student makes of the opportunities given to them.
The student who comes from an under-resourced high school can seek out other opportunities outside of school to grow. The student whose parents can afford an expensive summer program on a college campus will find greater results and more fulfillment if they create their own summer project instead.
Let our kids be kids, but having a game plan for applying to college is part of being a kid these days. As students start their freshman year and enter each year of high school thereafter, there needs to be a blueprint that gives them direction and keeps them on course. This plan can adapt and evolve, but it is essential as it sets the table for a student’s best success when they apply to college.