I can't believe it's happening. I've got a rising high school freshman in my house. And, she's asking me a ton of questions about what she needs to do right now to prepare for the college admissions process.
So in honor of my oldest, Sophie, here is a checklist on what underclassmen can do this summer and as they begin the school year:
1. Don't worry so much about this summer's activity because the odds are that it may not even "make the cut" on your activities list by the time you reach senior year.
Just do something productive that is either done out of necessity (for your family or community) or because you are passionate about it. Sophie has created "Camp Harberson" for her 10 year-old brother and 7-year old sister while my husband and I work full-time. She does arts and crafts with them, prepares meals, sets up the blow-up pool for them, and plays cards, board games, and anything else she can find to keep them busy. If she ends up running Camp Harberson every summer for us, then I could see it showing up on her activities list down the road. My guess, though, is that she will have plenty of other activities to share on her application by the time she reaches senior year. By the way, admissions officers always value summer experiences which do not cost a family anything. So look around and be creative with what you have.
2. Even with the test optional trend sweeping the country, I still would recommend test prep to begin this summer for rising juniors.
Test prep can be a private tutor, an online class, or a self-directed plan. While there are plenty of colleges waiving the SAT and ACT for the rising seniors, I believe most colleges who are making that one year policy change will return to requiring test scores for admission.
3. Speaking of standardized tests, if you are an underclassmen (like a high school junior) I would avoid all fall testing if possible.
It will be a madhouse at every testing site in August, September, October, and November if these testing sites even offer the test to begin with. Continue prepping and taking practice exams in the fall, but let those high school seniors who need it get the chance to take standardized tests.
4. Review your schedule for the upcoming year and begin summer reading or proactive tutoring in advance.
I know this sounds crazy, but for a class that the student knows will be tough for them, I recommend preparing over the summer for it. For example, Sophie will be taking Geometry in 9th grade. It's a tough class for anyone and you want to start off strong. If you want to ensure a strong and consistent performance in a tough class, consider reaching out to the teacher to get the curriculum and review concepts by yourself or with a tutor while you have the free time.
5. Start the year fresh by evaluating the clubs and activities you are doing.
Focus on the things that are truly meaningful. If you are spread too thin, you might not be able to have the kind of impact on a few activities that could make an even greater impact on your college applications.
6. It's usually very early to know which colleges are a "match" for a student, but families can begin to do virtual tours and information sessions to get a feel for size, selectivity, philosophy, and student body at colleges of interest.
Most students will only have grades at this point so it is hard to know if they will be competitive for a college down the road. Pay attention to acceptance rates, though. They are very revealing. Any college with an acceptance rate of 25% or less is what I call a "reach" college for anyone!
7. Consider your biggest strength and figure out a way to pursue it this summer and beyond.
We all have something special to share, but it is up to the individual to go after it. Sophie knows exactly what her biggest strength is already. It's up to her to start developing it even further. NEVER WASTE A MOMENT WHEN YOU HAVE SOMETHING SPECIAL TO PURSUE.
8. Stay active during quarantine.
This is for students and parents. Whether you plan to play a sport during the school year or not, all of us benefit mentally and physically from physical activity. Run, walk, do yoga (which is what I do!), swim, bike, train, move. There are so many ways to keep yourself in shape and most of them don't cost a cent!
9. Begin a list of essay topics for the main college essay at the start of high school.
This should be a working list. It is a way to keep track of those precious moments and personal nuggets which define who you are. It is really difficult to come up with an essay topic on the spot when it is time to write the main college essay. As I say almost daily, the topic for your main college essay is just as important as how well written it is.
To get started, download my Ultimate Guide to Picking the Perfect College Essay Topic — for free!
10. Finally, always remember to stick to my 5-4 Plan.
Take five core classes for all four years of high school to be sure you are taking the right classes for any college program. Core classes are English, math, science, history, and foreign language. Exceptions can be made, but they are few and far between.
As I expand my role in this college admissions process from not just expert to now expert AND parent of a high school student, I will be sharing tips and tricks that I not only use with my clients and Application Nation families, but with Sophie too. Sharing ideas has never hurt anyone. Students will interpret these ideas differently and so they never have to worry about someone stealing their idea. Sophie knows this, and so do I. We will be sharing our ideas openly all along the way.