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12 College Admissions Tips for Middle School Parents

Every person I've run into the past few weeks has a middle-schooler with a question for me. Friends around town. Old college friends of mine coming out of the woodwork after 20 years. Parents of my daughter's friends. My own 7th grade daughter is even asking a ton of questions. I feel like my world just shifted from dealing with high school students to middle school students overnight. 

I'm going to be honest. When I worked for the Undergraduate Admissions Office at the University of Pennsylvania, we used to judge these families who are asking me questions. We used to judge private college counselors like me. We wanted these pure students who just showed up to the college process without a strategy, private counselor, or an agenda to speak of. But the fact was that one wrong move on the part of a student was enough of a reason for us not to admit them. Not taking a full load of honors classes freshman year—deny. Skipping physics—deny. Not being a leader or impact player—deny. 

We expected students to know what to do right from the start. Yet it's not like we were giving free workshops around the country to middle school families to make sure they knew what to expect from us. Once I switched to being a college counselor and became a mom of three kids, I realized how absolutely unrealistic our expectations were even for a kid whose parents were college-educated.  

So much has changed since my old college friends and I showed up on campus for freshman year with poor curriculum choices in high school, less than perfect grades, and the luxury of joining a lot of clubs in high school without the pressure of committing to any of them. That was 1993 when the applicant pools were a fraction of what they are now.

Read Sara's article for TODAY Parents: Is Middle School the New High School?

I might get criticized by my old colleagues for giving those middle school parents advice, but this is what I tell my own kids:
  1. Middle school curriculum and grades don't typically show up on a college application, but they absolutely influence what level of classes the student gets placed in for 9th grade. And sometimes it's hard to get moved up to a higher level class at certain high schools. 

  2. For most colleges, the moment 9th grade begins is when everything starts to matter both in terms of academics and extracurricular involvement. There are only a few colleges across the country that don't factor in 9th grade.

  3. It used to be if you paid a lot of money and sent your child to a private school for high school, they got an edge in the admissions process. Nowadays, colleges (especially elite ones) have to be very careful not to show preferential treatment for students who attend "desirable" high schools. 

  4. There is no "check box" for whether or not a student does a certain type of extracurricular activity. In fact, doing something different than friends and classmates can help the student stand out.

  5. Community service is valued by colleges, but it tends to not be a silver bullet when it comes to getting into an elite college. Do it because it's the right thing to do or you may be disappointed with the results.

  6. Continuity, time invested each week, leadership, and impact all matter when it comes to activities. Being a "joiner" like I was in high school isn't as powerful as being an "influencer." 

  7. Explore different interests in middle school so that you can make a bigger impact in those activities in high school.

  8. Take all five core subjects for all four years of high school if possible. Colleges want to see traditional coursework (English, math, science, history, foreign language) over elective classes any day. 

  9. Stick to the same foreign language all the way through high school to have stronger proficiency and more advanced level work. Almost every undergraduate program has a foreign language requirement so the more advanced you are in high school, the better off you will be as an applicant to college.

  10. Colleges usually don't know if you take a study hall. And even if they do, they don't mind it one bit. If a daily study hall helps you manage your time better, it's worth it.

  11. Take the most challenging curriculum you can handle that's offered at your school. A's and B's reflect that you can probably do the work. But nothing is as important as your well-being. So if taking every advanced level class causes too much stress and pressure, reduce your rigor or course load. You will succeed in life even if you don't take every AP class!

  12. You don't need to know what you want to do with your life in the future. Just focus on knowing and celebrating who you are right now. Individuality is everything in this process. Being self-aware allows the student to project that with their choices and their applications.

"Individuality is everything in the college admissions process." TWEET THIS 

As a mom, I wish kids didn't have to worry about whether they get placed in Honors Geometry versus College Prep Geometry in 9th grade. I wish they could take their time to discover the right activities for them. I wish they felt more comfortable making mistakes not only in middle school but in high school too.
While the colleges don't want me giving you this advice right now, it's what you need to know in order for your child to get a fair shake in the admissions process. This is our roadmap in the Harberson home, and I hope it can be helpful for your family as well.