One of my Application Nation members is in charge of the speaker series at her child's high school. This mom is invested in making sure that the kids who attend this public school have the best resources for the college process. A few days ago she posted on our private discussion board asking if I had any tips to pass along to the incoming high school freshmen. I hesitated a bit.
I remember being on the college side of the admissions process and we judged families and high schools who started too "early." We were pretty self-righteous about it. The elite institution I worked for liked to categorize families who started too early as being strategic. I shake my head a bit knowing how strategic the colleges are when it comes to our kids. They're allowed to strategize about which students to target, which students to admit who are more likely to enroll, and which students to invest in, but we're not?
Now that I work exclusively with families, I am a lot more sympathetic to the pressures students face. I know that if they pick the wrong class for freshman year or take a standardized test at the wrong time, their admissions outcomes can be affected. That seems so unfair to me. I am reminded that I came from a under-resourced high school and community, and I just want to make sure every kid knows the important stuff when it comes to getting into college.
So, in that vein, here is what I would tell my 14-year old self going into high school back in the day (and my oldest daughter too!):
1. At almost every college in the country, freshman year matters.
Senior year matters too. And everything in between.
2. Choose a curriculum for 9th grade that you can handle.
But don't turn your back on rigor as the most competitive colleges like students to take the most challenging curriculum from 9th grade on.
It can be a high school club or sport in your community, or even an independent hobby. Not all of the activities that you get involved with during freshman year will stick, but some will. Continuity and impact matter to admissions officers.
4. Don't rush into taking standardized tests.
Taking the ACTs, SATs, or Subject Tests too early can leave the student burnt out before they hit their stride. Most students take the ACT or SAT for the first time during junior year. And Subject Tests aren't required at most schools. If you want to take Subject Tests, do it right after taking the AP class in the same subject.
5. Teachers can turn into great mentors.
They can be a trusted adult to speak to about academic and non-academic ideas. They can nominate you for programs and scholarships. And they ultimately can write powerful letters of recommendation when the time comes. While most colleges prefer that students ask 10th and 11th grade academic teachers for recommendation letters, reaching out to teachers takes practice so start early.
6. Make sure your counselor of record not only knows who you are, but understands what you're doing.
So many kids go to large public high schools and their counselor doesn't even know them. And even the kids going to private schools often feel like their counselor just "doesn't get them." Stop in and visit them informally and formally. Let them know what you're up to all along the way. This will translate into a more powerful and detailed letter of recommendation when the time comes.
"If your school counselor doesn't know who you are, be sure to change that with regular visits to their office." TWEET THIS
7. Do not follow the crowd—ever. It's easy to do what all of your friends are doing "extracurricularly," but don't succumb to the peer pressure.
The students who are most successful in this admissions process are the ones that pave their own path.
8. Start writing down little things about yourself that make you the person you are.
Why? Because most students are at a loss for words and topics when it comes time to write their main college essay. Just as you never want to follow the crowd in terms of activities, you don't want to write about the same predictable things that everyone writes about.
9. Think in terms of impact.
Leadership titles in extracurricular activities used to be the goal. Not anymore. It's all about the impact a student makes, and impact is measured less in leadership titles and more in action. The poet who puts together an anthology of poetry over four years of high school; the activist who organizes events that affect positive change in their community; the student-athlete who may not be the star of the team, but becomes the unsung hero when the captains aren't stepping up.
10. Summers should be focused on the things you need to do and the things you want to do.
That usually has more to do with earning some money, pursuing a passion that you don't have as much time to do during the school year, and being a regular teenager. It typically has less to do with attending an expensive academic program on a college campus as colleges (even the ones hosting these academic programs) are not nearly as impressed as the program itself seems to promote.
I still hold back a bit when it comes to giving advice to high school freshmen. I want them to be thinking that college is the ultimate next step, but I also want them to explore and test things out in an organic way. Part of the exploration process is making sure they are setting themselves up to succeed beyond high school. If I followed my former employer's approach, I would say there's no rush. But I know better. And, frankly, they know better too. So, if you want to go to a traditional four-year college, be your own advocate in this process, and your own storyteller too. Students who craft their own narrative become the most evolved students, applicants, and adults.