By: Caroline Koppelman
The college process starts earlier every year. In our home base in New York City, it seems that it begins around age two when parents start looking at options for Pre-K. By the beginning of middle school many parents are already looking for independent college counselors, consultants, and ACT tutors. This approach might seem aggressive to some, and while we don’t think a ten year old should be thinking about college, ninth grade is an appropriate time to start talking about the future.
Barring special circumstances, starting the prep process for standardized tests in ninth grade is definitely overkill. We’ve never met a student who can stand to be tutored for two years leading up to a test. Freshman year curriculums are often fairly constrained, with maybe the choice of an Honors class or two, so the options for improving and building a resume seem limited. The real thing to focus on freshmen year is finding a passion, or many passions, and figuring out how to dive into it head first.
Extracurricular activities activities are a good place to begin. We’ve mentioned before that colleges don’t want “well rounded students,” but a well-rounded class made up of extremes. Essentially what this means is that students who want to gain admission to top schools need to be specialists in one area. But it isn’t enough to simply articulate your passion in an essay. Your actions and extracurriculars must speak for themselves and demonstrate commitment and interest.
It’s completely fine to not know your deepest passion at age 14. What we recommend is spending freshmen year trying out different clubs and having many experiences outside of school. It is only by testing out as many options as possible that students figure out what truly makes them tick. Then, by sophomore year, the student will have a few areas they can really drill into and take leadership positions in.
This freshman year trial period is extremely important. We find that many freshmen wait to get involved because they are unsure of exactly what they want to do. Those who jump right in and are willing to fail make the best applicants come senior year. They also learn the important skill of balancing homework and extracurricular activities, which helps with time management when the college application process begins.
The summer after freshmen year is an extension of this trial period. Taking classes, going on trips, having meaningful experiences, going to camp, or any form of exploration are all good ways to spend the summer. But you have to do something. You cannot spend the summer lounging around with friends. In recent years, we’ve noticed many parents have an aversion to summer camps because they think “wasting” a summer on camp will make their child a less attractive candidate. We tend to disagree with this. We find that summer camp can be an enriching experience for basically everyone, especially if it is a camp with a focus on a particular skill (tennis camp, writing camp, language-learning etc.).
On top of this, it is important to have a strong GPA. Parents often fixate on junior year as the “college prep year,” but the college process is a marathon, not a sprint. We cannot say this enough: freshmen year counts, especially when it comes to grades. Colleges like to see improvement, of course, but having an A to A+ GPA freshmen year when the work is easiest will make gaining admission to a top tier school more of a real possibility. Even if you do well sophomore, junior, and senior year, very poor freshman year grades can hurt your chances of getting into a great school. Students should use freshmen year to figure out how they study best, which means trying different approaches. Planning and spreading out their work-load is key, as are learning how to ask for help and working in groups.
College may seem like a life-time away to a high school freshman. And in most regards it is. You have four years of high school ahead of you to enjoy yourself and have new experiences. That said, a little foresight is always smart. Finding activities and passions early will allow you to focus only on what you love once you’re an upperclassmen, and let you fill your application with skills and leadership positions. Doing this will make the college process, which may seem far away, a lot easier.