How Early Should I Start Preparing For College?

Padya Paramita

How Early Should I Start Preparing For College?

Whether you are a middle schooler or a high school freshman, you might have a stressful question on your mind: how early should I start preparing for college? This question is of course very important—colleges want to make sure that they evaluate the way you have performed over a number of years. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should be anxious about the process in sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. Take a deep breath and read the rest of this blog, as we cover how much college preparation matters in middle school, and how you should start preparing for college in ninth through twelfth grade.

Should You Worry About College In Middle School?

If you’re asking “how early should I start preparing for college” while you’re still in middle school, I have good news for you. Colleges don’t look at anything you’ve done before high school! So, if you are sad about a C on a test, or you can’t wait to share all of the different extracurricular activities you’ve pursued in the seventh or eighth grade, guess what? These won’t ultimately show up on your Common Application. Even for the personal statement, admissions officers usually want to know who the student is in the present day, so that would be when you are applying as a high school senior. You have a long road ahead of you. 

However, it is of course great practice to develop good study habits and reflective writing skills early on and continue them as you enter high school. Plus, if you’ve been pursuing activities that you’re passionate about, continue building your skills so that you can continue them in ninth grade and beyond at even more advanced levels. However, at the end of the day, what you’re doing currently won’t literally be a part of your college application.

How Much Does 9th Grade Matter?

If you’re a student who is a high school freshman wondering “how early should I start preparing for college?” the answer is both, a. start now and b. you still have time to explore what you love before you settle on future plans and majors and the rest of your courses. High school is all about discovering your interests. If you aren’t sure if you’ll like something—give it a try and see what you think. Take photography as an elective course. Enroll in a computer science course online. Listen to a podcast about starting a business. Start designing clothing or jewelry. The possibilities of 9th grade classes really are endless!

Take advantage of your freshman year to try new things. Explore and work to find your niche. The more you investigate, the more likely it is you’ll discover your true passion. Use this first year of high school to learn more about yourself.

While it’s valuable to explore on your own, you will also greatly benefit from connecting to groups and organizations. High school is usually the first time that students are exposed to countless extracurriculars—take advantage of this opportunity! Get involved in some formalized activities at school or in your community. Join a kickboxing club. Run for a student council position. Act in a theatrical production. Volunteer with an environmental protection group. You get the idea here!

Remember that your teachers are a valuable resource for you. Not only will they be grading your work, but one day these are the people who will write letters of recommendation for your college applications. Be nice to them! Work to get to know them. Talk to them after class if you’re struggling with a subject. If you are enjoying a particular topic, ask for additional resources to continue learning on your own. Be proactive.

Similarly, spend some time getting to know your guidance counselor early on. Don’t just see them for mandatory meetings or when you’re in a crisis. Set up semi-regular check-ins with them to discuss your academic goals and plans for the future. Ask for their help in selecting courses that will be interesting and challenging for you. Your guidance counselor can provide recommendations about academic or extracurricular resources at school—take advantage of this!

How Should You Keep Up Momentum In 10th Grade

Hopefully, by the time you are in 10th grade, you’ve stopped asking “how early should I start preparing for college” and already started taking steps in the right direction. Work to show growth and development through your extracurricular activities. If you were a member of a club in 9th grade, work to get a leadership position in 10th grade. Switch from passive involvement to active engagement—take charge of what you’re doing and work to make an impact in the things you care about. 

While you don’t need to be doing intense college research yet, it doesn’t hurt to begin exploring your options. Use this year to attend college fairs, listen to information sessions, or consider going on-campus visits over spring break. Begin to get accustomed to the different “types” of colleges that exist (i.e. public, private, research institutions, liberal arts colleges, etc.) and start to figure out your preferences and priorities as you explore. You should also map out when you will take your standardized tests. 

Work with your counselor to determine your course selection. It is important to enroll in the rigorous classes your school offers to show that you push yourself academically. If your school has an AP, honors, or IB curriculum, take advantage of this opportunity to challenge yourself. College admissions offices will see: a) what your school offers and b) what you chose to take. Don’t take the easy route!

You should also explore summer opportunities and see how you can make the best of your time off school to pursue an interesting subject with deeper curiosity.

Junior Year is A Big One

As a junior, you should already have taken some challenging courses and set a date for—if not, already taken—one round of the SAT. It’s definitely advisable to take the SAT or ACT during junior year. Remember that colleges will see how many times you’ve taken it, so try not to exceed three attempts total. Space them out and study hard in between so you can see improvement!

Use your spring break or summer after junior year to visit college campuses and become more focused on your future. Attend information sessions while you’re there, introduce yourself to admissions officers, and ask good questions. This exploration can also be meaningful demonstrated interest in colleges!

Use your junior year to conduct more focused research about colleges. Take your standardized test score and current school standing to determine schools that are a good fit for you academically. Ask your guidance counselor where students from your high school typically attend college, and how many get admitted each year. Ask if you can get data on these students’ academic standing, course schedule, or testing data to see if you are in a similar situation. If your school uses Naviance, take advantage of the available information! You need to ensure that your list includes a good balance of reach, fit, and safety schools, so take a look at a variety of options. 

Start writing your personal statement over the summer before senior year. Along with your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, your personal statement acts as a key component of your college application. This is the chance to show admissions officers what makes you a candidate to watch out for. Telling a story that is unique to you takes time. The earlier you start brainstorming, the more time you will have for editing, proofreading, and crafting an excellent final version.

And Finally… Senior Year

Even if you’re nowhere near 12th grade yet, I’ll give you a picture of how it might go. Starting off in the fall, you’ll be fully immersed in the college application process alongside your classes. Continue taking a rigorous course load. Colleges will see which courses you enroll in during senior year. Don’t take an easy schedule thinking it doesn’t matter. Study hard to excel in these classes. The better your marks in these tough courses, the better your chances of admission at a top college. Continue to challenge yourself till the end.

You should have a finalized school list by the end of September. When it’s time to apply to college (November for early schools, January/February for regular decision colleges), be sure to give yourself plenty of time to work on applications, starting in the summer. Gather your recommendations, fill out the Common Application, and write your personal statement and supplemental essays. Avoid submitting applications on the day of the deadline, as many systems get overloaded and experience technical difficulties. Trust us—you do not want to be stuck watching the loading screen at 11:59 PM and panicking! 

No matter where you are in terms of grade level, if you’re asking “how early should I start preparing for college?” know the answer is not middle school! However, ninth grade still offers plenty of time to figure out what you want to do and pursue your interests through challenging yourself. It might seem overwhelming but if you take it one step at a time, you can do it. Good luck!

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