High School Freshmen Should Make a Plan NOW for Future College Applications

When your student enters high school, college seems like a long way off. You think, ‘we have four years to think about college!’ In reality, your student has three years to create the experiences that will make up their resume for their applications, and they need to at least consider how they want to present themselves to truly build an application that stands out.

College is definitely not for every student, and there are lots of positive alternatives, such as earning an associate’s degree, attending a vocational-technical school, finding an internship or apprenticeship, or joining the military. There are lots of wonderful jobs that are available to people without college degrees, so be sure to let your teen know their options. However, if your student does want to attend college, and in particular, if they want to attend a top-level university, they should reflect on how they want to portray themselves on their college application from the beginning of their high school career.

Here are important elements that underclassmen in high school should consider:

Good grades. Colleges consistently rate GPA as one of the most important factors in their admission decision, so it’s important for your student to focus on their academics. However, even if your student started high school with lower grades, an upward grade trend is looked upon favorably. If your teen’s grades steadily improve over time, colleges recognize that your student is capable of bouncing back from any difficulties they might face and is willing to put in hard work.

Challenging coursework. Colleges don’t just look at your student’s grades. While straight A’s might look fantastic at first glance, college admissions officers aren’t impressed if those grades were earned in the easiest classes available. Taking honors classes, IB, or AP courses can give your student a significant advantage. In fact, most colleges generally prefer applicants with a B in an honors program over those with an A in standard courses because it shows initiative. Your student can ask their guidance counselor to help them choose courses that will be helpful to their application.

Extracurriculars. Colleges are not looking for a list of all the random activities your teen has done but rather a detailed overview of one to two of their most passionate interests and any big achievements they’ve made in them. Your teen’s activities could be school clubs, church groups, sports, or other community groups. Your student’s extracurricular pursuits should showcase the abilities they have cultivated that aren’t evident from their grades.

Meaningful community service. Colleges like to see volunteer hours on a student’s application, but it helps if those service hours are meaningful. For example, if a student has volunteered at a random few school activities, college admissions officers are likely to assume that the student is just participating for the hours. However, a student who consistently volunteers for a specific nonprofit or cause over their high school career demonstrates passion for the issue and commitment.

Leadership. While it’s great if your student can obtain a leadership position in their club or on their team, there are actually lots of ways that your teen can demonstrate leadership. What colleges want to see is that your student took initiative in their activities and/or made an impact on the organization. Examples include planning an event or fundraiser, following through with a big project, identifying and implementing improvements within a club, or helping to restructure an organization.

Compelling letters of recommendation. Most colleges require at least one letter of recommendation from your high school counselor and a high school teacher (preferably from a core class such as math or English). As a result, your student needs to cultivate relationships with teachers and/or their counselor to find someone who can speak favorably about their work ethic, abilities, ambitions, and interests.

Work experience. College admissions officers also appreciate candidates with work experience. Don’t worry if your student needs to work to offset their expenses as colleges appreciate a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility, and colleges understand that a part-time job requires a significant time commitment. Encourage your student to put in their best effort because they might gain an award or leadership role that can be highlighted on their application. In addition, their boss could be a good source for a letter of recommendation.

Final Thoughts…

Your student should not do all of the above activities. Many students have made the mistake of thinking that they need a ton of extracurricular activities on their applications. They sign up for several clubs, but don’t specialize in any of them, or they exhaust themselves trying to get good grades, hold a job, volunteer, and participate in clubs. Many college admissions officers believe that this type of student is either stretching themselves too thin or that they simply joined a club to put on their resume but didn’t invest any real time or commitment. Colleges prefer students that focus on quality over quantity of activities. Talk through the above mentioned elements that are important on the application and have your student focus in on their academics and only two to three other activities. Help them choose activities that will help them stand out from other applicants. Finally, remind your student that all of those extra activities – whether it’s a sport, a part-time job, or a volunteer activity – will provide the material for all of those important college essays. As they go about their activities, they should take note of lessons they learn along the way so they are prepared with experiences to share in their essays.

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