Parents of high schoolers frequently ask me when the best time is to begin planning for college. My answer is usually “now!” which often, and more importantly, leads to talking about “how.”
Having college options means making smart choices early on related to course scheduling and even how students spend their time outside of school. Top grades in rigorous courses are the foundation of a competitive college application, but other application components matter, too. If you're the parent of (or are yourself) a 9th or 10th grader, a successful college application process will emphasize the following:
Take academics seriously from day one. You can’t play catch-up when it comes to your GPA.
The number one most important part of any college application is a student’s transcript. The transcript is not only about grades received but classes taken. Transcripts are reviewed “in context,” meaning the rigor of the class and the high school you attend are taken into consideration, as well as the history of how well students do in the class. This last part is especially apparent (and essential!) for admissions officers who are regionally focused and tend to get to know specific schools well. I am often asked this age-old question: is it better to get a B in an AP class or an A in a regular level class? The answer is it depends. It depends on what colleges you are applying to, when the class is taken during your high school career, and the context of the class and its rigor within your high school. So much in college admissions is not cut and dry, and this is a good example of that fact.
Pro tip: take the hardest classes you possibly can while maintaining a high GPA in the context of what is a high GPA at your high school and, of course, your own strengths and weaknesses. Admissions officers don’t want to see a transcript full of APs if the grades in those classes are B’s and C’s.
What you do outside of class also matters, but it’s not all about being well-rounded or gaining “leadership” titles.
Most selective colleges and universities expect to see a resume that speaks to an intended course of study (or multiple if undecided) in college. Most 9th and even many 10th graders don’t know what they want to study in college. Early in high school is the time to get out there and do the exploration needed to figure this out. How? Join clubs, take summer classes or free online classes during the school year via Coursera or edX, volunteer, intern, shadow people with jobs that interest you. Students who do know should be drilling down on that interest, deepening their involvement in it over time. When it comes to leadership and service, these are not required components of any college application, although colleges do like to see students engage in ways that serve someone other than themselves. I typically suggest students choose one volunteer or service activity that means something to them and to stick with just that throughout high school. As far as leadership goes, the traditional definition of this (club president, sports team captain) is out, and a far more personalized definition (taking ownership of your time, using it to lift others up in a meaningful way) is in.
Pro tip: More is less when it comes to extracurriculars. Admissions officers love well-roundedness on the transcript, but not always on the resume. Find your thing or a few things, stick with them, and deepen those involvements in interesting and unique ways over time. No need for a laundry list resume.
We are moving toward a test-optional world, but don’t confuse that with a test-blind world.
Until colleges go test-blind, testing matters. It behooves most students to give standardized testing a try, and in doing so, start prepping earlier rather than later. Junior year is a student's most challenging academic year; don’t wait until late fall, or even worse, spring of 11th grade to start thinking about testing.
Pro tip: Finding a best fit tutor is not all that different from finding a best fit college. It can take some time, so think about starting this search during the second half of 10th grade if you are planning for a summer start to test prep.
Successful college planning starts with helping students recognize the importance of their academic performance, explore their interests, and plan ahead where planning ahead may benefit them the most.
About the Author
Brittany Maschal is the founder of Brittany Maschal Consulting, a boutique provider of admissions counseling and early career advising. She attended the University of Vermont for her undergrad, Penn for her masters, and GWU for her doctorate.