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Preparing for College Starts Freshman Year of High School

This fall, my oldest child starts high school, a critical coming-of-age experience most noteworthy because this is the last time she will start a new school that’s within ten minutes of our house. The next school she attends will be college, which is both exciting and seriously stressful.

In just a couple of years, my daughter will spend agonizing hours preparing for SATS, writing essays, and filling out college applications. Just thinking about it makes my mom brain go into panic mode.

Will she have the right activities and accolades to put on those applications?

What does she need to do in high school to be competitive?

Am I worrying for no reason?

Is freshman year too early to start prepping for college applications?

I don’t have the answers, so I decided to ask those who do. According to the experts, it is important to start thinking about preparing for college applications as early as possible.

6 Ways to Begin Preparing for College Early

1. The Right Path: Start by Figuring Out the Goal

Freshman year of high school is a good time to start thinking broadly about a student’s goals and next steps, says Danny Eckstein, director of The College Place in Alexandria, Virginia.

“The right fit might be a prestigious four-year college or university,” Eckstein says. “But it could also very well be obtaining a certificate at a career or technical school to efficiently develop your industry-related knowledge and skills in order to jump right into your dream career.”

Freshmen benefit from taking time to explore their options as soon as possible. College prep in high school starts now.

2. The Right Courses: Study to Reach Your Goal

Starting even before freshman year of high school, it is helpful for students to meet with their guidance counselors to discuss the appropriate courses to take.

“Colleges prefer that students have gone above and beyond the minimum graduation requirements of their high school in most subject areas,” explains Alyssa Polakowski, School Counseling Manager for Laurel Springs School. “Some also require that students meet particular subject area requirements or standards set forth by their admissions department, which can also vary by specific major areas of study, such as engineering.” Researching those college-specific requirements early on can help students ensure their competitive edge.

College admissions counselors like to see that students have challenged themselves and can succeed with college-level coursework. While high schools might only require three years of math, science, and foreign language for graduation, many colleges like to see four years in each of those subjects. The most competitive schools also want to see that students have excelled in the most rigorous courses offered by their particular high school, including AP courses. Students should meet with guidance counselors to discuss their goals and determine the best courses to take.

Ian Curtis, independent college consultant and co-founder of H&C Education, encourages students to figure out the subjects they most enjoy and dig deep in those areas. “Use a part of your summer vacations in high school to enroll in academic programs that will help you build your knowledge and experience in a given subject,” he says.

3. The Right Focus: Find and Follow your Passions

When I attended high school, the conventional wisdom was that students needed to appear as well-rounded as possible. According to several college preparation experts, that idea has changed.

Shaan Patel, founder and CEO of Prep Expert, recommends focusing on clubs and activities a student can envision participating in throughout high school. “It’s better to concentrate energy on two to three specific things and gain both experience and leadership skills in them, rather than jump from club to club,” Patel says. “During your freshman year, choose quality and commitment versus sheer quantity.”

Curtis agrees. “The idea is not to show you’re well-rounded,” he says. Instead, students should focus on long-term commitment to their interests. Some parents might be relieved to hear that those interests could range from community service and entrepreneurship to sports or even video games.

4. The Right Records: Keep Track of your Activities & Experiences

What’s the point of becoming involved in all those great activities if you can’t remember what you’ve done? Phyllis Zimbler Miller, mother of two and author of How to Succeed in High School and Prep for College, urges high school students to keep track of after school activities and volunteer hours beginning freshman year. This will ensure those countless hours aren’t forgotten when it’s time to begin filling out college applications.

In a similar vein, Yelena Shuster, an admissions essay editor, recommends journaling to incoming high school freshmen. Not only does journaling helps students remember what they have done when it’s time to apply for schools, it also makes it easier to write that college application essay.

“By senior year, most high school students do not have experience or practice with creative writing, let alone writing about themselves,” she says. “Having four years of practice and journal entries will ensure they’re set up for success writing the personal essay.”

5. The Right Behavior: Be Careful About your Online Presence

We have all seen the stories of students who have lost out on opportunities for college acceptance because of inappropriate social media behavior. It’s advice worth repeating, and heeding.

“Never put anything online that could be detrimental to your college applications, no matter how secure you think the site is,” says Phyllis Zimbler Miller of CollegePrep.

Remind your teen that anything shared on social media will be accessible to college admissions staff and could affect their acceptance.

6. The Right Attitude: Enjoy Yourself

Although the college preparation process seems overwhelming, high school should also be a time for fun. Eckstein encourages students to relax and spend those four years thinking about who they are and what they want.

“As you get to know yourself better over these next four years,” he tells students, “you’ll also better understand what you want out of your college experience and beyond.”

As I help my daughter prepare for her freshman year of high school, I will remind her to make the most of these years. I know if she spends the next four years discovering her passion, she’ll end up exactly where she should be.

Catherine Brown writes about parenting, the arts, eating disorders, and body image for local and national publications. She is co-editor of Hope for Recovery: Stories of Healing from Eating Disorders and co-host of the podcast Eating Disorders: Navigating Recovery. You can find her at, on Facebook and on Instagram (catbrown_writer).

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