By Rachel, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
When I meet with a new student and their parents for the first time, I will often point out the things about their college admissions profile that are “set in stone.” The closer the student is to senior year, the longer this list is because we are too close to application season to make any big changes to GPA, testing, and activities. When I meet with younger students, though, there are a lot of things about their profile that are not set in stone and there’s a lot they can do to make the most of their high school experience so that come senior year they’re satisfied with the elements they’ve solidified.
So how can a student in their freshman or sophomore year take advantage of the flexibility and opportunity that next few years can offer? If we examine the big components of college admissions, we can identify some corresponding high school planning pieces.
Academics and Curriculum
GPA and curriculum rigor, as demonstrated by the transcript, are the most important factors in students’ applications. Along with working to maintain a good GPA, freshman and sophomore students should get familiar with what different academic paths are available. When you pick your classes for the coming year, don’t just stop there. Pick your classes for the next year and the following year! You can even work backwards from senior year. As a STEM student, for example, many colleges will want to see that you’ve maxed out math offerings at your school. So if you can take AP Calculus BC at your school, what classes do you need to take prior to that to ensure you’re in that class as a senior?
It’s much easier to plan now than it is to play catch up over the summer. You should be taking rigorous courses in your areas of interest at the very least. This will help to prepare you for the more rigorous coursework in junior and senior year, as well as confirm what subjects you do and don’t enjoy. Additionally, be aware of what your schools’ requirements are for honors and AP classes – do you have to take a specific sequence or maintain a certain grade? This information is important and knowing these requirements early on will help you get where you want to go.
Most colleges still place a good deal of importance on standardized test scores. Colleges publish the median SAT and ACT scores of previously admitted students on their websites, and applicants need to be within that range in order to be considered for admission. The more selective the school, the more necessary it is for a student to score within the range of reported testing averages – or their application may not even be read at all. Spend time early on exploring these numbers. For example, the middle 50% of Cornell’s class of 2022 scored between 1420-1530 on their SAT and a 32-34 on the ACT. Knowing this early on can help you work toward this goal and ultimately build a balanced college list.
Along with having an idea of necessary test scores, you should plan out your testing as a freshman so that you are done with tests by the end of junior year or the start of senior year at the latest. Be aware of your own schedule and preferences. What time of year do you need to focus just on coursework and not on test prep? Depending on your schedule, you’ll want to take the SAT or ACT in the winter and/or spring of your junior year. When is your coursework and final exam schedule actually synergistic with testing? Many students will take AP tests in May and sit for the corresponding subject tests that month, too. If you take certain classes that correspond to Subject Tests as a freshman or sophomore, consider sitting for the Subject Test that year, too, if you feel prepared to do so. Making a testing plan during freshman year and then revising it as necessary will put you in a good place to focus on applications come senior year.
While grades and testing are certainly important, keep in mind that highly-selective colleges can fill their classes many times over with students who have perfect grades and test scores. So how else can you prepare to set yourself apart? Look to what you do outside of the classroom! A good goal for your extracurriculars is to have sustained involvement in a few activities that align with your academic and personal interests by the time you apply to college senior year.
Use freshman year to explore your interests. Join clubs and participate in activities that are related to your personal and academic passions. If you’re already involved in a few activities that you really enjoy, continue to participate and find ways to make an impact. Reevaluate any activities at the end of sophomore year to make sure you want to continue dedicating your time to it or if your interests are shifting. Starting something new halfway through high school will still allow you time to develop leadership and create opportunities prior to the start of senior year. Remember that this process isn’t about what colleges “want to see.” Everything you do should have some relevance or meaning. Enjoy the journey of learning about your different areas of interest, don’t just focus on the destination or “getting in.”
Mapping out your high school experience early on can be empowering! It can help reduce anxiety, as you know what to expect and how to create the experiences you want to have. Planning can prevent you from simply going through the motions or realizing too late that you missed an opportunity. Of course you’ll still have to navigate some unexpected changes along the way but, overall, preparing early will help you take advantage of what’s being offered so that when it comes time to apply to college, you can be happy with what you’ve set in stone.
At IvyWise we work with students through every stage of the college admissions process, whether they’re starting as early as 8th or 9th grade, or in the thick of the application process senior year. Click here to learn more about our college counseling services.