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Setting Academic Goals in High School 

Freshmen and sophomores compare their grades

By Krista, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

Let’s pretend you’re a couch potato who wants to train for a marathon. You’re going to want to set goals to help increase your chances of success, right? For instance, you may decide to increase your mileage or speed slowly each week. Similarly, it is important to set general goals in high school to help improve your chances of success. Just as each person’s running abilities and training plans differ, students’ high school paths may look different. Because of this, learning how to identify and set your own academic goals is crucial, given your personal aspirations and interests.

1. Explore Your Interests

Colleges like to see students who have a focused academic passion. So, once you discover a strong interest, don’t hesitate to dive deeply into this area. That’s what passionate people do naturally, and they say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. It is important to discover your passion early on in high school so you can spend the necessary time working towards gaining expertise in your chosen niche.

Ninth grade and the beginning of 10th grade is a great time to narrow down what you like. I’m not saying you have to know exactly what profession you want to do for the rest of your life, but you should think critically about which classes you enjoy the most. Do you dread going to math class every day but love history, or vice versa? Was there a specific unit in one of your classes that you particularly enjoyed? If nothing is immediately coming to mind, taking a career survey may help point you in the right direction.

If you find something really interesting, explore it further in your free time! For example, maybe you loved a particular topic in biology. Now you can read a book on it or take a related Coursera course for fun. Exploration helps you discover where your passions lie, which then has a ripple effect on your course selection, summer experiences, and activities.

2. Set Your Expectation for Grades

Aim to get the best grades possible, particularly in the courses that are most relevant to your interest area. For instance, if you are interested in STEM, you should earn high marks in math and science courses. If your passion is in English, you should get high marks in all your humanities-oriented courses. While grades are important, all A’s in standard-level classes are not the same as all A’s in more challenging courses, leading me to my next point.

3. Take Rigorous Classes That Match Your Interests

By junior year, you will have the option to take more rigorous courses, possibly even APs or IB Higher Levels, depending on what your school offers. If you’ve developed an interest in STEM, for instance, maybe you opt for advanced or AP-level math and science courses. If you’re more of a language buff, maybe take AP English and Spanish or double up on foreign languages. Some high schools even offer courses beyond AP, such as multivariable math or post-AP foreign language courses! In short, you should aim to take the most rigorous courses you are academically prepared for that best relate to your interest area.

4. Use Summers to Dive Deeper into Your Interests

Continue to explore your interests over the summer, whether through a pre-college course, internship, personal project, and/or research experience. This is a way to gain exposure to your area of interest and confirm your passion for that subject. For instance, if you’re an athlete who also loves applied math, you might lead a data science project looking at the statistical success of the different strategies of a professional soccer team. This experience can confirm your interest in applied math and give you a wonderful topic to discuss in college essays when asked, “Why do you want to major in your area of interest?”

5. Build Your Skills Outside of the Classroom

Like Olympic athletes who devote tremendous amounts of time to their sport, if you have a genuine interest, you will naturally want to devote lots of time to it because you enjoy the subject. This sincere, niche passion makes a student stand out in a highly competitive applicant pool compared to a student who simply gets great grades and test scores.

This means you should be exploring your academic interests year-round. That’s not to say every club has to be related to your main interest, but it does mean that you should be diving deeply into at least one or two organizations where you can gain more hands-on experience in that area. For instance, if you’re interested in mechanical engineering, maybe you join the FIRST robotics team. If you love biology, consider the Science Olympiad team. Perhaps you’re an aspiring playwright and you can write and direct your own plays.

In addition to confirming your academic interests, you can build your soft skills such as leadership, teamwork, conflict resolution, negotiation, self-advocacy, and more through these extracurricular experiences. Both hard and soft skills are necessary to succeed in college and beyond.

6. Factor in Test Prep

One big mistake I often see is that students don’t factor in the time necessary to prepare for standardized tests. I get it. It is a lot to balance test prep with rigorous classes and extracurriculars. However, creating an actionable study schedule and/or getting a study schedule created for you by a tutor is a great starting point. Make sure you devote the amount of time necessary to testing preparation, including taking full-length, timed practice tests.

It’s also important to note that your scores should reflect your skills and interests. For instance, an engineering applicant is expected to have equal or higher test scores in math than English.

7. Aim to Narrow the Focus of Your Interests Towards the Latter Half of High School

By senior year, I advise that my students have what I call a “narrative.” By this, I mean a short “thesis” as to why they’re interested in their area of study. For example, one student may want to pursue electrical engineering to develop more sustainable products. Another student may want to be a leader in diversity and equity endeavors. Both students would have different narratives and different resumes, but they have both taken courses, pursued extracurriculars, and taken summer programs that helped them further develop their individual interests throughout high school.

Each successful student’s high school experience will look different on paper, given their different interests. However, they all should have a similar approach:

  • Determine their passion.
  • Take relevant, rigorous courses.
  • Prep for the SAT/ACT.
  • Explore interests outside the classroom during the summer and throughout the year.
  • Form a concrete narrative.

At IvyWise, we are experts in helping students find their passions and set academic goals to best position them for the college admissions process. We guide students to explore their interests in a genuine and authentic way by helping them craft relevant academic schedules and setting realistic academic and grade goals. If you need guidance mapping out the path to your best-fit school, contact us today.

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