By Christine, IvyWise Premier College Admissions Counselor
As the college admissions process becomes ever more complex and competitive, parents often ask, “When should we start?” While my colleagues and I work in age-appropriate programs with students in all high-school grades, there is value in laying a strong, early foundation. Making the most of the middle school years can help students transition smoothly into and succeed in high school, which, in turn, sets them up for success in college and beyond.
Developing an intentional middle school experience is not about hyper-focusing on academic performance and test prep or pursuing “life passions” at this stage. Instead, it involves thoughtfully guiding students to explore a variety of interests, both inside and outside the classroom, and learning and practicing foundational skills for academic success in, for example, executive functioning, self-advocacy, quantitative problem-solving, and reading and writing. It is also about supporting students’ socioemotional development and nurturing a love of learning. And of course, an early start also seeks to understand individual students’ learning style and plan a strong curricular path for selecting the right high school curriculum and environment. Below, I highlight three (but not exhaustive) core elements of the early start: executive functioning, interest exploration, and curricular planning.
Developing Executive Functioning
Strong executive functioning (EF), “the management system of the brain,” helps students not only to succeed in school but in everyday life. EF encompasses multiple dimensions, including: working memory, attention, emotional regulation, flexibility, planning, impulse control, self-monitoring, and initiation. EF happens in the frontal lobe, and the brain grows significantly during adolescence, a period of high neuroplasticity, making it an ideal time to teach children these skills and strategies to improve their EF. The more students work on building these skills during middle school, the more results they will see in their academics and personal life as they prepare for the rigors of high school. EF skills are absolutely learnable.
Exploring Extracurricular Activities and Interests
Middle school is also an ideal time to explore a variety of interests. I liken it to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. If a student likes art, for example, perhaps they can try different mediums – painting, drawing, sculpting, and photography – from working on DIY projects at home to attending local community center classes as well as visiting museums and reading art-related books. And if an activity doesn’t stick, it’s okay! Students should be encouraged to try something else. Middle school activities are not reported in college applications, so this “trial and error” period can help students figure out what they enjoy and what they don’t. Armed with this self-knowledge, when students reach high school and when extracurricular activities do matter, they can hit the ground running, earnestly pursuing their interests and building up a strong profile.
Preparing for the Academic Rigors of High School
Academic preparation is another critical facet for middle schoolers. They can learn and practice crucial study skills like note-taking, time management, and active and close reading. Families can also thoughtfully consider and seek to understand a student’s learning style — for example, do they thrive working independently or in groups, are they hands-on/tactile, auditory, or visual learners? And while middle schoolers may not have too many course selections, their classes and classroom performance could impact what they take in high school, such as being recommended for honor-level courses in 9th grade. Moreover, for families considering high school options, researching schools and preparing for the application process — ensuring academic readiness, forming strong relationships with teacher recommenders, and studying for admissions exams — may begin in the seventh grade.
Over the past few years, we’ve experienced a growing demand to partner with families to develop an international middle school experience, laying the groundwork for an extraordinary student who will thrive in high school and land strong in the eventual college admissions process. WiseStart™ focuses on grade-appropriate counseling as well as coaching and tutoring in core components such as executive functioning and creative writing. Our goal is to guide and support families and students, helping the latter to succeed in their academic journey. To learn more about how we can help your student in a WiseStart™ program, contact us today!