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4 Skills Middle Schoolers Need to Develop Now for College Prep

By Nat, WiseStart™ and IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

We say this all the time: the earlier you start on college prep the better. But how early is too early? The reality is that colleges look at everything from 9th grade on – meaning students need to show up to day one of high school ready to go. Preparing for day one, however, isn’t about drilling SAT/ACT questions and over-scheduling students with activities. It’s much more about developing the soft skills necessary to be successful in high school and beyond.

As a college counselor at an independent school, I was grateful to have the opportunity to work with my students beginning in the 9th grade, mostly because it made college counseling much easier. Starting so early allowed me to develop a relationship with them, which was quite different than being assigned to my students during the second semester of junior year, which is still the center of gravity at some of the most visible independent schools in the country. In getting to know my students and their families so well, I was also responsible for preparing them for college – not just getting them in.

There are a few major academic transitions for students, with one of those being the jump from the expectations in 8th grade to the expectations and workload in 9th grade. I often see students who are so gifted academically they never had to develop study skills in order to do well in middle school, and this catches up to them in high school – which is not an ideal time to learn something new at the expense of performance in their courses. From a student development perspective, I believe it’s important to work with my students even before the 9th grade to help develop the skills that I know will be so important as they enter high school. I often tell my students that getting a good grade in class doesn’t necessarily mean they performed well in class. I also emphasize the difference between getting a good letter of recommendation and getting a helpful letter of recommendation. The key components in both of these examples are skills that can and should be developed before 9th grade.

As a counselor, it is my job to meet all of my students where they were in regards to their study, executive functioning, and social-emotional skills, and administer an action plan to try to strengthen those abilities and work on areas of opportunity. Framing my job as preparing my students to be successful in college instead of just getting them accepted to college requires a tremendous amount of thoughtful planning, teamwork, and execution. I spend a lot of time working with my students to develop introspection, self-advocacy skills, good study habits, and self-awareness.

Skill 1: Introspection

When looking at soft skills from the perspective of a former college admissions officer, one of the most important skills I think that students need to develop is their ability to be introspective. Some of the brightest students struggle with this, and because of that so much of the planned lessons I work on with my students are thoughtfully crafted to develop this skill over time. Things like journal writing, inspiration boards, and other tools were borrowed from various other experiences and instituted purposefully. One of my favorite lessons to promote introspection (among other attributes) with my younger students is to show them Simon Sinek’s, “Start with Why” TedX talk video. This video encourages students to be introspective and thoughtful about their motivations and narrative, and how, in turn, to go after their dreams. Without introspection, students don’t fully understand why they are going to school in the first place (other than they are “supposed to.”) I find my students felt much more empowered when they were able to ascertain what they wanted from school, and then plan their path to achieve what they wanted. Additionally, I find that students who write the most effective essays are deeply reflective in their writing and thinking ability, and this all comes from introspection.

Skill 2: Self-Advocacy

Self-advocacy is having the maturity to ask for help when you need it, and best used before you may need it. Developing this skill effectively is nuanced, though, because it’s not necessarily only the ability to speak up in one’s own best interest but also, and perhaps more importantly, knowing when to step back and let others have a turn. This comes from self-awareness. These skills are not developed independently but must be developed together in order to benefit from one another.

Skill 3: Self-Awareness

In regard to self-awareness, so much of this development can be accomplished simply by taking an assessment of a student’s baseline study skills (which I’ll cover next) and then working to build their skillset based on that assessment. Oftentimes, students don’t know what they should be doing inside and outside of the classroom, and so the baseline assessment is often an “ah ha” moment. On a deeper level, self-awareness is recognizing class dynamics and knowing how to best play into them during a class discussion. There are so many different techniques that I use with my students in terms of helping them become more aware of their surroundings, and also what factors influence their performance.

Skill 4: Study Habits

Self-advocacy and self-awareness also benefit from good study habits and planning so that one has the ability to ask for help on a long-term project before it’s too late to get help. It goes without saying that these skills are essential for success in high school and college, and the earlier a student can develop them, the better prepared they will be. In my experience, a significant portion of 9th graders are still developing their study skills once they enter high school, and that can often hamper their performance in the classroom. If colleges are looking at all four years of grades and activities, and students are struggling to develop their study skills in 9th grade, they’ll have an even bigger hole to dig out of as the school year progresses. Simple skills coaching that helps students with their executive functioning skills in middle school, including developing good study habits, can go a long way toward setting them up for success in high school and help build upon their self-advocacy and, in turn, self-awareness.

We’ve always talked about hard and soft factors in college admissions, and it’s exciting to challenge students in order to develop some of the most important soft factors. Developing these skills early sets students up for success once they reach high school and actually makes college prep much easier as they approach the actual application process. And of course, these skills will support them in successful outcomes far beyond gaining admissions to college.

At IvyWise, we have a team of counselors and tutors that can help middle school students prepare for high school and hone these skills through a WiseStart™ program. Contact us today to learn more about WiseStart™ and how we can help your student get on the right track before high school.

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