Phrases like, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail," exhibit daunting, intimidating, and extremely stressful vibes. We’ve all heard that “college admissions is more competitive than ever.” So what can we do about it?
Well, what if it was different? You know…enjoyable? What if the college application process could be fun and cultivate motivation and a sense of purpose?
For over 15 years, I’ve helped teens explore their future aspirations by guiding them to figure out their intentions. Together, we build a competitive portfolio that aligns with their goals and purpose, so they can get accepted into some of the most competitive colleges in the world. I call this process, “From Lost to College Boss” (LCB) and we use eight specific tools to look within yourself to conquer the college process.
And yes, this even works for ninth graders.
At first, I thought students felt stressed because they were overwhelmed since they had a lot to do. Though that’s true, the real cause of the stress is that students don’t always know exactly WHAT to do. It was the unknown that caused them anxiety.
LCB helps students forge ahead. The results? Teens build up confidence, ownership, and a degree of hope for their future possibilities. Their explorations help them look within to plan things out. Together, we put the process more in their hands so they can take specific action steps. Students have a lot more power in the process than they realize, and they actually look forward to checking off each step to forge ahead to the next one. In addition, starting early helps to the foundation for stronger high school academic, social, and career outlets.
So How Do You Prep For College As a High School Freshman?
Here are 8 navigation tools to get excited and prepared for college starting as early as freshman in high school. Let’s review the process.
- Take a self-assessment
- Focus on your grades
- Find ways to start standing out early
- Explore Advanced Placement Options
- Start Planning Your Financial Aid
- Plan Your SATs (or ACTs)
- Stay The Course - Embrace the Adventure of Self-Care
1. Take a self-assessment
Get curious about charting your aspirations. Navigating a journey of self-discovery allows you to dive into your passions. I’ve put together 5 exploration questions to chart your path with reflection:
What specific moments in your life have brought you inspiration? Joy? Fulfillment? Excitement? How can those moments guide your future academic and career path?
Think about your unique talents and skills. Have any of them created a positive impact in your life? Academics? Personal pursuits?
Can you reflect back on a time when you overcame a challenge? What was the adversity? How did you figure it out? Navigate through it? Did you fail or succeed? What did you learn from this experience? How can that resilience shape your future goals? How are you different today thanks to this experience?
Envision your ideal life in the future. What activities, accomplishments, or experiences bring you the most happiness? Fulfillment?
What makes you special? Consider a friend, teacher, or parent’s positive feedback. What qualities or characteristics do others recognize in you? How can you build upon these strengths to create a fulfilling life?
Now that we’ve done a little self-discovery, it’s time to use your insights to shape a fulfilling next step.
2. Focus on your grades
Set your sights on success and striving for stellar grades. From the moment you step into ninth grade, your GPA and transcripts begin to paint a picture of your high school academic history, making it crucial to excel in your studies.
Whether your dream is to attend a highly competitive university or a more moderate one, a high GPA serves as a vital factor to enhance your chances of acceptance. By achieving strong grades early on, you can set yourself apart from your peers and leave a lasting positive impression for your future endeavors -- all while building resilient study habits.
Prioritizing academic excellence and attaining a strong GPA will position you favorably among the majority of colleges that highly value this accomplishment, ultimately giving a significant boost to your chances of admission. With a solid foundation of effective study habits and a consistent track record of excellent grades, you showcase your unwavering dedication to academic excellence throughout your college application journey.
3. Find ways to start standing out early, like these ideas
Ninth grade is the perfect time to be on a voyage of self-discovery, where you embrace the unknown, indulge your curiosity, and fearlessly explore uncharted territories. This is a reat time to discover your passions, interests, and curiosities as you dive deep into a world of unique extracurricular adventures aligned with your future career and desired major.
Some extraordinary achievements by my students who stand out include starting their own businesses, such as dog training, SAT camps, music classes, or inviting their neighbors to build a community. Whether through research projects, club creation, or competition participation, fully immerse yourself in hands-on learning experiences tailored to your potential chosen field of study in college.
And if you’re not sure what you want to do - no worries. Embrace the journey of self-discovery anyway. Check a variety of avenues out to see what you enjoy and why. Shape your college path and pave the way for your future.
4. Internships: Start asking questions
Explore your intentional career path and expand your knowledge with people around you. Venture into uncharted subjects, people, programs, and new paths with the guidance of your parents, teachers, mentors, and adults who can help you uncover exciting internships and programs. Embracing these opportunities can not only enhance your college admissions prospects, but they also provide valuable experiences.
For instance, interning at a local science research institute during the summer allows you to immerse yourself in cutting-edge scientific discoveries, while participating in a journalism program sharpens your writing and communication skills through impactful storytelling. Many clubs or summer jobs will help you grow your knowledge and skills while expanding your life experiences that you can brag on during the college admissions process. Don't hesitate to inquire with nearby businesses about projects you can contribute to.
5. Start Campus Visits (virtual and/or in-person): When you can see it, it becomes more of a reality. Why not set sail to experience college life firsthand? These visits provide invaluable insights into campus culture, facilities, academic programs, and student life, helping you make informed decisions about your future and get you excited. Setting foot on a campus for the first time can be scary, but also exhilarating! You see college students, gyms, dining halls, large classrooms - and it is an entirely different world from high school. It’s a great motivator to keep your eye on the prize.
Virtual campus visits are helpful too! For example, during a virtual visit, you can attend virtual information sessions, interact with current students and faculty, and explore campus resources from the comfort of your home. I still prefer in-person visits because it allows you to immerse yourself in the campus atmosphere, tour the facilities, attend classes, and engage with students and staff directly, but virtual visits are a great way to save money on traveling or fit more visits into your busy schedule.
Realistically, with there being over 2,800 colleges in the US, a virtual or in-person visit are both a great way to get a true sense of the campus environment and determine if it aligns with your passions and goals, ultimately aiding you in making an informed choice about your college journey.
5. Explore Advanced Placement Options
Cast a wide net and explore a diverse range of college options to find the perfect fit for your academic journey. Depending on your goal, you can consider how rigorous your advance placement exam courses can be.
For example, if you are applying to the top 50% of competitive universities, you will want to challenge yourself with Advanced Placement (AP) classes to expand your knowledge and showcase your intellectual prowess. Most universities value students who can prove that they can handle rigorous courses which challenge their analytical thinking and capacity, therefore making them more competitive in the admissions process. But don’t just take as many AP classes as you can. It's only beneficial to take AP courses in subjects that interest you or align with your future college major since you want to do well in them. AP courses also offer college-level curriculum and exams, allowing you to earn valuable college credits while still in high school. Here are some common AP courses students may take:
- AP Calculus
- AP English
- AP Literature
- AP Biology
- AP U.S. History
- AP Psychology
- AP Computer Science Principles
- AP Spanish Language and Culture
- AP Spanish
- AP Chemistry
- AP Environmental Science
- AP World History
- AP Government and Politics
- AP Physics
To determine which AP courses are available and suitable for your academic goals, make sure to consult your guidance counselor and teachers for guidance and recommendations. And do your research online - your community college or a virtual class may be your only option if your high school has limited AP class offerings.
6. Start planning your financial aid
With the cost of college rising to new highs, it’s never too early to start thinking about financial aid for college. Though some feel daunted by financials, the financial aid world is full of opportunities. You can explore scholarships, grants and work-study programs. My students find with a little bit of research, there are actually a lot of options for various scholarships, grants, and FAFSA options to help cover educational expenses.
Here are five scholarships with high acceptance rates to over 1,000 students in the U.S:
- Coca-Cola Scholars Program
- Horatio Alger Scholarship
- Elks National Foundation Most Valuable Student Scholarship
- Jack Kent Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program
- GE-Reagan Foundation Scholarship Program
I advise you to keep a close eye on deadlines, as they creep up quickly. Additionally, consider engaging in work-study programs. When you are attending college, you can research how you can earn income and gain valuable experience on your campus. Talk to your guardians or mentors and take proactive steps to secure financial assistance. You will feel a sense of lightness and less burden during the entire college process if you have an idea of your financial aid status early on, and it will help to pave the way for a more financially stable future.
7. Plan your SATs (or ACTs)
Get on board and discover the best test prep strategies to sail toward success. While some colleges may not require these tests, it's important not to limit your college options. That's why I encourage all my ninth graders to start preparing for SATs and ACTs as early as possible, giving them a potential 6-12 month head start over their sophomore and junior counterparts.
Depending on your location, such as Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, scoring over 1400 on your PSAT may qualify you for the National Merit Semifinalist. Every year, about 7,500 high school juniors are awarded $2,500 and are known as National Merit Scholars. One of my favorite experts is Katya Seberson, founder of the Seberson Method. She has a ton of knowledge and over a decade of experience - and English is not her first language.
Performing well on standardized tests also shows colleges that you can handle challenging academics and that you have the ability and potential for college-level coursework. Take it seriously - dedicate time to your test prep, research the best books online, watch Katya Seberson’s videos, take a reputable test prep course, and familiarize yourself with the format and content that are most difficult for you. It’s ok to take the test a few times - get better each time. The more you practice those tests, the more you’ll increase your chances of achieving a higher score and position yourself competitively among other applicants. Commit to excellence, so you can steer your tests to be the best possible.
8. Stay the course but embrace self-care
Balance is key when it comes to juggling your high school studies and your college explorations, but don't forget to prioritize your mental well-being! You still have 3 more years until college, after all.
Take intentional mental breaks and engage in self-care activities that revitalize your spirit and enhance your overall well-being. Whether it's practicing yoga in your bedroom, singing your heart out in the car, or going for a walk with your favorite pet, these moments of self-care bring a sense of calm during your high school and college prep journey.
One of my students, Liam, created a study schedule. He knew exactly when he needed to dedicate time to classes, studying, and internships, all while incorporating his “joy breaks” for activities like running or jujitsu. A different ninth grader, Allie, met up with a group of her Marine Biology students every week during lunch to reflect about their research and goals. She once said, “I look forward to it every week…and it’s so fun to see what everyone has learned the week before.” Engaging in physical activities, reflecting on your progress, and rewarding yourself for milestones will renew your energy, resilience, and foster a positive mindset. We all need self-care - it recharges your batteries for the challenges ahead and makes you even stronger in the process.
I hope these eight tools helped you feel more like a college boss. The earlier you can explore your future aspirations, the sooner you can put purpose and direction into figuring out your intentions.