How to Prep for College Without Losing Your Mind: a Year-by-Year Guide
You may recall that I take issue with many of the get your kid into the best college sorts of articles, particularly the ones which insist you need to start this process before high school even begins. And don’t get me wrong: I think college is important, for those who want to pursue it. For the purpose of this piece, let’s exclude anyone for whom college is not the desired path (and there are plenty of people who succeed without college, of course). This is not about those who head straight into the military or a trade or who just want to go straight to work in some other way. Assuming we’re talking about reasonably bright and motivated students for whom college is going to be the next logical step after high school, let’s get real.
The summer before starting high school
The “experts” say: This is a perfect time to take a cross-country trip to visit colleges! Make a week of it, or better still, two or three weeks! Visit schools both big and small, urban and rural! See as many campuses as you possibly can to get the possibilities in mind as your child embarks on the most important four years of their life thus far!
I say: This may be the last “free” summer your child has. Between working, school enrichment opportunities, and volunteering, this is, in some ways, their last summer to be a kid. So let them. You want to take a trip? Fabulous! If time and money allows, absolutely take a family vacation. That’s a great idea. If not, maybe this will be the last year your kid wants to go to camp. Maybe you’ll make a few weekend jaunts to nearby attractions you somehow missed before. Enjoy the summer.
The “experts” say: Think about asking favorite teachers to write recommendations now so that you have them in hand! Make sure your child understands that these grades matter and have them take SAT Subject Tests at the end of the year in any courses they’ve just taken (lots of freshmen take Biology, for example). Plan to do charity work over the summer, after acing all of your courses and planning to take the very hardest classes available the following year. Get involved in the activities that will look best on your resume. Start thinking about your future major.
I say: If you’re asking a teacher for a recommendation at the end of freshman year for your mythical college application several years down the road, it’s both going to mystify/annoy the teacher and seem bizarre when you submit a years-old letter, later on. Don’t bother. Listen, high school is really different than middle school. This is the year to acclimate and find your footing. Do these grades matter? Of course. But so does feeling comfortable in a new setting, making new friends, and figuring out some life balance between work and play. This is a great year to join as many activities as you like, to see which ones resonate. Do so with the understanding that by next year, you will probably want to focus on just a few of them. (And also with the understanding that if your grades suffer, mom and dad will probably pull you out of all of them.) Do go ahead and take any SAT Subject Test in a class you’ve taken if you think you’re most interested in that area. (Read: Don’t bother with the Biology test if you think you want to go into PoliSci, but if you’re a math/science type, why not? If your school offers AP Bio, though, and you plan to take that as well? Maybe wait.) The main goal this year is to figure out how to be a high schooler. That means: learn good study habits and explore your options.
Summer between freshman and sophomore years
The “experts” say: This is perfect time to go on a mission trip! Feed some orphans. Make sure your group leader writes you a letter of recommendation before you part ways.
I say: About halfway through freshman year, I suggest having a talk with your kid about the upcoming summer. What would they like to do? It’s reasonable to expect a component of work, moving forward—either a part-time job (which they are unlikely to be able to get at this age, even in fast food) or some sort of community volunteerism. But, and here’s the kicker, it should be something they want to do. There’s nothing wrong with a mission trip if that’s really where your child’s passion lies, but charitable involvement right in your own community is great, too (and arguably even better because they can stay involved at some level year-round). If your kid likes animals, they should volunteer at a local shelter for a few hours a week. If they feel strongly about homelessness, they can volunteer at a soup kitchen. If they like kids, there are often volunteer or counselor-in-training positions at camps. Let them pick what speaks to them, not what’s going to look great on a resume. If your child is starting to express curiosity about colleges, consider visiting a campus or two. That’s right: just one or two. That’s plenty.
The “experts” say: Time to buckle down! Get straight As! Study before you take your practice PSAT in the fall and then study all winter and spring to start taking the SAT or ACT in the summer, in preparation for the multiple times you’ll take each test! Naturally you’re taking AP classes, so get 5s on all your exams! Join more clubs! Seize on every opportunity to do community service! Enter every contest!
I say: If freshman year was rocky, this is definitely the time to shore up your academic approach. Now I’m going to say something that’s going to make those “Your child must attend an Ivy League school if they’ll ever succeed” folks gasp and faint: Do not study for the PSAT this year. You heard me. This is your practice year; next year is a different story, of course, but this year you want a baseline on how you perform with no preparation. So don’t prepare. And don’t worry about it. (More on this in a bit.) And feel free to explore some new activities this year, but you should also be figuring out which things you did last year really worked for you and you want to continue in. If you still have no idea what your future career goals or even college major might be, that’s fine. Just do your best in all your classes and rest assured that at some point, something will strike you as so interesting you can’t wait to learn more. If you happen to be taking an AP class or two, sure, study hard for the exams, as the college credit is very nice to have. But if you don’t do well on the exams, don’t sweat it. Many colleges have such strict rules about accepting AP credits, it’s often not the huge benefit it’s purported to be.
Summer between sophomore and junior years
The “experts” say: Time for another big round of college visits! Also maybe another mission trip, and a job, and if you can find the cure for cancer in your spare time, you’re probably on track for Harvard.
I say: What did you do last year? Did you like it? If yes, do it again. If no, find a new plan. Also—depending on how you did on the PSAT and whether you think you may need test scores next year for any program applications, like dual enrollment—map out a plan to start studying for either the ACT or the SAT. [And I’m going to give you my bias, right here: The SAT is a mess. It’s been a mess for a long time, but with the 2015/2016 revamp it’s a whole new kind of mess without decent study guides out there for it. Take the ACT, instead. It’s more straightforward, easier to get testing accommodations for if you’re served under a 504/IEP, and I can’t think of a single school that won’t accept it these days.] If you are very nervous about testing, you might consider taking a test this summer. If you’re not, you can wait until junior year. This is also a good time for a college trip if the child in question is interested in taking one. If not, don’t. There’s time.
The “experts” say: Look at your resume; is it roughly the thickness of the dictionary? No?? Join some more activities! Volunteer more! Gather letters of recommendation from everyone who’s ever looked in your direction! Take every possible AP class and if you are sleeping more than 4 hours each night, you’re doing it wrong.
I say: Actually… this is the year to take a good hard look at how you look on paper, and think about what, if anything, you might want to change. If you’ve been involved in an activity for a couple of years, already, is there a way to take on a leadership role as you move forward? If you don’t see yourself as a leader, is there a way to expand your involvement in a more behind-the-scenes sort of way? Are there activities you never tried before but really, really want to? Maybe this is the year you audition for the school play or enter a writing contest or check out Robotics, finally. Don’t do it just to pad your resume, mind you, but because you want to. If you haven’t joined your chapter of the National Honor Society (assuming you are a top student) yet, do it this fall. And set aside some time in September to study for the PSAT, this time, based on how you did last year. This October when you take it, it will determine your eligibility for National Merit Scholarships, so it matters more than last year. After you take the PSAT, plan to take your SAT/ACT in the winter if you’ll need those scores to apply for dual enrollment or other programs (if you don’t need your scores that soon, you can wait until spring or even summer). (Oh, yeah. Dual enrollment: Do you have a college or university near you which offers it, and do you think you might like to do half days at high school and half days with a college class or two, your senior year? It looks good on your college applications, but more importantly, it can offer a “training wheels” college experience for anyone who does better easing into new things.) Apply for dual enrollment in the spring, if that’s a thing you want to do, or don’t, if not. And whether you plan to dual enroll as a senior or not, figure out what you’re required to take next year and what you want to take, keeping in mind that a rigorous senior schedule is different than a killer senior schedule. One last thing: Now is a good time to figure out which teachers you’d like to ask for recommendations, and also to check in with your guidance counselor, if you haven’t already. Do a spring check-in (“These are my general plans”) and you’ll be on their radar for next fall.
Summer between junior and senior years
The “experts” say: This is your last chance to visit ten or thirty colleges! Take your ACT/SAT (again) for the final (maybe) time. Volunteer at a leper colony but also get a job in a lab where they’re turning food scraps into revolutionary medical supplies. Throw a benefit concert for wounded veteran dogs. Rescue a baby from a house fire if at all possible (if not, stepping in front of a moving bus to shield a toddler in danger is an acceptable alternative). Pick your top dozen to two dozen schools to which to apply.
I say: It’s go time: you should have a job or volunteer gig this summer which is full-time, or nearly so. At the same time, you should be figuring out your plan for college so that you can execute most or all of it before your senior year even starts. This has nothing to do with being “the best” and everything to do with keeping your stress level low; if you’ve finished your applications before classes resume, how awesome is that going to be? (Hint: So awesome.) In addition, many (like, lots) of schools have special scholarships available only to those who apply early, so the earlier you apply, the greater your chances of getting some money. [Early Decision is binding, and few schools offer it, but Early Action is non-binding and a great option for most. This piece is a good summary of the benefits of Early Action, if you want to read more.] If you still don’t know where you want to go or what you want to study, that’s okay! Take this time to make lists—pros and cons, wants and don’t-wants—whatever will help you narrow the field. Do you want to be close to home? Do you have an idea about ideal school size? Have a down-and-dirty conversation with your parents about your financial situation so you have an idea of what you can afford (but don’t make decisions based on money just yet; there’s all kinds of financial aid out there). Go make some campus visits, if you feel like it will help. (If you don’t, don’t.) I recommend applying to no more than five schools, and here’s why: for one thing, even with Common App, applications take some time and cost money. For another, you want to attend a school that’s a good fit for you. Your research should tell you whether a school is likely to accept you or not, and you shouldn’t be applying unless you think there’s a reasonable chance you want to go there. I don’t believe anyone either feels equally drawn to twenty different schools or that applying to a ton of “stretch” schools is good for a person’s mental health. Keep your number manageable. Be realistic. Apply to one, maybe two, stretch schools if you really believe it’s the right place for you. Apply to one safety school. And have one or two schools you’re just about certain to get into where you can see yourself being happy.
The “experts” say: Don’t slack off! Do your applications! Take your SAT/ACT again in the fall if you somehow biffed it the last six times you took it! And really, you’re going to be slammed all fall with applications and then all spring with keeping up with the seventy two activities you’re now the president of, so good luck with that. But also get all the scholarships and maybe a Medal of Honor, too.
I say: Go back to class and ask your teachers for their recommendations the very first week of school. Keep your grades up, yes, but relax a little. Do some research on scholarships—there are literally scholarships for everything you can imagine, and even some for things you can’t. As your acceptances come in (only or mostly acceptances, because you were realistic about where you applied), look into doing an overnight visit at potential campuses (where you stay over with a student and get to attend some classes). If you’re dual enrolled this year, give your college classes 110% because I promise you they’re going to be harder than what you’re used to, and “but I’m still in high school” is not going to serve as an excuse. Once the decisions are in, it’s time for you to decide where you want to go. If you know straight away, great! If you don’t, that’s okay. Take your time. Visit. Ask questions. You’ll figure it out. Once your parents have filed their taxes, fill out your FAFSA to get your financial aid squared away. And once you’ve accepted enrollment at a school, pay close attention to deadlines and fees to make sure you’re not missing anything. There is an enormous amount of paperwork associated with enrolling at college, and you want to stay on top of it now so that you’re not racing around playing catch-up all summer. And in many cases, too, things like housing are a first-come, first-served situation—if you’re sure about your school, start putting down deposits and submitting your paperwork. But mostly: Finish our your high school career strong and happy. (Even if that happiness is about finally being done with high school.)
Summer between graduation and launch
The “experts” say: Actually, I never see the experts say anything about this, because as far as they’re concerned, once you get your kid into a “top college,” you’re done. Ha.
I say: Kid, get a job. If there’s any way to make enough money over the summer that you don’t have to work as a freshman adjusting to a new life, do it. Clean out your room, for the love of all that’s holy. Assemble what you need for your dorm (if your parents haven’t already been buying along the way). Do your last pediatrician visit, get your teeth cleaned, and get new glasses or a supply of contact lenses if you need ’em. Do some fun stuff with your family. Celebrate!