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How to Prep for College Without Losing Your Mind: a Year-by-Year Guide

By Mir Kamin

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.

How to Prep for College Without Losing Your Mind: a Year-by-Year Guide

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.

Freshman year

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.

Sophomore year

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.

Junior year

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.

Senior year

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!

Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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Comments

  • Pingback: How to get your kid into college | Woulda Coulda Shoulda()

  • Traynh

    I think this is excellent advice!

  • Jennifer

    Mir, I read your earlier article on the college application process and let me just say…you are a voice of reason in a sea of insanity! My daughter is a Freshman in HS and I love your approach to all this. Here’s to keeping our and our kid’s sanity intact through all this!

  • Leigh

    Excellent advice! If I could have had my younger girl opt out of the psat completely, I would have. I also 100% agree with the job summer after senior year – maybe even end of senior year and no job freshman year of college. I’d add about ap classes to take them if possible and take the tests. My now freshman attends a college that accepted all of her passes for credit and those along with a college course she took during her senior year at her high school meant she had enough credits to be “sophomore” status her first year in college. Her school gives priority in class registration according to progress toward graduation so she leaped ahead in that line plus that saved lots of money we would have had to pay for those college classes (note not all colleges accept ap test scores, also note this was not a factor in Her decision to choose this particular college but I was thrilled that it worked out this way.)

  • Lauren

    I’ve always been staggered by the amount of privilege in college prep articles — not just financial privilege, not just the privilege of access to resources, but the privilege of assuming your child’s life will follow a set trajectory for five full years, and expecting it (and them!) to do so. I struggled a LOT with my mental health in high school — I remember that I took the PSAT (and didn’t do all that well), but I remember more clearly working to stay sane and okay. My four year plan was “do the best that you can and trust that life sorts itself out” — and I hear a lot of that in what you’ve broken down here, Mir. It’s really refreshing and I’m glad to have a sane resource to point to the high schoolers I’m working on application essays with these days!

    • Exactly, Lauren. I mean, even if I thought it was a good idea to take your 14-year-old on a giant, cross-country college tour (I don’t, obviously), not everyone has the time/money to do so! I felt incredibly fortunate to be able to take my daughter around the state for a few days last summer, and we encountered kids who were literally 30+ colleges into touring. Good for them, I guess, but to assume that’s normal is unbelievably classist and tone deaf.

  • Dana

    This sounds like great advice.  I would recommend students DO work during their first year of college, ideally around 5-15 hours a week at an on campus job.  Many qualify for work study which makes finding these jobs easier.  Jobs help students organize their time, keep on a schedule, and make connections with other students and college staff/faculty.  Not every student needs help with these things and I would 100% NOT recommend trying to work full time or too many hours, but a small amount of work helps with spending money and many small incidental benefits.

    • I hear you, Dana. I think my view is clouded for sure by my own experience and what I see with my own kids, which is definitely an Aspie/ADHD lens. There’s a tipping point for them (and there was for me) where “one more thing” was one thing too many. I worked my way through college often having two jobs in the summer to make sure I had enough money so that I didn’t HAVE to work during the year, but I totally get what you’re saying for a different personality type. Thanks for bringing that up!

      [Edited to add: Also, as a theater major (me), I would not have been able to both work and perform. As a music major (my daughter), it’s a similar issue. So I was myopic on this one for sure, but my comments stand as a YMMV!]

  • Brigitte

    I hope this stays on the internet for at least the next 10 years or so – it’s a sane, realistic plan to look at when my daughter finishes middle school!

    In my own experience with AP classes, neither my parents nor I had a clue about how exactly they worked.  My college DID accept the credits, but when I signed up for classes, I just signed up for what was required for my major, without realizing that the AP classes meant I’d already taken some of those courses (under slightly different course titles).  No red flags ever came up, but I suppose credits-wise, if one removed my duplicate courses, I maybe never technically finished earning my degree?  Ah well, I have the certificate, they can’t take it back now!

  • Great article, Mir. Applying for college sounds so much more complicated than it was in the 80’s…

  • Sarah Heat

    Gah, thank you!  My husband teaches at an ivy, and even with the local pressure at the awesome schools for all the children to go to an ivy, I definitely do not feel like that is the only/best option, and I hope that our kids, who are now only 10 and younger, don’t feel that pressure as they get older.  They probably will.  But it won’t be from me.

    I gotta say, though, talking to people with older kids who are going through “the process” is really scary.  Does anyone do it the way I did 20 years ago?  (wing and a prayer, baby)

  • Vickie

    I have three kids, as I write, my youngest is freshman in undergrad, middle is in grad school, oldest has masters. Youngest and oldest are in science/math fields. So I am an experienced mom.

    We do college trips sophomore year in high school. Because junior year tends to be a very, very tough academic year. There is little extra time junior year. And by doing trips sophomore year, there is still time to fine tune high school classes for junior and senior year. We do not tour every school known to man. We are very selective. We go back to key schools for multiple visits. All three of my kids were able to narrow it down to THE school. And a back up school.

    We also do college classes during high school, on college campus (the professors do not know they are high school students, neither do the other students) in our town. So one college class a semester their senior year for my oldest and youngest. One class a semester junior and senior year for my middle. We made sure classes would transfer. But we mainly did this as college training.

    And we do not test out of or skip science or math classes in college IF the student is going into the math and science field. Chemistry, calculus, physics for example. If there is just one class required (ever) and the student can test out, great. If there are a series of these classes required, then we have the kids start at the beginning. Yes, first semester is review, but it gives them a chance to get used to the pace and systems.

    The exception to this is foreign languages. Because if you do not use it, you lose it. So we let our kids test into as high of a level as (reasonably) they can. And we often have to get adviser involved to fit into freshman schedule (because, again, if you do not use it, you lose it). So, my freshman is taking Spanish 365, and doing well. She was nearly fluent entering college (five years of high school level Spanish, last three taught by native speaker, and a summer in Spain in a total immersion/no English program). Getting her in right class, freshman year, required effort and follow thru).

    Also, both high school and college, we have found it super helpful to draft out all four years of classes their freshman years. We do this with their advisor. YES, it changes, but seeing that grid of all the classes needed, really helps. It might be they need a session of summer school to have room to double major or study abroad or do a coop/internship. It might be only certain classes are offered in the summer. It might be there are special programs available to combine or switch required classes.

    We also do not have our kids work their freshman year. It is just too much.

    We have our kids keep a list of all activities, awards, programs, etc starting with junior high and continuing always. Dates, program names, contact information. Then they have what they need for applications.

    If you know a class is going to be tough for your kid, have them get a tuitor BEFORE class (the semester) starts. And keep the tuitor the entire semester. O Chem. Calculus. These classes can take some kids two, three, four tries. This plays with their mind, kills their gpa, sucks the life out of their schedule, reduces the number of other classes they can take, delays graduation. So they have a tuitor, they go to any study sessions offered by a TA, they attend all classes, they take advantage of study tables, they take advantage of office hours offered by TA and professor. Every advantage you can think of to pass on the first try. It is important to hit these classes while they still remember high school math and science, do not put these off until junior or senior year. (If your student is likely to be interested in a math or science field, it is super important they start on the right track in high school so they have the opportunity to take full calculus class in high school, and advanced chem and physics. Right math and English high school track also gets them on the right high school science track. Often they do not have the opportunity to take advanced classes if they do not start on the right track freshman year of high school. This impacts college hugely.)

  • Vickie

    AND we do not agree on getting kid into the best college possible IF the kid will be in the bottom of their class. We believe all kids should attend a college where their abilities put them in the top half of their class.