What's one piece of advice that I bet many juniors and seniors wish they could go back in time and give to their younger selves?
The journey to college starts earlier than ever these days. And although I'm not suggesting that freshmen should start writing their application essays or that sophomores should spend every spare minute taking SAT prep courses, I do advise freshmen and sophomores — and their parents — to look at the first years of high school as important building blocks.
That's because the habits students learn, and the experiences they start accumulating, will carry through as they start preparing applications as juniors and seniors. Establishing a strong academic and extracurricular base early in your high school career gives you the time to build a record that will impress admissions officers. And if done the right way, starting to prepare early doesn't add to the pressure on students; it actually relieves stress because they're not struggling to catch up or trying to cram all that work into a semester or two.
n Establish strong grades. As a senior, you'll be applying with the GPA you've built in your first six semesters of high school. So those freshman grades actually are just as important, or even more so, than those you get as a senior. (Depending on when you apply, your senior-year grades may not even be considered at some schools.) In fact, grades received on any high school classes taken in middle school, such as algebra or geometry, also are factored into that GPA, so I sometimes caution families not to try to jump too far ahead if the student is not truly ready.
n Learn strong study skills. The older students get, the less hand-holding they're given in class. It's important for freshmen and sophomores to learn how to step it up from middle school — both so their grades don't suffer and so they are prepared for the more difficult junior- and senior-year courses. Parents can help set parameters for studying: requiring that cell phones be turned off while doing homework unless the student needs to ask a question; setting up a quiet study area in the home; and helping their child learn to prioritize, focus, and create time-management skills.
n Explore interests and choose core activities. Compiling a "laundry list" of numerous activities and clubs may look impressive, but admissions counselors are looking for depth and achievement in a few things rather than dabbling in many. Those first two years of high school are important for sampling activities but then focusing on the ones that the student truly enjoys.
n Build leadership experience. Likewise, admissions officers want to see a history of increased responsibility and leadership. To get to those positions in a student's junior and senior year, it's helpful to lay the groundwork as a freshman and sophomore. Younger students can volunteer for committees and participate in extra activities in their favorite clubs, which can help set them up to take on a leadership role later.
n Start a tradition of community service. Some schools require a certain number of hours of community service by the time a student is a senior; if this is true of your school and you're allowed to start as a freshman, why not do so? Even if your school doesn't require community service, it's a wonderful habit to begin. Not only does it "look good" on your resume, many of my students tell me that their volunteer experiences have been some of the most rewarding parts of their high school years. Helping others, giving back to their community, and building friendships they might not otherwise have made will help students become more well-rounded adults, no matter what path they take in the future.
Donna Spann is the CEO of Capstone College and Career Advising in Tyler. A college advisor for 11 years, Donna leads a team of professionals who take a personal approach to advising that helps students navigate through career and college exploration and admissions and find the college that's right for them.