How early is too early to start preparing for the college admissions process? It’s important to let kids be kids, but in the selective admissions process, every move in high school counts – from the first day of freshman year to the last senior year exam. More and more families are beginning the college prep process in the eighth grade, aiming to set their students up for success at the start of high school. But is this a smart move? Yes, it is. Here’s why.
In the US, admission rates at some of the country’s top institutions are well below 10%. Stanford University admitted a record-low 5.05% of applicants for the Class of 2019 – a significant decrease from the 10.3% admission rate for the Class of 2011. As admission rates drop and application numbers rise, applicant pools at top-tier institutions become more competitive, and admissions officers rely on every detail in order to build the best class possible.
Colleges look at all four years of high school grades, courses, activities, and more when evaluating applicants – not just records from junior and senior year like many families believe. By starting simple college preparation in eighth grade, students are poised to have a strong start to their high school careers – something that can set them apart from other applicants when it comes time for colleges to decide who to admit.
Some parents and students realize this, and have increasingly started preparing for college earlier in high school and even before high school – not at the start of junior year as in the past. We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of families of eighth graders seeking admissions advice and college counseling. From 2013 to 2014, we saw double the number of eighth graders seeking counseling, and so far in 2015 that number has tripled from the prior year.
So what kind of college preparation should families consider while students are still in eighth grade? There are simple steps that students and parents can take to set students up for success and build a strong applicant profile, without provoking the stress of college admissions too early.
Grades are the most important application elements that colleges consider when making admission decisions, and, as we mentioned before, they will look at grades from all four years of high school. It’s important to instill good study and work habits early, as highly selective colleges want to see strong academic performance from freshman year forward. Starting in eighth grade, help students learn how to manage their study schedules, homework deadlines, and other academic requirements. Staying organized is key, and developing good study habits like taking handwritten notes, reviewing notes every day before homework, and limiting distractions will help students prepare for the rigors of a high school course load and beyond. Also, know how to spot academic red flags. By identifying the source of any academic issues early, students can adjust and resolve any problems before the start of high school.
One of the most common college preparation inquiries we get from families of eighth graders is summer activity advice. How students spend their summers is important because it affords them the opportunity to explore different areas of interest or become more involved in something they’re passionate about. Summer experiences should be fun and meaningful, but also serve a purpose. Beginning in the fall of eighth grade, students and parents should research summer experiences that relate to the student’s interests, like community service opportunities, pre-collegiate academic programs, or internships. Many programs have deadlines early in the spring semester, so it’s important to get a head start. Avoid spending the summer before high school at a sleep-away camp or a short “teen tour” where students act more as tourists. Find summer experiences that help students deepen their interest in a certain area and make an impact.
Having focused interests is very important when applying to college as institutions are looking to build a well-rounded class made up of specialists. Most students begin to identify and explore their interests during their freshman and sophomore years. Unfortunately, this can often lead to students hopping from one activity or interest to another – leaving them with little time later on to take on leadership positions or make an impact. Colleges want to see sustained and meaningful interest in just a few extracurriculars, so it’s critical to identify interests early on.
Beginning in eighth grade, students should start identifying and exploring interests through reading, research, and other activities. Whether it’s fashion, business, sports, philanthropy, or another topic, students should think about what really interests them and learn more about it. By doing this in eighth grade, students can have a good idea of what they’re passionate about and what clubs or activities at their high school meet those interests. They’ll know what extracurriculars to pursue as soon as soon as they start ninth grade, giving them more time to explore and decide how they want to contribute – or if it’s not for them. It’s okay for students to change their minds once they’re involved in something, but by getting started early students will have a better chance of carrying that activity throughout high school and making a significant impact.
High School Course Selection
Another one of the most important application factors that colleges consider is the rigor of students’ course loads. Colleges want to see students taking increasingly difficult courses each year and performing well in them. Many eighth graders choose their freshmen year courses before they’ve had proper counseling, and can often choose classes that don’t fit their academic abilities. This can be a big setback, as it can take students longer to work their way up to the most rigorous courses their school has to offer. It’s important to seek advice early in the spring of eighth grade as to what courses students should expect to take freshman year, and if honors or advanced classes are appropriate. By getting advice on course selection in eighth grade, students can start freshmen year on the right track, rather than playing catch-up later on.
The college admissions process is full of nuances and can be stressful for many families. By starting the process early, families can alleviate some of the stress associated with college preparation and set students up for success from the first day of high school. The peace of mind that comes with knowing you’re on the right track from day one will help make the college application process smoother come senior year, and best position students to gain admission to their top-choice colleges – whether they know what those schools are yet or not!