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When to Start Planning Your College Strategy

Portrait of beautiful teenage girl smilingSome high school students start planning their college application strategy in the fall of their senior year. Others hear that the spring of junior year is when they should visit colleges—so they begin planning then. But informed students and their parents know strategic college planning should start long before that—as early as 9th and 10th grade.

I’m not talking about saving money for college or trying to boost your GPA or your standardized test scores. Of course, those issues need attention early on. I’m talking about a part of college planning that’s generally less understood and too often overlooked.

Shaping your personal profile

I’m talking about the long-term shaping of a student’s personal profile. That should begin years before you even think about writing your personal essay. If you do it right, it will make writing the essay—and everything else about the college application process—so much easier!

Here’s the point: today the most selective colleges are looking for very special students. Yes, they expect high grades and test scores. But they’re hoping you’ll have a lot more to offer than that. They’re looking for students who have well-developed intellectual and cultural interests and have devoted significant time (we’re talking years) to them. And they’ll want to see signs of special knowledge and achievements that aren’t easy to fake.

Make it! Don’t fake it!

Did you say you’ve always planned to become a chemist? You’ll need to have real lab experience to back that up. If you claim to be an avid lover of literature, you’ll need to have read well beyond your high school syllabus. The best schools look for students who’ve gone above and beyond whatever their high schools offer. They want independent-minded self-starters who’ve pursued their own paths.

Here’s an example: One of my clients told me about her Harvard interview, conducted by two high-powered alumni at the Harvard Club. Although they worked in the finance and technology fields, the interviewers asked detailed questions about art history, her field of special interest. They also took copious notes on her answers. They wanted to verify that the student was as serious about this area as she claimed to be. Because she’d already spent several years doing independent reading about art history and could respond with sophisticated and nuanced answers, she passed the test.

Not every college interview will be as rigorous at that one was. Many colleges don’t conduct interviews at all, while others do but don’t put much stock in the results. But most colleges definitely care about your extracurricular involvements and have many ways of assessing the depth to which you’ve pursued them.

Developing your interests

It makes sense that the most selective schools would want students with a strong sense of direction. For one thing, they know such students are likely to remain well focussed in college.

Just as importantly, these people usually follow a focused career path later. Colleges want to admit students who will grow up to become important figures in their chosen fields, whatever those fields may be.

Many students and their parents find this unfair. “How can a fifteen, sixteen or seventeen-year-old know what profession they want to enter? “ they often ask me. “Isn’t a liberal arts education supposed to provide kids with the freedom to explore many options before settling on one?”

Well, yes and no. A liberal arts education is designed to give a young person a broad-based intellectual foundation, regardless of the direction they eventually go in. But an admissions officer looks for students she thinks will flourish at her school, contribute to its community and go on in life to make the institution and its alumni proud.

How to outshine the competition

Americans may be unique in their belief that teenagers can’t be expected to develop a sense of direction before they graduate from high school. In Europe and most other countries in the world, that’s exactly when young people are tracked toward particular professions or groups of professions. A 15-year-old in Germany may not know whether she’ll end up becoming a physicist or a neuroscientist, but she certainly knows whether she’s likely to become a scientist, or go into journalism or the printing trades.

Think what you like about the educational tracking in other countries, but two things are clear. With the proper support, teenagers are capable of developing sustained interests and pursuing them into adulthood, and many of America’s most prestigious colleges prefer such applicants over less focused ones.

Of course, you might have a card in your hand that trumps these considerations. If you’re a top athlete coveted by the college of your choice or if both of your parents are alumni and have donated millions to its scholarship fund, you’ll probably be admitted there —assuming your test scores and grades fall in the required range. But, if you’re among the tens of thousands of students who don’t fit into that category, well-developed special interests and abilities can help you outshine the competition.

Adult encouragement required

Not all teenagers know where their interests and aptitudes lie. Some people have intense interests from early childhood; some develop them over time, while others never do. But teenagers who develop their special interests to a sophisticated level are generally those who’ve been encouraged to do so by adults and often mentored by them too.

By the time you’re in the middle of 9th grade or the beginning of 10th, it’s a good idea to sit down with your parents and a counselor to talk about where your interests are leading you and how you can build on them. This isn’t just part of college admissions planning. It’s an important step in coming to understand yourself and your place in the world.

This requires both introspection and discussion, and for some it may be difficult, especially if you’re feeling unsure. But the harder it feels, the more important it is to start the conversation. If you keep thinking and talking about it, sooner or later things will start to get clear.

Creating your real life resume

Once you’ve gained some clarity about where your interests and ambitions lie, you need to create a real life resume that supports them. The way you spend your time outside of school and the relationships you make are part of the record that colleges will evaluate.

Having ongoing meetings with a college counselor during your first two years of high school can help you fit those pieces together and can affect the way you present yourself later. With smart planning during your freshman and sophomore years, the more nitty-gritty steps of the application process that come later will feel smooth–maybe even inevitable.

If you’d like to start planning, contact the College Strategist now.