Everything on your college application starts on day one of ninth grade

Anna Cavanaugh had no idea how to get into the college of her dreams, and she had little help. After struggling to get into college, she pursued her Master’s Degree, determined to be the help that high school students need to get into the right college. The following points of advice are from Anna’s presentation in a recent webinar from UCEazy.

“My goal is to build a relationship with the client family and students so, they can be the best students they can be.”Anna Cavanaugh

High School is a Brand New Canvas on which to Write Your College Application

There are many differences between middle school and high school, but from the students’ perspective, there are five primary differences. These differences become the biggest areas of growth and the source of much of the material for college applications.

  • Small school to big school – There’s the change from the small school setting of middle school to the potentially huge setting of high school. That transition alone can be a big shock to any student. How do you adjust? Cavanaugh advises parents to make sure their students join something. It is this type of belonging that will lead to a great extracurricular resume over the next four years. But that resume starts the first day of ninth grade.
  • The high school locker – The center of the high school social experience may be the cafeteria, but the center for the individual student is the locker. It’s the hub of their day. Students store their books, lunch, computers…everything in their locker. Everything that happens during the school day revolves around the locker. Having a “space” that ninth graders call their own during the day is something new, where they meet new people, younger and older, and make new friends simply because of the location of their locker.
  • Older & Younger Peers – High school puts 14 year olds with 18 year olds, and they are now all peers. Rising 9th graders go from being ‘the biggest and best’ to ‘the lowest and least’ over one summer. But that’s how it is in the real world. We don’t socialize and work only with people our age and stage of life.
  • Jobs – Whether the student works as a teacher’s assistant during school or at a local restaurant or other small business after school, the student must demonstrate his/her ability to accomplish assigned tasks outside of her/his parents’ and teachers’ oversight. Proving themselves to a new set of peers and supervisory authorities is a very new and different challenge.
  • Final Exams – The academic preparation for college comes mostly in the form of final and midterm exams. The long term preparation over a semester, culminating in one final test of accountability, is likely the most academically-stressful time in high school.

College Applications Are So Much More Than Grades and Test Scores

Each one of these differences or transitions from middle school to high school represent an area outside of grades and test scores for students to create their future college applications. In order to get accepted into a top tier college today, the student must be intentional about creating what goes into that college application. Top Tier Colleges have very low acceptance rates. Their applications have increased and will continue to increase, but the number of students they accept is not increasing. These same colleges are now increasingly relying on far more than only grades and test scores. Top tier colleges are looking at “the whole child”: who they are and what they bring to the table.

There are four main areas of life skills that every student utilizes in their high school years. The things they do outside of academics are the source, the setting, and the context for how they utilize these skills.

  • Physical – self control, balance, confidence
  • Emotional – empathy, independence, experience
  • Cognitive – discipline, imagination, learning skills
  • Social – relationship building, teamwork, leadership

Think of these four attributes as four pieces of a pie. Every student has some chance of getting into a top tier school. What sets your child apart? The border of this “pie” or the pie crust is made up of grades and test scores, but it’s the inside of the pie that sets your child apart.

Extracurricular Activities: The Fruit of the Pie

The four pieces of the pie are demonstrated and lived out in your child’s extracurricular activities. Many families think that extracurriculars are just something they need to fill in as much as they can, but that is not the case. Extracurriculars are not just a bunch of checkboxes. Colleges are looking for activities that leverage the child’s interests, passions, skills, gifts, etc.

Each of the four pieces of the pie above are – or should be – reflected in the child’s extracurricular activities. Over the four years of high school, extracurriculars should form the pattern that writes your child’s college applications. Many colleges give 10 spaces for extracurricular activities, but they are looking for the real things that help form who your child is today, not a list of things checked off. What did your child actually do with that activity?

Real Letters of Recommendation, not Form Letters

Letters of recommendation start in 9th grade, as students build relationships with teachers, employers, counselors, etc., over the next four years. Counselors write great letters for students they get to know, but form letters for students they don’t know. It’s the student’s responsibility to build and maintain those relationships. Different colleges ask for different types of letters. Some colleges request three, others request more. That means different relationships must be built and maintained for the future over the course of your child’s high school career.

Who Do You Say that You Are?

Sometimes it gets buried in “essays” and sometimes it is confused for an essay, but the Personal Statement is not an essay. Colleges are looking for a statement of who the student is and how the student came to become that person. It’s not an essay. It’s a statement. Every experience a student has from 9th grade on will influence, if not directly make up, that statement. The very best way to prepare for such an exercise is to keep notes about what you did, learned, experienced, etc. over the entire high school career, because they’ll never remember it after three years. A student can only do that if the student has been thinking about it since the summer, before ninth grade.

That’s why we said above, “Everything on your college application starts on day one of ninth grade.”

So what do parents do? Worry.

As student transitions from 8th to 9th, parents need to begin to pull away just a little bit each year of high school. Encourage students to do these things on their own. In a perfect world, the relationship, expressed in words, would look something like this:

  • Ninth grade: “You should go see your counselor.”
  • Tenth grade: “Have you checked in with your counselor?”
  • Eleventh grade: “Oh, good, you talked to your counselor!”
  • Twelfth grade: “How can I help you with your college applications?”

We should go from being the instigator to being the resource. Of course it’s not that perfect or easy, but if you start thinking about creating your child’s college application before ninth grade, and be intentional about it, the application will practically write itself.