This is a guest blog written by Deborah Brown, English teacher at Research Triangle Highschool
College? But I’m Only a Freshman!
Even though the day you will wear a funny hat and walk across a stage to receive a piece of paper may seem far away, what you are doing right now in your 1st year of high school is laying the groundwork for what kinds of opportunities you will have on that day you graduate. For those of you who are interested in college, military academies, or other forms of higher education, there are some things you can be doing right now to strengthen your portfolio for when you begin the admissions process.
Since I’ve spent the majority of my teaching years working with juniors and seniors, and since I have now shepherded 2 of my own kids through the college application process, I’m pretty familiar with what the average admissions officer is looking for. The following is the 1st part of this ongoing series of hints and tips I’ve learned from guidance counselors, college admissions officer, and experience.
Tip #1 Strength of Schedule. A college is mostly interested in 2 things—what you can add to their university and whether you will stick around for the full 4 years, or even longer for graduate work. I’ll discuss what you can add to their campus later on, but 1st let’s look at the academics. The last thing a college wants to see is for you to be unable to handle college level classes and college life in general, and drop out. Drop outs equal a huge loss of money and time investment for universities, and much of the application process is geared to making sure your high school achievements have prepared you for the same level of work you will face in their classrooms.
So when planning your high school career, you want to take the most difficult courses at the highest level where you can be successful. The old saying that a college would rather see a B in an AP class than an A in a standard level class is very true. Of course they’d like to see A’s everywhere, but the more you can show that you have been successful in higher-level academic classes, the more confident an admission officer will be that you will also be prepared to handle the rigors of that particular college.
Tip # 2 What do you bring to the table? As mentioned above, colleges want to cultivate a climate of achievement and distinction, so they want students who have been successful in something, so you can bring that success to their campus and translate it into more glory for that university. So what would a college be looking for?
Extracurriculars: these include clubs, sports, jobs, volunteer work, music—anything that shows you have a passion and an interest in contributing to something beyond the classroom. Don’t make the mistake a lot of kids do and try to “pad” your resume by joining every club in the book—most schools would rather see dedication and excellence cultivated over time rather than a laundry list of every possible club. In other words, it’s better to have played the same sport or played with the school orchestra or stayed on the debate team for all 4 years than to have tried to do all of the above for one year each. Don’t fret if it takes time to find your passion—just find one, stick with it, and show dedication and progress towards excellence. And remember things like holding down a steady part time job, volunteering on a regular basis in your community or your place of worship—all of these accomplish the same goal—they show a college that you can persevere, learn, and grow.
And remember, not all extracurriculars are created equal. Certain activities will be more impressive to college admissions officers because they either show academic connections, significant leadership opportunities, or community service/impact. NEVER join a club or a group just because you think it will look good on your college app, but do keep in mind that a colleges would rather see that you spent you time, say, researching for debates, being president of a recycling group, or engineering bridge structures for competitions than playing Frisbee, even if it is Ultimate Frisbee : ) This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow your passions, but again, college want to see dedication and excellence over time, so choose activities that will help you grow as a student, person, and citizen.
Projects: colleges have a name for students who come in with pretty good grades, pretty good test scores, and pretty good extra curriculars, but have no special achievement that separates them from the pack. They call those applicants “unhooked.” So how do you get a hook? Start (and finish, if possible!) a project that shows creativity, leadership, or involvement. Charter a new club. Write a novel. Design and manage a web page. Job shadow or intern with a professional. Do mission work for your place of worship. Raise money for a charity. Work on an election campaign. Do something, ANYTHING, that shows who you are and how you stand out from the rest.
Tip # 3: Relationships: At some point around your junior year, you are going to have to ask 2-3 people to write your letters of recommendations. Depending on the school you apply to, these letters can make or break your application. A strong rec letter can push a mediocre application over to the “admitted” pile, while a lukewarm letter can sink even a strong academic record. Colleges want to hear from people who know you as a person and as a student, and who can attest to your ability to handle the academic and social pressures of college life. Mainly, they will want to hear from your teacher, but coaches, club advisors, youth leaders,— anyone who is NOT family, can also fill this role. So start now to build the kinds of positive relationships with these people so that when the time comes, they know you well enough to be able to write about you so that you shine for the admissions officers. Some of the worst moments of my teaching career have come when a student I really don’t know—one who maybe was in my English class at some point but who never really worked with me in class or out—comes and asks me to write them a rec letter. I always agree, but have to warn them that I may not know them well enough to write the best possible letter, and I always stop and ask them if there isn’t another adult who might know them better. Sadly, there often is not. Don’t be that person! Cultivate your relationships now by being a student who is engaged, curious, tenacious, and positive. Your teachers will know you better—and remember—when it comes to rec time.