How Should High School Freshmen Prepare for College?

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Let’s begin with a caveat: The College Transitions team is philosophically opposed to the unhealthy obsession with elite college admission that begins in the womb, ramps up to overdrive by the time preschool selection rolls around and, by high school — well, that’s when the therapy bills begin to rack up.

The purpose of this piece is to advise freshmen (and their parents) on ways to successfully launch their high school careers in ways that will open up postsecondary options down the road, whether they happen to be a Ivy League universities, “good fit” liberal arts colleges or public universities.

Does Ninth Grade Matter?

Researchers at the University of Chicago looked at the predictive value of a student’s freshman year of high school as it relates to a number of future outcomes. What they found is that ninth grade matters quite a bit. In fact, students who excel in ninth grade are far more likely to graduate high school, enroll in college and remain in college beyond their freshman year, than are students who struggled through their first year of high school.

Another study by Princeton University and the Brookings Institute found that ninth grade is, in many ways, a watershed year for teens. Classroom performance, behavior and attendance that year is a strong indicator of a student’s future academic pathway.

With the importance of ninth grade firmly established, it’s time to present steps your student can take now to begin building a solid foundation for college admission success.

1. Ace those classes. Freshman year counts toward a student’s cumulative GPA calculation and impacts class rank (with some exceptions — mostly schools in the University of California system). These two factors will play a major role in selective college admissions. If your student’s aim is to finish in the top 10 percent of his or her class, even a solid 3.3 GPA will put your child in a pretty deep hole. A stellar freshman GPA, on the other hand, will alleviate a great deal of stress as your child progresses through high school.

2. Take the honors track. Students who wish to have all collegiate options down the road will need to take a rigorous course load, beginning in ninth grade. Those students applying to highly competitive colleges and universities will need to be enrolled in multiple advanced placement courses during their junior and senior years. Taking honors courses as a freshman will put your student on track to take Advanced Placement courses as an upperclassman (and, in some case, as a sophomore).

3. Become active in the school community. If your child is interested in politics, consider joining forensics, mock trial or Model United Nations clubs. Encourage musically inclined students to sign up for chorus, orchestra or marching band. But remember: Admissions officers aren't impressed by applicants who sampled a dozen activities but committed to none.

4. Get to know your student’s guidance counselor. High school guidance counselors often have caseloads double to triple the size of the levels recommended by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Acknowledging the realities of the counselors’ duties and limited time, the onus is on your student to schedule meetings with him or her as a freshman to begin the college exploration process. Getting on the counselor’s radar as a serious, future-minded student early will pay dividends later on.

5. Take advantage of summer. The summer after freshman year is a great time for your child to land his or her first job, volunteer with a local organization or attend a program on a college campus — even if he or she desires a restful summer break. Such an accomplishment refines your student’s college search before his or her sophomore year commences.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also a co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at