When Should You Start Thinking About College?

Student starting to think about applying for college taking notes

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College admissions grow more competitive each year, as thousands of talented students compete for a finite number of spots at top colleges. With this competition comes increased pressure on students and their parents. As this pressure grows, students and parents begin worrying ever earlier about college applications, looming just over the horizon.

So, when should you start worrying about college? How should you plan to make sure you stay on track? In this article, we’ll explore how we guide students on their path to college, and the different approaches you can take. There is no one right way to prepare for college, but there are pitfalls you should avoid along the way. We hope that by explaining our process, you will be more comfortable and confident when it comes time for you to apply to college.

Collge Path: Starting Early

Many parents begin worrying about college very early. There is such a thing as too early; kids need time to be kids, and a student’s accomplishments in middle school, no matter how impressive at the time, rarely matter for college admissions.

If you want to help a young child on the path to college, there are three things you should do:

  1. Help them explore their interests. Interests are found, or made, or grow out of a passing fascination; but they require nurturing. Students in elementary and middle school should try as many different passions and activities as possible. This will help them find what they truly enjoy doing. Don’t have them fill every hour of every day with activities, but give them room enough to experiment and find something they’re willing to stick with.
  2. Make sure they succeed academically. Most schools have honors, regular, and remedial tracks, and once you’re on a track it becomes difficult to leave it. By supporting them early, you put them on a path to succeed later.
  3. Nurture their curiosity. A desire to learn is like anything else, the more it is used and stretched, the stronger it grows. Nurturing this is important, because colleges want to see students who are eager to learn and explore, and who desire knowledge for its own sake.

This is general advice, but if your child is not yet in high school, this is all you need to do at the moment. For more advice on activities, see our article on extracurriculars. To better understand course tracks, see our guide to AP exams, and to learn why curiosity and a desire to learn matter to colleges, see our article on intellectual vitality.

An Oblique Approach

We begin working with students in 8th or 9th grade at the earliest, for students younger than this, we suggest the advice in the preceding section. Our first steps mirror that advice; an exploration of interests, academic support, and a nurturing of innate curiosity.

Some students have deep interests coming in, but many do not. This is fine, it is normal for high school freshmen not to know what their passions are. In these cases, we take an oblique approach and help them prepare for college admissions in a way that never mentions college admissions itself.

What colleges are looking for in admissions is interesting people. You do need to have high grades (see our article on grades for more), but those are merely to prove you are capable of doing the work required. High grades alone will not grant you admission. 

Instead, top colleges want to see passionate and interesting students who have accomplished interesting or impressive things. Students who have found and explored their passions, and in so doing impacted the world around them. These students have shown off their values, taken on responsibilities, and contributed to the communities they were part of. In this, colleges see evidence that these students will contribute positively to the community on campus if they are admitted.

Thus our candidacy building program does not approach college itself but instead tries to help students become the kinds of applicants colleges are eager to admit. We help students find their passions and then explore them in-depth. We don’t start with a lofty end goal in mind, but instead, build up from wherever a student is.

As an example, we worked with a student who had an interest in human rights in the Middle East. We started slow, helping them find sources to read and articles about the subject. These articles led to the authors, and then to professors and research groups interested in the subject. Not all were willing to talk to a high school student, but some were happy to share their work and answer some questions. The student began a blog and started a club at their school to raise awareness for these issues. They ended up raising money and having a widely read blog, helping a number of people in the process. 

By taking an interest and building upon it over time, we were able to involve the student deeply and help them find connections to great people. None of this was directly related to college; the student wasn’t thinking about their eventual college acceptance when doing research or writing blog posts. At the same time, however, the work they put in and their accomplishments allowed the student to write their essays with confidence, and to show off their talents and values to colleges.

High school students studying at common room

What This Means for You

Regardless of when you start thinking about colleges, the best way to approach college readiness is obliquely. Don’t join clubs or pursue awards cynically, thinking only of the resume you are building. Instead find your passions and pursue them as far and as high as you can; the heights you reach may surprise you.

You should begin thinking about colleges and the applications themselves in junior year, deciding what you want in a college, where you should apply, and what you want to get out of your college experience. You don’t need to know your future plan perfectly, but having some idea of where you’re going will help.

We help most students begin college applications themselves in the spring of their junior year and continue the process through deadlines, or until they finish. We don’t start this earlier because that leaves too much time to worry and because applications are only open in the summer.

Further, waiting until the spring of your junior year or that summer gives you more time to accomplish great things, and to find things to write about. Again, you shouldn’t do exciting things just to write about them later. Do great things for their own sakes; the fact that they make for great college essays is merely a fringe benefit.

Standardized Tests

While many colleges have gone test-optional, standardized tests look to remain part of the college application landscape, and many students wonder when they should begin studying and preparing. 

Due to the questions on the test, you should be introduced to all the material and concepts before you begin studying in earnest. This will usually be by the end of your sophomore year, depending on which math courses you are taking. Studying for a test when you haven’t learned any of the material yet is not the best use of your time.

We recommend you begin studying at least 6 months out. Our test preparation program has several tracks, but the one with the most consistent success is the long approach, where students have the time to truly master both the material and the format of the tests.

Generally, preparations should begin towards the end of your sophomore year, or in the summer before your junior year. This will allow you time to take the test once and see how you perform, leaving you time to retake it if you don’t achieve the scores you desire.

We offer a test prep boot camp over the summer to help students familiarize themselves with the format and material of the test. For more information on how our test preparation program works, and to learn how to do it yourself, see our article on the secrets of test prep.

Final Thoughts: When Should You Start Thinking About College?

College seems to loom large on the horizon as soon as you enter high school, and the temptation to panic and do everything, or put off thinking about the future entirely, both have their own appeals. With long experience, however, we’ve learned that the best ways to prepare for college are also some of the best ways to get the most out of your time in high school.
The path to college can feel difficult, and the challenges insurmountable. As with all paths through treacherous terrain, it is good to have a guide to help you on your journey. If you want to learn more about how we can help you prepare for and apply to college, schedule a free consultation with us. We’re always happy to hear from you.

Need help with college admissions?

Download our "Guide to Everything," a 90-page PDF that covers everything you need to know about the college admission process.

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