Are you in 11th grade? Now’s the time to start your college search…
Well it’s here. The time for any of you 11th graders out there and your families to kick your college search into high gear. Realistically speaking this process has started well before now; it’s kind of like a roller-coaster car slowly being drawn up to the top of the first drop…and now you are at the drop!
Everything you have done up until this point has in some way prepared you for applying to college. I hear from students all the time that “schools are really only looking at Junior year.” Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that is wrong. Colleges are looking at the totality of your high school career, starting with 9th grade. That’s why they require your whole high school transcript, not just your 11th grade report card, and why they ask you to list all of your activities and leadership positions starting with 9th grade. This process will likely bring into perspective all the decisions you have made around class selection, investing in your performance, activities you participated in, and whether or not you took on leadership roles. Don’t stress if you are feeling at a deficit, there is still time to fill-in the areas where you feel like you are lacking. I expect, though, you have done more than you think (I’ll talk about that more in a moment).
Broadly speaking there are three main things students will do throughout the search phase: search for schools, choose the ones they want to apply to, and apply to them. Right now the two areas students can (and should) focus on are researching schools and preparing to apply. So, let’s look at each of these a little more closely.
The primary tool I recommend is the College Board’s BigFutures website. This search engine/database has every college or university that uses the SAT (which is basically every US school and some schools in foreign countries). It nicely displays all the data the College Board collects on colleges–which is substantial enough for any student and family to use in their college search.
Using other resources, like The Fiske Guide and Princeton Review, are fine as supplemental materials. The reason is schools pay to get into those books (and others like them), so you risk missing out on schools who couldn’t afford to buy-in. Despite the marketing role these books play, they still provide a lot of useful information which may prove helpful–so don’t discount them, just understand their context.
To help you research effectively you should have your GPA and standardized test scores handy. If you don’t know your standardized test scores because you haven’t taken a test yet, that’s not a big deal but it is useful information to have. Use the information you have as both a way to filter through the nearly 4,000 schools and gain a perspective of where you might fall in the competitiveness of the applicant pool.
The second thing to nail down is what you want out of your college experience (major, activities, location, etc.). By determining what you are looking for in a college, you will then be positioned to figure out whether or not a school has those things. For example, if a school doesn’t offer the exact activity you are interested in, then move it into a “maybe” or “no” category and move on. This will make you a more efficient researcher. Ideally your first pass should narrow the total number of schools to a manageable list of 100-150. Then you can start to really dig deeper to get a “feel” for whether or not you are interested in applying. The plan is to continue narrowing the list of schools so by the fall of your 12th grade year you have a list of 8-12 schools you plan on applying to.
Preparing to apply
So by this point I assume you have taken at least one standardized test–but even if you haven’t this is still relevant. Through your research, you will begin to see the kinds of test scores schools are looking for. So whether you have a set of scores to compare against that information, or now know what you need to aim for, you need to make a standardized test plan. This plan can have a couple of components. For those who really struggle with standardized tests, look into some intensive test prep programs. This could be through a private company or through your high school. Either way look around and talk with your school counselor about what resources are available to you. For those of you on a budget or that feel more comfortable with testing, learn how to read your SAT and ACT score reports. There is a treasure trove of data that could save you from spending big money on private test prep. Simply look at the charts below your scores. Identify the areas in which you need to improve you score, then use your test prep books to practice. Of course with all this focus on preparing to take the tests, don’t forget to register for the SAT and/or ACT.
Remember how I mentioned I expect you have done more than you think? Here’ s how you can alleviate your anxiety. Mid-way through 11th grade is a good time to start taking an inventory of all the activities you’ve participated in, awards you’ve received, and leadership positions you’ve held. Eventually you can turn this into a resume. Start with 9th grade, then move forward to present day. Keep this document somewhere handy so you can update it as you inch closer to actually beginning to complete your college applications. This could be a great time to work on your organizational skills if you haven’t already!
You can also start brainstorming about your college essays. The best way to begin is by looking at a school’s essay prompts. If you can’t find their prompts or don’t have your eye on any particular schools, then check out the common app essay prompts. Want a real challenge? Try answering one of the University of Chicago’s prompts. Use this practice as a launching point to begin brainstorming how you might write about the part of your narrative not addressed by your grades, test scores, or extracurricular activities. Your essay is the time to share the most important part of yourself– the part of you that people absolutely need to know.
For anyone reading this who is an adult family member of an 11th grader, you may be asking yourself: what can I do? For the better part of your student’s life you have probably been protecting and directing him/her. This process is designed to prevent you from doing that. Much of the rhetoric and attention is placed on the student, pushing adults to the periphery. The best thing you can do is love and support your student. Ask questions. Answer your student’s question with a question. Guide them to come to their own answers and conclusions. Let them teach you about the process, as a way to help them understand what is happening (you are bound to learn something too). Sometimes approaching this as an opportunity to learn together can be beneficial to moving your relationship into this new chapter of both your lives. This process forces adults into the backseat…not something you are used to. However, just because you are in the back doesn’t mean you are prevented from being supportive or offering guidance. Even someone in the backseat can help a driver navigate. You know your student well, so use that to your advantage. You also have raised him/her to reach this point in their life, so have faith in what you have taught your student; trust s/he is going to make the best decisions s/he can with the information s/he has at this moment. Don’t let the fear of what “might be” override the possibility of what “could be”.