Are you in 11th grade? Now’s the time to start your college search…
Well it’s here. The time for 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 first drop…and now you cresting over the top frozen in suspense for what is to come!
I hear from students all the time that “schools are really only looking at Junior year.” I wish I knew who starts that rumor (err advice 🤷♂️) every year, because it is misinformed. Everything you have done up until this point matters. In fact it has, in some way, prepared you for the college admission experience. Colleges look at the totality of your high school career, beginning with 9th grade. That’s why they require your whole high school transcript, not just 11th grade; it’s why they ask you to list all of your activities and leadership positions starting with 9th grade.
This clarification may start to bring into perspective everything you’ve done to this point. I’ve heard reflections from students and families about all the decisions that were made around class selection, a student’s academic performance, activities a student participated in, and their achievements. If this is you, don’t stress (I know…easier said than done). Anytime a student can take stock of what they’ve done allows is immensely helpful. They can celebrate what they have done and identify areas for improvement.
Broadly speaking there are three main things students will do throughout the search phase of their college admission journey: look for schools, choose the ones to apply to, and apply to them. Right now the two areas students should focus on are researching schools and preparing to apply. So, let’s look at each of these a little more closely.
What’s Your Fit?
The College Board lists over 4,000 colleges and universities, so how do you find the ones that best match your personality, aspirations, and needs? This is what “fit” is all about–a term you will hear a lot of as you navigate your college admission experience. Essentially it is the idea of students determining what they are looking for in a college so that are positioned to sift through the 4,000 schools, identifying which ones meet those criteria. The general fit categories include: academic, extracurricular, location, school profile, size, diversity, cost, and co-curricular/career.
For example, if a school doesn’t offer the exact activity a student is interested in, then move it into a “maybe” or “no” category and move on. It will turn students into a more efficient researcher. Ideally your first pass should narrow the total number of schools to a manageable list of 100-150. Then they can start to 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.
The primary tool I recommend is the College Board’s BigFutures website. This database has just about every college or university in the US, and even some international schools. It nicely displays all the data the College Board collects on colleges–which is substantial enough for any student and family to use in the initial phase of the 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 potentially 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 will prove helpful–so don’t discount them, just understand their context.
In addition to your fit criteria, it’s helpful it students have their GPA and standardized test scores handy. If they don’t have standardized test scores yet, use the PSAT or ACTPlan as a guide. 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.
Planning & Preparing to Apply
Growing up my father had an expression: planning, preparation, execution. It was his way of encouraging my brothers and I to be thoughtful about the steps we needed to take to achieve our goals. I share his wisdom with you, in an effort to do the same. Planning allows one to think through the process; preparation is about identifying steps to achieve the goal; and execution is the act of completing those steps. So let’s dig in!
Make A Test Prep Plan
With the advent of test-optional, many students and families have expressed to me how confused they feel. My advice continues to be that students should take at least 1 official standardized test (SAT or ACT). Students should use their PSAT or ACTPlan to guide how best to prepare for the official testing. For students who struggle with standardized tests, I highly recommend looking into a test prep program. For those of you on a budget and/or feel comfortable with testing, you can use the data on your score reports to create your own test prep program. There is a treasure trove of data that could save you from spending big money on private test prep. Simply identify the areas in which you need to improve, 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.
Catalogue What You’ve Done
Remember how I mentioned I expect you have done more than you think? Here’ s how you can alleviate your anxiety. Take time to inventory 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!
Brainstorm Essay Ideas
You can also start brainstorming about your college essays. Your essay is the time to share the most important part of yourself– the part of you that people absolutely need to know. 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.
How Can Family Members Help?
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 prevent you 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 they are going to make the best decisions s/he can with the information they have at the moment. Don’t let the fear of what “might be” override the possibility of what “could be”.
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