How early is too early to start thinking about college?
According to Avis Wright, a former college counselor and author of Knowledge for College, middle school is a good time to start. Doing well in middle school classes provides a foundation for high school.
“The middle school experience is the best time to introduce the student to the many academic characteristics that college admission offices expect to see,” she explains. “During these years, parents, teachers, counselors and community leaders can use their life experience and situations to instruct, model, and advise.”
Inna Collier, a guidance counselor for seventh to twelfth grade students at Woodbury-based New Life Academy, agrees that eighth grade is a good time to start taking rigorous classes in preparation for college. “We want our eighth graders to realize that, beginning in ninth grade, grades matter and they’ll have to work harder and harder each year,” she says.
It’s the courses you take your freshman and sophomore years—and the grades you get in those classes—that really impact college options, points out Brian Jones, director of admissions at Minnesota State University, Mankato. In ninth or tenth grade, most students aren’t ready to begin their college search, but they can understand why academic performance is so important. “You can’t talk at them for 30 minutes about all the majors you offer or how many programs are accredited, their eyes will glaze over,” he says. To get his point across to 14, 15, or 16-year-olds, Jones often mentions annual income and unemployment rates for college grads vs. high school grads to get their attention.
The earlier you think about your future, the more time you have to research options, apply for loans and scholarships, and take the required courses needed (and maybe even take college courses for credit).
Many colleges also have specific admissions requirements, like ACT or SAT scores, and if you plan ahead, you can take courses that will help you when it comes to taking these standardized tests.
In addition to looking at test scores and grades, admissions committees also take into consideration the strength of curriculum. The rationale is that high schoolers who challenge themselves by taking more demanding classes are more likely to succeed in college. It’s a smart idea to take advanced or honors courses whenever possible.
At The Blake School, a private, coeducational, nonsectarian PK-12 college preparatory school, all sophomores are required to take a course called “College Seminar,” a class continuing into their junior year. Students are also assigned individual college counselors who work with them one-on-one right up until graduation.
By the fall of a student’s senior year, he or she should be well-prepared to finalize his or her application. A great tool for helping parents and students stay on track is educationplanner.org.
Dan Koeck, courtesy of North Dakota State University
The Right Fit
Attend admissions events, schedule a private tour, go to school fairs, and talk to representatives to get a better idea of what a school is like. Visit the schools—see if you can observe teachers in their classroom or lecture hall. How formal is it? Are there handshakes or hugs? Will you or your child do well in that environment? How does it feel?
It took one official campus tour for student Katie Tomsche to fall in love with the University of St. Thomas. She liked the tour guides, the aesthetics of the campus, and how friendly the students and staff were. “I instantly felt comfortable,” she says. She graduates from St. Thomas this spring with a double major in English and communications and journalism. As it turns out, her first impression of the school was spot-on.
“St. Thomas is a beautiful school with incredible people,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with outstanding professors who are entirely approachable and willing to help. What’s more, the entire St. Thomas community is warm and welcoming.”
A warm and welcoming community is also part of The Blake School experience, with three campuses throughout the Minneapolis metro area. “Students who are intellectually curious and want to be active participants in their education do quite well at Blake,” says Shawn Reid, upper school director of admission, The Blake School. “Our school provides an experience that prepares students for collegiate success and lifelong learning in an inclusive and pluralistic setting.”
At St. Paul’s Minnesota Waldorf School, from preschool to eighth grade, students are prepped not only for the next level, but for life.
“Childhood is a limited opportunity to learn and develop into the person you are meant to be,” says Jen Pavich, admissions director. “Waldorf education helps children and families make the most of that precious opportunity.”
This is done through instilling a broad academic background as well as giving students the tools to think critically, problem-solve creatively, and have a sense of global citizenship.
The Waldorf difference is better seen than explained. A visit, says Pavich, “will paint a thousand words.”
Also helping students reach their full potential is the staff at Breck School, an Episcopal, coeducational, college-preparatory day school for preschool through twelfth grade.
“On paper, a Breck student may look like a lot of graduates from fine independent schools, but in person, a Breck graduate stands out as an independent thinker, self-starter, socially conscious problem-solver, thoughtful athlete, visionary artist, and perpetually curious and perpetually learning individual,” says Scott Wade, director of admissions and financial aid at Breck. “We want every Breck graduate to leave here not just with strong test scores and a carefully curated resume, but as a fully realized human being, confident, capable, and compassionate enough to change the world in ways he or she sees fit.”
With a lot of planning, a little (ok, a lot) of patience, a sense of humor, and an open mind, you or your child will go on to—as Thoreau wisely said, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, and live the life you’ve imagined.”
Minnesota State University, Mankato
Cognitive science major
What was it about Mankato that appealed to you? Before visiting, I was attracted to the prestigious engineering program (initially my major) and reasonable tuition (it costs the same to take 12 credits as it does to take 18). I had heard there were several recognized student organizations so I knew I’d be able to find a club or group to meet new people, occupy my time, and build my resume. The icing on the cake, though, was the overall atmosphere of the campus. I loved that everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and the campus felt like home.
University of North Dakota
What advice do you have for high school students who are starting their college search?
1. Think about size, location, extracurricular activities, class size, distance from home, and the cost. I also considered the college’s graduation rate, how long the average student takes to graduate, and if the college is helpful with placement after graduation. Finding a school with a strong Greek system was important to me too.
2. Find out what teaching style is best for you. Can you succeed in a classroom with 300 other students, or do you do better with smaller class sizes?
3. Learn how to study! Take a study course your freshman year of college, or take one while you’re still in high school. College course are much more difficult than high school, so knowing how to study efficiently is a key part in being successful.
4. Find out GPA and ACT/SAT requirements, and if you need recommendation letters, essays, volunteer hours, etc. Knowing these requirements early on will help you when you’re ready to start applying.