Parents of seniors call me every year in August to help their students get ready for the SATs and ACTs and SATIIs and a few months later for help with college applications and essays.
Most times, I wish they called earlier. About 5 years earlier.
I agree with nearly all of this advice: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/education/bal-achieveside0412,0,571587.story
Here’s what I’d tell you if you had called me when you were in 7th grade: If you want to get into a competitive college, you had better start planning now. Top tier colleges are accepting fewer and fewer applicants every year. (See articles like: http://www.usnews.com/blogs/paper-trail/2009/3/31/top-colleges-see-record-low-acceptance-rates.html?s_cid=et-0410 )
So what should a 6th, 7th, or 8th grader do to get a head start?
Read. It’s the activity which will have the greatest impact on your future. If you read, your SAT and ACT scores will be higher. If you read, your grades in English and Social Studies will be higher. Reading anything (including romance novels) is better than reading nothing. Read something just outside your usual area of interest. If you usually read fantasy or science fiction, read a mystery (Agatha Christie and Dick Francis are my favorite mystery authors). If you read war novels, read a biography. If you read The Onion, read Gulliver’s Travels. Always have a book with you. I keep a paperback in my pocketbook, a hard cover by my bed, and magazines in my bathroom.
Take the hardest classes you can manage. If you have the option of taking advanced math in 7th grade, do it. It’s hard to move back into the advanced track in high school once you’re out of it, and colleges want to make sure you’re taking the hardest classes you can (the rigor of classes is much more important than SATs in most cases). Same with science — take the advanced or honors track if you can. You can always drop back down to an easier level if you must in later years, but you’ll find it near impossible to move up a level later.
Take Spanish all the way through senior year. There are more periods of Spanish than any other language. That means you will have a wider choice of teachers as you move on, and a wider selection of levels (honors, AP). Spanish class is not going to conflict with a more infrequently-scheduled class, like orchestra, but French might. And competitive colleges prefer to see 3 or 4 years of a foreign language (not including 7th and 8th grades).
Improve your writing skills. The best way to improve your writing skills is to have an amazing English teacher, but not everyone can have Mrs. Joyce Garvin as a teacher as I did. Another way to improve is to hire yourself a good writing coach (ahem – I happen to know one!) and see her periodically when you have a project or an essay. But writing frequently, writing with intent and determination, writing letters to the editor, writing book reviews on Amazon.com — writing anything is a good way to gain comfort and fluency with writing.
Take as many classes as you can. In high school, that means no lunch. You can eat in class. Take two languages. Take two sciences. Get your requirements out of the way as early as you can so you can take more interesting electives that may only be open to juniors and seniors.
Make friends with your guidance counselor. They’re busy, and they’re not going to call you up to tell you that you could fill that hole in your schedule with a new AP class — unless you go to them and ask. They know which teachers might be teaching which classes, which new classes are being considered, which electives won’t be offered next year. Your guidance counselor will have to write a college recommendation for you, so get to know him or her the minute you start 9th grade. Bring him/her cookies. (My sons’ absolutely wonderful counselor loves chocolate.) Stop by to show off that A you got on a test. The better your guidance counselor knows you, the more helpful advice you’ll get.
Ask your friends’ parents what they do for a living. Most kids enter college without a clue about what they want to do because the only professions they know are teacher, doctor, and businessman. The earlier you become aware of all the different sort of jobs there are, the more you’ll find school relevant and interesting. And the more interesting and relevant you find school, the better you’ll do. Find out what a public relations person does. Or a chef. Or an advertising editor. Or a graphic designer. Or an office manager.
Listen to adults speak. Since the demise of the cocktail party, kids don’t have as many opportunities to hear adults engaged in adult conversation. When kids hear unrelated adults speak to each other, they learn phrases like “double standard,” or “righteous indignation,” or “above reproach.” They won’t hear those things from parents talking about whose turn it is to take out the garbage or from their friends or sadly even from their teachers. Too often when there’s a kid in the room, the conversation includes the child and parents adjust their vocabulary. Kids need to hear adults speak to each other about the news of the day.
Some might say that kids should be able to be free from the pressure of college until the application date looms near. But I believe the earlier you start to prepare, the more options you have later and the more stressLESS thinking about college will be when you get to senior year.