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How Freshmen and Sophomores Can Get a Head Start on College Admissions

How early is too early to start preparing for college admissions? While you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with college prep right away, freshman year is the best time to start shaping your resume.

By demonstrating a rigorous schedule, good grades, and quality extracurricular involvement from the very beginning, you’ll make your college application much more competitive. Here’s how:

Step 1: Choose Challenging Courses

Colleges and universities prioritize applicants who take rigorous courses in high school. In fact, they want you to take the most challenging courses that are available to you. This is true for a couple of reasons:

  • A rigorous schedule shows that you’re motivated, eager to learn, and willing to challenge yourself.
  • College courses are tough. The best way to predict your success in college is to see how well you perform in the toughest high school courses, like AP classes.
  • Similarly, taking AP classes now will help you build the skills and knowledge you’ll need for college.

During your freshman year, register for mostly Honors classes. You may even consider taking an AP class or two. This sets a pattern of consistently challenging yourself, and it gives you the opportunity to gauge how well you can handle difficult classes (and how many you can handle).

If your school uses weighted Grade Point Averages (GPAs), taking advanced courses from the start will boost your GPA and your class rank.

Sophomore year, take a minimum of one AP class. Depending on how you fared in your advanced courses during freshman year, you can register for up to 3-4 AP courses.

Add more challenging classes each year of high school, demonstrating you continued growth.

Step 2: Keep Your Grades Up

Of course, simply registering for tough classes isn’t enough. You’ll also need to perform well in these classes. In every class you take, do your best to get the highest score possible. Pay attention in class, take notes, do your homework and assigned readings, and study.

If you’re struggling, speak up. Ask your teacher for extra help, sign up for tutoring, or join a study group with students who are excelling in the class. Never be embarrassed to ask questions or indicate that extra help is needed: That’s how you learn. Plus, asking for help is much better than failing a class and hurting your GPA.

Step 3: Explore Extracurricular Interests

Another factor evaluated by colleges is your extracurricular involvement. Although people frequently say that colleges look for well-rounded students, that isn’t the case. Colleges prefer to see that you commit to a few activities, taking on leadership roles, and adding value whenever possible.

Freshman year is great time to try out a few different activities. Figure out what you’re good at, what you love to do, and where you would like to place your focus for the next four years (and possibly into the future).

Once you’ve found your 3-5 favorite activities, commit. Take an active role in these organizations, gradually stepping up your involvement over time. Contribute in meaningful ways and pursue leadership roles.

In addition to joining clubs, sports teams, or other on-campus activities and organizations, volunteer in your community. Take on volunteer projects that are important to you and commit to these too.

In one survey, 53% of admissions officers said that community service can be a tiebreaker between two candidates.
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During every year of high school, you should keep track of your activities, how you contribute, and any related accomplishments or awards. As a freshman, start a document on your computer that lists each activity, your role in the activity, anything you do to contribute, how much time you spend on each activity, and so on.

When you sit down to complete college application, it’s hard to remember everything you did during high school. Keeping a resume ensures that you won’t leave out any of the good stuff!

By following these tips, you’ll demonstrate passion, commitment, and a willingness to actively contribute on a college campus.

Step 4: Build Relationships

Build solid relationships with your teachers and guidance counselor during freshman and sophomore year. When it’s time to apply for colleges, you’ll be glad you did.

Your guidance counselor is one of the best resources you’ll have during the college admissions process. She can help you apply for scholarships and financial aid, choose schools that are the best fit for you, and answer any questions you have along the way.

You want your guidance counselor to know who you are and know a bit about your skills, interests, and goals. This way, she’s likely to think of you when relevant opportunities come along.

Your guidance counselor is also in charge of sending your transcripts to the colleges you apply to and may have to write a letter of recommendation for you.

No guidance counselor? No problem. Here's what to do

Teachers, too, may write your college letters of recommendation. But if they don’t know you well, writing a compelling letter of recommendation is almost impossible. Talk to your teachers, get to know them, and treat them with respect.

As you apply to schools, your counselor and teachers can offer advice and maybe even proofread your essays or personal statements. These relationships can go a long way in enhancing the overall quality of your college applications—and your ability to navigate the process successfully.

Step 5: Take the PSAT

Sophomores, this one’s for you. While the PSAT doesn’t really “count” until junior year, most schools also offer the PSAT to sophomores.

The PSAT, or Preliminary SAT, is a practice version of the SAT administered under realistic test-taking conditions. Take the PSAT seriously and give it your best shot. It won’t qualify you for scholarships yet, but it can give you very valuable information.

When you receive your PSAT score report, it will tell you which questions you missed and the difficulty level of those questions, your strengths and weaknesses, and how you can improve before you take the real SAT.

Use this information to shape your SAT test preparation. If your PSAT scores aren’t where you’d like them to be, begin studying for the SAT well in advance so you have plenty of time to improve. What are you already doing well? What do you need to focus on improving? Build a study schedule that devotes more time to your areas of weakness.

Step 6: Start Learning About Colleges and Careers

Finally, it’s never too early to start learning about colleges and careers. Begin thinking about what you like to do, what areas you excel in, and how these talents and interests might translate to a college major and a future career.

Attend college fairs and start considering what you’re looking for in a college. Talk to the adults in your life about their careers and about potential careers related to your passions. Take career aptitude tests, see what’s out there, and learn more about the schools and jobs that sound fun or interesting to you.

You don’t have to determine your future yet, but now is a great time to begin weighing your options and taking first steps toward building a plan.

Final Thoughts: How Freshmen and Sophomores Can Get a Head Start on College Admissions

If you’re a freshman or sophomore, you don’t need to start stressing over college admissions just yet. However, you can take steps to prepare yourself for admissions and make the application process smoother and more successful in the future.

Do the following:

  • Challenge yourself with Honors and AP courses.
  • Earn good grades and maintain a high GPA from the start.
  • Find extracurricular activities and volunteer activities that interest you, then commit to them and gradually deepen your involvement.
  • Build positive relationships with your guidance counselor and teachers.
  • Take the PSAT as a sophomore and analyze your score report to shape your SAT study plan.
  • Begin exploring colleges and careers that sound appealing to you.

Follow these tips, and you’ll build important skills, helpful experiences, and an impressive resume for college admissions.

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Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.