If conventional college application wisdom tells us anything, it’s that generally speaking, junior year is the most important year for students looking to get into a top university. It’s the year your grades matter most, your extracurriculars really start to take shape, you form the relationships that will define your letters of recommendation, and for many students, you take the SAT or the ACT for the first time. The emphasis on junior year performance lulls many students into thinking that if they’re serious about getting admitted to an elite college, junior year is the time to kick things into gear. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, junior year is the year colleges will scrutinize most closely when evaluating your applications, but that doesn’t mean you can just take it easy until then. There are a wealth of things you can do in your first two years of high school that will not only be significant accomplishments in and of themselves, but also set you up for extremely successful junior and senior years.
Be on top of your grades. “Freshman grades don’t matter” is an oft-repeated adage in the world of college admissions, but not necessarily an accurate one. Granted, freshman grades are not as important as those your sophomore, junior, and senior year, but that certainly isn’t to say they don’t matter. A couple Bs, and even one or two Cs under very exceptional circumstances will slide on your freshman year transcript, but they will have a notable adverse effect on your application. If it comes down to two students, one with a 4.0 their freshman year and the other with a 3.2, the student with the 4.0 will get the spot 99% of the time. A few minor slip-ups on your transcript freshman year won’t put you out of the race, but you’ll be in a much more secure position if you keep your grades strong throughout.
Challenge yourself. As high schools offer more and more AP and IB classes, and self-studying these exams becomes increasingly common even among freshmen and sophomores, be sure to take a challenging course load your first two years to avoid getting left behind. However, in the rush to take the most AP classes or claim the #1 spot in a class, don’t forget about your mental and physical health! Students, especially younger students, shouldn’t be pulling all-nighters every night in pursuit of academic bragging rights. As a freshman, you can allow yourself more leniency; once you know you can handle the workload of one or two AP, IB, Honors, or Advanced courses, you can take a more rigorous course load your sophomore year, and so on.
Get involved in extracurriculars early. Dedication and passion are valued highly by admissions officers when it comes to extracurriculars; an absurdly long list of vague extracurricular pursuits, not so much. As a freshman or sophomore, you may not have much of an idea of what career you’d like to pursue, and accordingly, you may struggle choosing extracurriculars to involve yourself in. In these first couple years, it’s acceptable and even practical to sign up for various clubs, teams, and/or other organizations while you figure out your interests. Over time, you’ll begin to realize which pursuits truly interest you and which are not a valuable use of your time. Once you’ve narrowed your list of extracurriculars down, seek out leadership opportunities. If a club you’re involved with allows students to apply for leadership roles, be sure to do so. If you’re on an athletic or academic team, demonstrate the passion and dedication that will make coaches take note and might land you a team captain position. Try to look for ways to get involved outside of school too – being a regular volunteer at a local nonprofit, medical center, church, or other organization can even get you an excellent and unique letter of recommendation come your senior year.
Utilize your summers. The importance of using summers effectively cannot be overemphasized. We all know how it goes: you spend the first week or two on the couch, binge-watching TV because you just need time to “decompress” after a long, grueling year. Except a month later, you’re still on the couch. And a month after that. And a couple weeks after that. And suddenly, school starts tomorrow and you’ve accomplished nothing other than creating a semi-permanent indent in your couch. The truth is, that sort of summer was acceptable in elementary school, but for students who are serious about getting accepted to elite colleges, the work starts early – even over the summer. A great way to utilize your summers as a rising sophomore or junior is to volunteer, perhaps at a local nonprofit or your town’s city hall. Getting experience and forming relationships in the first couple years of high school can land you internships or job offers later on. Additionally, if your school requires a certain number of volunteer hours to graduate or offers special awards or commendations to students who have completed a certain number of hours, you can use your summers to rack up volunteer hours and knock these out of the way early on. If permitted by your school, you can even gain entry into your school’s chapter of National Honor Society (if your school has one) as a freshman or sophomore, a rare accolade.
Don’t stress about tests quite yet. Many students fret about their upcoming standardized tests as early as freshman year, but truthfully, you don’t have to worry about them yet. The only standardized tests you really need to be thinking about are SAT subject tests if you’re planning on taking one in a subject for which you’ve taken a corresponding course, or the PSAT if you’re a sophomore (although many, if not most students take the PSAT their junior year). Students almost always score better on the standardized tests if they take them later in their high school careers; this is especially true for the ACT, which is a test of academic “achievement” and tests largely on material that is typically taught in sophomore and junior years of high school.
It’s never too early to apply for scholarships. Scholarships? As a freshman or a sophomore? It does seem a bit extreme, but believe it or not, there are a whole host of scholarships offered specifically to students in their first two years of high school. When you get your first tuition bill as a college freshman, you’ll thank your high school freshman self for being so proactive!
Start thinking about colleges. Even if college feels a lifetime away as a freshman or sophomore, you’ll be filling out those applications before you know it. If you begin considering which colleges you might apply to come your senior year early on, you’ll have ample time to research your schools, consider potential majors, and visit campuses. Of course, it’s basically inevitable that this list will change by the time you’re actually filling out applications, but demonstrating interest in colleges early on by attending summer programs or information sessions can make more of a difference than you might expect.
Don’t overwork yourself. It may seem like if you don’t do everything perfectly your freshman and sophomore years, your chances at admission to a top university are shot, but his definitely isn’t the case. Yes, your grades and extracurriculars do matter, but they are not held to the same standard as your performance junior and senior years. Admissions committees understand that students are entering high school at 13 or 14 years old and can’t be expected to earn a 4.8 GPA or score a congressional internship right away. It’s important to do well and to put in the necessary effort, but don’t get too caught up in the stress and chaos of the college admissions process just yet; you’ve still got a few years.
It’s easy to let yourself slack off a bit your first two years of high school, especially if you’re constantly being inundated with messages of junior year’s importance and little else. However, getting a head start with strong grades, challenging coursework, and diverse extracurricular involvement can make all the difference in your final years of high school. For applicants serious about getting into top colleges, the hard work starts the first day of freshman year.
Managing Editor at CollegeVine Blog
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.
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How Important Are Extracurriculars During My Freshman Year?
Extracurriculars during freshman year alone will not be a major player on your college applications. Instead, admissions committees are usually interested in seeing sustained involvement and increased responsibility or leadership roles in activities throughout your high school years.
As such, freshman year is the time to find the right activities for you. You should test out several different extracurriculars during your freshman year. While it’s not a great idea to change activities every few weeks, you can certainly drop out of one or two activities during the course of the year if you find that they aren’t things you’re interested in pursuing.
Take advantage of this chance to test the waters during freshman year until you find activities that inspire you or spark passion. Try to find a few extracurriculars that you really enjoy, so that you can commit to them fully and hopefully continue to participate in them throughout the rest of your high school career.
How Much Do Standardized Tests Matter During My Freshman Year?
Don’t worry, freshman year is too early to take any of the major standardized tests! Most students take the PSAT during their sophomore or junior year and their first SAT or ACT later in their junior year. Taking any of these tests during your freshman year would be ill advised, since your score is likely to reflect your academic inexperience and might even increase your test anxiety. You have plenty of time for tests later on.
One set of tests that you should begin to consider during your freshman year is the series of Advanced Placement (AP) exams. If you hope to attend a top college, you will likely take many APs during your high school career. Some tests might follow AP classes that you take formally through your school, and others may be ones that you self-study for. Some students have even self-studied for APs as early as freshman year.
Whether or not you intend to self-study for an AP exam during your freshman year, it’s still worthwhile to begin thinking about which AP exams you will take during the course of your high school career, and when you will take them. Check out the AP calendar to get an idea of when different exams are offered.
How Important Is College Planning During My Freshman Year?
It’s never too early to start thinking about college, and freshman year is a great time to start. Will you be at a disadvantage if you don’t start thinking about college during your first year of high school? Probably not. But you will have a head start if you do.
Start by learning about the college application process, and then begin to research colleges that you think you might be interested in. Take some notes about what you like and dislike about each, and keep a running list of colleges that you think might be a good fit for you.
You should also begin to think about funding college. Consider family resources that might be available to you, potential eligibility for financial aid, and ways in which you might start saving some money yourself. You can also start to look into scholarship opportunities.
The key point to keep in mind if you begin thinking about colleges this early is that your list can and should adapt with you as you grow and change during high school. The schools you set your eyes on as a freshman may no longer be the perfect fit by the time you graduate, and that’s okay. If you start planning now, you’ll have plenty of time to figure it out over the next four years.
How Important Are The Relationships I Build During Freshman Year?
Building relationships with teachers, advisers, and your guidance counselor might be the single most important thing you do during your freshman year. These are the people who will guide, shape, and mentor you during the next four years, and they will ultimately play a big role in your college admissions process.
Make an effort to reach out to these people as a freshman so that you can build on your relationship over the next four years. They may have hundreds of students who pass through their doors each year, but they will remember you if you make the effort to get to know them. Often these relationships can provide valuable advice and insight as you progress through high school.
Eventually, you will need to collect recommendations from your teachers, so learning to build positive relationships with them should begin during your freshman year. You will definitely need recommendations for college applications, and you might need them even sooner for a job or scholarship application. Make sure that your teachers know who you are beyond your seat in their classroom. For more information about building these important relationships, read our article How to Get College Recommendation Letters: Building Recommender Relationships.
There is a tendency to write freshman year off as a period of adjustment. This is true in many ways. There is definitely more leniency during your freshman year when it comes to grades, extracurriculars, and all the other factors that will play into your college applications. However, this does not mean that freshman year doesn’t matter. In fact, students who being their planning early and have a successful freshman year will have a head start over those who take more time to settle in to their high school years.
If you’re a high school freshman who is just starting to think about your future, and you think you’d benefit from the advice of successful students who have been in your shoes, consider CollegeVine’s Mentorship Program, which provides access to practical advice on topics from college admissions to career aspirations, all from accomplished college students.
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