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Back to School: Make the Most of Your Year

The school year is quickly approaching; for some, it has already begun. Students (and parents) should approach the beginning of a new year strategically, setting realistic goals and road-maps to achieving them. Last year is over, those courses, grades, and activities are locked in. But now is the opportunity to start fresh, build relationships with new teachers, find new opportunities, demonstrate your true academic talents, and develop plans to succeed this year. Below, I’ve laid out a few items for each high school student to consider, based on his/her year in school. These are merely high-level topics, each of which requires some real thinking and discussion.
Freshmen
  • Grades: This is the first year of grades that will be seen by college admissions officers. It is incredibly important to put this as your #1 focus.
  • Extracurricular Activities: Take this opportunity to explore a variety of different activities. Find things you love, or think you may love, and try them out! See how it goes.
  • Teachers: Start building relationships with your teachers. They are valuable resources for guiding you through your high school experience, both inside and outside the classroom.
Sophomores
  • Grades: You need to either maintain or begin to improve your grades from last year. Hopefully, you are taking slightly more challenging classes this year than you did in freshman year.
  • Extracurricular Activities: Now is the time to focus your activities. Think back to what you did last year. Choose the most meaningful (and fun) activities to pursue. If you didn’t get involved last year, now is the time to (quickly) explore the options available in and around your school.
  • College Visits: Sophomore year is a great time to start visiting colleges. Students should get a feel for what locations, settings, and sizes they prefer. Also, by seeing college campuses, many students start to learn what they need to do in high school to actually get accepted. This could be very motivating!
Juniors
  • Grades: Yes, grades still makes the list. This is number 1. Even though you are likely in more difficult classes now (perhaps an AP class or two… or five), you must maintain or improve your grades. Dips in Junior year can be a big red flag.
  • Extracurricular Activities: Go for those leadership positions. By now, you likely will have spent two years participating in an activity. Run for office, take the lead on a project, and continue to dedicate yourself to a few activities that actually pique your interest.
  • Standardized Tests: This year, you will have to take the ACT or SAT (and maybe the PSAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Tests). With regard to ACT/SAT, it is time to figure out which one to take and begin preparing. Students should start prep work about four months before the actual test. NEVER go into a real test without preparation.
  • College Applications: Applications may be a little far off now, but, really, they are not. Continue visiting schools, reviewing them online, and seeing what their requirements are. This may cause you to change some of your classes or select different ones, influence your test prep schedule, and/or look for specialized programs.
Seniors
  • Grades: Your first semester grades will matter greatly for regular decision schools. You are in the toughest classes in the school and you still must maintain or improve your grades.
  • Extracurricular Activities: This is your time to shine. Weed out anything that you do not dedicate significant time to. There is no point in attending those once-a-week FBLA meetings. Take your leadership to the next level by running an organization or team.
  • Applications: START EARLY. Senior year is incredibly stressful with school work, extracurriculars, applications, and your social life (yes, I recognize teenagers do and should have one). If you start applications early enough, you can avoid some major stress on the back end. In fact, you should have started already. Dedicate 2-4 hours a week to applications – literally block it out. Sunday AM perhaps? More to come on this throughout the fall.
  • More Tests: You may need to retake the ACT or SAT to achieve your goal score. You may also be looking at taking AP tests to get college credit. Keep on top of registration deadlines and your prep work.