For students who dream of attending an Ivy League or other top-tier school, the process of building your application profile begins the moment you begin high school. Prestigious schools are becoming increasingly competitive, and admissions committees take into account the entirety of a student’s high school career when evaluating their application. Becoming a competitive applicant requires time, strategic planning, and intentional effort starting freshman year.
If you are just beginning your high school journey, it can be challenging to know how to plan ahead and set yourself up for success, while still giving yourself ample opportunity to have fun and explore the new opportunities that high school brings. However, with the right information and strategy, you can maximize your first two years of high school and start preparing early for the college application process! This guide provides guidance and actionable steps you can take during your first two years of high school to set yourself up for college admissions success.
Clubs and Activities
The first year of high school is all about exploration! Whether you are entering high school with distinct interests or you are still figuring out what appeals to you, approach every opportunity with an open mind—get involved in clubs and student organizations, learn more about the extracurriculars offered at your school and outside of school, and try out a variety of activities.
Throughout your high school career, you should tailor your involvement to those activities that relate to your hook. A hook is the interest or passion that underlies your activities, intersects with your future academic or professional goals, and mobilizes your skills in service of your community. Don’t fret if you don’t know what your hook is during freshman year! As you try out different activities and take advantage of the academic and nonacademic opportunities available to you, you will naturally begin to identify and pursue your hook.
After exploring your options during your first year, sophomore year is the time to decide which activities you want to continue and which you no longer want to be involved in. It is important to become more involved in those activities that you most enjoy, since they will likely correspond to your hook and allow you to demonstrate your commitment on your college applications down the line. By the end of sophomore year, identify leadership roles within the organizations and clubs you are involved in and begin to pursue roles that you would be well suited for. If you cannot find an existing activity that reflects your interests, sophomore year is also a fantastic time for you to pitch or start your own club! Take initiative to connect with other students who share your passions and embrace the opportunity to become a leader in your community.
Just as you discover your interests outside of the classroom through clubs and activities, be intentional about exploring your academic interests during your first year. Keep in mind that stellar grades are the foundation of your college application—particularly if you aspire to attend a top school. In order to be a strong candidate, you will need to have near perfect grades to prove your capability to rise to the demands of prestigious schools’ academics.
As you begin to distinguish the academic subjects that align with your skills and goals, work with your teachers and academic advisor to identify advanced courses that your school offers to sophomores and upperclassmen in these subject areas. During your first year, make a plan to enroll in the advanced track in a couple of courses your sophomore year, whether Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or your school’s Honors classes. Likewise, evaluate your course load during sophomore year and make a plan to continue on the advanced track during your junior year. You can reach out to students in the grades above you to hear more about their experiences in courses that you intend to enroll in. If you’re not sure whether an advanced course would be a good option for you, you can meet with your freshman year teachers and ask what they would recommend and whether or not they think you would be well suited to take an advanced course in their subject matter. You can also request further information from teachers who instruct upper-level courses to learn more about how you can prepare yourself for the rigors of the advanced classes they teach.
By your sophomore year, your coursework should have prepared you to take a diagnostic SAT or ACT exam. In order to arrange a diagnostic test, ask your counselor about taking the PreACT or PSAT/NMSQT test in the fall or the PSAT 10 in the spring (with or without writing). These are valuable tests to help you prepare for the actual ACT or SAT, which you can take during the summer after your sophomore year or during your junior year. Taking a diagnostic test will not only provide you with a sense of what to expect from the SAT or ACT, but it will help you to choose between the two.
After taking a diagnostic test, review your PreACT, the PSAT 10, or PSAT/NMSQT test results with your parents, a tutor or your school counselor. Work to create a study plan and measurable goals to reach your target score on the official SAT or ACT. Depending on your intended score, you may benefit from working with a tutor during sophomore year or the summer following sophomore year to ensure that you have the support you need to reach your goals.
You can also sit for these exams during the fall of your senior year, but it is typically advisable to complete all testing prior to senior year, as this will allow you to focus on your college applications during the following summer and fall. Creating a clear testing schedule to keep yourself on track is critical to ensuring that you have enough time to study, take the exams, and prepare and submit strong college applications.
Relationships with Teachers
While your college recommendation letters will likely be written by your junior year teachers, it is important to make a good impression on your teachers and begin to establish relationships with them during your first two years of high school. Your teachers will be an invaluable resource in planning your coursework for the coming years, and if you plan to attend a summer program or enroll in a summer class, you will likely need to ask them to write letters of recommendation on your behalf. Freshman year and sophomore year are prime opportunities to develop strong communication skills with your teachers and become comfortable asking for additional support and feedback outside of the classroom. These skills will not only be valuable during your time in high school, but will carry you through college and beyond!
As you begin your high school journey, it is important to take initiative and learn what resources your school offers to help students through the college application process. While college applications may seem like a distant future task, reaching out to your school’s college counselor early in your high school career will establish your motivation and help them get a sense of your future goals and how they can best support you to achieve those goals. In addition, it is important to forge a good relationship with your college counselor over time, as they will be responsible for writing one of your letters of recommendation—the more they know a student on a personal level, the more prepared they will be to communicate the student’s unique strengths and personality traits to colleges. They will also be able to help you compile transcripts and other important academic information needed for merit-based summer program applications.
Finally, be intentional about planning the summers after your freshman and sophomore years of high school. After your freshman year, you may choose to enroll in a pre-college program, attend a summer camp, or get a summer job—this is the time to explore your interests or do something you enjoy that may not be as rigorous as the opportunities you will pursue over the coming summers. After sophomore year, consider pursuing a more intensive academic summer opportunity. This could include exploratory coursework or intellectual experiences, such as independent research or a dual-enrollment course, or a prestigious merit-based program. Keep in mind that if you would like to apply for competitive merit-based programs, deadlines typically occur during the fall and winter months. For more information about planning your summers, check out Command Education’s Guide to Maximizing your High School Summers!
The fall of your freshman year is all about exploring new opportunities, connecting with your teachers, and discovering your passions. Take advantage of on-campus activities and clubs, and make the effort to get to know your teachers as well as older students who can provide helpful guidance as you choose more advanced classes, hone your interests and pursue leadership opportunities in the coming years. Finally, be sure to schedule a meeting with your college counselor in order to introduce yourself and establish that you want to be proactive in the college application planning process.
During your freshman spring, begin considering which subjects and activities have been most intriguing to you thus far. Freshman year also brings the opportunity to enroll in your sophomore year classes, a decision that students should approach strategically. As you select the courses you want to take in the coming fall, think critically about what you may be interested in studying in the future and enroll in more advanced classes in your area of interest.
The summer before your sophomore year of high school, continue to explore your interests through pre-college programs, extracurricular activities, or volunteering opportunities. Pre-college programs can be a great means for younger students to get a first glimpse at the college experience while deepening their engagement with their academic interests. Students should also consider ways to invest in their local communities during freshman summer through internships or volunteer opportunities.
As you begin sophomore year, reflect on your first year of high school—which activities did you most enjoy? What do you want to continue to be involved in and what could you cut out of your schedule? Choose one to three new opportunities to explore based on what you’ve discovered about your interests in the last year. As you begin to intentionally tailor your involvements, look for leadership opportunities that you may want to pursue within various clubs or student organizations that you wish to continue participating in. This is also the perfect time to start planning a passion project that reflects your interests and allows you to make an impact in your local community. You can also orient your summer planning around this core passion—whether through volunteering, pursuing an internship, working on your passion project, or applying to a precollege program in your academic area of interest.
Having started brainstorming your passion project in the fall, the spring of sophomore year should be focused on continuing to develop your idea and create actionable goals you want to achieve through your project. Academically, you should focus on keeping your grades up and selecting challenging courses for the fall of the coming junior year—while you should be taking as many AP or Honors classes as possible, focus on taking advanced courses in the subject you intend to study in college. If you are enrolled in AP or IB classes, be sure to study hard and excel on your exams. In addition, take your diagnostic tests for the SAT and ACT.
Use the additional free time during the summer to expand your passion project and plan how you will continue the project amidst the added stresses of junior year. This summer is a critical time to prepare for your junior year and strategize about your goals—the coming year will be the last full year before you tackle college applications, so it is important to plan ways to make a strong impact. As you engage in summer activities—whether a summer job, precollege program, or online class—prioritize studying for and taking standardized tests. Taking the SAT or ACT during this summer will afford you ample time to identify the areas you need to improve and prepare to retake the tests during the coming year, if needed.