College planning — it’s what keeps high school juniors and seniors (and their parents) up at night. But although college planning reaches its height in eleventh and twelfth grades, the buildup begins much earlier. Below is a guide to begin your college planning efforts at 7th grade and continue through senior year so that your child can enjoy a smooth and successful application process.
Maybe your child attends a school that ends after 8th grade, so you know that he or she will need to apply to high schools. Maybe your child attends a school that goes through 12th grade, but you think another school might be a better fit. Either way, 7th grade is the year to start thinking about high-school applications. You can draft a preliminary school list and help your child begin preparing to take the ISEE or other similar tests. Because the ISEE and SSAT are both designed as significantly above grade level measures, a longer runway for preparation is best. Therefore, we encourage families to organize ISEE diagnostic work in January of the 7th grade year. This 7th grade school year is also a really important one to organize a comprehensive evaluation if there are any concerns about inattention or learning challenges. Both ACT and College Board look for a documented history of challenges and accessing accommodations at school as part of their approval process. ADHD, for example, is best documented by age 12. High school planning and accommodations planning are both critical components of your college planning efforts.
Fall of 8th grade is high school application season. After open houses and other school visits, you and your child can narrow down the application list. As you help your child choose schools, the foremost guiding principle should be this: a happy student is a successful student — and vice-versa. Beyond core academics, does a given school offer electives that will engage your child? Are your child’s interests reflected in the extracurricular offerings? If your child has an exceptionality, what sorts of supports does the school have in place? If your child is already interested in certain colleges, has the school sent any graduates to that college recently? Fall of 8th grade is also admissions testing season, and you’ll want to schedule your child’s test dates strategically. For instance, students can take the ISEE up to three times a year, once in each of three four-month windows; most of our families have their child test once in November and once in December. This ISEE or SSAT preparation always serves to bolster high school readiness and is prerequisite content for the ACT or SAT.
Ninth grade is a crucial year; research has shown success in 9th grade to be a strong predictor of success in future grades. Your child’s grades should indicate that he or she is mastering the foundational skills necessary to thrive in higher level courses — especially in math and foreign language, which are heavily sequenced. Speaking of foreign language, many selective colleges require three years of a foreign language and prefer four, so it’s important that the language your child chooses in 9th grade is one that he or she will want to stick with. At the same time, 9th grade, which frequently offers a student’s first experience with electives, is a time for the student to explore which subjects and extracurriculars he or she finds most exciting. It also is a good time to start taking SAT subject tests, such as biology or physics, if they align with a 9th grade course and a subject area of strength for your child. Because of all of the standardized testing that’s underway beginning in high school, it’s an important school year to review any previous evaluations from elementary or middle school to determine if updated testing is needed. Psychologists often have wait lists, and it’s best to avoid an evaluation scramble.
10th grade should find your child building further on the skills from 9th grade. It’s also the first year that most students take the PSAT, which schools typically organize. Significant preparation for the PSAT is not necessary unless a student is trying to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. January to March of 10th grade is a good time to choose whether the ACT or SAT is right for your child (colleges accept either) and to start preparing for that test. For students taking Advanced Placement classes, May of 10th grade is their first encounter with a heavy testing schedule that simulates college exams; students should start preparing for AP tests weeks ahead of time. For every AP test your child takes, it makes sense to take the corresponding SAT Subject Test shortly afterwards. The summer after 10th grade is a great time for at least one “practice” college visit, or a few preliminary college visits as part of your college planning efforts. It’s also worth considering possible tours for the fall of junior year.
Many students will begin taking the ACT or SAT in fall of junior year; the goal should be to finish SAT and ACT testing by the end of 11th grade. Most of our students test officially two to three times. 11th grade is also the second PSAT year. Again, significant preparation for the PSAT is not necessary unless there’s a goal to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. Midway through 11th grade is a good time to formulate a preliminary college list and to schedule visits over school breaks if not already underway. Your child will want to put particular effort into studying for AP and SAT Subject tests in the spring, as they will be the last heavy round of tests before college applications start. June after 11th grade is the time to start the main Common Application essay, which typically undergoes several drafts (essay prompts are released in February or March for the following year). Summer is also the time to finish up college visits and finalize your child’s school list, which should include a few for-sure schools, several just-right schools, and a few reach schools. The Common App opens in early August, and your child can start filling in forms and writing responses to the supplemental essay prompts listed under individual schools’ pages in the application. All of this hard work over the summer allows your child to enjoy a senior year that is not entirely consumed by college applications.
Early September is the point to make any last decisions about Early Action or Early Decision schools, as some colleges’ deadline is as early as October 15. After that, with deadlines for each of your child’s schools written down, you and your child should sit down with a calendar and work out a schedule for doing the rest of his or her application work. If your child is interested in applying to arts or conservatory programs — for instance, in theater or visual art — he or she also must look up those application requirements early in September, as those programs sometimes have earlier deadlines than the rest of the college. Early September also is the time to recruit teachers to write recommendations; many teachers get multiple requests, and it’s best to give them as much time as possible to compose their letters. Later in September, as applications progress, can be a time to interview with representatives from each college that offers them. Application deadlines will stretch from October to February; after that, the waiting is the hardest part. In April, your child will have some difficult but happy decisions to make as a result of your college planning efforts.