Writing Your High School Story: College Admission Advice for 9th and 10th Graders

Speak up in class, learn a system of note-taking, be kind, don't worry about testing until 11th grade, and read, read, read... Mark Moody, Co-Director of College Counseling at Colorado Academy, joins us again with advice for 9th and 10th graders about how to write a high school story that will have a happy ending. 


You’ve made it to the end of another school year! Before you totally shift out of school mode and into your summer adventures, it’s a good time to take a minute to reflect on your school journey as it’s shaping up. Do you feel confident, not so great, or indifferent to your academic record and extracurricular life so far? Now that you have the lay of the high school landscape, you have the tools to directly shape your response to that question for next year and the years after.

The most important thing you can understand about doing high school “right” is that you’re writing a story as you go—and that the more you’re invested in actively taking part in that story as it unfolds, the more likely that story will close with one of those “happily ever after” type of endings. As I wrote last month, if you try to write the ending before the plot reveals itself, you are unlikely to connect the dots in a way that will lead to the ending you desire.

The college application process itself is built around stories and storytelling. That may sound odd to you right now. There’s so much talk about things like GPA’s and test scores in high school—hard numbers that tend to draw our focus.

Those numbers don’t mean much by themselves, in reality. A GPA alone doesn’t reveal whether you challenged yourself too little, too much, or just the right amount, whether you started off slow and are making progress every term, or whether you started with a bang and fizzled out. Your transcript tells a lot of this story, and you have the opportunity to shape it into your senior year.

There are lots of other stories that are still being written that will be told be your teachers, your counselor and by your essay. And then there are the stories you are writing for yourself, to make sense of the choices you make for life after high school and to fit them into your personal narrative. If you feel like the story is being written for you, or that the plot turns available to you in the chapters ahead are becoming limited, ask yourself what small actions you can take to begin to change the story’s direction.

The following pieces of advice are adapted from a handout we give to all our ninth graders at the end of the year here at Colorado Academy. If you practice these things, I think you’ll feel happy with the way the chapter of your story on high school ends, and how the college chapter begins.


Academic Advice

Grades 9-12 are all reflected on your transcript, and all are reported to colleges. Every trimester is a chance to show your best effort. It’s never too late.

Figure out how much you need to study for each subject, and do it. Keep up with your homework and all required reading. Turn assignments in on time.

Challenge yourself by taking classes outside your comfort zone. You’ll learn valuable skills for college, and become a better thinker.

You’re expected to perform to the best of your abilities as you build your high school record.  Make the most of the opportunities available to you. If you don’t feel challenged, ask what you can do to take control of and enrich your learning.

Most college-bound students should keep options open by staying in math and English classes for the entire four years of high school, and take at least three years of lab sciences, social studies and foreign language. If that's not right for you, just be sure you get advice before you do something different.

Speak up in class— participating actively helps your and your peers’ understanding, and helps your teachers understand your relationship with the material, so that they can help you learn effectively. You’ll also need to ask for recommendations, and the more active, cooperative and positive you are, the better those teacher letters can be.

Learn how to talk to teachers outside of class. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or clarification! The more comfortable you become with your teachers and advocating for yourself, the more successful you will be now, and in college.

Find a system of note-taking that works for you—you will need to develop this skill before you enter college, and it will improve your understanding and recall of material now.

The grade itself is not your goal. Your goal is to learn and to learn about yourself. If you did your best and didn’t get the grade you wanted, that’s okay. It doesn’t define you. Your effort and attitude say a lot more about you.

Consistent effort and a demonstrated love of learning always pay off in the end—and they win out over half-hearted effort or talent without follow-through every time.


Extracurricular Activities

Through athletics, music, art, community service, publications, clubs and other outlets, you have the chance to discover new passions. Take risks, find something you enjoy, and invest as much of yourself in it as you can. Your activities, if meaningful, are a key element in distinguishing you as a candidate for a college (and helping you know what you want.)

Colleges will care much more about the quality of your extracurricular involvement than the quantity of activities. Being committed to an activity and showing leadership in that area is far more meaningful than a long list of clubs with superficial involvement.

Use your summers. Get a job or find ways to enrich yourself in whatever way appeals to you.

Community service is valuable, if it’s important to you. If it’s done to check off a box or pad a resume, it will not be especially noteworthy to a college admission committee.

"Purchased" opportunities are not valuable to college admission officers if they are not related to a larger theme of a passion or ability you have pursued throughout high school.


Community Life

Be kind to everyone you encounter, and show your gratitude to those who help you along the way. It will make your life happier and you’ll make things easier for yourself.

Don’t jeopardize your future by taking risky, inappropriate, or illegal actions. Take a moment to pause and consider what's really important to you and how you want to be known-- and the potential consequences for you-- if you are about to step over the line. It’s a lot easier to focus on the positives when you fill out an application than to have to explain a red flag (like suspension, expulsion or arrest) on your personal or academic record—these things are highlighted in applications and school reports.

Make sure your actions reflect the person you are and want to be in the future. If they don’t, practice being who you want to be. You become good at what you practice.


Standardized Testing

Don’t concern yourself with college entrance tests until 11th grade.

Working through practice tests from a book in a timed, controlled environment is as good a way as any to prep. Figure out which areas are consistently causing problems, and work on them. There are free web resources to help, too. (You can find some here.)

Expensive test preparation courses and tutors are often not worth the resulting score improvements—you can get the same results with independent study, without losing valuable time for studying and extracurricular activities.

Test scores are less important in the big picture than the quality of your curriculum and performance in the classroom—as reflected by teacher comments, grades, and the knowledge you can articulate. Your class work and activities should always be the priorities in your schedule, not test preparation.


General Advice

Read! Read often and read widely—read as much as you can from different sources. Reading is the best preparation for everything from writing to standardized tests, and it expands your knowledge of the world and understanding of events.

Always give your best effort in all your classes and in all endeavors.

The more you understand yourself, your strengths and the things that excite you, the better prepared you’ll be for finding and applying to the right colleges.

If the going gets tough, stick with it. If you don’t succeed at something, try again. Failure is an opportunity to learn from what didn’t work, and to try something new.

In every situation, think about your actions and how they affect others.

Try not to listen to ideas about college that come in the form of gossip or speculation from your friends and others—keep an open mind, and when the time comes you will have plenty of great resources to help you find what works for you.

If you make choices because you think they will “look good” to a particular college, you are not making good choices—you will likely find yourself frustrated in the college admission process. Do what’s important to you and plan to enter the college process ready to learn about places that will meet you where you are and help you keep growing.

Take time to enjoy your high school years while they’re here!




Mostly great advice....Except for the stuff about college entrance exams. There are two that students most definitely should be thinking about Sophomore year:

1. The SAT II subject test in Math. It is best to take that exam after Pre-Calculus and with todays accelerated schedules that means sophomore year for many students. No one tells them this and if they wait til Junior year some of the subject matter may need more work to refresh.

2. The PSAT. Many schools offer kids the chance to take the PSAT Sophomore year. This is valuable for two reasons. First, it helps kids determine if the SAT may be a better bet for them than the ACT depending on how they do. Second, it is free "practice" for the Junior year PSAT from which National Merit Scholarship is determined.

Agreed, mostly great advise, with the addition of the comments above about the entrance exams as well as the exclusion of the comment that tutors are not worth the resulting score improvements.

There are many students that have huge anxiety paired with standardized testing and most private school students have less practice than public school students. Student with rigorous courses may not have the time it takes for independent study, school do not have time to teach students about these tests and students with disabilities may need the model, lead and direct teaching on how to tackle the ACT and SAT. An exceptional private tutor can hone in on individual strengths and weaknesses to help students achieve test scores that are more reflective of their skill abilities, critical thinking skills, GPA and course rigor.

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