This is my favorite age group to counsel.

Freshmen (and younger students) still have their whole future in front of them. With a little foresight and the right advice, they can create an ideal high school experience for themselves, not only in academic terms but also when it comes to extracurricular activities.

For example, freshmen still have time to make informed, unhurried decisions about when they will take their standardized tests and when they should start preparing for them.

Freshmen, getting started early with your extracurricular activities is great!

Postponing thinking about these things until sophomore or, even worse, junior year piles on stress, just when everything else is becoming harder.

Think about it. Junior-year students have to take the most difficult classes…and yet junior-year grades matter more than any other grades so far! Add to that the need to prepare for and ace a bunch of standardized tests and the pressures of trying to come up with significant extracurricular activities. My point is that there is a lot just ahead of the curve.

Savvy freshmen will inform themselves about what’s coming and plan ahead! The more they accomplish as freshmen, the more they’ll save up of that most valuable of commodities that upperclassmen never have enough of: time.

In particular, there are three things that I always advise eighth and ninth graders to try and accomplish. These suggestions might seem irrelevant to the college process. However, having pored over thousands of applications, I can promise that students who do the following will have a significant advantage over their peers.

Students just starting their high school careers should:

  1. Establish good habits.
  2. Search actively for their true passions.
  3. Make the right friends.

Let’s discuss these in more detail.

Establish good habits.

Now is the time for students to cut the tether to the Internet, phone and TV. Students need to develop discipline before they really need it.

Students should also actively seek to develop effective study habits.

And they should address any academic weaknesses before coursework starts becoming more advanced.

Students with a weak grasp of grammar will want to develop their writing skills before they have to produce ten-page AP U.S. History research papers.
Students with a shaky grasp of Algebra I will want to solidify their mathematical foundation before entering Algebra II.
Once students are floundering in a difficult class, it’s too late: they’ll forever be playing catch-up.

Discover passions.

Not everything a student does his or her freshman year is merely a preparation for future years, however. Freshman year is also meant to be a year of exploration and self-discovery, a time when students can try various things and discover their true passions.

To that end, I highly encourage students to take full advantage of the activities and clubs offered at their schools. These clubs are readily accessible and allow students to “try out” various activities.

I also tell motivated students to use the summer before freshman and/or sophomore grade to enroll in programs such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) or Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY). These enrichment programs allow bright students to study non-standard academic subjects in a challenging and creative environment. Students can see whether their curiosity about, say, oceanography—a subject that can’t really be studied in high school—is a passing fancy or a genuine passion.

Of course, in trying to discover new interests, students shouldn’t neglect those talents they’ve worked so many years to develop. Top-notch musicians, athletes, even Eagle Scouts aren’t created in the space of a high school career. Freshmen should continue building on those activities that they’ve been participating in all along, especially if they are passionate about or gifted in a particular area.

Make the right friends.

Last but not least: students should know that who their friends are can make a huge difference in what opportunities are open to them four years down the line. We’re all social beings, highly influenced by those around us.

As freshmen prepare to navigate some of the most rigorous and demanding years of their lives, they need like minded friends: peers with whom to exchange information about opportunities and resources, classmates who can keep them motivated and push them onwards through some friendly competition.

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