As the college admissions process becomes more competitive, many families and students are wondering when is the best time to start preparing for college applications. The truth is that the earlier you can start planning, the better — even as early as middle school. That might sound extreme, but students can set themselves up for success in high school by laying a solid foundation in their classes and extracurriculars years before.
When most students enter middle school, applying to college seems like something that will happen in the distant future. While those years between 6th and 12th grade are long, they will happen quickly. And although most college admissions committees don’t consider middle school when making admissions decisions, they do consider 9th grade, making it imperative that students are prepared to make the most of their high school years by the first day of freshman year. Some colleges even publish guides on how to improve chances of admission as early as 6th grade, which can be valuable resources.
Most students’ high school experience and level of opportunity will be based on their performance in middle school, especially if students stay at the same school throughout. For instance, most students are placed into different class levels based on their middle school grades and teacher recommendations, and many middle schoolers join clubs and explore extracurricular interests that will continue and accelerate as they enter high school, such as going from junior varsity to varsity on a sports team.
That’s why it’s important that students set themselves up for success well before high school in order to maximize their opportunities and options as they approach the college admissions process. Here are ten ways middle schoolers can prepare themselves.
1. Work hard in your classes.
While your middle school grades won’t show up on the transcript you submit to colleges, your academic performance in middle school will likely factor into your high school course selection, especially if you remain at the same school. This means you shouldn’t necessarily consider middle school an “off” period. Instead, pick strong core classes and engaging electives to keep you growing as a student.
Rather, treat your middle school classes the same way you might a high school class, and figure out exactly what you need to do to be placed into the most challenging courses in high school. Take pride in your work, and seek feedback from your teachers on how you might progress.
2. Identify your academic strengths and areas for potential improvement.
Since you won’t necessarily be evaluated for this time in your college applications, this makes middle school a great time to learn more about yourself as a student. Your curriculum is slowly getting more challenging, and you will quickly come to realize in which classes you excel and in which you struggle.
This is a great time to start tutoring or seeking outside help to help you fill in any gaps in your academic abilities. In classes that you enjoy, you can take the most advanced curriculum available to you and really challenge yourself in this relatively low-stakes environment.
3. Develop strong, sustainable study habits.
You should also learn how to study — after all, studying effectively is a learned skill that requires practice, just like any other skill! This is the ideal time to create time management strategies to avoid procrastination and help you feel less overwhelmed as your workload increases.
You can use techniques like the Pomodoro method to help you break your work up into manageable chunks and make to-do lists to help keep you on track. The most important thing is that you learn what works best for you in the long term.
4. Pick a foreign language you’d like to continue.
Most high school students continue taking the same language they started in middle school, so you should strongly consider which language will be most interesting to you in the years to come. That way, you can potentially reach the most advanced language classes before your senior year, and colleges like to see that type of long-term commitment to a certain subject, especially if you’re improving. You can even pursue some form of language learning program or study abroad in the summer to help advance you even further.
5. Explore your extracurricular interests.
Just like you should start to identify your academic interests, middle school is an excellent time to try new extracurricular activities. If there’s a club or hobby that even slightly interests you, give it a shot, and if you’ve found what you love, look into what opportunities your high school years may hold to help you achieve more.
If you’re not sure what is interesting to you yet, don’t worry — just try to stay involved in your community and constantly push yourself in everything that you do. With consistency, you’ll find what is most exciting to you.
6. Start doing community service.
Community service has become a hugely important part of the college admissions process in recent years, and with good reason — colleges want students who will positively contribute not only on campus but to the surrounding community and wider world upon graduation. There are, obviously, many other benefits to doing community service outside of the realm of college admissions, making it a great experience for middle schoolers.
If your school doesn’t offer any volunteer opportunities or a Key Club, look to your local community in places like animal shelters and soup kitchens. Many of these opportunities do require parental supervision, however, but you can now look for countless virtual volunteer opportunities instead. Giving back to others is an important passion to foster at an early age, so it’s a great option for any middle school student to start.
7. Consider starting your own project.
Exhausted your school and community resources for extracurriculars? You can start your own project, either instead of or in addition to your other afterschool activities. Maybe there’s a volunteer project that someone hasn’t already started or a small business idea that you want to try out. It could even be a smaller project, such as a personal writing project or creating a YouTube channel. The possibilities are endless.
If you’re not sure where to start, we specialize in helping students of all ages get these impactful projects off the ground through our Incubator Program. These kinds of projects are excellent for continuing on and building throughout high school, making for an impressive resume on a college application.
8. Start reading more often.
Regardless of a student’s competency level in English and literature, reading more will always be beneficial for students at any age. And for middle school students, this is an important way to help prepare for more advanced standardized tests and classes in the future, while helping them strengthen crucial comprehension and critical thinking skills that will help them during the SAT and ACT and beyond.
This reading does not have to be strictly academic, although it’s important to vary the subject matter and level of difficulty. Students will do well to develop a love of reading by picking out books that are genuinely interesting to them. Not sure what would appeal to you? Ask your middle school or local librarian for recommendations based on your age, interests, and reading level.
9. Learn more about your future high school.
The name of the game when it comes to succeeding in the college admissions process is planning, and this planning can (and often should) start in middle school. One important way to plan is to think about a student’s classes over the course of their seven or so years in middle and high school. AP/IB and advanced classes often have prerequisites and requirements, so how can your middle schooler set themselves up to do well when the time to choose advanced courses comes? What honor societies will they want to qualify for?
The same thing applies to extracurriculars — what’s the highest level of achievement or honor the student can reach in their activities? Learning more about the logistical ins and outs of your future high school will help you set benchmarks and goals to help orient your academic and extracurricular progress.
10. Take some time to have fun.
This may sound counterintuitive given that the above tips all involve some type of work, but it’s important that students don’t burn themselves out this early on in their academic careers. Instead, it’s crucial for them to learn what balance feels like at this early age by participating in a healthy amount of work and play. Learning shouldn’t feel like a burden, so free time and flexibility are imperative in a middle schooler’s schedule.
Especially in middle school, since it is still a relatively relaxed time compared to high school, students shouldn’t always be making sacrifices in order to make progress. They’re still kids after all, and they should get the chance to enjoy any fun that comes their way without worrying too much about future college applications.