With college admission being more competitive than ever, it seems that many students and parents are starting to think about college earlier than they did in past decades. While there is general consensus among school counselors that is never too soon to start thinking about going to college, there are some steps that are more advanced than others, which should not necessarily be done too early.
Ideally, students should begin exploring possible careers and figuring out which academic subjects they enjoy most sometime between seventh and eighth grade. However, at this age, students are not ready to prepare a list of colleges just yet.
“In general, middle school-aged students should begin to explore careers and the amount and type of education required for various careers," explains Bob Bardwell, director of school counseling at Monson High School in Monson, Pa. For instance, students who want to go into medicine should know that medical school is required, while those who aim to become cosmetologists should evaluate whether they can get an education and license via a technical school or community college.
“Early exploration and awareness is critical to their ability to look at all options and plan accordingly," Bardwell says. "For some students (in particular, first-generation college students), even the thought of college is a foreign concept, so planting those seeds early is absolutely necessary."
In high school, if you plan to attend college, especially competitive institutions, work with your guidance counselor to determine courses that will be competitive for your admission plan (such as higher-level math and science electives and foreign language courses, for example).
Each student has different needs and may not know exactly what they want to pursue academically or professionally well into their high school years — and that is okay.
For some, sophomore year of high school is a good time to start considering what college majors might interest you and to begin the research process of exploring which types of higher education institutions you prefer.
“Ideally I think that sophomore year is the best time for this, but only if the student is ready and has a clear sense of what s/he wants to study," says Bardwell. “To force a sophomore to do research and develop a list is not ideal as it may do more harm than good. If students are not ready until junior year, then ideally this should happen by spring of the junior year. If the student cannot do that by the end of the junior year, there is likely some other issue getting in the way and therefore different conversations should take place to find out what the barriers are and what can be done to overcome them."
If, when entering senior year of high school, you still have not begun to think about which colleges you might want to apply to or which majors appeal to you, it may not be ideal, but it is not too late. During the early fall, explore colleges that offer a variety of majors where you could consider applying, so even if you begin college as an undeclared major as a freshman, you will have a lot of possible majors to choose from to prepare for a variety of careers.
Make sure you meet with school counselors well before college applications are due in December. If you have trouble researching colleges and creating a list of schools and possible majors to consider, a school counselor can help overcome this hurdle.
Whether you start early in your high school career or later, make sure you keep your school counselors apprised of your search so they can be partners in the admission process and help you craft the right list of colleges where you plan to apply.
A version of this article originally appeared on College Confidential in May 2018.
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