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Last updated April 19, 2023

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Your First-Year Timeline

Key Takeaway

Don't worry—you don't have to have your life planned out by the time you're in 9th grade. But selecting the right courses, getting involved, maintaining good grades, and being aware of the college process can help you make the most of your time in high school.

This is part of our timeline series to help high school students and their families get the most out of high school while preparing for the college search and application process. This article addresses first-year students in high school. You can find the corresponding articles for sophomore, junior, and senior students at these links.

If you are a 9th grader or the parent of one and find yourself reading this article, congratulations! You are officially ahead of the game. Here, you’ll find our best advice for first-year students and their families to get the most out of high school and prepare for college admissions.

As an educator, college consultant, and former admission officer, I want to let you know that what you are embarking on as a family is an important balancing act that can be difficult to navigate. Preparing for college admissions is an ongoing process that should ramp up over four years. The amount of attention it deserves now is less than it will in junior or senior year. High school should also be about growing, exploring, learning, and fun. Striking a balance between all these competing priorities will require some trial and error.

First-Year Timeline

With all that in mind, here’s what you should think about as a first-year student or the parent of one:

  1. Course selection and trajectory. The courses you take in 9th, and especially 10th, grade put you on a trajectory within your high school. Honors courses may lead to AP courses. Getting ahead in math might lead to taking AP Calc BC—or even a more advanced course—in the senior year. It’s important to assess academic interests, strengths, and weaknesses when planning. Be realistic—not every student should take 12 APs or a full IB curriculum. With that in mind…

  2. Meet with a school counselor for input on your curriculum. Most schools offer the opportunity either in group or individual sessions to meet with a school counselor about the curriculum. They can give school-specific input. Ideally, you can reverse engineer the curriculum based on where you think you’d like to be by senior year. Remember, plans can change, and that is okay… as long as you have a plan!

  3. Begin to get involved in (and outside of!) your school. Extracurricular activities are a great way to stay engaged and active. They also serve the secondary purpose of building a resume that colleges want to see. Sports, volunteering, school clubs, debate, science programs, faith-based organizations, and academic competitions are all areas to consider. Remember, it’s early. This is a time to try new things and find out what you like—and don’t like. There should be little or no pressure to stick with an activity for all four years if it isn’t serving you.

  4. Build great relationships with your teachers. This one is simple. Pay attention in class, engage, be respectful, and ask for help when you need it. If you struggle in one of these areas, like engaging in class, find little ways to build that muscle. Perhaps there’s one teacher you’re particularly comfortable with and you could raise your hand once this week instead of not at all. Small steps early on yield big dividends.

  5. Make good grades. Oh yeah, PSA: 9th grade grades count! With some notable exceptions (like the University of California schools), your 9th grade GPA counts just as much as 10th and 11th.

  6. Parents—begin researching colleges. This can be a great time for parents to begin researching colleges and universities, especially if you aren’t very familiar with the current landscape of US higher education. I recommend starting by familiarizing yourself with your in-state public colleges and universities as well as any schools within a short drive of your home. Don’t rely solely on rankings. They don’t tell much of the story at all. Look in other places like the Colleges That Change Lives or “Public Ivies". It’s early, so nothing should be off the table. If you think your child is ready to start talking about schools, then great. But be warned: you do not want to stress them out about this in 9th grade!

  7. Set foot on some college campuses. On a related note, summer vacation or road trips are a great time to casually walk around a college campus. Look for schools—literally any school—near where you’ll be. You might check their website for visitor information, or, frankly, you might just show up and walk around. This is possible at most schools, although some are gated. Getting familiar with the collegiate setting is a great start.

Remember, this is a balancing act. It pains me as an educator to see 14 or 15-year-old kids stressed out about college when they should be worried about the here and now: classes, friends, activities, and prom. Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in this process to ramp up the college talk and planning over four years. You don’t want to go overboard in year one and either annoy your kid so they don’t want to talk about it or make them obsess over college admissions and selectivity.

Drop us a line if you need to start some planning sessions about this process. We are happy to help, and we hope this website will provide useful resources on your journey.


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