It’s easy to think that choosing a college is something you do only in your senior year of high school, but here are some important steps to take to help you make the best college decision when twelfth grade finally rolls around.

From taking the right classes, to earning good grades, to making the most of your time outside of school, to scoping out the different kinds of colleges that are out there, what you do in the early years of high school tells you a great deal about the kind of college experience that’s best for you, and how to be ready to give it your all.

Ask most high school students if they want to go to college, and you’re likely to get an excited “YES” in response. It’s easy to see why that’s the case. College is a great place to meet new friends, learn about ideas and parts of the world you’ve never thought about before, participate in school events with hundreds—or even thousands—of your classmates, and learn the skills you need to have a meaningful career.

But if you ask these same excited students what they can do now, as ninth-, tenth-, or eleventh-graders, to get ready for college, the best answer most can give is “Study hard” or “Do your best.” There’s some truth in that—after all, college is all about learning and working hard—but most students don’t realize that many of the decisions they make every day about how they spend their time can make all the difference in the world in making a good college choice.

This isn’t about deciding what college to go to right here, right now—there’s plenty of time for that. But successful students will tell you that the best way to find a college that’s right for you is to make the most out of every learning opportunity you have in high school. Some of those opportunities are in the classroom, but many more are outside the classroom, and they all play an important part in learning more about who you are, what you care about, and what comes next for you.

Let’s take a look at three important areas of high school that can help you learn more about the world, and about yourself.

Classes, Part One

It should come as no surprise that the classes you take are one of the best ways to learn more about yourself, and about your college interests. Classes only make up part of your experience in high school and in college, but colleges say that the classes you take in high school, and how well you do in them, are the number one factor in deciding if you’ll be admitted to college. Other factors are also important, but classes are at the top of the list for almost every college that will read your application.

What does that mean to you in ninth grade? Plenty. Take a look at this sample four-year plan. This plan helps students keep track of three important goals all at the same time:

  • The number of classes, or credits, students will need in each subject to graduate from high school
  • The number of credits colleges (in this case, California colleges) are expecting students to take in each subject to be ready for college
  • The classes the student will take each year to meet these two goals

If you take a close look, you’ll see something else that’s important to keep track of. The schedule leaves space for different classes every year, but it doesn’t tell you what classes you should take. That choice is very important, especially if you know what you want to study in college.

Take math for example. If you’re planning on studying engineering in college, you’re going to want to take an advanced math class in twelfth grade, or even calculus. If you work backward, you’ll see that means you need to take algebra I or geometry in ninth grade—and you may even want to take a math class in the summer to make sure you can get to calculus before high school is over.

For students interested in science, you may want to make room to take two advanced science courses in twelfth grade. That means you may have to use some of your elective credits, taking two basic science courses in tenth or eleventh grade—and that could affect the courses you would have to take in ninth grade to be ready for those courses.

Too many students put together their ninth-grade schedule without thinking about what those choices mean in twelfth grade, or in college. You don’t have to know what you want to study in college to put together a strong high school schedule, but you do have to put some time in to see what your ninth-grade choices do for your other choices later in high school. It’s well worth the time to discuss this with your parents and your school counselor.

Classes, Part Two

Once you have your classes lined up, it’s important to make sure you have a plan to do the very best work you can in your classes. Colleges don’t just want you to take hard classes; they want you to learn everything you can while you’re in those classes, and that means you need to earn the highest possible grades you can in those classes. This isn’t to say you have to get all As in all of the most demanding classes to get into college, but you should be ready to do strong work in the most challenging courses you can handle.

Learning the most you can in your classes means understanding how you learn, and making the most of the tools you need to learn—tools like taking notes, reading, and studying. The Savvy Student’s Guide to Study Skills gives you the tips and strategies that can help you understand more about the best way for you to learn, keeping in mind that the best way to study for math may be different from the best way to study for history. Try these skills out as you learn more about how you learn. It’s the key to high school, college, and beyond.

Extracurricular Activities

One of the questions most ninth- and tenth-graders ask me about college is: “What are colleges looking for in an applicant?” Most of the time, these students are expecting me to answer with statistics about grades and test scores: “To get admitted to X University, you need a 3.5 grade point average on a 4.0 scale, and a score of 1100 or higher on the SAT.”

That’s why the real answer is such a surprise. College admissions representatives say things like this:

  • “We’re looking for students who are curious about the world around them.”
  • “We like students who ask the questions other students don’t ask.”
  • “We’re looking for the innovators—the students who take things as they are, and make something new out of them.”

It’s clear that students can demonstrate these qualities in the classroom by participating in class discussions, talking to the teacher outside the classroom about questions related to the subject, and completing papers and projects in ways that show creativity and application to the real world. But it’s just as important to remember these same qualities can be demonstrated outside the classroom, when the student devotes their time, interest, and energy to activities that interest them simply because they like them.

Many students have already developed these interests well before high school. Piano lessons, community sports leagues, youth group activities related to your place of worship, collecting stamps, coins, or trading cards—these hobbies are all included in the area of extracurricular activities, and are a great way to demonstrate qualities colleges like to see in candidates. More importantly, they add something special to your life, and give you the important balance that’s needed between classroom studies and living a full life.

Myths About Extracurriculars

Extracurricular activities are a key part of your life, and they are of interest to colleges, but it’s important to keep them in perspective. This is especially true if you’re wondering: “What extracurricular activities do the colleges like to see students take on?”

This is a reasonable question—after all, colleges like to see you take challenging classes, so why wouldn’t they also have specific extracurriculars in mind when they’re reading your application? At the same time, colleges also want to see variety in the backgrounds and life experiences of the students they enroll. It’s safe to say a college would be missing some variety if they only admitted students who want to study biology. The same is true for extracurriculars. It’s great to have lots of students who have studied piano since they were four, but a few violin or bassoon players might make a nice addition as well.

With extracurriculars, there is no single activity colleges are looking for everyone to complete, as this video shows. Colleges ask about extracurriculars because they want to understand more about you, and what matters to you. This is a chance for you to stand out from the crowd, and be a strong individual.

A few ideas from the video are worth repeating here:

  • Colleges like to see students who show deep commitment to a handful of extracurriculars, rather than shallow commitment to a lot of extracurriculars. Doing two or three activities throughout high school—and taking on leadership roles in a couple of them—is far better than signing up for nine activities in eleventh grade and doing very little with most of them.
  • There’s more to the world of extracurriculars than just the sports and clubs at school. It’s great if your interests lie with those, but if there’s some great activity at the local Boys & Girls Club, or the library—or even something you’re just doing on your own—that’s great, too.
  • This is especially true with work and family obligations. Jobs offer incredible opportunities to show depth and leadership, and get you ready for college in ways nothing else can. This is also true for caring for siblings and family members. If your time is needed at home, be sure to tell the colleges about that, and what those experiences mean to you.
  • Not all extracurriculars go on in the school year. Summer is a great time to explore other activities, like classes, camp, community service, and more. If study time takes up most of your time when school’s in session, look to the summer months to renew by learning about something new.
  • Extracurriculars don’t have to cost a fortune. This is especially true for summer activities, where some activities can cost thousands of dollars, but other activities are free. An online search of “Summer Activities in (Your State)” can get you going, as can the help of your school counselor.

It’s also important to find a way to write down all that you do. It sounds hard to believe, but by the time you apply to college in the fall of twelfth grade, there’s a good chance you won’t remember half the activities you participated in as a ninth- or tenth-grader. Some students will write all of their activities and awards down in a notebook, while others will use technology to track everything they’ve done—in fact, some students will put all of their accomplishments together in a professional website. Choose the way of keeping track that’s best for you, and keep it handy—you’ll be referring to it often.

Community Service

One of the many extracurricular activities available to students is the opportunity to share their time, talents, and energy in ways that benefit others. From working on food drives to building houses, community service is a powerful way to understand more about the people and the world around you, and to make a difference in the quality of life for your neighborhood and your city. This is especially true when volunteers understand why they’re giving their time to others—in this case, it really must be about the benefit of others, and not about you.

Colleges see community service in exactly the same way—it’s all about helping others. Despite what you may have heard, participating in community service is not a guarantee to college admission. Like other extracurriculars, it is a way to show colleges what matters to you. At the same time, strong participation in genuine community service can be a significant factor in admissions, since it is one of the best predictors of participation in community service in college. In other words, colleges like to see community service in high school, because that means it’s more likely these same students will engage in community service once they get to college.

The key to focus on here is “genuine” community service. Working on a canned food drive for twenty minutes in ninth grade helps a lot of people, but it isn’t enough all by itself to be of interest to colleges. This is also true for any community service done in order to graduate from high school. If you have to complete 45 hours of community service to get your high school diploma, you aren’t really volunteering—and that’s the key as far as colleges are concerned.

It’s also important to make a long-term effort to your community service. There are many community service trips out there where students pay thousands of dollars to fly to a distant part of the world and engage in community service for a few days, while vacationing for a few more.

In the eyes of most colleges, this isn’t really community service. To them, working an hour or two every week at the local homeless shelter for three years is a much stronger commitment, as is working entire summers as a volunteer, or sustained trips with an organized religious group. The key to real service is putting yourself aside for long periods of time to help others. Colleges know that, and they know how to tell if you’re devoted to the real thing.

Conclusion

Many colleges have more students applying to attend than they have room for on campus, so colleges want the students who are going to make the most out of what their college has to offer. Time and time again, experience shows that the students who make the most out of college are the students who have made the most out of high school—and that’s something you can do from the very first day of ninth grade, both in and out of the classroom.

If you’re worried that your school doesn’t offer a lot of advanced classes, or may not have a lot of clubs and organizations to choose from, don’t be. Colleges know you can only make the most out of what’s available to you, so do everything you can with what’s available to you—and don’t forget to think about other resources, like classes available online or in the summer, or extracurriculars that exist outside of school. That creative thinking is the kind of thing that colleges like to see. It’s also the kind of thing that keeps your life fresh.

Questions & Activities

Take a minute to write down where your class choices have you heading for the rest of your time in high school. As it stands right now, what’s the highest math class you’re going to take? English? Science? How do those compare to the most challenging classes your school offers? Is there a way you can reasonably challenge yourself to close that gap?

Write down all of the things you’re currently doing outside of school. Is there something else you’d like to explore? Is there a club in your school or town (or maybe online) where you could explore this interest with others? Is there a way you could start your own club with others?

What opportunities exist in your community to help others? Could your local government or place of worship help you discover even more? When would be the best time for you to volunteer with these groups? During school? Weekends? Summers?

What opportunities would you like to explore in your summers? What activities exist in your state that cost little, if anything? What might be outside your state that you could still participate in?

College admissions expert, Patrick J. O’Connor, PhD, is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School in metropolitan Detroit. A past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the Michigan ACAC, Patrick also teaches “Counseling in the College Selection Process” as both a graduate class and a professional development program. In 2017–18, he served as the inaugural School Counselor Ambassador Fellow with the US Department of Education, keeping the Department informed of current trends and issues of interest to school counselors.