Discover how to become a competitive applicant to selective colleges
If you want to attend a selective college—one that admits fewer than 25% of its applicants—it’s important to start planning and preparing early. Otherwise, you might just miss the boat.
As a college planning consultant, I talk to plenty of seniors who have their sights set on prestigious universities. The problem is that senior year is too late to start trying to be a competitive applicant for a top-rated school.
You must start earlier if you want any chance of admissions success. If you’re a high school freshman, you’re right on time. Begin your 9th-grade college prep now if you want to become a competitive applicant and have a shot at getting into your selective dream school.
So what should a 9th grader be doing to prepare for college? That’s what I’m here to discuss.
Keep reading to learn exactly what college planning you should do in ninth grade to increase your chances of getting accepted to a competitive university.
Earn good grades and take challenging courses
It’s no secret that colleges care about your high school GPA. In fact, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling reports that GPA is the most important factor colleges consider when evaluating freshmen applicants.
The next most important factor is closely related—the strength of students’ high school curriculum. That means colleges care about how challenging your classes are. You might have a 4.0 GPA, but if you never took a single difficult course, selective colleges won’t be impressed.
If you want to be a competitive applicant, you must take advanced classes. Look at what your school offers—honors classes, AP classes, IB classes, and dual enrollment courses are a few typical options.
Before signing up for every AP or honors course your school has, consider your ability level. You want to be able to earn A’s or B’s in your advanced classes. Getting a C or D in an AP class might make a college question if you can handle difficult college courses.
Ask your current teachers to recommend which advanced classes you should take next year. They’ll have a good idea of how your ability level matches the difficulty of a specific class.
And if you’re not sure you can handle an AP class, try out an easy one—like Psychology or Environmental Science—rather than going for one of the harder AP courses—such as Chemistry or English Literature. Don’t test the waters for too long! Your transcript should propel upwards in difficulty.
Engage in meaningful 9th-grade activities
Another important factor colleges consider when you apply is what extracurricular activities you’ve been involved in during high school.
Colleges want to see evidence of your commitment, leadership, and authentic interests. To show them you’re the type of student they want on their campus, pick activities you care about, stick with them for a long period of time, and take on leadership roles.
The longstanding myth about extracurriculars is that colleges want you to be well-rounded. Meaning you should do a little bit of everything: clubs, sports, arts, volunteering, part-time work, leadership, and so on. But that strategy means you can only manage shallow involvement in each activity.
Colleges prefer to see you be an expert in a specific area you’re passionate about, rather than be spread thin over a bunch of random extracurriculars.
For example, if you love science, go all in to explore your interest. Lead the science club at your school, enroll in a research summer program, take a dual enrollment science class from your local community college, and get an internship in a scientific lab.
By channeling most of your extracurricular time and energy into a specific area, you communicate to colleges that you’re devoted to your passions. That’s the best way to impress selective schools with your activities.
Start preparing for college admissions tests
The very best thing you can do right now to prepare for college admissions tests is to read, read, and read some more. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, and The Atlantic are fantastic for students to engage in culture and politics to the arts, technology, and the sciences.
This, as you know—one of the important requirements for college admissions is taking the SAT or ACT. While most students take college admissions tests junior and senior year, it’s a good idea to begin your test prep in 9th grade.
You can start by taking the PSAT or PreACT—practice versions of the SAT and ACT, respectively. They’re designed to give you a feel for what the real tests are like. After all, the SAT and ACT are pretty unique. If you can get used to their formats, you’ll perform much better.
Plus, when you get your PSAT or PreACT scores, you’ll receive an analysis of your results. It’ll tell you what areas you did well in and where you need the most improvement. That way, you can start practicing strategically to prepare for the SAT or ACT.
When it comes to test prep, you have several different options to choose from. You can pick whatever fits your needs best.
CollegeBoard, the organization that administers the SAT, has partnered with Khan Academy to provide free SAT prep online. It’s a self-paced option that requires a good amount of self-discipline to stay on track.
Similarly, the ACT organization offers free online practice tests and videos to help you improve your performance on the test. These options are great if you get on a strong practice schedule and make sure to do at least a little bit every week.
If you want a bit more structure in your tenth-grade test prep, you could take an instructor-led SAT or ACT prep course. Or you could work with a test prep tutor. These options can get expensive, but if you’re serious about earning top scores on these tests, they do pay off.
Explore your interests and career options
Last but not least, part of college planning in ninth grade should involve exploring your interests and discovering what options are available to you.
You want to start by figuring out where your interests and strengths lie. An easy way to do this is to take career-focused interest assessments. You answer a bunch of questions about what you like to do, then you get a list of occupations that incorporate those interests.
Next, you’ll want to explore some of those career options that intrigue you. Doing online research is a good place to begin, but you’ll also want to talk to people in those fields and get some hands-on experience, too.
When I work with students, I focus a lot on this process of self and career exploration. And here’s why—the better you can determine your ideal career direction, the easier you’ll be able to select the perfect college for you.
After all, getting into the most selective colleges is only worth it if they offer the right major, opportunities, and career preparation you’re looking for.
Plus, colleges like to accept students who have a strong idea of where they’re headed. When you write your college admissions essays in a few years, you’ll be able to speak with confidence about your personal and career aspirations. That’ll help you stand out from the crowd.
Final thoughts about college planning in ninth grade
There you have it! If your heart is set on attending a highly selective college, you know what you must do to make yourself a competitive applicant. And by intentionally college planning in ninth grade, you’ll set yourself up for success when it’s time to apply to your dream schools.
I’d love to hear from you! What competitive colleges do you want to attend? And which aspect of college planning in tenth grade are you most excited about? Drop a comment down below.
Dr. Tucker established her own consulting business after a long, successful career working in higher education. Besides being an associate member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), she is also trained as a Life and Career Coach through the Institute for Life Coach Training. She toured hundreds of colleges, networked with admissions reps from across the country, and spoken at national conferences about student success and college retention. Read more about her here.