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College Counseling for 9th and 10th graders?

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

I am frequently asked about college counseling for students in 8th, 9th, or 10th grades. Is it appropriate to be thinking about college at those stages? Is it productive to work with an independent college counselor so early?

Through my 20 years working in the "college prep" school setting, mostly at K-12 schools, this question was raised and wrestled with often. In my view, and that of most of my professional peers, 11th grade is the ideal time to begin the focused conversation about potential college fits-- based on the guiding trio of academic fit, financial fit, and personal preference fit.

That true "college counseling" conversation is often at its best when the student has enough experience to allow for meaningful taking stock of those lessons learned and perspective gained. It begins with reflection on the student's past, then transitions into a guided process to help them draw out some priorities, needs, and wants based on that self-knowledge, which can be used to guide the first steps of college research and orientation to the many available pathways a student can pursue.

However, there are some guiding principles for younger students and their parents, and answers to choices that emerge along the way, which can help set the student up for success and an empowered, confident college search and application experience.

As an educator with years of experience in the cycles and inner-workings of schools, there are many productive ways I feel I can help in that conversation. I think of that first stage of our work together as coaching and advising to help the student find their way and deepen their connection to the interests and activities that inspire them. Especially if the high school does not have the bandwidth or resources to provide guidance on some of these points, having a trusted guide can be helpful in things like: selecting academic courses for the next year, making the most of those classes and relationships with the people teaching them, planning summers, understanding how to think about standardized testing, and engaging productively in whatever communities and/ or activities the student values.

I also think it's useful to have an experienced perspective on hand to help you avoid making decisions that aren't particularly productive or good uses of valuable time! There are a lot of folks selling a lot of experiences and products that are not actually meaningful in college admission, and that can distract the student from time for the things that matter to them! On another note, it's really nice to develop a working, trusting relationship with a student before the college application work takes off, and having that rapport in place can only enrich the college conversation later on.

In my first year as a college counselor in a school, after working for five years as an admission officer, I made a document to hand out at meetings of parents of students in grades 8-10 to point them in the right direction. I have continually maintained, updated, edited and used that document since then, keeping it to two pages of essentials. The message reinforces the essential truth that the most "important" thing to do in these formative years is to learn how to "do school" well, and to find some things that motivate the student to engage more-- there are no right or wrong ways to spend one's time, really, as long as the motivation comes from within, and not from what we think someone else (like a college admission officer) would value. It turns out that authenticity shines brightly in college applications, and authentic decision-making tends to help shape a confident 11th grader who knows what they want from a college environment, and who can think critically about their options to build a great list.

You can read this document of essential advice for grades 8-10 by following the link in the image above, and you can download a copy of it to hang on a fridge, bulletin board, or wherever it can catch your eye and remind you of what matters, now.

If you want to learn more about what coaching and support for students from an experienced college counseling professional with deep knowledge of schools could look like, call or email me!

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