Let’s begin with a caveat: The College Transitions team is philosophically opposed to the unhealthy obsession with elite college admission that begins in the womb, ramps up to overdrive by the time pre-school selection rolls around, and by high school—well, that’s when the therapy bills begin to rack up. See our critically-acclaimed book The Enlightened College Applicant for more on this front.

The purpose of this blog is to advise freshmen (and their parents) how to successfully launch their high school careers in a way that will leave open a plethora of postsecondary options down the road, whether it happens to be the Ivy League, a “good fit” liberal arts school, or a public university.

Does 9th grade matter? A look at the research

Researchers at the University of Chicago looked at the predictive value of freshman year of high school related to a number of future outcomes; what they found is that 9th grade matters quite a bit. In fact, students who excel in 9th grade are far more likely to graduate high school, enroll in college, and remain in college beyond their freshman year than are students who struggled through their first year of high school.

Another study by Princeton University and the Brookings Institute found that 9th grade is, in many ways, a watershed year for teenagers. Classroom performance (as well as behavior and attendance) as a high school freshman is a strong indicator of a student’s future academic pathway.

With the importance of 9th grade firmly established, it’s time to present a list of steps you can take right now to begin building a solid foundation for future college admission.

1. Ace your classes

The much ballyhooed junior year is often touted as being the most important year from a college admissions standpoint. This is entirely true in the sense that junior year is given the most weight in the eyes of admissions officers and an upward trajectory over your four years of high school is looked upon favorably. Yet, in an ideal world, your goal is not to have an upward trajectory but a flat line of excellence across all four years.

Freshman year counts toward cumulative GPA calculations and impacts class rank (with some exceptions—mostly schools in the University of California system), two factors that will play a major role in selective college admissions. Trying to recover from a 2.3 GPA as a 9th grader is, from a purely mathematical standpoint, an uphill battle. If your aim is to finish in the top 10% of your class, even a solid 3.3 GPA will put you in pretty deep hole. A stellar freshman GPA, on the other hand, will alleviate a great deal of stress as you progress through high school.

2. The honors track

Students who wish to have all collegiate options down the road will need to take a rigorous course load, beginning in 9th grade. Those applying to highly competitive colleges and universities will need to be enrolled in multiple AP courses by junior and senior year. Taking honors courses as a freshman will put you on track to take AP courses as an upperclassman (and in some case, as a sophomore).

This is not to say that you should force yourself into a wholly honors track schedule. If you are strong in the humanities but greatly struggle with math (or vice-versa), you may want to pursue a split schedule, with some honors classes and some non-honors classes.

3. Become active in your school community

Freshman year is a great time to experiment with extracurricular activities. In a couple of years you may find yourself with a part-time job, rigorous AP courses, and a serious boyfriend/girlfriend. Right now, you are a 14/15 year old kid with nothing but time on your hands!

Consider immersing yourself in multiple activities, following your areas of interest. If you’re more interested in politics, consider joining forensics, mock trial, and Model U.N. If you’re musically inclined, sign up for chorus, orchestra, or the marching band. If you are artistically, athletically, or dramatically inclined, delve into related clubs and activities in those areas.

You DO NOT need to join activities just for the sake of compiling a long resume (see our previous blog on the topic). The goal as a freshman is to establish roots within areas of genuine interest where you desire to one day rise to a position of leadership and responsibility. Admissions officers are not going to be impressed by an applicant who dipped their toe in a dozen activities and committed to none. Rather, they wish to see an applicant who, perhaps after some early exploration, plunged shoulder-deep into a few meaningful endeavors.

4. Take a language

Most elite schools are going to expect serious applicants to have taken four or more years of a foreign language. This means that if you are aiming for the Ivy League or Ivy-equivalent institutions, 9th grade is the time to commit to a language of study that you will pursue through the remainder of high school. Many other selective colleges and universities only expect two or three years of foreign language, which eases the freshman-year pressure a bit. However, if you are serious about attending any college, it makes sense to begin your foray into foreign language as early as possible.

5. Get to know your guidance counselor

Guidance counselors in public high schools often have caseloads double-to-triple the size of the levels recommended by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  In private schools, guidance counselors are able to devote 55% of their time to matters of college admissions; in public schools, this number dips to just 22%.

Your guidance counselor will play an essential role in your college exploration, selection, and admissions processes. Acknowledging the realities of their job duties and limited time, the onus is on you, the student, to schedule meetings with them as a freshman to begin the college exploration process. Getting on your guidance counselor’s radar as a serious, future-minded student early in your high school career will pay dividends later on.

6. Begin to explore your interests

Most school systems have a sequence of college/career/personality surveys they will administer to students beginning in late-middle or early-high school. Ask your guidance counselor for assistance with this. Potential careers recommended by these surveys may just ignite a course of exploration that will lead you to your dream college.

7. Take advantage of summer

The summer after freshman year is a great time to land your first job or volunteer with a local organization, or pursue attending a summer program on college campus. More informal but still productive activities would include studying for the SAT/ACT and researching potential “good fit” college and universities. Even if you elect for a more restful summer break, still try to accomplish one thing that will help you refine your nascent college search before sophomore year commences.

Key takeaways

  • Get good grades. Half of your freshman class doesn’t even realize that freshman year counts toward your cumulative GPA and class rank. By the time they wake up, you’ll already be in the driver’s seat.
  • Take a rigorous course load with as many honors classes as you can handle. If you intend to apply to highly-selective colleges down the road, you need to be on the AP track in at least a few subjects.
  • Get involved in a few activities that make sense for you. Experiment, but do so within your realm of interests/passions. Don’t force yourself into an excessive number of activities because you think it will one day impress college admission officers.
  • Elite colleges typically want students to have taken a 4th or 5th year of a foreign language. Most competitive schools want to see at least two or three years of a foreign language so 9th grade is undoubtedly the time to start.
  • Forge relationships with adults in your school that will pay off when college applications come down the road. This starts with your guidance counselor
  • Don’t let the summer slip away. Begin studying for the SAT/ACT. Get a job, and internship, or volunteer your time in the community.
Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.