14 Tips for College-Bound High Schoolers

August 28, 2019 Updated: August 28, 2019

So you’re a rising junior or senior in high school, and you’re thinking college is in your future. Here are 14 bits of advice on college preparation and admissions from a guy who for 20 years taught literature, composition, history, and Latin to young people your age.

1. Read Charles Murray’s “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life” (Crown Business, 2014, 144 pages, $17.95). Murray’s book should be required reading for all high school students, college-bound or not. It’s short, witty, and an excellent guide to adulthood.

2. Your junior year is the time to shine. All your grades and extracurricular activities for high school go on your transcript, but the data from your junior year is what college admission officers will peruse most carefully. Are your grades showing improvement? Are you taking tough courses? Are your SAT or ACT scores on the rise? It’s too early to catch a case of senioritis. Buckle down and work hard.

3. If you have some academic talent, take Advanced Placement courses. You should take such courses for three reasons: to learn more about a subject that attracts you, to gain college credit, and to enhance your academic record. Bear in mind that the AP scores don’t come out until the summer. Consequently, the scores from your junior year will be the last seen by an admissions committee.

4. Don’t select a college for its supposed prestige or football team. Look instead for an institution best suited to your personality and ambitions. Just because your father loved his alma mater doesn’t mean that you will. Over the years, most of my students found a good match in the colleges they attended. The ones who didn’t dropped out, transferred to another school, or were miserable.

5. Know why you want to go to college. Do you want to spend four years reading history and literature under the tutelage of a professor and exchanging ideas with others? Good. It’s an admirable goal. Do you want to go to college to study nursing? Good. Another admirable goal. My point is this: seriously ask yourself why you want to go to college. If you can’t come up with a solid reason, then take a gap year. Consider joining the armed services or finding a job for a while. Don’t head off to college because “all my friends are going.”

6. Don’t just visit a campus. Explore it. Take the guided tour, but then speak privately to students and faculty members. Look at the reading lists used in the courses of interest to you. Ask questions. If your religious faith is important to you, for example, ask what on-campus organizations minister to that faith and then speak with the people who work for that ministry.

7. Stay organized during the application process. Fill out the application, have your test scores and transcripts sent, write the essay if required, and send everything to the school long before the deadline. Don’t wait until the last day or two before the deadline, as some of my students did, to ask your teacher for a letter of recommendation.

8. If the college requires one or more personal essays from you, do the writing yourself. You can seek help in editing after you’ve written the essays, but for heaven’s sake, don’t hire someone to write your essays. If you can’t put together sentences and paragraphs, you are unprepared for higher education.

9. Which brings me to the next point: write, write, write. The major complaint of university professors about entering freshmen is their inability to write reasonably good English. If your high school teachers require little writing—and many of them are guilty as charged—read books on composition or look for instructional materials that can help you become a better writer. Write something every day. Good writers are made, not born.

10. Read, read, read. Many students in high school and college neglect the assigned books for their courses. They look over online summaries and learn enough so they can return to their video games or parties. Don’t cheat yourself of an education by leaving your books to gather dust on the shelves.

11. Students frequently complain about some required high school courses. Of Algebra II or Latin or chemistry, they’ll say, “I’ll never need this in real life.” They’re right and they’re wrong. They may never use quadratic equations, Latin declensions, or the periodic chart, but these three subjects are gymnasiums for the mind. They teach logic and thinking skills that will prove invaluable throughout life. Rise to the challenge of difficult subjects and exercise your brain.

12. In both high school and college, select your friends and extracurricular activities with care. If you spend too much time goofing off or hanging out with the wrong crowd, you’re wasting irreplaceable hours and wads of money. Remember the advice given to Little Marie by that great educator Rocky Balboa: “If you hang out with nice people, you get nice friends. Ya understand? If you hang out with smart people, you get smart friends. If you hang out with yo-yo people, you get yo-yo friends.” Don’t hang out with yo-yo people.

13. Become an autodidact. You can’t go around the rest of your life pointing the finger and blaming your teachers, parents, or friends for your failures, academic or otherwise. You’re 16, 17, 18 years old, which means it’s high time that you took responsibility for your learning. If that U.S. history teacher spends his time in class talking football, then break open Wilfred McClay’s “Land of Hope” or listen to online lectures. If you want to learn biology and your teacher is dull as dishwater, head for the library or the internet.

14. Finally, and most importantly, take charge not just of your academic studies, but of yourself. Have fun and enjoy yourself, but study and work with a goal in mind. If you accept responsibility for your thoughts and actions, you are already light-years ahead of many of your contemporaries.

Follow these suggestions, learn from books such as “The Curmudgeon’s Guide,” and you’ll find yourself a winner in the college admissions game and in life.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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