This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with students on opposite ends of the spectrum: freshmen and seniors. Faced with this dichotomy, I couldn’t help but think about the clear advantage these ninth graders have over most of my current seniors.
Before engaging with these younger students, I confess that I believed it unnecessary to start the process this early—something only a helicopter or snowplow parent would do. Yet what I discovered early in this process is that the focus and conversation at this stage are not about colleges or careers. They are about understanding interests and personalities and helping students gravitate towards fields of study that best match who they are and what they like. Helping a child engage in these exercises and conversations is not over the top; it’s just good parenting, plain and simple.
Finding the right-fit college is about students knowing themselves and the qualities and characteristics that best suit them. Early self-realizations can only make this process richer and more authentic. What I love about working with students early in their high school careers is that I get the opportunity to know them better and build a more trusting relationship. We start with a casual conversation and chat about their interests, school, and friends. I often recommend parents purchase a comprehensive personality and career interest survey for a modest price, not to encourage their children pick a career path, but for the purpose of getting them to think about areas of interest they can explore. Ninth grade is the perfect time to dabble in a variety of activities because by tenth grade students should focus on one or two interests they are passionate about.
While the surveys provide interesting and often accurate assessments of student’s personalities, learning styles, and interests, it’s the discussions culled from these surveys that hold the most value. It is those “aha” moments, when students realize, “Yes. That’s me!,” or when they don’t agree with a designation and argue how they really are. We discuss how they learn best and talk about strategies they can use to be most successful in school. I make suggestions about extracurricular activities that best suit them based on their career and interest surveys. The merits of this self-reflection cannot be underrated or duplicated. These students will get a head start that most students will never receive.
Some of the seniors I worked with this year engaged in limited extracurricular activities or bounced from interest to interest. They did not hone in and cultivate their passion or show commitment and leadership. These are the things colleges want to see. Instead, they found themselves scrambling to locate summer activities that could boost their application.
The ninth graders, on the other hand, now know what colleges look for early in their high school careers, and they have the luxury to plan accordingly. They received the tools necessary to discover their true passions, so they will hopefully seek out experiences that truly interest them rather than engaging in random activities they think will look good on a college application.
I recognize that not all parents have the resources to hire a consultant this early in the process or at any of stage of the process for that matter. Some parents may also feel confident engaging in this process and guiding their child on their own. Numerous books and articles are readily available that give sage advice on what to do at each grade level. Regardless of the path taken, ninth grade is the ideal time to begin this conversation. Students can only benefit from this early insight!