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Does My Kid Really Need a College Advisor in 9th Grade?

(In most cases, no. In a few, it's not a bad idea.)

If you're wondering when the "right" time is to prepare for full-court press on college applications, I have multiple answers.

First: the "right" time is the right time for your student.

Second: my answer is usually "with a few exceptions, second semester of eleventh grade." Are you shooting for an Ivy League college or one with a similarly dismal admit rate? That doesn't change my answer. At all.

I currently have an eleventh grader at a highly competitive college prep day school in the Bay Area. If you're attending this school, it's expected that you're going to college. There's a whole college counseling department versus a single counselor for a class of 500 kids, and this school partly justifies its hefty tuition bill with stuff like "X percent of our students get into their first choice college." Even these people do not initiate the college application process until second semester of 11th grade (there are a couple of parent-calming emails and one presentation from the college counselors before the holidays).

That's because for most people, being overly focused on college in your first years of high school is somewhere between unhelpful and actively counterproductive. It makes students anxious. And it takes away from the actual educational experience of high school. Your 14-year-old is not supposed to have selected a major, a first choice college, or a future career. They're supposed to be mastering algebra, honing their world language skills, and beginning to understand what research actually is (and trying out for the school play or the basketball team or whatever they're into).

They might think they know what they want to do after college. They might even be in the small percentage of people who never change their minds about that, and that's fine. The majority of young teens have no clue what they want to do after high school. And they don't need to.

Usually when parents of eighth graders approach me because they're worried that they are already behind on "crafting a narrative" for their child, I advise against hiring someone like me that early, and waiting until 11th grade to initiate that conversation. (For more on why, I'd like to recommend reading The Truth About College Admissions: A Family Guide. It's very sane.)

There are a handful of exceptions, though—situations that might warrant incorporating a college advisor by tenth or even ninth grade.

  1. First Generation Applicants. If you didn't get a college degree, or you were educated in another country, you might well find this process mysterious and overwhelming. It can be useful in terms of your peace of mind and the health of your relationship with your teenager to have a neutral third party on retainer to answer questions and provide guidance and support. There shouldn't be an overwhelming amount of involvement from the advisor at this stage of the process—an occasional check-in over the first two years of high school, to discuss what courses and activities the student is developing an interest in (note: I did not say "to discuss what courses and activities the student should be doing in order to look good to colleges." Be careful with anyone who wants to tell your teen what to enjoy or be curious about). In some cases, the advisor might weigh in on things like course selection: if a student has a strong sense that they're interested in biomedical or aerospace engineering, for instance, they need to plan for it a little. Declining to take calculus in high school won't make it impossible to get into a biomedical engineering program (they can absolutely take calculus in college), but it can make them a less competitive applicant than they would have been if they'd been ambitious with math. It's not a dealbreaker, but it can be a disadvantage you might want to head off at the pass. Alternatively, if you have "pre-law" all over your application and you've never taken advantage of your school's debate or Mock Trial programs, it's not as though that will disqualify you from competitive schools... but screeners will notice what opportunities you've taken versus not taken in support of your interest. And a good college advisor will point that stuff out.

  2. Students Applying to International Schools. By the same token, if you were educated in the US and your US-raised student has dreams of studying in Scotland, or the Netherlands, or Australia or Israel or Canada, you guys won't be on quite the same track as your student's peers who are applying only to US schools. The schedules are different. The prerequisites are different. The whole education paradigm is different in some ways. You need to know what you're doing, and it isn't always terribly obvious. A savvy college advisor can help you get ahead of things like testing requirements, language proficiency testing where applicable, and how to assess the specific admission criteria for the countries, schools and specific programs you're interested in. If studying in another country is a significant goal for your student, you'll want to be thinking about it a little earlier in high school than you might need to for US colleges.

  3. Recruitment Track Athletes. Luckily, this one ofen takes care of itself: if your student has an extraordinary athletic talent, they'll likely get valuable information from their coaches about how to be visible to recruiters. However, this is also an area where a good college advisor can come in handy. If you're interested in playing your sport in college, you're going to have to start identifying schools and geting on the relevant coaches' radar sooner than 12th grade—in some cases, significantly sooner. Your advisor can help you identify schools in your likely NCAA division that might not be on your radar, and might be able to help you understand where you will and won't have potential scholarship options (if Harvard is courting your runner, rower or fencer, it might indeed give them an advantage in the admissions office, but it's very unlikely to make a dent in your tuition bill—but there are colleges where it will). Importantly, your advisor can help you with the discernment work of finding a college that fits your student academically: if an injury puts an end to your career as a center, offensive lineman or goalkeeper, you want to be somewhere you'll be happy and fit in at an academic level.

  4. Exceptionally Gifted Artists. This year I had my highest-ever number of students interested in pursuing theater, music, film, dance or studio art. All of them started working with me in the summer before 12th grade. And almost of them were woefully underprepared for the programs that interested them the most. Whether you're interested in a conservatory (Juilliard, Berklee, California College of the Arts) or a liberal arts college or research university with a great program in your discipline (film at USC, theater at Carnegie Mellon, music at Oberlin, dance at UCLA), if you're interested in a fine arts or performing arts major you need to be paying attention, and it often needs to start earlier than it would if you were targeting an Accounting major. If you're a phenomenal sculptor who doesn't have a superlative academic record, your talent in your art form might be enough to get you through the door of a significant conservatory program despite your GPA. It probably won't excite Yale enough for them to ignore the fact that you flunked trigonometry and called in dead to Spanish for most of your high school career. Do you want to study muscial theater at Tisch? You're going to need headshots. And audition pieces. You'll need to keep track of when and where the auditions are for your region. If you don't start paying attention to that stuff until November of your senior year you're going to be somewhere between "really stressed out" and "applying somewhere else because you missed the deadlines and don't have the prerequisites." This year I had an aspiring filmmaker who was gunning for USC. He didn't realize he'd need to submit a portfolio and didn't feel he had time to create one. Every time I suggested he grab his phone and hit the streets to make some quick cinema verite' or consider re-editing some projects from video class, he just got annoyed—until it truly was too late and he was grouchily flinging an application at the psych program instead. Or let's say you're an actor, and your dream date college is Columbia. Let's toss in that you identify as female. It's worth knowing that Columbia's theater program is technically housed at its sibling college, Barnard. Columbia's admit rate is 4%. Barnard's is almost 12%—in other words, still wildly selective but a threefold increase in your odds. I had a student actually decline to simply apply to Barnard because she "didn't want to go there." She couldn't explaoin why she didn't want to go to Barnard, and nothing I said could persuade her that if she got into Columbia she would effectively be going to Barnard anyway, because that's where her prospective major is venued. Like 96% of appicants, she was declined by Columbia. We'll never know what would have happened if she'd taken the path of slightly less resistance because she was so focused on the name "Columbia" that she was unable to understand its relationship with Barnard.

Most students genuinely don't need college advisors before 11th grade. If you're taking the courses you enjoy and find interesting, doing your best in them, taking some risks, taking on some responsbilities, and pursuing some sort of a goal, you're pretty much doing what you need to be doing to prepare for the college application process.

But there are some potential exceptions. If your student is in one of those groups, it can be worth seeking support sooner—in tenth or even ninth grade.

If you have a current eleventh grader—or a ninth or tenth grader in one of the above categories—this is probably the right time to investigate college advisors.


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