(Written by Lori McCormick)
In my two previous posts, I wrote about the importance of preparing for college when students are in their last two years of high school. In this post, I will discuss when everyone else should start thinking about college.
My personal opinion is that this whole process is subjective and depends on the student, the family, and their environment. Having a definitive answer as to when you should start thinking about college is tough to answer. However, colleges will ask you to write some form of a personal statement, along with a variety of short essays, and attach it to your application. Your essays are an integral part of who you are and will help admissions officers answer why you would be a good fit on their campus. Thinking about the activities you are doing (or plan to do) are great contributions to your essays. The more you learn from your experiences, the more depth and personal insight you can build into your writing.
I also find this process subjective because not every student is going to choose the traditional four-year Bachelor's Degree. A student may opt for a skilled trade or a two-year Associate's Degree. Whichever path you choose, post-secondary education will help propel your future. Here are some suggestions to help you start thinking about what you can do today to prepare yourself for your college applications in the future:
1. Build skills and interests through extracurricular involvement. Languages, art, sports, music, literature, computers, painting, agriculture, scientific research, performing arts, to name a few, are all activities you as students can gain skills from.
2. Start early! I would even go so far as to say that children as young as preschool age can be exposed to extracurricular activities to instill curiosity. Visit museums, attend musicals or plays, watch sporting events, read books, go on nature walks, visit farms, etc. Expose these young minds to the possibilities that lie ahead. It could help spark an interest to pursue further.
3. Explore career paths by collecting information from family members, friends of family, teachers/mentors, or even through informational interviewing about what steps they took to lead them to their careers. You might find a path that is of interest and learn what you need academically to prepare you for a particular career.
4. Get hands-on experience. Find a job or volunteer opportunity that may interest you or at the very least, teach you skills you can transfer. Organizations such as Youth Community Service http://www.youthcommunityservice.org/ or Volunteer Match http://www.volunteermatch.org are ways to connect with volunteer opportunities in your community. If you are a student who is obligated to spend non-school hours providing assistance in your home, whether it be tending to a family member or helping with household chores, make this your work experience. It is as equally skill building as any job or internship.
5. Visit colleges either in person or virtually. This will help you build your college list gradually. And as you grow, your list may change. That is okay. This is the process of elimination that should happen before your final college list is determined.
6. Get creative about how you will think about college and beyond. Make family dinner a time to spark a conversation about college or careers. For example, family members choose a related topic or experience to research and share weekly at the table. Make it a fun, collaborative effort that fosters a lively discussion about college and career paths.
Ultimately, it is up to the individual to determine how much effort he or she will put into their post-secondary planning. As parents and guardians, we can help by exposing our children to various cultural and academic opportunities and to support them in developing them as interests. As students, you can communicate to your families your budding interests to help get the discovery process started. So while I don't have an exact time frame for when a student should start thinking about college, I do think that taking time to explore college and career options earlier rather than later is a healthy way to start the process.