THE BLOG
10/20/2014 09:43 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

Dear 9th Graders: College Applications Can Wait. Following These 5 Tips Can't

Nothing helps refine a description of your job like trying to explain it to a 10-year-old. That's how I arrived at what is probably the simplest explanation of what I do: I help students apply to college.

In one way or another, that's what I've done for the last 20 years -- and I can't imagine doing anything else. As the first person in my family to go to college, I know exactly how intimidating it feels to get lost in the tangled maze of college admissions and financial aid without the benefit of parents or siblings who have already been through the process. I also know I would have been better prepared as a high school senior if I had known more as a freshman. With that context, here's a word of advice for you 9th graders who are starting high school from someone who has made a career of helping students apply to college: It's way too early to think about applying to college.

For some of you, this guidance may seem at odds with messages you've heard from other sources: peers, older siblings, media, parents, teachers, and maybe even some colleges. Myths about the college admission process run rampant in our culture, and one of the most unhelpful -- and potentially unhealthy -- is that you'd better start polishing your credentials in 9th grade if you want them to shine by the time you're a senior.

The next four years are not about building a resume. They are about building knowledge and character. Put another way, they are about making good decisions. The choices you make this year will influence the choices you are able to make later. They'll also shape the opportunities available to you, from the courses you can take to the leadership roles you can play.

With that context, here are five suggestions to help you make the most of this year and the ones that follow:

  1. Find something you enjoy doing and then keep doing it. Dance, basketball, math, debate, robotics, writing -- the interest itself is far less important than the pleasure you take from it. You may encounter well-meaning people who encourage you to "find your passion." There's nothing wrong with that advice as long as you don't mistake passion for a single-minded focus on one pursuit to the exclusion of all others. High school affords you more opportunities than you've probably ever had to explore classes and activities. Try new things. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you learn about yourself.
  2. If a teacher gives you advice, take it. Teachers are smart people, and they want you to be successful. They observe more than you realize, from your study habits to your classroom demeanor to your interactions with your peers. They know what works and what doesn't: Write down your homework assignments. Plan out long-term projects. Ask for help when you need it. Don't multitask when you're studying. In the moment, the advice might seem nagging and inconsequential, but it's not. Your teachers are trying to help you build good habits that will benefit you well beyond this year. If you follow their advice, you'll do just that.
  3. Take some risks. That may sound scary. After all, risk-taking always comes with the potential for both rewards and failure. But in 9th grade, the stakes are not very high, and you probably have more safety nets underneath you than you realize. So go ahead: Audition for a play. Try out for a team. Volunteer in your community in a way that challenges you. Take a class in something you've never studied before. If you happen to make a misstep, just remember that some of the most powerful lessons we learn in our lives often come not from our successes but our failures -- and that's true no matter how old you are.
  4. Don't let your strengths limit you. That probably sounds strange. How can strengths be limiting? Too often, students let themselves be defined by what they're good at, which in turn makes it very easy for them to write off subjects that don't come naturally. I can't do math. I don't write well. I stink at art. I'm terrible with languages. It's one thing to recognize that some subjects are more challenging (and perhaps less enjoyable) than others. It's another to let that perspective devolve into a defeatist attitude. Not only does that temperament almost always result in lackluster grades, it also encourages people to see the more challenging fields as a waste of time. I assure you they are not, and any teacher of any subject will be more than happy to dissuade you of this notion.
  5. Ask questions. Even though I've said it's too early to think about applying to college, let's face it: Some of you are already thinking about applying to college. If that's the case, you probably have questions. You also have more resources at your disposal than you probably realize. From your counselor to your teachers to admission officers at colleges across the country, you have an army of people ready to help you think about your future: how to plan, how to prepare, and what to expect. All you need to do is ask.

None of the tips listed here are explicitly designed to make you a better college applicant when you get to that point, but that's exactly what they'll do if you follow them. And by "better," I don't mean competitively packaged. I mean authentic. By following this advice, you'll be writing your own personal story, a story about your values, your skills, and your interests -- a story, in other words, that will help colleges understand how you'll fit into their communities and, more importantly, help you understand which colleges offer communities that you might want to join. When it comes to college, what you want is a place where you can be successful, and you can't be successful in a place where you're not happy.

That's my advice for how not to think about applying to college. The best part is, by not thinking about applying to college, when the time comes, you'll be ready to apply to college.