Get into College: A Grade-by-Grade Guide for High School Students

When high school students begin the college admissions process, many feel overwhelmed. Trying to manage all that has to be done can be stressful and can take a toll on academic performance, friendships, and health.  

How to avoid it? Start early.

While some independent college admissions tutors suggest that students wait till junior year to start the college admissions process, in my experience that’s too late. There is simply too much to be do besides maintaining or improving your GPA to think that a last-minute strategy will work.

In order to minimize your stress and maximize your chances of admission, here’s a grade-by-grade guide to the college admissions process:


Ninth Grade:

  • As soon as you are assigned a guidance counselor, meet with that person and design a challenging curriculum that will appeal to the colleges to which you imagine applying.
  • Start focusing on your grades. Remember, the transcript you submit to colleges for admission is going to show all of your grades, not just the grades for junior and senior year.
  • Explore clubs, service opportunities, and athletics. Start participating. While you can use your first year in high school to try out these activities, by the end of ninth grade, pick a few that really interest you and then stick with those activities for the rest of high school.
  • Start developing a passionate interest and then make a purposeful commitment to that interest. Why is this important? More and more college admissions officers want to see evidence not just of your intellectual aptitude but of your drive, enthusiasm, motivation, discipline, ambition, and ability to learn independently and beyond what was required for your courses. As Diane Anci, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admission & Financial Aid at Kenyon College recently stated,  “[We’re looking for]…depth of commitment over breadth of resume.” The importance of developing a passionate interest cannot be overstated. As a senior with top grades and test scores who was recently waitlisted at every top-tier college to which he applied, grades alone are not enough to get you into the top colleges in the country. While you start thinking about a passionate interest, also think about ways you might be able to use your passionate interest to benefit others. Why? Increasingly admissions officers want to see evidence not just of your IQ but your EQ or emotional quotient as well.
  • Start to record a list of honors, leadership positions, internships, special accolades you’ve received. Keep this list up-to-date throughout high school.


Tenth Grade:

  • Although many students wait to take the PSAT in October of junior year, it’s best to do a trial run in tenth grade, especially if you want to qualify for a National Merit scholarship. Once you receive your score, share it with an independent tutor or your guidance counselor. Use the score to better assess which standardized test is best for you to take in junior year, the SAT or ACT.
  • Determine two extra-curricular activities that you most enjoy and are willing to continue through the rest of your time in high school. Then dive in and devote as much time as possible to them.
  • Sign up for summer courses that will help improve your grades or advance your knowledge in a particular area.
  • Find a professional and experienced SAT/ACT test prep tutor and start taking prep courses in the summer.
  • Start developing and expanding your passion. As noted above, the importance of developing a passionate interest beyond the requirements of your high school curriculum cannot be overstated. Also, keep in mind that your experience of developing, expanding, and applying your passionate interest often turns out be provide excellent material for your common application essay and the supplemental essays.
  • If possible, attend a college fair. While there, ask questions and start networking with college admissions officers.

Eleventh Grade:

  • Register for the SAT, the ACT, or both. Continue to prep for the test(s) you are taking. If you are going to retake the test(s), before you do, find an experienced tutor who can help you improve your standardized test-taking strategies, target areas of weakness, and who can use your learning skills to best advantage.
  • If you have a 504 or an IEP that awards you testing accommodations, make sure to file for them well before the deadline.
  • Register for AP exams if you plan to take them. If you have a 504 or an IEP that awards you testing accommodations, make sure to file for them.
  • Find an experienced AP test prep tutor and work with that tutor starting at least two months but better three before the exam. Why is this important? While AP teachers generally do a great job of teaching content, little time is spent teaching writing, and even less to writing for the exam. The best AP prep tutor will be able to use your learning profile to help you maximize your score and improve your test-taking skills.
  • Take your passionate interest to a different level. Find ways to make your passion valuable to others, perhaps the community you live in or other students.
  • When college admissions officers visit your school, talk to them. Find out what you can not just about the colleges that interest you, but about the college admissions process. Email each officer you speak with and thank that person for taking the time to answer your questions.
  • Visit colleges and start networking with faculty and members of the college admissions office.
  • Apply for a summer internship related to your academic interests and/or passionate interest.
  • During the summer prior to senior year, start writing your common application essay.  If you can finish writing this before your senior year starts, you’ll feel a lot less pressure, and have more energy to focus on your course work and writing the required supplemental essays.

Twelfth Grade:

  • Visit any colleges that you added to your list during the summer.
  • Keep up with your grades.
  • Continue to develop your passionate interest.
  • If you are retaking any standardized tests, be sure to register. If you have a 504 or an IEP be sure to register for accommodations.
  • Request letters of recommendation early. Make sure to follow up to ensure that the letters have been submitted prior to the deadline.
  • As soon as the college-specific supplemental essay prompts are posted online, start writing them. Because these responses require a different strategy than the common application essay, consider hiring an experienced independent tutor, preferably one with writing experience, who can help you use these responses to consolidate your brand and successfully market you to admissions officers.  

The college admissions process is both exhilarating and exhausting. But if you start early, you’ll have a much better chance of enjoying the ride!

Ready to get started? Call me!


Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.