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First Things Second; Planning Your College Path


Begin your college plan with the end in mind.

The first thing to consider when making a plan for a college timeline is what direction you want to go. What is the ultimate goal?

Students do not need to know exactly what they want to do when they grow up, but they do need to know what their end game is. The first and most obvious question is, do they even want to go to college? If the answer is yes, then there are a number of directions they can take. If the answer is no, there are numerous other career opportunities.

Vocational and technical schools or even apprenticeships are available to students that really do not have the desire to continue on to college. I will cover those non-college options in another post.

For students who have the dream of attending college, there are many types of colleges and paths to get there. Your options will depend greatly on where you are in the process now. You have the option of a two-year Community College, or several kinds of four-year colleges including a State University, a Research University, a Conservatory, a Liberal Arts College or a combination of them. The rigor and acceptance rates vary at all of these schools and will help determine which direction is the most realistic for your student to take.

The best time to make a plan? Now.

If you are in the eighth or ninth grade, great. You have plenty of time to make a plan and a clean slate to do it on. At this point in the planning stage, you have no permanent grades posted and most likely no test scores. Everything you do from this point on will be the stuff your college applications are made of.

Is your dream to attend Harvard? Then the time to start is now. The acceptance rate at Harvard looms around 5% every year, which means they will only accept 5 of every 100 students that apply. They receive around 45,000 applications and take approximately 2000 students. Acceptance there is a lofty goal and needs a long term plan. Many other colleges are equally competitive.

Is Stanford on your radar? Those application and acceptance statistics are comparable to those of Harvard. Is your dream to attend Julliard and become a professional dancer or musician? Once again, the time to start planning is now. Maybe your dream is to attend a top 12 athletic school. Again, the time to start planning is now. If your dream is to attend your state university, your plan may not need to be quite as detailed as the ones above, but again, the time to start planning is now. Let me explain.

The 3 things every school will require.

The first thing you need to realize is that regardless of where you plan to attend school, there will be three things every school will require:

  1. Grades
  2. Test Scores (with a few exceptions for test-optional schools)
  3. Required Courses

Before you get to any other part of a college application, these three things will be front and center. What is the one thing these three things have in common? You can’t go back three years and fix them as a Senior.

Three years you say? Yes, because for the majority of applicants, the schools you are applying to won’t even see your senior grades when they are making their decisions. Therefore, as discussed in Part One of this series First Things First, contrary to popular belief you must consider these three things as an eighth grader or Freshman in high school.

Let’s start with grades.

The importance of your GPA.

Depending on where you plan to attend or what schools are on your list, you need to know what the median Grade Point Average (GPA) is for acceptance. If the schools on your list have a median GPA of 3.9, then you had better plan on getting almost all A’s.

If you receive more than two or three B’s in the first three years, those 3.9 schools just went from being Target Schools (colleges you are reasonably confident you’ll get in) to Reach Schools (more competitive colleges you have to push for). If the median GPA is 3.5 then you may be able to add a few more B’s or less B’s and one C and still be on track, but ultimately High School grades matter from day one.

I have heard many people say, “Well as long as the school sees improvement they will disregard Freshman grades.” That line of thought may work with a school that has a lower median GPA, but it will not work for a school with a 3.9 median. Keep in mind that you are just a piece of paper when you submit your application, and your paper is just one of thousands. This isn’t personal (so don’t take it that way), but there are certain criteria that need to be met just to get your application read. This is why you have to address the college process as early as possible.

Straight A’s or struggling?

While it’s important for straight A students to keep their grades in mind, they won’t need to make major life changes. If a student has lower grades, however, there are some questions that need to be considered. Is school truly difficult, or is the student just focused elsewhere?  Is it realistic to expect this student to earn and keep a high GPA at this point? How important is it to this student to attend a school that all but requires straight A’s for acceptance? Does the student have a learning disability? If so there are other factors to consider, discussed in a different post. What will the student have to do in order to reach the needed GPA? Ultimately, is it reasonable or even worth the additional effort required? Only the student can make these determinations, but the answers are important. Your answers will help you pick colleges that will be a good fit for your goals, and help you make other important decisions about testing and extra-curricular activities.

I am the first one to tell students the old cliche “shoot for the moon, because the worst that can happen is you miss and land among the stars.” In short, never be afraid to try. It won’t hurt anything. Just be realistic about the results. If students struggle with grades because they are just not interested in academics, it is possible that they would be happier on a different path than the one that leads to college.

Whether you have a student who is naturally gifted in school or one who has to work twice as hard to attain the same result, it is important to determine early on the level at which the student wants to apply themselves. Students do not necessarily need to obsess about grades, but they do need to be aware of what is necessary to obtain admission to a particular school or group of schools they are targeting.

Discuss this before Freshman year.

Discussing the types of colleges available and what their requirements are should be done before Freshman year. This will help students plan their course.

I have had a number of people tell me that they had no idea Freshman grades matter. For the life of me, I don’t know why people think this, but it is amazing how many do. Therefore, be aware grades matter from the first day of high school, they all count towards the final GPA, and they will matter when it comes to college applications.

Keep in mind that plans can change and it’s important for the student to be adaptable. Just start somewhere. Thinking and planning early will set students up to jump on opportunities and avoid undue stress. It makes me very sad to hear a student say, “I wish I had known sooner…”

Colleges want to see that the student showed up and worked hard all three years, not just the last six months. They want to know students have the drive to finish what they start. Retention rates are important to colleges, which means they want to admit students that are the most likely to “stick and stay.”

When planning your college timeline, remember that Grades, Test Scores, and Required Courses need to be part of every high school student’s plan. Now you know in more detail why grades are so important. The next step is to understand Test Scores and Required Classes. I’ll talk about those next.

Follow along in the next post in the series First Things Third. Sign up for the weekly newsletter here and I will keep you up to date on where you should be in the college planning process.

Let your decisions reflect your dreams and not your fears.

Until Next Time

Get With The Program,

This post is #2 of a three-part series. Follow this link to read Post #1: First Things First.  If you have already finished continue to Post #3 First Things Third.




Conquering the College Process for Parents was created to give parents an overview of the entire college process. This course covers where to start, how to prepare, how to apply, how to pay for it, and what things you need to be aware of. The course is broken up into sections and you can binge watch the whole thing or break it up into several days. I have presented this course in person and virtually for years. My ultimate goal when I started is the same as it is today; I want parents to have an idea where to start. I don’t ever want anyone to feel as alone or lost as I did years ago.

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