Most advice I see aimed at high school freshmen (and their families) about academics and testing is fairly generic and even a bit unhelpful: work hard but have fun too. Get good grades but don’t worry too much if they’re not perfect. Take risks but don’t do anything crazy. None of this is wrong per se, but it’s not terribly useful for those looking for concrete, meaningful guidance.
Since I have strong opinions about all things academic, and I often meet with families for the first time in sophomore or junior year, I wanted to pass along advice I’ve distilled from years of work with high school and college students, about freshman year academics, testing, and extracurriculars.
In part 1, I’ll talk about the importance of finding your footing, and lay out some indicators that you need extra help.
In part 2, I’ll turn to shaping your story, the importance of developing a set of deep interests and establishing a track record of achievement.
In part 3, I’ll address what standardized tests you need to anticipate in freshman year.
Find your footing.
I’m going to make some basic assumptions, and you should adjust your reading based on how neatly these assumptions fit you and your aspirations.
Assumption 1: You’re an academically-motived student, or the parent of such a student. You want to go to a great college and do interesting things with your life.
Assumption 2: You’re interested in the world around you. You want to figure out how you fit into and will contribute to that world.
Assumption 3: You’re fundamentally levelheaded, but you’re concerned either that you’ll miss some vital part of college preparation, or that you’ll get caught in the maelstrom that is New York City (or elsewhere) schooling and college admissions.
In my experience, there’s a rational, reasonable line to walk between avoiding all thoughts of college and making yourself anxious. This goes for all four years of high school, but especially the first year. In freshman year, you really have two overarching goals: first, to find your academic footing, and second, to shape your story by figuring out what interests you most. In part 1, I’m going to focus on getting situated academically and recognizing when you need to step up and get help.
There’s a lot of chatter among college counselors over whether the freshman year matters academically in college admissions. It certainly does, but not always in the way students think. The freshman year sets you up for high school. This may seem obvious but is worth restating: freshman year isn’t middle school. The work load is heavier, teacher expectations for independent learning are higher, and the pacing is faster. Freshman year is about setting yourself up with rock-solid skills. Either you’ll come out of ninth grade with a solid foundation of basic knowledge, or you’ll struggle to play catch up in later years. Either you’ll develop good work habits, or you’ll wait until the eleventh hour to whip out projects that are “just fine” but don’t represent your abilities.
In your freshman year, your real goal is to put together a repertoire of independent learning skills. Your ultimate goals are to foster an agile brain, develop serious academic depth in some subjects, and become comfortable in the basics across subjects. These skills take root in freshman year.
Some questions to ask yourself:
Have you got solid writing and math skills, or did you mostly fake your way through developing an outline or solving linear equations? Can you gauge when you’re doing well or when you’re a bit lost? If you’re getting nervous that you’re not having an easy time of it, let me assure you: you’re a work in progress with an impressively flexible brain, and there’s more under your control than you realize.
Here are some suggestions for concrete actions in your freshman year:
Start building a reputation among your teachers as a dedicated student and a hard worker. This means you need to work hard, ask questions, and follow up when you say you will.
Speak up in class. If you’re leery of chiming in spontaneously, get in the habit of writing down questions ahead of time based on the homework and reading. Habits like this don’t magically pop up junior year. They start now.
If you’re offered the chance, revise your work and resubmit it. Ask for comments on first drafts, and give your teachers plenty of lead time to respond.
If you don’t have a system for keeping track of homework and deadlines and can’t seem to stay on top of assignments, march yourself into your counselor’s office and ask for help.
Use the year to figure out which advanced courses interest you most, including APs. Make sure you’re on track to fulfill any prerequisites so you can take a few AP or advanced classes in your junior–not just your senior–year.
But… what about grades?
In a perfect world, all students would transition easily to high school and make top grades from the start. Realistically, some students have a rockier road in ninth grade. Strong freshman grades are great, but schools take very seriously a consistent upward trend in grades across the high school career. Ultimately, taking care of fundamental skills and finding your academic footing you will correlate with strong grades.
Plan your progress.
A struggle in sophomore or junior year doesn’t typically come out of nowhere. If you’re learning material barely well enough to spit it out on the test, you won’t be able to build on that information later.
A quick note, though: in freshman year, every snag you hit, every skill you’re struggling with is a teachable, learnable skill. If you recognize yourself in the list of fundamental skills to flag that follows, you’re going to be completely fine as long as you tackle things head-on. When I work with students on some piece of dastardly math, their standard reaction is “I can’t believe that’s all there was to it.”
In freshman year, it is a big deal if you don’t really, truly own a set of fundamental skills. What do I consider fundamental skills to flag? You should be able to:
Read a passage for information, extract information accurately, interpret the author’s tone and intent, and anticipate how this passage would relate other passages.
Write a variety of grammatically-correct complex sentences, identify and correct run-ons and fragments, and use transitions appropriately.
Adjust your writing style to the occasion and use the appropriate tone and format for the genre.
Put together a cohesive, coherent essay with a sharp introduction, appropriate connections between paragraphs, and a clear thread of argument all the way through.
Manipulate an equation to solve for a variable, graph basic functions, and manipulate exponents and roots.
Extract mathematical information from a word problem and translate that information into an appropriate equation.
Recognize math problems (“this is a problem about proportions,” for instance) and internalize orders of operation
Recognize unfamiliar applications of familiar math concepts.
These are, without exception, skills you’re going to need to build on. If you’re having a tough time, get help now. Don’t wait, don’t justify a bad test grade to yourself, and don’t assume things will get easier with a different teacher next year. Get extra help, before things feel grim.
In part 2, I turn to shaping your story, to finding out what interests you most, and to setting yourself up to pursue those interests wholeheartedly.
What do you wish you’d known as a new freshman, or as the parent of a new freshman? Got a story to tell about figuring out freshman year? Drop me a note!