Young redhead female student laughing with older blonde school counselor

How to Guide High School Freshmen Through the Next 4 Years

Counselors play a big role in keeping students focused on the future. Here's how to help freshmen make the most of these four vital but fleeting years.

Each fall, the high school population is flooded with a new group of anxious and eager freshmen. They’ll come to you in any number of guises, with all manner of priorities—the doe-eyed girl with her heart set on the varsity quarterback, the bookish wallflower secretly daydreaming of sixth grade’s quiet predictability, or the math whiz with plausible Ivy League aspirations. But they all have one thing in common: The next four years are going to go by more quickly than any of them expect. As a counselor, you can play a pivotal role in keeping your students grounded and focused on their future early on. Let's discuss just a few of the many ways you can help your freshmen make the most of their vital but fleeting high school years.

Get to know them

Foster an open line of communication with your freshmen. Depending on your position, you might be working with them throughout their entire high school careers, so set up tentative times for regular tête-à-têtes, perhaps once a semester. If your freshmen will be working with multiple college counselors over time, you can at least have a discussion about their collegiate goals and help them lay the groundwork to attain them.

Promote relationships

Convey to your freshmen the importance of developing relationships with teachers, church and volunteer group leaders, and other mentors. They can start by actively participating in class discussions and after-school opportunities to establish rapport with their teachers. In general, they should take advantage of any chances they have to work in close proximity to the influential people in their lives. When they begin the college application process, they’ll need to come back to them to garner recommendations.

Related: How to Build Better Relationships With Your Teachers

Emphasize the importance of class selections and grades

With college an infinitely distant four years away—a veritable lifetime when you’re all of 14—it can be difficult for freshmen to understand that their actions today will have repercussions tomorrow. Discuss which AP courses they might be interested in and which electives will help make them well-rounded college applicants with glowing transcripts. Remind them that their grades from all four years are going to show up on those transcripts and figure into their GPAs, so every class, every assignment, and every exam should be taken seriously.

Give them a timeline

Create a four-year calendar that will give freshmen a better understanding of the goals and deadlines they’ll be juggling throughout high school. Having a visual timeline to look at will help them realize that college entrance exams and initial application deadlines really aren’t all that far away.

Related: College Prep for All 4 Years of High School

Encourage them to get involved

Extracurricular involvement is an invaluable addition to a college application, so students should start choosing constructive extracurricular activities as soon as possible. Consistency with a particular activity can help a student stand out by demonstrating their ability to work at something diligently over time. For example, a student interested in writing might take journalism classes (if available) and write for the school’s newspaper with the goal of becoming editor by senior year. Sticking with a sport can benefit students hoping to secure athletic scholarships. And joining clubs and other organizations is a great way to bolster a student résumé. Help your freshmen by discussing their prospective major and career aspirations, and suggest which extracurricular activities might give them a leg up in those areas.

Create leaders

Exemplary leadership skills can separate the “maybes” from the “shoo-ins” in a college applicant pool. Encourage your freshmen to begin looking for ways to take on leadership roles in any capacity. Student government is an excellent vehicle, as are officer positions in various clubs and organizations. Particularly ambitious students might even consider heading up the creation of an entirely new club, a feat that would provide impressive fodder for admission essays. Discuss your students’ interests and help them find related areas where they can function as leaders.

Related: How to Become a Great Student Leader in High School

Prep them for tests

SAT and ACT exams may seem distant and inconsequential to incoming freshmen, but the volume of information covered on these tests is best absorbed over time rather than crammed into a few tense, nail-biting months or weeks. Talk with your freshmen about their strengths and weaknesses in the areas covered on these exams. Encourage them to read voraciously beyond the books assigned in their classes. You can also suggest that they go ahead and invest in some test prep materials and look over sample exams. And discuss a timeline, including when they can take the PSAT/NMSQT, which can provide an excellent gauge of their preparedness.

Tame the dog days

Summers should be used wisely, and there are numerous activities your students can engage in during these months that will make them more attractive candidates for college admission. Volunteering or working part-time jobs will teach them responsibility and can give them experience in their proposed majors and careers. You can also help them look into summer camps where they can both learn and have fun while getting a taste of independence. And make sure they’re armed with a summer reading list that will help with SAT/ACT/AP test preparation and give them an edge in college English courses.

Related: 7 Ways to Have a Productive Summer

Tell them to start saving

It’s never too early for students to start thinking about how they’ll pay for college. If it’s likely they’ll need financial aid, you can help them research schools where they’ll get the best education for their money, and they can start looking for grants and scholarships they might qualify for; help them get started with the Scholarship Search tool. Even if their parents have money put aside in a college fund, the ever-rising costs of tuition and room and board can still make financial aid a necessity. Remind your students that doing well on AP exams can translate into college credit, a potentially huge savings. They should also plan on taking the PSAT/NMSQT in their junior year to be considered for National Merit Scholarships. And summer jobs can provide a means of saving here and there for smaller-ticket items that are necessary to college students, like textbooks, dorm décor, and junk food for all-night study sessions.

Pave the road to college

Advise your freshmen to start thinking about the colleges they’re interested in. Even though their personalities and preferences will evolve throughout their high school years, they can start visiting schools and speaking with admission representatives now. Help them by going over the admission requirements at the types of schools they’re interested in, which will give them more clearly defined goals. You can also encourage them to talk to older siblings or other relatives who are currently in college to get some valuable firsthand accounts. Get the ball rolling by checking out all the featured schools profiled right here on CollegeXpress.

Related: 7 Important Times to Support Students During College Admission

For incoming freshmen, high school may seem like an exciting succession of dances, football games, pep rallies, and burgeoning independence. And it is—but it’s also the time when they’ll become the people behind their college applications. Helping your freshmen get a jump-start on the college admission process will only benefit them over the next four years and beyond.

Find other helpful articles, College Planning Calendars, and more great resources for all your students in our Counselors and Consultants section. 

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie and CollegeXpress. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times, she has been an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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