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Head Start


Danielle Cisrese just walked in the door, returning from a relaxing day at Water World with some friends. Her vibrant description of the outing epitomizes the carefree summer days of a teenager. Swimming with friends is just one of the ways she is enjoying her summer. Texting, talking, boys, MySpace all take time, too. In a few weeks, however, she’ll turn her attention to getting into college. That’s typical if you’re a soon-to-be senior, but the 14-year-old hasn’t yet taken a class at Fairview High School. Thinking ahead, the almost freshman is already enrolled in pre-International Baccalaureate classes with an eye on getting into the University of Texas or the University of Colorado

“The teachers in eighth grade told me what classes to take; my math teacher told me what math to take, and my science teacher told me what science to take,” Danielle says. “We get a packet telling us what is required and then we sit with our parents and decide.”

Doesn’t quite sound like your typical 8th grade prep—hunkering down for college admittance has historically been reserved for junior year, a time when teens are asking to borrow the car or looking for a prom date. But it’s now mainstream for them to think college well before getting a driver’s permit or even making a junior varsity sports team. And in many cases, this process starts freshman year, says Pamela Decker, a counselor at Broomfield High School and a private educational counselor.

“College admission is certainly becoming more competitive, so just having a resume ready early for the colleges is important now,” says Kitty Regjo, regional vice president at the Princeton Review in Boulder.

That’s why Danielle’s pre-high school planning meeting concluded with a rigorous course load with tough classes such as pre-IB geometry, pre-IB chemistry/physical science, pre-IB government and Spanish. It’s not an easy start for a freshman, but it’s becoming a necessity to help ensure she lands her dream college.

“I’m thinking about it a little bit,” she says of college. “I know that I’ll be taking a lot of AP classes, so that’s what I’m doing academically, but I’m not too sure yet about extra curricular activities.”

Matthew Bonser, associate director of admissions at Colorado College, says those who wait too long in thinking about higher education—procrastinating until junior year, for example—can find themselves facing an uphill battle.

“They are missing out on some really good schools and not maximizing their potential scores,” Bonser says. “Students should be well-prepared throughout and feel that they are in control of the process, and the process is not in control of them.”

Pushing toward college at this blistering pace has become increasingly important because more students than ever are applying—from top tier all the way down to community colleges. In the last decade, the number of students getting accepted early into a university has skyrocketed, experts say—in some cases threefold—leaving the procrastinators in the dust.

For proof, take a look at the top universities in the country. According to Hernandez College Consulting, Columbia’s acceptance rate for this year’s freshmen class spikes to 23.2 percent from 9.6 percent for those who apply early. At Brown, 22.7 percent of early applicants got in this year compared to 13.8 percent of those who tried during the regular admission cycle.

It’s become a rat race, one that the esteemed Fiske Guide, publisher of multiple college advice books, pokes fun at in it’s “Top 10 Reasons The College Rat Race Is Out Of Control.” (Number 7: “Mom has sudden falling out with best friend after friend’s daughter is accepted early at Yale.”)

“It hasn’t always been this way. I think because of the competitive nature of college admissions and testing, students are starting much earlier,” Decker says.

Of course it’s more than just getting good grades. Students have to distance themselves with extra-curricular activities, meaning Danielle’s plan to get involved early in yet-to-be-determined after-school activities should pay off as much as all those pre-collegiate courses.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of extra curricular activities students have participated in, but we like to see that students take initiative and have commitment,” says Andrew Johnson, assistant director of admissions at Yale College.

An Added Payoff: More Cash For Dinner & Rent
This is the third time Danielle’s mother, Jennifer, will travel the demanding college prep road with one of her children.

Already having had two accepted into four-year colleges, Jennifer understands the importance of thinking about higher education early. The Cisrese children all approached the application process differently, but each was on a path toward college by ninth grade.

The path has included everything from the tough course loads to writing classes that helped eldest daughter Jaime nail her application essays to adding a few extra activities to the resume. It paid off. Jamie was accepted into CSU and her brother Frank to the University of Wyoming, and both received scholarships in large part due to their head start, says mom.

So while the youngest Cisrese has a vision of life in Austin or Boulder dorms, mom is thinking about the scholarship prospects that blossom with early planning. It remains to be seen what kind of scholarships Danielle may land, but educators seem to agree the prospects improve greatly with early planning—meaning an early start equals cheaper tuition bills and more money left over for rent and a few meals out.

When To Take The Tests
While students are urged to start planning on college-level courses and extracurricular activities as underclassman, few recommend an earlier start on the standardized-testing road. You should take pre-SAT sophomore year and the usual assortment prep courses, but this shouldn’t be the focus for young students.

Yale’s Johnson says a quick start on the other aspects of the application process is more beneficial. “I think it’s important to find interests both in and out of school early, but as far as studying too early for standardized tests, I’m against that,” Johnson says. “Students shouldn’t really start worrying about ACT/SAT tests until their junior year of high school.”

An admissions counselor from the University of Colorado at Boulder says there’s good reason for Johnson’s stance. “I think that the tests are critical junior year because students might not have the basic classroom knowledge to take them before then,” says CU’s Danielle Barbeau.

You’re In, Stop Slacking
But does early admission lead to hundreds of go-getters roaming the halls their senior year with nothing to do except slack off and cause trouble?

Intuition would say so.

But Principal Bud Jenkins at Boulder High School says he doesn’t find slacking after acceptance a problem despite there being an influx of upperclassman with their college choices settled.

“Usually the acceptance is contingent upon a final transcript,” says Jenkins, matter-of-factly. “They want to see that final transcript.”

To ensure their pupils stay focused and avoid that natural senior year slacking pit fall, educators take a proactive approach.

“We talk a lot to seniors…they’ll try to drop their physics class, and we have to say ‘no,’” Decker says. She adds she’s even seen colleges deny students upon seeing a final report card or transcript.

“CU has done it a number of times. If their grades have dropped and they have blown off their senior year, they will be denied admission. It has happened.”

Throwing the carrot of scholarship options in front of students usually helps. Pepper in some of those horror stories of kids getting their acceptance reversed, and you solve Senior-itis, Decker says.

But that’s a long way off for the incoming high school freshmen class. Students such as Danielle have more pressing issues to worry about.

Like spending some more quality time at Water World and enjoying rest of her post-middle school summer bliss.

What Colleges Seek

Ivy League
Yale College
• Those with rigorous coursework
• Top 10 percent in their class
• 1700-1790 on SAT, 30-34 on ACT
• Teacher recommendations
“We also look for the most active students in class, students that are high-achieving and curious,” says Andrew Johnson, of Yale.

High Level Private College
Colorado College
• No solid test score baseline
• Teacher recommendations
• GPA 3.9 or higher
• AP or IB courses
“We are looking at students’ entire files,” says Matthew Bonser, of Colorado College.

Top Tier State School

University of Colorado at Boulder:
• 3.6 GPA in high school
• 1100-1290 on SAT, 23-28 on ACT
• AP courses or IB courses
“(We look at) how they’ve been preparing for college as far as taking classes that are preparing them for the best possible success at college,” says Danielle Barbeau, of University of Colorado.

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