Leveraging High School

 Foundation for College Begins Before Freshman Year

By Naazish YarKhan

Mar/Apr 2024

The road to college starts with what high school students accomplish from their freshman year onward, especially  if they are considering elite universities and competitive programs. That said, there is room for some fails, fears, and false starts. 

Florida resident Mohammad Haq, 18, recalls moving from Dubai to the U.S. in the middle of high school, during Covid’s peak surge: confronting isolation, loneliness and lingering homesickness, and wanting to do something productive. Oldest of three siblings who looked up to him, he had to exemplify patience.

Like many highschoolers, he learned only too well that being human means facing curveballs and that what matters is getting back into the groove. 

So, when should students begin thinking of leveraging their high school years? Let’s start at the very beginning — the summer just before freshman year. 


A little homework and becoming a more educated parent-student duo that solicits advice from other parents at your potential school can go a long way to lull the anxiety. Even in the eighth grade, an appointment with a high school counselor can help with becoming more aware of what lies ahead. Does your child qualify for honors classes, what AP courses are offered and available to freshmen and are AP classes advisable in the first year?

Some high schools offer freshmen summer credit courses. While all work and no play can produce overworked kids, some freshmen take less demanding summer courses so they can take a more rigorous elective during the school year. However, ensure that you earn credits and that the class counts toward graduation requirements. Bridge classes, defined as refreshers to combat the inevitable summer slide, often don’t qualify for high school credits.

Choosing Coursework 

Think of high school as a college preparatory period and consult early with your counselors. Talk to them about your planned career path, even if your goals are rather vague. This can help them guide you toward the required courses. 

Illinois, for instance, considers that three years of high school math meets graduation requirements. However, if you want to be an engineer, colleges and universities often require four years of math. In some states, two years of a second language are enough; however, many competitive universities require four years. California’s colleges require an extra arts credit compared to Illinois. 

Share what kinds of colleges you’d ideally like to attend — community colleges, state schools, top-tier schools or an Ivy League one. If you want to go to a selective school or enter a competitive program, not taking your school’s Honors or AP classes can count against you because colleges consider the rigor of your coursework relative to your peers’ and your school’s offerings when evaluating your application. In other words, AP and Honors classes can enhance your chances of getting in. 

So ask your counselor what prerequisites you may need for certain AP classes. In fact, Haq credits his seven AP courses with boosting his college application and earning him college credits at University of Central Florida’s Burnett Honors College. 

Be aware that admissions committees want to see you exert yourself academically. Parents will also hear about a “weighted GPA,” which is like receiving extra credit for taking on the academic heavyweights like AP and Honors. Remain balanced so you don’t compromise your GPA or mental health.  

Earning College Credit 

Besides showing that you’re capable of academic rigor, taking APs can have financial benefits. Accepted AP credits reduce your coursework and, consequently, save on college tuition. Graduating sooner could also translate into starting a master’s degree, jumpstarting your career or embarking on your next adventure sooner. 

However, not all universities accept AP credits because the curriculum typically isn’t as robust as a university class. If the course is a building block to your major, reconsider skipping the class and “cashing in” the credits at university. You want to have a strong foundation.

College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is another route to college credits. They are like AP exams, but students must prep on their own. 

Dual enrollment allows high school students to enroll in college classes during the academic year, including at community college, earning credit toward their high school diplomas and future college degrees. Over 70% of U.S. high schools offer this option, which saves students time and earns college credit without paying college or university prices. 

Extracurriculars Matter

College admissions officers often look favorably at extracurriculars and community service. Establishing a track record is important — depth is preferable to breadth — and that means starting early. 

As a newbie in town, Haq’s first days of high school involved weaving through seas of people, navigating uncharted territory. Having moved to the US in the middle of highschool, “Most of the kids had friends, so I had to reach out and break the ice to get to know them,” he says. He threw himself into his robotics, Model UN, and chess teams. “I also started volunteering at my mosque, filling a spiritual void,” says Haq. “At the  American Muslim Community Center (AMCC)  Sunday School, I helped the teachers with attendance, setting up lunch tables, and helping out in the classrooms. By doing so I was able to connect with many of the younger kids, who looked up to (us) volunteers as role models,” he shares. “ I had just moved to Florida and (up until then) didn’t have a masjid or community that I could associate with to serve Allah and society. This opportunity helped fulfill my desire to serve the Muslim community.” As it turned out, serving his community also snagged this freshman a scholarship. 

Atlanta resident Afsheen Fatima, however, notes that it’s never too late to start. 

For her, high school was a private school that meant uncomfortable uniforms, a new curriculum and extreme academic rigor. 

“This rigor, however, was not my biggest challenge — it was the academically competitive students around me. At my middle school, I was one of the ‘smart kids’ — in advanced classes and winning awards for best academic performance at my graduation. Back then, students reached out to me for academic guidance, and I always helped them. At my new school, everyone was academically gifted in some way. I found myself asking myself why even bother competing when I cannot beat a genius,” she says. 

It wasn’t until the middle of her sophomore year that closer classmates confided their fears to her. “They, too, felt pressured to excel,” she remarks. She then realized that she could wallow in her fears or break out of them. Research became her get-out-of-the-doldrums card. 

“Make sure that you have a genuine interest in what you are doing,” she advises. She started working on a research paper about Alzheimer’s disease in her sophomore year that was published in the International Young Researchers Conference Journal. 

“I would recommend [that] high schoolers actively look for opportunities for the field they are interested in. Looking up on the internet or asking people around you for internships, research and other opportunities can often lead to activities that help bolster one’s application,” she notes. Hers came via a teacher’s recommendation. 

When younger, “often, the books I wanted were unavailable [at my local library], but my fervor to continue a series motivated me to read the books out of order,” she reveals. “Little did I know that through this unorthodox reading style, I was learning many valuable skills. Reading books out of order honed my deductive skills,” Fatima says. “The habit of analysis, looking at the variables and deducing their connections became second nature, extending beyond the pages of fiction to my research.” 

She chronicled this experience in her college application essay, landing acceptances at the University of Georgia and other schools.

Lumiere Education, a research program that connects students with scholar mentors from top universities, states, “For the class of 2026 at the University of Pennsylvania, roughly one-third of their matriculating class did research in high school. Top universities worldwide care about research … because it not only shows a level of rigor and of independent thought, but also because these universities themselves prize research highly. So, when they see a student succeed in research in high school, it signals that they will likely succeed in the college environment as well.” 

While research caught Fatima’s attention, running a small business appealed to Nusrath Rahman [not her real name]. Inspired by her aunt who has a balloon decorating events business in the U.K., this computer science and data analytics major at University of Georgia ran a small business with her father when she was sixteen. 

“My aunt taught me how to make balloon backdrops and set up for events,” Rahman recalls. “By helping her with her business, my dad and I started our own balloon business called Dress the Event. With this, I was able to combine my artistic side with my organization, communication, management, marketing and photography skills. I felt my creativity flourish as I spoke to clients about their vision, then brainstormed with my dad how to bring it to life.” 

In her college essay, Rahman wrote about how she managed social media marketing and channeled her photography skills in order to run her business.

Family Responsibilities Count

If you have family responsibilities, work part-time, contribute to the household income, watch your siblings or look after an ailing grandparent, let your high school know. Mention such activities in application essays, because they demonstrate responsibility, resilience and time management skills, all of which influence the admission committee’s perception of your overall dedication to your education.

Yes, the road to college begins earlier than most of us think. But remember that an early conversation whittles down some of the stress associated with playing catch up. 

Naazish YarKhan, founder of writersstudio.us, is a college essay coach with a master’s degree in communications from Northwestern University.

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