College Prep Tips from the Pros

Top tips from Twin Cities education experts on how students can make the most of their high school experience.

Photo by Katherine Harris

If it’s been decades since you took the ACT or the SAT, you may be daunted by the complexity of today’s college selection process. We asked local education experts for advice on preparing for college. Here are eight tips to help your kids make the most of their high school experience to create their own competitive advantage.

Before you start ninth grade, map out a four-year plan to make the most of what your high school offers. Take a rigorous high school curriculum including four years of math, English, science, and social studies, and three to four years of a single foreign language. Take Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate classes if your high school offers them. Consider taking extra classes and even college classes in subjects you are especially passionate about.

0912-Sue_200.jpg“I love helping busy teenagers and their families find their way through the college planning journey to what is hopefully the best destination for them. Along the way, I get to see the students mature, learn to make decisions, adhere to deadlines, build on their strengths, and use their potential to become independent young adults, ready to go off to college.”
Sue Luse, Certified Independent Educational Consultant, Member IECA, Suzanne Luse and Associates
“All students in the ninth to 12th grades have a weekly advising class with me where we cover college- and career-related topics.”
Kerrie Troseth, college & career counselor, The International School of Minnesota

Grades are always important, but college admissions staff prefer to see slightly lower grades in rigorous programs than all As in less challenging coursework. Admissions staff also like to see an upward trend in grades from ninth grade through 12th grade.

0912-Brandi_200.jpg“When evaluating an applicant, we definitely consider the whole picture of a student. Academics are important, but we also look at their high school curriculum—whether they’ve taken AP classes, honors classes, and college prep classes. We also look at their involvement in athletics, performing arts, and other extracurricular activities, and any leadership positions.”
Brandi DeFries, Director of Admissions, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota
0912-Jon_100-(1).jpg“At Breck, students and families are assigned a college counselor in the fall of 10th grade, which allows the counselor to get to know each student in a deeper and more real way and help them grow.” Jonathan Nicholson, director of college counseling, Breck School
0912-Three_180.jpgCollege admissions staff look for students who will get involved in high school activities and be leaders. Prepare by choosing high school activities that you can commit to during all four years, so that by the time you reach senior year, you’re able to take on a leadership role. Carefully balance your time with academics, and do what you love!

0912-Richard_200.jpg“Our students are encouraged to explore a wide variety of activities during their freshman year and then narrow those choices over the years to those activities that really make them passionate and what they excel in.”
Richard Harris, college and guidance counselor, Minnehaha Academy
“It’s very, very important that students are showing an interest and speaking up in class.”
Richard Harris

College admissions staff are interested in your academic achievement, class participation, intellectual promise, integrity, and maturity. You’ll need letters of recommendation to send to your colleges, so be sure to shine in your classes so your teachers get to know you. Spend time with guidance counselors, as they can help you do the best you can during high school and assist with the college admissions process.

0912-Frank_200.jpg“The more that teachers and counselors know a student, the more they can help them get into the college of their choice. Many schools require letters of recommendation, and their staff can tell when a teacher or counselor is really speaking to a student’s abilities.”
Frank D. Sachs, director of college counseling, The Blake School


Look for a nonprofit organization that you care about and can commit time to during high school. It doesn’t need to be a ton of time, because grades and high school activities are more important. Consider museums, hospitals, food shelves, homeless shelters, nursing homes, or animal shelters, or visit for more ideas.

0912-Kerrie_200-(1).jpg“We strongly stress character education and community service. In ninth grade, the students get to develop their own service project and learn how to implement it.”
Kerrie Troseth, The International School of Minnesota