The sweat dripping off my forehead provides an inconvenient slip and slide effect as I keep pushing my sunglasses up off of my nose. Without these lenses I will surely stray off course, blinded by the intensity of the light ahead. My legs are burning as I transition from bike to run, visualizing the joy of eventually crossing the finish line.

Before my two children were born, I was a competitive triathlete, focusing on the half ironman distance. The preparation, training, coordination and determination required to complete the 70.3 miles of swimming, biking and running was sometimes overwhelming. It meant setting ambitious goals, enlisting coaches and other mentors, and then intentionally working towards the finish line.

This race distance seems a fitting metaphor for the college process, not because of the pain and exhaustion it has the potential to inflict on the body but rather because the planning, goal setting, months of preparation and potential for exhilaration that exists in this challenge. Students entering their senior year need the stamina and preparation to endure the race and to finish feeling good about their effort and ideally achieving the goals they established at the onset. While some seniors feel like they can see the finish line, others prefer to linger towards the back of the pack or pace themselves as they see fit.

I want to look beyond senior year and the immediacy of submitting college applications at the larger endurance event of the college process. When attempting the 70.3 miles, wise veterans advise to “drink early and often.” If athletes find themselves thirsty, it is already too late, as their bodies are on the way towards dehydration. The same advice applies when considering the college process, though the line is in some ways more obscure. If students and families wait until senior year to begin thinking and planning for the college search, then it will feel more like a sprint and they are likely to be overwhelmed with details and the last minute work to be done. At the same time, if families start out of the gate too fast they run the risk of ramping up the pace prematurely and the pressure can cause the student to self-destruct before the race is through.

Running the smart race requires a good mix of patience, restraint and planning in order to finish at the desired pace feeling confident, strong and able to celebrate the successes of a well thought-out approach. So, how does this translate to preparation for the college process? Are the ninth or tenth grade years too early to start out of the gate? At USPA, we believe that this is a fine time to begin to consider the intricacies of the college process and to plan accordingly. Students at this level, however, need to remember that they have plenty of time before the college process is at hand and they need to live in the moment, savoring their high school experience. Students and families are well advised to create a four-year testing plan so that they do not arrive at senior year realizing they are already off pace, yet they should not fixate on scores, test preparation and the like. Sophomores and juniors will take the PSAT in the fall of each year and most juniors will sit for the SAT and ACT in the winter/spring of their junior year; however, depending on their coursework, some students might begin taking the SAT II subject tests as early as June of their freshman year.

Proactive class planning is also important in ensuring that by junior and senior year, students have positioned themselves in an appropriate place with a course program that speaks to their strengths and provides both challenge and balance. While students are ill advised to go out too easy and find themselves well behind their ideal pace, it is equally detrimental to push too hard and hit the wall in their junior year because they did not find the right balance given their ability. The same goes for extracurricular involvement. Some forethought and careful planning is recommended so that students have ample time to explore passions and discover activities and gifts that might be assets in the college application process. Just as it is important to have the right athletic gear, bike, shoes, etc., students should make sure that they have set themselves up with the proper resources to rely on throughout their search.

Finally, it is never too early to start visiting colleges on family vacations and other trips/competitions around the region or country. If the opportunity presents itself, it is always helpful for students to see colleges and universities of all shapes, sizes, locations, etc. This will give them a leg up when the race has begun in earnest and they are trying to determine the best fit in an institution. It also goes without saying that early planning with finances is always a good idea.

The term “negative splits” is often used in racing to describe the strategy of beginning the event slowly and patiently to enable the athlete to finish the second half of the race on pace and feeling strong. This is exactly the tactic we would suggest when it comes to college planning. If you would like to hear more and get your questions answered, please join us for a webinar in October for an overview and discussion of the four-year approach to the college process. We are here to coach you through the transitions and help you run the race that you want to run. In the meantime, enjoy the summer months and consider the following saying that the runner/author, John Bingham, likes to quote, “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

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