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When to Start College Prep

Real college prep is about discovering your core values and learning how to live them more and more authentically.

Listen in as I explain how. 


“Think of it this way, if you are learning a musical instrument, you are going to practice and prepare very differently, depending on what your objectives are. If you want to master this instrument, you need to prepare very differently than if you just want to play one song at a talent show.”

Most students wait too long to begin preparing for university. Waiting until a sophomore, junior, or even the summer after a junior year.

If you have ambitions to attend top-level school, that is way too late!


  • What is the right age to begin preparing for your university
  • Why starting early removes stress
  • How delaying college prep can have a negative effect on students’ mental health
  • Top 3 reasons why you should begin the process of preparing early
  • One effective thing you can do to boost your success in high-school
  • A real-life story how a great student lost a chance to get into her dream college after leaving it too late

     And so much more.


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Too many people are overwhelmed, stressed out, and frustrated about college admissions prep. I created this podcast to help you build a standout college profile and boost your confidence. Enjoy!

– Steve Gardner, Founder

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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

So I'm just going to go ahead and say this. Most students wait too long to begin preparing for university. In my experience, I see students waiting until sophomore year is really common, and some students waiting until junior year, or even the summer after junior year to begin seriously thinking about university.

And if you have ambitions to attend a top level school, that is way too late. So then what is the right age to begin preparing for university? It's earlier than you think. I would argue that for most people you're looking at, middle school is the best case scenario.

For some students, it's going to be the beginning of middle school. Think of it this way. If you are learning an instrument, any musical instrument, you're going to practice and prepare very differently based on what your objectives are, right? If you want to become a virtuoso or a master of this instrument, you're going to practice very, very differently compared to if you want to develop your brain or you want to be good enough to play in the high school so that you can get into that circle of friends, that peer group, and you're going to prepare even differently.

If you just want to prepare for some talent show at school or join some club, or you just want to impress someone and you just need to learn one song, all of those objectives around music are going to dictate how you should prepare your practice sessions every day. So I have a friend. For example, Tricia Craig.

She's an expert at helping high school students use music to get into their dream schools. And when I asked her this question, I loved her answer, and I hope you can appreciate this. She said, well, when does music preparation begin? Ideally, it begins in the womb.

And this was her answer to my question about when we should prepare for university. But if you think about it, she has a very good point. If music is what you are using to show how you serve your community and how you stand out and how you are committed to excellence and how you are committed to diversity and everything else.

If music is your tool to get there, then some of the choices you have to make around music must be made well before you start thinking about university because those skills take years to develop. Well, guess what? A lot of things are like that. And so I want to share with you my top three reasons why I think middle school is the best time to prepare.

And I will argue that if a parent says, look, my child is beginning to think about their future, and they're only in fourth or fifth grade. Great. Use that momentum, use that opportunity to discuss with your child university and university preparation, but do it in a healthy way, in the way that I'm describing, in these three huge advantages.

So the first thing you need to think about is that by the time you get to high school, especially grades eleven and twelve, your life will be absolutely full of school activities. And we're talking about very intensive curriculum, we're talking about extracurricular activities, oftentimes varsity sports or other sports leagues and music and clubs. And of course, if you follow my work, you have an impact project that you're engaged in.

And so boy, by the time you're in high school, you have very little time to research universities. But guess what? All of that important work that we do in the Ivy League Challenge to help you identify your core values, all of that great work that we do should be turned on its head when you research your universities. Because colleges and universities throughout the United States have very different core values.

They have different cultures, they have different characteristics that make them dramatically different experiences. And so international ranking is one of many, many things that a student should consider when they think about the perfect fit for them. Well, how on earth are you going to do that kind of research in the middle of grade eleven, grade ten, when your schedule is so full of activities that you can't handle that what's going to happen is you're going to try to fast track it well.

You're going to try to get information as quickly as possible instead of doing research and kind of feeling it out for yourself. And that often means that you hire counselors or hire agencies to give you a quick spreadsheet of all the choices. And those are all great strategies.

All right, don't get me wrong. But compared to the alternative when you could be spending your time with this mindset in place, looking for unique strengths and weaknesses of the universities that will align with your values. So you can research schools, factoring in location size majors that are of interest to you.

You can use online tools that are completely free like college search and others to help you kind of just explore these. And then you go to the websites and you can even get on reddit threads and see what it's like on these campuses. It also gives you more opportunity to kind of plan out how you would do your college campus visits when the time comes.

But the point is, when you're young enough and you have enough time, you can have fun researching colleges. There's no pressure. But if you wait until the final years of high school, too often that fun opportunity, that really enjoyable process turns into panic as students scramble to find the best options and they don't really know what they're looking for because they haven't put in the time to do that exploration on their own when they did have time.

And that's just the first reason. An even bigger reason to begin preparing for university sooner rather than later is because you have time to focus on your personal development. Middle school is the time to start developing emotional intelligence.

This is the time where you should be developing that self awareness and self efficacy. It's also the time to develop your time management skills and your study habits. While your workload is pretty light, comparably much lighter than it will be once you get into the upper grades of high school.

Because as you get older, your schedule becomes more and more demanding. You will have less and less time to focus on these foundational skills. Because trust me, if you are in middle school and you're not sure what's coming, you will get to the point where you're spinning your wheels just trying to meet deadlines.

There are times when you feel totally overwhelmed. And that's a great experience too, right? It's good to learn that you can handle the overwhelm, that you can deal with stressful situations, you can do hard things. So don't be afraid of what is to come.

When you get to high school, you're going to love it. It's much better than middle school. But one of the things that you can do to really boost everything about high school and your success in high school is to more effectively use your middle school years.

Use those days to develop that self awareness, the emotional intelligence, self efficacy, and then of course, your time management skills, your study skills, reading, developing your vocabulary, and all the critical, critical things that that can do for you. Developing yourself in other ways like music or athletics or language development or drama, or any myriad of other things. And then I think you know what's coming.

If you've been listening to my podcast, you know that the earlier you begin your this is the third advantage. The earlier you begin your Impact Project, the better. If you want to create a meaningful impact that will garner the kind of attention that leads to elite university admissions and leads to outrageous scholarship opportunities, you need to get started sooner rather than later.

Impact Projects usually take multiple years to gain traction. You need time to fail. You need time to think through your core values.

How do you integrate those core values into your Impact Project? What core value is being violated in the world around you that breaks your heart or makes you angry? And to think through how you're going to make a meaningful impact in that area of the world. How you're going to do that in your community first, in your sphere of influence, how you're going to just put that into motion and get that going. But then how you're going to react when you face failure and you face struggles, because you will.

And based on the emotional intelligence and the resilience and the grit and how much these core values mean to you. How are you going to get back up and try again and be self reflective and find pivots that allow you to be more productive and more effective? Well, you have to do that on its due course. You have to give yourself the runway to take all of the steps so that this impact project is real, it's authentic, and you grow the most from it.

Is it possible to do all three of these things in the summer after junior year, before you apply for university in fall of senior year? Yeah, it's possible. In fact, we've done it time and time again with those juniors, but every single one of them has said, I wish I would have known about the Ivy League Challenge earlier. I wish I would have started earlier.

And sometimes, to be honest, there are areas where we just cannot compensate. I remember just a wonderful, wonderful student who came to us just a little bit too late. It was too late to do the things that she wanted to do, to get into the university that she wanted to get into.

And I remember this phrase that she said when she said, why didn't anyone tell me I needed to take AP classes in order to show my academic rigor? I would have taken them. I didn't know. At some point, you have to realize that in order to get into these top schools, it's just like developing your music skills, your musicality, to the point that you can participate in a professional orchestra or participate in your college orchestra or whatever else.

If you're going to get to that level, you need to prepare differently for a long time. And if you want to be considering these top tier schools, if you want them to be an option that's open to you, it's really important to begin developing yourself in these healthy, healthy ways as early as the child begins showing maturity. So if you are younger than you think is normal to begin thinking about college or university, but you are thinking about it, it's time to begin.

And I want to encourage you to do it in the most healthy ways. You're not adding stress to your life. There are a number of really big mistakes and there's a lot of bad advice out there around college preparation, and you definitely do not want to take that bad advice when you begin early.

You don't want to add unnecessary stress to your life. You don't want to buy into the bad advice. The huge myth that universities are looking for a certain type of student so that you can go become that kind of student and lose your identity in the process, lose your zest for life and the engagement in the activities you do.

That is the opposite of what you want to do. And frankly, that's not just bad advice when you're younger. That's not just bad advice in middle school or before.

That is bad advice junior year or senior year, right before you apply that's terrible advice. It's not going to get you admitted to these top schools, and it's going to disengage you from the activities that really bring you life and bring you joy and allow you to develop yourself in the ways that would get you admitted to these top tier universities and that would earn you those amazing scholarships. So there you have it.

Yes, most people wait too long to prepare for university. Don't put this off just because the college admissions process feels daunting. And don't get lost or frustrated because of all of the bad advice that is out there.

Instead, approach this in the most healthy, productive way possible. Identify who you really are. Take the time to research not only your core values, but all of the universities that you think you might be interested in.

Research their core values and the things that make them special. Figure out which universities are going to love you back. That's going to be really important when you do go to university.

And finally, that impact project. It's better to begin earlier because you want to develop those skills as early as you're ready. So when you begin showing that level of maturity that you're starting to think about the future and care about the future, that's the time to begin preparing intelligently. But that's the time to begin preparing for university.

Music for this episode came from We Are Here by Declare P.

I'm Steve Gardner. If you like what you heard, please subscribe and share with a friend. Thanks for listening.