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College planning for parents

Steps to help your kids prepare for college

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Preparing for college at any age

Helping your child prepare for college seems daunting. After all, you want them to have their pick of schools and receive a boatload of financial aid offers. The good news is that you’ve got time to prepare before the acceptance letters and scholarships roll in.

Whether you’re starting this research while your child is still in diapers or as they begin their senior year of high school, there’s plenty you can do to make sure they’re ready to apply to college and succeed once they’re there.

No matter your child’s age, do these two things right away:

  1. Open a 529 plan: These are saving plans or prepaid tuition plans that earn money over time. The earnings aren’t subject to federal taxes as long as you use them to pay for specific educational expenses. Every state and many institutions offer 529 plans. Read more about 529 plans on the IRS website.
  2. Focus on learning: Your child will have a better chance of being admitted to the college of their choice, getting scholarships to pay for their education and succeeding once they’ve started college if they master the material covered in middle and high school. Learning and good grades should come before everything else. According to the NCAA, only two percent of high school graduates get an athletic scholarship, and an even smaller number get a full ride, so don’t let your student sacrifice their grades in hopes of earning an athletic scholarship.​
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Planning for college during 7th and 8th grade

Prepare for college expenses

  • Research programs with scholarships: Looking for scholarships when your student is still in middle school might seem premature, but there are some scholarships they can only earn during these years. For example, the Washington D.C. program College Bound offers scholarships to local 8th-grade kids who sign up for mentoring and then complete one year of mentoring during high school. Talk to your child’s teachers about similar programs in your school district, and look for scholarships from around your community as well.

Prepare for college admissions

  • Encourage extracurriculars: College admissions officers love students who participate in extracurricular activities. Encourage your kid to try a lot of different kinds of activities when they’re in middle school. Then, when they get to high school they'll already know which activities they’re willing to commit to.
  • Consider high schools: If you have a choice of high schools, think about which ones will give your child the best opportunity to shine. There’s less competition at smaller schools than at large ones, so getting leadership positions in clubs or on athletic teams might be easier, which can impress college admissions officers. However, smaller schools may not have the resources to offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, something else admissions officers like to see on transcripts. Think about where your kid excels, and, when possible, choose a high school that will give them opportunities in those areas.

Prepare for college success

  • Take advantage of college-organized enrichment programs: Many colleges offer enrichment programs for middle schoolers, like summer camps from the University of Texas at Austin. The earlier your kids decide they want to go to college, the better. A summer camp on a college campus can introduce them to the exciting things college offers.
  • Make attendance a priority: A report from the College and Career Readiness and Success Center (CCRC Center) shows that middle school students who miss 20 percent or less of their school days are less likely to fail classes and more likely to stay in school. Stress the importance of attendance to your kids, and don’t let them skip school without a valid reason.
  • Develop grit: The same CCRC report shows that middle school students with grit (often defined as commitment, focus and follow-through) are more likely to achieve their academic goals.
student taking a standardized test

Planning for college during 9th and 10th grade

Prepare for college expenses

  • Encourage your kid to get a part-time or summer job: Summer or part-time jobs help kids gain a sense of independence and learn the value of a dollar. They can put a portion of each paycheck in a 529 plan or other savings account to help cover college expenses.

Prepare for college admissions

  • Select correct classes: Most colleges require students to have taken specific core classes in high school. Your child can talk to their guidance counselor to learn the most common requirements for schools in your state, or contact the colleges they’re interested in for that school’s list.
  • Encourage extracurriculars: Extracurricular involvement can make the difference between an acceptance letter and a rejection one. If it won’t hurt their grades, encourage your kid to join a club or sports team.
  • Encourage volunteering: College admission counselors love volunteer work, and it can count as an extracurricular activity. Find a cause your child cares about and look for organizations that welcome younger volunteers.
  • Take standardized tests: Standardized tests require practice, so taking them multiple times helps your child end up with a higher score by the time they apply to college. Most students take the PSAT or PreACT as sophomores to prepare for the SATs and ACTs during their junior year.

Prepare for college success

  • Use summer reading lists: Kids forget a lot of the things they’ve learned over the summer. To help your child avoid summer brain drain and keep them learning all year long, encourage them to read during the summer. Look through these summer reading lists for inspiration.
  • Get tutoring if necessary: If your child is struggling in any of their core classes, (math, science or English) consider enrolling them in tutoring. Once a kid falls behind, it’s much harder for them to catch up. Find a tutoring company online or near your home that can help your student succeed.
student filling out college scholarship application

Planning for college during 11th and 12th grade

Prepare for college expenses

  • Research scholarships: Your child may qualify for dozens of outside scholarships. Start with organizations they are involved in, like scouting, sports clubs or their church. You can also find a lot of scholarship applications online.   
  • File for FAFSA: The federal government provides grants and loans to college students within certain income brackets. To access this money, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms online using your tax information. This application opens on October 1 of your child’s senior year of high school; your student may get extra aid by filing close to this date. Visit the Federal Student Aid website for more information.

Prepare for college admissions

  • Take or retake standardized tests: Your child should take or retake the ACT and SAT during their junior year. If necessary, they can then retake the appropriate exam during the fall of their senior year. Scores usually go up when a kid retakes these tests.
  • Encourage extracurriculars or volunteering: If your child hasn’t participated in any extracurriculars, it’s not too late for them to get involved. It may be easier for them to start volunteering than to join a club or sports team through their high school if they’ve waited until their junior or senior year to start.
  • Gather application materials: Students will need to start preparing applications during the first month or so of their senior year. Encourage your child to stay on top of the application process so they don’t miss any deadlines; keep a calendar or a spreadsheet with all this information in it.

Prepare for college success

  • Consider AP classes or dual enrollment: Students can do coursework in high school that will earn them college credit. Advanced Placement (AP) classes provide a core high school class that is rigorous enough to count as class credit at most colleges. Students must pass the course and final exam with a certain score to be exempt from college courses in that subject. Many community colleges and high schools work together to offer dual enrollment. Students take a class at the community college that gives them both high school and college credit.
  • Explore interests through electives: Switching majors can delay graduation. Help your child explore their interests before they go to college by letting them take a variety of classes for their electives. If their school doesn’t offer many electives, enroll them in academic enrichment programs through local colleges, like these at the University of Chicago.
  • Look for colleges with bridge programs: When your child is considering colleges and touring schools, ask if the school has any sort of bridge programs. These programs, sometimes designed for students who are the first in their families to go to college, help students transition from high school to college. Ask admissions counselors and tour guides about bridge programs or other programs designed to help college freshmen succeed.

Bottom line

Don’t feel overwhelmed by college planning and preparation. Each August, thousands of bright, shiny freshman head off to college. Some of them are from families that have been preparing for it since they were young, while others barely did any prep work at all. If you focus on following a college savings plan and encouraging your child to do well in school, they’ll be ready when their first year of college arrives.

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