It is never too early and it is never too late to start thinking about college. Nevertheless, early is always better.
The Early Years
Begin college preparation in kindergarten, young students are receptive to thinking about college. Spend the early years exploring study methods, reading and experiencing life, find opportunities that increase curiosity and open the mind to creative and organized thought processes. Foster goal oriented thinking and time management skills in the child, so in the future they will have the tools to keep themselves on task.
Young students are especially successful at learning languages and music, even a child as young as four or five can start taking piano or keyboard lessons. If you have the means to expose them to a second language through travel or tutoring, give it a try, children can pick up second languages much faster than adults.
Of course, it is never too early to open a college savings account.
By junior high, students should have a solid understanding of mathematics and be able to compose logical, grammatically correct essays.
Establish a college savings fund or other fund designed specifically for higher education if you haven't already, this is a good time to start. See your local bank or credit union to find an account that offers the best rate. Parents should discuss investments and deposits to the college fund with the child, it is important that they understand the realities of how much college and living outside the home costs.
Children at this age are capable of visualizing their own future independent of parents, and strive for a decision-making role in their own lives. Recognize and respect uniqueness, support interests and allow them to evaluate opportunities. Of course, teenagers might think they know everything, so before they make a choice, ask them carefully thought out questions to guide them to a logical and informed decision.
In high school, curriculum, grade point average and extracurricular activities become important factors in regards to college entrance requirements and scholarship opportunities.
Generally, most colleges desire that the student successfully complete the following basic subjects in high school:
- 4 years of English
- 3 years of Math, including Algebra and Geometry
- 3 years of history and social sciences
- 2 years of lab sciences
- 2 years of a foreign language
College Guidance Counselor: Students should begin meeting with a guidance counselor at the beginning of 9th grade to ensure that all of the proper course work is taken, maintain a relationship throughout high school. Often the counselor can provide information on college entrance exams and scholarship information.
A Note on Mathematics: Since many students struggle to retain their math skills, it is unwise to skip math in the senior year. Forgetting valuable information before taking placement exams, Advanced Placement Tests, the SAT or ACT could prevent the student from receiving a high score or require them to take a remedial math class in college.
Quite often parents have forgotten their advanced math course work and do not have the skills to help with homework, so investing in a tutor could prove beneficial. Usually a knowledgeable and affordable tutor can be found at a local university or junior college.
One way to keep math skills sharply honed, instead of four years of math, is by taking a year of trigonometry, algebra or calculus based physics. Many bachelor degree programs only require statistics or intermediate college algebra, so even if the student does not make it through calculus in high school, for most programs they will be adequately prepared with intermediate algebra, geometry and trigonometry.
The Essay: Learning to write essays well will help students to succeed in college and most scholarship applications will require an essay of some sort. Even math or microbiology majors write essays, so learning to write a good essay is paramount.
Honor Classes: Colleges not only look at grades, but also the coursework, quite often a B grade in an advanced placement class or an honors class will carry more weight than an A grade in a regular class. So even if the curriculum is more challenging, enroll in honor level class or advanced placement classes whenever possible.
Extracurricular: Colleges look for well-rounded students who contribute to their community. Extracurricular activities whether in sports, student government, art or volunteer work enriches school and life experiences, provides the opportunity to learn teamwork and connects students to the community in which they live.
Sometimes competition to get on high school sports teams excludes students from participating, if this is the case, look for other activities such as karate, dance or intramural teams. Often, students as young as 16 years of age can enroll in local university/junior college courses such as rock-climbing, kayaking or racquetball.
Student government provides leadership skills, colleges look for students that have held a student officer position, participated as a class representative or in campus clubs.
Some students enjoy participating in local theatre productions or taking art classes.
Volunteer opportunities are unlimited, look around in the community and find something of interest. Better yet, if there is an unmet need in the community, create the solution.
Employment: Consider summer employment to assist with college expenses and to learn valuable work skills and responsibility. Colleges especially favor young entrepreneurs.
Mentoring/ Job Shadowing: It is never too early to research real-life employment situations. If a student thinks they want to be an accountant, find a willing accountant in the community that can answer questions about the day-to-day realities of their job and the training required to perform their duties. Quiet often too much time is spent thinking about a dream job without researching the realities. Half way through college or after graduation is too late to start investigating career choices. So before valuable time and money is wasted, evaluate career choices thoroughly.
Letters of Recommendation: In the junior year, after establishing good relationships with teachers and leaders in the community, ask for letters of recommendations to accompany college and employment applications.
College Entrance Exams
Most colleges and universities require either SAT or ACT scores and the PSAT qualifies students for the National Merit Scholarship. Contact the selected universities and inquire about which exam they require. However, do not limit the opportunity of attendance at a different university, take both exams, so all options are available. Do not let financial hardship prevent the student from taking these tests, talk to the guidance counselor about a fee waiver. All of the exams can make accommodations for students with documented disabilities.
Scores: Every school has different score and GPA requirements. But usually it is a combination of the two, for example an exceptionally high exam score can give you a little room on your GPA, and vice versa.
PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test: Evaluates skills in critical reading, math problem solving and writing.
- Registration for this test is not available online, contact the high school counselor for registration information.
- Study through the first two years of high school and take this exam in the 10th grade.
SAT: Tests critical reading, math problem solving and writing skills.
- Get a SAT Registration Booklet from the guidance counselor at the high school to register by mail, or go the College Board website to register online.
- Study for this test through the 9th and 10th grade year.
- Take SAT early in the junior year, so if the score is lower than desired there is plenty of time to retake.
ACT: Comprises multiple-choice sections that cover English, mathematics, reading and science. The test also offers a written test that evaluates a short essay.
- Register by contacting high school guidance counselor or go the ACT website.
- Study for this exam through the 9th and 10th grade.
- Take this exam in the 11th grade, so there is time for a retake if necessary.
How to prepare for the college entrance exams:
- Read good books, magazines and timely news information
- Take a preparation course
- Purchase and use preparation software
- Take practice tests
- Increase your vocabulary, including roots, prefixes and derivations
- Overcome test anxiety
- Take challenging classes during high school years
- Study and write essays
Advanced Placement Tests: These tests can earn credit in college level courses and eligibility for an AP Scholar Award. Tests are single subject exams, offered in 35 different subjects, ranging from art history to physics to world history. These tests can be taken any year, but contact the AP coordinator, or call AP Services at 888-225-5427 to find the local AP coordinator and testing schedule.
Financial Aid and Scholarships: Federal Pell grants are available for students who have financial need; qualification is based on parents' income. To apply for the Pell grant call 1-800-4FED-AID or apply online at www.fasfa.com. Talk to the universities' financial aid office to inquire about other funds, scholarships, grants and student loans. Tuition can be costly, but do not forget living expenses, which in some cases require more money than tuition and books.
College Application: During the summer before the senior year, finish the final research on college selection and check on their website to find out the freshmen application date. Be sure to find out what other items they require such as, test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation or other documents such as proof of disability or military status.
Many kids will leave their parent's home to attend college. Learning to balance life, schoolwork and employment is a difficult task for many students. So preparing for these issues before leaving home can greatly increase the chances for a smooth transition between high school and living at home to college and living on their own.
Life Skills: Knowing how to write an essay or memorization of the quadratic formula will not help with day-to-day living, helpful skills to learn before leaving home include:
- Basic cooking
- Looking for and applying for a job, resume preparation
- Looking for and applying for an apartment, roommates
- Budget and bill paying, filing taxes
- Bargain shopping
- Laundry and house cleaning
- "Street Smarts" and self-defense
- Auto insurance, basic car maintenance
- Using public transportation
- Civic responsibility, local laws, voting and jury duty
- Health care, patient rights, insurance and public health
- Relationship and personal boundaries
Proper preparation can help guarantee success and a smooth transition to independence. Preparing for college and preparing for adult life should not be left to chance or with hopes that knowledge will come naturally during the high school years. Most of all, it is important to not limit opportunity and choice by bad preparation.
College Board (n.d.).19 [September 2005]. < http://www.collegeboard.com/splash>
Rigoglioso, Marguerite. Stanford Graduate School of Business: Bad Preparation Puts Community College Students at Risk. . 16 September 2005.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, Preparing Your Child for College, [Washington, D.C., 2000]16 September 2005. < http://www.ed.gov/pubs/Prepare/pt5.html>