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College prep: One mom's timeline for high school

GreatSchools asked a San Francisco mom whose sons were accepted at competitive four-year colleges to share her year-by-year timeline for high school. Even if your situation is different, her insights can help you help your child.

Boots Whitmer
Boots Whitmer

By Boots Whitmer

Summer after eighth grade

(Yeah, I know you are exhausted just getting your child into high school, but buck up!)

Visit colleges.

Make this the cross-country car trip year. Sample different types of schools: big, small, public, private, East, West, Midwest, South, suburban, rural, urban. Your child needs to "see" himself in the place. As my son said, "Where is my new home?"

Allowing your child to glimpse his future in such a concrete way will motivate him to approach his high school studies in a more focused manner. Unfortunately you will probably not see the college in session during the summer, but the tours are useful anyway.

Try especially to look at colleges in a part of the country far from home. It's broadening for the child and can be financially beneficial. Colleges seek geographical diversity, and some are willing to pay your child to attend.

This is a good time to remind your child that colleges require him to self-report any misdemeanors or similar (or worse!) marks on character and will take them into account.

Ninth grade

You and your child may be told that this year "will not count" toward college admission. This is nonsense. Some college Boots Whitmer requirements are tackled in ninth grade.

Consider taking the SAT IIs in biology if your child takes biology that year.

It will be fresh in her mind.

If your child saw one or two colleges she is interested in, try to schedule a trip to these institutions during times when students are actually on campus.

Ask teachers for recommendations.

As your child goes through high school, because asking years later is problematical.

Do not end ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade or 12th grade without learning the final grade from each teacher.

Before school gets out for the summer! Do not accept "no" for an answer! Take it up with the counselors or the principal if a teacher does not cooperate.

Both my son and my daughter were graded down by teachers who had failed to give them credit for work they could prove they had done! By the time the final grade is submitted, the damage is done, and it is difficult to get the grade changed. Final grades at the end of each year do not come in the mail until the middle of the summer — often as a great surprise — and trying to get them corrected the following fall is nearly impossible. In several cases, the teachers in question had left the district! Both of my children had this happen to them. In a couple of cases, we were able to get the grades changed when the work was produced (complete with teacher comments). The teachers in question had wrongly given them zero credit, which wrongly brought down an otherwise high grade.

Do not expect teachers to be sympathetic to your sense of urgency about the importance of getting kids into college. Most of them went to college before colleges became as selective as they are today. They may not understand that yesterday's "safety" colleges are now "reach" colleges.

Although the following incident did not happen to us, I know of one child whose teacher left the San Francisco school district to enter a monastery after incorrectly grading a child down. No grade can be changed without the teacher's assent and since the monastery would not allow the novices to communicate with anyone, the child was out of luck!

10th grade

Your child needs to register with the College Board.

At www.collegeboard.org if he hasn't done so already. That way, you will have reminders of test dates sent by email and you can register for tests online.

For all tests: Register as early as possible.

Because that way you will get to take the test at your local neighborhood school rather than commuting hours away to a place that can take your child when your local school fills up.

Take the PSAT in the fall.

It's good practice. It won't count toward National Merit Scholarship rank, because only PSATs taken in 11th grade count.

Consider scheduling a trip.

To see the college(s) of your child's choice while that institution is in session, if he has not done so. Be sure to schedule a visit with the financial aid office, as well as a campus tour.

If your child is struggling in a subject or neglecting studies, monitor the situation carefully.

Perhaps transfer schools or find tutors to help your child survive tough subjects.

Be sure you know you child's counselor.

High schools vary widely in informing students or preparing students for college. Expect to have to do this yourself. Consider, if you can, spending a small amount of money on a college advisor who can talk with your child and make suggestions you can follow up on, including financial aid.

Whenever your child does volunteer work, try to get a written recommendation.

And show your child how to keep a file of such important items. Although I don't think these extracurriculars are as important as grades and scores (and a certain passion for a particular subject), they sometimes add a little to one's college application, not to mention the child's own personal growth.

Keep essays written in English class and similar classes to draw on for college essays.

Particularly if those essays encompass the student's personal reflections on life. Imagine our surprise when one college (Vassar) wanted a copy of an English class essay, complete with teacher comments as a condition of admission. We could not comply, because our daughter had tossed the ones with comments. She had copies of all essays on her computer, but the comments were not on the computer! The paperless society has not yet arrived.

11th grade

This year and the first semester of the next year will be filled with testing: SATs, ACTs, APs, SAT IIs, writing exams, etc. On top of that, this year counts, big time, for grades. Kids are highly stressed. Be supportive but keep on top of your student if she needs that type of monitoring.

Try to get your child to take SAT IIs when they are most advantageous.

(i.e. Immediately following the course in question: chemistry after the chemistry class is over.)

If you can, have your student inquire at the college(s) of choice whether they have "overnight" visits.

These are designed to let the prospective student stay overnight in a dorm and go to classes with a buddy to get a real feel for college life at that institution. Some colleges have organized dorm tours requiring reservations and done in massive groups taken around campus in buses.

Summer between 11th and 12th grades

Have your child write college essays!

The applications are mostly due in November of senior year for students applying early decision to private colleges and some public universities, and only a month later for the rest of the colleges. This, on top of the usual heavy first-semester senior year, is a killer. So, where possible, get those application essays done early.

At the same time, get the "uniform college application" together.

As well (Editor's note: This could be your state university system's uniform application to all campuses or the Common Application used by most private colleges, or both.). You will save yourself a lot of stress if your child is able to accomplish this the summer before senior year.

First semester, 12th grade

Your child will need teacher recommendations and counselor recommendations.

If you don't already have them in hand, ask for them early, like the first week or two of school. It's fair to the teachers, and the counselors are overwhelmed.

Your child needs to keep up the good work, gradewise, and get the applications in.

Some will want to retest. Remember that the kids are stressed.

Make sure that your student is getting the counselor to send in the proper transcripts, etc.

Most colleges will keep sending reminders of what's missing, but deadlines are deadlines.

Second semester, 12th grade

Keep up grades.

Colleges now require a full transcript including final grades for senior year, and all admissions are conditioned on good grades continuing to the end of the year.

Admission letters come out in April for private schools and earlier for some public universities.

If your child has been accepted to more than one college she wanted to attend, she has until early May to decide which college to accept.

If you have already visited these colleges, you probably have a complete impression of them, but if not: It's road trip time.

Again, if you can manage it. Check to see if your school district considers these trips excused or unexcused absences because that may affect your child's grades. Sometimes these visits are unavoidable because colleges require a personal appearance after acceptance to qualify for the college's scholarship aid.

If your child has been wait-listed or rejected from his dream college, appeal.

Find out when the first day of college falls and keep pestering the admissions office. People drop out right before the first day, and colleges are eager to fill those spots.

Fall of freshman year

Congratulations! You survived it. Be SURE to attend parents' weekend, regardless of what your child tells you. Believe me, you will all enjoy it.

Boots Whitmer has survived two college searches and is the parent of a recent Kenyon College graduate (Gambier, Ohio) and a George Washington University undergraduate (Washington, D.C.). She lives in San Francisco and can be reached at cebootsw@sprynet.com.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/14/2012:
"This is very useful insights. Thanks "
01/14/2010:
"This is a great timeline and I plan to tweak it a little for my 8th grader but THANKS!!!!!!!!!!"
08/12/2009:
"My parents never really cared about report cards growing up. They let us find our own way but kept an eye on us so that we didn't get into too much trouble. I got some bad grades in high school, but did pretty well overall. I got a scholarship to a big name school, had to come home, went to a local place lower on the US News scale, and loved it. Now in graduate school I'm surrounded with people who went to Harvard or Oxford, and no one cares that I commuted to a local college that's not a top-20 place. In fact, only one person has ever asked me where I got my BA from, and the answer was an apathetic shrug. Bright, inventive kids will find their way to fulfilling vocations in life, whether it be on Wall Street or Main Street, being an executive or a cabinetmaker. There are so many paths to fulfillment in life that can't be contained into one path or one college. I think it's great that parents want to get really involved, but I think it's okay for kids to find their own way also. You may be surprised how successful they are in the end, even if the path to success is quite curvy and full of fits and starts."
08/11/2009:
"I'm thankful for this article. I have three sons entering high school in the next three consecutive years. I'm anxious not to get behind the 8 ball. I appreciate your advice. "
02/23/2009:
"Having just taken the SAT II Bio, I must say that having a freshman in an non-AP bio class is a VERY bad idea. Freshmen classes do not nearly cover all of the material tested on this test. While taking an AP Bio class is overkill for this test, your freshman WILL need to study a prep book or use appropriate online resources to score highly. The author is too casual in recommending this test; it is not as easy as she makes it appear."
01/28/2009:
"This proves that parents obsessed with college cannot enjoy their kids. Did they 'go to college' for your sake, or for 'their sake' Ms. Boots Whitmer? Any child can get into any college, it's not a that big a deal. It's pushy parents, trying to make themselves feel good, that is the problem. It makes me sad to see parents stress out their kids when it is clearly to advance the parent's ego. 'Hey everyone!!! My kids a going to college!! Pat me on the back!' Is the cry of parental arrogance."
10/31/2008:
"Wow! That's a lot of work. What a great time-line. This information will be very helpful. I have a freshman and I already feel left behind! Thanks to Mrs. Whitmer for all her work on this!!!"
10/13/2008:
"www.campuscompare.com is a great site for the college search process--lots of free resources and tools that are helpful for both students and their parents."
07/14/2008:
"Thanks for the valuable info. I have a 09 graduate and we need all the help we can get."
02/21/2008:
"This was great information! I have one son that is a freshman in college, and one is a freshman in high school. My son is college was not very forthcoming with information, and I placed the burden of gathering information on him. My other son shares information freely, and this will help us prepare for college more easily. Thank you!"
11/26/2007:
"My 9th grade daughter is also taking some 10th grade classes. Your idea about taking the SAT II, right after the class is very useful. I feel, the more well rounded a student is the better. So many high schools are playing up the service learning (volunteer) hours. This builds character and instills citizenship in teens making them an all around better person. That low grade surprise, teacher leaving school example really hit home with me. My daughter had an A in math in the 7th grade and because she turned her final math fair project in late, she received a final grade of C. This directly effected her chance of getting in the top college prep schools in Chicago. Some people call us helicopter parents, when we are so involved. I call it being an advocate. With kids staying in school longer, and dealing with heavy competition- they need guidance to get to the successful professional life they desire."
11/1/2007:
"As a mom who is completely invested in my children's education, I find this all over the top. I am much more concerned about my children being well-rounded individuals, than making them stick their noses in books to get into primo college. Myself, I was a great student. My parents encouraged me to be a well rounded person, and I am far more successful than my peers whose only focus was on grades so they could get into an elite college. We put way too much pressure on our kids, way too early. Professional life comes soon enough..."
10/22/2007:
"I understand the competition involved in being accepted to college. But as a college freshman, I really find your advice to be a little over the top. I did practically none of the things you have listed above. I took one official college tour, and I ended up not even applying to that school. I took the SAT's late in my junior year, applied to 3 schools in late January of my senior year, and let my grades slip my senior year. Despite this, I was successfully accepted into my first choice school."
10/16/2007:
"It is great!!!I am a mother of a 11th Grade, and I am totally lost!!! Reading all this information is helping me a lot!!!! Thank you!!!!"
10/12/2007:
"I just read your article and I think it's just super! I only wish I could have read it a few years ago! My only son just was accepted/started at United States Military Academy/WestPoint, and reading this in hindsight brought back lots of stressed out memories, but was DEAD on the money!"
10/11/2007:
"My son was accepted to Rice fall of 2006, he is now a sophomore...my advice is do not give up keep updating your students file at the school he applied to, my son applied for early admission but was put on a wait list at Rice I kept sending Rice all the academic achivements thoughout his senior year and he was accepted that summer To Rice"
10/9/2007:
"I wish I had learned about this at least a year ago. My son is a freshman at George Washington University. This has reminded me so much of what I had went through with my son during the past four years. Everything is so true: take the SATII right after finishing the biology class; make sure your child knows his final grades before the summer starts (my son got a surprisingly low grade on one subject and found out it was too late to do anything, the teacher had left the school);let your child visits some colleges of his own choice--this is important, because he has to decide where his new home is for the next four years. I had tried to persuade my son to attend a college that both my husband and I favored, but finally we gave in. Like he said, the school atmosphere/surroundings and to fit into his personality. Remember to have your child register with the college board early and plan ahead of which ACT and SAT exams to take. Pick your college choices early so you will have more time to start your college essays. Do volunteer work, take a trip far away from home during the summer and don't forget to mention it in your college application or essay. Parents should be researching for scholarship information and filling out the FAFSA during the fall of senior year."
10/8/2007:
"My daughter is in 8th grade and we're starting now to have conversations about what college requires as far as commitment to work, types of schools, roommates, majors, whether she'll be a student-athlete, etc. No decisions being made yet, but just some info that can float around in her head while she makes decisions in high school and even chooses her high school. My college selection process was pretty much on my own; my high counselor even told me I didn't need to go. I don't want my daughter to be 'out there' when it comes to this phase in her life."
10/8/2007:
"This article was great! Even though I only have a second grader, I well share it with my students in high school!"
10/4/2007:
"EXTREMELY HELPFUL for a very anxious mother of 2 seniors!"
10/3/2007:
"This is great information. I did not grow up here in the US and system is different Canada. I am going to get started on all the things I did to get for the college applications. Thanks for all this infomation."
10/3/2007:
"Excellent recommendations. Now, getting your Junior to deal with these ideas, ie. getting teacher recommendations, taking tests, challenging final grades, etc. is another story! What if your teenager is resistant to your educated, experienced suggestions? Lots of grey hair here! :) Thanks!"
10/2/2007:
"This was very helpful. I had no idea how early I had to start thinking about college. My son is in 8th grade!"
10/2/2007:
"It's nice to know that my 12th grader and I are both on track for her senior year. This was a welcome reminder, however, and now we each have a copy to follow. We especially enjoyed the road trips, a chance to reconnect before the big push comes in a few months. Thanks so much."
10/2/2007:
"After reading this article, I immediately printed it and stuck it on my refrigerator with a magnet. My daughter is in 8th grade this year and I want to be ready. This was a great article. Thanks much!"
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