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A middle school parent's college prep guide

You and your child need to start planning for college no later than middle school. Here are seven steps your child and family should take.

By GreatSchools Staff

Most U.S. parents expect their kids to go to college, and most students have the same goal. But they are not necessarily taking the practical steps to get there.

A national survey released this year by Harris Interactive found that while 92% of seventh- and eighth-graders said they were likely to attend college, 68% said they had little or no information about which classes to take to prepare for it.

Counselors, colleges and organizations like the National Association for College Admission Counseling and ACT emphasize that parents should start planning for college no later than middle school. Their reasoning is simple:

  • Your child needs strong preparation in middle school to take the high school classes that colleges require.
  • You need to do your homework to make college affordable for your family. There are lots of options to cut college costs — scholarships, low-interest loans, work-study, spending the first two years at a community college — but it takes time to research them and get the information you need to meet application deadlines.

College planning is important for all families, whether parents attended college or not. Rose Fabiszak, director of the College Board's program called College Ed, notes, "The college process has changed, even from four years ago - the forms have changed, there are Web sites where your child can take a virtual tour of a college."

Here are seven steps you can take to jumpstart your planning:

Talk about college

As a parent, your expectations have a huge influence on what your child expects of herself, even if she doesn't want you to know it. You can help her envision her future at a time when the social anxieties and opportunities of middle school loom larger than life after high school. This doesn't mean having an "I expect you to go to Harvard" conversation. Talk to your child about her interests, how they might translate into a college major and career.

That's what the College Ed program does, working in partnership with schools and districts. In a series of lessons, students assess their interests and talents, match them to college majors and develop plans to reach their goals. "This is really an exploration of self," says Fabiszak.

There are resources on the Web to help you start exploring careers together with your child and get the conversation going. Several of them are mentioned in the GreatSchools article "Helping Your Child Connect School to Work."

It's not too early for you and your child to visit a college so she can begin to picture herself there. Fabiszak tells the story of her own daughter's early visits to an out-of-state college that sounded like a great match. It wasn't. The visit helped Fabiszak's daughter realize she wanted to stay closer to home, which she did, commuting to a college in her city.

"You have to find a place that's comfortable," Fabiszak said. "She changed her mind. Because we encouraged her early, she had a chance to see what fit."

Make the school your partner

Middle school is the time parents tend to be less involved, but it's the very time your child needs encouragement and guidance. Meet your child's teachers, if you haven't already done so, and make it clear that you want to be kept up to date about any changes in your child's work or behavior. Go over your child's standardized test results with the counselor to identify strengths and weaknesses. Talk to the counselor about your child's interests to see if there are electives and extracurricular activities that will help him develop his talents. If your child needs extra help or more challenging assignments in a subject, talk to the counselor about how to arrange it.

"Be vocal about what your school needs," Fabiszak advises. "You should feel comfortable calling up the school to say 'I think my son needs extra help because he's failing math,' or 'Do you have more rigorous coursework for my daughter who's doing well in English?'"

Get very involved in your child's choice of classes

The research is clear: Kids who take algebra by the eighth grade and geometry by ninth grade are much more likely to go to college than those who don't. These math classes are required to take more advanced math classes in high school and to take science classes like chemistry and physics. In addition to taking math every year in middle school, your child should take:

  • English: Every year
  • History (including geography) and science: As many classes as possible
  • Foreign language: Many colleges require at least two years of a language, which your child can begin in middle school.

Because college work and many jobs now require computer skills, your child should also try to take advantage of any computer science classes offered in middle and high school. He'll gain new skills and may discover a career path.

Bottom line: Your child will need to satisfy more than the basic high school graduation requirements to be prepared to succeed in college. And he won't be prepared for college prep classes in high school unless he starts now.

Get savvy about college costs

Experts emphasize that there are lots of ways to finance a college education, but you have to do your homework. Researching the way the system works, saving options such as 529 plans, and creative financing ideas will keep you from the last-minute panic that leads families to take out high-interest loans.

"You can find money for college," says Fabiszak. "It takes work and you need to start early."

There are also other cost-cutting measures you'll uncover: Your child can get college credits by taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school or in summer classes at your local community college. That can save you a year's tuition — but your child must be academically prepared to take advantage of these options.

Encourage your child to read, read, read

It's simply the best preparation for the SAT, ACT or college reading assignments that your child can have.

While you're at it, why not make vocabulary building a family game by learning a word a day? There are lots of free subscription services that will email a word of the day, like this one from . Your child can teach the daily word to the rest of the family at dinner and quiz you at the end of the week.

Look ahead to high school

High school is the launch pad to college. How does yours measure up? Does the school offer AP or honors courses? These classes put students at an advantage when applying for college. Will your child have access to them? Can anyone take them or do the students have to have a certain grade-point average or be selected by their teachers? Are there electives and extracurricular activities that will motivate and engage your child? If not, do you have other school options? Or do you need to find community resources — music groups, sports clubs, tutors — to supplement what the school offers? Research your child's future high school now, contact the parent group and visit classes to help insure a successful high school experience for your child.

Don't wait to get your child help with study skills

Your child will need time-management, organizational and study skills to succeed in high school and college. It's easier to address these issues now than it will be when the work gets more challenging. Make sure your child has a quiet place to do homework and the necessary paper, pens and other materials close by. Help him get into a regular routine and monitor the results. If you need to, talk to your child's counselor about how to get extra help - after school, at a community center or in a tutoring program. Take a look at GreatSchools resources on study skills for more tips.

Comments from readers

"this thing is tooooooo long. it needs to be short with the main info in it. "
"i hate this article it's to long "
"im thinking about going to college. im considering options. got my GED & i would want to finance my own studies, work for it and be finally independent, just so my parents will be proud of me, so educational scholarships & financial aids would be greatly appreciated. "
"My son's school offered a class during freshman year that I think truly changed his entire future. It was called Foundations for Success and helped them explore ALL areas of what it takes to be successful. Academically, socially and all skills around employability and communication. The best part is the teacher was not given a book to teach it with so she not only created one but then based on influx of positive parent interest in what was happening, she wrote a Parent Companion. Don't wait for schools to prep kids for this... do it yourself at home! Her books are called Get totally Real! and the Parent Companion. Seriously life saving. "
"Excellent advice! We started planning for college when our twins were eight months old. We opened bank accounts, and are on track with savings. The girls, now in their 8th grade are ready for the rigors of high school, not only because of the middle school, but because we put high expectations on our daughters at home. Most children rise to the occasion. "
"Very helpful article!"
"Thank you so much. I'm in middle school and trying to pick a college, just so I can be prepared for the future. And this article is perfect. Once again Thank You. =D"
"Thank You, I am in middle school on my way to eighth grade, I wanted to know some tips for high school for my path to college. This article is great help! "
"thank you for giving me some advice to go to college and seven steps to go to college. This really helps a lot. That hepls me get to college i go to gage and i'm in fith grade my name is kelebe."
"It is a great idea to start planning for college now. However, my child has a sever learning disablity. We are learning together to overcome this mountain so that my middle schooler can be successful. So, Cody ( my child) and I have come up with a system that is prepairing him not only for college but for life. I always believe that just because he has a disablity does not mean he can not attend college one day. I know he will be great in whatever field he decides. Cody has a basket just for his weekly work. If there is something he needs for the week it goes in the basket. If he has homework or projects he refers to the basket that is loaded down with pencils, pens, paper, glue, and other supplies that help him with whatever project he is working on. The basket is sitting beside the computer desk where homework is done. This is one way that we have found that works for my son. There are many other ways also such as having a check list on the fridge for things he has to remember. Putting homework and book right in the bookbag after he finishes work. having one organizer for a! ll subjects with dividers are just some of the things we have come up with together that works for him. So yes, we are prepairing for college against the odds. "
"This info. seems incredible. But, ooohh can you give us step to step info. on how to organize and even begin a aid search for our high school junior. Any process would be helpful. Gratefully, The Leafs"
"This information has been very helpful. We have a son who just graduated from 5th grade this week and is getting ready for middle school. He is very smart and loves math and reading. I want to help him as much as I can and the websites suggested will help me do so. You guys are great. Thank You"
"Thank you so much for that information.My son is already taking AP classes at his school. He will be going to Highschool 2008-2009"
"'A Middle School Parent's College Prep Guide' is sound advice. As a grandfather, may I add some advice from my grandfather, that served me well: (1) One who fails to plan, plans to fail; (2) Plan the work and work the plan. I worked my way through college as a 'Co-Op' Student. I also worked my way through graduate school. Intellect and motivation are necessary but not sufficient for success. A love of learning and a sound work ethic are also necessary. Go for it!"
"Good source of information at the right time. I've heard kids in High school, rather from 8th have no summer vacation due to AP and summer courses to enter college. Is that true? Sometimes I feel parents are making too much noise about High school to college transition. What exactly is the requirement to enter college and what is required for a student to enter college and pursue a special career like being a doctor or engineering. I am into academics but the way some parents talk I feel that I am in dark and am going to miss the right track. At the same time, I don't want the kids to just have 2 weeks vacation in summer. It would be like they will be studying all 350 days from 8th grade? Please adivise."
"My child will be going to middle school in the fall. What kinds of things can I do in the summer to get her ready? She's in 5th grade and never has homework."
"Great Information. I have one son in the 9th Grade and another one in the 5th grade. I also have a 5 year old and a 2 year old. So I really need all the info that I can get to help prepare all of my children for the future. "
"Thanks for your assistance in understanding what is necessary for students to prepare for college today. Many parents continue to evaluate todays requirements with their own experienc but education has advanced and things has changed. I personally want to know how to help my daughter to compete with the world because we have become a world economy"
"i think it would be awesome to start school later!!!"
"Some 7th graders in my daughter's school are taking SATs. Is this necessary or is it putting undue stress on kids?"
"Thanks for the article. We need to see more of this"
"These are great ideas, information and tips. My kids are in 6th and 7th grade, and I'm taking advantage of all the information I can gather now!! Thanks for the help."
"This is a great resource. I've been researching everywhere on what my son can do to prepare for the transition to HS and found a lot of things on high school students tranistioning to college but very little on middle school students transitioning to HS. Thank you! I would like more info on what my son should be doing to prepare for HS socially as well. So much emphasis is placed on academics and should be but the transition is hard enough when you are going through emotional and physical change as well. What can I do to help my son better prepare for that social transition?"
"I'm the parent of one middle school child and another on his way and your article on preparing our children for college is an excellent resource! It has given me direction as well as a jump start that I didn't realize I needed just yet. I don't know if similar resources were available when I was in middle school, (early 80's). Had my parents been more informed and involved, I may have been better prepared and more interested in going to college "
"A wonderful article. I am a middle/high school principal, and I have emailed the article to every middle school parent."
"Your site is very informative and helpful - Thank you very much from a grateful parent - Aloha"
"As always you are providing important information we all need to know. Parents need to be educated as well as our children! Thank you"
"Thank You, this article offers great information, I learned a little more, my son will take a foreign language in the ninth and tenth grade."
"Great idea's. Where was this info. when I was in 6th grade in 1956?"