The first five steps on the road to college

What's the key to getting your kids into college? Start early and stick to a plan.

By GreatSchools Staff

The road to college

Getting their children into college is a major goal for many parents, but it’s also a process that can (and should) begin early in life. Consider the road to college a journey — like any long trip, it requires both attention and planning well in advance. Here are five time-tested first steps you can take toward securing your kids a successful college career.

1. Make your home a learning lab

Study after study shows that kids who come from homes where learning is a way of life have a much better chance of succeeding in school, all the way through college. And you, as a parent, are responsible for establishing that environment from the very beginning. Read to your kids when they’re young, and keep books and learning materials around the house. Give them a creative space and work with them; play with them during those crucial early years and as they grow older. The F.U.N. (that’s Families United on the Net) Place has a nice stage-by-stage checklist that can help you get started. Educator Judy Harris Helm has written a terrific set of books, starting with Teaching Your Child to Love Learning, that offers great advice as well.

2. Encourage extracurricular activities

Colleges are looking very closely at applicants’ extracurricular activities these days — and not just standards like team sports or school clubs. In middle and especially in high school, encourage your kids to become involved in meaningful after-school, weekend, and vacation activities, particularly ones that tap into their interests or plans for the future. Consider competitions (art, music, writing, photography, public speaking, etc.) as well. Activities and awards have a proven positive impact on college applications — and they can also develop your child’s self-confidence and self-discipline. Free-of-charge national organizations like VolunteerMatch and United We Serve are great places to start.

3. Get a grip on grades

Unfair as it may be, your child’s grade point average is still a major factor in the college acceptance process, and many schools look beyond the aggregate GPA at specific performance in areas that can affect applicants’ chosen major. What’s more, some colleges are looking back in time at report cards, even to middle school. So getting and keeping the grades up is still very important — it’s not something that can wait until junior or senior year for a final push. The best approach? Work with your child all along the way, not just when things go bad. If you maintain an active (and low-pressure) presence, you’ll avoid or handle crises as they come up. Get tips from the U.S. Department of Education's detailed but accessible guide “Helping Your Child With Homework.”

4. Get them into college classes before college

Advanced Placement classes are essential, of course, but many high schools have more direct (and rewarding) arrangements with local institutes of higher learning, where high school students can take actual college courses — some for credit — with professors. Some even offer “mini-college” experiences (such as governor’s schools for the arts and humanities) during the summer between junior and senior year. Such programs can remove some of the fear of the unknown, motivate and focus students during those critical years, and be very impressive additions to college applications. Check with your high school counselor and local colleges to see what’s available.

5. Build a two-year plan and stick to it

The final approach to college really begins about two years before that first fall semester, as teens are entering their junior year of high school. The summer or fall of that year is the best time to agree on a point-by-point plan for getting your kids into the school they want, including a timetable of the PSATs coming up in a couple of months; the SATs a year downstream; and the whole search, selection, and application process. Your kids can even choose the date and location of their SAT exam months in advance. It may seem like a lot of work, but getting it all down on paper — and making a commitment to stick to your plan — will actually reduce anxiety and bring your home team together. Get more tips from our “Simple guide to stress-free SATs.”