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

Counselors, colleges, and organizations like the National Association for College Admission Counseling and ACT say parents should start college prep in middle school. Their reasoning is simple:

  • Your child needs strong college prep in middle school to take the high school classes that colleges require.
  • You’ll need to research how 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 learn about them and get the information you need to meet application deadlines.

Here are seven steps you can take to jumpstart college prep in middle school.

  1. 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. Talk to your child about her interests, how they might translate into a college major and career.

    It’s not too early for you and your child to visit a college so she can begin to picture herself there.

  2. Make the school your partner

    Middle school is the time parents tend to be less involved, but it’s also when 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 because he’s doing poorly in math, or more challenging assignments because she’s doing well without much effort, talk to the counselor about how to arrange it.

  3. 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 require computer skills, your child should also try to take advantage of any computer science classes offered in middle and high school. 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.

  4. 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.

    There are also other cost-cutting measures you’ll uncover: Your child can get college credits by taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes or dual-enrollment 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.

  5. 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 Dictionary.com. Your child can teach the daily word to the rest of the family at dinner and quiz you at the end of the week.

  6. 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 ensure a successful high school experience for your child.

  7. Don’t wait to get your child help with study skills

    Your child will need good time-management, organization, 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. Help him get into a regular homework 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. Read more about Study skills for middle school and beyond for more tips.

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