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Depending on whom you ask, you have either started too soon or too late to prepare for college. Having lived through three high school graduations and one college graduation, with two more to go, the reality of preparing for college depends very much on the student, but it is certainly a family affair.

There is a lot that goes into college planning, from saving and investing for expensive tuition, to strategically choosing a high school curriculum that will make the most of a student’s interests and capabilities. Then there is standardized test preparation, extra curricular activities, Summer experiences to compliment a well-rounded application, and of course the dreaded application itself.  It’s enough to make any rational person want to run and hide.

Financially Forward Thinking

Tuition is expensive, even if you are attending a local or community college. Planning for college means looking ahead and thinking about different ways to save for an investment in your child’s education. It’s never too early to ask questions about savings programs like 529 plans or to inquire about the different types of academic, athletic and merit based scholarships that may be available to your student.

The early years of high school are also a good time to become educated about the different types of student loans and grants that may be available through both state and federal government programs.  According to the College Board, in 2015 more than 60% of full-time college students paid for their tuition with some sort of loan or grant. Knowing what types of financial aid are available can help with decisions about different programs that may be appropriate for your student.

It Is About The Numbers

The hard truth is, grades matter. So do standardized test scores. Colleges and universities across the country receive tens of thousands of applications each year. In many cases, the first things college admissions look at are GPA and SAT or ACT scores to determine if the application should be considered.

While the high school years should be a time when students develop new interests and opinions, squandering a year’s worth of grades freshman or sophomore year can impact their overall grade point average. It’s a lot harder to pull up a GPA when the pressure of junior year arrives than it is to start with a solid grade base that has been built up in the earlier years of high school.

There is a trend among some colleges to eliminate the use of standardized testing as a requirement of admission, however, many academic institutions still require ACT or SAT scores to be submitted. Have them take time to prepare for the tests so they can achieve better scores.

College Prep in High School

One of the best ways to tackle college prep is to start thinking about basic interests toward the end of Freshman year in high school. Is your student interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) or is the art studio where they flourish? Looking a few years down the road to areas of study that are engaging can help a student choose classes in high school that complement their learning style and areas of interest.

The same principle applies to activities that complement their academics. Involvement in sports and team activities are good for the mind and body, but also help a student develop areas of interest and accomplishment that may carry over to college. Sponsored activities such as robotics, debate, Model UN, and other national organizations can help a student lean critical skills that make them well rounded applicants to institutions of higher learning.

Cast A Wide Net

Encourage your child to look at schools beyond their own backyard. Attending a college or university in a different state or region is a learning experience in itself. International programs also offer quality educations, sometimes at a dramatically lower cost than US colleges.  Many high school college counselors will encourage students to apply to a variety of schools that are both within their reach and statistically challenging in terms of admission. Sometimes it all will feel like a gamble, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

From the perspective of a parent who has been there many times, the best advice for a college checklist is:

  • Look at the financial situation and keep and open mind about sources of funding.
  • Pay attention to grades and test scores, and know that it’s never too early to start preparing.
  • Choose high school classes that fulfill requirements but also are of interest to your student.
  • Look at a variety of different colleges and universities.
  • Stay involved in the application process but understand that this is your child’s process, not yours.

There is no right or wrong way to prepare for college, but keeping a goal in mind throughout high school can make the process of preparing for college more manageable and less overwhelming.

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