In this article, I will write from personal experience (as I am a current sophomore in high school) and what I’ve learned from interviewing current college students on my podcast “Who cares About College?”
As a parent, there are many things you can do early on to help your child develop an impressive college application in areas such as standardized test scores, extracurriculars, course load, picking colleges, and paying for college. There are also things you should remind your kid on the journey to applying to college and universities.
Should you even start preparing your kid for college in elementary school?
Yes and no. There are things you can do or encourage your child to do in order to succeed in high school and craft an impressive application. There are also things you can do to help your child prepare for the randomness of college applications.
However, some things are unnecessary to start doing until your child is in their middle school/early high school years.
Again, these are all my suggestions as someone who is soon to embark on the college application process (and in some ways, I have started) and has interviewed people who have been through the application process.
My ideas behind when to start what are not the only correct answers that will work for everyone.
Before we get any further, I would recommend you check out an interview I did with college coach Mark Stucker on my podcast “Who Cares About College?”
Mark was a former admissions officer and former college counselor at those private schools that specialize in sending kids to top schools, so he knows the ins and outs of the college admissions process.
Please check out the episode because it provides a new perspective on elite college admissions, and it’s really eye-opening when you learn how college admissions actually works.
Helping Your Child Get Into College
For this portion of the article, I’m going to write in the context of moderately selective colleges to very selective.
This is because to get into a school that is not very selective (~75%+ acceptance rate is generally considered to be not very selective) you don’t need to be competitive in your grades and extracurriculars to gain admission, and therefore, don’t need to worry about starting early in the college admissions process.
Honestly, it doesn’t make any sense to start preparing for the SAT/ACT in elementary school; it doesn’t even make much sense to start in the early years of middle school either.
Your child probably hasn’t learned most of the material that is on SAT/ACT. Although acing the SAT/ACT is really about knowing how to take the test rather than knowing actual curriculum material, you still need to have a certain reading, writing, and math level.
Personally, I think the best time to start SAT/ACT prep is the summer right before your sophomore year at high school. Most high schoolers take the SAT or ACT sometime in their junior year (sometimes senior year), giving you over a year to prepare; that should be ample time to learn and take many practice tests.
I haven’t taken the official SAT yet, but I will provide my plan of action as an example. At the beginning of my freshman year at high school, my school made us take the PSAT (out of 1440). This PSAT didn’t count towards any National Merit Scholarships, nor would the colleges see our score.
It was simply to get some exposure and know what to expect. A few months after that initial test, we got our score back and the answer sheet to know what questions we got wrong. And thus began my standardized test prep journey.
When freshman year was over, my dad bought me a few SAT prep books, and I began to read through them and take the practice tests offered.
This year (my sophomore year), I eased down on the SAT prep because of school work, but I plan to go back into full practice mode the summer before my junior year and take the official test sometime in the fall of my junior year. If I deem it necessary, I will retake the SAT in the spring of my junior year till I get my desired score.
Many current college students I have interviewed say that they began SAT prep the summer before their junior year. When I asked if they wished they had started earlier, most of them said yes, wishing that they had started in their freshman year.
The more prestigious the college gets, the higher your standardized test scores will have to be, but having a high standardized test score can also help you get a scholarship.
The vast majority of top schools and all the Ivies don’t give merit-based scholarships, but your state school, for example, could give you one if you have a high SAT/ACT score compared to your fellow classmates.
Tip: If you don’t have the means to purchase prep books, a tutor, and/or any other SAT/ACT prep tools, check out your public library because there is a chance that they could have some SAT/ACT prep books on shelf. My interviewee Sohae from Northwestern said she would 10/10 recommend Khan Academy, which helped her get 1540 on her SAT. So if you have access to the internet and a device, then try Khan Academy’s SAT prep course.
Taking the hardest classes possible
Even though you can’t take high school classes before high school, you can set yourself on the track to make sure you have a rigorous course load when the time comes.
Again, every county/district has different ways they set up their students in their academic years. Despite that, I can provide my own experiences so you can get an idea of a possible plan of action.
In the middle of elementary school (3rd grade), everyone in my grade took the CogAT test. The score we earned on the CogAT test determined whether or not we would start advanced mathematics (in my school, we called advanced placement “GT”) the following year (4th grade) or not.
Those who were placed into more advanced mathematics because of their CogAT score would be on track to begin Algebra II GT in their freshman year of high school, so long as they stayed in the GT program. In 5th grade, we retook the CogAt test for all our other main subjects (reading, science, and social studies).
Same as math, if we were able to pass the CogAT test for those remaining subjects, we would be put in the GT program for those subjects for 6th grade (in my school district, 6th grade is the first year of middle school).
So, if you were able to pass the CogAT test for all subjects, you would start high school with Algebra II GT, Biology GT, US History GT, and English 9 GT. This set of classes sets your child up to be able to take a lot of AP and honors courses later during high school.
I know not all school districts or even states have the GT or any similar program available. It would be prudent to look into your child’s school’s specifics to know the best course of action for them to take.
There is also one thing to remember: even if your child’s school doesn’t offer any or very few advanced courses (e.g., AP classes), that doesn’t screw them over during the college admissions process.
A college/university does know what is offered at your child’s school. If your child’s school doesn’t offer any advanced courses, the school will know and assess your child’s application with the knowledge that your child didn’t have any access to advanced courses.
So a student with some AP and honors classes won’t necessarily be chosen over your child who had little to no access to advanced placement courses and therefore has few, if any, AP/honors/IB classes.
It’s a no-brainer that you will need very high grades and test scores to even be considered at some colleges/universities. Many applicants meet the college’s/university’s benchmark for grades and test scores, so one of the major things that distinguish applicants with relatively the same stats from each other is extracurriculars.
Besides homework, what have you done with your non-school time? Sports? Musical instruments? Charity work? A job? Have you made any sort of impact with your extracurriculars? These are some of the questions you’ll be asking yourself during the college application process.
There is no answer for the “correct” extracurricular (s) to take part in to be considered a competitive applicant. In fact, you can do whatever you want in terms of extracurriculars. However, there are a few things that you want to keep in mind:
Consistency is desired because of many things, especially giving the appearance of passion. If you write down that you have been playing the piano since you were six years old and placed first in a few local, state, and national competitions, that obviously shows consistency but also gives the appearance of passion.
And it looks far more impressive than someone who played piano for maybe a couple of years and decided to quit (nothing wrong with that). It shows talent, passion (something top colleges and universities tell me they look for in an applicant), and the ability to accomplish something.
As a parent, one of the things to do to help your child craft a competitive application is to help them find something they are good at and love to do in elementary school and make sure they stick with whatever it is throughout high school.
For example, one of my interviewees, David from MIT, participated in his state’s social studies fair every year since 4th grade and placed first place in his entire state in 9th, 10th, and 12th grade.
That definitely shows consistency and passion, and the fact that he was able to go so far with that extracurricular shows drive, ambition, and accomplishment.
Position/How far you took your extracurricular
I briefly mentioned this in the paragraphs above about passion/consistency, but I’ll elaborate a little more here. It’s great to commit to something for a long period of time, but it looks even better if you hold some position or achievement with that extracurricular.
Have you played the trumpet since 6th grade, or have you played the trumpet since 6th grade, placed high in local, state, and/or national competitions, and became section leader of your school’s band?
Like I mentioned above, David showed consistency by participating in social studies fair for eight years before college apps started, but he also showed his drive and ability to do well in his extracurricular by winning 1st place three of his four years in high school.
A more common example would be becoming the vice president or the president of a club.
You are probably not going to suddenly become the president of a club right as you enter high school, but you can definitely strive to build yourself up to one of those top positions by the time college apps start.
To be a competitive applicant extracurriculars-wise, definitely try to distinguish yourself from others by accomplishing something extraordinary or claiming a high position with your extracurriculars.
Let’s say you come into high school, look over the list of clubs your school offers, and realize nothing really interests you. You then come up with an idea for a club, talk to your counselor, get all the logistics done, and now you have started your very own club.
This would be an example of initiation because you went past what was offered to you and took charge of your high school experience. You also don’t have to worry about climbing yourself up to a high position because you are already the president of a club if you make it yourself.
But initiation doesn’t only apply to high school clubs. In one of my interviews with Kate from Duke, she talked about how she and her friend created a sort of program to teach middle school kids some high school level science.
Well-Rounded vs. Spike
This next thing doesn’t fall into a specific category, but I’ll throw it in just for some thought. Have you ever heard about having a spike? I’ll insert a screenshot of that here for references as I explain.
A spike is the opposite of being a well-rounded student. Just as it sounds, a well-rounded kid is a kid whose interests are quite balanced and wide-ranging.
This may sound good because it gives the appearance of being interested and relatively good at many fields, but well-rounded also means that you’re not particularly talented at anything because your time is being stretched over too many things.
Well-rounded is being mediocre at everything you partake in.
On the other hand, a spike is being ok at most things, but then extraordinarily amazing at one specific thing, hence the smaller-sized ball, but tall spike.
Why would schools want applicants with a spike over well-rounded students?
Because the college/university wants a well-rounded class. They want those who are the best of the best at science, math, writing, engineering, etc.
Having these exceptional students makes their college/university look good because it’s good to guess that those who have already made extraordinary accomplishments as a 17-18 year-old will do great things in the future.
So instead of encouraging your child to pursue everything, encourage them to find that one passion, have them stick with it, and accomplish great things with it.
During my special interview with private college coach Mark Stucker, I asked him whether he noticed if the kids who got into top schools had this spike, and he said yes.
Even though some well-rounded students were accepted into top schools, for the most part, students who got into elite universities and colleges had some sort of spike. They had something that made them unforgettable.
When to start looking into schools/College tours
My first ever college tour was MIT when I was in 7th grade. I personally think 7th grade (12ish years old) is too early to be touring colleges for most students, but it all depends upon you and your child.
I personally like touring colleges (obviously), but I don’t think it’s necessary until the beginning of high school.
I also don’t think it’s prudent to leave college tours to senior year when college applications are because 1) it adds to the stress of college applications and 2) you may have already applied to a college/university and then decide to visit that college/university, but then realize you don’t like the school.
Likewise, you may not like a college/university for some reason, but you may fall in love with the school upon visiting. Give yourself a couple of years of visiting (if you can afford it, of course) colleges/universities to give yourself an ample selection.
Paying for college
Paying for college is just as important as trying to get into college. It’s an uphill battle that most people don’t even know how to fight.
I have my own opinions on the exorbitant cost of college and what you should do to combat that, but everyone else has their own opinions and are willing to make sacrifices just so their kid can attend that prestigious college.
As a parent, you can do whatever you think is best for your child, but keep in mind a few things.
Too much debt is a burden on your or your child’s future. Sure, the excitement of attending that prestigious college is quite enticing, but is it worth pulling out a $200,000 loan that will come to haunt you or your child in the future?
Although attending a prestigious school has its advantages for your child’s future, the school your child attends doesn’t determine his or her future success. A person who went to their state school can be just as successful in life as a person who attended a top 20 school.
Opting out of the sticker price of the top private institutions and instead settling for your state school, for example, can actually be an advantage. Suppose you don’t have this weight of student loan debt on your shoulders after graduation and into adult life.
In that case, you can invest your money into something else, such as a mortgage for a house or retirement (something that you should start investing in as early as possible).
I will provide my course of action as an example of what I mean, and it’s up to you and your child to decide what to do. It’s actually quite simple. Have you ever heard of the phrase, “too rich to receive any aid, but too poor to afford the price of college”?
Because of my family’s income, I know I won’t be receiving anything substantial in financial aid from a top school, most of who calculate financial aid based on need, not merit.
If I do receive any aid, the $75,000 sticker price will drop to $50,000, which is out of the question. On the other hand, my state school would cost me less than $10,000 in tuition per year, and I could also live at home to save on room and board.
On top of that, with my current grades and standardized test scores, I could probably earn a hefty merit-based scholarship to cover most, if not all, of my tuition.
I haven’t dashed away all hopes of attending any school besides my state school because I am working on private scholarships. If I am able to get enough money in scholarships to cover the cost of a top university, I would definitely go to the private university (assuming I got lucky and was accepted). Just throwing it out there, there are ways that you can earn money to afford an expensive college. But what if the decision comes down to a close to free state college vs. $250,000 in loans to attend a prestigious university? It’s a no-brainer that I would choose the former option.
Another note: If you make enough income that you can afford to let your child attend a top 20 school, definitely do that. I’m not saying never to attend a top college/university because the benefits they offer (e.g., internship opportunities & connections) are incredible, but be careful in deciding whether or not the sticker price is worth it.
Understanding how random the college process is
This topic could honestly be a series of articles in itself, but I’ll try to get to the main point here. Everything I said above about standardized tests & extracurriculars is all true, but in the end, there is no guarantee.
Did you know that the top 1% of the country is better represented by 38 campuses than the bottom 60%? 5 of those campuses being Ivy Leagues? That’s no accident. College is a complicated game the rich can afford and know how to play.
Now, not all people who attend a top college/university are rich. There are some who aren’t rich and didn’t attend a private high school that get into these colleges and universities.
But even then, thousands of incredible, capable applicants get rejected every year. So please make sure your child knows that they are smart and capable and that the college process is quite ridiculous at times.
Amazing people get rejected every year for random reasons, so getting rejected from a top school doesn’t attest to a person’s intelligence and talent.
I know many kids at my schools whose whole identity revolves around getting into an Ivy League. And considering the likely possibility that they will be rejected even though they are extremely smart, I know that they will crumble and fall apart if they don’t get in.
You do not want this to be your kid; you do not want your kid to put their self-worth into getting into a specific school.
Again, if you want to learn more about how random the college process is at top universities and colleges, check out my interview with college coach Mark Stucker on my podcast “Who Cares About College?”
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.