The college admissions rat race often begins years before a child even applies to college. Choices a student makes early in his or her educational career can have implications for their opportunities later in life. But how early is too early to start talking to kids about college?
Parents can start introducing their children to college campuses by visiting museums, planetariums or going to age-appropriate events at universities throughout elementary school. But this is not the time to take students on campus tours for serious evaluation. (I have, unfortunately, been on many campus tours with reluctant fifth and sixth graders being pulled along by their parents, eager to impress the admission counselor that surely will not be working in that office seven years down the road).
Middle school, on the other hand, is the perfect time for students and parents to have initial conversations about college and expectations. This is the time when students can start to get themselves on track academically for advanced work later on, and it is a great time to start exploring interests and aptitudes. Though many schools will not have any formal programming about college at this early stage, parents can take control of these conversations themselves.
Top three college-related conversations parents should have with their middle schoolers and high schoolers
1. The importance of course selection and rigor in the college admissions process
This is one of the most important aspects of a college applicant’s profile and is something the student has quite a bit of control over throughout middle and high school. Parents of middle schoolers should have this conversation with their child early on, ensuring that students take advantage of advanced opportunities as they come along.
For example, students can get a head start by taking algebra and the first year of a foreign language in middle school. This opens up more advanced or honors-level opportunities in the junior and senior years and can free the student’s schedule up for further exploration of a subject they truly enjoy.
2. Encourage extracurricular involvement and exploration
Far too often, students wait until junior year to join formal clubs, teams or activities. They then feel obligated to stick with that hastily chosen activity through the college application season for the sake of having something on a resume. Plus, many colleges request an activity list from students which details the length and depth of participation. Selective colleges often request more details in the form of a short essay or narrative.
Enthusiasm and excitement can come through more easily for students who actively choose and explore opportunities throughout all of high school, not just in the final year. Students should participate in at least one extracurricular activity as soon as they enter high school, whether it is through the school itself or a local organization. Freshman year is the perfect time for students to explore their interests and test the waters. Talk regularly with your child about his/her enjoyment (or lack thereof) in the activity. Give him or her the freedom to explore and even fail along the way. There is much less pressure on students in those first two years of high school, and it can empower your child to take charge of something on their own for the first time.
3. Talk about the financial realities of paying for college
With costs of tuition, room and board exceeding $50,000 per year at many colleges and universities out there, this is an increasingly stressful part of the process, even for middle- and upper-class families. Walking through your family’s budget with your child is a great opportunity to teach real skills that are often not covered in the traditional classroom. Have an honest conversation with your child about saving for college and expectations without discouraging them from thinking big. Start talking with them early about your expectations for how they will contribute to their college tuition.