How Parents Can Support Students for College Success
By Lindsey Permar
The college process can be a stressful one for students, and parents often feel like they are left in the dark—scrambling to figure out their own role in the process. This next step in your child’s life is an opportunity for them to explore and self-reflect, and the college application process should reflect that. Yet, parents are vital mentors and stewards throughout high school. Here are things parents can do to best support their student to be an excellent college candidate.
MIDDLE SCHOOL TO EARLY HIGH SCHOOL
Invigorate Inquiry & Analysis
Along the journey of high school, the most important thing you can do as a parent is to communicate and listen to your child. Ask genuine questions about the things they’re interested in. Invigorate their engagement with the world’s issues and breakthroughs. Talk to them about an article you read, a movie you saw, something in the news, or a local issue in the community. Engage them in their world and in their thoughts. Hear what they have to say, and model the art of critical thinking.
Encourage Exploration & Engagement
Middle school, 9th and 10th grades are the perfect time for self-exploration and community involvement. School work is not yet that intense and students do not need to navigate the extensive college-related tasks of junior and senior year. During these early years, encourage your child to: read for pleasure, digest the news, talk to their teachers, play a sport, join a club, start an organization, paint/draw/create, or anything else that piques their interest. One of the best ways to encourage self-exploration is to model it. Do you spend time engaging in activities, a hobby, a job that really interests you? Share that passion with your child and allow them to share their passions with you.
Summers offer a great opportunity for teens to further explore an area of interest. Local professors and professionals can be very open to allowing high school students to be a lab assistant or even just shadow them to get a taste of what that profession really involves. An artistic student might want to take a specialized class to learn a new technique. The big idea here is to support your child to spend their summers meaningfully, in a way that appeals to them!
Seek Both Challenge & Balance in Academics
Even starting freshman year, grades matter! Students should take the most challenging classes they can thrive in. If your student is struggling with a particular subject or skill, have him or her schedule a meeting with the teacher to discuss concerns or trouble areas. If struggles continue, a tutor or academic coach might be helpful, or perhaps the class level needs to be adjusted. If your student is easily getting A’s and is not taking advanced classes, encourage him or her to talk to the teacher about an accelerated level. In addition to teachers, guidance counselors are also there to help support students. Scheduling a meeting with the guidance counselor during sophomore year can also help that counselor—who will be writing a college recommendation letter—get to know your student well. As in all things, balance is key. You don’t want your student taking such a rigorous class schedule that there is no wiggle room to explore interests outside of the classroom!
As the last full year of grades that a college will see, this is a critical year and also tends to be the most rigorous. Between academics and all that’s required for college, there is much to be done! Here is a brief overview of junior year tasks:
Aim for honors and AP classes in appropriate subjects – particularly those that pertain to the possible major your student will apply for
Keep grades up!
Take the PSAT and a practice ACT (Note: qualifiers for the National Merit Scholarship Program must take the PSAT their junior year.)
Take two sittings of either SAT or ACT (both with writing)
Take SAT II Subject Tests (if applicable) and AP Exams (if applicable)
By mid-April, request recommendation letters from two teachers
Research colleges and department websites
Schedule meetings with your guidance counselor
Plan college tours in the spring and/or summer
Standardized Test Planning
With extracurricular commitments and a ton of homework, junior year gets very busy. Having a shared Google calendar, or a paper calendar in the kitchen, can help ensure that tasks aren’t left to the last-minute. Looking ahead and marking the calendar with the AP Exam schedule, registration deadlines for the ACT, SAT, and SAT II Subject Tests, gives your family a sense of the timeline ahead. Before the actual sittings, most students benefit from some type of test prep, whether they utilize the many free online resources that provide SAT Prep and ACT prep, or find a tutor—deep, focused preparation goes a long way. Advise your student to start test prep 4-6 weeks before the official sitting of a test.
Grades are crucial this year, and for Early Action/Early Decision applications, these grades are the last ones colleges will see when evaluating your student’s application. During the year, continue to communicate with your teen about their academic success, and encourage them to reach out to their teachers. Whether your child struggled with a test, heard about a cool new science discovery, or is entrenched in a relevant book, encourage him or her to connect with their teachers! Teachers are passionate resources who want to engage with their students. They will also be writing your student’s college letters of recommendation; the better they know your child, the more informed and specific they can be in their reference letter.
On your shared calendar, you can also mark school breaks, which offer great opportunities for college tours. While you could visit schools over the summer, the benefit of touring colleges in the spring is that campuses are generally buzzing with campus life and professors with whom your child can speak. If feasible, combining these tours with a short family vacation can also help ease the pressure of the trip. During the visits, encourage your child to take notes, ask questions, and engage with college students. After the tours, reflect and listen to what your student thought about the school—the campus vibe, size, students, architecture, departments and their programs/facilities, and what the town/city has to offer.
A shared Google document can help track feedback from college visits as well as college research information, all of which helps inform your child’s college list. In the summer, once your child’s final ACT/SAT scores and GPA are in, your family can create a final college list with balanced options across a range of admissions difficulty for your student.
Calendaring is Critical
The fall of senior year is driven by a slew of application and financial aid deadlines, but keep in mind, these first semester grades still count on Regular Decision applications! Mid/late-summer, together with your child, gather a list of respective due dates and required materials for applications—personal statement, supplemental essays, transcripts, recommendation letters, and filling out the application itself. Together, break down these tasks into steps (i.e. Draft #1, #2, and finalized personal statement). From there, students should create their own timeline, working backwards from due dates. At this point in high school, your student should drive the process as much as possible with you there as an accountability partner to help ensure deadlines are met.
Parents: Great Resources for College Essays
During the essay-writing process, your child may find it helpful to seek support in brainstorming possible topics and/or having someone provide feedback on a finished product. As a parent who has witnessed all that your child has gone through in the past few years, you can provide great insight into potential essay topics. Additionally, English teachers, guidance counselors, or trusted family members are all great resources for this process. Regardless of who it is, someone should read through the final essays as well as the entire application before pressing submit! Evaluate the application as a whole; be on the lookout for grammar and spelling mistakes and ensure that anything worth mentioning is mentioned!
Before decisions come in (mid-December for early applications and mid-March for regular decision) remind students of the bigger picture—namely, that the decisions of these colleges do not define them and that it is up to THEM to make great things happen in their life.
All in all, remember that if you are feeling anxious and stressed out about the college process, no doubt your child will too. Amidst all of the pressure she feels from teachers, coaches, friends, and from themselves, remember that you--as the parent--play a vital role in balancing this tension and being a source of steadiness and calm in this emotional ride. You can help set the tone of how your family will approach this process—with critical thinking, calmness, and the confidence in knowing that your child, with your guidance, will make good decisions.