Planning for College in Middle School – It’s Not Too Early

If you plan on sending your child to college you may wonder:  how early should I begin planning?  Besides saving for tuition and other expenses, what additional steps should I take to ensure my child is poised to enter a college of his or her choice?  What steps should my son or daughter take to prepare and how soon should he or she begin?

Whether considering a public or private university, parents can take certain steps to help prepare their children for one of the most significant decisions – and commitments – they will make regarding their future.

Starting Early – Four Actions Every Parent Can Take

Todd Johnson, founder and CEO of College Admissions Partners, an independent educational consulting business, says he begins working with students as young as ninth grade and offers several suggestions for parents who want to begin early with preparing their child for college.

“The number-one factor is grades and the classes taken to get those grades,” says Johnson. “It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If students do well in junior high, they tend to do well in high school. The first thing is to make sure your student is doing well.”

His second piece of advice is to visit colleges to look around. This can be as simple as making a spontaneous stop while passing through a college town during a family vacation. He says there is no need to take a tour or engage in any of the formalities. The purpose is for students to begin to relate at a younger age that college is in their future and that it’s an expectation. By making these visits early, he says students get a feel for what they like, whether it’s a big university or a smaller, more intimate setting.

Because he works with students primarily interested in prestigious universities, he also encourages volunteerism and community involvement. “You can do this at almost any age,” he says. “Students can volunteer at their local church or synagogue.”  Although Johnson says public universities tend to put more emphasis on grades and test scores, he advises that California is a little different because of the increased competition for limited admission slots.

Johnson’s final recommendation is to take children to museums and concerts and expose them to diversity. “Some things you’ll agree with, some you won’t,” he says. That’s fine, but you need to encourage more of a world view.”

Applying to CSU or UC

According to Jessica Dietrich, Admissions Counselor at CSU, Chico, the California State University system uses a standardized 12-page application for undergraduate admission to any of its 23 campuses. The application process is completed online and admission is merit-based.

“College preparatory courses, grades, GPA and either the SAT or ACT score are considered,” says Dietrich. “There is no essay and we are not able to take into consideration extra-curricular activities.”  She notes that last year, 74 percent of first-time freshman who applied were admitted.

Dietrich has two suggestions for parents of students interested in applying to a CSU campus. First, she encourages staying in contact with your local school counselor regarding upcoming middle or high school presentations by CSU representatives, a good opportunity to collect information and ask questions. Second, she recommends visiting, a helpful link that will take parents and students through a step-by-step preparation process starting in sixth grade and continuing through high school.

Walter Robinson, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Undergraduate Admissions at UC Davis, says the University of California system considers in its admissions decision not only all courses and the grades earned in them since 9th grade, but also personal achievements and any activities, awards and volunteerism in which students have participated.

“Eligibility by itself does not make a student competitive because the vast majority of the applicant pool is eligible,” says Robinson. “We’re looking at the distinguishing attributes that each candidate brings.”  The University of California conducts a holistic application review, which means each application is read cover to cover by at least two different readers.

According to Robinson, last year 45 percent of freshman applicants to UC Davis were admitted, down from an admission rate of more than 50 percent three years ago. He says there are many students that meet the admission requirements coming out of high school that choose for a variety of reasons to go to a community college first, which he sees as a viable option.

Robinson recommends parents outline and articulate their expectations for college no later than sixth grade. “It’s not so much a message of ‘take this course or that course,’” he says. “It’s more ‘do well and have the courage to compete and push yourself.’  Use whatever resources you have available and at your disposal. If you don’t have resources, seek them out.”

Applying to Private Universities

Johnson says selective colleges (those that do not accept the majority of students that apply to them) are looking to develop a well-rounded incoming class. “They’re not looking for well-rounded students,” he adds. “They’re looking for students with a passion. When you put together these student specialists you end up with a well-rounded class.”

Johnson suggests that the more students figure out in the early years what it is they like, whether that is drama, sports or volunteerism, they can focus and develop that passion throughout high school. “Usually the reason people don’t get in is because they’re very bright but they don’t do anything else,” he adds.

He also stresses the importance of the application essay. “They want to know something about you, who you are, why you act the way you act and think the way you think. Colleges are looking for something that speaks to character, motivation and personality.”

Finally, Johnson advises taking a balanced approach, emphasizing there are almost 3000 four-year colleges in the United States appropriate for many students. “A lot of what you get out of college is what you put into college,” he says. “Being in the bottom quarter of your class at Harvard isn’t going to be an invitation to a lot of great jobs. Being at the top of your class elsewhere will serve you better.”

Claudia Mosby
About Claudia Mosby

Writer Claudia Mosby lives in Redding with her husband and mischievous cat Hobo.

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