Getting Ready for College. When to Start?

Updated on June 15, 2012
M.M. asks from Chicago, IL
12 answers

I'd like to ask parents of kids who are already in college when do you recommend to start the whole college research? When do you start looking at the colleges, programs, packages, etc., so your child is ready to zero in and apply to the best colleges for his chosen major? Did you tour the campuses? Did your children attend summer internships? When did you actually start applying for potential colleges? My son is now 14 and will start HS in the fall. Both of us, my husband and I, came to US after finishing HS, so we are not intimately familiar with all the procedures ourselves and we do not want to miss anything in this important process.

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answers from Austin on

First of all congratulations! Very exciting time!

First of all, you no longer have to declare your major until the end of the Sophomore year.. Our daughter did not declare hers till her junior year in college.

Purchase an accordion file and start keeping up with all of the college info..
Each time you are somewhere with a college or University.. check it out. You can even find out when they are having tours for prospective students.

Our daughter was encouraged the summer before her junior year to start thinking about what she wanted out of college.

Academics that the college specialized in, location, the weather, the size of the college, sports, What ever their interest is..

Then I gave her a copy of the "Princeton Review" All of the colleges and Universities are listed with an overview. She kind of glanced at it every once in a while.. Of course each time someone suggested a school, she would go home and look at the review..

Also we are fortunate that our high school has a "College Coach", on campus to help answer questions, to help with the research and helps the parents with a list of what needs to be done. .She has all sorts of workshops and can help the student and the parents with any questions.

Here are some of the hints I was given.

Start your sons "Academic Resume" Now.. Then as things come up you can add to it. Look it up on Google for a guide.

Make sure your son is doing volunteer work. If he is interested in some organization, have him join and be an active member.

Other interest - Our daughter has always loved art. She would submit her work to different contests, to publications.. etc.. Through word of mouth she was able to have a photo published for the Cover of the City Budget (annual Report) for the City of Austin.. Over 1000 copies were printed.

Then we have a friend that is a published Author. She asked our daughter to do the cover of a short story book, her writing group was having published..

Our daughter babysat, and had small jobs.. All of this is important to list.. Your child will also need a personal reference.. so think about who this can be.. Someone that has known him for a long time.

All of this was included on her Academic Resume along with her awards, her recognitions, etc..

At the end of his Junior year, May, .. Decide on 3 total, Teachers/Principal/Coach to write up a reference for your son..

Ask them first if they are willing and have the time to do this.. We asked and then told them we would not need it until October. All of them like to write them individually and only will agree to certain amount.. The most popular teachers are in high demand, so ask early,.. We also included information about daughter to the teacher.. Her full name, the year and class our child had with the teacher or had attended the school, etc..

FYI.. all of them got them to us at the last minute!!!! But I had asked for them in Oct.. and we did not need them till Jan of her senior year.. FYI.. after we received the letters, I purchased each one 2 tickets to a local comedy club as a thank you. The letters are beautiful. We still have the originals.

Make sure your son takes the SAT early enough so that if he is not happy with his score, he can take it again..

Some colleges also want the Student to take the ACT, so find that out.. Some students take an SAT prep course, so they can be on top of what will be covered. Our daughter did not want or need this..

But because she was now taking Calculus she could not recall all of the algebra formulas! So we sent her to her old tutor for a review the week before the SAT..

Once again, her school has a few practice things and we purchased a workbook, which she just glanced at it. But let your son know if he feels worried you can find him some help.

Our daughter never gave us a heads up to what schools she was considering. We knew she wanted to go up east, she wanted to be where it snowed, and she wanted a smallish campus.

In the FALL of her senior year, she told me she had 20 schools she wanted to apply to. I told her "no way. That was too many to cut it down to 6 at the most."

So then she came back and said.. I can only get the list down to 9. I told her that was fine, but that it was going to be a lot of work to keep up with all of the paperwork.. etc.. And I was not the one that would be dealing with it.

Sure enough she was accepted to all 9 and so there were many copying sessions at Office Max..

Make sure you get your taxes done ASAP in January of the year he is a senior. .. You will need copies of the previous year also.

Make sure your son fills out all of the forms, once he is in college, he will be the one receiving all of the emails form financial aid.. etc. So he will have to be familiar with all of the info.

If you need any more info or have specific questions, PM me.

Hang in there.. If you have any questions, PM me..

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

Great question -- it is so easy to miss things! One recommendation I have is to take a test prep class (if you are going to take a class) in the summer between sophomore and junior years. This way the class is out of the way (some are quite time consuming) and the student is prepared in advance of the PSAT, which determines National Merit Scholarships/finalists. If you want the opportunity to take a test first to see how your son will do and whether or not he needs a test prep class, sometimes schools give the opportunity to take the PSAT as a sophomore for experience purposes only -- do this if you can. I would also recommend taking the SAT or the ACT (whichever you are going to take) as early in JUNIOR year as possible -- close to the end of the summer prep class. Knowing your score well ahead in the application process will help you identify where you want to apply and what your chances are, plus if he wants to take the test again there is plenty of time. Good luck!

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answers from Kansas City on

Sorry I'm late to respond, but I wanted to chime in. I did read through most of the responses and while I agree that most people, school college counselors included, will say their sophomore year in HS. I have to respectfully disagree and think as a few posters had said NOW!

Our son is now 22. He was an average student. At the end of his sophomore year of HS we were visiting family and decided to also look at a couple colleges while we were there, to get him thinking. One of the colleges was a private school, not ivy league but with higher admission standards. He (we) found out that his average grades (mostly by his choice and lack of effort) his freshman and sophomore year would prevent him from getting in. Because there was basically no way he could make up the grades and improve the GPA really in one year before he started the application process the beginning of his senior year.

We started talking to our daughter in middle school. Granted, she is completely different from her brother and a girl, so it's not as big of an issue with her. But even though she gets excellent grades, she is not willing to put in some of the extra resume builders that colleges look for. She was working on her Congressional Gold Medal, but got discouraged. She does play sports and does some community service but colleges are looking for that stand-out applicant. *She and my husband have already visited a few colleges and all have told them that GPA isn't the biggest factor anymore since so many schools have a weighted scale and you can't compare a 4.0 anymore to someone who may even have a 10.0 scale. And this information came from Duke University, University of North Carolina and Marquette University.

So start discussions now. And realize it may not be about him getting into 'the best' school but the best school for him and his major!

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answers from Dallas on

Most high school counselors have a sit down session with parents and students to lay out a basic plan for high school and college.

Our daughter is 17, a firecracker achiever so we started visiting colleges before 10th grade. I know this past yr while she was a junior, a lot of kids spent every day off visiting college. She has her targets in mind and is preparing essays, apps, etc this summer.

As for a specific major, we've told her not to be too concerned with that right now because the 1st couple yes of college are basics. She does plan to focus in business because she needs to know the basics. I have her on my payroll and she shadows me with reports, etc with our family company.

For us, junior year was another big counselor session at school to get the plan more detailed. Our school counselors are very focused on the students to help them through the process.

Right now, she is set for graduation, continuing AP classes, etc. a lot of kids check out for sr year. Grades are averaged with 9-12 for GPA etc so it's not worth letting up to early and slacking.

Good luck

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answers from Chicago on

we started touring college campus's my sons junior year of highschool. he started applying to his pics in september of that year. you need to do it that soon as the qualifying exams for these college scholarships start in january of their senior year so they have to already be accepted to the college in order to take the exams. all highschools have college councelors who can help with this process. at freshman year all he needs to know is that you can't go back and redo a gpa (grade point average) the higher it is the better the chances of getting into the college of their choice.

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answers from Washington DC on

We started the college talk in 10th grade. You need to plan for the PSAT and then you want them to take the SAT, and subject matter SATs (SAT IIs), and/or any ACT exams before they apply, or not long after. You also need to give them time to take it at least 2x, IMO, so that they don't get shot by an off day. Those tests should be taken in their junior or senior year, preferably before the fall of senior year, but my SD did take hers again in spring of her senior year.

What DH did was to talk to the kids about their future goals, and what they might want to do. Then narrow college searches to schools that could accommodate a change of heart. He also took them to a small, medium and large school (regardless of interest in THAT campus) so they got a feel for size. Then the kids narrowed it down to 3-5 schools and applied (the application process may also depend on whether or not the school takes the common ap or what the HS requires - mine required us to submit transcript requests by Christmas). Then they visited their top schools and picked one based on many factors. My SD decided after a visit that Hofstra was not her ideal school after all and turned them down to attend VA Tech. And I think she made an informed decision that is right for her. She also considered culinary school, but that went by the wayside when she felt like her POC didn't communicate well (I think that was more teen emotion than a real issue, but if she wasn't happy, then why waste money?).

Your son should also look at each school's deadlines for scholarships and other aid. SD missed one for VA Tech so she will not be getting all she might have. You and your child will also have to fill out a FAFSA form so all the schools can see your finances and determine aid. This is done as soon as you do your taxes the year he's going to college in the fall.

In the end, it came down to money, location and the "vibe" of the school, all other things being equal. SD did not want to be $60k in debt on graduation.

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answers from Boston on

Most high schools have programs for kids and parents to go over the basics. I think now is too early. If the guidance department is any good, they will be coordinating programs and assigning your son to a counselor/advisor. They can use his grades and his initial test scores (PSAT) to get a ballpark idea of what schools are "safe", a "reach", etc.

I also do not recommend that a 16 year old feel pressured to choose a major! They have no idea what they want to do! It's best to look at a diverse university with lots of choices so that they can enter general studies for the first 2 years and then declare a major. Even if they declare and change majors, at least they can stay in the same college and not have to transfer- that's very traumatic, time-consuming and expensive.

Don't even think of visiting colleges until the summer after sophomore year, and even then, the summer isn't great because there are no kids on campus and you don't get a great picture of how things are. Some people use long weekends (e.g. Columbus Day) and the spring vacation week to visit several schools. Junior and senior year, the English classes usually help them work on their essays.

Visit a variety of schools (large/small, urban/rural, private/public) to get a good overview. I know someone who visited 24 schools - it was ridiculous because the student couldn't even remember what she saw, and it cost a fortune. I think we looked at about 7. We also narrowed the geographic area as we didn't want him going across country and never coming home for vacations.

For now, your son should work on getting into a FEW activities that he enjoys and can concentrate on. Colleges don't want kids who do 100 things very superficially - they want kids who can apply themselves and who experiment in high school with a few activities at a time. It doesn't have to be sports either - it can be clubs, community service, theater, chorus, whatever. They want kids who are well-rounded and can work in a group, socialize well, and so on. They do not care so much about specialties or about awards for fastest mile run or best vocalist - they want kids who participate and explore interests.

What helped my son was doing one activity over time (in his case it was track/cross country) showing he could apply himself, doing a few others such as community service, and having summer employment (in his case, it was having his own business mowing lawns and caring for pets/plants while the owners were away, which he did for 7 years). He showed he could work well with a lot of people, both adults and students. He didn't have straight As either, and we didn't think that was essential. That's what the colleges wanted - someone with a variety of interests and not just studying.

There's a college for everyone, and I don't think it makes sense to pressure a 14 year old yet - he's not mature enough. For now, he should develop good work habits, relationships with teachers (who will write references), and try out one or 2 activities just to experiment.

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answers from Norfolk on

You may want to begin the college process after the second year of high school, just to get your child thinking about what he may want to do after high school. Actual tours of campuses occur generally during the third year of high school. The SAT will be given that year as well. The application process starts in the fall of one's senior year of high school. Most colleges have application deadlines for applications for that following spring of the last part of senior year. Hope this helps. Touring campuses is a definite plus!

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answers from Los Angeles on

How exciting!!!
I agree with the others. Start now--research, building "resume", etc... I'd start visiting colleges, too--for fun to get him excited and get a feel for what he'd want to study and where he might feel most comfortable. At the various elementary schools where I worked, we always started talking about college in Kindergarten and it's no different with our own kids. Our son is 5 and he knows that college is not an option and frankly for the future, graduate school might not be an option either. Oh one other thing I'd recommend is starting the test prep programs. Some colleges look only at that--stupid, but that's the reality.
PM me if you have any other questions. I'm an education blogger and also a mom. :) Best to you!

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answers from Appleton on

I would start now. What does your son want to major in in college? Who has the best program for that major? What are the advantages of going to that school over another school? If the school with the best program is further away, or has things your son doesn't like or you don't like it will not be good for your son to go there.

For instance: in Wisconsin we have many 2 year campuses they are part of the University of Wisconsin system but offer a 2 year program to get your required classes over and be able to stay home with parents, so the cost is lower. My brother and I both went to a 2 year campus about 2 miles from our home. For him it worked great for me not so great. He was in a pre-med program and the science program at this school was excellent. I was going for a theater program and the program at this school not so good. In most programs there was only one professor teaching that subject. If that professor was a good teacher you were okay ---- if not you were not getting the foundation you needed to go on to your 4 year campus.
My brother wanted to go on the UW Green Bay again a excellent choice for him. They had the program he wanted. For me not a good plan. I hated the campus it just gave me the hebbie geebies. It was the first environmentally sound camous built in the UW system. None of the classrooms had windows, there were apartments for student housing no dorms, you had to travel a great distance from apartments to class. It was simply not for me. I wanted to go to UW-Madison better program for me ect. My dad wouldn't listen..... I eneded up dropping out of college and
getting married --- never got my degree.
There are a lot of things to consider when choosing a college. You have to look at all the angles and opportunties.

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answers from San Francisco on

You really should wait until end of sophomore/beginning junior year. There is no point in researching a bunch of schools until you know what your son's grades look like, and what his PSAT/SAT scores are. Otherwise you're just wasting time.
I suggest hiring a college coach or advisor at that time. We hired someone who was wonderful ($180 for two hours, plus follow up emails and phone calls.) She helped my son with the basics: what size campus, how far from home, athletic/cultural opportunities, etc. A school may look great on paper and have a fantastic reputation but what's most important is that your child actually wants to BE there.
All my son's friends went to college last fall. Hardly any of them have truly decided on a major. That usually takes a year or two (unless your son is really motivated to study in a specific field.)
Of course this needs to be a family effort. Just a week ago you were ready to lock him out of the house and you were having problems communicating with your husband as well. Your son needs to be focused and disciplined in high school if he wants to go to college at all. That should be your focus now: getting him on the right track.

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answers from Los Angeles on

When your child is in the 10th grade (in the spring) begin looking at colleges that accept kids with your kid's grades.

Make note of admission application deadlines, scholarship deadlines and types of programs your child might be interested. According to a study that I read when I was in my Junior year of college, less than 25% of freshman graduate with the major they had when they enrolled in college. (Yes, I know people don't graduate as freshmen.)

If you are illegal aliens you have a much better chance of getting admitted to a college of your choice and paying lower tution rates in colleges in many states. Check out those possibilities. (If the Democrats are the majority)

Good luck to you and yours.

1 mom found this helpful
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