Going to college can be one of the most important investments your teen makes towards a successful future. However, times have changed since most of us applied to college and things have gotten a little more complicated. Too often today, people try to scare teens (and their parents) into feeling like going to college has turned into some kind of cut throat competition and that getting in requires that you start preparing from preschool.
While all of that is a little overblown, there are definitely more things that need to be considered earlier. Plus, there are some simple steps that can be taken even when you and your teen may have no clue where they want to go to college, to ensure when the time to apply rolls around they have many options available to them.
This is why it can be more that worth putting in the effort, even as a freshman in high school, to begin preparing for the transition to college. Many of these things are going to be a natural part of any high school experience anyway.
Here are five things that every freshman can be doing to help them start preparing for college now.
Participate in volunteer and community service programs
First of all, these days most high schools require students to do a certain number of volunteer/community service hours each year. Additionally, you will also find that this is a requirement for many state and national scholarship programs. So, if your high school freshman will be doing this anyways, it is good to go in with a strategy.
College’s like to see involvement in your local community and it can be an important part of your teen’s application. In many cases, where your teen volunteers isn’t as important as consistency. Colleges want to see commitment, so instead of doing a few hours here and there, try focusing in on an organization or cause that really means something to your teen. Over their four years of high school, they should try to stay involved with this same organization if possible.
Another route is to be consistent in the area of volunteer work. Many freshman have NO idea what they want to major in when they get to college, but at the same time, many at least are beginning to form an idea of the subject area that most interest them. If they love science, then look for ways to get involved with science based organizations. Have a theater arts lover, look for opportunities at a local theater helping with productions for younger kids or at summer camps. If it’s meaningful, it will matter more to them and they are more likely to stick with it.
Get involved in extracurricular activities
Being well-rounded is another important trait colleges will be looking for when they consider student’s for admission. This means that grades aren’t everything and sacrificing other experiences for academics won’t necessarily get your teen into their school of choice.
This is why it’s important that high school students participate in some kind of extracurricular activities. Yes, in addition to the volunteer work. Extra curricular choices can range from theater programs to sports teams or school clubs. Getting involved in school programs shows colleges that your teen can be a team player, balance various demands on their time and it also makes them a more diverse applicant.
If you’ve got a teen who isn’t so into the idea of extra-curricular activities, then the alternative is a J-O-B. Managing school and a job speaks volumes about a teenager’s maturity and their ability to handle responsibility. Also, fewer teens hold jobs today, so this can really set an applicant apart from their peers.
Start a college savings account
College is expensive, and while you as the parent may have been saving for this since your teen was a baby, it’s good to get them thinking about this investment as well. There are many unexpected costs to a college education that go beyond just tuition – books and supplies, housing and food, travel costs, and even entertainment and fun (movies, concert tickets, football games). Open their eyes to these costs now and discuss with them what if anything you plan to contribute and then what they will be responsible for in terms of the overall expenses.
Help them begin to prepare now by encouraging your teen to start their own college savings account. Sit down and figure out the best college savings account option, and make a plan for how much they want to save and what they need to do to get there. Giving them at least some responsibility for helping to pay for their college education will make them value it that much more and teach them important lessons about managing personal finances.
Choose A Course Schedule Carefully
As mentioned earlier, many high school freshman have NO idea what they might want to major in when they get to college. BUT here’s the issue, gaining admission to certain schools and especially certain majors, does mean that students have to complete a specific course track (i.e. reach a certain level of math by graduation) or at least have completed foundational coursework at a certain level of rigor (i.e. x number of AP or honors courses).
So first, if your student does at least have some vague notion of what kind of career path they may pursue (Pre-Med, Engineering, etc), it is important to do a little research and make sure their schedule includes the courses that will be required. It is better to be safe than sorry and taking these courses will help them decide if they really are interested in that field of study or not.
Another option is to start broad and encourage your high school student to take a good variety of classes to help them begin narrowing down options earlier. They just should make sure they are taking some challenging classes, but that doesn’t mean they have to take all honors or AP and turn themselves into stress balls. Also, if they’ve got some idea of a few colleges they may be interested in attending, look at those colleges to see what their admission’s standards are and what courses might be helpful. Not all high schools require students to take the courses that many colleges want to see today (like 3-4 years of a foreign language).
No matter which direction your student may be going, it is a good idea to talk with the school’s guidance counselor early on (yes, you should talk to your teen’s high school counselor about college during their freshman year) . They can better advise you about the types of courses that will be important for different colleges and college programs or at least put your student on a path that will give them the most options down the road.
Start on the right foot with grades
Okay, let’s start out by saying that stellar grades are not the end all be all for going to college. There are many good options for students who may not be the strongest academics. That being said, it is also important to understand that grades DO MATTER and they matter A LOT for getting into many colleges. Pretending otherwise with your kids isn’t fair and expectations should be set early. Have them visit a few of the websites for colleges that they are interested in so they have a realistic understanding of what it takes to get in to different types of schools.
It’s also important for them to understand the role grades play in scholarship money. There are some states, like Florida and Texas, that offer significant scholarships to state universities (like full or 75% tuition) for students with a strong GPA along with other factors.
We discussed above the importance of talking with your high school freshman about the costs related to a college education and what they will have to pay for themselves. While it may seem like a lot of pressure, if your teen is going to be responsible for shouldering a large portion of the expense for college, then it is better to be up front with them about the connections between grades and potential financial aid and scholarships. They may decide that its worth the extra effort to really apply themselves and go after those top marks or they may not, but at least they won’t be able to say that they didn’t know what was at stake.
And yes, freshman grades matter, so they need to start off on the right foot. Trying to significantly improve their GPA later in high school, often as courses get more challenging, is not an easy hole to climb out of for a teenager.
In today’s world, beginning with the end in mind matters and that’s why it is so important, even during freshman year, to begin planning for college. It may seem like a million years away, but these four years will go faster than you can imagine. Doing these five things can help set your high school freshman up for success and put them way ahead of the competition when it comes to applying and being accepted to their college of choice.