Preparing Your Child for College

In today’s world, a college degree is becoming a requirement for career-track jobs that pay a living wage and provide opportunity for promotion.College isn’t limited to four-year colleges, however. At community and technical colleges, a student can earn a two-year associate degree or obtain a certificate in a specialized field to prepare for a career.

Parents, grandparents, and other caring adults play a critical role in a child’s education. It’s common for parents to assume that our children’s education is the sole responsibility of schools, but research has shown that education is most effective when parents and schools work together. Yet, it can be overwhelming and confusing for parents to know what they can do to help their child be college-ready. By practicing a few simple steps for preparing your kids for school, and doing what you can to encourage learning outside of school, you’ll be helping your child succeed in school—and in life!

[Related: Webinar: Preparing Kids for College, Work, and Life: Why Parents Matter When It Comes to College Readiness]

College Prep For The Middle School Years

  • Do: Encourage your child to take school seriously and choose challenging classes. Remember: Preparation starts early! Middle school subjects are important preparation for high school classes.
  • Explore a variety of career interests. Ask your child about activities that he or she enjoys (sparks), and explore related careers.
  • Develop academic habits of success. Developing organizational skills, learning how to get help from school staff, and building positive relationships are all key college skills to start developing in middle school.

[Related article: How to Be Involved in Your Child’s Peer Relationships Without Being Controlling]

  • Do: Remind your child that although ACT and SAT results are important to post-secondary schools, achievement as a well-rounded student counts just as much, if not more. Students’ GPAs, extracurricular activities, application essays, and volunteer experiences are all important factors in demonstrating success in school on college applications.
  • Don’t: At the same time, don’t forget that standardized test scores are also an integral part of the application! Whether your child is struggling or doing well in school, consider enrolling him in a test-preparation course.

College Prep During High School

  • Remember: Grades count! The most important thing that your teen can do to prepare for college is to concentrate on doing well in high school—not just during her senior year, but through all four years. Encourage her to take challenging classes. Success in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses can show a college that your child is ready for the rigors of university-level coursework.
  • Consider different types of postsecondary options. There’s a wide range of postsecondary options, including two-year community colleges, four-year colleges, and technical college programs that often take fewer than two years to complete. Community and technical colleges are generally less expensive than four-year colleges; with good planning, the credits can transfer to a four-year college. Discuss with your child which type of schooling might be the right fit for the careers or areas of study that interest him or her.
  • In 10th grade, take the PLAN and/or PSAT tests. Use them as practice for the ACT or SAT tests, and to see how your child is progressing in academic readiness for college. In 11th grade, take the ACT or SAT. Most four-year colleges expect applicants to take the ACT or SAT exam in spring. Test dates in April and June are good because students have completed most or all of their junior year classes.
  • If your child plans to play a sport in college: Contact your high school coach to ask about programs and scholarships. Register at the NCAA Eligibility center at
  • Get Help: Help your teenager with his college applications by asking someone with strong writing skills to proofread admission essays and look over application forms. You can also help him think about who might be able to write strong recommendation letters—teachers or counselors who are familiar with your child’s school achievements, and mentors or work supervisors who know your child well and can attest to his potential for school success, may all be good candidates.
  • List Achievements: Encourage your child to keep a list of her school achievements throughout high school. Then, when it comes time to fill out college applications, she won’t have to try to remember things she did three or four years ago. This makes filling out applications much easier.
  • Make Trips to Campuses: Accompany your child on campus visits to get a feel for the different colleges that he or she is looking at. If you get the chance, talk to both professors and students to gain insights into campus life. Many colleges also offer students the opportunity to spend a night in a dorm and attend a class to “get a feel” for the college. If your child is interested, encourage her to take advantage of these opportunities.
  • Continue planning for financing college. There are many ways to make college affordable. Even the smallest savings can add up if set aside regularly over a long period of time.
  • Start saving for college: There are many ways to make college affordable. Even the smallest savings can add up if set aside regularly over a long period of time.

*Complete a FAFSA (financial aid) form to get an estimate of the financial aid your child might receive. Each year more than $236 billion in financial aid is available to help students and their families pay for college, yet millions of students leave this money on the table because they do not complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). To help students navigate this complicated form, the Capital One Foundation has partnered with the Center for New York City Affairs, a policy institute based at The New School, to develop the FAFSA: The How-to Guide for High School Students (and the Adults Who Help Them). Get it here.

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  • Avoid the Senior Slide: Many high school seniors experience the “senior slide,” a tendency to put forth less effort. Remind your child that it’s still important to do well in school, because many colleges may be hesitant to accept a student that exhibits falling grades during her senior year, even if they’ve been very successful in school over the previous few years.

Just like helping your child prepare for his first school experience, it’s crucial to do what you can to build a foundation for college success, starting long before senior year. By letting your teen handle most of the college preparation and application processes, you can encourage him to be responsible—and by helping when it’s needed, you can increase his chances of success in college.



1. A Parent’s Guide to College and Career Readiness, University of Minnesota College Readiness Consortium, 2013.

2. Developmental Assets: A Profile of Your Youth (Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute, 2005), 2003 weighted aggregate dataset, unpublished report.



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