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First Things First – When and How You Should Approach the College Process


When you are taking your first steps into navigating the college process, the first question is often “when should I start?”

When should I start preparing for college?

The answer: it is never too early. Let me elaborate. I frequently hear people say, “They told me I didn’t have to worry about grades until my Junior year,” or, “They told me not to worry about college until my Senior year.” Another one I often hear: “They told me not to worry about Freshman year as long as I show improvement in the last two years.”

I have often wondered just exactly who “they” are? I can assume with some certainty that most likely they are good-intentioned friends or even school personnel. Unfortunately, in the college application process, this information is not only misinformed but wrong. I won’t say that some students don’t ever get away with this line of thinking, but in those circumstances, successful admission will depend drastically on what type of school or program your child is trying to gain entrance to.

Your end goal is going to be a huge determining factor in how much preparation is required. Whatever university, trade school or technical school your student aspires to attend, do not wait until their Senior year to address the question of college.

If your child wanted to play ice hockey, would you wait until the eighth grade to start skating lessons, and then expect them to be a star starter on the high school team? You could, but I doubt you would have the desired outcome. More likely you would start teaching them to skate when they were three or four and see if they even like skating.

Some kids start out skating and end up playing football, while others start out playing piano and end up a baseball star. The important thing is realizing that you have to start early to nurture a love of anything. Preparation does not mean you have to enroll your toddler in a special school. Just remember, it takes planning and practice to get good at anything you want to do.

Think about this one fact first.

The majority of college applications open the summer of the students’ Junior year. A large number of applications are due before high schools release first semester Senior grades. The majority of preferred scholarship deadlines land between December 1st and 15th – again, this is before high school’s release first semester Senior grades. That doesn’t mean students don’t have to earn good grades their Senior year, but it does mean that colleges’ initial decisions on acceptance and many scholarships will be based on high school students’ performance, Grade Point Average (GPA), and test scores from their Freshman through Junior year.

Now ask yourself, how do these facts contrast with those initial statements? College admissions are very competitive. If you want your student to be successful in sports, music or any extracurricular would you really wait to start them until their Junior year in high school? No, in this day and age if your child is going to excel at anything they have to start relatively young. Why then would you believe that your child’s education could be left until the last moment?

Make summers count.

Now that I have you thinking about the big picture, let me give you some specific examples of why preparation long before Senior year is necessary. Summers are for charity work. Camps. Clubs. Clinics. Sports. Leadership opportunities. Jobs.

Just like you can’t go backwards in time and teach a child to skate, neither can you go back in time and create community service activities their Freshman and Sophomore years in school. You can’t figure out their senior year that they have never held a job or furthered their education or broadened their horizons and made their summers count. They don’t necessarily have to do all of these things, but they have to do some of them to be a competitive candidate.

These experiences and activities will help distinguish them on paper from the thousands of other applicants.

Enjoy life (as well as childhood).

The number one excuse I hear for lack of preparation besides “I had no idea I had to do all of this,” is “I want my child to enjoy their childhood.” I have some difficulty with this statement because ultimately I would like my children to enjoy their entire life. High school spans four years of their life and, well, the years after high school span the very long rest of it. Whether fair or not, a tremendous amount of your child’s future will be determined by decisions made in high school.

I also don’t believe that focusing on education makes high school years “less fun.” I do believe you create your own luck, success, and opportunity through preparation and planning.

This post is not meant to scare you, but rather to get you to step back and consider your children’s education the same way you would consider any other area of their life. I am not suggesting that you stop everything in your life and focus solely on grades and test scores. What I want to make very clear is that the time to start preparing is now, no matter what stage of life your child is in.

Have a backup plan.

I also want to urge you to have a backup plan, especially if your current plan depends on an extra-curricular activity like sports or music or even the military as a scholarship ticket. Unfortunately, in the competitive arena, kids get hurt. Sometimes they get hurt to the point they are no longer good candidates to be recruited by either teams, military schools or a branch of the military. All of these things have health, soundness and endurance requirements. Even if your child is not hurt in competition, what if – God forbid – they are in a car wreck or something equally as devastating, and what if the golden ticket you have been depending on disappears?

Maybe your child plays violin, piano or some other instrument. Sometimes children have to give up an instrument just because they shut a hand in the car door. I am not attempting to be mean, just reasonable, as I have seen each of these things happen. Have a back-up plan.

Rising Seniors have more work to do.

For those of you with Rising Seniors there is still time this summer to get your ducks in a row. Hopefully, your student has been mindful of grades up to this point and has taken a standardized test of some sort. There is a lot to do between now and application time, and the amount of work you are willing to do will have a direct effect on your results. Encourage your student to start making decisions now, and follow the next posts. They will give you a timeline of where you should be and what you should be doing at this point.

It is okay if plans change as long as you have one.

Wherever you are in this process, creating a solid action plan is the best way to start, stay motivated, and stay on track. The sooner you start a detailed plan for college success, the less chaotic both you and your child’s life will be closer to application time.

How do you make a long-term college plan, and when is it time to take action?  You can find the second section here: Part Two: Planning your Timeline.

Until next time,
Get With the Program,




Conquering the College Process for Parents was created to give parents an overview of the entire college process. This course covers where to start, how to prepare, how to apply, how to pay for it, and what things you need to be aware of. The course is broken up into sections and you can binge watch the whole thing or break it up into several days. I have presented this course in person and virtually for years. My ultimate goal when I started is the same as it is today; I want parents to have an idea where to start. I don’t ever want anyone to feel as alone or lost as I did years ago.

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