Admission counselors say parents can give their children head starts by guiding choices of classes as early as junior high. Students should take the most academically rigorous classes their abilities allow.
Course-selection mistakes as early as middle school can derail hopes of attending certain colleges. Many high-school classes are sequenced, meaning material learned in one is necessary to move to the next.
College experts say students should take advanced or honors classes when possible and that a foreign language is an excellent elective or exploratory class.
This is a critical time for math. Capable students should take pre-algebra and Algebra I before high school. They shouldn't be pushed into classes for which they are unqualified, but by this age many students have decided they're bad at math and try to avoid higher classes. Be vigilant in encouraging your children to stretch themselves.
Act quickly when a child is struggling with math or other core subjects. A tutor, perhaps a high school or college student, can help a younger student build skills and confidence while also serving as a role model. Talk with the teachers and the principal, and if you believe your child is not getting the support he or she should be receiving, make immediate changes.
Reading and writing also are crucial. Boys often lag behind girls in these skills. One way to "sneak" in writing practice at home is for children to keep a journal and to write letters to grandparents or others.
Students anxious and eager to start high school usually see college as a distant goal. But the first two years of high school provide a foundation of necessary skills and make up two-thirds of the grades college-admissions teams usually review. Also, students who don't focus academically the first two years are not prepared for college-entrance exams.
Find out what is required for your child to graduate from high school, but be mindful that those are minimum standards and are usually inadequate for getting into college. You and your child can learn about college requirements by visiting college fairs, talking with admissions representatives, and asking high-school counselors.
Many colleges require four years of English and recommend three or four years each of science, math, and social sciences. Some colleges require a foreign language for admission. If not required, it becomes a strong addition to a transcript. Students should be ready to tackle Algebra I this year if they haven't already taken the course.
Involvement outside the classroom coupled with good grades indicates that a student probably has what it takes to manage time well in college. Your teenager doesn't need to be captain of every sport or president of every club, however. Admissions counselors are less impressed with students who spread themselves too thin than with those who dedicate themselves to a few key pursuits, such as school clubs, music, theater, sports, and religious or volunteer organizations.
This is also a good time for families to begin investigating schools, perhaps by driving through a campus during a vacation or taking a "virtual tour" on the Internet. Very high achievers will probably take the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) and the ACT test this year.
Encourage your teenager to take advanced placement (AP) classes -- college-level courses taught in high schools -- if they're offered. They shine on a transcript like fireworks on a black night.
Students whose high schools don't offer AP classes aren't penalized, but they should take the most challenging classes they can, perhaps through a local community college. Some school districts even pick up the tab.
Many parents and teens worry that an AP class might jeopardize the all-important grade-point average. Admissions officials are emphatic about this: A lower grade in an AP class is better than a higher grade in an easier class.
Increasingly, this is the year students take college-entrance exams, so they have time to retake the tests if they feel they could do better. Many take the PSAT in the fall and the SAT and ACT in the spring.
Students usually take college-entrance exams in the fall, the same time they generally apply to colleges. The application deadline for many schools is January 1 and sometimes as early as November.
College-admissions teams look for trends; they like to see grades improving. A student with a lackluster academic record can make up ground with a strong senior year. If your teen is a poor student who has improved, be sure he or she includes a explanation in the application packet. Your teen needs to show that past mistakes won't be repeated. For example, "I used to study one hour a week, but now I study 10 hours a week."
A great ACT or SAT score can help a C student, but a student who scores very well but has poor high-school grades is a greater admissions risk than a student with average-to-poor test scores but good grades. A student who has the ability but has been unmotivated should schedule an admissions interview to sell him- or herself to the school.
College officials recommend that students apply to a range of schools. A "safe" school is one where students know they have the grades and test scores to be accepted. (Check with the admissions office to make sure.) Many state universities have more generous admissions policies for in-state students, and community colleges enroll any high-school graduate.
High school isn't over on that glorious day when the acceptance letter arrives. Senior slackers can find their college admissions revoked, because there is a correlation between students who slide their senior year and those who fall into academic trouble their freshman year of college.