Middle School

Middle school?! Yep. “Before students even get into high school, we focus on making sure they are positioned to take full advantage of those four years when high school grades and experiences count for college,” says Krystle DiCristofalo, educational consultant and owner of My Ivy Education in Summit. There are math prerequisites kids should ideally take by 7th or 8th grade if they hope to enroll in AP classes. Plus, it’s an ideal time to master the art of studying, she says. “The knowledge of not just ‘what’ to learn, but also ‘how’ to learn to get good grades,” is a competency more kids should be taught.  

  • Teach your child study skills or consider hiring a tutor specializing in them. Every child can benefit from enhanced organizational and executive function skills. 
  • Start discussing what interests and inspires them with the goal of discerning how they might make an impact on their community and world. 

All Year, Every Year (applies to grade 9-12) 

  • This one is obvious but encourage your child to try to consistently get good grades. Your child’s GPA matters more now that so many schools have gone test-optional. 
  • Take high-level classes in areas of interest. Colleges like to see students challenge themselves with honors, Advanced Placement (AP) and other ambitious offerings that show rigor and curiosity. 
  • Be strategic about extracurricular activities. Delve into passion projects where they can make an impact and maximize leadership. 
  • Choose meaningful summer activities. Volunteering, traveling, interning, working, special interest camps…anything truly engaging counts towards building
    a well-rounded resume. 

Freshman Year

Ready to hit the ground running? It’s okay to walk—with purpose. “This is a transition year. It’s about exploration,” says Lisa Bleich, founder and president of College Bound Mentor in Westfield. Encourage your newly minted 9th grader to check out anything that piques their interests with the goal of genuine discovery. “You want them to follow the things they really like to do,” she says. Colleges love students with a deep passion in a few areas and this is how they get there. “Figure out where you’re going to put your energy,” she recommends to her charges. 

  • Get a little extra with extracurriculars. It’s a great way to make new friends and develop potential leadership opportunities.
  • Check with your guidance counselor to ensure you’re on track with prerequisites. Make a plan.  

Sophomore Year

By now students should be settled and in their groove. As they level up in terms of difficulty, it’s important to gauge talent for a subject versus the effort required to succeed at a higher level. “You want to get that right balance,” says Bleich. “Even the smartest kid may not have the ability to put in the effort, and get burnt out.” It’s better to choose one or two extracurriculars to go deep, than do a lot of things on the surface, she says.

  • Take the PSAT 10 for practice. Students hoping to win a National Merit Scholarship based on their junior year PSAT should start studying now and continue over the summer. 
  • Determine which standardized test is a better fit by taking the SAT or ACT in June or over the summer (test prep companies often offer this for free).
  • Start soul searching. What does the ideal college look like: big, small, city, country? What might they want to study? A personality test can help assess who they are—which can help them figure out where to go. Encourage your child to really figure out what they want, instead of shaping themselves to fit a particular school. 

Junior Year

Encourage your student to work hard in every class, and, if possible, step up to leadership roles. “They should be making a significant impact in whatever they’re doing,” says Bleich. At this point, most students will be focused on standardized tests, although that’s not a given these days. “Even prior to COVID-19, many more colleges are going test-optional or not even considering the SAT or ACT at all anymore,” says DiCristofalo. This means other metrics are that much more important. “Summer programs, extracurricular activities, internships and national competitions—the importance of enrichment programs cannot be overstated,” she says. 

  • Take the PSAT in the fall.
  • Apply to competitive, pre-college summer programs by the late fall deadline. Typically hosted at top universities, they offer an advanced foray into specialties like engineering and math, giving kids an intellectual challenge.
  • Register for the SATs and/or ACTs. Winter is an ideal time since it allows time for retakes. 
  • Sign up for tutoring or test prep classes. If it coincides with the student’s athletic season or school production, consider a test date that allows them time to study without sacrificing sleep or sanity. 
  • Research schools by visiting websites, talking to parents, attending college fairs, touring schools virtually or visiting in person as early as the summer before 11th grade. 
  • Ask for teacher recommendations in the spring (ask someone who can speak to your child’s excellence as a student and person). 
  • Reach out to college coaches to let them know about your student athlete.
  • By late spring, have a list of 10-15 schools at various levels of selectivity from safety to reach. Know what requirements are expected: years devoted to a foreign language; which if any subject tests are needed for admission; admission materials for specific majors (ie. art portfolios); if interviews are expected, etc.

Junior/Senior Summer

Whether your child’s attending a specialized program, working, volunteering, creating a highlight tape or visiting schools, the summer before senior year is all about preparing for college. 

  • Create a master list of application and scholarship deadlines. “A spreadsheet really is your best friend,” says Bleich.
  • Start filling out the Common Application, especially general areas and applications with early deadlines. 
  • Work on the college essay. Ideally, it should be in solid shape come September.
  • Fill out a brag sheet for counselor and teacher recommendations. 
  • Considering early decision? Devote extra time to perfecting your number one school’s application.
  • Focus on finances. Check out the College Board’s Net Price Calculator to figure out which schools are potentially affordable (noting which schools do and don’t offer merit scholarships if need-based aid isn’t applicable). Parents should start gathering the materials (pay stubs, tax returns, etc.) necessary to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Both open each year on October 1.

Senior Year

It’s the home stretch. The final year of high school is about two things: applying to colleges and avoiding the senior academic slump.

  • Take the SAT or ACT one last time.
  • Continue visiting schools, especially those high on your list.
  • Complete the Common Application, devoting extra time to individual schools’ supplemental and short-answer essays (see where there’s overlap). 
  • Apply to early decision (binding) and early action (non-binding) picks as soon as possible, since your odds of getting in and getting need-based and merit money are greatly improved by being proactive. 
  • Apply in early fall for national scholarships (local ones tend to have later deadlines). 
  • Make sure test scores, transcripts and any additional materials have been sent to applied-to schools. Don’t forget to add them to your FAFSA and CSS school lists.   
  • Wait.
  • Wait some more.
  • Weigh acceptances and financial aid offers. Visit schools again if you’re on the fence (it feels different after you’re accepted). 
  • Offered a waitlist spot at a top choice? “Send a letter of continued interest including all the achievements the student has racked up since applying,” says DiCristofalo. 
  • Cross your fingers.
  • Make a decision. Pay the deposit. 
  • Celebrate decision day!