The college application process has certainly changed. While I was aware that I needed to keep my grades up in high school, I didn’t give much thought to college until I entered my junior year. Today’s students are encouraged to keep college in mind beginning in 9th grade.

With this Austin Family “cheat sheet,” the process of preparing your child for college might still seem daunting, but much more manageable.


9th grade

  • Grades. Course grades in high school are what colleges will look at to determine eligibility and grades will paint a picture of how your child might perform in college. Talk with your child about the importance of starting right and putting in the effort to keep up his grades.
  • Extracurriculars and Community Service. Questions about extracurricular activities and community service almost always appear on applications for both college and scholarships, but joining a lot of extracurriculars does not equal a more attractive applicant. Being involved, sticking with something over the long term, and finding a way to lead or give back are what will help your child stand out.
  • Employment. Holding a job outside of school is not necessary, but if your child does work, talk to him about performing well and building a relationship with his manager so that the manager can serve as a great reference.
  • References. Over the next four years, your child should strive to build a strong relationship with at least one teacher, coach, manager, pastor or non-profit leader. The stronger the relationships, the better. It will help your child to have robust references for his applications. In addition, being able to communicate with adults is an essential skill that many students in today’s digital world tend to lack. This a way for your child to really stand out.
  • Keep a log. Encourage your child to keep a record of everything he does from freshman to senior year that could be used on a college application. It will make life much, much easier when it comes time to fill out applications.
  • Get to know your school counselor. Research has shown that high school students have greater college-related outcomes when they interact with a counselor in ninth grade.
  • Consider finances. If possible, talk to a financial advisor during your child’s freshman year to build a plan and to make sure that money is in the right types of accounts well in advance of his junior year. Too much money in a child’s name may not be wise.


10th grade

  • Discuss college fit. Encourage your child to think about the type of school that would be best suited for him. Is that a big school or a small school? Close to home or far away? What type of culture is he looking for? There is no right answer, but it does take some discernment, so encourage your child to start thinking about it now.
  • Plan campus visits. The ideal time to begin visiting college campuses is the summer before your child’s junior year and/or during his junior year. By this point, he will have a clearer idea of his interests, the right type of college and his goals. This can take some planning, so start thinking ahead.
  • ACT & SAT. It is usually recommended that ACT and SAT tests be taken once the majority of a student’s advanced math, language arts, and science classes have been completed. In most cases, this means testing in a student’s junior year. Because tests are only given at certain times during the year, be sure to plan ahead.


11th grade

  • Explore scholarship options. The start of your child’s junior year is a great time to begin looking at scholarship options. There are a number of scholarships out there and not all are based on exceptional grades. Your child’s counselor can help point you in the right direction.
  • Discuss realistic college choices. An important message for your child to hear is that grades are important, but he does not need to be in the top 10 percent to be accepted to a great school. Also, an expensive school doesn’t always equal a great experience. Talk to your child about finding a school that will be the right fit for his high school grades, interests and your family’s financial picture and values.
  • Essay topics. Beginning junior year, encourage your child to start thinking about topics that would make for a great college application essay. He can even jot them down in a notebook expressly for that purpose. This will help reduce stress and will likely make for a much better essay when the time comes.


12th grade

  • Encourage flexibility and resiliency. Many kids picture themselves attending a certain school before the acceptance letter has arrived, which can lead to unnecessary heartbreak. Encourage your child not to get too attached to any one outcome.
  • FAFSA. Every family, regardless of income, should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) during the fall of your child’s senior year. Submitting the form is free and it gives access to the largest source of aid available to help pay for college. In addition, many states and colleges will use your family’s FAFSA information to determine eligibility for state and school aid.

There is so much to think about when preparing your child (and your family) for college that it is easy to become overwhelmed. Remember, you don’t have to get everything right. Prioritize what is most important for your child and don’t forget to keep those grades up.


Alison Bogle is a writer living in Austin with her husband and three children. A former fourth grade teacher, she now enjoys writing about children and education. You can also catch her talking about articles from Austin Family magazine each Thursday morning on FOX 7 Austin.

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