Little things can make a big difference in the way your child thinks about—and prepares for—college. It's never too early to talk about college, even in the most general way, or to help your child develop positive study habits. The earlier they discover what study techniques work for them, the easier time they'll have in high school—and in college.
You don't have to be a college expert, or even a college graduate, to help your child get excited about earning a degree. There are some basic but essential steps you can take before your child enters high school to increase their chances of college success.
- Read to your child at a young age.
- Encourage your child to take on challenges.
- Remind your child to meet with their school counselor.
- Help your child set goals at the start of each school year.
- Make college a topic of conversation.
- Have your child visit a college campus. These tips will help them get the most out of their visit.
Note: It's also never too early to start planning how you'll pay for college. Learn more about financial aid and the best ways to save.
Developing a Culture of Learning
One of first steps in getting your child on the road to college is to help them develop a love of learning. Reading to them at a young age is one of the best ways to do that. What you read isn’t too important—it’s all about getting them in the habit of reading—and enjoying it.
Research shows that children who are consistently read to when they’re very young develop stronger listening skills and reading comprehension, and have a larger vocabulary. These skills will serve your child well before, during, and after college.
Make Learning Fun
If your child knows how to read but doesn't do it very much, see if you can make it more fun for them. Go to the library and challenge them to find three books about their favorite animal, or find magazine articles about their favorite topics and ask if they're surprised by anything they’ve read.
Another way to encourage their love of learning is to try new activities with your child. In addition to showing your child that learning can be fun, trying new things together:
- Helps your child discover new interests.
- Shows that you’re never too old (or young) to learn new things.
- Sets the stage for your child to try new things on their own and become a leader in extracurricular activities in high school—something that colleges love to see.
Support and Motivate
You may not have a lot of time to join your child in activities on top of your work, household responsibilities, daily errands, etc.—and that's OK. Sometimes, all you need to do is talk to your child to help them find pleasure in trying new things.
- Praise your child every time they try a new activity and encourage them to stick with it.
- Share in their excitement when they master a new skill.
- Ask them open-ended questions (ones they can’t answer with just "yes" or "no") when they talk about something they learned in class.
- Reinforce the idea that "failing" is a part of learning—everyone fails at something before they succeed. Celebrate their efforts regardless of the outcome.
Developing a College-Going Culture
Make college part of the conversation at home. If you have friends or family members in college—work that into casual conversation with your child. "I wonder how John's enjoying his first year at Michigan State."
If your child has any strong interests, talk about how they can learn more about them in college. "When you go to college, you'll be able to take a whole class on building apps." Every time your child hears the words "when you go to college," it reinforces the idea that college is in their future, and it gives them a goal to work toward.
You can also help your child make the connection between what they like to do, what they might study in college, and what types of careers they might enjoy. Once they understand that succeeding in college is a big step toward having a fulfilling career, they might be more motivated to focus on their studies.
If you went to college, tell your child the best parts about it. Are you still in touch with people you graduated with? Did you have a favorite professor? Any positive, firsthand experiences will plant the seed of college in your child's mind, and they'll start thinking about what it might be like for them when (not if) they go. If you didn't go to college, ask another trusted adult to talk to your child about their college experience.
Talk about the PSAT-related assessments. Beginning in eighth grade, your child may have the opportunity to take the PSAT 8/9, a test that measures the skills students will need to succeed in college. The PSAT 10 is a similar test for 10th graders. Make sure your child knows about these tests before it's time to take them. If they know they'll be tested on their college-ready skills in middle and high school, this may motivate them to study hard and work to develop those skills earlier rather than later.
Taking these tests will also help prepare them to take the SAT in high school, because they have a similar format and test the same knowledge and skills as the SAT, but in ways that are appropriate for each grade level.
Visit a nearby college together. If you live near a college, look for upcoming events on campus that are open to the community or see if the college offers classes to local children and families. Just being on a campus may get your child interested in college.
Fostering Good Study Habits
If your child can learn how to manage their time, minimize distractions, and focus on specific tasks when the stakes are low (in middle school or earlier), they'll have a much easier (and more productive) time in high school—and in college.
Here are a few tips to help your child develop good study habits.
- Help them find a quiet place to study. It might be their bedroom, but it also might be the library. It's difficult to concentrate if you're overhearing conversations or surrounded by distractions, so it's important that your child has a peaceful place to study.
- Check in with them about homework. Depending on your child, you may want to ask about their homework every day, or every other day. That way, you'll know what they're being asked to do, if they're having any trouble, and if they need extra help. And if your child knows you’re paying attention to their homework, they may be more likely to do it.
- Encourage them to think ahead. If your child has a book report due in a week and hasn't started reading the book, that’s setting the stage for some frantic reading and writing—and that rarely produces a student's best work. During your homework check-ins, gently remind them of deadlines and how much easier it will be to complete the assignment if they don't wait until the last minute.
- Compliment them! Praising your child when they exhibit positive study habits helps to reinforce behavior that will keep them on track for college.
It's important for your child to know that they're not alone on the path to college—and neither are you. Here are some of the people you and your child can look to for support:
- School counselors. Encourage your child to meet one-on-one with their counselor early in the school year. This will help your child feel more comfortable going to them with any academic (or other) concerns throughout the year. Counselors can also help your child decide which courses to take.
- Teachers. If your child has a favorite or trusted teacher, they can be a great source of support and advice as your child works on building the skills they'll need for college.
- Athletic coaches. Students involved in sports often already trust and respect their coaches, and they can be great mentors for your child. And coaches have the added incentive of wanting your child to do well academically so they can keep playing on the team.
- Other parents and students. Friends and neighbors who've recently been through the college application process, either as a parent or an applicant, can give you valuable firsthand advice.
With the support of these and other caring adults, your child should have everything they need to:
- Set achievable goals for the coming year.
- Choose challenging courses to strengthen their skills.
- Keep track of important dates for career nights, college fairs, and other school events.
- Build confidence and stay motivated.
Is middle school too early to talk to my child about college?
No. In fact, you can start even earlier. Talking to your child about college at a young age fosters a college-going culture and gives them a goal to work toward. You don't have to ask them what college they want to go to yet, but if you see someone wearing a college sweatshirt, point it out. Explain college to young children however you think they'll be able to understand (for example, "It’s a big school you go to when you’re older, where you meet lots of new people and can choose to learn about whatever you want.")
My child is in 10th grade. Is it too late to start talking to them about college?
No. Just as it's never too early, it's never too late to talk to your child about college. Tenth-graders still have time to work on their study habits, get involved in extracurricular activities, and start researching colleges.
Use our Parent Action Plan: 10th Grade to make sure your child's on track for college.
Who's the best person to advise me on college planning?
School counselors, teachers, coaches, friends who’ve recently been through the process of helping their child apply are all good people to turn to for college planning advice.