I have had several families call recently concerning college options and if they are “too late” or “too early” in the search, what do they need to do, how do they get accommodations, etc., etc. I hope to answer some of those questions for you here.
First, it is usually a good idea to think about the future when a student begins 8th or 9th grade in terms of selecting classes that will help set the student up for a college trajectory. You can do this by working backwards. For example, a student who excels at math should have completed AP Calculus by their senior year of high school, so working with his/her advisor, that usually means Algebra I is completed in 8th grade. “Average” students should be placed in classes that allow flexibility, so that if they exhibit undiscovered talent in a particular area they will get the chance to shine at some point. For example, a “College Prep” or mid-level curricula that allows a student to bump up into Honors levels when they do well in a particular course in a particular year will be well placed to challenge themselves in Honors the next year.
On the other hand (spoiler alert–this is for parents who worry about excessive stress and strain on their already stressed children!), pressing the student to excess at the outset may backfire. If a student is doing well, and can handle some challenge, go for it! Sometimes students need to be pushed or need incentives. We all know people like that. For the college search, it is not about the grades per se, but the effort and the challenge that goes into the grade. Colleges love seeing Honors and AP courses on a student’s transcript because it conveys that the student pushed him or herself, as both levels require a certain degree of ability and effort. Thus, a C in an Honors class carries more weight than a B in a lower level class. But I have seen many bright, talented students get pushed too hard and too soon and they do not do well in the higher level class. This leads to them being dropped a level, which often leads to shame, embarrassment, and frustration. It also looks questionable on a transcript if the student does not at some point improve their performance (and/or their class levels). Another problem is created by grade inflation in lower level classes that have not prepared the student fully for college yet it “looks good” on paper. Or the student has learning issues that causes them to be placed in lower level classes in all areas because the school does not offer differentiated levels of instruction, so the student becomes frustrated and their talents left untouched. It is important to understand that grades are not everything, nor is performance on standardized exams. If a student is engaged and learning, that is far more important. Thus, even lower level classes should be preparing a student for college and/or the professional world. Students in such classes do not have to write a book so to speak, but they should be writing five to ten page research papers by the time they graduate.
Thus, the true college search usually begins in the fall of the junior year. Most students have had the chance to join a club, get a job babysitting, take driver’s ed, flirt with the student sitting next to them, learn how to use a library, run a five minute mile, or learn how to put together a halfway decent presentation. They have begun thinking about the future as their older friends graduate and go off to college. They are preparing for their senior year. So at the beginning of the school year, college admissions representatives begin sending out mailings, set up booths at college fairs, and attend ball games to size up the “next big thing” for the college football team. Students notice this and other events. By mid-year they should develop a list of interests and compile a list of possible colleges based on their interests, their completed work, and their dreams. By spring break they should begin visiting. And during the summer, they should be diligently working on whatever skills they need to improve as well as completing their essays. Come September, they need only fine tune applications, secure recommendations from trusted teachers or other professionals and narrow the field so they can concentrate on their class work.
Students who will need accommodations in college should be very busy during this time. They need to update any psychoeducational evaluations, doctors reports, etc. during the late spring/early summer. They need to find out about the support services of different colleges and draw comparisons so they pick the one that is right for them. They may need to take additional summer courses, work with a tutor on study skills, and/or take SAT prep classes. College will provide them with accommodations, but will not provide remediation. Check out what coursework is “required” vs. “recommended” both for admissions as well as for graduation from those institutions that most interest your student. And parents need to stay on top of IEPs and 504s to ensure that their student will get what they need before they go off to college or a post-graduate program–and decide whether or not the student needs a post-graduate program!
Short answer? You don’t need to start worrying about college when your child is in elementary school. But please do not wait until the beginning of the senior year! And if you are dissatisfied with your school’s guidance services, please do not be afraid to check out other resources. Yes, you will have to pay for those resources–but college is an investment in your student’s future.