As parents, it seems we are always searching for the best way to prepare our children so they will excel as students. Pre-school is the precursor for kindergarten, tutors and test preps are on speed dial for elementary, middle and high schools but nothing compares to the frantic prep we impose on our children for college. Ripped from the headlines, we now know the limitless acts parents will go to to get their high schoolers into reputable colleges and universities. So unless you are a Hollywood celebrity or a multi-millionaire from China who is willing to bribe their way into such institutions, let’s take a more practical look on how to prepare.

The competition in Northern Virginia is fierce, as most of us know, but we are blessed to have some of the best public and private schools in the country. With this, brings some of the most knowledgeable teachers and counselors to guide us through the process. Once your freshman enters high school they should meet with school counselors to determine what classes they should take to put themselves in a good position for college. The next best thing your student can do for themselves is to get involved in some of the extracurricular activities offered at their school. They should look for sports, groups and clubs that match their interests. Colleges are always looking for students that are engaged and involved in activities outside of academics.

It’s never too early to focus on grades and develop good study habits as freshman and sophomore year grades count toward admissions and scholarships. With the high cost of college tuition, it is smart to get as much information as you can about financial aid and scholarships available. As your student moves through their first and second year have them start to research different colleges and have them keep track of their awards, accomplishments and community service. Sophomores should take a practice PSAT in the Spring just to get an idea of their test readiness. Summer is a good time to put some free time to good use by working, volunteering or staying involved in sports. It is also a good time to visit some college campuses. Have them chat with college students that are home for the summer and get their perspective on different schools.

Eleventh grade is crucial in the planning process. Start to plan your college visits and tours, they are an important phase of the process. Your student may decide that the big city school they were interested in is now no longer on their wish list after a visit to a quaint college town. You can learn a lot from these tours, not just about academics but about dorm life and the various programs the school offers. This is also a good time to meet again with your school counselor and discuss your course load and honor and AP classes and take the PSAT which is offered in the Fall. Take your student to various college fairs and have them speak to college representatives that visit your school.

In the Winter of eleventh grade, start to organize your Spring testing schedule. Find out the registration dates and deadlines for the ACT and SAT tests. There are numerous test prep options available, from test centers to private tutors and costs vary widely. Do some research as to which ones are best suited to your child and your budget. Use SAT and ACT prep books to take some practice tests to experience what it’s like to take the test from beginning to end. At this time you should also start to explore scholarship opportunities, as they can sometimes be hard to find. Every year thousands of scholarship dollars go unused so research online the local and national offerings. As your student sets up their senior schedule, encourage them to challenge themselves. Some colleges place a lot of importance on AP an honor classes in their decision making and a rigorous course load is well rewarded.

Recommendation letters will be needed in the Fall and it is best to get a jump start by reaching out to teachers, coaches and mentors you may want to ask. Start to think about your child’s Summer schedule again in terms of work, community service and athletics and how it will look on the applications in the Fall. Try to narrow down their top choices and learn as much as you can about each school, and be sure to visit if you can. Many schools consider students that have visited the campus more interested than those who have not, another factor in their decision making. Request applications from colleges you are interested in and want to apply to.

As senior year begins, make sure to stay organized by marking dates and deadlines for tests, scholarships and early-and-regulardecision application deadlines. Submitting Early Decision and Early Action to a college gives you time to find out if you have been accepted earlier than regular admission notifications. Your student should be working on their college essay. Have them ask a teacher to proofread it for feedback as it is an important part of the application process. The ACT and SAT tests taken in Fall of senior year will be the last ones offered before college applications are due. Gather recommendation letters and finish and submit your college applications…….and then wait.

The waiting game is difficult and can be a very stressful time for students and families. Encourage your student to stay involved academically and socially in their senior year. Some colleges require that you submit midyear grade reports so alert your counselor and ask that these be sent out to the schools that require them. Admission decisions start to arrive in early Winter and continue into the Spring. The days of waiting for the big envelope to arrive in the mail are long gone as students are alerted via email, making the process a little more bearable,

If you have been offered financial-aid packages or scholarship money, compare each school’s package thoroughly as it may become a big part in your decision making. By May 1, your student will have to make their decision if they haven’t done so already. Be sure to mail in corresponding enrollment forms, deposit checks and financial papers and then sit back and enjoy your child’s success as you will have done all that is necessary (and legal) in preparing your son or daughter for their college years.