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Keys to Approaching College During Your Child’s High School Years

Keys to Approaching College During Your Child’s High School Years
by Lynn Kittel, Director of College Counseling at Bullis School
Keys to Approaching College During Your Child's High School Years

As college counselors we field many questions from parents but the one question we enjoy answering the most is, “How do I best prepare my children for college?” Notice the emphasis. It is not asking about a particular college. Instead the emphasis is on the child. When a parent phrases the question this way, college counselors are delighted and eager to engage in meaningful dialogue with the family.

Too often our society places value on where a student attends college rather than what the student gains from the experience. This phenomenon has long been fed by the magazines and guidebooks seeking to provide rankings for colleges. It is hard not to get caught up in this mentality since it seems to pervade every aspect of daily life. And, unfortunately, the closer your child gets to high school age and then the all-important junior and senior years, the more this type of discussion fills our daily conversations. Our advice as college counselors is to flip the conversation on its head. Focus on your child--who they are, what do they enjoy, in what types of environments do they thrive? As one of our favorite books written by Frank Bruni states, “Where you go is not who you’ll be.”

College is what students make of it

They can go to any college and get a good education if they engage with it. Are they asking questions in class? Are they meeting with professors during office hours? Are they pursuing research opportunities? Are they involved in extracurricular activities? Are they seeking internships, leadership opportunities, and/or study abroad programs? Are they having meaningful discussions with roommates and classmates and learning from their varied experiences? THESE are the things that develop informed citizens and allow for personal growth. THESE are the experiences that allow students to realize their dreams. All of these can be done at any college or university. Let’s make a concerted effort to focus on college engagement rather than on which college a student attends.

Having encouraged you to flip your focus back to your child, I would like to share some advice as your family progresses through the high school years. Of course, these are milestones that may be achieved at different levels by different students and their varying ages, maturity levels, and learning styles, but here are some overarching guidelines:

The most important goal

Encourage and allow your child to be as independent as possible. The sooner they begin speaking for themselves, the better. Have them take charge of their learning, their daily schedule, and their activities.

9th Grade 

Help your child adjust both academically and socially to high school. There are higher expectations for independent work outside of the classroom. Students need to take more responsibility for understanding their assignments and should not be satisfied with rote learning.

Focus on the ability to successfully prioritize assignments, set up daily schedules, establish study spaces, and healthy daily habits. Encourage students to meet with teachers during extra instruction time. It is important for 9th graders to understand that their teachers are eager to help them succeed and are willing to provide assistance. In addition, it is equally important to be comfortable socially. Encourage your child to join a few clubs, reach out to new friends and find their niche. Taking risks can be scary, but it pays dividends as their social circles are expanded. And, as we always say, encourage your child to read. It is so important for overall development and future academic success.

10th Grade

Continue to encourage your student to be in charge of their daily schedule. Dig deeper into activities and hobbies that bring them joy. Those activities may be in or outside of school, but having an activity that relieves stress and brings fulfillment is important. Encourage your child to take as much challenge academically as they can handle within the context of their daily schedule. Over the summer, schedule summer camps or college programs that will support a better sense of what they enjoy or might want to pursue. Learning to survive on their own, outside of your household environment, is helpful at this stage. Having a summer job also helps with understanding responsibility and public engagement. Perhaps take a few college campus tours to see the different types of colleges that are available.

11th Grade

This is the year for parents to really let go and allow the student to take the lead. Work on writing professional emails (to colleges, coaches, and faculty), and become comfortable having discussions with adults. Continue to encourage independence, seeking appropriate challenges and activities that provide self-discovery. Summer internships, college programs, or camps are really helpful this summer as your student solidifies their niche. Campus visits are very helpful this summer. Advise your child to take notes, take pictures, and keep track of the unique features of each campus. This will be helpful as they write their supplemental college essays and elucidate the “fit” for that particular campus. Have some initial dialogue about the finances for college. Your child should understand the family’s limitations or financial bottom line. It is not a good idea to save this discussion until the student is deep in the application process.

12th Grade

You will be consumed with college discussions. This is natural as it is a really big decision for your student and your family. Allow your child to bring up the topic whenever they are ready to discuss the college application process but limit your questions to one or two days a week. Students are inundated with talk of college and often need a respite. Please allow your home to be a safe space where your child can escape the constant college-related conversations, but also have an open and honest conversation about their hopes, dreams, and fears as needed. They often find it hard to admit to parents that they are afraid of rejection or of letting the family down. Be there to support your child and try to have realistic expectations. We encourage families to meet with college counselors and to have open dialogue throughout the process. Let us help navigate this ever-changing landscape. College counselors have ongoing conversations with the college representatives and are aware of the trends and current admission practices.

We are also an unbiased third-party who has your child’s best interest at the forefront and are solely focused on guiding students through the self-reflection process and the step-by-step application process

Bottom line, add college counselors to your team and work together to help your child thrive in high school and beyond. If you attend college counseling programs, read newsletters, and understand how College Counseling Offices interact with your child, you will be well-prepared to be a beacon of hope and support throughout this process. It may be a rollercoaster--much of parenting teenagers is--but we have the experience to share and are eager and willing to guide you through it.

Lynn Kittel

Lynn Kittel joined Bullis in 2006 and has been the Director of College Counseling since 2015. Prior to Bullis, Lynn worked in college admissions at her alma mater Ohio Wesleyan University and The Ohio State University. Lynn has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and Humanities/Classics and a Master of Arts Degree in Higher Education Administration. She attended the Harvard Summer Institute for College Admissions and has presented at national and regional conferences on various college admission topics. Lynn also served as an independent consultant from 1997-2004 while working on her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas.

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