Having recently been through the entire admissions process with our oldest, I wanted to offer some tips. These are little things that can make a big difference.

Don’t feel you need to implement all of these. Don’t feel you need to add them all at once. Add what makes sense for your family. Even adding one or two new “tricks” to your planning can have a significant impact over time.

1. Make Sure You Receive College Emails

Now, more than ever, it is important for you to keep track of the requirements at individual schools. Make sure you are on the email list for all the schools on your list. An easy way to do this is to Google “sign up for more information [name of school]”. You can easily unsubscribe if you change your mind later. These email reminders kept my daughter from missing a priority scholarship deadline at one school!

2. Create an Email Account for College and Learn How to Manage It

Because college emails can fill up your student’s inbox (even worse than fliers in your actual mailbox!), it is a good idea to create a separate email account exclusively for college business. Make sure the email address is professional (student’s name is always good) and that someone checks the account weekly during the student’s senior year so you don’t miss important notices about admissions, financial offers, etc. As a parent, I was shocked at the number of emails sent by colleges we had never visited or contacted. There were some schools that emailed my daughter every day from August through December of her senior year. At first, she was flattered by all the attention, but we had to do an email tutorial on setting up mailboxes, filtering incoming messages, and how to unsubscribe.

3. Build Project Management Skills

High school juniors and seniors should be able to manage a long-term major assignment from beginning to end. That means planning sufficient time to complete the work, starting on time, completing all elements needed for the final grade, and doing all of this without nagging or constant reminders from parents or teachers. To get to this point, we need to help our younger students develop key skills: planning, organization, attention to detail, etc. These skills aren’t built overnight and most kids will struggle with one or more of these. Start early and help your student build their project management skills. They will likely make mistakes, but I am willing to let my own children fail on smaller tasks early (like my son only submitting half of his English assignments last week) because by the time they are in college, they will be ready to manage their workload on their own. (Students with learning differences and/or executive function needs will require additional support to acquire and perfect these skills.)

4. Make a College Admissions Login & Passwords File

This winter my seventh-grade son took the ACT for the Duke TIP program. He now has an ACT login. You will save time and potential panic senior year if you keep a record of this information. Students will have to create accounts for ACT, SAT and AP exams, every college application, your high school’s online system, and more. I like a note on my phone, but have seen clients keep a sheet of paper in the desk drawer or a list taped to the side of the refrigerator. (Obviously keep access to financial or key personal information in a separate and secure place.)

5. Update Your Resume Regularly

At the end of each semester, update your resume / list of activities and achievements. If you make a habit of this the only thing left to do your senior year is edit and format. You won’t be struggling to remember activities, awards, service hours, or past jobs. Right now, you don’t think you will ever forget, but try to remember everything you did three years ago. . .

6. Learn to Send a Professional Email

Parents, we think our high-achieving, bright students must know how to do this, but, like anything else, it is a learned skill. A professional email includes an informative subject line, a greeting, content written in complete sentences with English-class-approved punctuation and capitalization, appropriate closing, and student’s name. Especially now that we are staying at home, my son is sending more emails to his Scout leader. I’m always copied on these and can tell you it is a work in progress to meet the elements I just outlined. One email he forgets a subject line; the next needs editing and a closing, but by the time he is applying to college, he will have mastered this.

7. Find and USE a Calendar

Develop a calendar system that works for your student and have him or her USE IT. When my children were in elementary school, they were given an agenda for the year and their teachers made them write all assignments down. It was a good start, but there was no follow through in junior high or high school. Learning to track assignments, plan ahead to complete projects, and show up on time (online or in-person) is essential for future success. Again, we assume our high-achieving kids must know how to do this. Many are working from memory and will reach a point where they need to have a system in place.

8. READ!

Read. Read for fun. Read articles on non-fiction topics of interest. Read regularly. Just read. Students who read a variety of texts on a regular basis tend to develop better vocabularies and writing skills. Reading comprehension is one of the hardest things to teach in test prep, so if students can develop it early on, their scores will benefit.

9. Get to Know Teachers (Especially in Core Academic Courses)

Take time to get to know at least a couple teachers each year. This is easy in the case of athletic coaches, theater directors, yearbook / newspaper sponsors, debate coaches, and other teachers that students spend time with for extracurricular activities. Taking a little time and effort to connect with at least one academic teacher each year can pay off. (By “academic teachers”, I mean teachers in math, English, science, history, and foreign language.) Students may find it easier to ask question or seek additional help when they have a connection with the teacher. All students benefit from having mentors or simply faculty and staff members willing to offer guidance. Finally, it is academic teachers who will write letters of recommendation for college.

10. Don’t Specialize Too Early

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to specialize too early. You will need four years of English, math, science, and history to be successful in your college classes. Saying you don’t need advanced math when you are in 11th or 12 grade because you won’t need it for your college major can be shortsighted. (This tip came from my college freshman who has seen some high school friends struggle because they took an easy senior year schedule and regretted it. She also saw a lot of friends who went through high school loading up on business or engineering electives—in place of other core academic courses—  only to change their majors after one semester.)

11. Focus on a Few Meaningful Activities

Pick a couple extracurricular activities that match your interests and where you can do something meaningful. Trying to “collect” activities or leadership positions (like some type of get-into-college egg hunt) can leave you with a list, but nothing to say. Colleges are wise to the list building type of students and, instead, are looking for meaningful involvement and your impact on others.

12. Learn to Outline and Take Notes

Learn how to outline and develop a note taking method that works for you. (Again, from my college freshman.) A lot of high school essays or papers are short enough for students to manage without an outline, but that will not work in college. The same holds true for class notes. Students might be able to keep up in high school by relying on memory or random notes scribbled in spirals, but this haphazard approach rarely works in college lecture classes.

13. Include All Decision Makers in Your College Search 

Involve all decision makers in all steps of your college search process. This might mean involving non-custodial parents, grandparents who have volunteered to pay for college, and other parties who have a say in the payment or final decision. We didn’t do this and regretted it. As the college expert with a flexible work schedule, I took our daughter on all of her campus visits. We gave updates to dad, but when all of the acceptance letters started coming in, he had no way to compare the schools and kept questioning why she ranked certain choices above others. In the end she decided to attend our alma matter, so it didn’t matter, but dad will be involved from day one when our son starts this process.

14. Make and Keep Your College Visit Notes

Keep some type of file on your college visit notes. Right now, you might be taking online virtual campus tours, but I’d encourage you to take notes on these too. What did you like? What was unique? What questions did you have? What concerns do you have about the school (not just about getting in.)? Over time all the tours and information sessions start to run together in my memory. I also find clients starting to overlook initial concerns when they become infatuated with particular schools. Keeping and reviewing written notes was essential for some seniors this spring as they had to make final college decisions without one last campus visit.

15. Include an Affordable and Close College on Your List

Always keep an in-state or other affordable school on your list. Additionally, always keep at least one school within a couple hour ride by car or train. The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need to keep viable options in case the family’s finances suffer or other factors make a close-to-home option necessary. I’ve seen a lot of unexpected situations over the years where families needed or wanted a student close to home (parent diagnosed with aggressive cancer, student or sibling diagnosed with serious medical condition, etc.) I’ve also seen families’ otherwise solid plans for college costs completely upended by unexpected financial disasters (death of the breadwinner, Enron, financial crash, etc.). Having a financial and geographic backup plan is smart.

These tips are little things you can do to make your student more successful– academically and in college admission. As I said before, this is not a to-do list, so if now isn’t a good time to work on something new, just file this away for another time.