Tips for parents of college-bound students

If you are a parent of a child headed to high school or college, you probably have a list of questions already formulating in your head: Which school is right for us? How do I make sure my child is academically and socially prepared? Are all these honor classes really worth it?

Regardless of the questions, there is one thing every parent is trying to accomplish-finding the right educational fit.

“Finding a high school or college is similar to finding your mate,” says Grace Moody, assistant principal at Alcott College Prep in Chicago. “It’s a relationship-it’s not just about the school giving your student an education, it’s also about what your student can give to back to the school community.”

Here are some tips every parent should know:

Start early

Even when your child is in middle school, start talking to him or her about their interests. “High school is important in narrowing down choices when you look at colleges and universities,” says Michael Horton, headmaster of the British School in Chicago. “What are their talents? What experiences are they looking for in a high school?”

In addition to making sure they have a great high school experience, start doing casual college visits. “Stop in and visit college campuses during your family vacations,” suggests Jeremy Klyn, director of admissions for Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights.

Starting the college conversation early also helps to eliminate students’ fear and anxiety as they approach graduation. “We don’t want to add to the culture of anxiety and stress,” says Jeff Bell, head of school for Beacon Academy in Evanston. “We are hoping to create an environment where students feel they can be the architects of their own education, even in high school.”

Participate in school-sponsored programs

Most high schools offer open houses or college fairs, giving students and parents a taste of what is possible. In addition to in-school visits, parents should look for general informational sessions that will help them navigate the process. “Mondays during the summer, we bring in college representatives to talk to parents and students about things such as admissions, scholarships and athletic eligibility,” says Rich Borsch, associate principal of Fenwick High School in Oak Park.

Don’t overlook foreign language

Most colleges and universities require students to take at least two years of a foreign language, but many experts feel that is definitely a minimum recommendation. “Having only one language in your portfolio isn’t enough anymore,” says Eva Hoeckner, German professor at Lycee Francais de Chicago.

Some high schools offer full immersion programs and/or cultural exchanges that give students an opportunity to develop skills that go far beyond just learning a second language. “There is a different brain development taking place when you learn a second language,” adds Hoeckner. “Students who know at least one additional language usually have improved memory and perception and can switch easily between tasks, making them great multi-taskers.”

Help them develop skills they need

Time management is a huge skill for kids. At Resurrection College Prep High School, the block schedule, with 82 minutes per class every other day, not only allows students and teachers to delve into the material more deeply, but helps students plan their homework and projects around outside activities, work or family commitments, says Kathleen Heneghan, communications coordinator at Resurrection.

The school also encourages students to talk to teachers and use them as a resource, something they should learn to be comfortable with before they leave for college, she says. Resurrection builds in a daily seminar period in the middle of the day where students can work on group projects or meet with teachers or advisors. “They are learning how to manage business as a student,” she says.

Just as Resurrection does for each of its students in assigning an adult in the building as an advisor, Heneghan suggests parents help their students find someone in their high school they can turn to as an advisor or mentor.

Encourage extracurricular activities

While high school is the perfect time for students to explore their passions through extracurricular activities, there is such a thing as being too involved. “Colleges are not looking for the ‘Yearbook Kid’-the student who participates in everything, but doesn’t make a difference in anything,” says Borsch. Colleges want to see that students take on leadership roles and are involved in activities that are meaningful to them, their schools and even their communities.

“Students should always be looking for ways to get involved with the community at large,” says Suzanne LoSasso, college counselor/IB coordinator for Beacon Academy. “Get out from behind the school walls and see what you can do to make a difference.”

Choose for the right reasons

Look at the full college experience, don’t just zone in on one aspect, such as athletics. “If your student chooses a college purely for a sport, he or she may find themselves stuck in an environment that doesn’t work for them,” says Horton. Also, don’t write off an institution for a financial reason. “Just because you see the sticker price, don’t assume it isn’t affordable,” says Klyn. “Start with the admissions counselor, be up front about your financial concerns. They will lead you to additional resources that may make the school more budget-friendly.”

Experts also caution parents to not get too involved in your student’s final school selection. “Always keep your child in mind,” says Moody. “Just because you fall in love with a campus doesn’t mean your child will. It’s hard, but you have to take yourself out of the equation and find the very best fit for your student. After all, he or she is the one that will have to spend the next four years on campus.”

Adds Borsch, “If you have really listened to your child and know in your gut this is the right place, go with it. Choosing a college isn’t a trophy, it’s a match.”

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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