Higher Education

Getting into college these days is tougher than ever. Because standards are higher and competition is fierce, a child’s preparation for the college admissions game must begin at an early age.

How do parents ensure their kids are making the most of their educational opportunities? How can students raise their chances of getting into the college they want—or even college at all? Are good grades and test scores enough? What else matters?

Three Marin college prep experts provide some answers.

Start early

Thinking about college should begin well before students reach high school, but that doesn’t mean parents should rush out and hire tutors for their kindergartners. It does mean they should work with their children to develop habits and qualities vital to academic (and lifelong) success—things like hard work, discipline and the ability to work well with others.

“No amount of outside help late in the game is as good as having had these critical personal lessons taught and consistently reinforced from at early age at home,” says Chris Borland, an academic coach who runs Borland Educational in Sausalito.

It’s also important that parents make learning something that kids intrinsically value, that they maintain high academic expectations (appropriate for each age, of course) and that they focus on the contextual aspects of learning—the “why” in addition to the “what” of the content that’s being taught. It is also vital, says Borland, that children have a well-equipped, distraction-free area at home for schoolwork and that they stick to a regular daily study schedule. By starting early, parents instill a love of learning and a pride in reaching one’s full potential, both of which help children as they get closer to college application age.

Just as important, however, is giving children the chance to just be kids. They need the downtime to recharge so they can consistently perform at their best in school, Borland says.

Find a passion

Academics are only one part of the equation. Extracurricular activities—from sports to arts to volunteerism—have become a key factor in the admissions decision.

If students can’t find something they’re passionate about, they should strive at least for commitment to a particular interest, says Jock Christie, who runs Tamalpais Tutoring of Kentfield. “My sense is that most admissions offices would prefer to see someone with a little passion and dedication as opposed to someone who’s just going to throw free time at the cause of the week once they’re enrolled,” he says.

Of course, a passionate commitment to a subject or activity also makes for a well-rounded life, which helps children get more out of their education as well, says David Denman, a Sausalito educational consultant. Youth—adolescence in particular—is the perfect age to pursue different interests, he adds. “It is a time for [kids] to explore, to test themselves, to find out what they are good at, where they fit in. It is a time for activities that will help them make internal sense of a confusing external world and develop character traits that will be life-defining.”

Get help when needed

Children are immersed in demanding academics at ever-earlier ages, and to meet that challenge, at times they may need a little extra help. Many resources are available, but the key is to recognize the need for assistance as soon as possible.

“Asking for help early is important,” says Christie. “It’s about planning ahead and understanding your weaknesses.” Both parents and children should be aware of slipping grades and of difficult subjects, he says. Some students come to him six months before starting a particular class they know will be hard for them; receiving personalized attention and putting in extra preparation time can build up their knowledge of the subject and boost confidence.

Yes, private tutors can help in this regard, but Christie also encourages parents to be aware of free resources—including tutoring programs—that might be available at a child’s school. Taking advantage of such offerings early on may resolve a problem with a tricky subject before it can significantly hamper a child’s grades or long-term academic prospects. “Extra time with teachers, teachers’ aides or private specialists can be enormously helpful and productive in nipping academic problems in the bud, when they are easiest and least painful to correct,” Borland confirms.

Develop a plan

The college prep and admissions process can be intimidating and stressful, even for the most organized of students. There are tests to take, colleges to research and visit, essays to write and applications to submit. A detailed plan helps make the process flow more smoothly.

Christie recommends that sophomores and their parents visit two local colleges. He suggests Dominican University and the University of California at Berkeley because of their representative differences in size, scope and setting. Even if there are no plans to apply at either place, they provide insight into how colleges of similar scale work, what questions to ask and what type of college environment might suit a particular student best.

As high school juniors, students should visit colleges they’re interested in and begin preparing for entrance exams. Christie encourages taking both the SAT and ACT at least once during the latter half of the junior year. Though not as well-known in California as the SAT, the ACT is accepted by most universities, and Christie believes it is a more “reasonable” exam. During the summer before their senior year, students should prepare to take one of the tests a second time in the fall. Then it’s time to actually apply.

What’s not productive, says Denman, is worrying about whether students will get into the “right” school. In fact, he often helps parents rethink that “right” college concept. What is best for one student isn’t necessarily the best choice for another—no matter what the level of prestige. Instead, “the relevant term is ‘appropriate,’” Denman insists. “Those who understand that feel less anxious.”

As Borland explains, “Ultimately, it’s not the university that matters, anyway. It’s [kids’] conviction that they are loved and respected and talented and strong that will matter most.”