Many compelling reasons scream, “Talk to your child now about college.”

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While giving a presentation to parents of middle school and early high school students, a mom challenged the notion of discussing college with her tween and ninth grader. The pressure, she said, would burden her kids at too tender an age. The full weight and scope of collegiate expectations would be explored best the fall of senior year, she asserted.

Wrong!

Once your children are old enough to debate the fine points of cell phones or vet homecoming dates, it’s time to talk about college. In fact, it’s never too early. Waiting to embark on the college application process until senior year puts your student at a severe disadvantage with their peers. Why? Lack of advanced planning.

Seniors who wait to begin the application process quickly become overwhelmed. All within the first semester of senior year, a 12th grader is confronted with researching and developing a college list, conducting college visits, signing up for interviews, enlisting help from the guidance office, taking standardized tests and writing college essays — the most high-stakes writing an 18-year-old has ever attempted. And they must accomplish the above tasks on time. Twelfth graders are challenged to complete applications and post decent grades for the “midyear report” sent to the student’s college choices as graduation looms.

Many compelling reasons scream, “Talk to your child now about college.”

Set the bar

First, early conversations about college set expectations. Knowing what colleges are looking for in applicants is gold, especially when setting academic, social and personal goals. Some colleges value extracurricular activities and volunteer work, while others solely base admissions decisions on grades and standardized test scores. Understanding this is invaluable as families make academic course selections and determine which activities to support beyond the school day. For example, middle school students taking foreign language or advanced math may elect to include these classes on their high school transcript if they perform well (A- or better). Great middle school grades can be used to enhance the high school GPA.

Visit campuses close to home

Second, conducting template college visits is key. Students and their families will have real information versus conjecture upon which to hold family conversations about college. Families need not leave Seattle to ascertain what types of schools might fit best. Visiting any number of regionally renowned institutions such as Seattle University, Seattle Pacific, Cornish School of the Arts, or Northwest College will give your student the opportunity to realize the wide variety of opportunities available. Would your child thrive in a small, liberal arts environment such as the University of Puget Sound or Pacific Lutheran? Or would they prefer immersion in world-class research institution (UW) or its offspring (UW Bothell)? Does your child hanker for adventure farther from home? Then WSU, Gonzaga, Whitworth or Whitman await your exploration. Ninth and 10th graders and their families can engage in the visit process early on without the anxiety or complexity of the college application process clouding their experience.

Even as an eighth or ninth grader, it’s important to be the best student and person you can be. Colleges want to see what you have done (your accomplishments) with what you have (your circumstances). Waiting until senior year only to realize that you should have volunteered more, obtained a part-time job, enrolled in a summer enrichment program, or sought a math teacher’s extra help is too late. While “It’s never too late to be who you might have been” (ascribed to George Eliot), it’s never too early in the college journey to begin becoming the person you want to be!

Contributed by Emily Wagner Gallagher, an independent educational consultant at Edge Academics & Athletics in Lake Forest Park.