Here’s one crucial step—besides studying, of course!—your teen should take each year to get into the college of his or her dreams.

By Laura Asmundsson
Updated March 05, 2018
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Ever have one of those awful stress dreams in which you’re back in school and suddenly realize you have a big test, but you haven’t studied for it? Well, overseeing your high school senior as he or she fills out college applications can trigger that same heart-racing feeling—even if you’re the calmest and sanest of parents. The problem: discovering your senior hasn’t prepared enough over the previous three years to get into the college of his dreams. Some simple planning will save your family from a messy meltdown during the college-app season. Starting freshman year, here’s one thing your kid should be doing each year to get ahead of the curve and hit those college apps out of the park.

Jonny Valiant

Freshman year: Read, read, and read some more.

No matter what grabs your kid’s interest—short stories, biographies of hip-hop artists, graphic novels, sci-fi—encourage him to read lots and often. This habit will improve vocabulary and writing skills, which both come in handy when taking the SAT and ACT. Plus, the knowledge gleaned from a steady diet of reading can shine through when it’s time to write application essays. Another bonus? He’ll have interesting material to discuss during college interviews, points out college consultant Julia Phillips, from LogicPrep, a tutoring and mentoring service based in New York. “Many college interviewers will ask what books you’re reading,” she says. Getting into a passionate discussion about your favorite writer will make a much stronger impression than struggling to name that book you read last year in English class.

Sophomore year: Do a deep dive into extracurriculars.

This year, kids should focus on activities that truly interest them, getting deeply involved in one or two passionate pursuits, rather than making occasional appearances at the French club. If dancing is your daughter’s true love, encourage her to fill her free time with classes and performance opportunities, advises Phillips. “It’s much better to be a passionate dancer who spends hours a week refining skills rather than join only to drop three clubs during a semester.” This is also a perfect time to think of ways to become a leader, like organizing a clothing drive to help community families in need, or forming an a cappella ensemble that performs in senior centers.

Junior year: Bump up those grades.

Even if your child has had some academic bumps along the way, it’s not too late to turn things around. If he has his heart set on a college that seems like a reach based on his current grades, this is the crucial year to show that grades are improving from so-so to great. Everyone, even a hard-nosed admissions reviewer, loves a success story, says Phillips. Encourage him to ask for extra help—it’s not only an important tool for learning the material, but it’s also a great way to develop a strong relationship with a teacher who can then write a powerful letter of recommendation

Senior year: Come up with some killer essay ideas.

Go online in late summer to see the common application essay prompts, as well as supplemental essay questions from schools on his list, and then have a rough draft ready by the time school starts in the fall, encourages Phillips. The supplemental essays will require some extra research if she really wants to make her app stand out from the thousands of others. She needs to make a convincing case why she wants to go to each particular school—like a professor she admires, a quirky class that no other school on the planet offers, or being a lifelong fan of the school’s football team.