By Guest Blogger Chrissy Sergiacomi, School Counselor

A few years ago, a friend in college admissions observed that students were coming on college tours at younger ages than ever before. In fact, the running joke in that admissions office was that soon pregnant women would be touring colleges for their future children. This joke doesn’t seem all that far fetched in a society where we all feel constantly behind the curve.  So, how early is too early to start planning for college?

While I don’t advise anyone to tour colleges before you’ve given birth to the future college applicants, I do think that there are some things that parents with kids of all ages can be doing to prepare for the admissions process.

1. Be intentional.  

Whether your child is 6 or 16, be intentional about the activities that they engage in. When I applied to college, everyone wanted to be “well-rounded” which in those days meant we listed a million different high school activities, most of which we barely participated in. Fortunately, the pendulum has swung away from this concept. Today, college admissions officers don’t care if your child has been in twenty-five clubs. They would much prefer an applicant who has been in two clubs for a considerable period of time, where they’ve held leadership roles and made a significant impact.

So, when your kids are young, let them try whatever activities they express interest in (preferably one or two at a time)!  As parents, our job is to guide them in figuring out their passion. If your child takes piano lessons for a year and hates it, please don’t make them stick it out another year. If your child is a gifted artist and loves to paint, don’t force them to play soccer just to make them appear well-rounded.  Sign them up for art classes, and let them explore their natural talents.  Be intentional about the activities that they choose. Give your child opportunities to explore whatever they want, and then pay attention to where their passion lies so that you can be intentional about how you foster that passion.

2. Be cognizant of “fit.”

There are many different kinds of colleges because there are many different types of college students. I know it’s hard to swallow, but your own alma mater may not be the right fit for your child. Or the college that you always dreamed of attending, may not be what your child is looking for. Fit is critical.

My childhood best friend was valedictorian of our graduating class of 400 students. She was accepted at every college she applied to, including one that at the time was ranked 8th among national universities.  But it wasn’t the right fit for her, and she was wise enough to see that.  So instead she chose a college that didn’t break the top 200 nationally, and it was a match. She is a talented musician and wanted a college that would nurture that talent and give her opportunity to grow. She found that in a place that surely surprised the admissions officers at that #8 school.

We insure a great college fit for our children when we get to know them and help them explore their dreams and goals. As parents, we do this from the day our children are born. But, when our kids move into those teenage years, it’s easy to lose touch with what they want and who they are. Keep your children focused on who they want to be, and you’ve taken the first step towards finding a college that fits their needs.

3. Make your children uncomfortable.  

As parents, we often feel like our goal is to make our children’s lives easy, to give them more than what we had and to keep them comfortable. This is partly true, but it neglects to account for the growth that can come out of being uncomfortable. Don’t keep your child in regular level classes just so they can make straight A’s. Find subjects that interest them, and then enroll them in Honors, AP or IB classes. Let them work for their grades instead of earning them with minimal effort. After all, effort and work ethic are incredible traits to have in life.

4. Help your children portray their authentic selves.   

When it finally is time to apply, keep in mind that your child’s college application should not be a bunch of activities crafted solely to make them stand out to the admissions office. What it should be is a genuine, authentic picture of who they are. If they’re funny, their essay should be funny. But if they’re serious, writing a funny essay won’t work, and it will look like they’re trying too hard! We often forget that this college match thing is mutual. If a student portrays themselves as someone they’re not, it’s like putting someone else’s picture on their online dating profile! How are potential matches going to know if they’re a good fit?  Teach your child to put their best foot forward, but make sure it’s actually their own foot.  Colleges want real and genuine. They don’t always need polished essays with perfect grammar and writing conventions. They want to see that your child is real and that they have a real story to tell.

So, it is never too early to start thinking about college, but you need to be thinking about it in the right way! Spend time getting to know your children so that you can help them be intentional with their free time. Choose activities that get them thinking and acting outside of the box, and help them figure out who they are and what they want out of life (as much as you can know when you’re 18)!  Give them opportunities to be uncomfortable so that they can grow. It’s a tall order, but this is a big journey you’re undertaking. Thankfully, there will be plenty of people to support you and your child along the way!