College-prep crash course

For so many parents, time is a hot commodity: You hurry home from work to pick up the kids at after-school care or sports, rush home to make dinner, then eat on the run while driving to another activity. Homework gets done on the fly and everyone goes to bed exhausted, only to repeat the routine again the next day. 

Life is busy and time flies! 

Now, try finding more hours in the day to focus on the process of college preparation. 

Parents of middle schoolers might not even have college prep on their radars, but they should.

Consider these statistics:

• Average total charges for a private nonprofit four-year college in 2014 in the U.S.: $42,419. 

 The percent of applicants admitted to college in 2015: Carleton College (21 percent), University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (44 percent), Washington University-St. Louis (16 percent) and Boston College (32 percent).

 Minnesota ranks as having one of the worst counselor-to-student ratios in the nation with only one counselor for every 771 students. The American School Counselor Association
recommends a 250-to-1 ratio.

 70 percent of college seniors in Minnesota who graduated from public and nonprofit colleges in 2013 had student loan debt, with an average of $30,894 per borrower. 

The admission stakes are clearly high. With the college costs increasing, admission becoming more competitive and student debt hitting record levels, it’s more important than ever to be informed and well prepared. 

Middle school is an ideal time to create a plan for college and begin developing important life skills.

My story 

I was surprised to find myself quite unprepared to help my oldest child with the college-prep process. 

As a parent educator and business professional,
I consider myself to be an organized person, but somehow time had gotten away from us, and I was suddenly faced with the challenge of navigating the college-prep maze. 

Our high school didn’t have the resources to hand-hold us through the admissions process, so I set off to research the topic on my own, interviewing private college coaches, school guidance counselors, field experts and current college students. 

I learned that — in addition to academic milestones like ACTs and SATs — there were practical skills my daughter would need to be confident on campus. 

While we had done a good job of helping our daughter gain leadership and service experience, we were behind in other key areas: My daughter had never made her own doctor appointment and knew virtually nothing about personal finance. We spent the summer before college playing catch up, which was stressful for all of us. 

As I networked with other moms and dads, I discovered we weren’t the only ones struggling. 

How to get started

Most parents aren’t experts in college prep, so what’s a family to do?

Start early: Middle school is the perfect time to begin the process. Kids are still receptive to parents’ feedback and their schedules generally aren’t as busy as they’ll be in high school. Ask your sixth-grader what she dreams of being when she grows up. Then help her identify someone she can shadow for half a day. Take your seventh-grader to the bank and open a savings account. Brainstorm age-appropriate ways to start saving for college. Research summer service opportunities with your eighth-grader.  

Get connected: There are many people in the community who want to help your child succeed.

Middle schoolers can start researching colleges online to see what schools might be a good fit. 

Local companies may offer internships or job-shadow days or may sponsor special programs like STEM summer camps. Contact a community organization to see what volunteer opportunities might work for your child.

Make it a priority to get to know your school’s guidance counselor. These advisors are an important part of your education team and specialize in helping students set goals and carry out academic plans.

Ask for help:Preparing for college can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to go it alone. In 2014, I wrote Get Connected for College: The Savvy Students Guide to College Prep — a guide book for families with middle schoolers and high schoolers. Students learn how to master 100 College Competencies. It also includes a Milestone Map with handy checklists for grades 6 to 12. 

For families seeking one-on-one support, private college coaching is another option. Teens respond especially well to an objective professional who is encouraging and motivating. I consider it a great privilege to work with families during this special time. 

Connect with a caring adult: Zintia Villalobos dreams of being the first in her family to attend college. I was fortunate to be matched with Zintia through the Kinship of Greater Minneapolis mentoring program. 

In addition to fun activities, we’ve already been incorporating college prep into our time together and we plan to visit a college over fall break. 

As an eighth-grader, Zintia is taking honors classes and advanced Spanish and participates in her school’s choir. Her goals for this year include “trying to be really organized in school and being a leader for my younger sisters.” 

She’s already mastered several College Competencies (as outlined in my book) including Care for a Child, Calculate a Gratuity and Utilize Email. 

According to the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, relationships with caring adults and peers can increase student engagement and improve academic motivation. Students who experience developmental relationships get better grades, have higher aspirations for the future, and participate in college-preparatory activities more frequently.


Zintia Villalobos dreams of being the first in her family to attend college. She is participating in the Kinship of Greater Minneapolis mentoring program, a one-to-one youth-mentoring program for ages 5-15. According to the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, relationships with caring adults and peers can increase student engagement and improve academic motivation.

Enjoy the journey: The poem Babies Dont Keep by Ruth Hulburt Hamilton still tugs at my heart. The last stanza reads:

The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow

But children grow up, as Ive learned to my sorrow.

So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!

Im rocking my baby and babies dont keep.

Our middle schoolers and high schoolers grow up all too soon and will be on their own in no time. By preparing early and investing in their independence now, you can avoid sleepless nights worrying that you missed a milestone or a critical competency. 

Participate in service activities together. Celebrate milestones along the way. 

Stress be gone! Relax and enjoy the college-prep journey!


Beverly Gillen is a college coach, parent educator and founder of Partners in Parenting Consulting. She lives in Minnetonka with her husband and two daughters. Follow her work at partnersinparentingconsulting.com.