Plan Now for College, by Kellye Carter BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS. AUGUST 1999

     Two simple words can spell success for young people with college aspirations: Plan ahead.  Admission counselors say parents can give their children head starts by guiding choices of classes as early as junior high.  Students should take the most academically rigorous classes their abilities allow.  Have your child repeat that sentence three times each morning and night, and tape it to your refrigerator door.  College admission folks echo that like a mantra.
Students' academic histories are the number one factor determining who receives college acceptance letters.

Junior High  Course-selection mistakes here can derail hopes of attending certain colleges.  Many high-school classes are sequenced, meaning material learned in one is necessary to move to the next.  College experts say students should take advanced or honors classes when possible and that a foreign language is an excellent elective or exploratory class.
     "I would always encourage the student to challenge him or herself," says John Gaines, director of admissions at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.  "The struggle is better preparation for college than the easy A."
     This is a critical time for math.  Capable students should take pre-algebra and Algebra I before high school.  They shouldn't be pushed into classes for which they are unqualified, but by this age many students have decided they're bad at math and try to avoid higher classes.  Be vigilant in encouraging your children to stretch themselves.
     Act quickly when a child is struggling with math or other core subjects.  A tutor, perhaps a high school or college student, can help a younger student build skills and confidence while also serving as a role model.  Talk with the teachers and the principal, and if you believe your child is not getting the support he or she should be receiving, make immediate changes, says Urmi Kar, dean of enrollment at Whittler College, near Los Angeles.
A student's academic history determines college and career choices.
     Reading and writing also are crucial.  Boys often lag behind girls in these skills.  One way to "sneak" in writing practice at home, Kar says, is for children to keep a journal and to write letters to grandparents or others.
     "You can never do enough reading," says Kar, whose sons are 5 and 10.  "I drive my kids insane about that."
     Help your children understand how their classes are relevant to "real life" and how success in lower grade levels will lead to college and, afterward, higher earnings and good jobs, says Mike Williams, assistant vice president for admissions at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.  "This (education) is the vehicle that gets you where you want to go," he says.

Freshman Year  Students anxious and eager to start high school usually see college as a "very dim light at the end of a very long tunnel," says Mike Frantz, dean of enrollment services at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  But, he says, the first two years of high school are "incredibly important."  They provide a foundation of necessary skills and make up two-thirds of the grades college-admissions teams usually review.  Also, students who don't focus academically the first two years are not prepared for college-entrance exams.
     "Good grades matter," Frantz says, simply.  "If you get off on the wrong foot, it's a long uphill climb.
     Find out what is required for your child to graduate from high school, but be mindful that those are minimum standards and are usually inadequate for getting into college.  You and your child can learn about college requirements by visiting college fairs, talking with admissions representatives, and asking high-school counselors.
     Many colleges require four years of English and recommend three or four years each of science, math, and social sciences. Some colleges require a foreign language for admission.  If not required, it becomes a strong addition to a transcript.  Students should be ready to tackle Algebra I this year if they haven't already taken the course.

Sophomore Year  Involvement outside the classroom coupled with good grades indicates that a student probably has what it takes to manage time well in college, Gaines says.  Your teenager doesn't need to be captain of every sport or president of every club, he says.  Admissions counselors are less impressed with students who spread themselves too thin than with those who dedicate themselves to a few key pursuits, such as school clubs, music, theater, sports, and religious or volunteer organizations.
     "It doesn't matter what it is," Williams says.  "It's something they've poured their soul into.
     This is also a good time for families to begin investigating schools, perhaps by driving through a campus during a vacation or taking a "virtual tour" on the Internet.  Very high achievers will probably take the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT) and the ACT test this year.
     Don't make the mistake of focusing too much on your child's career plans, Kar says.  "Jobs for the next century haven't even been created."

Junior Year  Encourage your teenager to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes-college-leve1 courses taught in high schools--if they're offered.  They shine on a transcript like fireworks on a black night.
     "They're about as rigorous as you can get in a high-school setting," Wllliams says. "Students are essentially competing in a college-level course."
     Students whose high schools don't offer AP classes aren't penalized, but they should take the most challenging classes they can, perhaps through a local community college.  Some school districts even pick up the tab.
     Many parents and teens worry that an AP class might jeopardize the all important grade-point average.  Admissions officials are emphatic about this: A lower grade in an AP class is better than a higher grade in an easier class.
     Increasingly, this is the year students take college-entrance exams, so they have time to retake the tests if they feel they could do better.  Many take the PSAT in the fall and the SAT and ACT in the spring.

Senior Year  Students usually take college-entrance exams in the fall, the same time they generally apply to colleges.  The application deadline for many schools is January 1 and sometimes as early as November.
     College-admissions teams look for trends; they like to see grades improving.  The University of Michigan, for example, would be hesitant to admit a student whose grades had dropped, even if she or he still met admissions requirements, says Marilyn McKinney, associate director of admissions.
     On the other hand, a student with a lackluster academic record can make up ground with a strong senior year.  If your teen is a poor student who has improved, be sure he or she includes an explanation in the application packet.  Your teen needs to show that past mistakes won't be repeated.  For example, "I used to study one hour a week, but now I study 10 hours a week."
     A great ACT or SAT score can help a C student, but a student who scores very well but has poor high-school grades is a greater admissions risk than a student with average-to-poor test scores but good grades, Gaines says.  "We want to fill a class with people who will graduate," he says.  A student who has the ability but has been unmotivated should schedule an admissions interview to sell him or herself to the school, Frana says.  "I think honesty is the best policy," he says.  "We've heard most of the excuses."
     College officials recommend that students apply to a range of schools.  A "safe" school is one where students know they have the grades and test scores to be accepted. (Check with the admissions office to make sure.)  Many state universities have more generous admissions policies for in-state students, and community colleges enroll any high-school graduate.
     High school isn't over on that glorious day when the acceptance letter arrives.  Senior slackers can find their college admissions revoked.
     "We do it every year," says McKinney of Michigan.  "We've pulled them out of orientation sessions and told them to go home."  It is distressing for the student, the parents, and the college staff, she says, but there is a correlation between students who slide their senior year and those who fall into academic trouble their freshman year of college.
     Keep this in mind if the hoped-for acceptance notice does not arrive: There are more college spaces available than students to fill them, says Rose Rennekamp, vice president of communications for ACT.
     "There absolutely is a college education for every student that wants it,"  Rennekamp says. "I'm not sure there really is a bad college education.  If you can find an educational institution that can meet you where you're at and take you to the next level, that's a good college education."