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It's never too early to start planning for college

Updated:   01/06/2010 10:59:48 AM EST

Tuesday, February 5
Editor's note: This is the first of a monthly column dealing with education planning for college- and secondary school-bound students.

When a student in my educational counseling practice asked me why he should go to college, I jokingly responded that private college could cost his parents nearly $50,000 per year. There is hardly better revenge a teenager can exact upon his parents than saddling them with such a bill.

If there is a mantra in today's college admissions process it is "plan ahead." This applies as much to gaining entrance to an appropriate school as it does to paying the ever-burgeoning tuition costs. Happily there is a lot of help available to students and their families, as they face the sometimes bewildering, always stressful, all-important step of college planning.

The journey to college starts long before the time a high school senior fills out applications. The life experiences, education, and savings, necessary to attend college ideally start from earliest childhood. For instance, college savings plans should be started years before matriculation, for the simple reason that it takes a long time to save so much money. Likewise developing the study habits and skills necessary to succeed in college must begin in grade school.

Although most students and their families don't really begin thinking about college in earnest until the junior year of high school, this isn't really early enough. Increasingly competitive admissions standards mean that selective colleges now consider an applicant's entire high school career, not just the junior and first half of senior year, as was the case in the past.

At whatever grade level a student currently is, it helps to know what colleges are really looking for in an applicant. There are a lot of myths about this, but the truth is actually very straightforward. Above all, the primary factor most colleges consider is the rigor of an applicant's secondary school record. Colleges want to see good grades and a choice of courses that reflect that the student has challenged himself.

Most colleges require that applicants take something like four years of English, four of math, three of science, three of foreign language and two of social studies, or history. But beyond this, colleges like to see students choosing rigorous electives, such as advanced level courses, honors, or advanced placement (AP) courses.

The latter are intended to be college level courses, on varied subjects, taken during high school, with an end of year nationally administered test.

The national AP exams are graded on a scale of 1 to 5 with many colleges offering credit to those students who earn a 4 or higher on a given subject test. For ambitious and adept students, it is possible to earn more than a semester of college credits, through AP exams, while still in high school. This offers the chance to save money on college tuition, since the credits have been completed in high school and to directly enroll in advanced level courses in college.

It is not necessary to take honors or AP courses to be a successful college applicant. The point is that today's colleges present rich academic opportunities and with such a fabulous intellectual smorgasbord on offer, they want to be sure they are admitting students who will step up and eat hardy.

Students, who avail themselves of challenging academics in high school, are seen as likely to do the same at the collegiate level. It's not just a matter of loading up on AP courses, but rather taking a diverse selection of challenging classes. Students should challenge themselves all four years of high school, but the real goal is to learn and have fun. Getting into the college of one's choice is really an added benefit to being well-educated.

Next month I will discuss some other major admissions factors colleges look for, including the role of standardized testing.

Michael Wilner is the founder and principal of Wilner Education, an international educational planning practice, based in Putney, specializing in secondary school and college placement. Contact him at


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