Even if you’re successful in eliminating all concerns about which specific college is attended, there are always going to be things that need to get done in preparing for college that will create some stress for students and parents. This section is aimed at providing some ways to reduce that inevitable stress.

Course Selection

8th grade

Make sure you understand all of the requirements for graduation at the high school, as well as how many courses can realistically fit into a schedule each year. Make a 4-year plan for getting all requirements completed. Be flexible in your thinking about this; things don’t always go as planned. Ask your high school counselor for help, if necessary.

Make sure you know the policy for schedule changes at the high school, as well as how easy it is to make changes if they are necessary. This can vary significantly from one school to another. Don’t assume that changes will be allowed or be possible to make happen logistically if a course doesn’t work out.

Also, look at what non-required courses are available in any areas the student has a special interest. Figuring out how and when these courses can be fit into the schedule before even beginning high school can help enormously in making it happen. Again, the high school counselor is a great resource for help with anything pertaining to schedules.

All grades

At the time of course selection each year, make whatever adjustments are necessary to your 4-year plan.

Taking a course load that is challenging but also allows you to be successful (all A’s and B’s) is the best way to prepare for college. But be realistic. Consider the schedule within the context of everything else the student has going on (activities, family obligations, social life), and keep a watchful eye on how they’re handling it all.

They may need to be flexible and cut back somewhere if it’s turning out to be too much. Each student has their own individual circumstances and capacity for dealing with those circumstances, and each needs to be considered within the context of their own lives and not compared to others. Balance is as important to them as it is to us, and many will need guidance on figuring out how much they can handle.



Students need only submit one or the other of SAT scores or ACT scores to colleges that require testing. Most students’ scores will be roughly comparable on the SAT and ACT, but for some the difference (in percentiles) can be significant. Figuring out early on if one is a better fit than the other can save a lot of stress trying to figure it out in junior or senior year when there are so many other demands.

ACT and College Board, which administers the SAT, both offer free online preparation for their exams, including practice questions and full-length tests. Full prep doesn’t need to begin until the summer before 11th grade, but at least looking at some questions from each section of both tests early on to see if one seems preferable can be very helpful. Again, most students will not have a strong preference. But some will.

Note: It will be easier to determine which test is better for math after the student has completed Geometry and Algebra 2.

Test Calendar

For students taking a rigorous schedule and planning to apply to the most selective colleges, testing can get a little crazy. This is especially true in junior year. Planning well ahead of time when to take them can go a long way toward reducing stress. When there are options to choose from, take everything into account that’s going on at various times of the year, including other tests.

AP tests are always in early to mid-May. Remember that they’ll be studying for final exams in May or June, too. Keep in mind that test dates for a second and possibly third try at the SAT or ACT need to be available.

Does the student play a spring or fall sport that will impact testing? Any other types of performances going on at the same time of year as testing? Any major non-school events going on that might interfere? Weddings? Family vacations?

Writing it all down as things take shape will help to avoid issues.

SAT-optional colleges

If the stress of testing is impacting a student’s mental or physical health in a big way, or if it just turns out that their test scores aren’t commensurate with their class grades, Fairtest.org has a list of over 1000 colleges that no longer require either the SAT or the ACT. Almost all are liberal arts colleges so far, but it will be interesting to see how many schools that suspended the testing requirement during the pandemic decide to make that move permanent.


Students should be encouraged to pursue their passions. A few decades ago, colleges were looking for well-rounded students. Now they’re much more likely looking for a well-rounded student body. No need to push them to add an activity in an area in which they have no interest. No need to plan their summers around service projects in other countries if they’d rather be playing sports. No need to have them doing anything other than what they’re excited about.

If theirs is one of the more typical activities like sports, music, acting, dance, Scouting, etc…..great! If it’s a less common activity like birding, stage crew, robotics, ceramics or whatever……that’s great, too! And if they haven’t yet developed any passions, point out to them what you notice they seem to get excited about and gently suggest ways they might delve deeper into it. No pressure needed. If they’re not excited on their own, then it’s not a passion.

By the way, reading is absolutely an activity. If your son or daughter is that kid who’s got their head buried in a book any time they’re not involved in something else, encourage them to keep a record of everything substantial they read that’s not required for classes, then submit that list to colleges; I’ve seen some very impressive lists–from fiction to philosophy to physics–that have no doubt impacted how the student was seen by admissions officers.

Working at a job is also considered an activity. If, for whatever reason, your child puts in substantial time working, they should keep a record of the start and end dates for each job, as well as an estimate of the number of hours a week. This will help in filling out applications.

The College Search

Big picture questions

Most kids aren’t ready to start the college search in earnest until 11th grade. This is fine. There are some easy steps that many will be ready for before then, though, that can help start the process of narrowing down the search. Asking some big picture questions as your kids seem ready for them is a great way to get started.

Do they know if it’s important for them to be close to a big city or close to home? Or is the opposite true? Is the size of the school important to them? Are they going to be looking for the academic support (IEP or 504 Plan) they receive at school to continue in college as much as possible? (Colleges don’t use these plans, but some are much better than others at providing the same kinds of support services.) Are school spirit and sports teams important? How about specific clubs or music opportunities? Anything else?

No need to rush them or bring everything up all at once at this point. Working these questions into a conversation as they fit in naturally in 9th and 10th grades should be fairly easy. Some of these are questions that students may be able to answer definitively without much consideration, and this will help them start to get a picture of what they’re looking for. For others, they may discover that they’re very flexible when it comes to many of the basics and can make their decisions on where to apply based on other factors. This is good to know, too.

Campus visits

Visiting campuses will also start to show them what kinds of options there are, and you can do this without much effort even before they’re ready for official campus visits. If your family is taking a road trip, look at which campuses are near your route and at least take a quick drive through.

Local trips can be an opportunity to see some of the options, too, even if they know they don’t want to stay close to home. In the Philadelphia area, for instance, seeing Drexel, Penn and Temple will give them a good feel for a city campus. Chestnut Hill College or Swarthmore’s campus will show them what a gorgeous small school setting might feel like.

You don’t even have to get out of the car if they aren’t ready to walk around yet. The goal is to relieve some of the potential later stress by starting to get them thinking about things earlier.

College Applications

When applying to college, most students do what they do for schoolwork–they wait until the deadline is almost upon them to begin. But with schoolwork, this is mostly out of necessity, because they usually don’t know the assignment until shortly before it’s due. With college applications, much of what will be asked of them can be known well in advance. Because of this, the work can be spread out over a significant period of time, allowing students to take advantage of less busy periods like the summer. Spreading out the work will inevitably reduce stress.

Since most of the schools they’re applying to will accept the CommonApp, and most students will choose to use this time saver, it behooves them to become familiar with what CommonApp asks for each year. One of the bigger things they’ll be asked on this application and others is how many hours a week and during which time frame students pursued each of their activities. Keeping track of this as you go along will reduce some stress down the road. No need to document every minute, but having a general record will keep you from having to piece it together months or years after the fact.

The essays on most college applications, including the CommonApp, don’t change a whole lot from year to year. No need to write them years in advance–in fact it’s better to wait both in order to develop better writing skills and to have more experience from which to speak. However, knowing beginning in the summer before junior year what you’re likely to be asked to write about can help in beginning to consider what topics make sense and how you might want to approach those subjects. The further along students are when deadlines approach, the less stressed out they’ll be in senior year.

Paying for College

Paying for college is, of course, one of the bigger stressors most parents face. Getting started on figuring out how much it will cost will help you to plan better and to hopefully reduce some of the associated stress.

Everyone who applies for financial aid fills out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA for short. Many colleges will also expect you to fill out a CSS Profile, which goes into significantly more detail with questions about your finances.

You should be doing this in October every year, beginning in their senior year of high school.The FAFSA uses income information from two years ago (prior-prior year), allowing most people to automatically link their income information from the IRS into the FAFSA while completing the form. You want to do it this early in order to make the deadlines that some places set for having the information on file, which will keep you from missing out on aid opportunities for which you might be eligible. Make sure you know schools’ deadlines, which are not the same as admissions deadlines.

Although this starts in the student’s senior year of high school, you don’t have to wait until then if you want to get an idea of what you might be eligible for. FAFSA’s online website allows you to fill out financial information and receive an Expected Family Contribution, or EFC for short. This will show you what the Federal government expects you’re able to contribute annually to your child’s college education, given your current circumstances; subtracting the EFC from the cost of any given school will give you an approximation of how much aid you’ll qualify for (not necessarily receive). This number will, of course, change as your financial situation evolves.

Another thing you can do now that will give you a feel for what a specific college will cost is to fill out their Net Price Calculator. Every college should have this available on their website, and it will allow you to give your financial information and will show you an estimate of what it would cost to go there. Keep in mind that this resource only considers need-based aid, so if your child qualifies for merit-based aid—whether it’s academic merit, athletic merit, or some other measure of merit—the cost could be significantly lower.

There are many excellent resources on the web and in your local library that will explain 529 savings plans and many other ways to approach paying for college that you might not even have been aware of. It’s well worth your time to seek out some of these resources to see if there’s anything you’ve overlooked.

One more thing. If, along the way, you figure out that there will be financial limitations on where your child can apply to college, I’d encourage you to share this with them as soon as you deem appropriate. The longer you wait, the more stressful and disappointing that conversation is likely to be.