Prepare your middle-schooler for college

Feb 03, 2011

Even in middle school, there are a few easy things (and some more challenging steps) students can do to up their chances at a college admission. Join Jay Mathews to discuss these tactics.

At least I think I am a bit early. Since the power went out last week I have found my 30-year-old electric Panda clock with the numbers in Chinese somewhat erratic. Feel free, if I do not get to your question, or answer it poorly, to email me at I am also happy if you denounce me on my blog, Anything that ups my page views helps my career.

Don't you think you should start stressing kids out in kindergarten for college admissions instead of waiting till MS? I mean, my goodness, why wait six years before turning them into neurotic messes?

 Oh dear. I hope you have a chance to read the piece before consigning me to the ranks of commentators wanting to pressure kids. I tell parents they should NOT pressure kids, not even mention college, but prepare them for the pressures they see all around them in creative and healthy ways, like encouraging them to read and pursue activities they enjoy. There is no way for middle schoolers in the area to avoid the college angst we know so well. But we can help defend them against it.

How do you suggest helping an older middle-schooler pick classes for ninth grade that will give him a strong base to start high school and further prepare for college?

 The high schools in most of the suburban districts in this area, and most areas, have counselors that are well tuned to what is needed. My only concern is that in some schools, counselors look at some kids and say, Oh, she just isn't ready for a challenge. Often they reach this conclusion based on the kid's middle school grades, or what her parents do for a living. That is a really bad way to measure a student's  potential.

      All students who want to go to college should take ninth grade courses that put them on the track to take Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or AICE college-level courses when they are juniors and seniors. Ask the counselor about that. If they are NOT on that track, or the counselor does not answer the question, go to the principal and ask why. And email me.

     Course selection in ninth grade is vital. They should be in an English course and a social studies course that encourages lots of writing, a science course that has labs, a math class that is at least Algebra I (better to take this in eighth grade) and a foreign language.


Why doesn't the US ever have a debate about three years of college? Other countries do that and seem to outperform us. Why isn't that an option?

I know of no country that outperforms us in which college is only a three year plan. Which countries are you speaking of? I have never heard this mentioned by any expert as a reason why some countries prepare their students better than we do. In some countries it may look like it is a three year program, but that is only because what we consider the first year of college is called by them something else, and often looks like the last year of high school. Giving our students less college than they have now makes little sense to me, unless they have gotten a lot of college courses in high school.

Am I being naive or clueless? I have a rising middle-schooler and a current sophomore. I am so frustrated by the latter child's counselor (who doesn't know her at all) whose advice is all about "building the transcript." Not about the course load, the options for meeting academic requirements vs. stress triggers, etc. This is the mantra it seems. All about going through the expected motions to get it on paper for the college admissions people to see. What about the child? Why must it all be geared to the race at an even younger age such as middle-schoolers? It really disgusts me, and if I had any cash beyond day-to-day needs I would pull my kids out of public school and put them in a crunchy alternative setting where SOLs were not the main focus of the curriculum and grades not the "score" of a good student and candidate for college, and issues revolve around the well-being of the kids as opposed to marching in the sheep line to doing what is expected to get into college. So back to my question: Am I being obtuse or can my kids make it into a decent school without towing the build-the-transcript line? (BTW, they aren't stupid. Their grades are all As sprinkled with a few Bs.)

The answer to your excellent question is a definite yes. The counselor sounds pretty clueless. Go talk to the principal about that, or to a teacher at the school you trust. They will be able to explain, or maybe see what the counselor is trying to say, with the wrong words.

   A student with the sort of grades you describe, as long as they are in courses that challenge the student, and meet your standards of excellent and cohesion, are going to do fine in the college hunt. You are the sort of parent who is immune to the resume building culture. Good. Take a look at my book, "Harvard Schmarvard," and see how many great college options you will have that are not in the US News Top 50, and how many extraordinarily successful people went to college you never heard of.

    Also, we have excellent alternative school public options, such as the School Without Walls in DC or HB-Woodlawn in Arlington. Ask around.

Jay, I like and support your list of things to assist middle schoolers, with some amendments: 3. Not every eighth grader is mentally-developed enough to take algebra. I was one of those high IQ, high test-scoring kids who was thrown into algebra that year. When I just wasn't able to grasp the concepts, I went from being one of the lauded bright kids to the class dummy, permanently damaging my self esteem. What I'd recommend instead is my own number 9. Introduce your child to all sorts of fields, such as economics, geography, logic or philosophy, so that when these electives are offered in high school their interest is piqued and they can be encouraged to take such classes. Every year I see hundreds of college freshmen enter the student ranks with no grounding in the subjects that make them think for themselves. I'm not denying that math is important, but students would help themselves and make better use of their time at college if they didn't rely on their limited (and expensive) time studying intro courses half the time and instead had the background to jump into the "meaty" stuff available to them at the college level.

  Your strategy is excellent. I wish I had thought of your number 9. I recommend it to everyone. But I would also be careful of this notion, very popular a few decades ago, that many kids weren't developmentally ready for algebra in eighth grade. It turned out many of those kids were in low-income families, and when the College Board experimented with the Equity 2000 program (subject of a book I have just written) which required all ninth graders in some urban districts to take algebra, they found that half of those kids, who had been  shunted aside even from 9th grade algebra, did well. The data I have seen suggest this is more of a teaching problem than a developmental problem. We are not teaching math in the earlier grades in a way that will prepare many kids who need more help for algebra in 8th grade. But if we changed the way we teach math in those grades, many more would be ready. Google the civil rights leader Robert Moses, and see what he has been doing for several decades to get more kids ready for algebra.

Many parents may start in middle school but in reality it starts so early. It's the trips to the library, the books in the homes, access to newspapers and magazines, in the DC area the many FREE things that exist, the parents' attitude towards the importance of education, stable home environment.

   I could not have said it better. Thank you.

I strongly agree with the suggestion of fitting college visits in with younger kids. I took my son to Williamsburg when he was about 13, and we toured William and Mary. I clearly remember him looking at the information about the school, seeing the average SAT scores and GPAs and then asking "Is that good?" Well before high school we had started the conversation about what it took to get into a school. He had an idea of what he needed to shoot for.

  Exactly. I have often suggested that even high schoolers' first visits to college campuses should be casual and low-pressure. Don't take a clipboard and grill the faculty. Just walk around, listen, eat in the cafeteria, and have some fun. Save the careful vetting of everything there for AFTER the student gets in, and has to make a choice. A carefree attitude toward campus visits will also send the right message to younger children along for the ride---college can be an adventure, not a chore.

After graduating college and living on my own for a few years, I began to think that my high school years had too much focus on college. I was in all of the honors and advanced placement classes that I could take. I was involved in a few school clubs, but I never took any type of art class. All of my electives were science related. Outside of school, my part time job was a high priority if I wanted to have enough money to pay for school. My parents would pay some money, but not all of it. I remember missing out on home coming and other school events so I could work and earn money. You could say it worked since I went to college and got both my BS and MS degrees without needing a student loan, but I feel like I missed out on part of my childhood. I also feel like I missed out on the chance to take art, drawing and photography classes. There has to be a way to prepare for college without giving up on such opportunities.

  This is a great question. One problem for you, and other conscientious students, is that you think the top colleges want to see transcripts that are nothing but AP courses. Not so. Speak to the admissions directors at those colleges and they will tell you if you have three to five APs (or IBs or AICEs), you are fine. You will be in the maybe pile with everyone else who has a chance, and your admission will be determined by the depth of your activities (do one or two very seriously--don't do a lot) and teacher recommendations and luck. If you had given yourself  a chance to explore your interest in art, that would have made you even more interesting to them. Remember number one in my list of ways for parents to help: notice what your kids like to do that seems to be healthy and engaging, and help them do more of it.

My tenth grader wants a gap year. I'm all for it. (It was my idea.) She is already burned out on AP classes and sports. The formal organizations that offer gap or bridge year programs are pricey and seem like vacations. I was thinking she would bank some $$, maybe do a long service project and go surf. Is gap really synonymous with rich teens out and about?

  Sadly, it usually is. But it is a good idea. It seemed to me I just read something smart about this, on how to avoid the preprogrammed plans and get the kind of experience that is best for your child. Google gap year and see what comes up. There are many smart people who have written about this. I include a chapter on that in Harvard Schmarvard. I think if the activity is engaging and fulfilling to the student, and does not encourage bad habits like sleeping all day, it is worth a try. Even a job at the mall might qualify. Go with what makes sense to you.

My daughter (sixth grade) is interested in William and Mary. I thought about meeting with someone in admissions next year to find out what she can do in high school to better her chances of getting accepted. I am specifically interested in AP vs IB. She is currently enrolled in a Montessori school, and we do not have any high schools in Richmond that practice Montessori principles. Am I crazy to do this? I am honestly not all that impressed with IB after talking with some students and parents who have done it for four years at the high school. Our public school system also has some specialized academies: math, science, arts, leadership, etc., as well as a governor's school, and is rumored to be putting together a college prep academy that would give students enough credits for an associate's degree at the community college level when they graduate from high school.

Google my name with AP vs. IB and you will find a ton of stuff. This is my specialty area. My book on IB is "Supertest." It is straightforward, and gives my view that AP and IB are both great, but that IB has a slight advantage because of its emphasis on writing and the wonderful required Theory of Knowledge course.

    You should consult with yr student about what makes the most sense to him or her. Getting a Montesorri experience in a high school is hard to do, but there are some small and expensive private schools that do that. And some public alternative schools, and charter schools, that also try not to be too routinized. Virginia is blessed with great high schools of every sort. I think a chat with an admissions person at W and M is a great idea. Don't wait. The sooner you harvest some fresh and well-informed ideas on this the better.

What do you think about a kid who gets all As in seventh grade (public school), but does no work at home (or very little)? Doesn't study for tests and probably is doing homework during the few minutes that the class is recessed before moving onward. Do I need to make him sit for an hour and do something at home, or just hope that he rises to increasing challenges as they present themselves in high school?

I would go with the latter. The former sounds deadly. I have run across several such students and sometimes they keep these habits, because they are so smart, well into high school. It is best to let them handle the situation as best they can, unless they are flunking out, and then you have to take action---a less structured school is often the solution, or home schooling. They are smart. They will be successful. You just have to make sure the high school years are not unnecessarily painful.

Prepare your middle schooler? People are now preparing their own lifstyles to pass along better genetics before conception. Are we getting a little obsessive in overpreparing for events years ahead? I am not arguing against doing it, but sometimes I fear people become so obsessed they lose proper focus.

Are you advocating Lysenkoism? I did not know acquired lifestyle traits could be passed on genetically.

If a person is already 12 years old and doesn't enjoy reading, does that person really belong in college? There are so many great kids' books that it seems like a kid who doesn't like them just doesn't like the whole "wordy" schtick that college is all about. Maybe instead of staging "reading nights" these parents would be doing their kids a favor to have "carpentry weekend" or "plumbing day."

Twelve years old is way too early to give up on reading. Just keep leaving books around. Read to them yourself each night at bedtime. In most cases it will sink in, and if it doesn't, then yes, look for other ways they can get ready for the world, and a life that doesn't require much reading. There are lots of good lives like that.

You mentioned "make sure they take and finish Algebra I by the end of eighth grade." I would suggest Make sure they LEARN algebra WELL by the end of eighth grade. Far too many kids are crippled from ever progressing in mathor engineering because they never really learned their algebra even though they took it. What a waste of talent.

 Yes. I should have made that clear. Our schools do a pretty good job at this, but parents have to be vigilant. Sometimes they miss the boat and the parent has to find a tutor or a better teacher or better school.

As a college/grad school graduate, I think it would be great if some college students who need more time to complete college were not pressured to finish in three or four years. I think each individual should go at their own pace. For me, it was four years but it would been nice if I had more time. But finances kept me from doing one more year of college. I think middle schoolers and high schoolers should enjoy their time in school, and take courses that will enhance them to prepare for college. Just my two cents.

Quite right. and colleges are set up to respond to different paces.

Ok, let's be realistic. Not every middle schooler is on middle school level when they arrive. How do you prepare a middle schooler operating on a third grade level (which is not as uncommon as you think) for college when they aren't even ready for middle school? And I understand that programs like KIPP are available, but not for every child. How do you help the child who is so severely behind without stressing them out or causing them to give up on school entirely?

KIPP is not the only school network set up to help such children. Check in with your local KIPP or similar charter school and ask THEM where the good teachers and good schools are, if they don't have room for you themselves.

In New Zealand, BA, B.Com and BSc degrees are three years. There is no prep year between high school and university. NZ outperforms the US in reading, science and math.

Thanks for that very useful information. But there are a lot of other reasons, many of them demographic, why comparing us to NZ is not a useful comparison.

Loved the article! One more piece of advice. Keep your children engaged in real world uses of math. Have them calculate the discount when you use your 40 percent off coupon. Let them bake cookies but have them double the recipe. I have lots of book-smart students who cannot quickly add up 10 digits and compute the mean. They are lost without calculators. They realize it too but feel helpless to change. THANKS!

Very smart, professor.

We are in the midst of preparing our daughter to select high school classes as a rising ninth grader. We are tempted to put her in on-level classes for every subject, but she really wants to take Honors English. She is not verbally gifted. She is currently in Algebra 1 as an eighth grader and is fine. Can you tell us if just having on-level HS classes is enough for college?

Oh dear. I can hear many honors teachers screaming in my ear:  The kid WANTS to be challenged in my class and the parent is resisting???!! NEVER get in the way of a student who wants to be stretched, unless it is something really dangerous like stunt driver school.

When I dropped calculus my senior year of high school my guidance counselor was very disapproving and stated that I would never get into UVA. I didn't want to go to UVA or apply there, but I did not appreciate her lack of support. At any rate, I happily attended a great college (my first choice) that had no judgment about my lack of advanced math skills. As long as you encourage your kids to make choices that suit them they will find a college that works for them (and wants them!).

Exactly right.

Jay, wondering what you think (and hoping to have some evidence) about how agressively parents should steer both college and career choices of kids who think they've already decided in middle school. My determined, straight-A student daughter already has a short list of colleges -- only one that I would choose for her -- and she's hot for a career I think is shooting too low for her. She has an aptitude and love for math/science, and I see the endless possibilities in this realm for young women! She rolls her eyes at me. Do I go along to get along at this early stage, or outright tell her now that her list of colleges/career is not one that I'd feel good paying for? (For one thing, she's aiming too low on the colleges, I think.) I know she might grow and change, but I'm afraid if I don't outright nix her early plans, they might solidify. Thanks!

You already know the answer. With a student of that tender age, smile and say nothing. A student that smart is going to eventually see the options you know she could handle. She will learn this from her counselors, her teachers, but most particularly her friends, who will include kids just as smart who have different views. If she gets to be a senior and still has these ambitions, I would let her go have them. They will either make her happy, which is what you want, right?, or they will make her unhappy and she will find something else, probably something on your list. But if she remembers that you kept throwing that option at her, she might reject it even then. All you should do is make sure that whatever her choices, she is working hard to get to a place where she can make them.

How do you develop or inspire intrinsic motivation in a middle schooler? It seems at this age they are wired to be social and to copy their peers. So if your middle schooler hangs about with a group of "non-motivated" peers that's what they'll do.

Be a good example yourself. Read widely in the same room where they are, with the TV off. Discuss interesting subjects at the dinner table. Eat healthy. Exercise. And in particular show how much you love your kids. With children seeking motivation in life, action speaks much louder than words. Scattering a lot of books around is also good.

As a person who is more middle aged than middle school, I've noticed that many peers with expensive advanced degrees from top colleges have become more or less unemployable while some of those who studied a vocation decades ago are likely to be able to continue working well past normal retirement age. There was a time when an Ivy League degree was the Golden Ticket, butI  wonder if trying to push 100 percent of kids into 1 percent of colleges still makes sense.

It makes no sense. Read my book and then read a new book, Debt-Free U, which shows how a student can prepare for a great life at an average state college. It is a brilliant book, by a college senior, Zac Bissonnette.

My daughter is a well-rounded kid and a fine student. Everyone I know seems to be steering their middle school kids to pick one thing and excel to give them a competitive edge for college. I think kids are too young to be pidgeonholed at this age and want my kids to be exploring lots of things. Do the good colleges still want well-rounded kids these days?

Sigh. What a good question. The answer, I realize, is distressing to those of us who like the idea of well roundedness. The answer is no, at least for the most selective schools. They want to see what they call a passion, some activity that the kid is engrossed in and has taken to great depth. Well-roundedness will not get you into those schools. But it will get you into plenty of others just as good, but less selective. Read the first chapter of Harvard Schmarvard. Just scan it at a book store, and you will see all the famous and well rounded people who never attended the Ivy League.

My middle schooler is showing an interest in learning about the SAT. Any thoughts on how to discuss it with my child? Also, steps she can take to prepare for it while in middle school?

The more she reads for pleasure, the better she will do on the SAT. So scatter books around, read to her at bedtime. It is all about reading. Tell her that, and then encourage her to go online and read about the SAT herself.  (And make sure she has algebra by 8th grade, and good math teachers.)

@ Too much focus -- so you are out of grad school now, debt free? Wow. That's great. Go sign up for some art classes, or volunteer with a community theater. You missed some of your youth but your no-secure adulthood likely has a bit of extra cash for the fun stuff you missed. So, go get these things now and look forward, not back.

Great advice.

Family dinner time can be a great way to encourage communication with one's children. It's not the place to harangue about behavior or grades, but to open up topics about ethics, memories, what's on YouTube, game theory, general science, politics/civics, etc. It's a great venue for children to learn to express a viewpoint, interact with adults and practice discourse. It is also the place where children can learn such amazing facts (often to their horror) as dad sang with an a capella group in college and mom spent a college summer working for the Committee to Reelect the President. The possibilities are endless.


My husband is a high school math teacher whose "honors" students are "honors" because they can add. He blames a lot of this on the too-early push for math skills to those who just can't handle it. I applaud Montgomery County for taking a step back from their previous policies. I just can't agree that all students should be in Algebra I in eighth grade.

Montgomery's step back is still giving us at least 75 percent of eighth graders completing algebra eventually. The step back was mostly about 6th and 7th graders. That's okay. But you need to be ready for high school science, and for that you need some algebra. It is not that tough, if well taught.

How do you solve the problem of moving a lot? When I was a kid, I went to five schools from K-5, and each of them taught basic things at different times. For example, I never learned my multiplication tables. How do you counteract this type of problem in a very mobile society?

A very good question. I think developing in your children a habit of reading for pleasure will solve most of the problem. They will then be able to adjust to changes in schools more rapidly by reading up on what they might have missed. You also need to make sure the new school knows that your kid is ready for more than they think she is. Encourage them to talk to the child, give her placement tests. Don't get put on the slow track just because they don't know you. As for math, I think parents who move that much have to become their child's math tutors, and keep them up to speed.

What if you're in Fairfax County? There is no KIPP, no charter school. Who do you ask then? Yes, the public schools here are very good (VERY good) but there are still students left behind.

  Fairfax County has some of the best teachers, and the best schools, in the country for catching kids up who are behind grade level. Go talk to the middle school principal nearest you. She will have some excellent advice.

I have several much-younger cousins who, when they were twelve, were assumed to be non-readers because they didn't like to read any of the many books relatives gave them. So I gave them magazine subscriptions: Sports Illustrated, Nationa'l Geographic (the adult version), Smithsonian, etc. They devoured those. All went on to college and are quite successful in their courses of study.

A brilliant suggestion. My favorite reading at that age was Sports Illustrated. Only when I became a professional writer did I realize I was getting there some of the best writing in the country.

Not sure what this person meant, but "building the transcript" often means a) taking challenging classes, and b) having a record of involvement in extracurriculars. Both sound like great advice.

Exactly. That is why I suggested that questioner talk to a trusted teacher for a translation.

I was that kid and it did last well into high school, even with my AP courses. Quite frankly, it lasted well into college. Chances are s/he's just bored and able to do the work more easily than his peers. I learned when I needed to do the work to get the grades I needed, when I didn't and decided not to sweat the small stuff. If I could quielty do my homework at lunch or when a teacher was blathering on about a book I understood when I read it, then so be it.

That is usually the case. We parents need to chill out, usually. Sometimes, however, the situation is more difficult.

Hear hear! I totally agree with you! Unfortunately, many teachers who go into teaching young kids hate math. Those who are good at teaching math end up in middle or high schools. Younger kids don't necessarily understand math because of the teachers and end up 'hating math' too!! I also think that everyone learns differently, which is why math curriculums keep changing. It works for some and not others, so they change it so that 'everyone' learns, when in the end mostly everyone just has a different way of understanding math. So ALL of the different ways need to be taught, to different students. But that all would take a lot of time and effort, and our school systems seem to just want to introduce "new math" every few years.

You are right. But I think math instruction is making more sense these days.

I work in Ballston for DOD. I also work with a lawyers and administrative law judges. We go across the street to Ballston Common Mall. Some of the folks I work with snicker at the automotive techs from American Service Center. I told one administrative judge that Mercedes pays for their schooling; it's about a two-year program. They are guaranteed employment. When they reach journeyman level after a few years of working they split the labor rate with American Service Center. So at about 27 years old they are making about $130K or more and billing 40 to 50 hours of billable labor a week. With bonuses probably over a $150k. Beats four years of college and three years of law school and your work a 40-hour week. No 100-hour work weeks at a law firm. You have a life.

What a wonderfully true insight. Thank you. Readers of continue to amaze me.

Find what they are interested in and encourage that. Independent research is more valuable and a better indicator of career prep than middle school or high school work.


One of the things I always suggest to parents is to have a date/dates with their child to the library or quality bookstore. Go to the college reference section and select some of the many college guides that list all of the more than 3,000 institutions and their entrance requirements, locations, size of student body majors, etc. Look at several as they are written from different perspectives. Let your child explore the options.

I think this makes sense, but only for the child who has shown an interest in college. It will turn off many kids, particularly of middle school age.


  These were great questions. Thank you. If you need me, just email me at

In This Chat
Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. He writes Class Struggle. Read his latest column, "8 subtle ways to prepare middle-schoolers for college."
Recent Chats
  • Next: