02/14/2013 05:27 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

5 Ways to Prep for College Right Now

by Suzanne Shaffer for

College preparation does not begin with the student's senior year. Ideally, it should start their freshman year of high school. In a perfect world, middle school is the best place to begin. That might seem early, but early planning and preparation gives your student the time to create an academic and extracurricular profile that will appeal to college admission counselors. Don't focus on catch-up. Instead, start where you and your child are right now. Make a plan that fits well with your schedule and lifestyle and still stresses the importance of higher education.

Here are five ways your student can begin to prepare for college now, no matter what year in school they are.

1. Focus on academics

A student's GPA is one of the most important factors colleges consider when looking at admission applications. By enrolling in AP classes, taking multiple math, science and foreign language courses, your student is communicating her commitment to rigorous academics. She is showing she is able to handle college level courses. Looking at her GPA over each term of high school, you should see improvements and preferably, excellence.

2. Find that "one thing" that highlights your interests and abilities

Colleges look for consistency in extracurricular activities. Filing their high school resume with multiple service events is not nearly as impressive as seeing four years directed toward one area of service that interests them. This doesn't mean just sports or band; any area that your student has interest in and sticks to being involved in will communicate determination and commitment.

3. Establish good study habits now

Students who enter college with poor study habits struggle from the beginning. There are too many distractions and without the constant supervision of parents, it is easy to push it on the back burner. If they establish good habits in high school, they will continue them away at college. Study first, then fun!

4. Start the scholarship search -- it's never too early

The earlier you start the search, the easier it will be when senior year comes along with heavy application time. Preparing in advance by determining scholarship criteria and deadlines makes for a much better senior year and removes the last-minute stress. Searching early also gives you time to research past winners and submissions, which improves the student's chances of winning the scholarship.

5. Do the practice tests for the SAT and identify the weaknesses

The SAT/ACT tests should be taken seriously. Your student can't do the work on the test if they don't understand the material or are weak in writing and/or math. Have him take the practice test and score it to identify areas of weakness. Spend the next few years strengthening those areas, better preparing him for test day.

I like to tell my parent readers and students that preparation prevents panic. Early preparation for college positions your student ahead of those who are rushing around senior year trying to get all their ducks in a row. Early preparation also means scholarship dollars can offset the high cost of college. Early preparation means that your student can breathe during senior year and enjoy their last few months of high school.

More from

Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parents Countdown to College Coach blog offers timely college tips for parents and provides parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze. She is also the College Prep Expert for, as well as a regular contributor as a college expert with, Unigo Expert Network and College Money Insider.