Prepare your middle-schooler for college

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
Jay Mathews
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 12:00 PM

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.

_______________________

Jay shows up early: 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 mathewsj@washpost.com. I am also happy if you denounce me on my blog, washingtonpost.com/class-struggle. Anything that ups my page views helps my career.

_______________________

Why wait till MS?: 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?

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

Prepare your middle-schooler for college: 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?

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

washington Dc: 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?

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

Too much?: 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.)

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

Advice from a college administrator and one-time middle schooler: 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.

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

College starts in kindergarten: 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.

Jay Mathews: I could not have said it better. Thank you.

_______________________

College visits : 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.

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

too much college focus: 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.

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

gap year: 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?

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

visiting with Admissions: 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.

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

middle school: 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?

Jay Mathews: 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 now for your grandchildren's education: 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.

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

_______________________

reading: 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."

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

Algebra I: 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.

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

Support for More Time in College...: 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.

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

_______________________

Remedial?: 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?

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

three year college degree: 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.

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

College professor's advice: 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!

Jay Mathews: Very smart, professor.

_______________________

Making the Connection to High School Classes First; Then College: 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?

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

Re: Too Much: 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!).

Jay Mathews: Exactly right.

_______________________

Should We Steer Quietly Or Agressively: 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!

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

Preparation of Middle Schoolers for college: 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.

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

Top 50 colleges?: wonder if trying to push 100 percent of kids into 1 percent of colleges still makes sense.

Jay Mathews: 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.

_______________________

"Specialization": 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?

Jay Mathews: 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.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

Discussion Archive

Viewpoint is a paid discussion. The Washington Post editorial staff was not involved in the moderation.

Network News

X My Profile