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Want Your Grade-Schooler to Get into College? Better Start Molding Her Now.

Teagan Carlson
Oct 23, 2018 · 6 min read

When my son was born almost fifteen years ago, his father and I were instructed by our much more financially-savvy friends that we needed to start a college savings fund. “College?!” I thought to myself. I was still trying to teach my son to call his human-feeding-device, “Mama.”

My friends were right — saving for your child’s future is fiscally responsible, and I’ve since opened a 529 plan. But saving for college will lead to nothing but tax penalties if your child doesn’t go to college.

And while 60% of parents expect their child to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 33% actually do.

So what happens in between parent expectation and reality?

Too much focus on saving and not enough focus on preparing. These days, getting into and graduating from a good college is more challenging than ever.

Case in point: I was admitted to the University of California, San Diego in the mid-1990’s with a 3.6 GPA and an ACT score of 28. My creds were on the low side then (I think my Rolling Stones-inspired essay actually just struck a chord with one of the reviewers), but today, Mick Jagger himself probably couldn’t get me in. According to Prepscholar, the average GPA is 4.0 and the average ACT is 29 for UCSD.

The UC system is no exception– a Business Insider article called the decrease in Ivy League admissions over the last decade “shocking.” Even if your child is able to pull off entrance into a good school, there’s no guarantee she’ll be able to graduate; Bill Gates lamented on his own blog that fewer than 55% of students actually earn a diploma. So, if you are like the majority of parents who expect their child to earn a degree someday, you may be in for a rude awakening.

Before you mourn the death of Junior’s future, know that all hope is not lost. Education research has provided parents with plenty of tools to help get your child college-ready, you just need to know how to find them. I’ll save you the trouble. Here are the top five ways you can help your child get that acceptance letter and earn a degree.

1. Read to Your Child

There’s a reason why you’ve been inundated with advertisements about the importance of reading to your child– it works. Multiple studies show that students who were read to and who continue to read are more successful academically, earn higher state test scores, are stronger writers, and have better study skills– all required attributes of the college-bound.

Tami Carlson, a reading specialist who teaches in the Los Angeles area, says this is because early reading helps children develop the “phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and sight word recognition” they need to be confident readers.

Early reading even affects your child’s behavior. A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in April 2018 indicates that reading out loud to your child could reduce behavioral issues like hyperactivity, aggression and ADD.

So, to get your child college ready, read to her during her formative years, and when she’s old enough, let her read to you. It may be the most productive bonding time you have with your her.

2. Promote Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has been the hot topic in education the last ten or so years. The Department of Education was obsessed with it during the No Child Left Behind Act and they are obsessed with it now, in the Common Core Era. Critical thinking, in contrast to rote learning or the ability to memorize facts, demands that students use the facts learned in school to deduct, reason and infer. It not only allows children to practice their philosophical skills, it’s how CEOs are able to make the decisions that affect their company’s success or failure.

You can help your child develop this skill in one simple way: talk to your child.

  • When your child has asked you “why” for the gazillionth time, ask her to attempt to come up with her own answer after you’ve supplied her with a few simple facts.
  • When reading a new bedtime story to your child, ask her how she thinks the plot will develop or why a character acted the way they did.
  • Don’t leave your child out of discussions around the dinner table; even though she lacks the maturity to truly contribute to the conversation, your encouragement of her opinion will give her the confidence she needs to express her own wonderful thoughts.

All of these strategies, which are pretty much just focused on encouraging your child to think about things AND express these thoughts in a coherent way, will give her a leg up in school.

3. Encourage Positive Role Models and Peer Groups

Which celebrities does your child follow on social media? Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Malala Yousafzai or one of the Kardashian/ Jenner brood? We hope for the former, but, in all likelihood, it’s the latter.

Children are modellers — they learn by observing the behaviors and actions of people they see as modern-day heroes. Just as your toddler mimics your facial expressions, she will soon find another, much “cooler” person to mimic as she reaches and enters adolescence. Unfortunately for us, “cool” is not usually synonymous with “smart.”

To prevent your child from carrying her idol worship to a negative extreme, help her to make positive choices. If your child wants to grow up to be Kendall Jenner, ask why. Point out the role model’s positives and negatives and discuss these with your child. Staying in touch with your child’s interests and encouraging your child to analyze her own choices, will help her build college-bound character.

Similarly, studies have shown that who your child hangs out with (peer groups in particular) can affect their achievement. It makes sense– children are heavily influenced by their peers and if their peers do not value education, that perception will influence their own opinions– no matter how much you condition them at home.

Plan play dates with like-minded families so that your child develops friendships with academically-oriented kids. Be careful though– children are independent creatures and will not always bring home friends you would have hand-selected for them. Far worse than your child hanging out with a D student is you forbidding the friendship (especially when many low-performing kids have other wonderful qualities).

4. Get Tech-Literate, Not Tech-Dependent

You may think that promoting tech literacy is easy. Give your child a smartphone or Ipad or any one of the countless kiddie computers and the learning takes care of itself. What most people don’t realize, however, is that using a computer doesn’t guarantee tech literacy. In fact, most children who own a smartphone are far more tech-dependent than they are literate. My students could swipe through social media posts, take selfies and upload Youtube videos, but they couldn’t navigate around Google apps, discern whether something posted online was valid or not, or even troubleshoot computer hardware if something went wrong. These are all incredibly important skills that, unfortunately, aren’t always taught in school but that they’ll need to know in college.

On the other hand, limit your child’s tech usage when it is not of an educational nature. Too much social media has a negative impact on your child’s well being and can lead to stress and depression. Too much gaming has been linked to poor academic performance and peer relationship and physical problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises children only spend one to two hours in front of a screen.

5. Foster a Love of Learning

Passion for learning is simply an interest in knowledge — a desire to always learn more. If your child has this passion, learning will cease to be a chore and will become an adventure. Research in educational motivation has shown that students who are intrinsically motivated (the motivation to learn because it is self-satisfying) tend to be more successful learners (earning higher grades and test scores) than those who are extrinsically motivated (those who learn to get the “A” or the $10 grandpa promises for a good report card). In fact, some researchers even go so far as to claim that extrinsic motivators can lower achievement.

Remember, children are modellers, what you do, they will do. If you show an interest in learning new things, they will model your enthusiasm. The best way to get your child to enjoy learning is to enjoy learning with him.

This list represents ways in which you can prepare your child for the competitive educational environment, but it is no way complete. He also needs a supportive home environment, physical stimulation, and adequate health care — all of the things you are already giving him. With your love and guidance and these five techniques, the only thing left to worry about is how to pay for that fancy college degree.

Originally published at on October 23, 2018.

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