For Parents: A Game Plan for College Readiness

The path to college isn’t always smooth sailing. As a former classroom teacher and parent of both a rising 9th grader and college freshman, I’ve always placed an emphasis on creating a game plan to prepare them for college. 

While the final year of high school brings an onslaught of deadlines and decisions, there are steps you can take in the years leading up to help prepare your child for success. From choosing the right school to figuring out finances, we’re here to help you plot the course. 

Freshman Year

Make high school count. Building a resume that evidences a hardworking, well-rounded student won’t just help your child get in to their top schools and earn scholarships, but will also help prepare them to excel in college-level courses. Support your child in taking advanced classes (honors, AP, IB) and in finding extra-curriculars that they love.

Now is a great time for your student to develop a rapport with their school counselor. This will be an invaluable resource throughout all of high school. Your counselor can help plan out the next four years, making sure that your child is on track to meet the necessary requirements to be admitted to college.

You may find it helpful to talk to your child about their interests and what they might like to study in the future. Of course, deciding on a major isn’t necessary yet, but having a rough idea can help them choose high school classes that demonstrate their aptitude for a certain subject and prepare them for future study. At the very least, this conversation will get them thinking.

Sophomore Year

With a little advanced preparation, your student will be better equipped for their coming years as an upper-class student. Most schools hold PSAT testing junior year, but some offer it sophomore year. It helps to take it as soon as possible—it’s an invaluable tool to indicate ways your child can start preparing to succeed on standardized tests when their score really counts. The test-taking process is, in itself, good practice, but evaluating the results is key. These will give an indication of which subjects your child may need to work on in order to get better scores in the future. After taking the PSAT, your child will likely begin receiving marketing materials from colleges and universities. It’s helpful to create physical and digital filing systems to keep track of mail and emails that may be helpful later on.

Especially as they begin taking more advanced courses, help your child to identify their academic strengths as well as areas where they could use some extra help. If your child has demonstrated high proficiency in certain subjects, reach out to a school counselor and see if more rigorous courses are available. Encourage your child to seek out extracurricular programs that allow them to use and develop their talents. If they’re acing English, a creative writing club might be a great fit. If they’re fascinated by physics, joining the robotics team will allow them to show off their know-how. 

On the other hand, if your student is struggling in certain subjects, seek after-school help from a teacher, a tutor, or a community center. Your school counselor can help you find an option that suits your child’s needs as well as your budget.

As you and your child begin getting to know the college landscape, you should start getting familiar with the world of HBCUs as well. The UNCF website is an excellent resource to help you get informed. You can learn more about UNCF’s 37 member institutions, which we support directly in our quest to help more low-income, first-generation African American students stay in college and graduate with a quality education. To get an in-depth look into life at an HBCU, you can read student testimonies on our blog.

Junior Year

Though your child will likely make the big decision about which school they attend during their senior year, don’t let junior year sneak up on you. It will require just as much—if not more —time and preparation.

Begin working with your student to compile a list of schools that they are interested in applying to. There is an abundance of online resources, such as, to help you get fast facts and compare colleges. Your child’s school counselor can notify you when different universities come to visit or when college fairs are held. This is a great way to learn more about a school by allowing your child to speak face-to-face with a college representative.

Talk to your student about your college budget, but keep an open mind. Scholarships can significantly cut down the cost of tuition. Many schools offer scholarships based on merit and on need. When in doubt, apply to the school and see what financial support they offer. Searching and applying for a UNCF scholarship is an especially smart decision. As the nation’s largest private scholarship provider to minority group members, UNCF awards more than $100 million in scholarships to more than 10,000 students at more than 1,100 schools across the country each year.

Around this time, your child should select a date to take the ACT or SAT and begin preparing for it. Some students choose to take the test early senior year. Still, it is helpful to start early so that your child can work to improve their score if necessary and take advantage of early application opportunities at their favorite universities.

Once your student has narrowed down the list of their top colleges, schedule an on-campus visit if possible. But regardless of whether or not you choose to take a college road trip, we strongly encourage you to attend a stop on the UNCF Empower Me Tour (EMT)© for free, either now or during your student’s senior year. Here, you can attend a series of presentations, panels, and interactive workshops geared toward college-readiness and career-readiness. What’s really important to know: Many college recruiters at UNCF EMT events offer onsite admissions and academic scholarships on the spot for high school seniors.

Senior Year

This is perhaps the most exciting (and stressful) year of all. Done right, your child will see all their hard work come to fruition. Encourage them to take note of all the impending deadlines, big and small. When are applications due at each of their favorite schools? Does the school offer early application or early decision? By when does each school need to receive test scores, transcripts, and letters of recommendation? And by when does your student need to make the final decision to enroll in their school of choice? With all the hard work your student has put in, don’t let them miss an opportunity due to a forgotten deadline.

As your child sends out applications, seek application fee waivers where they’re available. Check the National Association of College Admissions Counselors website and fill out a fee waiver form. If your child took the SAT, they can apply for a waiver through The College Board. You can talk to college admissions counselors to see if their school offers waivers independently. The application process can be extremely time-consuming, but there are resources to help cut down the busy work. With the Common Black College App, for example, your child can apply to as many as 53 HBCUs in one single application. 

Getting into college isn’t about cutting corners. It’s about doing your research, planning ahead, and reaching out to the right experts. With your help, your student will be better equipped to use all of the resources at their disposal and make choices that will benefit them in the long run. As they go through this demanding process, your support will make a world of difference.

Sekou Biddle, UNCF’s Vice President, Advocacy, leads UNCF’s advocacy efforts to ensure more African American students will be college-ready and better prepared to enroll in and complete college by driving sustainable education reforms that benefit students and empower parents and communities to demand improvement.