Start College Conversations Early, Experts Recommend

An early introduction to college is helpful if handled correctly.

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Junior and senior years of high school are busy times for college-bound students and their parents. Between SATs and ACTs, campus visits, and application essays, the college admissions process can quickly become a time-consuming—and stress-inducing—process for all involved. 

But a well thought out college planning process doesn't have to be anxiety-ridden—especially if it's begun years before a student starts to apply, experts say. If possible, parents should introduce their children to the prospect of college in middle school, if not years earlier. 

Here's what to talk to your child about at each stage of schooling.

Elementary school: A holistic approach to understanding colleges might begin as early as elementary school, says Patrick O'Connor, director of college counseling at the Roeper School, a Michigan-based institution that enrolls gifted children from preschool to grade 12.

Now isn't the time to talk about grades, majors, and test preparation, but it is an ideal period to drop by local college campuses for sporting events, camps, and other activities that might spark excitement in your youngster, he says. 

"Most colleges have some really great art galleries, science museums, and cultural events," O'Connor notes. "It's really a great way to introduce students and get them in there as members of the community, and let them see that colleges have a special role in the community." 

[Find out how college events can benefit parents, too.] 

Parents can also start to gradually introduce the idea of college by sharing their own college experiences, or those of a relative, neighbor, or friend, says Pamela Rambo, founder of the education-focused Rambo Research and Consulting firm. "Just let children expect that college is a distinct possibility for them," she says. 

Middle school: The college conversation should begin to ramp up once your student enters eighth grade, recommends John Briggs, community director at RSC, Your College Prep Expert, a college and career counseling company. "We find that if we work with students then, we're better able to position them academically and financially for college," he says. 

As you talk with your child about the possibilities of college, don't forget to tie in a financial conversation—no matter how awkward that might feel.

"Avoid a bait-and-switch situation where we tell kids all their lives that they can go to college ... and then when we get 12 months from the process and parents actually begin to focus on the cost, they start to pull the rug out from under them," research director Rambo says. 

As you talk to your child about family finances, first focus on the qualities a student should identify in a good college for them, not on what your family can and can't afford, O'Connor of the Roeper School recommends. Then, help your child to see which options may be viable if he or she gets good grades and receives merit-based aid. 

[Avoid five assumptions about college financial aid.] 

An early focus on paying for college will also get everyone thinking about scholarship opportunities, some of which are open to high school freshmen, Rambo says. 

High school: In your student's high school years, earning good grades, performing well on SAT tests, and staying focused on studies is important—but shouldn't eclipse college conversations, O'Connor says. 

"Many parents who are focused solely on test prep and strong grades are doing that in the best interest of their child, but they have to take a step back and consider the big picture," he says. 

With college admissions offices increasingly looking for extracurricular activities, leadership skills, and ambition, "Great grades and test scores are really only part of the picture," O'Connor says. "If you focus too much on [those factors], you lose quality as you gain quantity." 

[Follow this four-year guide to college planning.] 

If your child is already well into high school and you haven't begun to talk about college options, don't panic about a lack of preparation, experts say. Instead, get on track now, researching programs, realistically calibrating your financial options, and finding the schools that will best meet your academic needs and long-term goals.