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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 02/ 2/2011

8 subtle ways to prepare middle schoolers for college

By Jay Mathews

Spring is coming, and with it, the most angst-ridden part of the college application cycle. High-schoolers will be logging on to university Web sites, trembling at the prospect of rejection. Parents will look at the costs of schools that accept their kids and wonder whether they can afford it.

Many mothers and fathers with children too young for this ordeal will count themselves lucky.

But they might consider ways to get their kids ready for it anyway. Even middle-schoolers will be exposed to the paranoia of the college search, whether parents want them to be or not. This region has the nation’s highest level of average family income and education, so we are particularly susceptible. Twelve-year-olds hear their neighbors, their friends’ parents, their older siblings and their cousins talking about college. They need help dealing with that.

You don’t have to take them on a tour of the top 50 schools on the U.S. News and World Report list. You don’t have to bring it up at all. But if they ask questions, answer them. If you know they have heard something worrisome, set them straight: for example, “No, it is not true that Uncle Freddie’s life was ruined because he didn’t get into Virginia Tech.

I have asked several college admissions and education experts about positive steps that middle-school parents can take. Some of the ideas don’t sound like college prep at all, but they are. If you help a preteen get ready for life, there will be some preparation for college in there somewhere.

Here are eight suggestions:

1. Notice what they enjoy doing, and help them do more of it. Take your hiker on the AppalachianTrail. Have the kid who is addicted to the Food Network bake something for the county fair. Arrange for the singer in your family to audition for a local choir.

“It doesn’t matter whether the activity is athletic, service, spirit, leadership, journalistic or academic,” said Potomac-based educational consultant Shelley Levine. “Anything will do, as long as they enjoy the activity.” Northern Virginia-based educational consultant Shirley A. Bloomquist said, “If it is history, there are many local places to explore and discuss. If it is nature and/or geology, enjoy an outing to Great Falls Park. . . . A student of mine, now at Barnard, had a book club with her father over many years.”

Embracing a hobby or pastime is the key to career success and life satisfaction, said Zac Bissonnette, author of the recent college admission guide "Debt-Free U.” He advises middle-school parents not to “let yourself or your kid get caught up in the rat race of mindless achievement. Take time to think, and take time to play.”

2. Make sure your child knows that B’s are fine in middle school and that fun is important. Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and an expert on student stress, said each student needs a somewhat different message. The overachiever should be told, “You don’t need to do three different extracurricular activities in middle school to get into college,” she said. The less-motivated child needs to hear, “Yes, you can go to college, but first that means passing your courses in middle school.”

3. Enroll them in Algebra I in the eighth grade. Middle-schoolers must apply themselves to high-school-level courses, such as Algebra I. Many colleges count them as part of the high school grade-point average even though they are taken in middle school. Parents should also ensure that their children have finished Algebra I by the end of eighth grade. “I’ve known dozens of kids who would have been up to the challenge of high school level algebra/geometry in eighth grade,” said Philadelphia-based educational consultant David Ginsburg, but they “didn’t have the chance to take it.”

4. Insist they develop some practical housework skills. This won’t seem to them to have much to do with college, which is good. You can say that’s the way you were brought up (warn Grandma to cover for you if this isn’t true) and that is the way it is going to be. You don’t have to tell them that if they have to remember to get the trash and recycling out on the curb every Friday and make Saturday breakfast for their siblings while you go cycling, the coping skills they develop will be invaluable.

Kathy Kuhl, a home-school consultant based in Herndon, said, “We taught and re-taught our children time-management skills and life skills: washing clothes, cooking dinner and managing money.” Her kids were self-sufficient enough to juggle a college workload while doing all the other necessary chores of life.

5. Flavor family trips with a bit of college atmosphere. “On the way to summer vacation at the Outer Banks, have lunch at the University of Richmond’s student center, with its stately Gothic architecture and picturesque lake,” Bloomquist said.

6. Encourage children who are curious about the world to take a foreign language. This can be with CDs or at school. Most middle schools do not require a foreign language but nearly all offer some classes.“Chinese or Arabic would be two to consider,” Bloomquist said. “Colleges are increasingly international in nature. Twenty years ago, Yale had one in 50 international students. Today it is one in 11.”

7. Character counts. Encourage its development. “The college admissions process doesn’t necessarily screen for this,” Pope said, “but parents should be fostering good character traits along with health and engagement.” Just how you do this with sullen tweens and teens is not always clear. Being truthful and practicing what you preach is a good start.

8. Do everything you can to encourage reading. David Storper, president of Bethesda-based Prep U Tutoring, said, “The common denominator among the very best test-takers is a strong background with books. This is usually a habit that starts at a very early age. . . . The problem that many students face is that they are only reading assigned books from school, which can be less than inspiring.”

So, he said, give books to kids that suit their individual interests. “Do not pressure them to read it,” he said. “Just give it to them. If they read, great. If not, try again in a few weeks with a different book.”

Plan a weekly reading night during which everyone finds a comfortable chair in the living room, popcorn at their elbows, and enjoys a book of their choice for an hour or so. Leave some good paperbacks in the car. Talk about the books you are reading.

If reading becomes a habit for them, that will, of course, make them look good to colleges. But it will have even more impact on the quality of their everyday lives and their children’s lives and so on. It is never too soon to get started on that.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | February 2, 2011; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  algebra is important, encourage character, focus on household skills, make sure they read, notice healthy activities they enjoy and help them to more of the same, preparing middle schoolers for college  
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Buy gold.

Posted by: lisamc31 | February 2, 2011 8:42 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews,

This is truly one of your most helpful education editorials.

I will be sure to share with my parental community.

It Takes A Village.

Thank you.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | February 2, 2011 11:10 PM | Report abuse

You left something out: Play listening games with them so they learn to listen to and follow directions. As a substitute teacher, I find I can't finish reading all the directions--"Get the books at the back of the room, read Chapter 12, and answer the first four questions"--because the entire class jumps up after "back of the room." Then, after I do finish the instructions, I have to repeat them because they can't remember which chapter or which questions or even if they have to answer any questions.

College professors, as willing as they are to help students, will not repeat directions endlessly. As a freshman in college, a professor told us to format the title page of the paper to match the style manual sold in the bookstore. She refused to read the ones that weren't formatted that way--said she had entirely too many students to hunt all over the page for the name and class. Of course, bosses on jobs won't put up with a worker who needs to be told everything twice, either.

One middle-school English teacher would sometimes give an assignment in which the students only had to write the correct one-word answer, not a complete sentence. Invariably one student or another would ask after starting work, "Do we have to write the entire sentence?" The teacher always answered, "Yes" and let that student struggle after the others were done. She said whether or not they learned any grammar, they at least learned to listen!

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 3, 2011 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Great column Jay - may I add one more? SLEEP, SLEEP, SLEEP. Today's kids are sleep-deprived!

Posted by: abcxyz2 | February 3, 2011 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Matthews, Let me be the skunk at the Garden Party re. your column. We live in an area where parents put tremendous pressure on children to get into the right college. And this column is fanning the flames by framing everything as a way to make middle-school kids more attractive to colleges. Middle school? Really? So if my kid does not take advantage of your advice before he is 13, he can write off any chance of having a good life?

Seriously, do you talk to the kids that are going through this time or just to their stressed-out, overbearing parents, who think admission to a "top tier" school
will somehow ease their own economic uncertainties or reverse the poor choices they feel they made when growing up?

WAPO at the very least ought to have a columnist expressing the opposing, rationalistic side to this.

Posted by: Dadat39 | February 3, 2011 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Not all students are ready for algebra I in 8th grade. It's a developmental issue, not an ability issue. Time and again I've seen parents push teachers/administration into allowing their kids to take it when they weren't ready, and it just puts them one-step behind when they reach high school.

Posted by: msmccormick3 | February 3, 2011 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Not all students are ready for algebra I in 8th grade. It's a developmental issue, not an ability issue. Time and again I've seen parents push teachers/administration into allowing their kids to take it when they weren't ready, and it just puts them one-step behind when they reach high school.

Posted by: msmccormick3 | February 3, 2011 10:37 AM | Report abuse

thanks to lisamc31 for a good laugh.

For Dadat39----I am so on yr side, and have been for many years. I am American journalism's leading advocate of the view that you do NOT need to go to a top tier college to have a great career and a great life. Look for my book "Harvard Schmarvard." If I gave a different impression in this piece, which I thought had lots of anti-pressure suggestions, I apologize for again being a bad writer, unable to make my meaning clear.

For msmccormick3---If you know of any research that supports your view, tell us about it. All that I have seen suggests it is much more a teaching issue than a developmental issue. We could have nearly every child ready for 8th grade algebra if we taught math properly in the lower grades, and had high expectations for all of those kids. Programs that take this seriously, like KIPP, have great success getting even disadvantaged children through algebra successfully by the end of 8th grade.

For sideswiththekids---great advice on listening. I would have included that if I had been smart enough to think of it.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 3, 2011 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Hi Jay,

I taught middle school literature at a small independent school and now teach AP at its high school.

If you Google Piaget's four stages in cognitive development you'll see where I'm coming from - although you've likely heard of it. Abstact ("formal") thinking doesn't begin in most kids until at least age twelve at the earliest. For some it doesn't hit until their 20's. Algebra I is an abstract thinker's class.

It was always interesting to me how kids I taught in 7th and 8th grade literature that were concrete thinkers and couldn't grasp concepts such as symbolism, theme, etc. were the same students who struggled mightily with algebra.

Posted by: msmccormick3 | February 3, 2011 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Way to go Jay!!

You are my main man. Great and thoughtful insightful.

Posted by: Concerned3 | February 3, 2011 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Good column but I would add a 9th.

Encourage children to take advantage of every career awareness opportunity - in-school, after-school, in the community - that they can. Middle schoolers begin dreaming of what they would like to be in life - musician, teacher, physicist,health technician,fireperson - but have no idea of the preparation, training, and skills required to get there. And many profitable and rewarding careers do not require four years of college.

Posted by: pepper6 | February 3, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

A most helpful step may not be available to most parents. When I was 11 my mother returned to college to get her degree. When my younger brother and I were not in school, she took us to campus with her; she got permission for us to read in the education department's library and some professors allowed us to sit in on her classes. We also wandered the campus, reading the papers in the student union, browsing the bookstore, playing tennis on unoccupied courts, etc. Two of her friends had also returned to college--different colleges--and I often hear the three discussing their classes.

Recently the daughter of one of those friends and I agreed that our experiences at their colleges had a lot to do with our educational ambition. Their classes sounded so much more interesting than ours--for one thing, they DISCUSSED things with the teacher instead of just sitting working problems or answering questions--that we couldn't wait to get to college. (I remember being totally baffled by their discussion of philosophy but intrigued that they were studying concepts that were thought about outside of class instead of just memorizing facts as we did in my class. When I got to college myself, I discovered I was still baffled by philosophy!) It also gave us the understanding that education wasn't just something isolated from the rest of the world.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 3, 2011 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Reading more and learning a foreign language appear to be the only realistic suggestions.
May I also suggest learning practical skills in high school such as vocational trades ? These steps can deeply broaden one's education.
Also, take courses and experiences that develop writing. Make sure that Math skills are sufficient as to not stand in the way of your interests.

Posted by: peterroach | February 3, 2011 5:11 PM | Report abuse

As a college professor of biology, I have only two, utterly essential suggestions:
- Encourage them to READ, as much as they can, whatever they can.
- Encourage them to GET OUTSIDE, in nature - that doesn't mean on a soccer field or golf course, it means roaming in the woods, planting in the garden, swimming in a pond, visiting a farm, strolling along a beach.

Posted by: CellBioProf | February 3, 2011 5:13 PM | Report abuse

College is not for everyone. By starting to prepare children for college already in 7th and 8th grade, as if that is the only good choice in life, is terrible. High School needs to be about preparing students for many paths in life, whether that is being a barber, a plumber, or a doctor.

Posted by: AnonymousBE1 | February 3, 2011 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Before jumping off Jay's train, look at the same list from a vocational point of view...the point is get them engaged...

Posted by: jbeeler | February 3, 2011 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Others may have given this suggestion, but actually taking your child to a college campus is one of the best ways to get them excited about the prospect of going there some day. I was fortunate to have 3 older sisters in college, and from the age of 10 I was used to being on campus - if your child doesn't have a older sibling, a cousin or family friend attending college would probably welcome a visit or two.

Posted by: sevenstones1000 | February 3, 2011 8:02 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Matthews, I appreciate your ideas about what 8th graders can do to be preparing for success in college and life. I run a non-profit called College & Career Connections (CCC). We offer an early college and career exploration and planning program to 400 youth in SE Washington DC. Helping youth think about the "big picture" of their lives at this stage is crucial, especially in low income communities, where 60% of youth are not finishing high school, and the majority of those who drop out do so before 10th grade. These students need help seeing the connection between education - high school and college - and a good future. For all students, such information and exposure helps them get on a track for success, where they have a plan and know where they are least loosely, i.e. toward some form of post-secondary education, etc. Again, thanks for addressing the need for youth to start thinking about and preparing for success early. If you want to learn more about CCC, please visit our website at

Posted by: deannayer | February 3, 2011 11:17 PM | Report abuse

Live from Los Angeles! All these suggestions are just gimmicks! Students should be reading and writing since the age of 5 years old. In college, I had to write weekly assignments one to two pages everyweek. The term paper usually is about 10-20 pages long! My Senior thesis was about 60 pages long. During Summer school sessions which was a 5 week exercise, it was 1 to 2 pages a day and there is a 10 page paper due. If I was taking 3 classes, I had to read about 30 books and countless journals. GET REAL!!! Young Kids should not be sugarcoated for class work because it is a grind! It's like running a marathorn race and it is training for endurance! Unfortunately educators have lost sight on how to make a good students nowadays!!!

Posted by: big_bors | February 4, 2011 12:09 AM | Report abuse

- learn etiquette and manners
- accept that girls, females and women are going to use you sexually and discard you.
- learn that foreign students are better than you
-play sports or IM. the boardroom playing fields are learned from teamwork.
-do an internships all summers.

Posted by: Rockvillers | February 4, 2011 12:23 AM | Report abuse

Jay--regarding your response to the algebra readiness challenge... although I have no official research to offer you, I do want to "point out the obvious" in a sense. You mentioned that you have research that shows most children can be ready for Algebra I in eighth grade IF they have sufficient math instruction in the lower grades. The importance of that IF cannot be forgotten! Algebra and more challenging math courses rely upon a student's ability to remember and apply skills learned in earlier classes: for example, place value, rounding, and long division. IF a child has had a good math education up until middle school and can successfully apply math concepts both at the time of instruction and then again after some time has passed (indicating that the process has been committed to memory), then yes, that child might be a good candidate for Algebra I. HOWEVER, if a child had a subpar math education in elementary school and/or if a child has difficulty applying and remembering the application of basic math skills, then 8th grade algebra will likely be challenging, no matter how skilled the teacher. Even the most talented algebra teacher cannot teach both her subject area and make up ground for students who are enrolled in her classroom and still do not have a basic number sense (for example, the understanding that multiplication and division are inverse operations).

Posted by: adushok | February 5, 2011 8:39 PM | Report abuse

Make sure they know how to read and enjoy reading before entering public school.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 6, 2011 2:57 PM | Report abuse

"Make sure they know how to read and enjoy reading before entering public school."

Does it bother the public school officials that so many people are recommending that parents teach students this before the school gets to try? In other words, we all agree that the schools do their best to ruin pleasurable experiences. (Jonathan Kozol said that if we taught kids to speak the way the schools teach them to read, no one would be able to say anything intelligible.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 7, 2011 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Issue with Algebra at an early age is NOT Algebra I but Algebra II and beyond as kids do not understand the more abstract reasoning when they are younger. This is especially true with students in "intensified" versions of the course.

Posted by: ugh3 | February 9, 2011 7:28 PM | Report abuse

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