studying-703002_960_720May 1st was college decision day for high school seniors—the day they let the college of their choice know they were coming. Some of those students will be the first in their family to attend college, and they face challenges that those whose parents went to college don’t deal with. But helping your child become the first in your family to go to college actually starts much earlier than junior or senior year.

7 Keys to Supporting Your Child’s College Dream

Getting a child ready to attend college after they graduate high school means making sure they start their high school years off with the right classes to put them on the college track. Here are seven key things families can do to help their child attend college:

  1. Start keeping track of your child’s classes in the ninth grade (or earlier). Not every freshman class in a subject is the same. For example, in order to take a pre-college math class (e.g., Trigonometry or Statistics) as a senior, a student needs to have taken Algebra II as a junior, which requires taking Geometry as a sophomore, which in turn requires taking Algebra I as a freshman. If your child doesn’t start off on that path from the start, they will have a much harder time getting on it later. Even in middle school, some courses may help line your child up for dual credit or Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school that can cut down on college costs by earning college credits while still in high school.
  2. Meet with the counselor(s) every year. Your child’s school may have one guidance counselor for all students, one for each grade level, or several counselors that each take a class and follow them throughout high school. There may also be a college and career center counselor as well. Meet with your child’s counselor each year to make sure that your child is taking the classes they need to go to college after graduating.
  3. Learn about college. Discuss with your child what their interests are and what sort of degree they would be looking for. Start thinking about how big or small of a college or university your student wants to attend. Attend college fairs and ask questions of the representatives. Find out what it takes in terms of grades, test scores, and more to get into those colleges and universities your child is interested in.
  4. Visit at least one college campus. It doesn’t have to be one your child is necessarily interested in, just one nearby. Visit the admissions office, take a campus tour, and investigate what programs may be available to let your student experience life on campus. For first in the family students, the college world is very different from anything they’ve experienced before. Next, visit colleges your child is interested in attending. Look for sponsored or free opportunities to visit (possibly through your child’s high school). Some colleges now offer virtual tours online. Have your student meet with college representatives from those schools when they visit the high school.
  5. Prepare to take college admission tests (SAT or ACT). Illinois has provided a free college admissions test (the ACT) to all high school juniors in the past, but the lack of a state budget this year prevented the SAT (Illinois’s new choice) from being offered this year. If there are fees, ask how they can be waived. Students on free or reduce lunch often do not have to pay testing fees.
  6. Get college applications in advance. When your child has narrowed down where they want to apply to, get the applications early, know what they require, and file on time. Many applications have different deadlines depending on if your child is applying for early decision, early action, or regular admission. Have your student work on their essays well in advance. Their English teacher, a guidance counselor, or college center counselor will often be willing to provide feedback to help them write the best essay they can.
  7. Apply for financial aid. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the basis for many college financial aid decisions, so be sure to complete the form and get it submitted as early as possible. Look for grants and scholarships as well, many of which are specifically targeted at first-generation college students.

Learn from the Experience of Others

While your child may be the first in your family to attend college, they are not the first person ever to be the first in a family to attend. There are many articles and websites that share the experiences of students and families who had a first-generation college student. These can help your child learn what extra challenges they may face in college, from feeling like an outsider to culture shock to different social standards. These challenges can be at least as difficult as those of the classroom.