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5 Tips That Can Help Get Your Kids Into College

Saving money for college is a daunting proposition. But there's another big challenge—making sure your high school sophomore or junior is doing the right things to improve the odds of being admitted to college. Here are five tips for helping bolster your children's academic standing:

1. Selecting the right classes. The courses your child chooses do make a difference, particularly if the goal is to get into a top-flight college or a particular field of study. For instance, if your child wants to enter one of the top U.S. engineering programs—at Georgia Tech, Purdue, MIT, or another leading school—he or she will need to have taken at least trigonometry and pre-calculus.

College admissions counselors base acceptance decisions on high school coursework completed through the junior year. They'll also want to see a list of classes a student will be taking as a senior. You can help by finding out what courses are required, or preferred, by the colleges on your child's wish list.

2. Test preparation. Whether your child is taking the SAT, the ACT, or both, doing well on these tests is likely to require considerable preparation.

Getting ready can take many forms, from buying a guide that walks kids though the exam and gives test-taking strategies, to completing online SAT practice tests from the College Board, to signing up for a formal SAT/ACT preparation course. At the very least, the published guides and online samples can be a good way for students to become familiar and comfortable with the test format.

If you think your child will need more intensive help to ace the test—many bright, talented students aren't great test-takers—you may find that coursework, tutors, and anxiety-coping strategies can be effective.

3. Summer experience. For many high school students, the summer between their junior year and senior year is their last opportunity to gain real-life experience that is relevant to their career interests. It also can provide excellent material for college essays and personal statements that students may be asked to explain why they're interested in a particular college or area of study.

Students might gain experience through a job, an internship (paid or unpaid), or they might interview people in fields that interest them.

4. Vacation with a purpose. A summertime family trip could be a great time to visit prospective colleges. While you're there:

5. Advance planning for the application process. The more students can find out about the colleges they want to attend, including application requirements, the better prepared they may be to throw themselves into a very selective application process. Two of the most intensive aspects of that process are essays and letters of recommendation.

There's no "one-size-fits-all" essay. Many colleges now require essays of various lengths and topics in addition to the essay prompts on the Common Application. Here, too, preparation can be very helpful, with students thinking about what they want to write and taking the time to develop an effective essay.

As far as recommendations go, keep in mind that the best teachers are likely to be in great demand, and it's important to get a request in early.

Of course, your part in this process, beyond helping your student prepare and not miss important deadlines, is to make sure you're financially ready to foot part or all of the college tab. Good preparation isn't just for the kids.