Guest Blog: Tips to Get Your Middle School Student Thinking About College

Kiersten Murphy, M.Ed – Murphy College Consultants LLC, is an Independent Educational Consultant who guides high school students and their families through the college search and application process.   She is a Snoqualmie Valley resident whoworks with students locally, as well as across the US, Europe and Asia.  To learn more about ways to best prepare for college, including daily tips, please visit Murphy College Consultants, or become a Fan on Facebook

While I am in the business of guiding high school students as they best prepare for the college search and application process, many parents ask me how they can introduce the topic of college to their child during middle school.  The approach needs to be subtle and my advice is centered on establishing good habits, personal growth and character development.  Here are a few suggestions.

Encourage your student to read.  Establish a life-long love of curling up with a great adventure each night.  Introduce them to magazines that grab their interest (i.e. cooking, sports, travel, nature, etc.) or show them books that aren’t assignments for school.  There is no better preparation for the PSAT, SAT or ACT that will soon be coming their way.

Teach them to be responsible for their actions.  If you have missed all the articles in the press about helicopter parents, consider yourself fortunate.  Too often parents want to fix things for their child – whether it is for sports, friends or school.  Parents are even trying to problem-solve for their child in college, by contacting professors or even doing their child’s homework.  Great life lessons can come from failures…and I am not just speaking about grades.  If they don’t do the homework, don’t fly in to rescue them, or worse, make excuses for their lack of effort to their teachers.  Show them how to be responsible for their actions so that they can grow into wonderful young adults.

Use trips wisely. If you are planning a family vacation, make time to incorporate a very unofficial college visit into your schedule. Kids don’t understand the concept of college and leaving home. If you slowly expose them to the idea, they will have a better understanding of what they are preparing for in high school.  Take them to a large urban university or visit a small liberal arts college.  Both are very different in nature, and it is nice to start showing them the differences. I visit approximately 40 colleges across the country each year to determine fit, and when I have a chance, I do enjoy bringing my young sons along with me when on family trips. The kids have been known to chase squirrels, toss a ball in the football stadium and on one occasion met a professor who showed them dinosaur fossils.  While there, we talk about why students go to college, what subjects they can learn about, and the freedom that they will have when not in class (this is always an exciting topic – imagine staying up all night with your friends!). You can also think about taking them to the Burke Museum at UW, attending a cultural event at Seattle U, going to a game at UW or listening to a guest speaker at University of Puget Sound.

Be forward thinking.  Try to enroll your child in Algebra as an 8th grader.  While I realize that this is not the appropriate option for all, a student who can successfully navigate Algebra in 8th grade will be ready to take Calculus by 12th grade.  While Calculus is not a requirement for college admission, it is greatly valued, even by local favorite University of Washington.  Students who take Calculus are more competitive on a national scale than those who have not. At the very least, it will give them options.  If your budding scientist decides in 11th grade that she wants to pursue engineering in college, she will be competitive and appropriate applicant for engineering programs.   If your student doesn’t do well in Algebra as an 8th grader, don’t despair – have them take it again to ensure that their confidence is in check and that basic skills are in place before marching forward.  Good to note – the Algebra grade from the 8th grade year will be on the student’s high school transcript.

Introduce the concept of time-management.  This skill, along with learning to be organized will best prepare them for the realities of high school.  Think about age-appropriate ways you can introduce this in your household. Understand the tween in your house.   Get to know Leonard Sax and his books.  Check out Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge.

Learn for learning’s sake. Grades are important in middle school, but let them know that a B is ok too.  There should be a natural shift in their mindset toward a more intrinsic desire to be successful in school.  It should not be just about getting an A, but a desire to rise to the occasion and be engaged.  Help them establish good habits, which will help to reduce stress and anxiety in coming years.  Check out Stanford University lecturer Denise Clark Pope’s book Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.

The best isn’t always the best.   Many students today have an inflated sense of academic self-entitlement where they expect the reward no matter the effort. They have grown up in a culture where everyone gets the prize regardless of the outcome. While self-esteem is important, they need to learn to be humble and be realistic.  They need to know that trying hard doesn’t equate a prize.  Not every student can go to Stanford and not every kid is going to be a college athlete on a ‘full ride’.  Learning this now will not only help in high school, but also when they begin their first job.  As we know, we aren’t praised as adults for ‘trying hard’ but rather for doing a job well.

Support their interests. Embrace your child’s interests and help them develop their own natural passions.  The point isn’t to develop a padded resume for college applications, but instead, help them find something they genuinely enjoy and help them add another layer of depth to it.


Look for the second part of this series soon that deals with navigating your high school student through the college prep process.

Comments are closed.


  • Danna, thank you for this guest blog! Kiersten – thanks for all the great advice! As always, you are a fountain of knowledge. Thank you for sharing it with us. We’ve been taking our kids to visit the UCLA campus since they were little. Mostly because we just love visiting our alma mater when we’re in the area but it has made a difference. They already seem to expect that college is a natural progression from high school. Visiting a college doesn’t have to be a serious affair. It can be a fun outing. Some campuses are like beautiful little villages and simply walking through them is a pleasant experience! We like taking our kids to our favorite UCLA Kerkhoff Coffee House where we spent many, many hours studying and having a cappuccino royale or cream of broccoli soup in a bread boule!

  • Great tips and well written as always, Kiersten! No surprise, I liked the Algebra advice. Encouraging rigor will take our students farther and open more opportunities down the road in high school and college or the work force.

  • Living Snoqualmie