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The College Planning Timeline

By Robert LeVine

When 12th grade starts, college admission season begins. Worry and doubt sets in, and parents wonder: Are we behind?

Let’s give you a timeline to guide your student’s development.

During 8th grade, pick the best high school for your child’s overall development. A strong curriculum is only one piece of the puzzle; it should not overwhelm your decision. America’s best colleges look not only to academic ability, but also to non-academic activities and even a student’s personal and interpersonal attributes. Sometimes, a rigorous curriculum is too rigorous, making it too difficult to achieve top grades and too time-consuming for students to be active beyond their academics. Allow your children to grow completely, not just in one direction.

The focus for 9th grade should be acclimation to the new challenges of high school. Guide your student in course selection – they are too inexperienced to make academic selections themselves – and help your student achieve top grades by teaching them good study skills. Often, students leave the homework in their worst subjects until last, unwittingly increasing their challenges by adding fatigue to the effort. Have them do the most dreaded homework first. Also, be sure to get them involved in extracurricular activities, whether in or outside of school. If you don’t push them to try new things, they’ll never learn how to try new things. Most importantly, find ways to communicate with them. Teach them that everyone struggles, but also that they should not try to struggle alone. Maturity begins when young people understand that personal responsibility includes knowing that it’s OK to ask for help.

The 10th grade should be devoted to continuing good grades and also going deeper and farther into non-academic activities. The best colleges seek applicants who achieve, not just participate. Moreover, because the admissions pools are filled with applicants who compete nationally and internationally, help your student understand how to contribute beyond the high school or local community. Even when they cannot drive a car, they can use the internet to reach further than home. They may need help trying to find something that they enjoy doing. To achieve the best efforts, always promote your student’s interests. We procrastinate about things we do not enjoy, while we naturally pursue those things we enjoy deeply. Sophomore year is also the time to starting letting go. Allow them to make mistakes now, while they are within your ability to assist them. Bad things happen when young people make their first mistakes in college, when parents are not there to oversee or help.

During the summer between 10th and 11th grade, start preparing for either the SAT or ACT. American universities do not care which test an applicant submits, and we do not recommend trying to excel on both. Because many colleges require that applicants submit all test results, focus on the test that best fits the student’s skills and preferences. If possible, consider an experienced test tutor to teach your student special strategies unique to these standardized tests. Get started on test preparation during the summer, when time is more flexible, and be sure to select test dates that do not conflict with school, athletic, or other seasonal demands.

Students in their junior year should continue their top grades and robust activities, complete their standardized tests (including “subject tests”) before the school year ends, but also do one more very important endeavor: be nice to your teachers! At the end of 11th grade, students should ask two teachers if they will write letters of recommendation, and the best recommendations result when a teacher knows a student well. Take interest not only in the subjects, but also in the professionals who are teaching the subjects.

The summer between 11th and 12th grade is the best time to begin the main college admissions essay, which is a personal statement about the student’s human attributes. Application season opens in August, but you should not leave too much college work for the school year. Get a head start; multitasking usually leads to subpar quality. College applications are not inherently difficult – they are designed for 17-year-olds – but an excellent presentation can enhance a student’s college options.

Robert A.G. Levine, president of Selective College Consulting Inc., can be reached at (813) 391-3760, email or visit


Why Age Shouldn’t Factor into Child’s Play

By Anu Varma Panchal

With no malls, movie theaters or just about any recreational facilities available to us in 1980s Lusaka, Zambia, our primary entertainment consisted of other people. On Friday and Saturday evenings, starting at around 6 and maybe lasting till 9 (which is when people headed off to dinner parties), the doorbell would ring and families would show up at your door for a visit. No one called ahead, so you never had any idea who you might encounter in your own or someone else’s house. Occasionally, families would overlap, and you’d end up with 25 unannounced guests at a time. Plates of samosas or banana chips were dispensed. Dads drank whiskey, mothers nursed a gin and tonic or juice, and as for us kids, we either crammed into crowded bedrooms or spilled outside raucously to play, a motley collection of ages, a baby balanced on a teen’s hip and older ones holding littler one’s hands and finding roles for them in whatever game we cooked up together. No one cared if you were 5, 10 or a lofty 15 years old with notions of privacy and a novel to read; if someone came over with a toddler and preschooler, they were immediately dispatched upstairs for you to entertain.

As it turns out, without realizing they were doing it, our parents were forcing us to engage in multi-age play, something anyone raised in a joint family or apartment building probably experienced on a daily basis. Here and today, it seems to be on the decline. Rather than playing with a ragtag assortment of whichever kids come outside to play in the evening, we drive our children to activities sorted by age group or to play dates with classmates. As children get to the end of middle school, they appear less frequently at weekend family and cultural events because — their parents explain apologetically — there is no one here their age to hang out with and they need to be with their friends.

This wasn’t always the case. According to a 2014 Boston Globe article entitled, “What Age Segregation Does to America,” Americans remain pretty age-integrated until the Industrial Revolution. “Families were bigger, generations often worked side by side, and kids and adults got their entertainment at the same county fairs,” writes Globe reporter Leon Neyfakk.

This type of age mixing was beneficial to everyone on the age spectrum. In a 2011 issue of the “American Journal of Play,” Peter Gray explains that younger children benefit from multi-age play by being exposed to more complexity in information and role models while the ones on the older side learn to nurture, develop creativity and expand their understanding through teaching when interacting with littler kids. There’s even evidence to show that kids who play and study only in same-age groups are more aggressively competitive while those in mixed-age groups are more nurturing and cooperative.

A peer bubble — while it can provide a support system of people who are “in it together”— can also be a trap, an echo chamber of other teens with the same insecurities and priorities who can’t escape constant judgment and scrutiny. Even when kids physically leave school, the dialogue continues across multiple social media platforms. There’s no escape: Just ask a kid who’s spent an evening staring at the Instagram feeds of all his friends having a blast at an event to which he hadn’t been invited. Interacting with those outside that bubble can be a much-needed escape from the pressure cooker, whether it’s with a young neighbor or sibling, older cousins, a grandparent or the auntie who’s your mom’s best friend. Spent an entire morning at school stressed about college applications? A conversation with a peer will likely revolve around the same subject, serving only to ratchet up the anxiety, but an hour spent shooting hoops with the little kid next door who has only fidget spinners on the mind may come as a welcome relief. The pain of a morning spent being ignored by the mean kids in the lunchroom might be soothed in the company of a grandparent who thinks you’re God’s gift to the world. The always-in-control teen can let down his guard when a college-age family friend comes over to hang out; the shy and diffident kid can be a superhero to someone four years younger.

Perhaps, this is a lesson that we adults can internalize also. How often have we dismissed a potential friend because we felt that they were too young for us to keep up with socially or too old to fit into our lifestyle? But how boring life would be if all we did was interact with people who are in exactly the same stage of life that we are. When it comes to play, we should treat age as nothing more than a number.

Anu Varma Panchal is a mother of two and owner of

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