Start Early to Achieve College Success: Tips for Parents and Students

By Alice G. Reinarz and David A. Reinarz⊂=none

This article is one in a series written by scholars and researchers in a variety of fields. Dr. Alice G. Reinarz was a faculty member in microbiology and director of the Undergraduate Advising Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Her son, David A. Reinarz, holds a bachelor's degree and was a graduate student in Educational Administration at UT Austin.

Austin, Texas — Parents naturally want the best future for their children, and their goals often include helping their offspring get a college education.

But accomplishing the college goal can be hindered by obstacles which vary in form from one family to another. The key to overcoming those obstacles is cooperation and communication between the parents and their children, particularly in the early years of development.

By working together, the parents and children can reduce the number and size of obstacles before they become major barriers too difficult to overcome. But there are several things parents can do to promote a strong interest in going on to college.

One is to discuss high expectations and the value of education. A major predictor of college success is a life-long expectation that the child will get a college education. This does place pressure on young children, but expectations often determine accomplishments. Goals can be achieved with a strong work ethic. Parents must teach children to always do their best and value any job well done. Early in childhood, parents and role models can instill the importance of a college education. College provides a life-transforming experience, not just a mechanism to make more money.

Contribute to a college fund. Money set aside (by both parents and students) increases awareness that the student will be able to go to college. College financing is important to provide a realistic expectation of higher education. Existence of the college fund, no matter how much money it contains, reinforces the investment of the family in the student's future. Parents should consult with school counselors or financial advisors on the best ways to set up these accounts.

Stay active in parent-child relationships. A hands-on approach teaches children that they have potential. This communication includes talking to kids about their hops and dreams, emphasis on scholastic and extracurricular achievement, and working with teachers and counselors.

Here are some tips for college-bound students:

Take the most challenging classes available. Parents and teachers must present students, early and often, with the realistic challenge, "if you want to succeed in college, you must prepare yourself with the academic tools and learn to work hard."

Visit college campuses. It is extremely valuable for a student to feel familiar with a university environment. It can be fun to attend a sporting event and a good chance also to tour the campus and see classrooms, residence halls, and libraries.

Take the college admissions tests early. Plan to take the ACT and/or SAT as soon as you qualify and possibly several times to improve the scores.

Apply to several colleges to weigh the opportunities each provides. Before a student enrolls, parents can help emphasize that college is far different than high school. Talking with successful college students and faculty members helps. Their experience gives credibility to their advice.

Communicate with college representatives. Call the university's information number to find out how to reach the admissions office, academic advisors, or major departments. Many campuses have extensive information on web pages as well.

After enrollment, students and parents must accept that the first year is critical and may be very stressful for both. Students should attend all college orientation activities. Students benefit by connection to the university environment including living in college residence halls or as close to campus as possible. First year students may adapt better with involvement in academic and/or social organizations on campus. Experienced students and college advisors can reduce anxieties and provide academic survival tips. First year students often need help with study skills (note taking and exam preparation), time management, tutorial assistance, a balanced class schedule with careful planning for major/academic choices.

Colleges provide campus resources with these services, but students must learn to be resourceful and assertive to maximize their help.

Children need parental encouragement and support. Parent attitudes mold their values. Pride in their efforts and success will propel them to achieve. Both parents and children have key roles and may not always agree, particularly during high school years. In a continuing spirit of cooperation, parents can provide opportunities, but the child must ultimately accept responsibility for academic choices.


  1. Recognize that feelings of ambivalence about your child's leaving home are normal. For most families, this step can seem like a dramatic separation of parent and child, although it is usually the separation of adult from almost-adult. It is normal, too, to look forward to the relative peace and quiet of having your active older adolescent out of the house and having the place to yourself, or being able to spend time with your younger children!
  2. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up. There is little benefit in pretending that you don't feel sad, guilty, relieved, apprehensive, or whatever feelings you do have, while your child is getting ready to come to the university. You probably aren't fooling anyone by trying to hide your reactions; a healthier approach is to talk about them, with your family, friends, clergy, or whomever is a source of support for you.
  3. Make "overall wellness" a goal for yourself. Especially during stressful times, it helps to get enough sleep, eat healthful meals regularly, and get adequate exercise. Spending some recharging time – doing the special things that you especially like – is another step toward wellness. If you are feeling good, you are more likely to have the energy to help your child and be a good role model.
  4. Remember that, for your child, coming to the university is a tremendously important developmental step toward full adulthood. It represents the culmination of the teachings and learnings of 18 years or so – much of it geared toward helping your child assume a productive place in the world. This is the time when your hard work will show itself in the form of a framework that your freshman will use in beginning to make independent choices. Many parents find that it helps to focus on the fact that providing your child with this opportunity is a priceless gift. Be proud of yourself!
  5. Find a new creative outlet for yourself. Especially parents whose last or only child has moved away to college find that taking on a new challenge is an excellent way to manage and channel their energy and feelings. Have you ever wanted to write a book? Learn to fly-fish? Make a quilt? Volunteer in your community? Assume a new project or responsibility at work? Travel? Get your own bicycle and ride all over town? Make a list of all the things you intended to do while your child was growing up, but never had the time to do. Now is your chance!


Of course, you are still a parent to your almost-adult, and he or she does still need your support and guidance during the college years. Here are some ways you can express your caring and enhance your child's experience.

  1. Stay in touch! Even though your child is experimenting with independent choices, he or she still needs to know that you're there and are available to talk over both normal events and difficult issues. Make arrangements to write or call your child on a regular basis.
  2. Allow space for your child to set the agenda for some of your conversations. If he or she needs help or support, the subject is more likely to come up if you aren't inquiring pointedly about what time he or she came in last night!
  3. Be realistic with your college student about financial matters. Most students come to school with a fairly detailed plan about how tuition, fees, books, and room and board will be paid for, and what the family's expectations are about spending money. Being specific at the outset may help avoid misunderstandings later.
  4. Be realistic as well about academic achievement and grades. The university attracts bright students from all over the world, and not every freshman who excelled academically in high school will be an all-A student here. Developing or refining the capacity to work independently and consistently and to demonstrate mastery can be more important than grades, as long as the student meets the basic academic requirements set out by the university. Again, these are choices that each individual student makes, though certainly it is appropriate to help your child set his or her own long-term goals.
  5. If your child does experience difficulties, encourage him or her to take advantage of the wealth of resources available for students. For academic issues, talking with the professor, or academic advisor is probably the first step, but the learning skills centers and career centers are also likely available to help. If your son or daughter could benefit from counseling, counseling and mental health centers are located on most campuses. College campuses can be big places, but you can help your child by reminding him or her of the many resources available on campus.