Road to College: Back-to-School Toolkit 

On the Road to College, we have opportunities to start the year anew. January 1st is always a good feeling as adults, as we look forward to a new year with goals and aspirations to be better, to do better. For students, albeit with some reluctance, the start of the school year marks a time for personal and intellectual growth. To make the most of this special time of year when everyone starts with a clean slate, there are some tools for our Back to School Toolkit to discuss and utilize. 

The first tool is the overall understanding of study skills. That is, whether high performing or struggling, all students have room to improve. High performing students may be stressed due to both internal and external expectations and not always as efficient as they can be. Struggling students often are not sure how to take to improve. In both cases, more of the same is not the solution. As parents, we must ensure our children have the skills they need, not just an expectation of results. When we focus on input, we often get the output we desire. So, the key to using this tool well is to have a student account for when they study, and how much time on task they truly spend. Moreover, do they spread out their work over time?  

The second tool in our BTS Toolkit is teaching the three Rs: Retention, Relationships, and Responsibility. To retain, or remember, its best to follow a routine, identifying as they move forward topics or concepts they do not understand, so that they do not move forward with an accruing deficit. Moreover, they can create or modify Quizlets in advance, so they can focus on memorizing what they have now learned. To make the most of retention, having a concept of being responsible for what they are taught is critical. With this attitude, they can act like investigative journalists putting pieces of the puzzle together, actively pursuing vs. passively waiting. The third major key to this tool is relationships. Teachers are a wonderful and often underutilized resource. Before considering hiring a tutor, ensure the student is using Khan Academy to review topics taught in class and seeing the teacher regularly. Most teachers chose their profession out of passion, and students may need reminders that having strong rapport and communicating expectations and concerns is the important third R. 

The third tool in our Toolkit is grade goals. For every quarter, students should have a grade goal for each subject. They should set the goal – given last years grade, but also be slightly aspirational. For subsequent quarters, do not simply continue raising the goal without purposefully exploring what inputs must change to get different outputs. These goals can also be mindful of future courses for which your child may be eligible. Remember, the most elemental and important component of any college application is the rigor of coursework and of course the grades in these courses. So, plan ahead! 

The fourth and final tool in our Toolkit is communication. One pattern I have observed is the often intense and passionate lectures by parents in hopes of better results, replete with cautionary tales of what may come. Most middle and high school students have not yet had to truly struggle and cannot conceive of the future in a palpable way as adults can. Moreover, does asking, Why did you not do X?” really create the change in habits and results you desire? While parents hearts are in the right place, students live in the what not the why. Instead of asking why, ask them what they can do differently if a different outcome is expected. Also, vary the communication regarding school. Students often recede into a hermit-crab-like shell of indifference and attitude when the topic of school comes up, bracing for the lecture, and limiting information sharing to reduce the intel that will be used against them. Instead, help them understand how to construct the time of their day, how to spread out work, how to remove digital distractions until homework is done, and how to focus on input to get better output. 

On the Road to College, we as parents do better with the right tool for each job and must continue learning and adapting as our children grow. Given enough room, and with the right tools, our children can often surprise us in their capacity to change for the better. 

Ive created a series of videos that can help you and your kids on the Road to College. You can find them on the Novella Prep YouTube channel. 

Tony Di Giacomo, Ph.D. is an educator and founder of Novella Prep. He has 20 years of experience working in admissions, development, teaching, and research at various universities. Prior to launching Novella Prep, Tony worked at the College Board, where he led and managed research on the SAT, PSAT, AP, and other programs. You can reach him at 

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About the Author: Tony Di Giacomo, Ph.D.