Three Ways to Help Your Middle Schooler Excel
Helping middle schoolers develop strong study skills, self-advocacy tools, and extracurricular interests can help set them up for success later in their academic careers.

For many parents, preparing for their children’s college education begins when the child is born—with saving money. For children, college prep truly begins in middle school, whether they realize it or not. This is the time of life when students need to:

  • Learn how to study
  • Learn how to advocate for themselves
  • Find an extracurricular activity or two that they like and perhaps can excel in



There was a time when children were taught study habits—note taking, test preparation, time management. Judging by what I have seen in my tutoring center, that is a thing of the past.

Watch out for procrastination. Putting off studying until the last minute is a terrible idea. Cramming for a test for three hours the night before a test doesn’t work as well as studying 30 minutes a day for six days. Students learn better over time. Kids who cram will go to bed knowing the material but when they get up and go take the test, they find they haven’t retained it. Studying consistently over time, on the other hand, helps with retention.

Ensure that your kids have good study skills and distraction-free studying. Kids often come to my tutoring center, leave their phones at the front desk, and are thrilled with how much studying they got done. It's much easier to concentrate without the ability to check texts or go online.

How to help create good study habits? My advice—and maybe take this with a grain of salt, since I run a tutoring center—is: Don’t try to tutor your kids. (It’s the typical kid thing: Even as adults, we can’t stand our parents telling us anything.) Maybe find a local tutoring center or online videos. Increasing their reading speed helps too. We’ve found that increasing a student’s reading speed helps them tremendously. Encourage your children to read and re-read books, articles, or passages to increase their reading fluency.



It’s important that your kids get the help they need and not fall behind.

So instill this thought in them: If they come across something that they’re having a hard time grasping, they need to tell a parent, teacher, or guardian they’re struggling.

It’s okay if your kids don’t understand something. But learning builds on itself. Most likely if they don’t understand today’s lesson, tomorrow’s lesson won’t make sense, either. Help them get help.



By the end of eighth grade, kids should be involved in extracurricular activities they like. Colleges typically judge kids 70 percent on academics and 30 percent on extracurriculars. Anything a kid can do to show leadership is a plus.

But don’t try to cram in five activities. The kid will be spread too thin and end up being mediocre in a bunch of things rather than good or great at one thing. Selective schools like kids who are stellar at one thing.

And remember: Extracurriculars can’t be the main focus. Grades have to be a main focus if you’re looking for money for college.


Next time:

Excelling in high school.


Jamie Dickenson portrait

Independent Educational Consultant specializing in college admissions and financial aid, motivational speaker, business coach and owner of Jamie Dickenson, LLC., IEC Advisors, and Yoga Power, LLC

Jamie Dickenson is not affiliated with Hartford Funds. Hartford Funds has separately contracted with Ms. Dickenson to provide additional insight about college savings issues.