NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
It's that time of year again, when parents and students are anxiously waiting to hear from colleges. Well, most won't hear until April.
Until then, parents of college-bound seniors all over the country will be second-guessing how well they prepared their kids for college. The application was only the last leg. It takes most of the child's adolescence to really prep a kid.
And if you're hoping for an Ivy League, you'll need some serious strategizing. Here are today's top five tips.
1. Start 'em young.
When they're little, the world has no limits. Your child may be interested in anything and everything -- that's a good thing. Chuck Hughes, a former senior admissions officer at Harvard, author of "What It Really Takes to Get into the Ivy League" and co-founder of Road to College, www.RoadtoCollege.com, advises, "Give your child every opportunity to learn and grow. When they take an interest in something, take it to an in-depth or higher level."
That is not to say your five-year-old needs to be fluent in Japanese, Italian and Spanish while playing U-6 "select" soccer, t-ball, and taking advanced ballet classes. Focus in on their interests and when they hit 8th grade, focus on a few of their favorite interests.
Hughes says, "It's great to be good at a bunch of things, but colleges look for students who do one to two things exceptionally well."
The middle school years are also a great opportunity to work on academics. Hughes recommends parents help students develop good reading, organizational and study skills to prepare students for the rigorous learning environment in high school. Help your child get excited about their academic future. Maybe consider sending them to a summer science or math program at the local university.
2. Start saving early.
College is the last thing you want to think of when they are first-born. But with every birthday tuition is creeping up on you.
The figures aren't pretty. Right now, the average total cost of attending a private university, including tuition, room, board and fees is $27,516, according to the College Board. That's only the average. Tuition at Yale for the 2004-2005 school year was $41,470. Plus, the average college tuition is expected to rise another 6 percent each year.
In other words, you need to start saving for college early on.
Joseph Hurley, founder and CEO of SavingForCollege.com says your first step is to understand what kind of money you need to set your goals right. Check out an online calculator on www.savingforcollege.com or www.Lunch-Money.com, where you can use a calculator to project the tuition for a specific school in the year your child will attend. Then start saving early and often.
To build college savings, consider combining a couple different types of investments. You will want to put money in savings and in some more aggressive investments too.
Financial planners advise that you put your money in riskier investments, like equities (stocks), earlier on in the child's life. As they near college age, you might move the money to a less risky environment like savings or fixed income (bonds).
When it comes to college-savings, you often hear of 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. Both plans are designed to offer you tax-free benefits. You can choose the types of investments you want to get into, but you are not taxed on gains or when you withdraw the money.
According to Hurley, the main differences between the two are function and limits. A 529 is only for college savings and has no annual limits on contributions. (There are actually two types of 529 plan. Check out the savings tuition plans.) A Coverdell can be used for college and primary or secondary schooling but has an annual limit of $2,000 per child.
However, 529s have been seriously scrutinized after several brokerages were found charging excessively high fees. So you want to make sure you check out any fees you're being charged.
Still, plenty of families are invested: one estimate says assets in 529s rose nearly 50 percent to $52 billion dollars last year. And yet, research has found that the fees incorporated with 529s may outweigh the tax benefits. Some critics are advising that families save in other regular taxable investments instead. Therefore, it's important you do your research and really weigh in the cost benefits of these plans against just going with regular savings.
With all investments, you want to review your plan annually, adjusting your investments for the market. To compare and price different 529s, check out Morningstar's 529 Data page which ranks each plan and breaks down each into its investments.
Young parents: you should also know that the revision in the tax code that provides tax benefits from 529 plans is set to expire by 2011 and it may not be renewed. When investing in either a 529 plan or a Coverdell, you need to be careful of the ramifications to your financial aid.
Hurley advises, "If you know you will need financial aid down the road, think about keeping the accounts in either parent's name." You will have to pay income tax in the meantime, but students with too much in savings are expected to pay dramatically more of their tuition.
3. Family matters.
The family is also another great resource for funding your child's college education. Instead of accepting the heaps of toys each holiday and birthday, ask your family to help pay your child's education. They might give savings bonds, or checks to contribute to your child's savings.
UPromise (www.UPromise.com) also helps the family get involved. Companies in the program will donate money to your child's education from the purchases you make on registered credit or debit cards, even grocery and drug store saver cards. You can register cousins, aunts, grandparents and others onto a child's UPromise account. A team effort can really make a difference.
4. Don't over-test.
Standardized tests are a big part of the application. There is a lot of pressure to get a good score. But Hughes says, "Don't take the test more than three times."From his experience at Harvard admissions, he says the admissions panel takes notice, "It makes the applicant seem egocentric and too focused on his score."
Many schools will accept either the ACT or the SAT. Hughes suggests students take both. Preparing for both can be a lot of work. If your child is better at science and math, think ACT: its writing section is optional and it offers a science section. If your student has stronger reading and writing skills, take the SAT: it has more reading comprehension and a required writing section.
With only three shots to nail the test, preparation is key. Give your child what they need to get familiar and confident with the test. If they are book-smart, let them study through practice tests and guides. If they learn better in a classroom, Princeton Review and Kaplan both offer classroom courses on the SATs and ACTs which can cost you around $1000 for a 12-session course.
Consider a tutor if your child needs individual attention, but that can start at $100 an hour. Kaplan and Princeton Review each have tutor services. If you are looking at getting a freelancer, get a background check. Anyone can call themselves an SAT/ACT tutor.
5. Wow admissions.
It all comes down to three things: academics, resume, and personal qualities. To be admitted at an Ivy League school, Hughes says a student's profile should look more or less like the following: She needs to be in the top 10 percent of her class. Her academic record shows she participates in the most demanding programs at school. She needs to get a 700+ on the SATs or 32+ on the ACTs. Her extracurricular activities show achievement, leadership, and a sense of accomplishment. And finally, she demonstrates her "glowing" personal qualities through recommendations, essays, and interviews (if possible).
Many private schools pride themselves with skilled college counselors who can help their students get admission to an Ivy League or a highly selective school. You might also look into hiring a private consultant. However, just like the test tutors, these can cost hundreds of dollars an hour.
But again, the application process is the last leg of getting your kid into college. If they aren't made for Ivy League, there are plenty of other even better opportunities out there.
Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.