This is a true confession: In 1978, I was admitted to Yale University with a transcript that included no class in physics, and math that ended with an elective in statistics, rather than calculus. I felt bad about it, actually. But not bad enough to keep me from gloating and heading straight to New Haven.

Humbling part is if I’d submitted that transcript nowadays, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in. Nor to Princeton, Harvard, Stanford…or quite a few other places. With today’s stiff competition, kids need to make the grade. And that means more than a GPA, it also means a strong, broad transcript starting in ninth grade.

So what exactly do they need to make their college dreams a reality? Aware of my own dark secret, I checked with my alma mater and a couple of other top schools. Here’s what they said:

  1. Do plan ahead. It’s true that you don’t want to stress out your incoming ninth grader before school has even started. But if your child dreams of college, you should applaud…and be sure that the courses you’re signing off on meet the requirements for acceptance. Don’t be ashamed to ask questions. Start with your child’s guidance department, but also check out websites for colleges that interest your kid. Admissions offices almost always offer a section on what they’re seeking.

  2. Don’t encourage your child to take easy classes, just for an A. Admissions officers can smell that a mile away. Here’s how Yale puts it: “[We] are above all an academic institution, and thus academic strength is our first consideration.” Princeton concurs, telling students to “take the most rigorous courses possible.” In simple terms, here's what that means: most schools will offer their students choices, starting in ninth grade, of levels of difficulty. If your child can handle the more challenging option, she should take it. Schools like to see that a student is up for a challenge.

  3. Do help them cover the academic bases. When your child enters high school, you can expect to see a list of “graduation requirements” that specify the basics for a diploma. Don’t confuse them with college requirements, which are higher. In the renowned California University system, for example, students must satisfy “A-G” requirements which include 4 years of English; two years of history; three years of math; two years of science, two of foreign language, and one of fine arts. And for the Ivies and their potted relatives, the bar is higher still:

Math: Four years, through beginning Calculus. “It’s rare,” says Richard Nesbitt, Director of Admissions at Williams College, “to see a student who’s only doing precalculus as a senior.”

Science: Three or four years. Harvard specifies, “biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course in one of these subjects.” Others may allow options like environmental science, provided it’s a solid challenge.

History: Three or four years, including both American and European history.

Foreign Language: Three or four years of one language.

Sound rough? It can be. It’s easier if your child’s school offers excellent programs in all subjects and at all levels. If not, courses can sometimes be arranged through local community colleges, and universities will appreciate the student's sense of drive in seeking them out. But even if these options are easily available, kids do need to be careful. Remember: a degree is only a package, it’s what’s inside that counts. Both high school and college should be times of rich self-discovery, not endless stress. Even the toughest Ivies make it a practice to review every case individually, and will make allowance for cases when a school couldn't offer certain courses, or when a student was developing a big talent in one certain area.   And, of course, there are many outstanding non-Ivy schools which do not hold such stiff criteria for entry.

While respecting real-life realities, then, it's crucial to remember how many different pathways really can lead to success. As Nesbitt says, “The college process should be about finding the right fit, not just the most prestige.” And Stanford agrees, telling students: “This is a time to think carefully about who you are, and to believe in yourself….We do not want your high school years to be full of drudgery…The students who will thrive at Stanford are those who are genuinely excited about learning, not necessarily those who take every single AP or Honors or Accelerated class just because it has that name.”

The bottom line? Push your kids to think early about what they want-- whether it's an "in" at a nearby state school, or admission to a seemingly out of reach university far away. Then help them lay out the steps and courses they'll need to get there.  College may seem like a long way away, but it creeps up quicker than you'd think.