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Lay the Foundation for Success

Did you know that planning and preparation in middle school will lead to success in high school and beyond? Don't wait until the decisions about your future are upon you, plan now and learn strategies that will help you be successful and lay a solid foundation for the opportunities that await you in high school and beyond.

Prepare for High School

Middle school is a time of transition between the structured days of elementary and the more independent days of high school. Middle school is the time to begin taking on more responsibility for your learning and to really begin thinking about the future and exploring your interests. This means being more organizes, planning out when to study and when to have fun, and using your experiences to consider future career opportunities.

Get Organized

As a middle school student, it's time to take control of the situation. Get a planner or download an app for your phone and start using it. Your school might even provide one for you.

Tips for Planner Use

Get the most out of your planner by using these strategies.

  • Make a daily list of assignments, projects and tests for each subject.
  • Include activities, meetings, practices and deadlines.
  • Check your list before you leave school to make sure you have all the materials you need.
  • Figure out what's most important. Do assignments due tomorrow first; then use extra time to work on those due later.
  • Work backward from due dates by writing down which parts of large projects you'll take care of each day.
  • Include study time for tests coming up later in the week or month.
  • Cross or check off each assignment when you finish it.
  • Look ahead at due dates, activities and test dates so you're prepared.
  • Write down reminders for new supplies or materials you need, as well as notes or information for your parents so they know what's going on too.

Study Skills

n middle school, you have harder classes and more responsibility than before. You are also setting the learning patterns that you'll use for the rest of your life. (You will be learning long after you finish school.) So how do you study? Do you think you're doing well, or could you improve? Use these tips to make the most of your time.

  • Take Notes. As you read assignments and listen to teachers, write down the most important points. If you have trouble deciding what's important, try:
    • Making questions out of titles and subtitles and writing down the answers.
    • Reading captions, callouts and bolded words.
    • Writing answers to end-of-chapter and end-of-unit questions.
    • Noting anything that your teacher repeats or says will be on the test.
  • Get Organized. Keep your notes, class handouts, study guides and project information for each class together. Use a planner or organizer to plan study time by working backward from the test date.
  • Find Your Spot. Set aside a comfortable, well-lit and quiet place to study. Make sure you have room to spread books and papers out and keep supplies nearby.
  • Keep an Open Mind. Thinking a subject is difficult makes it harder to understand. Try to focus on the work instead. Even if something doesn't make sense at first, let your mind work on the problem without thinking about how difficult it is.
  • Be Active. It's hard to absorb information by just reading it over and over (especially if you're really not that interested in it). To really learn new things:
    • Work practice problems for math and science.
    • Answer the end-of-chapter questions even if your teacher didn't assign them.
    • Create practice essay questions and outline the answers.
    • Draw pictures, charts and maps of the information.
    • Make study cards.
    • Highlight important points in your notes and handouts.
    • Use sticky notes to write down thoughts and mark passages in textbooks.
    • Explain the information to someone else like a parent or a sibling. If they understand what you're saying, you probably know the material. If they don't, their questions will tell you what you need to work on.
  • Buddy Up. Find a study partner or two and go over your homework together. Remember to focus on the subject! If you find yourself getting distracted, talk about other things a few minutes out of every hour, then get back to work.
  • Know Your Stuff. Find a few methods that help you memorize information. Some common tricks include:
    • Listing terms on one half of a sheet of paper and their definitions on the other half. Read over it several times, then cover up one side and see how much you can remember.
    • Making flash cards. Put the question or term on one side and the answer or definition on the reverse. You can use a partner or quiz yourself.
    • Using acronyms. You know what these are – like Roy G. Biv for the colors of the rainbow. Making up your own can be a lot of fun (and useful).

Test Taking Skills

Tests are a big deal in middle school because they let your teachers know how much of the information you've actually learned. So go ahead and show off. If you've studied and paid attention in class, all you need to worry about is remaining calm and using some test-taking tips to score high.

  • Be Prepared. If your teacher has assigned it or talked about it, it might be on the test. Since you've been paying attention in class, you know what is most likely on the test. (You have been paying attention, haven't you?)
  • Listen Up. Listen to any directions your teacher gives you. Then pay close attention to the written instructions. If you don't understand what you're supposed to do on any part of the test, ask.
  • Stay Calm. If you're too nervous, try:
    • Taking deep breaths.
    • Reviewing some information you know well to give yourself confidence.
    • Putting your energy to good use by jotting notes, formulas and memory aids in the margin.
  • Read Ahead. Glance quickly through the test before you begin answering the questions.
    • See where the halfway point of the test is. You should pace yourself so you've gotten that far when the class period is half over.
    • Pick out the easiest questions to answer first, and then answer the questions worth the most points.
    • If the test has reading passages, review the questions you will be asked first, so you know what to look for as you read.
  • Focus. Keep a good pace. You want to finish the test in time, without rushing. Don't allow yourself to be distracted by others.
  • Move On. If you come across a question that stumps you, keep moving. Make a reminder note in the margin, then go on and answer other questions. When you finish the test, come back and answer any questions you skipped.
  • Make an Educated Guess. If you have to guess at an answer, first rule out any answer choices you know are wrong. Then choose from what's left.
  • Check It Twice. Use any extra time to review your answers. Double-check that you actually answered everything. Make sure all your answers make sense.
Plan Your Courses

Middle school is typically when you begin taking classes outside of the core academic subjects like reading, writing, math and science. These courses are the beginning of exploring your interests through learning. These classes offer the opportunity to explore new ideas and maybe find areas of interest you didn't know you had.

During eighth grade, your school will probably talk to you about making a plan for your high school classes. A four-year plan lets you map out what classes you want to take in high school. This plan helps you achieve your school and career goals. The courses you take during all your high school years will affect if and when you graduate, if you go to college, and what type of job you'll get. If you want to know what to expect, here's one way to make a four-year plan:

  1. Use a four-year plan template like this. (PDF)
  2. Find out your school's graduation requirements (how many years of which types of classes you need to graduate). Ask your school counselor or look on the school's website.
  3. Decide what type of training or education you'll need after high school for your career goal. If you don't know, make plans for a four-year college – then you'll be ready for just about anything.
  4. Choose a high school curriculum. Your counselor and the websites of technical schools, colleges and universities can tell you what classes you need to take in high school to enter their programs.
  5. Plan which classes you'll take each semester of high school. (Don't worry – you can change your plans later.)
  6. After each semester, write down your achievements – your grades, credits for that semester, total credits so far in high school and your GPA.
  7. Rethink your plan each year. Maybe your plans changed. Make a new plan for the rest of high school if you need to.

Explore Your Interests

Middle school is NOT the time to decide on your future career. It is the time to begin exploring things that really interest you and to learn about all the different career options available. Here are some tips to get started.

Think About What You Like to Do

Generally, these are also things you're good at. Try to think about things that you like, such as:

  • Classes.
  • Activities.
  • Hobbies or pastimes.
  • Other interests. You might be a great video game designer or ice-cream flavor developer.

Look Into Careers That Interest You and Research Online

Find out as much as you can about different careers. Research online and talk to adults you know in these fields. Ask your parents, school counselors and other adults for their advice. Research college majors and careers with online programs such as ACT Career Assessment tool. This tool provides a free career assessment and then helps you research careers based on your interests, values, and skills. Visit ACT Profile to get started.

Get Some Hands-On Experience

Spend a day shadowing a person or some time volunteering in a field you're interested in. Think of your interests and then explore possible career options for those interests or ideas for volunteering. Use these ideas to help you think of places to look:

Animals, nature

  • Possible Careers: Marine biology, Zoologist
  • Volunteer Ideas: County Conservation Office

Clothes, sewing

  • Possible Careers: Fashion designer, Fashion buyer
  • Volunteer Ideas: Costume design for drama club

Research, reading

  • Possible Careers: Librarian, Research specialist
  • Volunteer Ideas: Local library or book store

Drawing, art

  • Possible Careers; Graphic Designer, Architecture
  • Volunteer Ideas: Logo design for area organization, School newspaper or yearbook

Sports, team activities

  • Possible Careers; Coach, Activities director
  • Volunteer Ideas: Youth camp, Daycare center 

Taking care of others

  • Possible Careers: Health Care, Customer Services
  • Volunteer Ideas: Local nursing home, Food pantry or soup kitchen

Get Involved

Joining teams, activities and organizations can be a lot of fun, but there are other benefits as well.

  • Skill development. Whether you're improving your batting or learning how to be an actor, involvement in activities gives you the chance to be better at the things you enjoy doing.
  • Teamwork skills. You don't have to play sports to learn how to be part of a team. Any time you work with others on a project or a goal, you're developing teamwork skills.
  • Leadership opportunities. The chance to lead a group of your peers will give you confidence and teach you how to motivate others.
  • Exposure to new ideas. Volunteer opportunities and student groups may let you see how people live in other countries or on the other side of town. You'll also meet people who have different opinions than yours.
  • Career exploration. Many organizational tasks – fundraising, performing, advertising and others – can help you discover how well you'd like careers that involve those activities.
  • Chances to make new friends. Who doesn't want more friends?
  • They can be an outlet for emotions and stress. Having interests besides school and home allows you to express yourself in positive ways.

Employersand colleges select people who have these abilities. So, whether you want to play sports, join a youth group, or run for student government, get involved. You'll be glad you did.

College and Career Training

Now is the time to start thinking about a career path. You don't have to know exactly what you want to do, but if you have a general idea, you can plan accordingly. To start getting ready for your future, you'll have to find out what kind of preparation you'll need.

  • Can you get on-the-job training?
  • Do you need some type of college education?
  • Will you go into the armed forces?
Benefits of College and Career Training

You'll have a lot of options after high school. College isn't right for everyone. When you think about college and career training, remember the reasons to start:

  • More job opportunities
  • The chance to earn more money over your lifetime
  • Increased knowledge
  • New people to meet
  • Opportunities and experiences you can't find at home
Questions About College

You may think you have a good reason or two to not continue your education after high school. If you have any of these concerns, see if the information below helps.

  • I can't afford it. Money and scholarships are available from the government to help you pay for school. Saving now helps too!
  • I'm not good at school. You can do better in classes if you make up your mind to put in the work. Learn good study habits. If school is hard for you, think about asking a tutor or teacher for extra help. Also, college isn't always a four-year university. Learn more about the different types of schools. 
  • I don't know what to do. Luckily for you, plenty of resources can help you plan for college. Start by talking to your parents and your school counselor. Visit for more ideas.
  • I don't know anyone who has gone to college. You may be the first in your family to go to college, but you know many others who've attended college. Your teachers and school counselor had to go to college. Talk to them and ask about their experiences. College isn't as scary as you might think

Save for College

College can be expensive, whether you're considering a four-year school, a two-year community college or a technical program. Don't wait until you're a senior to start figuring out how you're going to pay for it. Start looking at education and training options that fit your interests and explore college websites to learn about current program or tuition costs. 

Average Tuition Rates in Iowa

  • Private four-year college - $4,000 - $64,862 per academic year
  • Public four-year university - $9,411 - $10,497 per academic year
  • Public two-year college - $5,190-$6,780 per academic year ($173-$226 per credit hour)

These numbers provide a wide range of options and can seem expensive, but remember, education or training after high school will pay off with needed credentials and a higher salary. According to current workforce studies, 70% of current job openings require some form of education or training beyond a high school diploma. Plan now You'll also have the chance to apply for and receive financial aid.

Financial aid is money you receive to help you pay for college. It includes scholarships, grants, work-study and student loans. You don't need to pay back scholarship or grant money, and money you earn through work-study is yours. A student loan, though, is money you need to pay back with extra charges called interest.

  • Grants. Grants are given by the government, schools or organizations to help you through school. Grants do not need to be repaid and are usually based on need.
  • Scholarships. Scholarships also don't need to be repaid. They are usually awarded because you need the money or because you've earned it by being good at something. Or, you might win a scholarship if you agree to play a college sport or because you belong to a certain ethnic group.
  • Work-study. You might get a work-study job that pays you to work somewhere on campus part-time while you're in college.
  • Loans. Loans should only be used if you absolutely need them to attend college. The extra charges, or interest, you pay for borrowing the money builds up so you have to pay back more than what you borrowed. Federal student loans come from the U.S. government, while banks and other lenders offer private student loans.

Start Savings and Planning Now

  • Scholarships are one of the best ways to pay for college. And one of the best ways to get scholarships is to get involved in organizations, camps, clubs and groups that award them. Find out if any of the local, regional or national groups you're involved with help with college costs. 
  • Talk to your parents. Find out if they are putting any money away in the College Savings Iowa plan or another program for your education. Discuss your plans with them and talk about ways you can work together to save money. 
  • Open a savings account. You can put money away on your own. Visit the bank with your parents to open an account in your name. Then, when you receive or earn money, you can put at least part of it away for your future.
  • Start learning more. As you get older, you'll have more chances to earn money and, of course, more opportunities to spend it. Make sure you're making smart decisions about your money by learning how finances work.
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