Along with the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, many high school students are feeling the added pressure of college admissions planning. High school seniors are in full swing with their college applications, aiming to put on the finishing touches when they have a little break from school. Juniors are in the midst of their toughest academic season, while eagerly awaiting PSAT results (available online December 12) to give them a better idea of what lies ahead for them in preparation for college testing. It’s a tense time for teens and parents alike waiting to see what will be in store for the next step along the academic pathway. If you’re feeling a little extra stress around your house, I guarantee you are not alone!
In thinking back on my own experience with college admissions (and mind you, that involved my dad bringing home a typewriter from his law office so I could actually type my applications one by one!), I remember overwhelming stress of the last minute crunch of application season. Not only was I working on my essays, researching college options, organizing recommendation requests for teachers, and taking a last round of the SAT; I was also researching and applying for scholarships and financial aid. What a lot to think about, all the while managing an AP course load and a full extracurricular schedule!
Along with the evolution from typewriters to online applications, there is a better way to manage the college application process to minimize the stress of the admissions season: planning ahead! Thinking about college and starting the application process earlier, can actually be the antidote for the crippling anxiety and destructive pressure we more frequently see in senior year college application season.
I think of a family I met with to discuss SAT/ACT test prep last spring. The student was at the end of her junior year and had dreams of becoming an architect. She was not aware of the GPA, academic prerequisite, or testing requirements of architecture programs; she simply set her sights on a college she heard had a strong architecture program. The student had not yet taken her admissions tests and her diagnostic testing placed her well below the minimum score for acceptance to her desired college. She also had no idea about the academic course requirements for architecture programs, and her GPA was far below what would be required for admission to any school of architecture. What broke my heart about this case was that this child’s dream of becoming an architect was so far out of reach – but it didn’t have to be if she had started planning sooner.
Over the past several years, there’s been an increasing trend towards shifting the college admissions and preparation process earlier and earlier – and it’s not intended to make students feel added pressure about whether or not they will get into a “good” college. What I hear from college counselors in San Diego is that getting started early with college planning increases students’ opportunities for admissions and scholarships while actually minimizing the stress of the last minute application rush. This has proven to be true in my experience supporting students with ACT and SAT test prep. Students I see staying calm and collected through the application season started their planning process early on, considering their major interests, types of schools they want to attend, and mapping out their testing dates beginning in sophomore year. With a clear plan, these students achieved their desired outcomes in college acceptance – without getting caught up in competition with their peers.
When framed positively and supported with guidance from parents and knowledgeable professionals, getting an early start on college planning is about empowerment and confidence in achieving desired goals with a clear plan. Although most high schools are unable to provide individualized support in creating a college list and preparing applications, there are plentiful resources available in the community and online to assist with this process. Here are some guidelines for when and what to consider along the path to a peaceful college planning process:
End of 8th/Beginning of 9th Grade: Course Planning
Considering college planning before or at the beginning of high school helps students identify bigger goals and understand the role that grades and GPAs play in their future opportunities. Encourage your child schedule an appointment with his or her counselor at school to discuss graduation requirements for UC schools and recommended advanced track courses depending on the student’s interests. Even with a heavy student caseload, counselors do respond well to “squeaky wheels!”
If you have the wherewithal to engage a professional college counselor, schedule a meeting to discuss the general GPA requirements for college – and what that means for grades starting in freshman year. College counselors can also help your child in identifying possible areas of interest, as well as maintaining a reasonable balance in his or her course load before the peer pressure of AP classes takes over.
10th-11th Grade: College Admissions Testing
Which test to take?
PSAT, SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests…oh my! Admissions testing is a reality most students applying to 4-year colleges face. Yet again, getting a head start with a clear plan for testing alleviates pressure and allows students to plan for preparation around their heaviest academic seasons. Thinking about college testing early, will also ensure that students attempt SAT Subject Tests (required by select colleges and majors) when the related course material is fresh in their minds.
We recommend that students decide on either the ACT or SAT to focus on and study for, so they do not spend unnecessary time and energy preparing for both tests. Although many students today take both tests, colleges only require one test or the other. And despite rumors, there is no preference among colleges between the two tests according to college admissions counselors.
So, how do students determine which test is for them? We have our students gain exposure to both tests before determining which test to take. The first opportunity for testing practice for most students comes with the PSAT, which sophomores can take for practice and juniors take for the opportunity to compete for merit-based scholarships in October of each year. As the PSAT offers exposure to the SAT testing format, it gives students an idea of how they would do on a real SAT. With this practice under their belts, students can then take a practice ACT test to compare their scores and determine their preference of format. We help our students compare results from each test to determine which score is relatively stronger and then put together an individualized plan to optimize their results.
When to take the test?
Once students determine their preferred test between ACT and SAT, they should plan for testing dates in the early fall and spring of their junior year. Most students take the ACT or SAT at least twice to achieve their best score, so this schedule allows students plenty of time to work on scores well before applications are also on their agenda. Testing in the early fall following a summer test preparation course is ideal, so students can do test prep course work without the added burden of school and homework.
To maximize opportunities for getting a peak performance score, we recommend the following testing schedule:
- Fall 10th Grade: Take a practice PSAT.
- Fall/Spring 10th Grade: Take a practice ACT & compare results to PSAT.
- May/June 10th Grade: Take SAT Subject Tests in any areas where AP courses were just completed.
- Summer before 11th Grade: Prepare for ACT or SAT.
- Early Fall 11th Grade: Take ACT or SAT #1 based on summer prep plan.
- Fall 11th Grade: Take PSAT.
- Late Fall/Early Spring 11th Grade: Take ACT or SAT #2 to improve score. Consider starting preparation over the winter break.
- May/June 11th Grade: Take SAT Subject Tests in any areas where AP courses were just completed.
For juniors this year, the next testing dates available for SAT are:
- January 21, 2017 | Registration Deadline: Dec. 21
- March 11, 2017 | Registration Deadline: Feb. 10
- May 6, 2017 | Registration Deadline: Apr. 7
- June 3, 2017: Registration Deadline: May 9
The next testing dates for ACT are:
- February 11, 2017 | Registration Deadline: Jan. 13
- April 8, 2017 | Registration Deadline: Mar. 3
- June 10, 2017 | Registration Deadline: May 5
Be sure to sign up for tests before registration deadlines – and even earlier to guarantee your desired testing location to eliminate another possible worry!
11th Grade: College List Preparation & Interest Assessments
Creating a college list and determining areas of interest for future study can bring a huge feeling of relief to students in knowing there are plenty of options available to them ahead. Again, meeting with a private college counselor can be invaluable for this stage of the game. Look for a college counselor with experience in providing students with assessment of career interests. Yet, with the ease of information access from the internet, resourceful teens can find interest assessments online and start their college research with a standard college guidebook (we like Peterson’s Four-Year Colleges) in conjunction with online research. You can also download our ACT/SAT Goal Score Worksheet at the end of this post to help your child figure out what ACT or SAT score is needed for his or her target schools.
Like many things in life, preparation and planning are the best routes to achieve our desired goals. And while avoidance might seem like a more appealing alternative than tackling something that can be as daunting as thinking about college, procrastination really only serves to magnify anxiety in the long-run. I encourage you to help your teens take the college admissions process one step at a time. It will ease stress along the way and ensure that your child has the best opportunities available to him or her in the future – and that you as a parent feel secure in knowing that your child is on a clear path to a happy, successful, and independent future!
About the Author: Megan Cohen Trezza, M.Ed., is the founder of La Jolla LearningWorks and alumna of La Jolla High School & UC Berkeley. She enjoys helping high school students and their families keep a sense of calm and control in planning for college. Connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LaJollaLearningWorks, or via email at megan@LJLearningWorks.com.
ACT/SAT Goal Score Worksheet
Figure out what ACT or SAT score is needed for your child’s target colleges! Download our ACT/SAT Goal Score Worksheet to calculate the ACT or SAT score your child needs to get into the colleges of his or her choice.