In the midst of the holiday buzz, many high school students are feeling the frenzy of college admissions season. High school juniors may be managing heavy class course loads and preparing for ACT or SAT testing, which seniors are busy polishing up their college applications. It’s a tense time for teens and parents alike – if you’re feeling a little extra stress around your house, I guarantee you’re not alone!
I clearly remember my own experience with college admissions — which was long before the Common App and involved typing each of my applications individually on a borrowed typewriter! — and the overwhelming stress 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 managing multiple AP classes 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 during the senior year college application season.
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 right for them? We recommend students gain exposure to both tests before deciding 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 preferred test.
When to take the test?
Once students choose between ACT and SAT, they should plan for testing dates during their junior year. Preparation can begin the summer before junior year or fall of junior year. Most students take the SAT/ACT at least twice to achieve their best score, so this allows for their first SAT/ACT attempt to be in the fall, their second attempt in the winter or spring time, and, if needed, a final test in either the summer before or fall of their senior year. Testing in the early fall following a summer test preparation course is ideal, so students can do test prep work without the added burden of school and homework.
When it comes to ACT and SAT testing, there is a fine line between testing soon enough and not testing too soon. While we want students to start early enough to allow adequate prep time and multiple testing opportunities, there are baseline skills students need to attain before testing for ACT or SAT makes sense. Students should have completed at least Math 2 before beginning their test preparation for either test. If your child is behind in math, we recommend focusing on academic coaching to strengthen math skills and get ahead in the curriculum for the tests before starting more focused test prep.
To maximize opportunities for getting a peak performance score, we recommend the following testing schedule:
- Fall of Sophomore Year – Practice!
- Junior Year – National Merit Eligibility
- Late Spring Sophomore Year/Summer before Junior Year – Diagnostic ACT/SAT
- Option: Summer Before Junior Year – Prep for either ACT or SAT
- Fall/Winter Junior Year – Begin Prep for either ACT or SAT
- Fall/Spring Junior Year – ACT/SAT #1
- Spring Junior Year/Summer After Junior Year – ACT/SAT #2
- Early Fall Senior Year – optional ACT/SAT #3
SAT Subject Tests
- May/June 10th Grade: Take SAT Subject Tests in any areas where AP courses were just completed.
- 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:
- March 9, 2019 | Registration deadline: February 8
- May 4, 2019 | Registration deadline: April 5
- June 1, 2019 | Registration deadline: May 3
- August 24, 2019 | Registration deadline: TBD
- October 5, 2019 | Registration deadline: TBD
- November 2, 3019 | Registration deadline: TBD
- December 7, 2019 | Registration deadline: TBD
The next testing dates for ACT are:
- February 9, 2019 | Registration deadline: January 11
- April 13, 2019 | Registration deadline: March 8
- June 8, 2019 | Registration deadline: May 3
- September 14, 2019 | Registration deadline: TBD
- October 26, 2019 | Registration deadline: TBD
- December 14, 2019 | Registration deadline: TBD
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. Shemmassian College Counseling has a great article on The Ideal College Admissions Timeline that provides a clear outline for staying on top of the admissions process. This is also an ideal time to do a little exploration of interests and strengths to see what potential career fields are a good fit as students explore colleges and majors. La Jolla LearningWorks’ one-on-one Career Interest Coaching Program gives personalized guidance through interest assessment and career exploration.
With the ease of information access from the internet, resourceful teens can also 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!