The College Board has had some high-profile problems in the last couple of years. So is this it for the SAT (and the SAT IIs…and AP exams…)? In my expert opinion, not even close—here’s why.
Worried about how to make the most of those crucial summers during the college process? Worry no more—this post lays out a road map to what you need to keep your eye on.
Fights, confusion, stress—that's just what junior year is like, right? Nope! There's a better way. I promise. Let me show you what it can be like.
Don't throw in the towel! Instead, muster your grit and learn to make time for schoolwork AND test prep.
Some of these ideas are crazy...but they're all real! Here's what NOT to do when you're trying to impress colleges.
What!? There are changes to the ACT, too???
Yep. And it’s come to my attention that not everyone who’s signed up for the September 12, 2015 ACT test knows about the 3 important changes that directly impact what score you’ll get on test day!
Why is this? I’m not totally sure. Perhaps some tutoring companies are lazy or don’t do their research? I mean, it IS hard to miss. You’d have to scour the ACTstudent.org website and countless test prep blogs and belong to tutoring and educational professional groups — like I do — in order the stay abreast of the news. And everybody has their hands full with staying on top of the Redesigned SAT that’s rolling out this Spring!
So, yes, there are ACT changes.
And these changes will be rolled out over the course of the next year or so. Most do not affect how you actually take the test — a lot has to do with reporting. So, do not concern yourself right now with the new way the scores are displayed, the new scores you’ll receive (like the STEM score, which will really only be the sum of your Math and Science scores) or that you’ll soon be able to take the ACT completely on a computer. They aren’t all happening yet. (And the ones that are have to do with reporting, not test-taking.)
However, as a test-taker, you only need to prepare for 3 changes right now.
And as your favorite test prep expert, I’m happy to walk you through them. If you know any Seniors who are about to take the ACT in September or Fall, please help them out and send them this article so they can quickly and efficiently prep for the test without slogging through the extraneous haze of information overload out there!
ACT Change #1: The ACT essay is totally different.
Instead of reading about an issue and improvising three reasons in favor of your point of view, you will now be required to:
- Evaluate 3 different perspectives on an issue,
- Create your own conclusion/perspective about how to handle the issue, and
- Relate your own perspective back to the 3 that you already analyzed.
Okay, that sounds like a mouthful, and it is. However, if you think about it, you’ll be asked to do this for every essay from September on, so you already know how to organize your essay. You basically have to complete the three specific tasks that they asked of you — with your own analysis, good grammar, varied sentence structure, vivid examples, and elevated vocab.
Here’s the sample that’s posted on the ACTstudent.org website:
ACT Change #2: The ACT Reading section now has a Double Passage.
I know this sounds like I just turned off the Taylor Swift in the middle of your birthday party, but this change really isn’t as bad as you think. The reason? Unlike the SAT’s double passage that sent most of your friends screaming to the ACT in the first place, the ACT does a great job of organizing this double passage to where it’s actually MUCH more efficient and time-saving for you as a test-taker!
What do I mean? Well, here’s what I know for sure:
- There will only be 1 double passage on the test.
- It will be one of the non-fiction passages.
So it’ll either be Social Science, Humanities, or Natural Science. In other words, you’ll only have to deal with it on the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th passages. But only one of those.
- They already organize the questions for you!!!!
The ACT actually divides the questions into three sections, the first about Passage 1 only, the second about Passage 2 only, and the third about both passages together. That’s the order you need to be reading them in anyway, and there’s no guesswork! No scrambling to see if you’ve read enough to answer a particular question.
ACT Change #3: The ACT Science section only has 6 Passages.
So, this was not a change that I read about or that I noticed an announcement about. However, through coaching my own students and studying the April 2015 and June 2015 ACT tests, I saw this trend, and I think it will stick.
Right now, you’re used to having 7 passages on the Science section, which gives you approximately 5 minutes per passage. This has been a huge issue for most students, simply for the timing issue that creates. After all, it takes a while to digest the prompt before answering the questions, and then quickly switching gears every five minutes. (Sedimentary rock layers? Genetics? Nitrogen levels by temperature and longitude in different types of bog soil?!?!?! Make it STOP!!!)
The new Science section breaks down its passages like this:
- 2 Charts and Graphs passages, each with 6 questions
- 3 Experiments passages, each with 7 questions
- 1 “Fighting Scientist” reading passage, still with 7 questions
The main difference? The ACT took away one of the Charts and Graphs passages, and then it gave you an extra question in each of the remaining Charts and Graphs passages and in the 3 Experiments passages.
Interesting things to note are:
- You now have more time per passage! 5:50 per passage, as opposed to the original 5 minutes per passage.
- Over half the Science questions are based on Experiments passages (21 out of 40).
- Charts and Graphs has fewer questions (12 out of 40, as opposed to the original 15 out of 40).
- Fighting Scientists remains the same (7 out of 40).
So that’s what you have to look forward to! If you really think about it, most of the changes work out in your favor, timing-wise and organization-wise. However, I understand how shell-shocked you’d be if you weren’t prepared and walked into the testing center cold turkey, so I wanted to give you fair warning.
And remember, if you know any Seniors who are about to take the test this Fall, please do them a huge favor and pass this onto them. Sharing is caring 😉
Whether you’re about to begin your Junior year of high school or you’re only a Sophomore or Freshman and have considerably more time, I want to give you a quick landscape of the major steps to get into college that you need to take.
My intention here is that if you know what the crucial milestones are, you can methodically work to knock them off your list one at a time and not be a total anxiety-ridden stress case! I’ve gone ahead and listed them in chronological order, though some steps may be ongoing and thus overlap with other steps.
Moreover, I’ve tried my best to provide an ideal timeline of when you should be doing each step and about how long it takes. Keep in mind that “ideal timelines” may of course vary depending on where you are right now and your personal strengths and weaknesses. With my private clients, I can tailor this process to the perfectly bespoke little black dress of college admissions prep timelines—go here for an Ace the Test: Game Plan. However, if I do not know you personally, realize that you may have to adjust the dates just a modicum to apply perfectly to you.
Step #1: SAT I or ACT
Unless you are specifically researching colleges that don’t require standardized tests, you are going to have to take either the SAT I Reasoning Test or the ACT. (To find out which one, either go here or click on the cute teal pop-up in the bottom right of your screen.)
You are going to need to brush up on your math, grammar, reading comprehension, vocab and essay-writing abilities for both tests.
For the ACT, you should also brush up on interpreting charts and graphs and basic scientific method facts for the Science section. (NOTE: If you’re currently a Sophomore, you’ll need this skill too, regardless of which test you take, since you’ll be choosing between the ACT and the Revised SAT.)
August before Junior year, if not before: Start reviewing content weekly.
January/February of Junior year: Focus on taking mock and practice tests (between 4-6) and going over them.
March/April of Junior year: Take first SAT/ACT for real.
May: SAT attempt #2
June: ACT attempt #2
Fall of Senior year: Attempt #3 if needed.
Step #2: SAT II Subject Tests (Depends on School)
Depending on the schools on your college short list, you may be off the hook for SAT II Subject Tests. Or, if you are applying to Harvard, you may need 3 of them! Each college has its specifications, so make sure you do your research and write them down. (Need help? An Ace the Test: Game Plan will do it for you!)
May/June of Sophomore year: If you are taking any classes that would aptly prepare you for a Subject Test, go ahead and take it. Give yourself about 2 months’ study time, and pick the test date that is as close to your final exam for the class as possible.
June of Junior year: Take another 1-2 Subject Tests in subjects that correlate to classes you are taking.
Fall of Senior year: If you still need to take more subject tests or improve a score, take them after you have secured the SAT I or ACT score you desire.
Step #3: College Visits
You want to make sure you get a feel for the type of academic environments ideal to your growth and development before you craft your entire testing timeline around them!
June/July between Sophomore and Junior years: Try to do some of your college visits at this time to set your testing targets and complete all your requirements in a mellow, stress-free manner.
June/July between Junior and Senior years: Do the rest of your college visits at this time.
Step #4: College Application Process: The Activity List
This is where you break-down all of your passions, interests, community involvements, leadership positions, extra-curricular activities, jobs, volunteerism, sports, and talents so that the people in the admissions office know a) what you have to bring to the table at their institution and b) how exactly you’ve spent your time the past four years. This is where you have the ability to explain some odd-ball hobbies and interests that make you YOU (competitive Pokemon, anyone?). This is also where you get to demonstrate the actual number of hours you have devoted to your passions and the depth to which you have ventured to explore them.
July/August between Junior and Senior years: Start keeping a running tab of your activities, denoting the description, length of time you were involved, hours per week, leadership positions and notable accomplishments.
November 1st: This is the beginning of early decision application deadlines.
January 1st: Most regular decision deadlines are due around this time.
Step #5: College Application Process: Common App Essay
Formerly called the Personal Statement, you’ll use this essay for the Common App but can tweak it for applications that are NOT on the Common App, too. This is the main college entrance essay you will write that will give the readers in your dream school’s admissions office a glimpse into you, your hopes and dreams, your mind, your life, your accomplishments, your character, and your essence. All in under 650 impeccably-written words! Have fun!
July/August between Junior and Senior years: Start brainstorming and ideally have your first draft done before school starts.
November 1st: This is the beginning of early decision application deadlines.
January 1st: Most regular decision deadlines are due around this time.
Step #6: College Application Process: Supplemental Essays (Depends on School)
As delineated by the admission requirements of your particular dream schools, you very well may have additional “essays” to write and include in your application. I say “essays” with quotation marks, because some are incredibly brief, like describing yourself in 5 words. Stanford University has a supplemental essay like that. In fact, Stanford has 10 supplemental essays! (Don’t worry, they’re not all mammoth.)
August 1st: The Common App opens. You will be able to look up your list of colleges and compile all the supplemental essays you have to write. Please plan ahead before you start typing away – can one essay for one school be marginally tweaked and reused for another supplemental essay? Let’s be a little pragmatic, shall we?
November 1st: This is the beginning of early decision application deadlines.
January 1st: Most regular decision deadlines are due around this time.
So, yes, this DOES seem like a lot, and you may be wondering how I dared to claim these were “6 Easy-Peasy Steps”… But seriously, if you take a long-range look at these, there are a few tests, a few trips, and a few essays that just need to happen at a few designated times. If you start doing what you can during Sophomore year and the beginning of Junior year, you will be sitting very pretty by the time those acceptance letters start rolling in.
I hope this was able to ease some of your high school stress and help you plan. Remember that though I’m able to offer this one-size-fits-most information for free, you can get more tailor-made advice by working with me. And if you found this helpful, please do me a huge favor and pass it on to 3 of your friends!
As you may have already read in my previous post, college admissions officers want to know what you're passionate about,where you've taken initiative, how you've transformed, and what makes you YOU. However, as I know from countless hours of helping students frame themselves in the best way possible, you may very well still be stuck getting started with your Common App essay. After all, a blank computer screen can seem scary! If this is where you are right now, never fear. You DO have plenty of things to talk about—we just have to find them. Take out either a blank document or piece of paper and write your answers to the following questions:
Common App Essay Tip: Look at how you spend your time
1. In class: What are your academic and intellectual interests?
2. Outside of class: What are your favorite hobbies and activities? Why do you like to do them?
3. Over the summer: Have you done any programs, classes, cool trips, or taught yourself anything?
4. To relax: What do you do when you just want to take a break from it all?
Because these comprise the natural fabric of your life, you may take it for granted that you personality type everyone in your school or that you knit scarves for each of your best friends to take your mind off Pre Calc homework. But believe me, most people don't go to Myers-Brigg temperament sorters or yarn stores to relax. This is a YOU thing that makes you stand out.
Common App Essay Tip: Look at your special interests
5. Do you have any unusual talents or skills? If so, how did you develop them? How did you get into them in the first place?
6. Are there any topics or global issues you're passionate about? Why? What are you doing about it?
Again, you may assume that since thoughts of saving the stray pit bulls in your neighborhood constantly run through YOUR head, everyone must be thinking the same thing. They aren't. Or if you're perpetually obsessed with counting cards and teaching yourself the finer rules of poker (and all the statistics involved), you may assume that's just typical. It isn't. That's special, and you should consider writing about it.
Common App Essay Tip: Look at your achievements
7. What accomplishment are you most proud of? What did you have to do to accomplish it?
8. What was the most challenging ordeal or event you've gone through? How did you get through it?
9. When or how have you shown leadership?
More than how "big" an achievement appears, it's the work you put in that's impressive to the admissions counselors. Not everything you want to do in life (and college) will come easily to you. In fact, even if you start out with a "natural" talent, you'll still only improve through hard work. What shows your character is how you roll up your sleeves and embrace the challenge—especially when success is not guaranteed and you had to take a risk.
Common App Essay Tip: Look at pivotal moments in your life
10. What was the best experience you've ever had? Why was this the "best"?
11. What was the worst experience you've ever had? Why was this the "worst"?
12. How have you changed over the past few years? Was there any event or person who caused/facilitated this transformation?
There aren't always major life events or "Aha!" moments that alter the course of your life and personality. However, if there are, the key is to look for the positive in the situation: how did you make lemons out of lemonade? How did you grow up, even though a situation may have sucked? Or if something phenomenal happened, how has this made you a more appreciative and grateful person?
Common App Essay Tip: Look at your personality
13. How are you unique or different from other people you know?
14. Is there anything about you that doesn't fit the stereotype, or that's unexpected?
15. Do you have any principles or beliefs that guide your actions? What are they?
The admissions officers want to know what kind of person you are and where you'd fit in. They want to know what makes you tick—and bonus points for being self-aware enough to already have some ideas about this in high school! Are you philosophical and spend time deliberating about your own values? That means you think for yourself, which will serve you well into college and beyond. Do you surprise people by being different from what they'd expect, like the all-star lacrosse player who is obsessed with following Anna Netrebko's operatic career and listens to Verdi in her spare time? Cool quirks like this will make you stand out—and help you get into your dream school!
After writing down the answers to these questions, you should see a few common threads emerge. If one topic keeps coming up, chances are, that's what you should write about to let the admissions officers know exactly who you are and why you're special!
I hope this helped you solidify your Common App essay topic, and more than that, assure you that you have several unique qualities that you probably take for granted, but that others would find fascinating. Though I'm able to give out this advice for free, sometimes you need extra one-on-one help to get the guidance and confidence you need. To find out how I can help bring out the real YOU in your Common App and supplemental essays, contact me here.
It seems like the most daunting task: staring at a blank page and trying to figure out how to encapsulate your entire personality, activities, passions, life experiences thus far, and worthiness as an applicant in under 650 perfectly-curated words that some adult halfway across the country will impersonally read and judge, determining your undergraduate fate. Yet, if you're reading this, you know all too well this rite of passage that happens Senior year of high school: The Common App Essay.
With every student I've ever worked with, it's the initial staring at that blank page that seems almost crippling. "What do 'they' want me to say?" is the refrain that forms an endless loop in those initial writing sessions. And this IS a rather crucial question, considering that your essay will only get read for a couple minutes at best. You must make an impact, and the admissions staff must be able to figure out the gist of you in those couple minutes.
WHAT THE ADMISSIONS READERS WANT:
Admissions officers want a well-rounded CLASS, not a well-rounded applicant.
I'll say it again: colleges want a well-rounded CLASS, not a well-rounded applicant.
Think about it: 70 students who are all fairly okay actors and also mediocre lacrosse players are NOT going to form a world-class drama department with exceptional student-run plays and also be able to compete against the other universities' lacrosse teams. They need AMAZING actors in their drama department and SUPER-HUMAN lacrosse players for their team, who can win them trophies. Fantastic teams and departments instill pride in their university and encourage their alumni to donate big bucks. This is ideal! Thus, for admissions purposes, it's better to be exceptional at one thing than "kind of okay" at several things.
And believe it or not, "they" really really *want* to like you. It would be no greater joy to the college admissions readers to determine that you are exactly the right fit for their school, ensuring that their acceptance pool has one more top-tier student for the next matriculating class. So, how do you convey that YOU are indeed the perfect fit?
USE THE COMMON APP ESSAY TO SHOW HOW YOU ARE EXCEPTIONAL
You may not be an all-star rugby player or the top math student in your state or have bonafide awards to SHOW how skilled you are, but you have myriad personal qualities that are desirable to a college. The key to figuring this out is to ask yourself a few basic (though philosophical) questions:
1) What are you PASSIONATE about?
Like, really love? How did it start? Is there an activity or interest that you'd be lost without? This doesn't have to be something that wins awards or that you get credit for. I've seen very successful applicants write about ComicCon cosplay and owning their inner "geek," to baking lemon bars and working in a bakery, to learning chess because it was intriguing, even if they never played to wunderkind levels. Basically, if you truly love something, it will show on the page, and the college admissions advisors will know you have the capacity to be passionate about other activities at their school as well.
2) Where do you show INITIATIVE?
As in, where you do go above and beyond to find opportunities outside the classroom and school? If you claim to feel strongly towards volunteering, it means much more to an admissions reader that you started your own group or located a charity all on your own to train rescue dogs several days a week every summer, than it does that you participated in your school's already-organized trip to the homeless shelter or tutored younger kids in science for required community service hours. Do you spend all your time competing in triathlons or swimming competitions, when your school doesn't even offer these things and you had to nurture these interests yourself? This shows a take-charge, can-do attitude that colleges want on their campuses. It means you might be the future student who starts a bowling league or university garden-to-cafeteria movement.
3) What experience, person, or activity CHANGED YOU the most?
If there's someone or something that transformed you into the person you are, the admissions readers want to know! Did your relationship with your best friend teach you how to kindly disagree and stand up for yourself, and now you want to advocate for the environment? Did coping with your learning disability teach you that you can overcome any obstacle, and now you want to be a learning specialist yourself? Did taking acting classes teach you how to deal with uncertainty in life, and that you can only control the things within your power and should let go of the rest? If anything contributed to your personal philosophy, write it down!
4) What makes you YOU?
More than anything, admissions officers want to understand your heart and soul, the personality behind all the activities, grades, scores, and accomplishments—things that they just can't glean from the rest of your application. Are you likable, positive, and curious? Are you a person they'd want to have a conversation with? What type of roommate would you be, and who would they even match you with? And where do they see you participating in their campus community?
And you know how you can tell from a text message if someone was annoyed or joking? They might use different punctuation or put certain words in all-caps for emphasis. Well, admissions officers can tell from the tone of your essay—your VOICE, if you will—if you take yourself too seriously, are kind, funny, compassionate, self-aware, snarky, etc. So more than any facts you write in your essay, make it sound like YOU.
I hope you’re on your way to finding or tweaking your Common App essay topic, if you haven’t already. Sometimes, a little free advice (like this), is just the nudge you may need to start writing. Other times, you may still feel overwhelmed with how to package yourself to admissions officers. Luckily, I spend countless hours helping seniors and parents do just that. To find out how I can help bring out the real YOU in your Common App and supplemental essays, contact me here.
After the novelty of high school wears off (that’d be Freshman year), you might feel as if you’re in a long tunnel with no light in sight, trudging along with seemingly no direction, no goal, no end. But lots of drama. Welcome to the Sophomore Slump!
It’s not your fault that you might feel this way: popular culture emphasizes this pattern with every major movie, book series, or show that comes out…
Remember how subdued “New Moon” was in the Twilight series? Being the 2nd book – no longer the introduction to the crazy world of Edward/Bella/Jacob/vampires, yet not far along enough to see the bigger themes of saving hybrid babies, conquering Volturi, and general good vs. evil – one could say this edition has its own unmemorable version of the “Sophomore Slump”.
It was the same thing with Harry Potter. We all remember horcruxes, quidditch, and Sirius Black, but how many of us would say Chamber of Secrets was our favorite? How many of us even remember it at all?!
You see, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, being book (and movie) #2, had its own “Sophomore Slump”.
Need more proof of how this is a racket ingrained in our culture? Ask any friend who is a middle child! (Or ask yourself, if that’s you.)
So it must be settled then: Sophomore year is just inconsequential and pointless, right?
WRONG! And nothing could be further from the truth.
Sophomore year is a very special time, and this uniqueness actually comes from the origins of the word itself.
“Soph” means “wise” in Ancient Greek. Think “Sophocles”, one of the 3 greatest Greek playwrights from ancient times.
The root of “more”, on the other hand, means “fool” – just like the word “moron” ;)
So as a Sophomore, while you are “wise” enough to not be a clueless Freshman anymore, you are also a –
JUST KIDDING! You are NOT a “moron” – you just have room to grow.
What does this mean for you, right here, right now?
You need to turn this lackluster year into a launching pad for a superlative high school career that can open doors to your dream college. Here’s how:
Step #1: Find Your Focus
You may have tried out lots of clubs and activities Freshman year. Now that you have those experiences under your belt, you can “wisely” determine which ones you want to pursue seriously during the rest of high school. Colleges love to see commitment, passions and initiative (read: leadership), so if you hated fencing last year, you still have time to start bowling and maybe make it to team captain by Senior year.
Step #2: Use Your Course-load To Your Advantage
Lucky for you, the coursework you’re taking this year is not going to match the demanding nature of what you’ll encounter next year as a Junior, so celebrate! This means it’s easier this year to score killer grades than it might be next year. So get them while they’re easy! Nailing top grades Sophomore year pumps up your cumulative GPA, so even if you struggle in Junior year Trig, you’ll have your stellar Sophomore grades to help bring up your average. Also, rocking out your coursework this year will catch the eye of your teachers: if they see you excel while your classmates are slacking off, they will give you the benefit of the doubt (and killer college recommendations) later on down the line.
Step #3: Consider Taking SAT Subject Tests and/or AP’s
This may or may not apply to you, but if you are taking any AP classes or otherwise demanding courses, see if there is a corresponding SAT II Subject Test that you can take at the end of this year, while it’s fresh on your mind. If your score sucks, you don’t have to submit it, but if you do well, you can relieve some of the pressure you’ll have Junior year.
If you are already taking an AP class (or a few), aim to take the AP test at the end of the year. During admissions, colleges only see the AP scores you earned Junior year and earlier, so an extra AP score (or 4) looks really REALLY impressive.
Step #4: Read, Read, Read!
Want to know the most foolproof way to get an SAT Critical Reading score above 750? BE A VORACIOUS READER. Reading high quality texts (the “classics”, articles from the New York Times, New Yorker magazine, for example) is the most painless way to expand your vocabulary naturally and learn to understand sophisticated writing styles… the same type of dry writing you’re probably going to encounter on Test Day. If you never crack open a book except when you have to for school, you can still improve your score with lots and lots of elbow grease during your Junior and Senior years, but it is very doubtful that you will increase it to the really impressive 750+ range.
Step #5: Visit Colleges
Say what?? Yep, I said it. I know you may not know which colleges you even want to apply to yet, but visiting during the summer between Sophomore and Junior years is one of the best ways to start figuring out what you like and what you hate. I recommend scheduling a handful of college visits in June and July – not August, when everybody is scrambling last minute to check out schools before admission deadlines. Also, do you really think it’s “wise” to wait until next year and miss out on several days of Junior year AP US History and Physics, when you’re already prepping for the SAT, the ACT, SAT II’s, and your demanding course-load is killing you??
I thought so.