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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!
It's almost Test Day! With the SAT coming up this weekend, aren't you excited?? I sure am! And in an effort to mimic those celebrity Q&A’s where Cosmo asks Taylor Swift for the contents of her bag, I decided to do the same, in the form of a checklist. So here are the contents that SHOULD be in YOUR bag before you leave the house this Saturday (or Sunday, if you observe the Sabbath) to take the SAT. This check list of what to bring on test day applies whenever you take an SAT or ACT.
7 Things to Bring on Test Day:
1. Your Admission Ticket! After all, you have to make sure you’re really registered for the SAT or ACT. This should have your photo on it and necessary information so the testing Powers That Be don’t accidentally let in some 50-yr-old engineer dude sporting a pocket protector to take the test for 17-yr-old Kelly. The College Board and ACT get a bad rap when they let things like that happen.
2. Your Photo ID! This is the 2nd line of defense to make sure you are really you and not creepy previously-mentioned engineer dude.
3. Your Calculator! Preferably a graphing calculator you are comfortable using. There are several from Texas Instruments, like the TI 83, TI 86, etc. Your calculator can be scientific and graphing, but it cannot connect to the Internet, be attached to a laptop or phone, or have a QWERTY keyboard. Please make sure you check the batteries to make sure they don’t run out on you… that totally BLOWS!
4. Pencils, pencils, and then more pencils. I always used to use mechanical pencils, but the SAT doesn’t like those for the Essay. Feel free to use them for the multiple choice. And make sure the eraser actually erases, please.
5. Layers of clothing. I don’t care if it’s 20 degrees right now, you ever know which testing center (i.e. high school) is going to be too cheap to use the heat, or so over-zealous as to cook you alive. The same fear abounds when it’s sweltering out. Some places will freeze you to over-compensate, while others try to save on their AC bill and hope your sweating and panting doesn’t force you to bubble outside the cute little circles. The best remedy? Dress in layers that you can remove or add on as needed. A trusty hoody is great for this.
6. Water. If you’re taking a 4 hr long SAT, you really need to make sure you don’t get dehydrated. Do you know what happens when you get dehydrated, little SAT Vixen? That’s right: you get tired. Or else you start getting thirsty on a conscious level, in which case your random thoughts are “I’m thirsty! When is this section over?!” – while you reread that short passage 4 times in a loop because you can’t hold your focus. You get the idea. Just hydrate.
7. Snacks. Guess what’s worse than getting thirty or deciding you need to use the restroom the moment the math section starts? Getting hungry rumblings in your tummy. Not only is it embarrassing when everyone looks searchingly around the room to uncover the source of your loud hunger pangs, but the moment you notice you’re hungry, it’s too late! You’re now thinking of that instead of cross-multiplying those proportions. Bring something nourishing and easy to eat, like a Luna bar or an apple, and eat a little bit during each of your breaks to keep your blood sugar and energy (and thus, focus) steady.
So, now that you’re ready, good luck and show that SAT who's boss!!
I love being able to help as many high schoolers as possible reach their testing goals, so if you've found this list of what to bring on test day at all useful, please pass it along to 3 of your friends!
In all the testing frenzy that goes on Junior and Senior years, there is a lot of attention that goes intolearning vocab, grammar rules, and math concepts. There is a lot of attention paid to testing strategy, when to guess, how many questions to attempt in order to earn a certain score, and the like.
However, even after mastering all of these topics and strategies, some of you may still struggle to increase your SAT or ACT score. What gives?!
It’s called test anxiety. And nobody talks about it.
It’s not your fault that you might be struggling with this problem. Most test prep programs and tutoring companies use what I like the call the “brute force” method: throw more practice problems and work-for-work’s-sake your way in hopes that you will eventually improve your score.
They don’t realize that psychology is half the battle. And no matter how well you know your stuff, if you are one of the many students affected by test anxiety, then you know first-hand how all the new material you learned just seems to fly out the window the moment the timer starts and the proctor says, “You may begin.”
I see this all the time, and it can take many forms:
- Bright students who second- and third-guess themselves, often changing their correct answers to incorrect choices out of fear,
- Juniors and Seniors feeling so much pressure that they over-analyze themselves to death during a test,
- Students who exhaust so many of their mental resources worrying, that they don’t even finish the section at hand. This happens especially with math-phobic students!
So what can you do if this is you?
Enter Mental Mastery Technique #2: “Page Turn Zen”
You probably agree that if you’re going to give an amazing SAT or ACT performance, you need to calm down. You need to focus. And the best way to do that is simply to be present. In the moment. In your body.
And here’s what you’re going to do to get there:
1) At the beginning of each section of the test, and every time you are about to turn the page (hence the name), STOP.
2) Close your eyes.
3) Take 3 deep breaths.
4) The entire time you are breathing, notice where you feel the breath in your body.
Let’s analyze this a moment, shall we?
1) I like having my students begin each section with a clear head. Thus, I think that starting each section (especially the essay section) with a few seconds of centering activity is ideal.
Sometimes, usually during a math section, students begin to tense up as the problems get increasingly harder. This makes sense: there’s nothing like that very first problem you can’t solve to shake your confidence! That’s why you are going to STOP and get back to reality at every page turn.
2) You want to close your eyes to remind yourself that no one else in the testing room matters. You are the master of your domain and of your trusty pink sweatpants. For the 10 seconds when you do Page Turn Zen, not even the impending test question staring back at you from the page can bite.
3) Taking three deep breaths is about the time it takes the average person to relax for 10 or 12 seconds. If you feel nervous that three breaths will take too much time, then please time it with your iPhone stopwatch in advance of Test Day to assure yourself that you are not using up much more time than this.
You need to take slow breaths to slow down your heart rate, which might be out of control at the moment. You need to take deep breaths to get oxygen to all the cells in your body – especially your brain cells!
4) As you take your three breaths, you are going to focus on the physical sensations you actually feel in your body. As in, do you feel sweat or warmth on your palms? A stretch in the back of your rib cage? A cold tingle on your upper lip as you exhale? A tickle in your nose as you inhale? Try to pinpoint the actual, physical sensations as they occur. Be the curious observer. None of it is “right” or “wrong”, nor does it mean anything.
By keeping your attention singularly on your physical sensations for the 10+ seconds, you are getting back to the present moment, completely eradicating over-analysis and allowing yourself to get back to your natural state: smart, resourceful, quick, and clever.
To get the best results, you are going to want to start practicing this as soon as you can, in every situation that presents itself! Doing math homework? Practice Page Turn Zen before and during your page turns. Doing history homework? Stop and do Page Turn Zen whenever you are turning a page or writing onto the next page of your notebook. Doing practice questions of any sort, for your SAT/ACT prep or even for your Driver’s Ed test? Do Page Turn Zen.
Soon, this practice will be so ingrained that you immediately do it and will not have to think about it. And THAT’s how you end up increasing your score by leaps and bounds and utilizing all the knowledge you’ve collected in that pretty brain of yours. ;)
So, while people pay top dollar for my services, I’m giving you this advice for free, because I’m committed to seeing you get into the college of your dreams. And while this test anxiety tip doesn’t cost you anything, if you found this helpful, please do me a favor and share it with 3 friends.
Vocab Hack #4: Supplement With The Tried And True
The last installment of my 4-part Vocab Hack Series is a list of the more traditional tutor-approved methods for increasing vocabulary. These might not be as much fun as the other methods, but I would be remiss to leave them out. For your sanity, you probably only want to try one of them…
Try a Vocab-building book:
My favorite vocabulary book – if you are a fan of straight-up learning vocab – is Hotwords for the SAT by Barron’s. The reason I prescribe this book so often is that it manages to teach 500 SAT vocabulary words by “clumping” them together into 32 or so clusters of words.
The idea is that instead of learning 1 word + 1 definition (= 2 things to memorize) for every word you learn, you instead learn 1 definition + a group of 12+ words that have that basic definition.
Thus, to learn a dozen vocab words the old way, you’d need to learn 12 words + their 12 meanings = 24 things to remember. The Hotwords way, you would only need to remember the 12 words + 1 definition they all have in common = only 13 things to remember.
See how much time that saves? In addition, you will surely know some of the words in each cluster, so you end up using the words you know as an anchor to remember the other words that are new. Super easy peasy.
Try a Vocab-building website:
If you’re more into on-line stuff, there is a plethora of newly created resources out there, and I have known some students to have success with Quizlet. Check it out, and if that’s not your style, Google “vocab games” and you’ll surely find something else worthwhile.
Get back to Latin:
Latin roots, that is. You can find a standard list of roots, prefixes and suffixes in the back of most test-prep books, or for free if you Google. You will instinctively know several already, and the ones you know will anchor the new ones.
And last but not least, for whatever reason, some students really love the feeling of completion that comes with flashcards. My advice? If you go this route, separate your cards into three piles: those you totally know already, those that might as well be Greek (or Japanese, if you, like me, ARE Greek), and those you kinda feel you should know but don’t.
- The first pile: place somewhere conspicuous in your room, like on your nightstand or near your desk. This makes it appear as if you are actively learning vocab words and the ‘rents tend to like this.
- The Greek pile: put back in the box and abandon on the bookshelf. If you get exceedingly bored of Dawson’s Creek, you can take these out at a later date.
- The middle-of-the-road pile is the low-hanging fruit that will take the least amount of effort to turn into usable knowledge. LEARN THESE FIRST. Then add them to the first pile of words you know.
And on that note, you should be all set to rapidly expand your vocab and rack up tons of extra point on the SAT and ACT! And remember, if you found this at all helpful, do me a HUGE favor and tell three of your friends!
Vocab Hack #3: Watch Smarter TV and Movies
Let me tell you a little story. When I was your age, living in Dallas, Texas, I woke up one morning at the beginning of sophomore year and decided I wasn’t going to consume any culture that wasn’t “productive”. In fact, I was convinced most books, shows, and movies were designed to make the masses dumber, so I tried to steer clear of anything that could potentially compromise my life’s Grand Plan.
I spent the next three years driving my friends and classmates crazy, refusing to read fiction, watch TV or see mainstream movies. At the time, there were only two independent movie theatres in town – the UA Cine and the Inwood Theatre – and each only ever showed two movies concurrently. I think I saw everything from The Red Violin to Existenz and Happiness. Some were whoppers, but my self-righteousness persisted.
Jump cut to now. I happily watch the likes of Vampire Diaries, Revenge, The Mindy Project, Glee, even reruns of MIOBI. And I discovered something shocking: Not All TV Is Bad! In fact, you if must spend time in front of the “boob tube”, I have discovered the singular most vocabulary-boosting show that will quench your thirst for teen melodrama:
I am soooo not joking here. After missing the show when it first aired out of intellectual snobbery, I recently decided to make up for lost time. First of all, I was shocked at how eloquent and self-expressive the main characters are. And just to test my hypothesis, I watched the majority of Season 2 with a pen and paper in hand only to discover that some episodes utilized up to 37 SAT-level vocabulary words! Not shabby for 43 minutes of indulgence.
So get thee to a Netflix account and introduce yourself to Dawson, Joey, Jen and Pacey!!
Vocab Hack #2: Scout Out Smarter Reads
The best best BEST way to increase your vocabulary is to consume a lot of high quality reads. By “high quality”, you’re probably thinking about enduring the classics that you’re forced to read anyway for school, and you’re probably wondering if you should leave your screen right now to bang your head against a wall!
Please calm yourself ;) I’ll admit, I never got past page 41 of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, try as I did. (Let’s not even talk about Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment … thank GOD for Cliffnotes and Sparknotes!)
However, not all reading material is excruciating. The trick is to find things that ACTUALLY interest you. And the best way to do this is by reading NON-FICTION. The next major advantage of consuming non-fiction is that you’re priming yourself for the SAT and ACT, both of which are composed of approximately 75% non-fiction passages. Get used to them now, and you’ll be totally fine on D-Day. Whoops. I meant Test Day.
So what types of things can you read, especially if you don’t like to read?
Start small. Try newspaper and magazine articles geared for people a few years older than you are.
- Like fashion? Read Elle Magazine cover to cover. Especially the Ask E. Jean column, which tends to use colorful language like “driven witless” and “whipsawed by confusion.”
- Like music? Read your favorite artist’s exposé in Rolling Stone or Spin.
- If you like a variety of things, like theatre, sports, local news, travel and food, try the New Yorker, and read whatever you’d like! Or the New York Times, where several staff writers there are the Real Deal and have highly regarded books of their own.
- Into politics? Make it a point to read high quality articles like those online in the Huffington Post or the Guardian, a well-written British newspaper. Try perusing headlines and settling down on two inviting articles to read start to finish every week.
If you want to delve deeper into reading, graduate from non-fiction articles to non-fiction or memoire books about a topic with which you are fascinated.
- Perhaps something funny? Try comedic authors David Sedaris or Tina Fey.
- Want something insightful? Try anything by Malcolm Gladwell. I especially loved Blink and Outliers. Not only will the vocab soon become ingrained and more familiar, but there are two added benefits to these books: 1) You can read these books one chapter at a time without forgetting the point, as each segment tends to bring up an entirely new example, and 2) the statistics and scientific studies Gladwell brings up are AMAZING for essay examples!!!
- Are you into art/music/theatre/sports? Try a biography of your favorite actress, musician, director, basketball player, etc. Again, public figures make for killer essay examples.
- By any chance are you obsessed with psychology/personality/astrology like I was (and still am)? Go to your favorite Barnes & Noble and look up Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs or Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey. Basically, anything that categorizes people into “types” or signs or whatever is a GOLDMINE for personality-describing adjectives. Being able to psychoanalyze anyone and anything is super handy for dissecting the tone and attitudes of otherwise VANILLA reading passages. And this will also come in handy when it’s Personal Statement time ;)
Unless you are one of the few in high school who completely escapes the daily grind with enviably high-brow literature that makes your English teacher weep with joy, you probably are somewhere in the “trying to grow your vocab” phase of life. This period of several years is necessary to transition from ‘tween words and phrases like, “I don’t wanna!” to more sophisticated means of expression, like “Given the undeniable circumstances of the situation, I prefer to refrain.” (I’m only half joking here. I knew people in high school who actually talked like that, at least between more colorful words ;)
Basically, you’re growing up, and your vocabulary needs to grow up, too. And preferably ASAP, since you have standardized tests like the SAT and ACT coming up, and you NEED to nail those sentence completions and reading passages!
So, like most Test Prep Gurus and tutors, I do have some clichéd advice to expand your diction. And I would never hold out on the tried and true methods, no matter how hackneyed and BOOOORING they might seem…
BUT! – keep reading! – I know a few more ways to get the job done that I think you, my darlings, would much rather prefer! So in this 4-part series, I’m here to enlighten, and hopefully make your quest to raise your SAT Critical Reading and ACT Reading scores considerably more fun!
Let’s start with the easiest:
Vocab Hack #1: Surround Yourself With Smarter Peeps
By “smarter”, I don’t necessarily mean you should ditch your crew if they aren’t up to snuff. However, maybe you should consider adding some variety to your social circles. This could be as simple as befriending upper classmen or chatting with your parent’s friends and your older relatives when you get the chance. Maybe, just maybe, instead of shying away from crazy surgeon Uncle Andy, ask him about the grossest thing he’s ever seen on the operating table or why he prefers Fleetwood Mac to the Beatles.
Basically, partake in adult conversations with actual adults. Bonus points if Tina Fey is your close family friend.
Very likely, you will begin to uncover more sophisticated ways of expressing yourself and hear some higher-echelon vocab in context and start to feel comfortable with it.
As a side benefit, you may just find yourself becoming more emotionally mature and perhaps even collecting cool stories about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that can come in handy as a “personal experience” essay example!
Q: Hey, Kristina,
I am currently ending my Sophomore year in high school. I have a lot of friends who are Juniors and Seniors, and I’ve seen them get totally freaked out about the whole college and SAT thing. It seems like a LOT to take on. Some friends tell me to get the tests over with as soon as possible, since there are so many other things to do, like Subject tests and application essays and keeping up grades. Should I spend this summer cramming and take the SAT this October or November? When should I take my first real SAT?
– Already Overwhelmed Rising Junior
A: Dear Overwhelmed,
First of all, thank you for writing in to ask this. I get this question all the time from insanely bright and precocious students, so the fact that you are contemplating taking the SAT during the Fall of your Junior year only bodes well. :)
It’s clear you’re already thinking ahead to a “3 Year Plan”, which means you have more “executive function” than most gals your age – heck! – maybe even more than Emily Thorne from Revenge! (In case you’re curious, “executive function” is introspective psychobabble for having insight to see the big picture of what needs to get done in a complex situation, and then breaking said complex situation down into smaller actions and mentally organizing them so they actually get DONE. The complex situation in question could be getting into college, planning a stellar birthday bash, or taking down the Grayson’s.)
I’m glad you have friends who have gone down the college route before you, so you know it’s no joke! That said, you should be incredibly strategic about when you take your first real test, whether it be the SAT or the ACT. (If you don't know which test to take, click here to get your free Pre-Tutoring Guide.) It’s not just a Saturday (or a Sunday if you observe the Sabbath) out of your social calendar that’s at stake – it’s the weeks and months of prep time culminating to that Saturday morning. You want to make sure you are harnessing your time, energy and mental focus so that your performance peaks when you have the best chances of nabbing that fantastic score. You want the stars to align! And you don’t want to do anything to psych yourself out.
That said, I highly discourage you from taking the test for the first time during the Fall of your Junior year. Do you have any idea why…? It has to do with statistics…
You see, the SAT and ACT are graded on a bell curve, meaning that there is a “standard distribution” of the scores. That’s stat’s speak meaning that you basically ARE competing with the slew of students who take the test the same day as you. The College Board or ACT Board take a peek at how EVERYONE did that day, and use their findings to determine how many raw score points you need to get a 700 or a 32. And since this is a standardized thing, colleges don’t care if you were competing with geniuses or doofuses that day – they just care about your 2200. Make sense?
Thus, if you take the test in October, against whom do you think you’re competing?? That’s right! EVERY FREAKIN’ SENIOR WHO’S EVER WALKED THE EARTH. They are all taking the test their 2nd or 3rd time, vying for a higher score to seal the deal on their dream schools.
Do you really want to compete on the bell curve against thousands of students who not only have an extra year of schooling under their belts, but also have had multiple practices taking the test? I thought so…
November would probably be just as bad, since Seniors can still take this test for early decision schools.
December is full of regular decision Seniors.
January is somewhat of a crap-shoot – the desks could be filled with slacker Seniors who are treating this as their last “hail Mary” before having to turn in their college apps regular or rolling decision, or it could be filled with idiot savant Juniors who would get a 2400 or a 36 without a tutor and thus, not be effected by a testing curve anyway. (They’d just ruin the curve for you!)
Your best bet? TAKE THE TEST IN MARCH at the very earliest. This gives you the majority of the year to study little by little, not feel rushed, and also, to compete with people your own age and level of expertise – fellow Juniors. In addition, you know you have May, June and the Fall of Senior year as backup SAT test dates, and April, June, and the Fall for backup ACT test dates, so there’s no pressure…
Wait - you didn’t expect to take the test only once, did you? ;)
So, even though this information didn't cost you a cent, it's not free. If you found this at all helpful, do me a HUGE favor and share this with 3 of your friends who can benefit! :)
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.
So many of us women – at any age – suffer from feelings of having to be “perfect”, whatever exactly that is. I, for one, started feeling this way in middle school – gotta love puberty! - but the quest to be perfect exploded in high school. In the top-ranking public high school in the country – Talented and Gifted Magnet in Dallas, Texas – I was taking 8 (you read that right) concurrent AP classes my Junior year, and obsessing about getting 99’s across the board on my report card. I was a little “cray”.
Luckily for me, my misplaced desire for perfection had definite endings – the end of the grading period, the end of the school year, etc. Also, luckily for me, my course-load was math/science/computer-heavy, where there is an end to every problem and you just have to get there.
But what do you do when you’re writing an essay, and there are infinite ways you could craft your words, infinite examples you could utilize, infinite combinations of sentence structures and ways to weave your argument?
That, my friend, is when you need to chuck this need for perfection out the window… ESPECIALLY if you are writing a timed essay on the SAT or ACT!!
See, even though you might not have experienced it yet, in the “real world” (outside of school), it’s fairly impossible to be “perfect”. There will always be someone more skilled, smarter, prettier, faster, stronger, more “successful”, and wealthier than you.
If you wait until you’re “perfect” before you submit that report/manuscript or audition for that part, you’ll be waiting a long time - possibly forever – before you follow your dreams.
And if you wait until you think you have the “perfect” essay written in your head before you put your pencil on the paper and start writing it, time will be called before you finish your introduction!!!
In my experience tutoring and coaching countless high-schoolers for the SAT and ACT, the biggest essay obstacle I’ve seen is when the student just wasn’t able to finish her essay in the designated time: 25 minutes for the SAT and 30 minutes for the ACT. (Or more, if you have extended or double time.) That’s when you see essay scores of 2 or 4 out of 12 possible points.
Sadly, the test-graders only see what’s on the page. They will NEVER see the beautiful thoughts in your head, or your gripping stance on how history repeats itself unless we can innovate as a society. Therefore, your job is to get your thoughts on that page so that they can be graded. And whatever will be, will be.
In general, if you can just write and finish the 2 pages you’re allotted on the SAT (or get 2 pages written on the ACT), you’re looking at a safe score of 8+ out of 12. While not phenomenal, this is waaaaay better than a 2, and could mean the difference of 100+ points on the SAT Writing section!
So, if this is you, and you are paralyzed by a need to be perfect, you may be wondering how you can go from never getting your thoughts on the page and scoring a 2 – to letting go and getting a solid 8 that can be built upon.
It’s easy: practice being sloppy!
For the next month, I want to you try the following exercise, which I learned from Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” and adapted to get results for teenagers prepping for the SAT:
Mental Mastery Technique #1: Practice Sloppy Success
1) Get a blank sheet of computer paper.
2) Set the alarm on your phone for 5 minutes.
3) Start writing! Your goal is to completely fill up the page in the 5 minutes before your alarm goes off.
That’s it! However, here are some helpful hints, as this seems way easier than it actually is:
- Keep your pen moving and write whatever pops into your head. If you are blank, write “blank” until something pops into your head.
- DO NOT erase or cross out anything! Not even a misspelled word. You need to get used to not being perfect for the sake of this exercise.
- Don’t worry about perfect grammar, complete sentences, or “stupid” ideas. This is an exercise in getting your thoughts on the page without censoring.
- Don’t read what you wrote. You even have my permission to throw away the sheet of paper afterwards.
I’ve gotten amazing results for my students with this practice, sometimes in as little as a couple days. Why? For several reasons:
- No more over-analysis-paralysis! Something actually gets written!
- By writing whatever comes up, you are releasing feelings of test anxiety and other emotions onto the page, so it no longer takes up your valuable head-space.
- You are shifting the focus of what you’re trying to accomplish: finishing as opposed to being perfect.
Please help yourself and give this a try. Right now! After all, it only takes 5 minutes. Then post your comments below to share the results you get.
Very Important: Can you think of a friend/classmate who’s suffering from writer’s block on the SAT or ACT essay? Share this post with them – you might just save their score!