Test Prep

High School Sophomores: Anticipating Your Next Steps

If you search the Internet and/or visit college admissions-related discussion forums (have I mentioned College Confidential's lately :-)), you'll find that one of the hot topics is how early young people should start preparing for their college admissions process. Of course, like many things these days, there are radical extremes.

I'm always amused by the articles you see now and then from sources like the New York Times that detail the struggles young parents are having getting their toddlers into "competitive" PREschools. They jockey for position, call in favors, get recommendations from prestigious sources, and ... hey, this sounds just like trying to get into the Ivy League! "Extreme" hardly covers it.

On the other end of the scale are those from "let the chips fall where they may" school. These high school students (and sometimes also their parents) just roll along with the breeze, with preconceived notions about the relative value (or not) of college. They sometimes make it up as they go along, waiting perhaps as long as the middle of their senior year to get even halfway serious about making a decision about what to do after high school.

My philosophy is somewhere in between. I'm of the "Let your child be a child and develop on his/her own" school. The keyword in that phrase is "child." To me a child is -- generally -- a pre-teen, a young person who needs to explore and intuit his to her gravitational attractions to talents, preferences, and pursuits. Of course, parents can play an important role in this period by offering to support and even augment those gravitational vectors.

However, the important issue for parents, at least from my point of view, is to stay out of the way as much as possible while this self-sensing is taking place. I'm not talking about just letting a child run wild. No way. We can see the eventualities of that approach every day in the regrettable media stories that detail young people going off the rails. I'm talking about a sympathetic sensitivity regarding when to step in and when to remain hands-off.

So, back to sophomores. I'll address you directly, now that I have obviated my philosophies to your Moms and Dads.

If you're a rising junior ... (let's take a moment to look at that term "rising," okay?) ...

For those of you who are unfamiliar with that term, a "rising" junior is a student who just finished his or her sophomore year, an about-to-be 11th-grader, in other words. I've always been amused by that term rising. In my view, if you're referring to someone who has just finished 10th grade, why wouldn't you just call them a junior, anyway? They're not going to be a senior.

This sort of sounds like a Seinfeld stand-up routine: "Hey kids, what's the deal with homework? You're not workin' on your home!" It also reminds me of a George Carlin bit when he says, "When I'm flying somewhere and waiting at the airport, they'll say, 'It's time to get on the plane.' Well, I'm not gettin' on the the plane; I'm gettin' in the plane. It's way too dangerous out there on the plane."

Now that we have that cleared up, let's discuss some definite actions you should be considering as part of your college process. Unfortunately, some high school juniors procrastinate and (erroneously) believe that there will be plenty of time to initiate and complete their college process when they are rising seniors, as I mention above. This is bad thinking and misguided planning. So, let's consider the proper college-process mindset and plan for rising juniors.

The junior (11th grade) high school year is a year of decision and planning for college-bound students. Let's see why.

You continue to take challenging classes in English, math, science, history, geography, a foreign language, government, civics, economics, and the arts. Thus, all you sophomores, you must think ahead to next year. At the start of the senior year, you will decide if your standardized test scores are the best you can do. If you're not satisfied with them, schedule the SAT I or ACT for October (preferred) or November. You may also want to take some Subject Tests if you were unable to at the end of this junior year (also preferred).

If you haven't already done so, get application materials from the candidate schools on your list. Early Decision applications will be due early in November of your senior year, so it's important to get a quick start on these. November sneaks up very quickly on high school seniors. Schedule a meeting with your college advisor so that you can tell him or her of your college admission plan. If you haven't got a plan, you must certainly develop one as soon as possible. Don't be one of those last-second deciders I mentioned. Take advantage of your advisor's services.

The early fall of your senior year is also an excellent time to visit the colleges on your candidate list. All the students will be back at these schools and you'll be able to get a true feel for what it's like to be there. Don't forget to talk to students and get their honest opinions about life on campus. You'll be spending the better part of four years of your life (maybe longer, unfortunately) at one of these schools. Keep your eyes and ears open for little clues that say good or not-so-good things about the school.

We've covered details of the application process in previous Admit This! posts. The keys, though, are timeliness, completeness, neatness, and strong essays. Follow up with those teachers who will be writing letters of recommendation on your behalf. Make sure everyone knows what's expected of them and what the deadlines are.

Early Decision candidates will receive their acceptance, deferral, or (yikes) denial notifications mid-December. Others will start to come in from February through April with the majority appearing in March through April. Along with acceptances come financial aid packages. Keep your parents intimately involved with these. Have them work closely with the schools' financial aid offices so that the very best package can be generated.

The final thing to do is to decide which acceptance you treasure most and send in your enrollment information. Keep working your senior year, however. Don't turn off the switches just because you're in. Colleges want to see the pattern of excellence you've already established continue. And, if you haven't thought of it yet, get ready for the experience of your young life: college.

So, that's how a sophomore like you can look ahead, through that rising-junior period, your entire junior year, and on into the grand finale of senior year. You may think that to look that far ahead requires a telescope, but don't be fooled. Your actual, hands-on college process will be here before you know it. That's why you need an informed head-start with plenty of momentum.

Some people say, "Don't worry; tomorrow will take care of itself." That's generally true, but you can get ahead of the curve by offering to be an assistant caretaker. As this post's title says: It pays to look ahead!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.