My comments today are primarily for parents, but any students out there are welcome to join the party. With all the issues surrounding the world of college admissions, parents who are concerned about providing the right "flight plan" for their children to prepare for college need an overall schedule. There is a preferred time to execute certain tasks across the years in order to keep your child on track for the proper preparation to arrive at senior year ready to rock and roll with all his or her applications.
There's a lot of conflicting information about college admissions out there today. Many students and families are clueless about what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. No one person or organization is the ultimate source of college admissions truth. However, if I may put in a plug for our sister site, College Confidential, I can say without reservation that CC is one always-reliable source of truth for all levels of college admissions.
Here, though, in this Admit This! post, you will find practical parental advice on how to think about three major aspects of the college process: When to Do What: A Timeline, Standardized Testing, and Essays. I hope you'll find this information helpful.
When to Do What: A Timeline
In a nutshell: Start early. When it comes to money for college, you can never start saving too early. However, we're not going to talk about money for college.
Here's a thought that bears repeating about getting into Ivy League and so-called Top-25 schools: It's harder than you think and it takes long-range planning. There is an incredible crush of applicants for the top schools. They're the ones with the lowest acceptance rates. Although there are many quality colleges and universities in the United States, every year a disproportionate number of high school seniors try to get into a very small group of schools. You'll need several essential tools for success at the top: a strong strategic admissions plan, an outstanding student profile, and good advice along the way.
A good, general, long-range college admissions plan might look something like this (suggestions for both students and parents):
The elementary years: Encourage reading and broad-range interests. Look for signs of special talents. Get involved with your school's guidance program. Start developing computer skills.
Middle-School Years: Continue reading at all levels. Begin to emphasize writing and general communication skills. Watch for emerging leadership traits. Increase involvement with teachers and administrators. Consider taking the SAT I to qualify for advanced programs such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.
Ninth Grade: GPA and class rank begin to accumulate. Schedule only the most challenging courses. Consider APs if they are available. Take an SAT I in January to get some testing experience. Excel in academics and extracurricular pursuits. Don't waste summer.
Sophomore Year: Schedule APs where possible. Continue to develop extracurricular interests. Volunteerism and general community service now become important. What academic strengths are developing? Pursue them. Take another SAT in the spring. SAT Is in June? Writing skills and vocabulary should be sharpening. Plan a meaningful summer. Read books from college reading lists.
Junior Year: More AP courses. Prepare for the PSAT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) in October. Parents' assets need to be positioned for maximum protection from financial aid assessment by December 31. Start looking at college candidates. Have six by summer (Reach, Ballpark, and Safeties). Visit the campuses. Prepare for SAT Is in January and May and Subject Tests in June. Start thinking about college application essays. Volunteer work and extracurriculars should be well developed by now. Begin college counseling. Summer should include something that relates to higher education.
Senior Year: The big year. Still more APs. Send for college applications. Pick teachers for recommendations. Consider Early Decision or Early Action for your clear, first-choice pick. Need an October SAT I? It's essay time. Explore electronic applications. Learn to love your counselor. Get quality advice about the process. Keep meticulous details about your applications. Mark your calendar with important deadlines. Early Decision/Action letters arrive early-to-mid December. Regular decision letters arrive mid-March through mid-April. Learn how to negotiate financial aid offers. Enroll, be happy, and prosper. Work the summer for much-needed college dollars.
Although many Mid-Western and Southern U.S. students take the ACT each year, the SAT I and SAT II Subject Tests seem to dominate the world of competitive college admissions.
You may be surprised to learn how many applicants to America's top colleges have scores approaching perfection on the SAT I. An equally surprising number also have perfect 800s on their Subject Tests. Now, don't give up just because your scores are not in this range. There are a number of things you can do to improve your score. The SATs, especially the SAT I, can be coached. If you are unsatisfied with your score, you can improve it through some structured study. There are some good, although relatively expensive, SAT I prep courses out there. If you're into self-study, you can buy the book(s) for both tests and map out your own plan. The books come with CD-ROMs that make practice very convenient.
When should you take the SATs? Here are some general guidelines:
SAT I: Your first one can come as early as sixth or seventh grade. Most students who aspire to top colleges usually take their first SAT I in their ninth-grade or sophomore year. Don't wait until the spring of your junior year. A reasonable plan would be to take one in the spring of your sophomore year and then note the score comparison with the PSAT you'll take (usually) in October of your junior year. If your scores are on the low side, consider a coaching plan (books or courses). Then take another SAT I in January of your junior year. Depending on your performance in that test, you may want to schedule one more SAT I for May. Try to make the May test your last. In other words, hit your peak in May, if you haven't already done so. You shouldn't have to take a "desperation" SAT I in October of your senior year unless it's absolutely necessary.
SAT II: Take your SAT IIs at the very end of the school year in which you've taken the specific subject on which you want to be tested. This is logical because your head will be filled with all that good subject knowledge. If you wait until the next school year to take the test(s), you'll have forgotten some stuff over the summer. Some students take five or six SAT IIs. That's admirable but not necessary.
Here's the weak link in many college applications. It's unfortunate because the essay can tip the scales when a college is trying to decide between two otherwise equally qualified applicants. Some students don't put much thought into their essays. This is a big mistake. Essays are crucial.
Most applications for competitive colleges ask the applicant to write a reasonably significant essay (in the 500-750 words range) about what is usually a broad topic. What colleges are looking for in the essay is an insight into how well the student thinks and how well s/he can articulate a point of view. The ultimate book on understanding application essays is Harry Bauld's little masterpiece, On Writing The College Application Essay. It should be required reading for all seniors applying to competitive colleges.
The main requirement for writing a convincing essay, aside from a command of the English language is to be who you really are. Find your "voice." Your voice is that writing style that lets your readers "hear" who you are. The key to finding your voice is to forget trying to write what you think the admissions people want to hear. Write what you want to say. Relax and make your essay approachable. Some application essays are so stilted they are painful and embarrassing to read.
Bauld's book will caution you on "dangerous" topics, those areas that can be hazardous to your admissions health. He discusses the importance of a strong lead, how to adapt one strong essay to suit a number of different essay questions, and the "voice" thing mentioned above. Don't underestimate the power of a well-written essay.
So, there's your timeline, along with some key tips to keep your child on top of his or her game. It's never too late to start planning for college, but obviously it's better to start earlier than later.
Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.