Preparing for College

Rising Juniors: Take Note

Your college admissions saga, if it's like that of the majority of other high schoolers around the nation, has several main components. First, is your overall numerical academic significance (grades, GPA, class rank, etc.), which begins to accumulate in 9th grade. Next is your activities profile (or "ECs"). Then come some intangibles, such as the subjective impressions you make on your teachers and others in your orbit. Finally, although there may be other components, comes the application process itself, which can begin as early as the summer before your senior year.

However, among all these seemingly disparate elements lies one important fact: Your junior year is pivotal. Thus, those of you who will be starting 11th grade in the coming months should pay careful attention to what you need to be focusing on and the kinds of issues that percolate to the top of your priority pile. You might even think of your junior year as a diving board that provides a potentially perfect platform from which you can dive into the deep, sometimes murky (and even scary) waters of the college admissions process.


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So, what should a properly focused high school junior be thinking about and doing during that important school year? Columnist Pat Restaino has some easy-to-take and informative advice for you.

Junior year key for college admissions

The heat is on—that’s for sure. But for high school students entering their junior year this fall, the heat isn’t only about the recent record-breaking temperatures we’ve experienced.

Junior year is the KEY year for students planning to attend college. It’s the year that is most scrutinized by college admissions staff. It’s the year students need to get serious about their college search, especially those who haven’t started. It’s the most important year to take the PSAT (only given in October), since the scores on this test are used to award scholarships through the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

I know students want to kick back and relax during the summer, and they should. But with a less demanding schedule (for most) than during the school year, summer is the opportune time to plan for your junior year, especially when it comes to college admissions tests. To help you create a personal test-taking plan, here are some tips:

Take the PSAT/NMSQT in October 2010. There are a number of reasons, and I’ll start by repeating what I just told you: Because that’s how you can become eligible to receive a scholarship awarded by the NMSC. If you took this test during your sophomore year and don’t take it during your junior year, you are not eligible to receive any of the NMSC Merit Scholarships. To learn more about eligibility for Merit Scholarships, go to www.nationalmerit.org.

I know there are different philosophies about taking college admissions tests, but based on my 25 years experience as a high school counselor, I do not recommend "test early—test often." I recommend taking the PSAT/NMSQT twice—in October of your sophomore and junior year. After you take the PSAT/NMSQT, you’ll receive detailed feedback about your scores that focus on your strengths and weaknesses. When you know your problem areas, you can create a strategy to improve your weaker skills. Books, online programs, classes at your high school, and private tutors are options.

Speaking of weaknesses, a weakness of the PSAT/NMSQT is that the writing section does not require a student essay, which is required when you take the SAT. If you are taking the ACT, the essay is optional unless a college you are applying to requires one. But since you are creating a test-taking strategy and are thinking ahead, you will check out the sample essays, prompts, and the scoring information for the essay portion of the SAT by visiting www.collegeboard.com and clicking on "College Board Tests." For information about the ACT essay, you will go to www.actstudent.org and click on "Test Prep." Both websites include writing and test-taking tips for their respective tests.

The PSAT/MNSQT is administered only one time each year during the month of October. For 2010, the test is given on Oct. 13 and 16. Since there is no online registration, make sure you see your high school counselor for details.

Take the SAT in January 2011. Once you have the PSAT/MNSQT under your belt and have worked on improving your weaker skills, you’ll be more confident when you take the SAT. I recommend taking the SAT two—no more than three times—during your junior and senior years. Take the SAT for the first time in January of your junior year. If you are unhappy with your scores, take it again in the spring of your junior year. Still not satisfied and want to try again? Take it once more during the fall of your senior year. Check out the SAT schedule at www.collegeboard.com.

Take the ACT in April or June 2011. All U.S. colleges and universities accept either the ACT or SAT. What’s the difference between the two college entrance tests? It is more curriculum based, the ACT measures what you have learned in school, while the SAT measures aptitude and critical thinking skills. The ACT also has subject sections in history and science and the SAT penalizes a student for guessing while the ACT doesn’t. If you aren’t happy with your ACT scores, you can take the test in the fall of your senior year. Check the ACT schedule and test preparation tips at www.actstudent.org.

Additional Tests. Once you start compiling a list of colleges to research, pay close attention to the tests required for admission, including SAT Subject Tests, which are typically taken during the spring of your junior year. Also consider taking Advanced Placement tests. You can earn college credit, as well as awards for doing well on the AP tests. For more information, go to www.collegeboard.com.

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Lots to keep in mind, huh? You can learn much more about prepping for your junior year from key threads on the College Confidential discussion forum. Remember: Your junior year can make a lot of good things happen for you, opening doors that were formerly closed. Just don't let any of those doors slam shut in your face.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.