You've just escaped the wilds of the middle school jungle and are more than ready for a fresh start. But with the thrills of your freshman year of high school also come various new challenges – most importantly, planning for college. Although your target test date may seem eons away, starting to prepare and plan for the SAT or ACT as freshmen can really help students stand out from the rest of the applicants by the time senior year rolls around.
We spoke with Brad Hoffman, MSEd, CEO and educational consultant at New York-based educational consulting firm My Learning Springboard to get the scoop on what ninth grade students should – and should not – do to get ready for the SAT or ACT.
College Confidential: Should freshmen start preparing for the SAT or ACT?
Brad Hoffman: Worrying about college entrance exams -- the ACT and SAT -- seems to start earlier and earlier, which can unnecessarily derail important resources during the ninth grade year. It's important to remember that many of the concepts that you learn throughout high school will help you develop the skills needed to succeed when testing time comes. One of the most important ways that students can prepare for college entrance exams is by recognizing that daily classroom lessons are already preparing you. You will encounter terms, concepts and ideas every day that will help you when it's time to take those tests. Those "boring" basics are vital to your future success.
Freshman year is an important foundation year to learn lessons that underpin the rest of your high school journey. It's also when you should establish or continue good study patterns and organizational habits for the years to come. These habits will help when you cultivate test-taking strategies and start officially preparing for college entrance exams in January or February of tenth grade. During freshman year of high school, it's best to focus on a successful transition to high school, both academically and socially.
CC: How can freshmen learn test-taking strategies?
BH: One of the challenges with college entrance exams is their structure, and that's where learning the format of the test and developing some basic test-taking strategies really helps. However, strategies must be taught in conjunction with content. Like tools in a toolbox, students need to know when to choose a particular strategy, or they'll end up trying to hammer a nail with a screwdriver. As content is mastered, strategies help with efficient pacing and approach.
CC: What kinds of specific skills and topics are important to focus on in ninth grade?
BH: Building vocabulary is key. Look up words as they appear in texts to minimize drilling later. Learn grammar now. English teachers will provide sentence-level corrections on essays at this stage, so subsequent teachers focus more on organization, concept development and higher-order writing skills. This is the moment to establish and retain grammar rules because you will have so much more to study later. Math and language classes are strictly sequenced, so mastering those foundation skills will ensure you succeed in and enjoy future classes.
CC: How much should freshmen prepare for the PSAT?
BH: Most schools organize a PSAT date during sophomore year. Many students worry about and even compete for high PSAT scores, but studying for the PSAT isn't really necessary unless you aspire to earn a National Merit Scholarship. For most students, the purpose of the PSAT is to provide a concrete experience with college entrance exams and to show what knowledge areas you need to enrich and what types of questions are hardest for you. The PSAT simply provides an initial baseline from which to judge your strengths and areas that require additional attention. It's an abridged multiple-choice test, so stamina and attention factors aren't pushed to the same limits as full-length SAT or ACT tests. We suggest that you don't take time away from your school work to study for the PSAT during ninth grade.
CC: What else can freshmen do to make the most of this year?
BH: As a means of demonstrating subject-matter mastery and building test-taking skills, some students are in a position to take at least one SAT Subject Test at the end of ninth grade. If an SAT Subject Test aligns with a ninth grade course that is also a subject area of strength for you, then we strongly recommend taking it. Popular ninth grade choices are biology or foreign language, particularly if the student is a native speaker. Math 2 and physics are usually too difficult to take until junior or senior year. Subject tests related to chemistry, history, English and literature are often managed during tenth or eleventh grades.
CC: How should freshmen plan for the remaining high school years?
BH: Ninth graders don't need to be thinking too much about college entrance exams, but they should be thinking about developing their intellectual engagement with the world to prepare for those final high school years when tests and applications dominate. Ninth graders should also be thinking about their extracurricular activities and exploring new interests and hobbies, or deepening existing ones. Ideally, school breaks and vacations allow students to discover their own pleasure reading, take fun workshops or courses in areas of interest or manage a part-time job. These breaks are also an opportunity to create and launch a study plan for college entrance exams, as well as SAT Subject tests, AP tests or challenging subjects in school.