The Calm Before the (Exam) Storm – The College Application Season Approaches

It's February, the middle of winter, and we're shivering with anxiety as we look a the calendar and see exam dates starting to line up like a series of storms on a weather map; ominous approaching deadlines for tests any student with dreams of going to college has to take. The relative calm of our 17 year-old high school junior is about to turn into a rainstorm of the El Niño kind: relentless, merciless and abate less for the next three months.
The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which is on high school students radars starting freshman year, is upon us after three years of  PSATs and many e-mails from the Princeton Review, the College Board and a host of other entities claiming to be the expert sources for all things related to the college application process. During the first three years of high school, we've accepted the reality our college-bound student has to face just to be able to apply to college. So brace yourselves as I try to break down the approaching hurricane of examinations into smaller showers of information we can hold an umbrella to.
Disclaimers: Most families are caught up in the dream of having their child attend an Ivy League school as the only key to their future success. Having this goal is admirable, however, not every student is cut out for these schools no matter how hard they work. Based on this, the tips I offer below are not necessarily geared to helping your student get into this level of school, but a broad overview of what we discovered (some of it in hindsight), going through the application process.
I'm not an expert or counselor, but simply have some experience I'd like to share with you because I did a lot of research helping my son throughout this process – and, frankly, it'd be a waste if I didn't!
Below are some tips I hope will help you weather the pre-college exam storm:
1. PSAT- Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. Starting freshman year, high school students practice for the real SAT. I highly recommend that your student take this each year, and use the scores from freshman and sophomore years to gage how much preparation your student will need for the real test(s) his junior year. If taking the test during the later part of junior year, prepare now!
If your student's goal is a perfect SAT because his or her dream college is an Ivy League (but he's not gifted like Einstein), then hire a private tutor – don't waist your money and time on courses. If you can't afford the tutor, then enroll in prep courses, preferably during the summer of junior year, to prepare for the tests offered in September or later. Having said this, if your child doesn't fall 'naturally' in the genius category, then make sure the school the student is applying to fits his academic strengths. Too many families get caught up in the competitive college dream without giving thought to the sacrifice the amount of work required at these prestigious cathedrals of education entails – and may be setting up their student for a very rude awakening.
It's also important to go to the meetings provided by both the high school counselors and visiting colleges. A wealth of information is shared at these presentations and will avoid you many hours of research. My husband and I attended two scores-back sessions for the PSAT (sophomore and junior years), and after leaving the first session with a higher level of anxiety about what our son needed to do to increase his score, a year later we walked out of the second session more at ease with the unavoidable reality: Study and prepare for the real SAT in March of his junior year! This first test will reveal if your child will need to take more tests and if professional help is needed.
2. AP Exams – Students take Advance Placement course exams, usually starting sophomore year, if they enrolled in AP courses. As a junior, these tests will be taken in May. The extra grade point from taking AP courses is helpful to boost GPA, but be aware that most competitive colleges will look at 'unweighted' GPA, and both grades are reported on the student's transcript. So, why take AP courses? Colleges want to know if you were able to do this college-level work. I know, it doesn't make much sense to me either, but this is another way to 'weed' students out. Seems unjust, doesn't it?
3. SAT- Scholastic Aptitude Test and ACT– These are 'The Biggies'. According to our son's counselor, he can take them as many times as he wants (needs) to improve his scores and choose the best ones to send in with college applications. Score Choice is a new system for reporting test results, but you'll find most Colleges want to see all test scores reported, and Admission Officers will see the improvement (and persistence) with each score.You only need to report one set of scores; either the SAT or the ACT, but not necessarily both.
4. SAT Subject Tests – College-bound students definitely have to take at least two of these subject area tests, one in each level, to apply to top schools in the country and also if you're applying to USC and University of California schools: <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Berkley, Los Angeles, and San Diego among them. Choose the subjects you're best at: English Literature, History, Social Studies or Math (level 2), Science or Languages. These exams are normally offered in February, April and June.
5. Prep Courses – Our local high school counselor doesn't advise paying the high fees (around $1,000) for a preparation course. Instead, she is convinced that taking the PSAT as a freshman, sophomore and junior, and the SAT twice should yield higher scores each time. So, if your child took the PSAT his freshman year and got a score of 1,200, the same PSAT taken his junior year should have shown a score improvement to around a 1,600 simply due to two more years of knowledge plus good grades. With a little studying and preparation, this score could be even higher for the real test. However, if your student's target is over a 2,000 (and you can afford it), hire a tutor from the start, especially if the scores on the PSAT were not high (1,600) from the beginning.
6. College Coaches – If you just can't hack doing the research yourself, and you have another $1,000-$2,000 to spare, a college coach will work with your child on filling out applications, writing the all-important essay, and doing research on what colleges are best suited for his or her major. (Having someone other than yourself work with your child during this grueling process might also save the relationship between you and your student from becoming very strained). If you'd like to explore this route, I'd go in for a consultation with a college coach freshman year. Otherwise, save this money and spend it on the first year of college books.
7. Community Service – This part of the application is very important and can help separate your child from the pack. Start getting involved with a cause or club as a freshman – and stick with it throughout high school. This is what colleges would rather see instead of 'lose connections to several activities'. Besides sports, leadership, initiative and involvement are key to a well-rounded student. Keep this in mind, every student applying to the top schools in the nation has the following profile:
. Valedictorian
. High GPA 4.0+
. High SAT scores 2,000
. ASB or other Student Body involvement
. Sport and Team Captain. Athletic Letters and Awards are included in this category
. Community Service
8. 4.0 Keep those grades hovering around 4.0, especially your junior year. Only encourage your child to do this if you want him or her to choose the college he would like to attend, and not have the college choose him. For the top ranked UC schools, a 4.0 has become imperative.
To this end, we offered our 3.6 GPA student (previously 3.8, but we took a break from nagging and look what happened!) the following advice:
Parent to child in February: “The next three months will determine the rest of your life. A 4.0 will get you into almost any school you choose. Can you put the Xbox away, unjam the ear buds from your head, and stuff the iPod in a drawer for the next three months? It's only for three months, and this small sacrifice now will give you a life-long reward. Please?
Child to parents: “How can that be? I've got one more year to go.”
Parents: “Unfortunately, your college application will have your transcript up until the end of your junior year. These will be the grades admissions officers will use to determine if you are good enough for them”.
Child: “Darn it!”
Finally, after all this is said and done (hopefully by the end of junior year) take the summer off. Really? No, not really. The summer between junior and senior year should be used to do something meaningful; create a unique internship (good ideas are available at College, get an interesting job related to your college major, or volunteer with a philanthropic organization. All this work is important to fulfill the community service requirements many colleges have today, and some say makes for a well rounded student.
Don't curl up with a good book and hot chocolate when the raindrops hit your rooftop this month. Instead, grab Newsweek's How to get into College Fall 2009 issue, or the SAT prep book and help your child start answering some questions like this one taken from the College Board's Official Question of the Day:
Part of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.
Chilean novelist and short-story writer María Luisa Bombal wrote innovative and influential stories featuring heroines which create fantasy worlds in order to escape from unfulfilling love relationships and restricted social roles.
1.     heroines which create
2.     heroines, they create
3.     heroines, they created
4.     heroines who create
5.     heroines that were creating
Want the answer? Just leave a comment and I'll give it you!
Finally, remember, this too shall pass…

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