prepare for college

Too Many Colleges, Too Little Time

There are currently about 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States. How on earth do you pick the right one for your child? In our house we started with our alma mater, New York University. Sydney’s dad went there for grad school and I went for undergrad. Every trip we made to NYC we’d pass NYU and retell stories of our past. When she and I and her brother did the official tour last Spring, she declared that NYU was the school for her. But as she visited other schools, NYU fell further down the list. In the end, she won’t even be applying there.

She learned universities meant larger classes and a larger student population. Gradually, small liberal arts colleges sounded more appealing. And we looked at some great ones in person and online, most of them in rural areas. There is a helpful book, Colleges That Change Lives, where we read about many we’d never heard of.

The more rural the schools, the more Sydney realized she was a city girl. She decided she wanted a small college in a big city. That didn’t leave a lot of options, but one thing that started to appeal was an all women’s college. I attended an all girl high school and a women’s college was the last thing I would have wanted. But she saw the benefits. She’d be able to go to a selective school, not have to compete with men to get in or during classes and she’d have better shots at leadership positions. She started to focus on women’s colleges as first choices. This all came about as she took the time to realize what was important to her in a school. It never would have been something I suggested.

As her list narrowed we needed to consider the finances. Luckily most of her schools were part of the list of colleges that meet 100% of financial need. The Net Price Calculator helped us to rule out certain ones and focus on some that we might not have considered before.

She didn’t want to go to school in Southern California where she grew up, although when we toured UCLA, she said, “there is nothing wrong with this school.” Except the fact that they had 102,000 applications last year for 6,000 spots! Looking at acceptance rates sometimes puts things into perspective.

If you ask my son what college he wants to attend, he will say NYU. He is pretty certain of it although he’s only in tenth grade. I imagine he will go through a series of discoveries as well and change his mind too. Or maybe not. With over 5,000 colleges to chose from you’d think he could find one that fits. He only needs one.

The Pros and Cons of Standardized Testing

For Americans 60 and younger, standardized testing is part of our shared experience. The ACT and SAT are as much a rite of passage as they are tools for colleges to determine whom to admit. Some states even require high school students to take the ACT or SAT to graduate. These two tests are an ingrained part of the fabric of American life.

On the other hand, many colleges and universities no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores. Their reasoning: standardized test scores are just a number, and cannot reflect an applicant’s true to potential to succeed in college. Also, education groups have pointed to the SAT / ACT as the cause of teenagers’ unhealthy stress levels.

So what are you, a 21st-century high school student, to think? In this article, we’ll explore both sides of the issue. Finally, I’ll leave you with a little advice on how to excel both academically and mentally during standardized test season.

The Pros

If there is a case to be made in favor of the SAT / ACT, it’s that preparing for these tests teaches you many life skills that you will need later in life. What do I mean? Let me break it down for you:

  • Planning: Preparing for a standardized test requires a lot of planning. Do I need a tutor? Which test-prep book should I buy? How long each day should I study? These are only a few of the questions that you must consider when building a successful study plan.
  • Routine / Discipline: Preparing for a standardized test requires you to create a study plan, along with the discipline to see it through. This is a life skill that people need no matter what life throws at them.
  • Coping: Your first attempt at the SAT / ACT may not go the way you expect. If this happens, it’s okay to feel disappointed, especially if you created and followed through on a study plan. After sadness should come the resolve to improve on your weaknesses. Your test results will tell you where you need to improve, giving you a valuable study tool.

The Cons

There are two sides to every coin, and the SAT / ACT has just as many cons as pros. Let’s look at the big ones:

  • Stress on You: Do you get knots in your stomach when you think about the SAT / ACT? That’s not uncommon; I felt it, too. Also, as a teacher, I knew a few students who broke down in tears during these tests…even the practice tests.
  • Stress on Your Teachers: Believe it or not, testing season has the same effect on teachers as it does on students. Think about it: they have to rearrange their schedules, teach test-prep strategies (boring!), and try to explain the importance of doing well on the SAT / ACT. Also, principals put pressure immense on teachers during standardized test season; many schools’ reputation rests on raising or maintaining their standardized test scores. In summary, nobody is having a lot of fun this time of year.
  • You Aren’t a Number: As a former high school student and teacher, I have plenty of experience to prove that a test score is small potatoes compared to the everything else that makes up your college application portfolio. So even if your scores aren’t where you want them to be, feel confident in the other parts of your application that make you a shining star.

Staying Centered

So it’s standardized test season. Besides creating and following through on a study plan, there are many things you can do to minimize the ‘cons’ this season brings with it. Here are two simple strategies:

  • Cut everyone (and yourself) some slack: Students and teachers are testy this time of year, and it’s not uncommon for everyone to feel stressed out. Realizing that others feel the same way as you will help you work with your teachers and peers.
  • Take some time for you: Study plans are great but combined with your school work, extracurricular activities, and family life, you can feel that you don’t have a moment for yourself. Yes, there will be many busy days, but don’t forget to build in personal time. If you have to put aside your work for an hour, the benefits will outweigh the negatives.

Final Thoughts

Standardized testing isn’t going away anytime soon. That being the case, I’m glad you took the time to learn about both sides of the issue. A little perspective goes a long way. Now that you have some essential knowledge, use it to help start your study plan. I wish you the best of luck on test day!

PSAT: To Panic Or Not

My son Jasper has PSAT’s on Wednesday and my daughter is suffering from SAT-PTSD. At dinner last night I asked Jasper how he was feeling about the upcoming test. Before he could answer, his sister Sydney, a senior, cried out, “Do we have to talk about SAT’s?!”

Over the past three years, Sydney has taken the PSAT twice, the SAT three times and the ACT once. Each time she does better. Incrementally better. But with all her prepping, her score is still not where she wants it to be. She can technically take it two more times before turning in her scores to college admissions this winter.

Jasper has watched his sister’s stress elevate. He has sympathized, endured her outbursts and even made her a special breakfast early one Saturday test-taking morning.

Jasper’s strategy is to go in unprepared. He thinks the results of the first PSAT will alert him to his weaknesses. He’ll deal with those then.

Sydney was not letting him get away with the nonchalant attitude. She wrestled him to the couch after dinner and went over each section of his College Board practice guide, giving expert guidance. She looked at me, worried. “I won’t be here when he applies to college.” She tried to give him a hug. He pushed her away. “It’s fine, since I won’t be panicking during the tests.”

An increasing number of colleges are now test optional.  They realize some kids are not good test takers. Graduation rates at colleges are growing as a measure of excellence, and high SAT scores are not the best predictor of a student’s ability to follow through for four long years.

“You gotta stress out a bit,” said Sydney.

I’m curious if keeping his cool will be beneficial to Jasper. Is it worth it to study for the PSAT? Experts differ on the value of test prep, especially if takes away from school work. Grades are still the most important thing.   

I have to think his will be healthier than Sydney’s approach, worrying and being nervous on the way to the test. It’s hard to know what to do as a parent. It always is. I can only look to my kids for guidance. And I think on Wednesday, we’ll just treat it as another day. No special breakfast, not talk about it. We’ll just hope he gets a good night’s sleep and does the best he can.

Charting Your Educational Path

Today is Columbus Day, and if you have the day off from school, good for you. A lot of high school students don’t, so enjoy your free day. But since you have some time on your hands, let’s talk Columbus, or more specifically, his first journey 525 years ago. Columbus, despite all his promises to the Spanish monarchy, had little to no idea what was he was doing when he set sail. In fact, if the winds hadn’t been favorable, he and the crews of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria would never have made it back home.

Columbus was unsure about a lot of things.

I bet you’re unsure about what this year of high school will bring. Thoughts of college convey the same sense of trepidation, only magnified. Like Columbus, will you make it there? And even when you ‘arrive,’ will your destination be the one you intended? So on this Columbus Day, let’s examine your educational path. Our goal will be to help you create the outline of a map charting your journey to college.

After all, I bet Columbus sure wished he had a map in 1492.

Step One: Determine Where You Are

You can’t figure out where you’re going unless you know where you are. That means sitting down to evaluate everything that makes you, well, you. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What are my interests and passions?
  • What is one thing that makes me unique?
  • If I could change one thing about myself, what would it be?
  • If I could not take one subject in school, what would it be?
  • How have I performed academically in high school so far?
  • Am I enjoying my extracurricular activities?
  • Am I taking an active role in my community?

The answers to these questions will help you create a small, personalized student profile. You’ll have to face a few hard truths, but there will undoubtedly be reasons to pat yourself on the back, as well. No matter what you discover about yourself, you will have taken the first step of your educational path.

Step Two: Decide Where You Want to Go

Deciding to go to college is a big step, but after that, you have to find your dream school. With literally thousands of options, the choices can feel overwhelming. If you’re going to ‘set sail’ for college, you must pick a direction.

By completing step one, you already have a powerful tool at your disposal. For example, by identifying your likes and dislikes, you can write off many colleges due to their course offerings or campus culture. Your academic performance plays another significant role. If you’re a junior who has struggled academically, it’s doubtful that an Ivy League or ultra-competitive school will accept you.

The point is that you’re looking for a college that works not for your parents, not for your peers, but for you. And since applying to college is competitive just about everywhere, you need to choose 4-6 possible colleges where you would be perfectly happy. Make sure your list has the following:

  • One reach school (<20% chance of admittance)
  • Two to three maybe schools (40-70% chance of admittance)
  • One safety school (>90% chance of admittance)

In short, cover your bases. To get you started, here are some key self-reflection questions:

  • Which colleges offer majors in the subjects in which I’m interested?
    • Are these programs well-respected? What are current and former students saying? Where do graduates end up working or go on to graduate school?
  • Do I want to stay close to home or explore a new part of the country?
    • This may seem like a trivial question, but your future school’s location will have a large impact on your life outside the classroom.
  • Why do I like ‘College A’ over all the others?
    • Self-reflection can help you identify other colleges similar to the one you prefer the most.

Step Three: Chart a Course

So you know where you’re going. That’s great! Don’t know how to get there? That’s okay! We’ll figure it out together.

Get out your list of potential colleges and universities. For the moment, ignore the ‘maybe’ and ‘safety’ schools. To chart your educational path, we’re aiming for the top of the list. Everything you do from here on out will make you attractive candidate to that one school.

Why shoot for the moon? Easy. Even if you don’t make it into your top-choice school, you will make yourself the best applicant you can be to all the schools to which you will apply.

Let’s dive into our final set of questions to help you chart your course:

  • Are my standardized test scores comparable to what this college expects of its applicants?
    • If not, how can I improve my scores?
  • Are my classes challenging me?
    • Colleges love applicants who take rigorous courses. (I cannot overstate this enough.)
  • How can I set myself apart from thousands of other applicants?
    • For example, if your dream college promotes community service, you can set yourself apart in your application by promoting the community service you performed in high school. (e.g., Make it the topic of your personal essay. Write about how you went above and beyond!)

Final Thoughts

Well, loyal readers, I hope I’ve given you some tools to help you start your academic journey to college. There’s a lot to do, so don’t be shy about going to your parents, teachers, and college counselors for advice or help. Yes, adults are very busy, but the one’s who offer their help will have the best advice.

Finally, may calm seas and good winds bless your journey.

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