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With mid-terms over, what comes next for college-bound high schoolers?

by Erik R. Slagle

With the new year upon us, high school students at all grade levels have decisions to make now that can impact the course of their college admissions process. If your son or daughter is a freshman, their focus should be on maintaining a strong GPA in a challenging (not overwhelming) course load; eyeing future leadership roles in select clubs and in sports or other activities where they excel; and tuning in to what their friends in the upper grades are saying about the SAT and ACT.

Seniors are weighing their acceptances and wait list deferrals, sometimes handling rejections, and, soon, starting to receive financial aid offers from their prospective colleges. (Here’s a tip along those lines for seniors – no matter what type of package your family is offered, it never hurts to call and politely ask for a little more. If your heart is truly set on a particular school, it will show; you’d be surprised how often a college can find some extra funds for students who really want to attend and have a demonstrated need.)

The standardized test scene – my area of expertise – is most directly impacting juniors and, believe it or not, sophomores at this time of year. If you’re the parent of a student in these grades, it might seem a little overwhelming trying to weigh all of the different options coming up for SATs, ACTs, PSATs (for current sophomores), and Subject Tests. The best course of action is to plan ahead so students have time to prepare while balancing these tests with their regular schoolwork and extracurricular commitments.

JUNIORS: Since the College Board eliminated the January SAT option this year (after adding the August date in 2017), many juniors plan for March as their first SAT date. May is also a strong option, but can conflict with AP exams. Prep for the current format of the SAT involves mastering math strategies like “plugging in,” elimination, and using relationships between given numbers; understanding the chronological rule of most reading passages; identifying the most common types of grammar errors tested; and developing a timing strategy that works for your individual strengths, challenges and goals. (Whether to take the optional essay component can also play a role.)

Students should plan for at least 6-8 weeks (preferably, about 3 months) of practice before sitting for an SAT, but a focused “crash course” plan for the March test can still help them get ready. A second attempt at the SAT can come in August or even October of senior year, depending on whether or not you have plans for Early Decision or Early Action applications.

If you’re a looking to fit the ACT into your schedule, consider April or June. (June is also a good time to think about a Subject Test or two – but this is a conversation you’ll want to have with your guidance counselor before deciding whether you need them.) The ACT is also going to be offered in July this year, and there’s always a September option as well.

Generally, you want to limit your tests to two SATs and one ACT, or vice versa. In certain cases taking two of each might be recommended, but beware of test burnout!

SOPHOMORES: This Spring, talk to your guidance counselor about Subject Tests. One or two in your strongest classes may be recommended if you have more competitive colleges on your radar. This Spring is also a good time to start thinking about the PSAT coming up in October. You don’t need to prepare a lot for this test unless you’re planning to try and qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. In general, ditch the vocabulary books, brush up your reading skills, and get comfortable solving complex Math without a calculator!

Every year it seems like the college application process gets more complicated, and more competitive. While both counts might be true, you can get a better handle on it and increase your odds of gaining admissions to your target colleges by planning out your test dates ahead of time and practicing (not panicking!) on a regular schedule to reach your goals.