A grandmother asks: Is it my imagination or is the college application process starting earlier each year? I have nine grandchildren and four of them are in high school. The oldest is a junior and he’s already testing for college. Isn’t it too soon?
Dr. LaScala responds: You are not imagining this. Parts of the college admissions process are starting earlier each year. One unfortunate consequence of this is that some students are taking the official SAT or ACT before they are ready. In [Web Link my October posting] I reviewed some of the basics of standardized testing and addressed the value of preparation. Your question raises the important issue of timing.
There is a disturbing trend toward taking standardized tests in the fall of junior year, often preceded by summer test preparation. This is disadvantageous to students because both the SAT and the ACT are designed to be taken by 11th graders in high school. And this is what colleges still expect. There are many good reasons to delay standardized testing until the second semester of 11th grade:
• It bears repeating that standardized tests are designed for 11th graders. High school students learn at a fast pace. By taking the SAT or ACT in the fall, 11th graders deprive themselves of months of classroom education. Students can feel deflated by low test scores and think poorly of themselves. In fact, low test scores are often due to the fact that the student has not completed related coursework. There is a strong link between greater maturity and better testing results. Younger students are frequently not interested in college because it seems such a long way off. Early testing can lead them to tune out or burn out. Neither one is a desirable outcome.
• As an option I noted in my October post, students can take full length practice exams without these scores appearing on their permanent record. Many test preparation professionals offer this service in the hope you will return to their company for test preparation. That’s a good way for students to get practice without some of the downsides of early testing. Just avoid getting drawn into early test prep. Use the practice to get a feel for the test(s) and learn your strengths and areas to focus on for improvement. Use your high school coursework as a means to improve your math skills, writing ability and critical reading. You can do more formal test preparation during the winter and early spring of 11th grade. A good rule of thumb is for 11th graders to plan to complete a first round of testing in the spring and retake tests in their senior year, if necessary.
There are several very appropriate ways to prepare early for the path to college. Here are my top picks:
• Students should focus on doing their best work in high school and take challenging courses over time—particularly in subjects they do well in and enjoy.
• Students should engage in systematic and meaningful extracurricular activities such as sports, music, employment or volunteerism. Students who do a few things they are passionate about are better prepared for college admission that those who cram their schedules with many random activities. In this case less is more.
• Use family vacations and school breaks to explore college campuses in relaxed, informal ways. It doesn’t matter if the student plans to apply to these schools—the goal is to simply get a general feel for the variety of colleges that exist. Over the course of a year or so, try to include in the mix a two-year community college, a large public university (one in your state and/or one out-of-state), a small liberal arts college as well as a technical or specialty school. Students can benefit greatly from these informal opportunities to become familiar with college admission terminology as well as the size and feel of college environments.
Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and certified college admission advisor. Her goal is to help freshman applicants as well as transfer students and their families understand the admissions process, research college and career options, create a balanced college list and submit strong and cohesive applications. She is familiar with local high schools and has guided three daughters through the college admissions process in addition to more than 300 clients. Dr. LaScala is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, and HECA and earned a certification in College Admissions and Career Planning from University of California at Berkeley. Contact her at (925) 891-4491 or firstname.lastname@example.org.