Tips for a Successful School Year, Part II

Tips for a successful school year

Summer vacation has come and gone, and whether you’ve spent the last three months watching Netflix in your bedroom or volunteering in Haiti, now is the time to focus on setting goals for the upcoming school year. Regardless of where you’re at in your high school career, we’ve got a few tips for what to prioritize this year. For Part I of this series, which focuses on Freshmen and Sophomores, please click here!

For Juniors

1) Breathe.

For many students, Junior year is the most stressful of their high school career. Remember to balance self-care with all of your other goals. “Challenge yourself” is not the same thing as “destroy yourself at the altar of academic and extracurricular perfection.” Part of time-management is knowing when to take a break.

2) Continue taking challenging courses.

For many Juniors, Junior year means AP courses. Be realistic, but challenge yourself. Talk with your counselor about the right number of AP courses based on the classes you’ve taken so far and your future goals.

3) Pursue leadership roles within extra-curricular activities.

Stick with the activities you’re most passionate about, and consider becoming more active within those environments. Look for opportunities to pursue leadership roles and responsibilities

4) Create (or Narrow) Your College List.

If you don’t have a college list, now is the time to start. If your list currently includes every mid-sized private school with a decent psychology program, it’s time to start narrowing. Keep researching, evaluating what’s important to you, and work towards creating a list of schools that you’re truly excited about.

5) Visit More Colleges.

Take tours, meet professors, and sit in on classes. Visiting will help eliminate some colleges from your list and solidify the position of others, and it’s also a great way to demonstrate interest.

6) Get your test scores in order.

If you haven’t taken a Practice ACT, do so. If you have, and you’re happy with your score, take a real test, get an official score, and move on with your life! If you’ve taken a practice test and want to boost your score, work with a tutor to get the score you need.

7) Start thinking about recommendation letters.

Think about which teachers you might want to ask, and plan to do so in the second half of Junior year. Participate in class and make connections with your teachers.

For Seniors

1) Keep up your strong academic performance!

Senior course selection and grades are important! Remember, colleges are interested in your trajectory. Keep challenging yourself with difficult courses, including AP/IB classes, and keep your GPA up.  How you perform in difficult classes your senior year will give admissions officers insight into how well you will do in challenging college courses.

2) If you need to, take the ACT or SAT one more time.

Do you need one more point to get into the middle 50 for your top school? Go for it. Take one more ACT. Don’t take one more ACT if you’re “just wondering” if your score might go up, and you haven’t spent/don’t have any time to spend on prep.

3) Ask for recommendations.

If you didn’t do so at the end of Junior year, ask for letters as soon as possible. Your favorite English teacher is going to be asked to write recs for a lot of students. Writing good recommendations takes time, and bad recommendations are not going to help you.

4) Get organized.

Know your deadlines – applications, scholarships, everything. Make a plan and stay on task. Filling out applications can be overwhelming unless you break the process down into manageable steps. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for help.

5) Keep visiting colleges.

Even after applications are submitted, you may want to keep visiting colleges. If you apply to 6, 8, or 10 schools you’re really excited about (and hopefully you ARE excited about all of your schools), you may need more information to make your final decision.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Tips for a Successful School Year, Part I

Tips for a Successful School Year

Summer vacation has come and gone, and whether you’ve spent the last three months watching Netflix in your bedroom or volunteering in Haiti, now is the time to focus on setting goals for the upcoming school year. Regardless of where you’re at in your high school career, we’ve got a few tips for what to prioritize this year.

For Freshman

1) Start taking challenging courses.

Challenging yourself now sets you up for better test scores and a more impressive transcript. Select courses that cover the core subject areas first. Choose electives that look challenging and/or represent interests you may wish to build on later.

2) Explore activities and interests.

High school may provide an opportunity to explore activities that haven’t been an option previously. Trying out a few different things (while balancing your time with schoolwork, of course!) is a great way to find strengths and passions that you can continue to pursue in the coming years, and also eliminate things that perhaps just don’t interest you as much as you thought they might.

3) Read!

Reading for pleasure has many benefits – higher test scores is just one of them. If you’re already a reader, that’s fantastic! Make time to keep reading. If not, work on cultivating the habit. Take a trip to the library and let yourself explore. Pick anything that interests you! Commit to reading one book a month this year.

For Sophomores

1) Continue taking challenging courses.

Build on your successes from last year. When colleges look at transcripts, one of the things they evaluate is your trajectory. If you took two honors courses last year, take more than two this year. Set a goal for your GPA that is higher than last year’s. Keep taking your core courses and challenging electives. Set challenging, but reasonable, goals.

2) Narrow your extracurricular activities.

You don’t have to do everything. Having some focus is beneficial, not just for your resume, but also for your life. Volunteered at three different, totally unrelated places last year? Pick the one that speaks to you the most and log some serious hours. Didn’t love yearbook? Drop it. Your time is valuable, and your activities should be things that you value.

3) Start generating a college list.

Yes, you’ve got time. But there are thousands of schools in the United States, and beginning your research now – when there’s less pressure – can actually be kind of fun. Don’t feel the need to make specific plans yet, just explore your options and see what sounds interesting.

4) Start your college visits.

Visiting colleges might seem premature if you don’t have a list, but your first visits should be less about meeting with admissions counselors and more about getting a feel for a few different colleges. Walk around a small liberal-arts campus, a big university, a medium-sized Jesuit school. Visiting colleges in your region, or that happen to be nearby on a family vacation, is a great place to start.

Look for “Tips for a Successful School Year, Part II, which focuses on Juniors and Seniors, out next week!

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Facts about Rolling Admissions

If a college or university lists a “rolling” admissions deadline, they process applications as they receive them, instead of waiting until a fixed deadline and processing them all at once. Applying to a school with rolling admissions can provide a host of potential benefits, but many students may not look for these types of schools specifically. Here are some quick facts about the subject.

Rolling admissions may provide some peace of mind.

The timeline of the college admissions process can be stressful; months of hectic agonizing over essays and transcripts are followed by months of silence, waiting and wondering. Those waiting moments provide great spaces for worries and stress to emerge. Even students with carefully chosen lists and great “safety” options might wonder: what happens if I don’t get in anywhere? What will I do then?

Applying to a school with rolling admissions offers a chance to circumvent some of that worry. If you’ve already been accepted to one school, waiting to hear back from other colleges becomes less about what happens if I don’t get in anywhere and more about I know I have at least one option. That can make a world of difference if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

If you’re applying to a school with rolling admissions, applying early is better.

As spots begin to fill up throughout the rolling admissions process, schools can afford to be more selective. Your best chance of being admitted to a school with rolling admissions is to apply early. Also, because one of the major benefits of applying to a rolling admissions school is having at least one acceptance letter before your other applications are even due, applying early just makes sense.

Financial aid deadlines may be different than admission deadlines.

At K-State, students can apply as early as 15 months before the beginning of the term in which they plan to enroll, or as late as 7 days before classes begin. However, scholarship applications are due in November. Again, earlier is better.

Earlier is better, but sometimes late is OK.

Often, some rolling admissions schools provide an option for students who need to make last-minute applications. At Loyola-New Orleans, 2015 classes begin on August 24th, but as of August 3rd their website says they’re still accepting applications. Do we suggest waiting until the very last minute? Not at all, but if you find yourself needing to look into new schools after conventional deadlines have passed, these schools might be your best bet.

In some cases, getting accepted earlier might mean making your decision early.

Some schools with rolling admissions are prepared to wait for your decision until you’ve heard back regarding your regular-decision applications. Some won’t. This depends on the school, so check to see what their decision deadlines are when you’re deciding where to apply.

Admissions can be beneficial to students navigating the college application process. Doing your research and being aware of deadlines and requirements can help you take the best advantage of rolling admissions.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

 

Gap Year – Thoughts on Taking a Year Off

If I’d told my parents that I wanted to spend a year doing some other stuff before starting college, they would have freaked out. American culture is go, go, go, succeed, succeed, succeed – taking a break is seen as a sign of weakness. Americans have less vacation time than almost any other first world country, not to mention longer work weeks. The trajectory is supposed to go high school -> college -> job or graduate school -> job -> job, with no variations. Saying “I’d like to spend the 18th year of my life backpacking around and maybe working in a cafe” in America is tantamount to saying “I’d like to drop out of society, not be productive, and waste my life.” – Lillet Marcus

There’s been a lot of buzz about gap years recently. Since the beginning of the gap year phenomenon in the 1960s, the practice has increased in popularity, especially in Europe. More recently, more American students have begun to take a structured break between high school and college, as well, but the expectation for most American students is still that they will progress directly from high school to college without a break in between.

While it might be tempting to write off a year-long “break” as indulgent, silly, or even reckless, many colleges actually encourage students to take a gap year. Princeton has gone so far as to institute its own Bridge Year program. Contrary to some popular perceptions, 90% of students who take a gap year do enroll in college as planned, and students who take gap years perform better once they enroll in college than students who start college right after high school. They also report that their gap years helped them choose their majors more wisely, and ultimately claim higher job satisfaction.

What is it about the gap year that contributes to these outcomes? The benefits are different, certainly, for each student, but here are a few:

  1. A gap year allows time for recovery from high-school related burnout. Many high school students are sleep-deprived and overwhelmed, running with all their might towards the light at the end of the tunnel – college ­– as if the next phase might bring them a respite from the hectic pace, frantic studying, and late nights. While college can’t provide that relief, a gap year might.
  2. Students can experience something more of the world – and of their own interests and abilities – than they might otherwise. Wherever a student spends their gap year, working or volunteering in a new environment provides an opportunity for a completely different type of experience than those typical of high school or college environments. Broader experience leads to more knowledge about the world and what you’d like your place in it to be.
  3. Taking a gap year can provide an opportunity to develop life skills and independence that will lead to greater success in college. Stepping outside of your comfort zone builds confidence and independence, ensuring that when you do arrive in college, you’re ready to get the most out of the experience, not stressed out by learning how to do laundry or trying to get to know whole groups of strange people for the first time.

 

The most important thing about taking a gap year is making sure you have a plan to spend the time wisely. There are a lot of organizations that provide structured programs and help make that planning process a little easier. Check out groups like Thinking Beyond Borders, American Gap Association, and Cross Cultural Solutions. Of course, you can always plan your own unique experience, but having a plan is critical. Consider your interests, goals, and budget when devising your strategy.

And no matter where you decide to spend your gap year, plan to complete your college applications in your senior year, just like everyone else. It’s much, much easier to get all of the necessary information compiled when you’re in school, with face-to-face access to the people writing your recommendations, than it is if you’re on another continent doing service work.

Do some research into the gap year policies at the schools you’re considering: some schools are flexible, and even encourage students to take a gap year, while others require that you re-apply if you’re not enrolling in the semester for which you initially applied. Check to see which colleges are likely to offer deferments, and whether or not the deferment will affect any financial aid you’re offered. If you plan carefully and do your research, taking a year “off” can be an adventurous addition to your educational plans, and may even give your grades a boost in the future.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

CLEP Tests

CLEP stands for College Level Examination Program. CLEP is a group of tests offered by College Board (maker of the SAT, as well as those delightful AP tests you’re so looking forward to). One of the major differences between AP tests and CLEP tests are that CLEP tests are often offered by a college or university for students already enrolled at that school.

Where are they offered?

CLEP exams are offered at many colleges and universities across the country, and are designed to provide college credit for material you may have covered in previous classes, or experiences you’ve had outside of formal school environments. For this reason, CLEP tests are often popular with people who have been in the military, but they can also be useful for people who’ve done independent research on a topic or learned about the topic through work or other experiences. There are tests for foreign languages, sciences, math, history and social science, and other subjects. CLEP exams can save time and money in college, so knowing a little bit about how they work can be useful!

Do all colleges and universities offer them?

While many colleges and universities do participate in the CLEP program, some don’t, and some only offer some of the possible tests or place limits on how much credit you can earn through the program. For example, KU accepts many – but not all – of the exams, and different programs within the University have different requirements or standards. Depending on the test and your score, taking a CLEP exam at KU might earn you an exemption from a pre-requisite (but zero course credit), or it might count as 3 or 6 credits towards graduation.

Saint Louis University also allows student to earn college credit by taking CLEP exams, but the exams must be completed within the student’s first year at SLU. The University of Colorado – Boulder lists a short group of exams accepted, but notes that “This credit is applied toward degree requirements at the discretion of the student’s dean.” Southern Methodist University gives credit for 4 CLEP exams (a total of 33 CLEP exams are offered by the College Board).

Do your research.

Many colleges who accept CLEP credit conduct “open” testing at their testing centers – meaning people from the community or from other schools can come to the testing center to take their CLEP tests. This means that just because a college offers a certain test, that doesn’t mean that same school will accept it. It’s important to get a good feeling for the credit by examination policy at your college or university before you sign up to take any CLEP tests. Also, keep in mind that policies can change from year to year. Make sure you have the most current information about your school’s policy in order to get the most out of the CLEP program.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

 

Overcoming Testing Anxiety

It’s perfectly normal to feel a little nervous before a test. Actually, a small amount of stress can be beneficial to you, as it drives you to prepare well and can help you maintain your focus. But for some students, the stress associated with testing becomes overwhelming and hinders their ability to concentrate and perform well on an exam. These students often blank out on all of the answers they had committed to memory before the exam began or feel so nervous about completing the exam that they waste time and energy anxiously checking the clock every few seconds. The latter is especially a problem for students dealing with timed tests (like the ACT!), but it can affect students in environments without strict time limits as well, particularly if a student feels they are a slow reader or slow test taker.

So if testing anxiety is so debilitating, how can you overcome it? If you’re bogged down by an inordinate amount of worry and self-doubt with regard to your testing ability, you have to take steps to replace your doubt with confidence. If stress and uncertainty are the root of testing anxiety, then surely confidence is the solution!

Developing good study skills and preparing adequately for a test are essential for building confidence. If you systematically study and practice the material, then you will feel considerably more comfortable taking the exam. Your preparation shouldn’t start the night before the test, because this will only lead to more stress! If you try to cram in too much information at once, you’re liable to feel extremely overwhelmed and underprepared. Instead, start preparing weeks in advance and examine the material slowly and thoroughly. This also gives you the opportunity to ask your teachers and peers for clarification on concepts you don’t understand along the way. If you wait to look at the material the night before only to find that you don’t understand it, it’s too late!

Studying should also involve ensuring that you know as much about the test as possible. You need to explore questions about the exam’s makeup. Will there be multiple choice questions? What about essays? How many questions total will you need to complete? Is there a time limit to the test? If so, about how much time will you have for each question? If there is a time limit and that stresses you out, begin working with practice problems under timed environments so that you become used it.

You also need to prepare yourself mentally. If you find yourself stuck in a negative thought pattern, work on developing a positive one instead. When you find yourself thinking about how you can’t succeed, combat this negativity with a new thought: I will succeed. I will ace that test. I’ve been studying for weeks and I know the material. Once you get in the habit of thinking this way, it will become your default.

Additionally, develop relaxation techniques. Different things work for different people, but some examples include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and visualization. Explore different options and find one that works for you, and then use it to help you cope when you start to feel anxious.

Finally, if you take all of these steps and still feel that anxiety is impeding your performance on exams, don’t be afraid to talk about it and ask for help! Sometimes, in addition to stress about exams, students feel ashamed of their anxiety, which only leads to even lower self-confidence, which leads to worse performance, becoming a self-feeding cycle. Testing anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of! If you need help, talk to your parents, teachers, and friends, and don’t be afraid to see a counselor.

Claire Engel is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences

Name: Emma Koerper
College: Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences
Major: Nursing

1. What first drew you to Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences?
I was drawn to healthcare because of many personal experiences. I volunteered at a few different hospitals during high school and knew that I wanted to be in the medical field. I chose nursing because I love the patient contact and the schedule. I chose Saint Luke’s for my nursing degree because it was close to home and had a reputable program.

2. What other colleges were you considering?
I originally attended Saint Mary’s College, but decided to transfer when I switched my major from Biology to Nursing. I transferred to KU to complete my nursing school pre-requisite courses prior to starting at Saint Luke’s College. I was also considering Auburn.

3. How was the adjustment from high school to college?
My adjustment from high school to college was fairly easy. I believe my time at Notre Dame de Sion helped prepare me for college.

4. What was your favorite class? Why?
My favorite class was my Pediatric Nursing class because I love working with children and their families.

5. What clubs or groups were you involved in?
I was a member of Gamma Phi Beta sorority during my time at the University of Kansas.

6. In one sentence, what do you love about your school?
I love the opportunities Saint Luke’s College gave me in order to prepare me to be the best nurse that I can be!

 

Changes to the ACT

ACT recently unveiled plans for a 2015 update to their test. Students taking the ACT next year will need to prepare for a more complex essay, as well as some minor alterations to the Reading and Mathematics tests. Relative to the SAT’s extensive changes, the changes to the ACT will be subtle.

Writing:

    • For students taking the optional ACT Writing portion, the writing prompt may become more complex, requiring students to “evaluate multiple perspectives on a complex issue and generate their own analysis based on reasoning, knowledge, and experience.” Although the prompt may appear to be more challenging, the additional direction in the prompt and hypothetical perspectives provided will allow the student to actively analyze stated ideas, instead of initializing the entire topic.  In addition, the student will be provided with an additional ten minutes to write the essay – for a total of 40 minutes.
    • The scoring of the Writing test will be also updated and will include subscores in four areas: ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use.

Reading:

    • The Reading test will introduce a new passage type. Students will be asked to compare information from paired passages (dual passages), similar to a subset of questions on the SAT. The ACT began rolling out these paired passages during the 2014-2015 school year, but each test will have this dual passage from this point forward.

Mathematics:

    • The Mathematics section will see a very slight increase of emphasis on statistics and probability in the Math test. The change will be minor enough that most students probably won’t notice the difference.

Science:

    • The Science section will have the same number of questions (40), but they will be broken down into 6 themed passages rather than 7.  We perceive this as giving each student a leg up, as now there are only six varied science related topics that must be addressed, rather than seven topics that students may only have limited previous knowledge of beforehand.

The main focus of the upcoming ACT update seems to be on state assessments, rather than on college applications. This is evidenced by the ACT’s new supplemental scores: STEM and Language Arts scores, and Career Readiness and Text Complexity indicators. There will also be new question categories aligned to Common Core standards. Most of these new scores are designed to provide more detailed insight into students’ progress.

The ACT’s traditional 1-36 composite score will not change; these new scores will be provided in addition to the current provided scores. Other changes affecting ACT state assessments include the addition of more optional tests (math, reading, and science) and increased availability of digital tests.

These changes to the ACT are planned to take effect in fall 2015 and in 2016.

National Decision Day – May 1st

May 1st is also known as “National Decision Day.” This nickname springs from the fact that for many students, May 1st is the latest day they can inform colleges of their decision. While some students applied Early Action or Early Decision, others may go down to the wire trying to pick which college they want to attend.

 

Thinking Ahead

Recently, we wrote about what we at GSP consider the Top 10 Test Prep Traps that students and parents can fall into. The first item on that list was “taking the test too early” – before the end of sophomore year. But, understandably, as many parents (and students!) find themselves overwhelmed with the whole junior and senior year process, parents vow to start earlier next time. “You’ll see!”, they think. “Davey will start preparing for the ACT in 7th grade!”

It sounds reasonable, at first. Planning ahead is a responsible thing to do. Taking one’s time with a project or task is generally more enjoyable than saving it until the very last minute, and there’s so much going on during junior year that it might feel like there’s not nearly enough time to do the necessary work.

The main reason we cited in our previous post for not beginning so early is that students generally haven’t had the necessary coursework tested by the ACT and SAT before the end of their sophomore year. But that isn’t the only reason. It’s also important to consider that the tests do change periodically – sometimes in small ways, sometimes via larger overhauls.

Practicing for the SAT years before taking it is akin to attempting to write college essays years in advance – not only is it unlikely that a student has the necessary experience and knowledge to be successful, it’s also nearly certain that the requirements will actually change, meaning that much (if not all) of that effort would be wasted.

We at GSP have had some conversations about this concept of “too early,” and how to answer the question, “but what should we do, then?”. Here are some tips and suggestions we’ve come up with for how younger students – and their parents – can best prepare for the standardized tests of the future.

1. READ!

Every tutor I spoke with listed reading as the number one thing students should focus on. Here’s what some of them said about the importance of developing good reading habits:

“Just read regularly. Can be books, news, magazines, or whatever. […] Most test taking strategies are about time use, but if you can’t understand what they’re saying then there’s little point.” – Logan Terry

“[Students should] read whatever they can get their hands on for reading comprehension, to see how proper punctuation and grammar are used, and to familiarize themselves with vocab words.” Madison Huber-Smith, former tutor

“The best thing a 7th grader can do to prepare for the ACT/SAT/PSAT/LSAT/MCAT/GMAT/LIFE is to read everything and anything. The more varied a kid’s reading experiences, the better prepared they are to do well on standardized tests. Reading is so important for every section of standardized tests — even math and science. […] Test prep works best for students who have a solid grasp of reading comprehension and the ability to make mental leaps from step A to B to C in a multi-step problem. All the test taking strategies in the world won’t help if you can’t understand the words you are reading and can’t problem solve. ” Gina Claypool

2. Encourage “a spirit of curiosity and learning.”

From Gina,: “Read with your kid. Discuss books, magazine and news articles (that way, you know if your kid is comprehending what they are reading), documentaries, etc. If your kid shows an interest in a subject you know nothing about, say “let’s learn about that together”. I’m kind of a nerd, but, in the summers before going to work, my mom would leave a logic puzzle for my sisters and me to solve, and I loved it. I think doing fun logic puzzles was a key factor in my enjoyment of math and science.”

3. Address difficulties with math as they arise.

It’s not unusual that students have forgotten some of the math they’ve learned by the time start preparing for the ACT and SAT – and that’s OK! Reviewing that content is part of what we do. But it’s more time-consuming to address math topics that a student didn’t really understand the first time around. Madison: “I have students complain that they had bad teachers for certain classes, and it affects them when it comes time to review for the ACT. A strong, early grasp of algebra is so key!”

4. Relax!

“Don’t worry about it too much. Do your homework, stay in school, and get involved in things that interest you. The ACT isn’t going to determine how successful you become. It’s just one of the first hoops you have to jump through in life.” – Logan

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.