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ACT Essay Changes

ACT Essay Changes

Planning to take the September 12 ACT? If you’re signed up for the Writing portion, be prepared for some ACT essay changes! If you’ve taken the ACT Writing portion before, you’ve probably seen essays that looked something like this:

ACT Essay - old essay image
The old ACT Writing prompts were usually open-ended questions. The topics were usually related in some way to the experiences of high school students, and provided opportunities for you to state, and support, your opinion. Should students have access to cellular phones during class? Do you support school uniforms? The trick was to take a clear position on the question, support it with specific examples, and manage your time well enough to complete the essay in the time allotted – 30 minutes.

The new ACT writing prompts are a bit different. Instead of leaving the question open-ended, the prompt provides you with some options, or perspectives, on the question. The new task is to analyze the perspectives and provide your own point of view based on the three presented to you.

ACT Essay - new essay image

Based on the sample prompt provided by the ACT, the topics may have shifted away from things that are directly related to your high school experience and more towards broader social issues. The new writing portion is 40 minutes long, giving you more time to read, analyze, and incorporate the perspectives into your essay plan.

If you’re signed up to take the Writing portion, take a look at these sample essay responses and think through a strategy to prepare for test day. You will still need to develop a position, include appropriate examples, organize your points, and manage your time carefully. Critical issues like indenting your paragraphs, keeping your writing neat, and minimizing your spelling and grammatical errors will remain important. The major change is that you’ll be incorporating some specific perspectives into your essay, and analyzing the quality of their arguments. Good luck!

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.

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.

 

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.

Top 10 Test Prep Traps Part III

Top 10 Test Prep Traps Part III 

At GSP, we understand that the amount of information floating around in the world about how to prepare to take your test(s), which test(s) to prepare for, etc., can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, some of it is also terrible advice! Here are some of the most common test prep traps we see students and parents fall into. From wasting time and money to actually making your college applications less effective, these missteps can be easy to make. Fortunately, we’re here to answer your questions and point out some potential pitfalls!

In Part 1, we talked about the basics – when to take the test, and how many times. In Part 2, we discussed setting goals and committing to one test. Finally, we’ll talk about a couple of more advanced topics – Super-Scoring and scholarships.

9. Assuming the Colleges on Your List Do (or Don’t) Super-Score

Super-Scoring is taking the highest score from each section of a test (either ACT or SAT) to provide a higher composite score than a student would have had otherwise. For example, pretend I took the ACT twice. My first test I got a 24 in English, a 19 in Math, a 25 in Reading, and a 22 in Science for a Composite score of 23. My second test was a 22 in English, a 23 in Math, a 26 in reading, and an 18 in Science, for a Composite score of 22.

However, if a college Super-Scores, they’ll take the highest of each section, so that gives me a 24 in English, a 23 in Math, a 26 in Reading, and a 22 in Science, like this:

So the Super-Score that I actually end up with – a 24 – is higher than either of Composite scores, which is pretty cool (for both me, and the college, as my higher score boosts their student profile).

Some schools Super-Score for both ACT and SAT and some schools don’t Super-Score at all. Some do for one test, but not the other. Further complicating the Super-Score situation are changes in policies from year to year.

What to do instead: Do your research, and make sure your info is up to date! Knowing whether a college or university will Super-Score your results can be key to focusing your test prep efforts!

10. Comparing Yourself (and Your Scores) to Everyone Else

It’s almost impossible not to do. Everyone’s ranked! Everyone’s given their percentile, and it’s easy to be tempted to look to those with higher scores with envy, admiration, or even the suspicion that they’re in on some special secret that we don’t have access to. It can be tough to chat with a friend whose first test score is higher than your goal score without feeling discouraged.

Standardized testing is a skill, and, just like any other skill, it comes more easily to some people than others. Your ACT or SAT score isn’t an indication of much more than your skill in taking the ACT or SAT. The amount of time and energy you want to devote to improving that score has everything to do with the specifics of what you want to accomplish.

There are all kinds of reasons that people might have target scores in different areas. Your score might be just fine for admission to your top school, but maybe one more point will get you a great scholarship! Or maybe a specific program requires two more points in your ACT math score. It may make sense to put in some more time and energy to further boost your score! However, feeling bad about your score, or deciding you need to take it again just because your brother/cousin/friend Bob is going to take it again? That makes less sense.

What to do instead:

Do your research! If you really need a certain score for a school or program or scholarship that’s important to you, let that influence your goal. But be aware that (hopefully!) others are doing their own research, and will have their own reasons for targeting a certain result. Let your brother/cousin/friend Bob stress about those two extra points for that Indiana State scholarship, if that’s where he really wants to go. If you don’t even want to go to Indiana State, much less get a scholarship there, it probably shouldn’t impact your goal score.

We know that preparing for the ACT or SAT can be an overwhelming process. With the right information, it can be less overwhelming. At Get Smarter Prep, we can help students and families navigate the world of test prep by providing advice and guidance tailored to each student’s goals.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

 

Top 10 Test Prep Traps, Part II

Top 10 Test Prep Traps Part II

At GSP, we understand that the amount of information floating around in the world about how to prepare to take your test(s), which test(s) to prepare for, etc., can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, some of it is also terrible advice! Here are some of the most common test prep traps we see students and parents fall into. From wasting time and money to actually making your college applications less effective, these missteps can be easy to make. Fortunately, we’re here to answer your questions and point out some potential pitfalls!

In Part 1 of this post, we discussed when and how many times to take the test. Next, we’ll review some important considerations in choosing which test (ACT? SAT?) and setting a good goal score. Here are some common mistakes:

5. Not Having a Clear Goal Score

“I want a good score.”

“I just want to do better.”

“I want it to be as high as possible.”

If you don’t have a clear goal in mind, setting up a study plan, either by yourself or with a tutor, is nearly impossible. There’s a lot of strategy involved in determining what components of a score can be improved, and by how much, and in how much time, for each student. Your practice test score, the amount of time you have, and the colleges you’re considering can all help you (and us) come up with a clear target for your preparation efforts. Having that target really shapes what your preparation process will look like.

What to do instead: Do your research, take a practice test, research the score ranges for the colleges you’re considering.

6. Not Having a Realistic Goal Score

Setting a goal is important, but setting a realistic goal is also critical. A lot of students know (of) someone who got a 35 or a 36 (2350-2400 for the SAT folks) and think, “If they can do it, so can I!”

They think if they just work hard enough they can turn an 18 in to a 36. No problem! Right?

How many students from the class of 2013 got a 36? 0.06%.

So you think, OK, I don’t need a 36. How about a 32? Only 2% of students get a 32 or above.

It’s important to realize that most people don’t break 30 on the ACT. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t work hard, or that they’re not intelligent, or that they won’t get into a great college, or do well once they get to college.

The ACT is intended to be difficult. Studying, practicing, and working with a great tutor can all boost your score, but it’s also important to weigh that studying and practicing against all of the other things that will help you get into college and just generally have a decent life.

You know, like homework. And activities. And sleep.

What to do instead: Look at the colleges on your list, your practice test scores, and talk with a tutor or someone else who can help you come up with a good plan. The amount your score can increase depends a lot on your starting point, which aspects of the test are easier or harder for you, and the amount of time and energy you’re willing or able to dedicate to preparing.

7. Dividing Your Energy

Let’s pretend Jane has decided to focus on the SAT. She’s working towards a specific test date, and everything is on track. Look out, though! Here comes an ACT test date right in the middle of her weeks-long SAT prep schedule. Maybe, think Jane and her parents, it might be a good idea to take some time out of the SAT prep schedule and do some ACT work?

Nope.

The ACT and SAT are actually pretty different tests, and colleges accept either one. With very rare exception, there’s nothing to be gained from switching midstream from one test to the other. If anything, Jane will end up more confused and using the wrong strategy on the wrong test – hurting either or both of her scores.

What to do instead: Take a practice version of each test (SAT and ACT) at the beginning of the preparation process so that you can make an educated choice about which test works better for you, then make a study plan and stick with it!

8. Committing to One Test too Soon

Here’s another scenario: Jane hasn’t taken any practice tests, but she knows she wants to focus on the ACT because she heard the SAT is really hard and has too many sections. Also her older brother John took the SAT and didn’t do very well.

Jane begins preparing for the ACT, but struggles with a couple of the sections. On a whim, finally, she takes a practice SAT, and although she’s been practicing the ACT for months, her SAT score is considerably higher.

What to do instead: Take a practice version of each test at the beginning of the preparation process! Many students will have comparable scores on the two tests, but feel more comfortable with one or the other. Other students will do somewhat better on one or the other right away, so it makes sense to stick with the one that is working! Either way, by taking both practice tests, you don’t have to wonder what you’re missing.

Watch for Part 3 of this post, where we talk about Super-Scoring and scholarships!

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Top 10 Test Prep Traps Part I

Top 10 Test Prep Traps – Part 1 of 3

At GSP, we understand that the amount of information floating around in the world about how to prepare to take your test(s), which test(s) to prepare for, etc., can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, some of it is also terrible advice! Here are some of the most common test prep traps we see students and parents fall into. From wasting time and money to actually making your college applications less effective, these missteps can be easy to make. Fortunately, we’re here to answer your questions and point out some potential pitfalls!

1. Taking the Test Too Early

Both the SAT and the ACT are designed to be taken in your junior or senior year. Taking a test – even a practice test – too soon can add unnecessary anxiety to a process that is, for many students and parents, already a stress-fest. We suggest taking your first practice test no sooner than May or June of your sophomore year. Before that point, you probably won’t have completed the course work that the SAT or ACT test, so your scores won’t really tell you much that’s useful.

What to do instead: Take challenging classes, read a lot, and pursue activities that interest you. You’ll be more prepared when it is time to take the test, and you’ll have more to put on your applications than just test scores.

2. Taking the “Real” Test Before You’ve Taken a Practice Test

No, the PLAN and/or PSAT don’t count. You should have taken *at least* one full-length practice test before you sign up for the official test. Yes, there’s a chance that you’ll take it once, get a score that makes you happy, and move on with your life – but wouldn’t that chance be increased if you took a practice test and spent some time preparing before the official test? It’s more likely that you’ll get a score that you feel needs improving, and the only thing you gain from taking (and paying for) that first test is the realization that you need to study. Guess what else could have told you that – for free? A practice test.

What to do instead: Take a practice test. Preferably, one of each – an SAT and an ACT – to see which one suits you best.

3. Taking the “Real” Test When You Know You’re Not Ready

Let’s pretend I’m signed up for the ACT this Saturday. And I bought some prep books a few months ago and I meant to study but my sports/work/whatever schedule has been, you know, and I haven’t even opened them. And I’m getting over the flu, and I have a lock-in the night before, so I know I won’t sleep, and also I may have sprained my thumb so I can’t really hold a pencil. What do I do?

Spoiler alert: Skip it. Please please please skip it.

“I just want to have an official score!” Why? Is this your absolute last chance before your applications are due? If not, what’s the point of having a score if it’s not one that will help you?

“But I can always take it again!” That’s mostly true. But why take it now, when you know you’re not prepared? Also, just because you can take it again, that doesn’t mean you should. (See #5)

What to do instead: Take a nap. Seriously, it sounds like you could use it. Then make a study plan for the next test date, and stick to it.

4. Taking the “Real” Test Over, and Over, and Over Again

So you’ve got a study plan and/or a tutor and you’re working hard towards a test date a several weeks or months in the future. But there’s a test before then! Shouldn’t you just take it anyway, just to see?

Um, no.

Taking the ACT/SAT is not actually that fun. There is, actually, a maximum number of times you can take the test, but most students hit their own personal limit before they reach that maximum. Students have a lot of competing priorities to juggle, and spending a Saturday taking one more ACT just to see if something magical happens is probably not the best use of your time.

Also, while different colleges have different policies, some schools do ask that you supply all of your scores to them. Additionally, even if the school doesn’t require all of your scores, sometimes the scores are sent anyway. It’s a pretty common error. We at GSP suggest that you assume your colleges will see all of your scores.

What to do instead: You’ve got a plan! Stick with your plan! Or, if you don’t have a plan, you know, make a plan. Take the test again only if you’re ready and pretty confident it’s a good use of time.

If you really want to practice, take a practice test.

Watch for Part 2 of this post, where we discuss the importance of setting clear, realistic goals, and picking the right test for you!

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Rankings vs. Fit, Part IV

Rankings vs. Fit Part IV

In this series, Audrey dissects a recent debate over the merits of Ivy League Universities which has opened up a much broader and more important conversation – one about choosing colleges and the importance of looking beyond selectivity and rankings when choosing a school. This is Part Four of the series. Here are the other posts: Part I, Part II, Part III.

At the end of Part Three, I suggested there were four “corners,” or major sets of considerations, to assist in narrowing your college list from “all of the schools in the known universe” to “6 or 8 or 10 or however many applications one person can actually complete.” Those corners are Geography, Academics, Extracurriculars, and Amenities.

Geography

You may have been told that you can find your niche anywhere, and to some extent, that’s true. But it will be easier to find opportunities to go cross-country skiing in Minnesota than Louisiana. Do you have strong feelings about trees? Snow? Squirrels? Ragweed? Elevation?

Here are some geography questions to ask yourself: How far from home do you want to be? Do you want to be able to dash home on a weekend with a car full of laundry, or are you happy with Christmas and summer?

What kind of weather do you want to live with for the next four years? Do you really hate cold? Or heat? Or rain?

Do you want to be near the mountains? The ocean? Would you prefer an an urban campus integrated into a large city, or a peaceful retreat with tree lined walks and mossy brick and people playing frisbee on the quad?

Academics

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Do you have a ready answer, or are you now caught in a wave of panic? Either way, you can narrow your list! If you know what you want to do, you have a passion and a focus, it’s important to find a school that has that field. Meet with some professors, or at least send some e-mails. Talk to them about your interests.

If you have no idea what you want to study, you probably want to avoid schools that have a very limited focus or ask that you pick a major immediately. You may want to look for schools that encourage you to explore a few different subjects your first year or two. And even if you have no idea what your future looks like, you should be able to find a major, or two, or three, on the list of the college in question, and think to yourself, “Hm. Maybe.”

How about class size? Picture yourself in a lecture hall with 50 or 100 other students. Then picture yourself in a room with ten students and one professor who knows your name and expects you to have something interesting to say. One of those might sound horrible. Most schools will have some of each the distribution varies pretty widely.

Do you think you might want to go to graduate school? Some schools send a lot more students on to get PhDs than others. What about opportunities for undergraduate research or study abroad programs?

Extracurriculars

What keeps you sane? What keeps you centered? What has been your refuge throughout high school when things were a little overwhelming? Your ideal college should offer some opportunity to do that, whether it’s basketball or saxaphone or religious services of your denomination, either on campus or near by. If art is your hobby, but you don’t want to major in it, would you be able to enroll in studio classes, or are they restricted to studio art majors?

In addition to the hobbies and activities you know are important, what new things do you hope your college will have? Take a look at the list of clubs and activities at a few different colleges and universities – what kinds of clubs are (and aren’t) offered can provide a lot of insight into the culture.

How important is Greek life (or avoiding Greek life) to you? What about sports? The idea of a whole campus decorated in school colors and excited about the next game might seem a necessary part of your college experience, or something you’d rather avoid entirely.

Amenities

It’s not enough to say, “nice dorms.” I loved my dorms. They were historic, with beautiful wood floors and high ceilings and old radiators that knocked and clanked all night in the winter. They had no air conditioners or elevators, but huge closets and plenty of windows. Old buildings are pretty, but they do come with some limitations.

What is “nice” to you? Also, beyond the building itself, think about policies. How do you feel about gender divisions in housing? Is it important to you that you be in a quiet or substance free dorm? What about restrictions on visiting hours, or even curfews?

“Good food” is not obvious, either. Having a choice between eighteen fast food options might sound amazing to you, or it might sound like torture. Do you have dietary restrictions for religious or health reasons? What are the vegetarian options like?

How about the athletic facilities? Art museum? Library? Weird little underground student-run pub?

Some of these things will seem very important to you. Others will seem silly and not worth considering. But by coming up with your own list of must-haves, you can rank colleges for yourself, and (hopefully) end up with a list of schools that fit you, not some obscure list of criteria made up by someone you’ve never met. And since you’re the one actually going to the college in question, it seems like that might be more important.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Rankings vs. Fit Part III

Rankings vs. Fit Part III

In this series, Audrey dissects a recent debate over the merits of Ivy League Universities which has opened up a much broader and more important conversation – one about choosing colleges and the importance of looking beyond selectivity and rankings when choosing a school. This is Part Three of the series. Here are Part I and Part II.

So, rankings may not be that important after all. They may give us some ideas, but they are not definitive – which schools are included and how those schools are ranked vary quite a bit from one rankings system to another, and the criteria may not include the factors that are most important to an individual student.

So what is important?

This is what was important to me: I wanted my campus to be pretty. I wanted people to be nice. I wanted to be able to get to know my professors a little bit, because I learn best when I’m face to face with someone. I wanted the food to be good.

That doesn’t narrow it down much, does it? I didn’t mind a religious affiliation, but I didn’t want mandatory theology classes, because I felt I’d had enough of that in my Catholic high school, so that meant Georgetown was out. I wanted to be able to take some electives, not just courses in my major (bye-bye, Cooper Union). I was pretty committed to the idea of seasons (there goes Arizona State) and putting a few hundred miles between me and my hometown (sorry, Washington University).

Some students will visit an older sibling or cousin who ended up at Ohio State and fall in love with the school, without looking at too many other places or asking very many questions. And those students might well have an amazing experience at Ohio State. Many of the things that determine the flavor of your particular college experience may not show up in a brochure or even an overnight visit: a particular class you stumble upon because the one you intended to take was full and you really need something Monday and Wednesday at 3:00, or the person who lives across the hall from you during your first semester, or the little all night diner across town that no one else seems to know about. Ohio State is just as likely to deliver these serendipitous intangibles as any other school. The list of factors I’m suggesting below is not for those students, nor is it for the ones who have always wanted to attend the same school as a parent or uncle and are certain they will be accepted to that school (although I’d point out that having backups is still wise).

This list is for students who are certain their perfect school is out there, somewhere, and are tempted to turn to rankings guides to find it. This list is for students who wanted to attend the most selective school that would accept them before they read that the most selective school that accepts you might not actually be the best fit. This list is for students who are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of schools – even in an abbreviated list like Princeton Review’s – and have no idea where to start.

Choosing a college that works for you is like folding a giant, unwieldy blanket. Which corner you start with matters less than the fact that you need to start with a corner. Once you’ve got a handle on that, you can move to the next corner, and the next, until what was a giant, uncoordinated mess is something manageable and organized. “Corners,” for the purposes of my metaphor, are geography, academics, extracurriculars, and amenities. So pick a corner, and start narrowing that list.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.