When Should You Begin Preparing for College?
Spring semester finds high school seniors receiving college admission decisions, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and applying for scholarships. Soon they will begin comparing financial aid packages and weighing offers of admission before choosing a school. It’s an exciting period in their lives, and the flurry of activity around them can cause us to overlook the importance of spring semester for juniors as they plan for senior year and prepare to apply to college.
Registering for senior year classes is not always as straightforward as it seems. Students worry about choosing the “right” Advanced Placement (AP) courses, wonder if they are taking “enough” AP classes, and agonize over enrolling in an additional year of foreign language, math, science, and/or history if they have fulfilled graduation requirements in those subjects. These are valid concerns that should be resolved before course selection deadlines pass. The “right” AP courses are those that interest students and challenge them intellectually, and “enough” AP classes means the number students can manage in concert with their extracurricular activities, family relationships, and social pursuits. Continuing a foreign language into a third or fourth year of study is strongly recommended for students applying to highly competitive colleges, and maintaining a schedule that includes math, science, and history during senior year indicates a commitment to academic rigor.
SAT or ACT? The debate rages, with students sometimes convinced that one is better, or at least preferable to admission committees. Colleges typically don’t care which one they take, nor do they view the SAT as superior to the ACT or vice versa. My advice is for students to take a practice SAT and a practice ACT, under timed conditions if possible, to determine if they perform significantly better on one or if they feel considerably more comfortable with one. Free practice tests are available on-line, and high school counseling offices have paper copies. I suggest using the latter, because it most closely approximates the actual test, but more important is actually completing the exams. If there is a clear strength or preference, registering for that test only and declining to sit for the other is absolutely fine. Developing a focused testing strategy is a great payoff for the time invested in taking practice tests.
As juniors develop a list of prospective colleges, it is time to begin scheduling visits. Spring break can be used to take official tours. Visiting campus when the students are present is highly preferable in order to get a true feel for the atmosphere. Although touring colleges prior to applying is the preferred sequence, students occasionally plan to submit applications and then visit schools that accept them. This approach is ill-advised for a couple of reasons. First, colleges are increasingly likely to factor demonstrated interest into their admission decisions, especially top tier schools that accept a very small percentage of applicants. The first step in establishing a record of interest is participating in a campus tour; thus, its importance can’t be overstated. Second, it is nearly impossible for any high school senior to examine a college critically after the school has made an offer of admission. The temptation to overlook potential shortcomings is very real, especially if there is scholarship money on the table as well, and can lead to choosing a college that is not a good fit
As we celebrate the accomplishments of seniors and help them plan for life after high school, let’s not forget the class right behind them. Juniors need plenty of support and encouragement as they choose courses and embark on the process that seniors are just bringing to a close.
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