Practice, Practice, Practice

Let’s be honest. Nobody likes taking tests. Well, a few people do, but they’re a little weird, and we’re all secretly jealous of them.

The problem is that standardized tests are really important. They’re like the pre-qualifying rounds that prove what you’ve learned in your gladiator training so that you can get to the final matches in the Colosseum.

But see most people hate them, so they avoid them for as long as possible.

That’s probably not your best strategy. Don’t do that.

Start taking the test your freshman year if you can. Even if you don’t know all the answers, you need to start familiarizing yourself with the material and the structure of the test.

And you don’t always have to take the official tests that cost money either. Both the SAT and the ACT have official prep booklets that include five official practice tests.

In a perfect world, you should be taking a practice test once a month.

But that’s ridiculous! I don’t want to take a massive test every month!

True, but the key is practice, practice, practice.

You’ve probably heard of people taking SAT prep classes over the summer, and they sound awful, right?  (Full disclosure: I did one and mostly they were simply forcing me to study for four hours every Saturday in the Highland High School Library.  It was great to be studying-don’t get me wrong because I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own–but my parents paid a lot of money for forced study time.)  With a bit of preparation and determination, you can save yourself hundreds of dollars by putting together some goals, a study plan, and getting my help with accountability.

What helps most is daily practice (which you can do on your own!).  There are tons of great apps for the SAT and ACT that you can get to test yourself on your weaker subjects. Whenever you have a free moment, just pull out your phone and do five practice problems.

Studying and Testing Game Plan

See, these tests aren’t about memorizing every possible answer imaginable. That would be insane. And impossible. And I would never ask that of you.

These tests are about learning HOW to answer the questions. It’s not really something that can be taught, but it IS something that you can acquire through regular contact with the material and the process. You have to get to know the test so well that, when you read the question, you know exactly what they’re asking you to do, even if you’re not sure what the answer will be.

That’s why you have to start studying now.

But that studying requires a game plan.

In a perfect world, you would take the PSAT your freshman and sophomore year, and you would be finished with the SAT and ACT by the end of your junior year. You would take a practice test every month and do one practice question every day.

That’s not so bad, right?

Ok, so that does sound daunting. But once you get used to doing regular testing, it won’t seem that unusual, and you’ll LOVE watching your scores improve.

Or you could make the whole process more fun by starting a study group with your friends. Quiz each other every day, and compare your scores each time you take it. Compete against each other for the best scores or best improvement. There’s nothing like a little healthy competition to drive you to improve.

How Do I Study? What Do I Study?

The best thing that you can do, first and foremost, is to take a practice SAT and a practice ACT.  Sit down on a Saturday or Sunday morning and take the test from start to finish, timing yourself as though it were a real test.  If you want help, ask your parents to proctor the exam. Or ask me if you can come by the office and I can proctor the test for you.

Now, decide which test you want to concentrate on.  Did you like the ACT or the SAT better? Since schools now take either test, there’s no longer a need to take both.  Keep in mind, however, that if the school requires an SAT II subject test, they often will accept the ACT instead of that subject test.  You can check with me on that and I can give you advice depending on your college list.

Score your test and look at all the answers you got wrong.  Map them out on a chart: for example, if you missed six geometry questions and three trigonometry questions, put that on a chart and try to be specific about the question and why you missed it.  

Why would you go into all of this work?  Well, if you know why you missed a question and can fix that, you won’t miss a similar question in the future.  It’s all about the quality of your studying and if you’re not sure why you’re getting questions wrong, you can’t get them right.

Now you’re going to set up a study schedule.  You’re going to set up a goal score and you’re going to break up how to get there.  So if you’re looking to get a 34 on the ACT English section, you’ll need to be scoring consistently in the 34 range or higher in your practice tests a month before the official test.  Two months before the test, you should be scoring in the 30 range, etc.

Set aside time to study, even if it’s just 15 minutes of UNINTERRUPTED time. No playing on your phone, no text or tweet interruptions, etc. You’ll be able to focus and better absorb the material during that time if you’re not distracted.

For study materials there are a lot of places to start looking. Khan Academy has teamed up with the College Board to offer SAT prep that you can sync up with your practice tests and get a customized study plan.  Their videos are great and it’s all free. Visit KhanAcademy.org or ask me more about this option.

Also, if you’re struggling and need extra help, I highly recommend Lauren of Higher Scores Test Prep,who takes each test every year and scores perfectly on each test (and if she doesn’t, she knows the exact question that she missed).  First and foremost however, I want you to set up your own study plan and take practice tests before investing in an outside program.

What else can I study to help me?  

I highly recommend that you start reading some sort of national newspaper or magazine.  Many of the reading passages for the SAT and the ACT are taken from publications like the Wall Street Journal, Popular Science Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, etc.  The more you read (even if it’s simply an article a day), the more prepared you’re going to be not only for your tests, but for college, admissions interviews, and as a citizen of the United States and of the world.  You’ll be more informed and better prepared for life. It’s a win-win-win. A win cubed.

The Tests

Here’s a little more information on the three major tests you’ll be dealing with:

The PSAT

This test is technically just a practice for the SAT, but it’s a lot more important than most people think. The PSAT is the qualifying test to become a National Merit Scholar. National Merit is a national scholarship program consisting of several qualifying rounds.

The qualifying round for the semi-final is the PSAT. (The minimum qualifying PSAT score changes from year to year depending on the scores of everyone taking the test in that particular year. This article suggests aiming for a 220 in California.)

Then each semi-finalist is required to submit more academic and extracurricular details along with an essay in order to become a finalist. If you become a National Merit Finalist, there are hundreds of schools in the country that are willing to supply full-ride or half-tuition scholarships.

Then, if you pass the finals, you become a National Merit Scholar, which is one of the top academic honors that you can get in high school. (Read an interview with a National Merit Scholar to learn more). It’s extremely impressive to colleges, and you have even more scholarships available to you. Besides just being another practice for the SAT, this test is definitely worth your time.

The SAT

This is the most well-known of the standardized tests. It covers reading, math (up to Algebra 2), writing and language, and an optional essay. This is usually the test most favored by analytical personalities, typically interested in math and sciences. It’s split up as follows (according to the College Board):

Reading Test

65 minutes

52 questions

Writing and Language Test

35 minutes

44 questions

Math Test

80 minutes

58 questions

It’s based on a 1600-point scale.

The ACT

This test used to be more popular on the East Coast, whereas the SAT was popular on the West Coast, but that’s not the case now.  Colleges and universities take either test, meaning that you get to choose which test you’re best at to study for.

In my experience, students focused in the humanities are better at this test, but I recommend that everyone try it, just in case you get a better score than the SAT. Anything to help improve your chances of acceptance, right? The ACT covers English, reading, math, science, and writing. (Note that this is the only one that covers science.) It might feel more like the testing you did in elementary school.  The sections are broken down as follows:

Reading Test

35 minutes

40 questions

English Test

45 minutes

75 questions

Math Test

60 minutes

60 questions

Science Test

35 minutes

40 questions

It’s based on a 36-point scale per subject with a composite score of up to 36.

The SAT Subject Tests

Not every school requires these–in fact, most don’t.  However, if you’re considering an engineering or science major or are looking at those top ten schools in the nation (including the Ivy League schools), most of them are going to require the SAT Subject tests.  These are individual tests that test a specific subject on an 800 point scale. You can take them in the following subjects:

Math 1, Math 2, Biology (ecological), Biology (molecular), Chemistry, Physics, Literature, World History, US History, Spanish, Spanish with listening, German, German with listening, French, French with listening, Latin, Chinese with listening, Modern Hebrew, Japanese with listening, Italian, and Korean with listening.

If you’re going into engineering or science, be prepared to take one of the math tests and a science.  

Unfortunately, you can’t take the SAT and the SAT II Subject Tests on the same test date.  You’ll register for one SAT II Subject Test but you’ll have the option to take up to three subject tests on one test date.  The beauty of these are that if you decide you don’t want to take the Physics test (the one you signed up for), you can switch it out for any of the other tests that day.  

These are on an 800 point scale.

 

And that’s it! Those three are all you need to worry about. If you divide them up, only focusing on the small steps directly ahead of you, just as a gladiator learns how all of the sword positions before learning to fight an opponent, soon you’ll have three completed tests with scores you can be proud of!

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Julia Clausen | March Consulting Copywriter

I attended a very large state university with about 25,000 students in the freshman class alone.

Additionally, most of the campuses I toured before making my final decision were also enormous, and it often felt that, no matter how many hours I spent walking around, I would always be missing something important.

With larger schools there are always at least five types of dorms, thousands of classrooms, and more social groups and on-campus organizations than any one person can imagine. It feels less like a school and more like a small city.

However, after attending a state school, I can promise you that these vast institutions are not as overwhelming as they seem, as long as you know what to look for.

So, without further ado, here are the guidelines for touring large campuses:

First of all, come with a list of specific questions.

Tour guides only have time to skim the surface of the large variety of experiences available at their school, but chances are they know a lot more. If you ask about a particular dorm, or activity, or major, they probably know someone who has experience with it, even if they themselves do not.

Questions to ask the tour guide:

  1. Which dorms they lived in and why?

Are the dorms small community houses or large skyscrapers? Are they really far away from classrooms or right next door? Dorms are often the first places students make friends, especially because first year classes tend to be on the larger side, so be sure the dorms have the type of environment you’re interested in.

2. Where to find the best/cheapest food, and is a meal plan worth it?

Sometimes at big schools the food can be, let’s face it, pretty terrible. So many mouths to feed and so much food to keep fresh. I have heard horror stories of starched lettuce, grainy meat, and watery eggs, but I have also heard of (and eaten) just the opposite. Food is a huge part of the college experience that most applicants don’t think about, so know your own eating/cooking habits and choose accordingly.

3. What is the school known for socially?

Which extracurricular activities are most famous or popular? For instance, my university has a state-of-the-art video-gaming tournament room, is nationally ranked in Quidditch, and is known internationally as the largest hub for Asian dance crews outside of Korea. That tells you a lot more about where I went to school than the fact that the biology department is popular.

4. What are the general study habits of students.

Is it a work hard/play hard kind of school? Or just one or the other? Believe it or not, even large campuses tend to have a fairly unified culture. Of course, there will always be social spaces that are different from the norm, but make sure you’ll feel comfortable in the school as a whole before you take the plunge.

5. What are the campus legends?

Are there secret tunnels underneath the park? Are there haunted dorm rooms or good-luck rituals? Campus legends help keep a student body unified and can reveal a lot about the general “vibe” of the school.

6. Where are the best places to hang out in-between classes?

With big schools, students can choose whether or not they want to be in the center of all the action. From hidden rocks or benches to crowded pubs, there are spaces suited to every type of person.

7. What is the campus like on weekends?

State schools are the most popular choice for students who want to save money and commute from home. Places where this is common are called “commuter schools.” Sometimes students will even live in the dorms during the week and then drive home for the weekend. If you’re the type of student who loves a Saturday night out, maybe avoid one of these campuses, or find the dorms where students tend to stick around.

8. What activities are within walking/driving distance of campus?

This will tell you whether a school is more cozy and isolated (like University of Arizona) or right in the center of the action (like UCLA). This can have an effect on whether students tend to involve themselves in on-campus activities or go off-campus to have fun. If you’re not bringing a car, this is a good thing to consider.

9. What is the stereotypical student at this school like?

Every university has a stereotype, and even though this doesn’t encompass the diversity of a campus, it can give a general sense of who will feel most comfortable on campus. For instance, UC Berkeley students are known for being competitive overachievers who weren’t able to get into Stanford. (Don’t believe me? Try going to stanfordrejects.com.) UC Santa Barbara is known for having the most attractive students. (Other UC students often joke that a headshot is required to apply for UCSB.) For more UC stereotypes, check out this fun video.

 

Secondly, if you can, speak to someone from your department or major.

Just because a school is known for Biology, doesn’t mean its English department or Philosophy of Science department (Yes, that is a thing.) won’t be internationally recognized. My university has a literary theory department that was founded by one of the most famous postmodern philosophers in the world and also has one of the most exclusive creative writing MFA programs in the country, but your average tour guide wouldn’t know that. In fact, I didn’t even know that until my sophomore year.

Try to set up an appointment with an advisor from your prospective department, look online for an opportunity to meet or email with a student, or just walk around that section of campus after your tour and ask random students about their academic experience.

 

Which leads me to my final point: Walk around on your own after the tour!

Tour guides have a set path that they follow, and it often covers very little of the campus as a whole. Give yourself some time to wander, and ask yourself whether you can really see yourself living in this environment. Is it a campus with lots of mountains or hills that would get tiring quickly (or provide beautiful views)? Maybe the parts you were shown by the tour guide were beautiful, but just beyond that path it’s all dirt. Or, on the other hand, maybe the tour didn’t reveal the true beauty of the campus.

Get lost through secret passages and find all the old, charming buildings hidden in the corners. Look at the students. Do they look busy or relaxed? What kind of clothes are they wearing? Find a park or recreational area and see what activities are most popular. Is it more sporty or crafty or nerdy?

For me, this “private tour” was the most helpful part in deciding which campus to call my new home.

 

The most important thing is to believe there is a more to a big school than meets the eye, so treat the campus visit like a treasure hunt. What secrets can you uncover? What’s hiding just beneath the surface that could allow you to fall in love with the school?

In the end, state schools can feel just as warm and inviting as tiny schools and can have just as much quirky charm as any liberal arts institution, you just have to do a little digging to find it.

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Seemingly every college application and scholarship application is going to ask for a list of your activities and involvement. Read on to learn why you should carefully choose your activities and how to create an activities “brag sheet” that captures just how unique you truly are.

Not Just Well-Rounded – Why You Should Think Carefully About Your Activities

While you may not know exactly what you want to do in the future, you probably have a good idea of a job you dream about or a field you’re passionate about. Your career at 25-years-old seems far off, but you can start pursuing that dream job now while you’re still in high school.

See, the goal of a college application is not just to tell the admissions officers about your hopes and dreams for the future. They want to see that you have ALREADY started on your journey. Then they want you to explain to them how their university is necessary to start the next chapter in the story you are already telling.

This type of story-telling application is much more impressive than just being the “well-rounded” student type that everyone thought (and still thinks) that colleges look for. If you’re joining activities “because it looks good on college applications” you might want to rethink your strategy.

Trust me, this is not the story you want to tell.

Think of a college class like a giant puzzle, and each student is their own little puzzle piece. Admissions officers are looking to find students that fit together well (because each one is well defined and distinct from the rest) in order to make a complete picture. If every student had exactly the same list of random activities, that would be a very boring picture. Schools need variety, so, all clichés aside, it’s never been more important to “be yourself.” Show them where your passions and interests are.

Brainstorming Activities

The key is to figure out what kinds of activities you can get involved in while you’re in high school to carve out your little puzzle piece. Every hero has their own mission, and every gladiator has their specialty weapon. So what are yours?

Grab a pen and paper, and let’s brainstorm some activities for you to pursue during however many years of high school you have left.

If you’re just starting out as a freshman, feel free to try out activities in any field that could possibly interest you. Let your imagination run wild. If you’re an upperclassman already, maybe just focus on expanding on the activities you’ve already been focusing on.

Here are some things to consider as you make this list:

  • The activities you think “don’t count” – the little things that you do every day, like playing video games or taking care of siblings – are actually extremely important in defining who you are, so don’t discard those as irrelevant. Maybe taking care of your siblings has helped you realize that you want to study child development or public childcare policy, and maybe playing video games has inspired you to study video game science. (Yes, that exists.)
  • Look at the values, strengths, and passions that you listed if you need some help coming up with ideas. Doing something outside of school that is your own idea or creation based on your values and passions will be much more fulfilling, more impressive, and more constructive for the creation of your future career than just showing up to a weekly or monthly school club so you can put the name on the list.
  • You should also be thinking of ways to supplement and expand on the activities that you’re already participating in. Look into different camps, contests, extra classes, volunteer opportunities, and tutoring positions in relation to a few of the activities you care most about. For those interested in STEM, join the Intel Science Competition. If your interested in art, volunteer are your local art museum, such as Bakersfield Museum of Art. Do some research. There’s something out there for everyone.
  • Think outside the box! Don’t limit yourself to conventional activities. If your lifelong dream is to become a chef at a major restaurant, then start your own cooking show on Youtube or Snapchat! The possibilities are endless.
  • Don’t let your summers go to waste! There is so much time available to explore new things and go to new places. Build talents that you wouldn’t have time for during the school year. Write that book you’ve been thinking about for three years. (Need some ideas? Check out 21 Better Ways to Spend Your Summer than Watching Netflix.) Also, if you need help funding any of your summer activities, there are lots of organizations that would be thrilled to help you in your educational journey such as your local chapters of Rotary, Kiwanis, or Chamber of Commerce. Or you can launch a kickstarter campaign and get friends and family to donate.

With your brainstorming done, start doing some research. Then write down everything you actually intend to do, in order, with a plan of how you are going to make those things happen.

Think of this as your training plan for the next few years. These are the smaller arenas in which you hone your skills to prepare you for the big leagues.

The Brag Sheet

If you’re already a junior or senior, you should get started right away on what I’m called a “Brag Sheet.” It’s where you list all of your best activities and awards in a way that honestly presents who you are and how you spend your time to admissions officers. Here’s an example.

No matter where you are in high school, this brag sheet is a key part of your application, so don’t treat it lightly.

If you keep updating this as you go through high school, filling out college applications, brainstorming your essays, and applying to scholarships will be a snap.

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Attention high school athletes: Are you planning on playing sports in college? Do you have big dreams of competing in March Madness, or joining the best women’s soccer team in the world? Awesome! What are you doing right now to prepare?

See, getting signed to a team in the NCAA is a much longer and more complicated process than you might imagine, and it starts years before most students start submitting their college applications. Athletes have to be ahead of the game.

The number one thing to remember is that junior year is THE most important year when it comes to getting recruited for college athletics, and even within that year, the window for recruitment is pretty small.

Why so soon?

Imagine you’re the coach of a Division 1 team. You’re very busy on and off season, training your team to be the best in the region. Then on top of that, you also have to be constantly recruiting new players, because every year you lose your best seniors to the professional draft. How do you ensure that you will continue to have a strong, championship-winning team in a year or two?

High-schoolers can be unpredictable. A promising young running back in his freshman or sophomore year could hit a late growth spurt and lose his speed, or a star pitcher could injure his shoulder before he ever makes it to college.

On the other hand, senior year is too late. Coaches assemble their team well in advance so they can ensure the newcomers work well with the upperclassmen. Plus, if a coaches want to offer athletes scholarships to ensure the students pick their college, they have to start talking to the admissions and financial aid offices at least by the spring before applications are due. At least.

That leaves them with only one type of student: Juniors.

So what does this mean for the aspiring college athlete?

Well, first you need to let coaches know you’re interested.

(Don’t have an idea yet of where you want to apply? Check out last month’s note from Kat about researching colleges!)

Step 1: Register for NCAA eligibility by signing up on their website ncaa.org.

You’ll be able to enter your stats beginning the fall of your junior year of high school. This does require a fee, but if you were able to get an ACT or SAT fee waiver, you’ll also qualify to get the fee waived for NCAA. Then, at the end of your junior year, send in your official high school transcript and SAT or ACT scores.

Step 2: Email the coaches of schools you want to play for.

Write them a courteous letter introducing yourself and your interest in their team. For tips on writing a professional and engaging email, visit this site. Then follow up with a phone call a few weeks later to establish a more personal connection. Do not mention any interest in scholarships at first, and do not let your parents or coaches contact them.

Step 3: Don’t panic.

If you don’t hear back from the coaches right away, you haven’t done anything wrong. Often coaches have strict rules about when they can reach out to recruit students. You may not even hear back until July after your Junior Year. Send the email, follow up once, and then let the coaches make the next move.

Are you already a junior or senior? Don’t stress! Your chance isn’t gone. It may be more difficult for you to get onto the team, but it is still possible. Contact the coaches with an email or phone call and express your interest. Even if you are a senior, many teams (though, unfortunately, not the most competitive ones) do allow for walk-ons (aka late additions to the team on a trial basis).

So don’t waste another minute! The sooner you make yourself visible, the better your chances of getting to play the sport you love. I know I would rather win the game by sinking an easy free-throw in the third quarter than a last minute buzzer-beater.

Save yourself the stress, and start planning. Your career as a college athlete awaits!

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Julia Clausen | March Consulting Copywriter 

All my life I have been encouraged to dream big.

Generalities such as – “You can be anything!” “Follow your heart!” “Your possibilities are endless!” – were the bedrock upon which I built my imaginary future.

I designed my own multiverse in which I lived a life as a physical therapist, a film producer, the CEO of a consulting firm, and a chorus member in a Broadway musical. These futures were exciting because they were stories I told myself. I knew none of them would actually happen.

Not that I was incapable of living these lives. Rather, the problem was the distance I kept between the dreams and how I lived my life.

For instance, physical therapy naturally requires lots of science classes. I abhor science classes. If I actually thought I wanted to be a physical therapist, I would have taken AP sciences, applied for a physiology degree, and made plans to go to grad school.

Instead I majored in English and wrote for the school newspaper.

So in the end, as encouraging as those high-minded phrases may have been, they were also pretty useless.

They offered no concrete steps forward, no guidelines to decision-making, no criteria for which of my “endless possibilities” might be best for me.

Plus, I went to college because that was the next step in life. That’s just what we do now. I had never really thought about whether or not I wanted a college degree, or what I wanted to get out of it.

So when I graduated, suddenly I was stuck with no sense of direction.

What did I really want to be?

I felt like I was treading water in the ocean with my infinite career possibilities just beyond the horizon. If I picked a career path and started swimming, maybe I would go the wrong way, and then drown and die. Much safer to keep treading water and hope an island with any random job on it would just appear in front of me.

I thought this was what “dreaming big” and “staying open to opportunity” looked like, but actually my dreams were getting in the way of me making a decision.

When I was honest with myself, I realized that I enjoyed Broadway, but not in the same way I LOVED teaching kids how to write. I could talk about film with ease, but when I really got into the best techniques for exploring narrative voice in short stories, nothing could shut me up.

So rather than view my opportunities as endless, maybe it was time to get into specifics – to focus on the areas of my life where I had both passion AND experience. What was the natural next step based on how I had spent my time in high school and college?

Plus, if you were to ask literally anyone who knows me, these would probably be the first vocations they would assign to me. Of course Julia is a writer, they would say. And she helped me with multiple essays growing up. I hope she becomes a cool English teacher.

Making a career decision wasn’t about choosing from the terrifying stretch of infinite possibilities. Instead, it was more like being a detective. I gathered the evidence of my experiences, my interests, and the opinions of the people closest to me, and then made an informed plan with short and long-term goals.

So whether you’re about to start applying to college, or trying to choose a major, or freaking out about your future career, take a minute and examine the evidence. While, yes, you can be anything, you don’t have to choose a direction at random.

What is your favorite class in school, and why? Which activities do you spend the most time doing? What kind of work do you find most fulfilling? What qualities do your close friends and family see in you?

If you take a closer look at who you are and how you spend your time, the next step will be more obvious than you might think.

Want to talk with someone about figuring out your next step? Contact us! We’d love to help you sleuth out your college and career possibilities.

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