It’s sophomore year, and you know what that means: you need to start thinking about college. But where do you even start?
The college admissions process is a daunting one, but fortunately, you’re not alone in it. Your college counselor’s main role is to coach you through it, offering guidance and support as you navigate the road from high school to college. If you don’t have a dedicated college counselor, a guidance counselor can fill a similar role, although he or she may have less availability due to other responsibilities.
Asking questions will not only allow you to stay informed throughout the admissions process, but it will help your college counselor help you. They’ll gain an understanding of where you’re coming from and what you prioritize. You’ll also demonstrate that you’re staying involved and want to be proactive about your future, which will encourage them to assist you as best they can.
With that in mind, these five questions are a good place to start:
1. Which standardized tests should I take, when should I take them, and what do they mean?
The three standardized tests most commonly with the admissions process are the PSAT, the SAT, and the ACT.
You’ll take the PSAT at your high school in the fall of sophomore year and/or junior year, and these scores won’t only help inform you about your areas of weakness and where you should concentrate on preparing further, but they also serve as qualifying scores for the National Merit Scholarship program. As a tool for SAT prep, they provide “benchmarks” indicating your level of ability to undertake a college curriculum. Your guidance counselor can help you interpret your scores and create a plan for honing weak areas, so don’t worry too much about these scores actually indicating whether or not you’ll succeed in college.
It can be difficult to determine whether it’s better to take the SAT or ACT. While the tests do measure similar skills, they appeal to different approaches and strengths. For example, the ACT has a science section, which also tests reading comprehension, so if these are strong suits for you, the ACT may be the better test. To help you decide, take a full-length practice test for each and see how you perform. Your college counselor can also offer insight based on her knowledge of your academic strengths and weaknesses and advise you on when you’ve had sufficient preparation to take each test.
Some colleges require a fourth type of standardized test: SAT Subject Tests. Since these measure subject-specific knowledge, you should take them after you’ve taken a corresponding class. For example, if you just finished AP U.S. History, you should take the subject test around the same time as you complete the course and AP exam. While these tests are typically aligned with AP courses, you should take Math II (if you so choose) directly after completing pre-calculus, since that’s the highest level of math the test evaluates.
2. Should I retake the SAT or ACT? If so, how many times?
Many colleges superscore, meaning they’ll accept your highest subsection scores from different dates (keep in mind, however, that some schools will only accept your best scores from a single test). However, that doesn’t mean you should keep taking the test over and over again. At some point, your scores will plateau.
Be honest with your guidance counselor about how much preparation you’ve invested before each time you take the SAT or ACT. This will inform her as to whether you’d benefit from another round. If you’re not putting in the hard work, your scores will not go up. Moreover, if you’ve taken the test several times, it’s unlikely your scores will rise significantly unless you’ve completely overhauled your studying routine. (PS: Your college counselor can also recommend the best prep courses or tutors given your goals, strengths and weaknesses, and budget.)
3. How realistic are my odds at selective colleges?
There are some schools that are a reach for everyone, such as most Ivy League colleges. And then there are some colleges that are reaches for some students and not others. Based on the trajectory of your academic and extracurricular record, your college counselor can begin to evaluate whether certain colleges will be a Reach, Target or Safety. A good counselor will be able to get much more granular than statistics published in US News or your school’s Naviance system. Be aware that statistics can be misleading.
4. What can I do to improve my odds of admission at top schools?
It’s still early in your high school career, so you may be able to improve your chances by taking certain AP courses, pursuing a leadership position in a club, or challenging yourself in some way to show your dream school that you’re serious about exploring your interests and delving deeper when your curiosity is sparked.
Pay attention to the fact that colleges don’t just focus on grades and tests scores. Many — especially elite schools — perform a holistic evaluation of candidates, taking into account extracurricular activities, awards, your recommendations, essays, and other factors. Your college counselor can help you create a plan for bolstering certain areas and leveraging your strengths. And simply, be kind!
5. How can I make the most of my college visits?
College visits can tell you a lot about a school, often within the first few minutes of arriving. What are the people like? How does the campus feel? Can you see yourself there?
In order to make the most of your visits, you should go beyond simply attending a tour. Ask your college counselor if there are any “can’t-be-missed” experiences or sites and if it’s possible to sit in on classes. Given your counselor’s wealth of experience with previous students and connections with admissions counselors, s/he can likely facilitate something or let you know of opportunities for prospective students.
You should never be shy about asking questions, including the ones you develop yourself. The college process is challenging and stressful, but staying informed and using your support system are key to getting through it successfully. And if you're needing additional support, let our experts help you build the path to success!