College Preparation & Planning

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For Juniors

What do I need to do this month?

November 2012

Forget what you've heard.  Register for your ACT and SAT tests now.

Why do I need to take my tests now instead of in the summer after junior year or the beginning of senior year?
It's all about planning.  The sooner you take your tests, the sooner you know where you stand.  The sooner you know where you stand, the sooner you can begin building realistic college lists of where you plan to apply.  The sooner you have a college list, the sooner you can begin researching how you stand in chance for admission, what the admissions, financial aid and scholarship processes look like for each college, and begin contacting your admissions counselor.

It is way better to find out that you are borderline for admission into your first choice school now rather than later while you still have time to plan.  You might need to spend way more time on your essays so you stand out. You may need to make sure your teachers really know who you are so that their letters of recommendation are awesome.  You may need to work much harder on your grades for the rest of this year.  And you might find that you'll need to take the SAT or ACT multiple times to raise your score.    The bottom line: knowledge is power and you need this piece of knowledge as soon as possible to get yourself off on the right college application foot.

Why do I need to take both?
SAT, ACT, both, neither? Most colleges accept SAT or ACT scores, so you may wonder which test you should take.  While many selective colleges are moving towards becoming test-optional, the reality is that no time in the near future will your SAT, ACT or SAT Subject test scores not matter for most schools.  Reality?  Your test scores are important.  And you want the best score you can possibly get.  Right?

While many students do score similarly on the ACT and SAT, there are also many students who do score higher on one test rather than the other.  The tests assess different information and problem solving skills.  For example, did you know that while the SAT tests vocabulary, the SAT doesn't?  That may not matter for some students, but that may make a huge difference for others.   Knowing that almost all schools take both exams, how do you know whether you might score the equivalent of 200 points higher if you took the ACT over the SAT?  That could be the difference between begin admitted and being denied, being awarded scholarship or not.

Princeton Review's book ACT or SAT? may also be of use. The big thing to remember is you want to have options, and if you take both tests you have more options during your college selection.  It is worth taking both tests to find out whether there is a difference in test scores for you.  What will it hurt?  Isn't giving up one additional Saturday morning out of your life worth it to find out if taking one test over the other makes all the difference?

Aptitude vs. Ability
The SAT was designed as an aptitude test -- it tests your reasoning and verbal abilities, not what you've learned in school. In fact, the SAT was supposed to be a test that one could not study for -- studying does not change one's aptitude. The ACT, on the other hand, is an achievement test. It is meant to test what you have learned in school.

What if I can't afford to take the test?
For students on Free and Reduced Lunch Programs, talk to your campus counselor about waivers to cover the cost or test fees for the ACT, SAT and SAT Subject tests.  For most students who are on Free or Reduced Lunch, they are allowed two ACT fee waivers for their entire high school career, two SAT Reasoning (the regular SAT) fee waivers for their entire high school career, and two SAT Subject test fee waivers for their entire high school career.  That's a lot of money that you might be able to save.  Even if you are not on Free or Reduced Lunch, it is worth you finding out from your campus counselor whether or not there are other ways that you might qualify for a fee wavier.  You have nothing to lose by inquiring.

Find out where you stand.

Do you know your rank, quartile or GPA?  If you've taken the SAT or ACT, what were your scores?

Why is it important to know my numbers?
Many colleges, especially the majority of public colleges and universities in Texas, have a simple admissions matrix by which they make admissions decision.  These can usually be found on their admissions website.  For most private and the selective college and university, you can usually find their admissions averages and ranges (ex: what the average GPA is of students who are accepted, what is on average the lowest test score they admit and the highest) online as well.  Starting your college search early, with enough time to know where you stand in the admissions requirements, is key to increasing your chances of getting admitted.  The more you know now...the more time you have to work on improving your class rank, GPA or test scores based on what your college/university admission requirements are.  For specific admission requirements, contact each of the schools on your application list's admissions website or office.  It is definitely recommended that you begin to develop a relationship with the admissions counselor assigned to Spring Branch ISD/Houston/Texas from your school and this would make a great first conversation!

Create a list of your top college/university choices.

The scariest thing for a college counselor or admissions counselor to hear is a senior at the beginning of their senior year say, "Um, I'm not sure where I want to apply yet.  Definitely UofH, but I'm not sure after that."  You should be building your college application list now!  During your spring semester of junior year, students need to begin thinking about what they want out of their college experience.  Do you want a small, medium, or large campus?  Do want to experience the rush and culture of big cities like Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, or Chicago or do you crave the energy of college towns like Cleveland, OH, Bloomington, IN, or College Station, TX?  Do you want to be a part of the frenzy of college athletics or do you prefer watching independent movies or bands play at local quirky, urban cafes and venues?  Once you have ideas, investigate the colleges and universities that offer programs of studies or degree programs that you plan to pursue that also cater toward the kind of college experience you want overall.  Creating a wish list of top schools will help you define, not just what you want in a college or university education and experience, but what is required for you to gain admissions successfully, or get the maximum in financial aid assistance available.

How many colleges should be on my list?
While there is not magic number, there is absolutely nothing wrong with developing a healthy sized wish list.  Healthy means around six colleges or universities, not three and not ten.  When it is all said and done and you are making your final decision, you want options.  Many students think that they know exactly where they want to go, but are surprised to find out that their needs or desires change as they near graduation.  Perhaps you wanted to stay closer to home initially, but the closer May of 2014 gets the more you itch to experience more than great state of Texas.  Don't you want to at least know what your options are?  A good rule to follow is to find at least one school in the city of Houston, one outside of Houston, but inside Texas (ex: Austin, Lubbock, San Antonio, etc.), and one outside of the state of Texas.  The other three on your list, let them be whatever you want, wherever they are.

But aren't out of state schools much more expensive?  Why should I even look at them?
You may have heard rumors that you will never be able to afford schools outside of Texas, but that couldn't be further from the truth.  Many out of state colleges and universities , specifically private ones, will give you a financial aid package that mirrors almost exactly what you would receive at a university in Texas.  You might even get a better financial aid package at a private school outside of the state.  Remember, by applying you are not saying that you are definitely going there.  You are saying to yourself that you want to see what your options are.  And there is nothing wrong with that at all.

My parents tell me we can't afford to pay for application fees so I can't apply to that many.  So why should I consider applying more than a couple of colleges?
Many and most colleges and universities, both inside and outside of the state, have the ability to waive your application fee.  Firstly, if you participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch program and if you also take the SAT at least once, College Board will give you four college application fee waivers that almost all colleges and universities will honor.  Talk to your campus counselor to see if you qualify.  Even if you don't qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch, there are other ways to get your application fee waived.  If you are applying to a college or university that utilizes the National Common Application, there is a fee waiver request that your campus counselor can have sent with your documents that your colleges might honor.  It is called the National Association for College Admissions Counselor (NACAC) Fee Waiver.  And even if none of these options works out for you, most colleges and universities still have the ability to waive your application fee themselves.  Sometimes they have their own application fee waiver for you to fill out, sometimes they have a deadline where if you apply before the date there is not fee, sometimes they will ask your campus counselor to write them a short letter to verify that you need financial assistance, sometimes they will ask you to write them a short paragraph essay stating why you really want to go to that university.  Sometimes all you need to do is ask for one.  Bottom line: you shouldn't let the possibility of not getting a fee waived when there are so many ways that you might get it waived overshadow the opportunity to attend.  Tip: developing a relationship with your admissions counselor can be key in getting your application fee waived.  They have more power over your application than you realize.  Get to know them now!

Creating My Wish List - Visit the Dream it. Achieve it. website to start your college planning now!

Start Your College Essays Now

It may seem like you have all the time in the world to prepare for college...but the college application process is closer than you think.  Even more than this, it is much more time consuming than you could ever believe until you're in the middle of it.  Waiting until senior year to begin writing your college essays can add a huge stressor to your already packed school year.  As you've likely experienced in your classwork, stress often leads to submitting work that is not your best because you are pressed for time or overwhelmed.  While it is important to submit your best work, whatever  it is, it is especially important in the college admissions process.

How will I know which essays to write?  Don't they change every year?
Yes and no.  The application to most colleges is made up of two parts: the main application and the supplement.  In the main application, there are five essay questions that every college, if they require essays, will have you choose from.  Sometimes they require two or three essays, but the options will always come from five common questions.  If no essays are required for admission, usually the scholarship essay also comes from this same set of five essay questions.  Once that is submitted, many schools that range from relatively selective to highly selective will require a supplement.  It is in this supplement that you will find essays, sometimes longer in length, sometimes short answer, that are unique to each college's admissions process.  For example, for the main application, any college might ask you to write about a person who has greatly influenced you. That is one of the five essays colleges uniformly choose from.  However, if a college has a supplement portion to their application, that college might ask you to write an essay on this topic: "You have written an autobiography on your life.  What is the title of it and summarize page 103."  While you can't begin preparing for the supplement essays now as these essays are not available and may change from year to year, you definitely can begin preparing for the main application essays.   Students should start writing and receiving feedback from teachers and their campus counselors or mentors starting in the spring semester.

What are the five most commonly asked essay questions?
1)  Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
2) Discuss some issue of personal, local, or international concern and its importance to you.
3) Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
4) Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure or creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
5) A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix.  Given your personal background, describe an experience that explain what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrates the importance of diversity to you.

School's out for summer...but you shouldn't be!

If there is one thing that isn't emphasized enough to students throughout their four years of high school, it's doing something with themselves during the summer!  Sure, you've heard that colleges and universities are looking for well-rounded students who are involved in extra-curricular activities.  But have you really stopped to think about why?  And what they're really looking for?

College admissions counselors are very protective of their schools.  Most of them are alumni who graduated from the college or university they are representing as admissions counselors.  Think about the loyalty you have to your high school and your high school's programs.  If four years down the road you had the ability to hand pick which students your high school allowed to attend, it is likely you will have strong opinions about what you want the students to be.  Maybe you want them to be good actors and actresses, super athletic, strong cheerleaders, a beast in the classroom...whatever it is, you want the school and/or its programs to get even better.  College admissions counselors want the same thing: their universities to get better.

Overall, what admissions counselors are looking for are students who will add value to their campus life and college community, academically as well as socially.  A significant indicator for admissions counselors is how involved a student has been on their own high school campuses and in their communities.  If a student has been an active part of their high school's energy and school spirit, it's likely that they will become active on their college campuses.  This not only helps the college campus life become, stay and grow more vibrant, but also means that the student will find a place where they "belong" much quicker which means they will feel connected to their college quickly.  A student who finds and feels a connection to their college campus is a student who is most likely to graduate.  And that, of course, is what colleges wants most.

Understanding that, you should begin to see how important it is for you to stay involved on your high school campus or in your community.  Bottom line: get involved!!

But this is where most students stop...with their school and during the school year.  The reality is that merely being involved in your high school's extra curricular activities puts you in the "average" section of applicants.  Being in charge of or head of a high school's extra curricular activity (i.e. captain of the cheerleading squad, section leader, starting athlete, lead actress, president, etc.) gives you a bit of an edge that puts you in the "slightly above average" to "above average" section of applicants.  But for students applying for selective schools, honors programs, competitive colleges (i.e. the prestigious engineering college at a specific university), scholarship programs, etc., being "slightly above average" or "above average" isn't nearly enough.  You need to be in the "extraordinary" part of applicants.  How do you get there?  Meaningful summer enrichment.

Extracurricular activities do not stop at the school entrance or on the last day of school.  What a student does during their summers is just as important, if not more, than what they do during the school year.  You must, if able, participate  in summer enrichment programs.  There are hundreds of programs that take place in the city, in the state and in the country and world that you can participate in.  From study abroad programs (many that offer partial and scholarships) to academic programs (like architecture, archeological, business, scientific research camps at colleges and universities around the country), from athletic programs (like soccer, speed, volleyball, football camps at colleges and universities around the country) to internships (science internships at hospitals or research facilities, corporate business internships at various corporations), choir, music or theatre camps, newspaper or journalism camps, cheerleading camps...your participation in programs that require an application and acceptance will give your college resume the bump it needs to make you, as an applicant, impressive.

Almost all well known colleges and universities across the country offer some sort of summer enrichment program for current high school students and most of these programs offer full to partial scholarships.  Aside from the fact that going through the application and selection process for summer programs will give you great preparation for your college application process, the experiences themselves in participating will be amazing.  Life changing.  Oftentimes the best college essays come from these experiences.

Volunteering and strongly participating in their church community will also help your college resume - youth groups, bible study, retreat teams, choir, church camps, etc.  Volunteer work at the library, food bank, mission shelters, soup kitchens, nursing homes or hospitals - it all counts.

All of these summer enrichment opportunities help form an image of what is important to you and can and will help you in your college admissions.  Don't be average if you know you're not.  Show the admissions representatives what you're made of.  The time to start researching and applying for summer enrichment programs is NOW.  Your goal should be to have your summer enrichment plan solidified by early May, but realize that most of the most wanted summer programs have a deadline in March if not earlier and the applications go live in December or January.

Apply, apply, apply!!

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