The college search process: What is the ideal time to begin? In the summer before your junior year, visit several different types of colleges. Choose ones that are either close to where you live or to where you will be going on vacation. The point of this initial excursion is to help you form opinions, so you won’t need to know much about these schools. In particular, determining the ideal size college for you will drastically cut down on the number of schools you have to research. City versus small town is another important winnowing factor.
You should come away from this foray with a good idea of what type school you feel you would fit into. Next, start making a list. While you do not have SAT or ACT scores at this point, you do have a good idea of how strong a student you are. The categories are “stretch”, “reach”, “match” and “limo.” “Limo” are schools you like who would be so glad to have you they would send a limo to take you to school or will give you a nice scholarship!
Visit the colleges on your list over spring break. While there will be more time to do this in the summer, it is better to visit when school is in session plus you have many other things you will need to accomplish over the summer. By the start of senior year, you should have a firm list of where you are going to apply, have a variety of essays that you can use in the applications, and be completely prepped for the SAT and/or the ACT.
How many colleges should be on my list? By the end of junior year, there should be 8 to 12 schools on your list with the idea that you will actually apply to 5 to 8 of them.
One of the hardest things to do is to figure out how the schools are different from each other. For my daughter and I, taking campus tours began to feel like the movie Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray has to go through the same day over and over again. At that time, the big thing was how many a cappella groups the school had. Seriously, every single tour guide mentioned it! It got to the point that she and I began to giggle when the topic came up.
So what can you do to find out the inside scoop on the colleges on your list? To begin with, we bought an “Insider’s Guide” that we found to be extremely helpful. Also, your high school college adviser may be able to connect you with students who are attending some of your target colleges who will be home over the summer.
Eat in the cafeteria. Obviously, this will give you an idea of what the food is like but more importantly, you will see how the students interact with each other. You may want a school that has quiet serious students or you may prefer to be in a place where students yell to their friends as they come into the lunch room.
Look at the flyers on the bulletin boards. See if these events are the types that interest you. Find out how important sports are. Going to games and rallies may be a fun group activity for you, but if you have no interest, seeing most of the other kids painted silly colors, hooting and hollering, will make you feel out of place.
Talk to as many students on campus as you can to prevent your opinion of the school being unduly influenced by the personality of the student leading the tour. My daughter and I went on a tour led by very hip outgoing female student only to discover after spending the day on campus that she was a total outlier! We found later that the school has the reputation of having self-absorbed brainy kids who prefer their own company.
How can you talk to students on campus? You achieve this in two ways. For the bold, go up to students who are hanging out and tell them you are visiting and ask if they would answer some questions. For the rest of us, you can pretend to be lost and wait for someone to approach and give you help. The frequency that this method yields results also tells you a lot about how nice the students are!
When should you begin to study for the college admissions tests (SAT and ACT)? Every year, about 4 million students take at least one of these tests. The best time to begin to prepare is in your junior year before you take the test for the first time. Many students report that they hate standardized tests. Prepping should help alleviate this negativity. And while you can choose which scores to report, doing well the first time is a real confidence booster. The heavy lifting comes either after you take the test for the first time or ideally over the summer. The process of taking several timed tests will help you become familiar with the types of questions you will be asked and allow you to experiment with strategy. Should you read the questions before the passage? Which ones will take so much time that you will not get to the end of the test in the allotted time?
How many times should I take the test and when? Most students take the test twice: once in the spring of their junior year and again in the fall of senior year. Remember that in many states, the public high schools are now using the SAT or the ACT as an assessment tool, so juniors in these states are essentially are getting a free college entrance score. Taking the test early in your senior year gives you the flexibility to take it for the third time if this score is not as high as you believe it could be.
What kind of SAT/ACT tutoring program is best? The answer to this question is “the one that works best for your student.” The US New and World Report made the comment that “Choosing the right SAT or ACT prep course can be as challenging as taking the actual test.”
Your choices are to use books and online resources to test and teach yourself, take a course from a big commercial enterprise, or hire a private tutor who is either on his own or works for a small local company. While the latter two options are more expensive, these costs are a drop in the bucket compared to tuition. The worst scenario is to waste a year’s tuition on a college that doesn’t work out. Besides losing money and then having to go through the whole college search and application process again, students who transfer in after first semester freshman year frequently never catch up socially.
Some comments from The US News and World Report are:
“The first step to any test prep is to take a whole, timed exam and score it.”
“The scored exam will also give you a sense of how well a student performs on various sections, which can help determine whether the student should pursue a broad or focused style of prep course.”
“Develop a plan to maximize summer SAT preparation.”
“individual tutoring can be an invaluable resource for almost any student preparing for the SAT or ACT”
“Some students may feel more comfortable in group tutoring sessions or larger classes where it’s easier to blend in with other students. Other students might benefit from the back-and-forth interaction of small-group or individual tutoring.”
“Commercial test prep companies offer the security of brand names and courses developed over time, but a noncommercial provider might offer personalized customer service.”
“Learners who are shy, busy or who simply need to assess their skill levels on the exam can benefit from online courses as well. Some learners, however, will only benefit from the accountability that comes from in-person instruction.”
“In general, however, individual tutoring is the only way to garner wholly personalized attention to the unique topical and test-taking skills of a given student.”
“Following these tips will help shape a well-devised yet flexible study plan that will help your student succeed.”