ACT Essay: Understanding the task

Test Prep

Prior to the change implemented in 2015, students taking the ACT were asked to write an argument in favor or against a given position. The position was usually explained in the prompt and test-takers had to write a response using examples from their experience that either supported or refuted its claims in 30 minutes. However, now the ACT’s essay section is a bit more nuanced in what it wants from students. Students taking the ACT will be asked to write an essay that integrates three distinct perspectives on a present-day issue such as the impact of climate change. The essay section of the ACT is optional, but we will take time here to explain it because this section can bolster some students’ applications to college.

Since the new essay task requires students to do something more complicated than the previous test, this new essay portion of the ACT is to be completed in 40 minutes. The expectation is that students’ analysis of the three positions presented in the prompt enables a unique take on the issue as a whole. By relating the three positions to one another, test-takers should be able to build novel connections between them and make an argument of their own. For example, on the 2018-19 ACT, the essay question was about games for adults (pp. 54). The prompt described a trend in contemporary society: more and more adults were taking up video games and other “kid stuff.” It then presented three different viewpoints. Perspective one was that adults should be familiar with what the kids are doing so that they can be effective and responsive to their needs. The second one disagreed and emphasized that playing with games and toys was childish and adults should only model maturity. The third perspective implied that the real problem was that children deserve their own space—in other words, games are for kids and adults are not allowed. 

As you may be able to tell, each perspective uses different reasoning for its position on the topic. The goal of your essay should be to tease out the logic of each perspective and find areas where they converge and diverge. Explain what each perspective seems to be misunderstanding about the other and why you are persuaded by either one, two, or three. In doing so, find your what your unique perspective is. State it clearly and develop it in relation to the given perspectives by critiquing and engaging with each one. Your unique take on the issue at hand will not necessarily be one of a kind. Instead, by drawing distinctions and similarities among the positions described, it should offer a reflection that clarifies the context of the topic and why you are arguing in favor of a specific idea. Because this essay requires a sophisticated approach, it is imperative that you organize your thoughts and take approximately 10 minutes to prepare yourself before beginning the writing. In fact, according to the ACT, the essay is meant to test “pre-writing” skills like brainstorming and outlining even though this is not directly factored into your score. 

The rubric of the essay writing section is designed to award the highest points to an essay that accurately comprehends the prompt and the three perspectives, and if you present a reasonable response with concrete examples. Familiarize yourself with the language used in the scoring rubric as you practice (pp. 61-62). This way, you will have a better sense of what the people reading and scoring your essay are looking for. The writing score is not factored into the overall ACT composite score. Two graders score the essay holistically and each give a score between 1-6. The scores are then combined on a scale of 2-12. If you opt to take the essay section, then an image of your essays will be available to the colleges to which you’ve sent ACT scores.

Like the other parts of the ACT—English, mathematics, reading, science—the writing test will need your serious attention. Like the other parts, patience and time are key. Remember that it is optional, and that it is separate from your overall score. Yet, if you decide to give it a shot, deep learning is bound to happen. Think of the essay as an opportunity to showcase your skills and to demonstrate that you are ready for college writing.

The College Board Announces A Significant Change

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On Tuesday, January 19 the College Board announced news that should bring a sigh of relief to most test-takers and college applicants. The SAT’s optional essay, as well as its Subject Tests, are being discontinued. The assessments were already on the verge of becoming obsolete due to their declined influence in recent years. Because of the pandemic and its ramifications, the College Board sped up the decision. The Washington Post reported that College Board officials pointed to the pandemic as accelerating “a process already underway.” The hope of this change is “to simplify our work and reduce demands on students,” officials claimed. 

In addition to these changes, they also announced that they have initiated a process to revise the main SAT in efforts to make the test both more flexible and efficient. For example, they intend on making the exam available to students digitally instead of with pencil and paper. This would be in line with how GREs are administered. No further details, however, were revealed for the moment.

The change is not surprising to those following the trajectory of the SAT over the years. In 2016 the College Board made major revisions and changes to its main exam and made the essay optional. Its competitor, the ACT, also revised and redesigned their main exam and also made their essay optional several years ago. The ACT, however, has not revealed a complete elimination of the essay in the same way as the SAT. For this reason, the news is intriguing.

Students filed 2.2 million SAT registrations last year in 2020. Only 900,000 tests were taken because exam centers were forced to close for serious public health reasons. At times, they did so abruptly. This, as we know, has been very disruptive but was necessary as the impact of the pandemic continues to be deadly. 

Subject Tests served a role in the admissions process of highly competitive schools such as the Ivy leagues. Their usage has faded and their efficacy has been questioned. Experts insist that the AP is a better and more complete assessment and that therefore taking Subject Tests is redundant to these students. In fact, in the Class of 2019, more than 1.2 million students in high school took at least one AP.

The SAT will be offered through June because it’s still essential. Effective immediately is the elimination of Subject Tests for U.S. students. For international students, these assessments will be phased out in due time. With these changes in the air, it is time to keep a close eye on what is next.

The SAT: What about the Essay?

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In March of 2016, the new SAT made its debut. It’s major change was to the essay portion, which is now optional. The essay section of the exam assesses your ability to write clearly and argumentatively. While the SAT section of previous years required students to write about debatable topics in, say, public policy, the new one asks for something quite different. According to the College Board, it is supposed to resemble the kinds of assignments students receive as undergraduates. Instead of asking for your perspective on a question or some kind ethical issue, the new SAT presents students with an excerpt from a widely read newspaper or magazine and asks them to analyze an author’s argument. For the most part, these passages range between 650-800 words and are taken from well-known publications like the New York Times or the LA Times. 

First, let’s talk about the essay’s structure. You will have 50 minutes to write an essay of around five paragraphs. Remember, the goal is no longer to explain what you think about an issue, but rather to demonstrate your capacity to read and analyze a text critically, engage with an argument, and explain how the author uses a variety of rhetorical techniques. To be successful, focus on explaining how the author uses evidence, how they develop their reasoning, and how they appeal to persuasive elements such as logos, pathos, or ethos. While practicing for the essay, be sure to read the passage strategically to address the components for which the section is testing on time. Aim to complete reading the passage and extracting the most valuable parts in about 10-15 minutes. This will leave you approximately 40 minutes to think about what to say, create an outline for your essay, and then to actually write it. Of course, we are all different and may want to divide our time according to our strengths and weaknesses, but this is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind. As you practice, you will be better able to determine a strategy that works. 

Next, let’s discuss how the essay is scored. For this section, the students will receive three scores. One for reading, the other for writing and the third for analysis. Each is on a scale of 2-8. These scores are not composite in the sense that they combine your points on all three parts and then find an average. Instead, you will receive three separate scores. This is helpful to know because it will allow you to identify which parts you need more practice on when you are training for the test. 

It is important to reiterate that the goal is not to summarize what the passage tells you. Students are supposed to carefully assess its content and unpack the author’s logic. In the “Reading” section you must demonstrate competence of the material and understanding of the main idea. Also, make sure to show that you have picked up on significant detail to the extent that it contributes to the big concept the passage discusses. Then, for “Analysis” you must show that you have engaged with the author’s argument—its strong points, weaknesses, and persuasive power. That means that for the first two scores, Reading and Analysis, you will be assessed based on how well you’ve understood and broken down the main parts of the passage. For the “Writing” score, readers will judge how well you’ve explained and how clearly you’ve expressed yourself in your own essay. To excel in this part you must have shown that you are capable of writing concisely and using the conventions of the English language with mastery. It is here that you will also have to show that you can assemble your thoughts on the subject matter of the passage coherently. Be convincing and use evidence. 

Those three dimensions will be the core of your writing score. To ensure you do well, practice weekly. At least once a week, try to write a practice essay. The CollegeBoard website offers sample essay prompts, which is always a good starting place for students to practice. Also, try to apply the skills you’ve learned to articles of your interest in your every day. This way, you can really feel the way that the skills sharpened for this section have real world utility. Don’t be intimidated, simply give yourself the time to prepare and develop effective reading habits. Also, be patient with yourself and ask for help from others during the process!

The SAT and ACT insist that “they” cannot be singular as the rest of the English-speaking world moves on

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Language is dynamic. It morphs over time to accommodate the changing sensibilities of the people using that language. Grammar rules, spelling, and word meanings flex as language usage changes, often reflecting changes in the way people think. Those who remain sticklers for outdated rules will inevitably find themselves flailing against the tides of linguistic history, powerless to stay their course. This presents a challenge then, to test-makers like the College Board and the ACT whose aim is to assess student’s language competence and comprehension. As language evolves, test makers must confront whether to change their standards or maintain certain rules and conventions, even in the face of widespread public acceptance.

Lately, one such battle has been unfolding around the legitimacy of the singular they. Few institutions representing grammatical or linguistic authority over the English language insist on maintaining “they” as a plural pronoun only. The Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, for example, both accept the usage of “they” as a non-binary, singular, third-person pronoun. Singular “they” (as well as the objective form “them,” the possessive forms “their/theirs,” and the reflexive forms “themself/themselves/theirself/theirselves”) can be used when referring to an unknown or unspecified person, as in the following examples:

1) “If anyone is feeling sick, they should stay home.”
2) “When a physicist encounters a particularly difficult problem, they may need to consult their colleagues for help.”
3) “I heard there will be a new student in class, but I don’t know their name.”

Singular “they” is also often used as the preferred pronoun of nonbinary individuals, as in the following example:

1) “This is my friend Erin; they just moved here.”

Here, “they” becomes vitally important. As a pronoun with no gender attached, it transcends the limits of the gender binary and permits the linguistic inclusion of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people. It is important to note that the history of using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun extends back to the 1300s. Beloved and respected authors  have been using singular “they” for centuries—ironically this includes authors whose work is used by the SAT and ACT.  Yet, both the SAT and the ACT refuse to recognize the singular “they” in their exams. This may not seem like an extraordinarily big deal, but because we use “they” in this manner in daily speech, the fact that these exams reject that can produce confusion on test day. Increasingly, the idea of replacing a singular “they” with the outdated “he or she” leaves a funny taste. Not so long ago, the default singular third person pronoun to be used in any situation was “he.” The switch to “he or she” already represents a shift to more inclusive language, and using the singular “they” is the next step. As a truly genderless term, it excludes no one.

To illustrate why this is important, let’s take the example from above: “When a physicist encounters a particularly difficult problem, they may need to consult their colleagues for help.” If this example were written with “he” or “he or she,” the sentence would implicitly limit who could be imaged as the hypothetical physicist. How we use language can indirectly uphold certain inequalities.  In other words, when it comes to representation, the deployment of pronouns matters a great deal.

While it is certainly the case that the SAT and the ACT seem to be taking an outdated position on the usage of “they,” this ultimately will not affect the wider use of the word. If you are a student, remember to look out for counterintuitive and outdated rules like using “he or she” in place of “they” on test day and during practice. There is no need, however, to alter your other writing or speech to reflect dusty test standards. The more people who adopt inclusive language, the more this language will be normalized. While language is not enough to generate societal change on its own, it can help to make people feel validated and expand the possibilities of the imagination.

The path to college readiness: Start early, finish strong

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Planning for and applying to college takes time. Countless hours of research, writing, and test preparation all contribute to successful applications. But, if you are starting this process junior or senior year of high school, you may have already missed opportunities to strengthen your application. For best results, it’s wise to start planning for college during the first year of highschool, or even as early as middle school.

In middle school students begin to have opportunities to choose classes and participate in extracurricular activities that can continue through high school. For students serious about getting into a good college, middle school provides the opportunity to get on the right track. Middle school students should choose challenging courses by taking advanced math and enrolling in honors programs. For example, students serious about college should take Algebra I before starting high school. Enrolling in a magnet school also helps, since they provide the proper environment to find niche interests. They should also work hard to keep their grades up. Middle school transcripts will not be included in college applications, but grades in middle school classes can determine which courses are available to students in their first year of high school. The earlier you start planning and preparing for college, the more doors will open up along the way.

In the transition from middle school to high school it is important to sustain the practice of extracurriculars such as sports, affinity clubs, and service organizations. College admissions officers appreciate evidence of long-term commitment and demonstrated passions, so discovering interests early can offer an advantage. Even if middle school activities don’t stick, the experience will help students determine what they may want to do for extracurricular activities in high school. To learn more about course options, college tracks, and available activities, families can reach out to their school counselors for information specific to a given middle or high school. Counselors should be able to provide an overview of available courses and help students work out a pathway to graduation that includes competitive courses for college readiness.

Now in highschool, balance becomes the name of the game. While holistic students often represent the ideal admissions people are looking for, a pro tip on extracurriculars is that these should always be in service of education. Extracurricular activity must be a space for you to make connections with what you’re learning in school and enhance the kinds of questions, issues, and skills necessary to excel. If extracurriculars and school work each need to battle for your time, then something has to be tweaked to get the formula right. Both should work to gel together hobbies, passions, and academics.

At this point, mostly around sophomore year, trying to establish good polyrhythmic routines among all your interests is basically all you can do. Taking challenging courses and maintaining high grades is crucial. High school students should seek out honors courses, AP courses, enroll in IB programs, and language courses if offered. Then, beginning with the summer from that year to your junior year, students must train for standardized tests and start to research the kinds of institutions they wish to apply to and that suit their academic track record the best. This includes identifying counselors and professionals in the education industry that may offer consultation and advice throughout the process. They will help to organize your portfolio and articulate your background for an admissions audience. Ultimately, the lesson is to think ahead and reach out to those in the community of educators for assistance during this phase.

 

What to do after you’ve submitted your college applications

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You might experience a rush of dread, and then relief, when you finally submit all of your college application materials. At the end of such a long process, you might be wondering: what’s next? It’s almost a cliché that second-semester high school seniors are notoriously unmotivated in their schoolwork and tend to slack off. However, seniors should remember that until they set foot on their college campus, their position shouldn’t be considered secure. Besides the real possibility that admission can be revoked, there is plenty of work to be done during the rest of senior year and the summer before college starts. This should be a time to make sure you’re fully prepared for college life and build your resume. So, how should seniors spend the rest of the year until college starts?

1. Apply for financial aid and scholarships

In a previous article, we offered a guide to navigating the world of financial aid and scholarships. Typically, students should fill out the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and school-specific applications for financial aid in the winter/spring after applications are due. Hunting for and applying to outside scholarships is a year-long process that seniors should consider as almost a part-time job.

2. Keep your grades up!

Note that college admission is conditional. Admission can be revoked for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons could be a significant academic downturn senior year. Students should not feel that once they have been accepted to a college, they can slide through the rest of the year with low grades and easy courses. Seniors should work to keep their grades in good standing, take challenging courses, and maintain a solid academic record. Of course, poor spring semester grades may result from extenuating circumstances, and in this case students should contact their future institution to let them know.

3. Find meaningful ways to spend your time

Even with a few acceptances or a commitment under their belt, students should be looking for opportunities to bolster their resume. This will help later on when students may be seeking internships, research positions, or jobs during their college years. Seniors should remain committed to their extracurriculars and try to take more responsibility or leadership positions if possible. Similarly, look for summer jobs, internships, and other summer programs, particularly those geared at college readiness. Senior year and the summer afterward represent an opportunity to demonstrate seriousness and maturity before you begin college.

4. Look for admitted students events, bridge programs, and other opportunities to learn more about your intended college

Many schools offer admitted students the opportunity to participate in events on campus, usually designed to help students decide where to commit. These events will typically be high-energy and involve tours, panels, social events, and the chance to sit in on classes. Some programs involve an overnight stay. They can be a fun, if sometimes overwhelming, way to get a sense of the campus vibe and make connections with other students. Some schools also offer bridge programs. These usually take place the summer before students start their first semester and are intended to help students build skills they will need to succeed in college courses. Although many bridge programs are invitation only, plenty offer them to all committed students. Research your institution to see if there is a bridge program you may be eligible for.

5. Complete all school paperwork and housing arrangements ahead of time

If you are moving away from home, whether living on campus or off, you will likely need to complete a variety of preparations to be ready for move-in day. This may include filling out housing surveys, apartment hunting, and shopping for supplies. The earlier you get this taken care of the better—your first few weeks in college will be packed with activity.

It’s also a certainty that your school will require you to fill out a bunch of documentation. You will likely need to set up an account with your school website and provide information ranging from emergency contacts to whether or not you have health insurance. Again, taking care of this early will smooth the transition. You might also need to choose classes and sign up for orientation events. If you’re not already in the habit of regularly checking your email, it’s time to start. Email is likely to be the college’s main method of communication with prospective students, and you should check it frequently for updates and information about how to get ready for your semester.

To conclude, the rest of your time before you go to college should be exciting and an opportunity to enjoy time with friends. Do take time to make the most of the activities you had to forgo to complete your application. However, please do not neglect your scholastic obligations and try to find a nice groove to get you through the end of the school year. This way, you ensure that all that hard work actually pays off and isn’t taken away at the last minute. Additionally, this time is your chance to get ahead in things adjacent to the admissions process. This will ease the stress of the transitions and get you connected with future peers. Trusting the process and approaching all its phases with a growth mindset is the best method.

A Guide to the College Admissions Interview

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A Guide to the College Admissions Interview

What is a college admissions interview?

Many colleges and universities invite applicants to complete an interview in the fall of their senior year. Mostly, schools reach out to students to schedule the interview and not the other way around. This is not true universally, however, so it’s important to do some research or ask someone on the admissions team of the school(s) where you have applied to see if it is your responsibility to schedule the interview. It is very important to research a college’s interview policy early, as they might require you to request or schedule the interview a few weeks in advance of the application deadline.

 College interviews come in two forms: evaluative and informational. During evaluative interviews, the interviewer learns more about the students’ background and the kinds of things that will be part of the application. Their goal is to get a sense of who you are as a person and learn more about your personality than they could glean from your written application. This can sound intimidating, but really it is an opportunity to share the best version of yourself and talk about your passions in more detail. Your responses will be recorded and become part of your application file.

The informational interview is designed to give applicants the chance to ask questions and learn more about the institution where they are applying. It should be seen as an opportunity to gauge fit that can help students decide where to go after they have received acceptance letters. Note also that interviews may be conducted by admissions officers or alumni.

For both kinds of interview, it’s important to make a good impression and come prepared to ask and answer questions.

How can you prepare for the college admissions interview?

Approach the college admissions interview as a chance to show off your best self. There aren’t many opportunities in the applications process for students to speak for themselves, and the interview is a space that provides that. Students should be honest in their interview, but of course they should display the best version of themselves. In order to remain calm, mature, and confident, it is vitally important to adequately prepare beforehand. Pick out a few topics or key points that are important to you and that you wish to communicate and use these to direct your answers to the questions that come up. Colleges want to know about your interests, passions, goals, how you spend your time, and why you think you will succeed on campus. They will likely ask you questions about your high school experience, what you do for fun, and why you have chosen to apply. Research and read over the most common interview questions and practice giving your answers with a friend or family member in a mock interview. While you should be prepared, it’s also important for the interview to flow more like a natural conversation. In other words, don’t make your responses too scripted. You should be able to think quickly and answer questions even if you didn’t prepare for them specifically.

If a question takes you by surprise, it is perfectly fine to take a few moments to think before you answer. Don’t get flustered—simply say something like “That’s a great question. Let me consider for a moment,” and pause to collect your thoughts. Maybe even sip some water. The moments of silence are worth it if a well thought-out answer follows rather than an immediate but weak response. For all the questions asked, try to be as specific as possible. Avoid generalizations and vague ideas. If they ask why you want to go to that school or what you will contribute to campus life, it’s not enough to list generic good qualities. Provide details that show you’ve actually done your research and understand the institution you’re applying to as a whole. When discussing your strengths or interests, provide details and examples to demonstrate that you are serious.

You should also have a few questions in mind that you want to ask. These can and should help you gain valuable information about the places you are applying to and need to come from a place of genuine interest. If you are speaking with an alumnus, you could ask them about their own experience or why they chose that institution. Otherwise, your questions should reveal that you have done thorough research on the institution. For example, you could ask about a specific program that interests you or inquire about an issue you found in the school newspaper. Read the latest news on the school website and seek out campus publications for information on relevant and pressing issues.

Finally, be professional and mature. Show up to your interview a few minutes early. Make eye contact, demonstrate active listening when the interviewer introduces themselves, and ask questions. Wear neat clothes that make you feel comfortable and confident (no need to overdo it on the formality). This year, interviews will be virtual, so plan ahead. Work out technological issues and make sure you have a quiet space to do your interview where you won’t be interrupted. Keep your camera on during the interview and make sure your face is always visible. Remember to take deep breaths and speak with a strong, supported voice so that you can be heard. Most importantly, try to relax! Confidence and ease will make you seem mature and capable to your interviewer and confer an overall good impression to your application.

Financing College without Loans: An Introduction

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College can be expensive. Very expensive. With national student debt exceeding $1.6 trillion, it’s fair to say that finding a means to pay for college without or with minimal loans is ideal. The first step to a potentially debt-free education is to fill out all financial aid documentation required by your school. All students should complete the FAFSA®, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to see if they qualify for federal funds such as the Pell Grant. The FAFSA® will delve into your family’s finances to estimate the extent of your need for federal funds. To prepare, be sure to start the process early and gather your family’s financial documents in advance (including tax returns, W4s and other such documents).  The FAFSA® is already open for the 2020/2021 academic year so be sure to check out the site for information on deadlines. Keep in mind that each school has its own deadline for submitting an application for financial aid. In addition to the FAFSA®, some schools, particularly private colleges and universities, require students to submit the CSS Profile. While it covers much of the same information as the FAFSA®, the CSS Profile is more detailed, and families should be prepared to provide a deep look into their finances. The CSS Profile is usually used by schools to award their own need-based aid, so it can be very useful to do this part well.

Besides financial aid, there are literally hundreds of scholarships that students can apply to for help paying their tuition and other college expenses. Keep in mind that some of the best scholarship programs actually begin Junior year of high-school. Many also require that students be nominated by school officials, so make sure to be in touch with teachers and advisors that have access to the right information and that can help you navigate the process. Check out the following scholarship search engines to find some that work for you: Niche, Fastweb, Scholarships.com

There are many scholarships intended to help students from historically marginalized and excluded groups. For example, Questbridge’s National College Match program aims to pair low-income, high-achieving students with elite private colleges and universities. Students should look into this program Junior year, as the applications for the National College Match program are due very early in the fall of senior year (the deadline for this year has already passed).

Tips for scholarship applications:

Start Early!

You will need time to complete your application to the best of your abilities. Many scholarships require multiple letters of recommendation and one or more essays. Try to give your recommenders at least three weeks to write their letters. Give yourself as much time to write your essays so they can go through multiple rounds of revision. Ask teachers, counselors, or private essay coaches for help with the revision process. Another reason to start early is that you should be applying to multiple scholarships. Try setting up a schedule with the deadlines for each application clearly marked so you can stay on track to complete them.

Write different essays for different scholarships

It’s possible that some essay questions will be similar, but it’s best practice to write a different essay for each scholarship. However, if you can reuse and modify some of the material from one essay, then do so carefully, making sure to integrate the material with appropriate transitions that address the prompt uniquely. To really boost your essay, do some research on the organization or entity offering the scholarship. If you can find a mission statement or an “about us” section on their website read them to understand what ideals and qualities are important to highlight in your writing. If you can, incorporate meaningful language from their website or mission statement into your essay.

Choose the right scholarships and be authentic

Only apply to scholarships that reflect your true passion, interest, or identity. It’s generally not a good idea to invent interests for an application. Instead, choose scholarships based on your authentic interests. You will make a much more convincing argument for yourself if you truly believe in what you’re writing in your application.

Getting Started with College Applications: Making Your List

Getting Started with College Applications: Making Your List

It’s college application season—an exciting but stressful time of year for high school seniors and their families. For many families, navigating college applications is a bewildering process. There are so many options, so many factors to consider, and so many steps in the process. This is especially true for students who are the first in their family to go to college or whose family members may have attended universities in other countries. Additionally, distance learning may make it more difficult to access your school’s resources, like college counselors. Anyone feeling overwhelmed with the application process this year should use the following guide to start navigating the application process.

The first step in the application is to make a list of colleges and universities to which you are going to apply. Fortunately, most colleges in the United States use the Common App, a universal application that can be completed and submitted online for all of the schools on your list. Students should refer to the First Time Applicant Guide for a list of required materials and a general timeline of the application process. Keep in mind that each school you apply to may have unique requirements, such as additional letters of recommendation, writing samples, or SAT subject tests.

Pro Tip: Keep a running list of all your extracurricular activities, awards, and honors, including the dates and durations. You will need this information to strengthen your application, and it’s easy to forget if you don’t write it down.

Once you are familiar with the requirements of the Common App, you can make your list of schools. The first decision to make is how many schools you will be applying to. Conventional wisdom says that you should apply to around 7-10 schools. It’s unwise to apply to less than seven schools, and students should be careful applying to more than ten. Avoid applying to too many schools and putting too little effort into each one. Another factor to consider is that schools have application fees, up to $75 each. The more schools you apply to, the more it will cost. Students with high financial need can get their application fees waived.

How do you choose which schools to apply to? The answer depends on your specific goals and needs. Do you already know what you want to study? If you are sure of your interests, then begin by searching schools with strong programs in your intended field. For example if you know you want to be an engineer or an actor, check out schools that specialize in engineering or performing arts. The U.S. News and World Report is a great resource for lists and rankings of colleges and universities. If you aren’t sure what you want to study, choose schools based on how you want to spend the next 4+ years of your life. Ask yourself:

Do you want to live in a big city or a small college town?

What kind of campus culture are you looking for?

Is the size of the institution important to you?

Do you prefer an HBCU or women only college?

Do you prefer public or private schools?

Do you want to stay close to home?

Are you interested in Greek life?

Is the reputation or prestige of the institution important to you?

Do you want to go to a liberal arts college or a research university?

Once you’ve narrowed yourself down to schools that suit your preferences, the next thing to consider is your chance of getting into each one. Generally, you want to divide your list into safety, target and reach schools. Safety schools are those that are almost certain to accept you. Target schools are those where your application is similar to that of students generally admitted. Finally, reach schools are those where you have a low chance of acceptance but can do so with a stellar holistic application. The average test scores and GPA of the admitted class may be a bit higher than yours, but your demonstrated capacity for service, leadership, and creativity is exhibited in your extracurriculars, for example. To determine how your profile compares to the average student at a given institution, check out the school’s website for information on average GPA, test scores, and level of accomplishment. The majority of schools you apply to should be target schools, with a few reach schools and a couple of safeties. And by no means should you apply to any school you cannot see yourself attending!

Don’t let this part of the process intimidate you. This is the fun part! This is where you get to fantasize about life in college and the kind of intellectual community you want to be a part of. At this point in the college application process, you get a sense of the philosophy of each institution and whether you can get behind their core values. Look into virtual tours and prospective student events. Try to enjoy the ride and do not underestimate yourself! Strong applications convey a strong belief in your own ability to succeed as well as genuine excitement to embark on the next stage of your scholarly journey. The best preparation is to work hard and cultivate confidence.

Several schools are going test-optional for applications this fall—here’s why you should still do your best to get a high score

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Over 400 colleges and universities have decided to make the SAT and ACT test scores optional for their application, some permanently and others just for the 2020/2021 application cycle. On the list are many of the nation’s top institutions, including all Ivy League universities and several of the best liberal arts colleges. These schools have promised that students will not be penalized in any way if they do not submit test scores, though most will take scores into account if provided. Students that don’t provide scores will be judged on other aspects of their application packet, such as grades and course rigor, and the essay portion will have greater weight. For some institutions, this year represents an opportunity to reevaluate their admissions process and develop a more holistic way to evaluate prospective students, with the hoped-for outcome being increased equity in admissions.

Though the SAT and ACT may be less important for college admissions this year, that doesn’t mean students should disregard tests entirely. There are dozens of scholarships that are either entirely based on ACT/SAT scores or require a minimum score to be eligible. Many schools offer guaranteed scholarships for students scoring above a certain threshold and meeting a GPA requirement. Additionally, many private and merit scholarships also expect high test scores as constitutive of a strong application. High test scores provide students the opportunity to substantially offset the cost of their education.

So, how can you ace the SAT/ACT?

A major part of performing well on standardized tests is to simply be familiar with the format and the set of questions in the different sections. Students should take practice tests and time themselves to accurately simulate the test day experience. Regular practice leading up to the exam will reduce stress and help students develop strategies to complete the test in time and make accurate guesses whenever necessary.

Some important tips to remember:

1. Skip over the hard parts and go back to them at the end

Within each of the timed sections on both the SAT and ACT, there is no obligation to complete the questions in order. Students should pass over questions—or even whole passages—that stump them to ensure that they have time to accumulate points on the easier questions. Neither the SAT or ACT penalizes students for wrong answers, so it’s a good idea to put in a temporary guess when you skip a question. Just be sure to mark the question or page number so you remember to return to it later!

2. Eliminate obviously false answers

Usually, two of the options on multiple choice questions can be eliminated right away. The other two will be more difficult to choose between and will require a closer examination of the questions and any supporting information. Eliminating answers is especially important when students are unable to solve a question completely, either because of time constraints or because they don’t know the right strategy; it allows them to guess with a higher chance of choosing the correct answer.

3. Take notes in the reading section

Jotting down a few quick notes that help make sense of characters, relationships, arguments and counterarguments, or other critical information can prevent a lot of mistakes in the reading section. Notes can also save time by reducing the need to reread large portions of the passage. For example, if students mark down the characters’ names and relationships to each other in a fiction passage, they will be much less likely to get confused when they see a name in a question.

  1. If you are not a quick reader, learn to effectively skim

Skimming and strategic reading take practice to master. The key is to identify the most relevant information in the passage and ignore the rest unless it comes up in a question. For a well structured informative piece of writing topic sentences are a useful guide for the main points and where to find them. For literature pay careful attention to dialogue, mood, and tone. Always annotate as you read so that if you have to refer back to the passage you can spend less time looking for the relevant parts.

Of course, this is far from a complete list. And even with these tips, practice is what is most important. During your time testing your skills make mental notes of what works and what does not. This way, you will be sure to improve. Finally, do reach out and hire expert tutors to make sure you maximize your opportunity to improve your score on test day.

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