Freshman year comes with plenty of anxiety, most noticeably for parents the expectations of getting their child through this school and ready for the next.By Eric Karlan Photo by Katie Bradford Osborne – The Roaring Artist
High school is an overwhelming world to navigate – especially for parents of high school students. Even for those veteran moms and dads who have seen their eldest children through these grueling four years before, there always seems to be unanswered questions. And there is often a better way to organize the high school journey to maximize success and minimize stress.
Here is an overview of the high school experience with some insights into every step of the journey…
Freshman Year: What to do after class
High school students in the 21st century need to do everything: athletics, community service, work, multicultural enrichment. But that does not mean they should do just anything.
College admissions officers want students on their campus who are not only outstanding, but also authentic. They can recognize a student who is simply signing up for afternoon and weekend commitments to fill their resumes. These are the students whose extracurricular activities in no way relate to one another; no true passion can be identified.
A student should make sense on his or her application. Do not encourage your son or daughter to join the Spanish Club if they barely have a passing grade in Spanish class. At the same time, if your son or daughter truly has a passion for soccer, they should not only play on the varsity team, but they should also volunteer as a coach for younger students and work as a referee throughout the year. If they are in the band as a trumpet player, they should join classmates to volunteer as entertainment at local community events, join the marching band or jazz club, and work at the local music store.
Be creative. Be authentic.
Sophomore Year: The SAT and the ACT
Aside from beach time at the shore and working a part-time job, students should use the summer months following sophomore year to begin thinking about the dreaded standardized tests: the SAT and the ACT. But choosing the best test – and then achieving an individual’s goal score – requires time and energy.
High school students will attempt to justify the quickest possible way to determine the better test for them; many parents do not even realize there is an option. Some follow the notion that the ACT favors those who excel at math and science. Well, I studied nonfiction writing in college and I scored significantly higher on the ACT than the SAT.
Others will instinctively gravitate toward the SAT. That is because, for us in the Delaware Valley, the SAT is seemingly a rite of passage to college acceptance. Longstanding misconceptions about the ACT prevent many students from even realizing there is another option – perhaps a better option – to the SAT.
Most won’t endorse one test over the other. But all colleges, even the elite Ivy octet, not only accept both the SAT or the ACT – they also evaluate them equally. So when students ask, ‘What test should I take?’ the answer is easy: the one on which you score higher.
And how does a student determine that? Students should learn the basic format and strategies for each test, set aside a pair of four-hour windows one week, and take both tests. If one score is significantly higher than the other, then the decision is straightforward. If the scores are equivalent, students should focus on the one that felt better.
From that point forward, it is practice, practice, practice all throughout the summer: practice problems, practice tests. The goal should be to finish standardized testing by the early winter of junior year. This will save students a load of stress during the critical second half of junior year.
Junior Year: The Pivotal Year
Admissions officers endure the question constantly: should my child take the harder class and risk getting a B, or should they take the easier class and earn an A. The answer sounds like the punch line to a bad joke: take the harder class and get an A.
While this thought process applies to every year in high school, junior year is the pivotal year for academics – for every level of student. This is the year students often enroll in their first AP classes, on top of the more familiar honors courses. If a student is not taking any honors or APs, academic excellence still remains essential; if grades peak during junior year, it can signal academic maturation to an admissions officer.
Senior Year: College Application Essays
Many of the top tier universities in the nation will proudly proclaim that if they rejected a given year’s entire class of accepted applicants, and instead selected the next group of applicants who in reality they had rejected, they would not be sacrificing quality in numbers.
The disheartening moral of this hypothetical: a student can do everything ‘right’ and still be rejected.
Yet, there is a key word in the above scenario. “Numbers.” Test scores and grades do not get a student into a school. They hold a high level of importance, but they do not separate one student from another. That is why the college application essays are so critical.
The number of prompts a college may require can range from zero to 10. Any student using the Common Application automatically has to submit two essays (the Personal Statement and an Activity Essay) before even getting to the college supplements. But the fundamental goals of these essays are universal: be thoughtful, be meaningful, and be personal.
Students habitually do not write enough about themselves; they fail to focus on the central protagonist of every application – themselves. Furthermore, high school students often lack the perspective to recognize the significance of their own greatest accomplishments. They compose broad overviews of their triumphs without expressing the true meaning of their work.
At the end of the day, admissions officers are just people. When faced with applicants who boast identical numbers, they will ultimately accept the one to which they feel a stronger connection. The standout students are those with the most memorable essays. Students should embrace the essays as their only opportunity to distinguish themselves from their peers – and not let their years of hard work in class be overlooked.
Four year, countless trials and challenges, one ultimate triumph. Any student with the desire can achieve it, and any parent can come out the other side with most of their hair. Preparation and practice can be the difference between a simple graduation and commencement into the next exciting journey.