July 27, 2013

Get Ready For College With Me: Standardized Tests, College Apps, Oh My!

Hello there! So we are about halfway through the series Get Ready For College With Me, and I'm winding down on the part of the series that is mainly about giving advice to current high schoolers who intend to go to college. Today I'll be talking about standardized tests and college apps, and in the next post I'll be discussing the experience of working while being in school. I've already discussed AP classes and extracurricular activities (balancing your schedule and improving time management), so please feel free to check those out if you are looking to challenge yourself in a variety of different fields.

Part 1: The SAT and ACT

As far as standardized tests go, don't do what I did--which is the bare minimum. I took each test once and then took the SAT Subject Tests (Math II and Chemistry), and didn't really study for any of them. I'm very fortunate to be going to a fantastic university this fall, but I do regret that I didn't take these tests more seriously.

On the ACT I averaged a 32 because I scored poorly on one of the sections, and 2300 on the SAT (somewhere in the ballpark). For both tests, this translates into roughly the top 10 percent nationally.

When it comes to standardized testing, it is most helpful to take timed practice tests. Standardized tests examine your analytic skills, so there isn't really a set of facts or special equations you can memorize--both the ACT and SAT are correlated to IQ. Basically, you are tested not on what you know, but how well you problem solve. I think that the best thing that you can do in preparation is to practice, practice, practice. Each test has its own style, so becoming familiar with the styles would increase your score. The local library holds sessions for timed practice tests, and this was helpful for me in becoming aware of timing and style of the ACT.

The SAT is slightly different from the ACT because it doesn't have a science section, but it does have higher-level math questions than the ACT, and the sessions are much shorter than the ACT's (approximately 20 minutes each, whereas the ACT's sections average roughly 45 minutes).
Test Tip: In the SAT especially, vocab counts, so work to hone those skills and increase reading comprehension.
To prepare for the SAT, I found an SAT book at the library and skimmed through it the night before. While I do think that study guide books are helpful, it would have been more beneficial to start actually studying the book several weeks before the tests. When it comes to standardized tests, don't do what I did if getting into a top college is on your agenda--which is for the most part walking into them blindly. (Fail...lol.)
Test Tip: The primary test-taking strategy that I learned from the review book (I used Kaplan) is to use POE--process of elimination. I think it's fairly common knowledge to cross out answers that couldn't be right when it comes to multiple choice, but it's good to remind yourself that even if you don't know the right answer from direct recall, it is still possible to arrive at the correct choice. Keeping this in mind might help you stay calm when it comes to questions that are more challenging.
If you plan to apply to most any of the top universities in the US, you'll probably have to take the subject tests as well. Some universities have specific subject tests they want to see. Since I was considering Boston University's accelerated program for medicine at the time, I had to take Chemistry and Math II. Make sure you do your research to see what requirements your school of choice needs in your application, and then study hard to maximize your score. I think that AP Exams are probably more challenging than the Subject Tests, but the Subject Tests have their own style, so it would be ideal if you could take a practice test in your subjects a week before test day.
Quick Tip: It is also a good idea to take each test more than once if possible. Someone I know took the ACT about three or four times, and since universities generally super score (take the highest score from each section), he ended up averaging a 35 out of 36. So, if you did well in all of the sections and tanked one other section, just retake the test after practicing that trouble section a couple of times, and your overall score will increase.
I never took a test prep class because I (clearly) didn't take standardized tests as seriously as I should have, but I've heard mixed reviews from the people who did. One girl told me that she increased her ACT score from a 28 to a 32, while some others have reported that their scores actually decreased by a point or two.

You know yourself and your habits. So, if you're disciplined enough to put aside time to prepare for the test, I would advise against taking the class because by studying independently, you'll figure out what you need to work on the most, and can then focus on what you need. (For instance, if you excel in Science, then you could put more time into studying vocabulary to improve in the Reading section, whereas in a class you would have to follow the instructor's curriculum.)

The test prep class will only be helpful if you put energy into it. Classes are a lot more expensive than purchasing a study guide, so be conscious that the class is an investment on your or your parents' part if you decide to try one.

Part 2: College Apps

Welcome to (what I think is) the more exciting part of this post! It's somewhat difficult to write about standardized tests interestingly because it basically boils down to "get the highest score that you can." But college applications are more diverse because they involve more personalization.
Quick Tip: My AP Lang teacher advised us to start planning college apps about 75% of the way through junior year (which is about when I took the ACT). It is a good time to find teachers who know you well and could write a great letter of recommendation for you. And on that note, remember to write a thank you note for the people who write letters of rec--their time is also valuable.  
When it comes to colleges, I think that applying to seven would be a good number. Go through the applications carefully, so that when you're double-checking before sending it, there aren't a boatload of errors that you'll have to tweak. (If you're going to do it right, might as well make it on the first time!) The actual application should be fairly quick--most of the time is spent perfecting your personal essay.

The schools I applied to used the Common App, and since one of my schools asked for a resume of my high school activities, I simply uploaded a resume onto the "Additional Information" section that the Common App provides.
Quick Tip: The Additional Info section isn't mandatory. I participated in many activities during high school, so the resume helped organize it all and provided a nicer format than the Common App's "Activities" section did (also, I ran out of slots in that section). My Cornell friend used it to add AP scores that didn't fit in the spaces provided in the Common App, and people applying to art schools use it to upload portfolios. Some people use it to describe a unique situation that wasn't included in the personal essay, too. Don't just add something there if it was already covered in another part of the application, though. 
Make sure you plan out which schools you want to apply to, and have good reasons for applying there. I've heard that it's a good idea to visit many campuses in order to see what fits you the best, but to me, this is something that sounds more like a luxury to me. There isn't a lot of time for high schoolers to just up and leave to one place--let alone seven campuses--and plus it can get expensive!
Quick Tip: Having your reasons straight will help make the application process less draining because it'll be more purposeful. If that makes sense. 
Whenever I listened to admissions representatives talk, they always stressed the personal essay--the most customizable part of the application. There is a lot of leeway in the prompts you are given for this essay, but my best advice is to write about something that you think is interesting that no one else seems to care about--and make it interesting for them. What is your passion? What sets you apart? Why should people care?

I read an essay about shoes, and that student went to Wash U. She made it her own, and customized it to show how different shoes correlate to the different facets of her life. She then discussed how she wanted to find the right "fit" of shoes that she could wear anywhere, and even managed to squeeze in how she would find these "shoes" at this university. 
[To see this essay as well as some others, click here.]

So get creative, and make the personal essay your own. Express yourself, and share your passion.

Finally, don't neglect the supplements. If a school *recommends* an interview, assume that it's actually *required* because this is just another way for admissions to get to know you better and decide if you're a good fit for the campus.


And there you have it! My advice on college apps and a couple of test tips too. I hope you found them helpful. I'm starting to wrap up the section with all of the advice in this series, so if you have any questions, feel free to comment or email me at smilesnomatter@gmail.com. Otherwise, I'll be talking about working as a student on Tuesday!

If you're a high school junior/senior getting ready for this process, this one's for you:

It's a tedious process, but is well worth it in the end.

Take care,
-Riley XO

P.S. I started a Twitter account for this blog last week! If you want to stay updated on my future posts and see many retweets of inspirational quotes, feel free to follow me at @rileysmilesify. And it is yet another way for you guys to connect with me! Hope to see you again soon :)

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