Back-to-School Goals

Check out these first semester goals for 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade.

By Andrew W.

I always loathed back-to-school shopping. The week before Labor Day each year, my siblings and I would trudge towards a nearby Staples as my mother prodded us onward like a cowboy herding cattle across the Great Plains. It was a painful reminder that summer, with its infinite freedom and thrilling adventures, was ending. School loomed in the distance, flashing a toothy sneer that promised a return to the academic stress we had so happily rejected three months earlier.

For better or worse, Time’s unstoppable march has brought us to that point once again. And while school can certainly be demanding, good planning can make all the difference between a workload that feels unmanageable and one that, while intense, is conquerable. Therefore, this post seeks to give you some first-semester goals to guide you as you begin your academic year.

There are thousands of films, novels, and television shows that portray senior year as a time of unparalleled freedom and virtually no responsibilities. Unfortunately, that myth is far from true. Senior year will likely be your most challenging year — because of the tumultuous mixture of college applications and challenging courses — but it’s also the most exciting. Here are a few tips for the soon-to-be campus leaders:

College will probably be the foremost item on your agenda. You’ll need to make some important decisions before first semester ends:

  • Whittle down a list of colleges. Plan to visit a few colleges that you’re interested in but never got around to. Knowing where you intend to apply will let you effectively plan out your applications.
  • Consider retaking the SAT or ACT. If you’re not satisfied with your scores, you might want to sit for the September or October exams, especially if you’re thinking about applying early.
  • Speaking of applying early, decide whether or not you’d like to apply early.
  • Finish your college applications. Most applications will be due on January 1st, so they’ll take up a substantial portion of your attention during the first semester. For a more comprehensive overview of what you’ll have to do, consider reading this blog.

But don’t let college consume the entirety of your senior year.

  • Think about your senior year courses. Contrary to rumor, first semester courses matter! Senioritis is real. Succeeding in challenging classes in areas that truly interest you can highlight your intellectual potential and demonstrate the caliber of student you’ll be in college.
  • Lead some clubs. If you’ve been passionate about an activity during your high school tenure, consider taking on a leadership role. As a senior, you’re considered to have mastered the art of secondary education; as cheesy as it sounds, you’re a role model and guide for younger students. Having a leadership position will let you help some underclassmen and underclasswomen, while giving you some enjoyment in an otherwise stressful schedule.
  • Have fun! Senior year is full of “lasts:” your last chemistry lab, your last cafeteria hot dog, and your last dive into the poignant abscesses of gym locker rooms. That club you’ve always been meaning to join, or class you’ve always been meaning to take? Do it.
  • Be sure to cherish your friends, mentors, and family during this special time. Expect some tearful goodbyes.

Just as with seniors, there are thousands of stories that compare junior year to a unique kind of struggle reserved only for the heroes and heroines of ancient mythology. While junior year is certainly stressful, there’s plenty you can do to effectively balance your responsibilities:

  • Craft a study plan for your standardized exams. Studying for the SAT or ACT is similar to forming diamonds: it requires sustained effort over a long period of time. And if you’re considering sitting for spring or winter exams, that preparation should begin now. You should begin by taking a practice test in both exams, researching their differences, and then planning out your semester so you can spend an appropriate — but not cumbersome — amount of time studying.
  • Carve out some time for yourself. Junior year is undeniably stressful, so be sure to set aside some time in your schedule to relax. Whether that relaxation comes from clubs, friends, or reading, it’s all important — you’ll have a more enjoyable year if you’re balanced.
  • Keep your head high. Persevere in the face of challenge and uncertainty. If you find yourself struggling, seek out support systems: whether they’re your friends, your teachers, or your parents. Be proactive with your academic and social commitments, and be sure to have some fun along the way.

“Sophomore” is Greek for “clever fool.” With one year under your belt, it might be easy to forget the three more years of maturation that lie ahead. While you’re not experts just yet, sophomore year is a wonderful time devoted to exploration. Live it un-Apollo-getically.

  • Try something new! Join a new club. Try out for the musical, even if you think you’re tone-deaf. Sophomore year is the sweet spot of academia: you’ve completed your transition to high school, and you don’t have the responsibilities of upperclassmen quite yet. Therefore, you should spend sophomore year figuring out what you really enjoy. So try something new. You might discover a life-long passion.
  • Continue your academic success. Hopefully, you ingrained some successful study habits during your freshman year, which you should continue during your sophomore year. If you’re still struggling, don’t worry! Take advantage of this year to finalize your academic routine.

Welcome to campus! Unfortunately, it’s nothing like High School Musical. No one breaks out into choreographed musical numbers in the cafeteria. Weird, right?

  • Get acclimated! Many freshmen unfortunately view high school as a mere stepping-stone to college. It’s not. High school is a period of unprecedented growth, and you should cherish that maturation. Take this time to get adjusted to more challenging academics, a new social scene, and increased responsibilities.
  • Join two clubs. One major difference between high school and middle (or junior high) school is the importance of extracurriculars. In high school, extracurriculars are more serious, and they’re a major part of the social scene. Therefore, you should seek out clubs that align to your interests — because you’ll likely find like-minded people there. Don’t over-commit, but certainly don’t under-commit, either. And if you’re concerned about extracurricular activities eclipsing your academic success, don’t be! Students who are heavily involved tend to be very successful, because they’re forced to learn effective time-management skills to balance their schedules.

So, how should you spend your first semester?

It all depends on where you are in your high school journey. Mapping out a productive first semester is essential to balancing your academic, social, and extracurricular commitments. With these goals, you’ll hopefully have a more balanced school year. But above all, don’t forget to have some fun.

Slaying the Dragon: What You Need to Do Before Submitting an Application

Guest post by Arthur R.

The legend of Saint George describes George taking up arms against a wicked dragon that demanded human sacrifices. It’s a myth so potent that the entire country of England dedicated its flag to George’s victory. And whether or not this famed battle actually happened, “slaying the dragon” has become a familiar story in modern society. That image — the feeble yet gallant warrior, armed only with a flimsy lance and a firm courage, vanquishing the terrifying reptilian overlord — might even resonate with many of today’s college applicants. Although the Trial by Combat has been discontinued, the work required to submit a well-crafted application (or slay a dragon) is no small task.

This post seeks to arm you with the knowledge you need to complete your own college applications. And although the journey may seem daunting, do not waver, young warrior. With the right tools, slaying the dragon is completely doable.

The Hero’s Meditation:
Before you can even write a college application, you must determine where your applications will be sent. Finding a college “fit” requires honest reflection. It’s arguably the most important decision you’ll have to make. You must discern your internal values, learning style, and future hopes. Those decisions should guide your college choices and, hopefully, lay the foundations for your on-campus happiness.

Answers to some questions come easily. Do you enjoy an intimate learning environment? Maybe a ginormous school like NYU isn’t for you. Hate the cold? Look south. Can’t get enough of scientific research? Perhaps you should avoid the smaller, liberal arts colleges, which might lack the resources for that type of exploration.

Of course, you should pair this internal discernment with outside research. Be sure to visit colleges that pique your interest; when visiting presents a formidable obstacle, read through a college’s online materials and perhaps take a virtual tour. If your values align with those of a school, chances are, that’s a “fit.”

Although it may seem cheesy, take this reflection process seriously. If you apply to schools that you’d be truly happy to attend, then you’ll find yourself much more engaged during your college experience.

Consulting the Elders:
Don’t leave your parents, teachers, and counselors in the dark.
Although this is your personal journey, your mentors will provide invaluable advice and guidance. Commit to that dialogue. As you wade through your inner quagmire and struggle to find solid ground (you undoubtedly will), don’t be afraid to ask for help. Luke couldn’t have defeated Darth Vader without Yoda, and Spiderman would be little without Uncle Ben.

Equipping the Hero:
Once you’ve found some schools that might be good “fits,” you’ll have to determine what materials you’ll need to complete to apply.

If you haven’t finished your standardized testing — that is, with satisfactory, SAT, ACT, AP, or SAT II scores — you should consider studying and retesting before applications are due. Note that if you’re applying early, the last time that seniors can sit for exams (and still have their scores impact their admissions decisions) is the September SAT and October ACT; regular decision applicants have some breathing room before the January SAT and February ACT. You’ll have to submit these test scores officially, via the College Board or ACT websites, to each college.

Once your testing is complete, start the Common Application or Coalition Application. Completing this step is relatively rote: students input their personal information (like addresses, contact information, and family situation). Both the Common Application and Coalition Application publish an updated list of participating schools, but if you’re unsure of a particular school’s policy, be sure to check that school’s website for their specific application requirements.

If you’re considering applying to a school that does not accept either the Common or Coalition Applications, you’ll have to complete another application. Georgetown and MIT are notable examples of schools that require a separate application. Similarly, major public universities that boast multiple campuses — such as SUNY, CUNY, and the UCs — typically have another, but semi-common, application. That is, it allows students to apply to any individual school within the university’s system. And if you’re applying to schools abroad, their application materials and posted deadlines differ greatly from those at home.

The Side Quests:
Most applications will ask for a list of a student’s activities. In the past, this has been called the “Activities Sheet,” and although the Activities Sheet is much less rigorous than it’s been in years past, it still requires a careful attention to detail. The Common Application, for instance, asks students to list and explain the significance of up to ten activities they’ve participated in during their high school years. At first glance, it seems relatively easy — especially with tight word restrictions. As will become a reoccurring theme, though, writing succinctly might actually present a more formidable challenge. When applicants are given few words, each word needs to be thoughtful, and deliberately chosen to flavor the response.

Furthermore, many students will write a resume. Consider submitting it as a supplement to colleges — many colleges ask for it directly. And even if you’re not including your resume in your applications, it’s a useful tool to have!

Percy’s Mirror:
The personal essay is easily the most time-consuming portion of the Common Application. Its importance to admissions decisions cannot be understated; any cursory overview cannot accurately convey what must be done to craft an effective and genuine personal essay. Consider reading our previous post about the personal essay — it provides in-depth recommendations about how you can best approach this portion of the process.

Some colleges will require applicants to write additional supplemental essays. Although they might require fewer words than does the personal essay, supplemental essays provide crucial information to admissions committees. Schools ask for applicants to write supplemental essays so they can see how one student might fit into that school’s wider community.

Supplemental essays might be the most overlooked section of applications. The rationale is quite easy to understand: the amount of supplemental essays an applicant needs to write can accumulate quickly. An applicant applying to all eight of the Ivy League schools, for instance, must write upwards of 30 individual supplemental essays. Applicants, therefore, may rush through the supplemental essays and fail to give them the careful attention and considerable crafting they require.

Wow, that’s a lot.
Undoubtedly, yes. Slaying the dragon begins with ample forethought through internal reflection and honest dialogue. Before setting off on the adventure, you’ll need to sharpen your tools: examine the materials you’ll need to submit and applications you’ll need to complete. Pick up some extra gold through the side quests (compose an Activities Sheet and a resume). Finally, plan your victory by crafting both a genuine personal essay and the required supplemental essays.

Don’t let this odyssey frighten you into submission. Most heroes and heroines tend to slay their dragons within the two-hour window cinema allows, but you should take advantage of all the time you have to begin your applications. The Common Application opens in August. We recommend that college-hopeful seniors plan to finish a first draft of their Common Applications (including the personal essay) before school starts, so they have plenty of time to revise before applications are due. By planning ahead, your college dragon will no longer loom ferociously like Saint George’s mythical opponent, but rather scamper funnily across beaches like today’s tiny lizards.

What Makes a Good Personal Essay?

By Ava L.

“Juicy” was the word. My sentences had to be “juicier.”

We always fought over this. I, the unruly first-grader hell-bent on finishing my episode of Spongebob, would sneer when my mother meticulously criticized my daily vocabulary homework assignments. Thursday night was the worst, because every Friday, I had to submit ten sentences, each using one of the week’s vocabulary words. I resented writing those sentences. Fill-in-the-blank was at least tolerable, but the sentences! I didn’t care about documenting the “surreptitious” dealings of corrupt governments, or hailing the “venerable” generals of Ancient Rome, or detailing the “aberrations” that covered the corpses tanned by centuries in Irish Bogs — I swore up and down about how “frivolous” any sentence with more than ten words was. When she made me replace my succinct phrases with “juicier” sentences, I argued that you could demonstrate a satisfactory understanding of a vocabulary word in ten words. Seven was ideal. Four? Masterfully lazy.

It’s perhaps odd, then, that the rebellious whippersnapper who hated vocabulary has matured into an optimistic freelancer who religiously reads The New Yorker. I’m the type of unapologetically-pretentious-intellectual-liberal who sports scarves, listens to Vampire Weekend, and apologizes to inanimate objects when I bump into them. But toss me before a warlord who promises to “decimate” a city, and I won’t hesitate to remind her that “decimate” means to “reduce by one tenth,” not to “obliterate.”

I’m not sure if my mother would be proud of these sentences. They’re certainly more than ten words — the longest sentence in this blog is forty-nine — but she despises the superfluous embellishments that I sprinkle across my writing. I suppose that her reaction supports the fact that literature spurs different sentiments, attracts different people, and inspires different reactions. I trudged through Hamlet’s inordinately drawn-out soliloquys; Atul Gawande, however, transformed my understanding of humanity and medicine.

Now reduce that irreducible vivacity of writing into just 650 words, and you’re left with the personal essay.

The personal essay poses many challenges to college-hopeful students. It’s easily the most time-consuming portion of the Common Application. Countless students echo the philosophy posited by noted thinker and Good Luck Charlie star Bridgit Mendler, who warned that “a single page could determine [her] entire future.” It’s no video diary, but this post seeks to offer guidance as you navigate that stress and compose your personal essay. How can you best prepare? What should you read? How should you write? What should you write about?

Well, sharpen your pencil, Shakespeare. Let’s begin.

Step 1: Read, read, read! It’s no secret that the best writers are also the best readers, and the same applies to personal essays. By reading plenty of successful personal essays — and reading across the greater genre of narrative nonfiction — you will find your own voice within that broader style.

I’ve included some examples of essays from students at Johns Hopkins University and Hamilton College to provide some creative examples of how narrative nonfiction can operate within the personal essay’s constraints. You shouldn’t, however, allow yourself to only explore personal essays. There are wonderful benefits to reading narrative nonfiction: besides its pertinence to college applications, narrative nonfiction can also be incredibly moving. Try comedian David Sedaris’s reflection on age and turtles, neurologist Oliver Sack’s warnings about a post-technological dystopia, or Frank McCourt’s retelling of the “Irishman’s initiation” (all sourced from the lovely New Yorker magazine).

Impactful narrative essays, as you’ll hopefully discover, are rhetorical spurs. They simply recount experiences, and readers — or admissions officers — can’t help but draw conclusions about the author.

Step 2: Poirot, I have been thinking. A quick glance at the Common Application’s Personal Essay Prompts might leave you breathless. Just seven questions unlock a universe of thought and reflection. It’s the literary equivalent of perching atop Mt. Everest: the horizon seems utterly endless. It may feel impossible to start writing when faced with such expansiveness, especially when tasked to write about oneself. But Edmund Hillary didn’t submit because he thought that Mt. Everest loomed too tall, and neither should you.

As I explore this writing-is-climbing metaphor more, the two appear even more similar than I originally thought. When someone attempts to scale a peak, much of the work occurs before they even set foot on the mountain. Developing the necessary stamina, planning your route, and saying your goodbyes before foot hits ground are akin to the brainstorming process that occurs before pen hits paper. Minus the death, I hope.

Choosing the perfect topic will help guide your essay. But what is the perfect topic? It’s not the philosophically ideal essay — I can feel Plato already penning postmortem rebukes — but rather perfect in that it perfectly encapsulates you.

Many students may feel pressured to rummage through their lives to unearth tragedies that they can transform into emotional essays. When every America’s Got Talent singer with a tragic backstory seems to earn a Golden Buzzer, it’s an understandable temptation. But Simon Cowell isn’t furrowing his chiseled brow over your application, so let’s explore why this won’t work for the personal essay.

Unless a student has truly experienced trauma, any “tragedy” they recount will inevitably feel manufactured. Want to describe the agony of breaking your arm and not being able to swim with your friends? No one cares. Did you go on a one-week service trip to Guatemala and “help the needy?” Great! But if you’re not dedicating your life to serving that issue, an admissions officer won’t hesitate to call out your privilege.

I’m being purposely blunt. If a personal trauma has truly defined your life — and you can somehow spin that trauma into a positive movement that underlines your resilient personality — then, of course, you can write about it. But, as a general rule, you should try to avoid the three “D’s”: Deaths, Divorces, and Disabilities.

Why? Well, you, the applicant, have no control over death or divorce. Writing about either category typically showcases none of your personality and may even sadden your reader. Many college guidance counselors classify everything from chronic illnesses to sports injuries as “disabilities.” The literary laissez-faire applies here, too — students affected by chronic diseases, unfortunately, have little control over their illness — and even overcoming sports injuries is often non-unique. Remember: an essay is perfect in that it perfectly encapsulates you (and you alone).

So, what is the perfect essay? One that is genuine. Find events that reveal the intricate fabric of your personhood.

I once had a student who was staunchly independent — the composer, conductor, and critic of her own tune, in the most cliché sense. But how can someone crystallize that abstract idea into words, let alone a brief essay? This student recounted a story from her childhood when she accidentally cut off all of her hair. She transformed what would typically be a cute story of youthful exploration into an incredibly poignant narrative about beauty standards and unwavering individualism.

Another student wrote about how Ping-Pong brought his family together. He realized that he could dominate Ping-Pong games through a slamming battle, or he could slow down, volley the ball, and actually connect with his opponent. That second variation of Ping-Pong, he realized, made him an effective communicator — you can only say so much before you have to return — but it also showed him how valuable his familial relationships are. It was probably no surprise to the admissions officers that he elected to pursue a communications degree.

Neither of these essays focuses on a tragedy. Successful essays, like these, are powerful because they transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. They subtly direct the reader towards revealing conclusions about the author from seemingly random details.

Still don’t believe that meaning can come from the supposedly meaningless? Check out this New York Times column containing dozens of odes to common objects.

Step 3: (Effective) creativity is intelligence having fun. Once you’ve elected the topic that perfectly encapsulates your personality, make it exciting to read. College admissions officers typically read applications in thirty minutes — sometimes, at larger schools, the time spent on a single application might dip to around ten minutes — so an interesting format can help your application stand out.

Try out new narrative styles within the personal essay. Beginning an essay in medias res, dead language for “in the middle of an action,” offers an enticing hook. What about a non-linear narrative, where you highlight your growth by jumping between events at different points in your life? Maybe take a cue from Fitzgerald’s green light and develop your scenery and dialogue, so your reader can sometimes “feel” your writing.

I knew a student who, because she was interested in theatre, wrote an autobiographical play — and stringed snippets of that play together to make her personal essay. An aspiring physician used an extended metaphor relating his obsession with Peter Parker to his fascination with oncology. One culinary-school-hopeful wrote the recipe for himself. Another student wrote hers from the viewpoint of her younger brother.

But hold your pens. There can easily be a serious danger with such free experimentation. Many applicants might believe that just writing a creative essay is enough to score admission to their first-choice universities. This mentality, however, can mislead students as they write their essays. A personal essay should be creative if that creativity brings the personality of the applicant to life on the page. Don’t be creative simply to be different. Be creative to better reveal the person you are. Creativity within the scope of the personal essay should perhaps be renamed effective creativity: creativity that underscores the personality of an applicant.

Step 4: Grab Pawan. The style of the personal essay is very distinct from the verbose jargon you might find in mainstream narrative nonfiction (cough David Foster Wallace cough). With just 650 words, there is little room for the type of epic plot development afforded to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. So listen to Pawan Mishra, who suggests that you “tell a story in fewer and simpler words.”

Remember: you only have 650 words. Be deliberate in your word choice, and spend time considering the weight, connotations, and implications that every word in your essay might convey. That might sound silly, but you’ll better relay your personality with ample reflection.

Step 5: Write ‘till your ink be dry. Composing a good personal essay takes time. You might need to restart just when you think you’re done, you might need to forget everything you’ve learned in writing analytical essays, you might need to write “juicier” sentences when you think just ten words is enough. But embrace the opportunities that the personal essay provides. Perhaps you’ll never be asked to write about yourself again.

So, how do you write a good personal essay?

Read constantly, think genuinely, spin creatively, write clearly, and edit furiously. With just 650 words, you, too, can make the Bard proud.

Summer Checklist for College-Hopeful Students

By J.K. Halsted
I vividly remember my graduation. No, not my high school graduation. I’m clearly referring to a far more prestigious academic achievement: the time-honored convocation that is the fifth grade graduation.

I paraded through the hallowed halls of a 2-5 elementary school that looked like any other elementary school in a fifty-mile radius — probably brick, built during the Cold War, with one or two floors that sprawled around a campus way too large for third graders. After bidding our farewells, the stampede of prepubescent larvae took the celebration onto our cheese-colored buses. A spontaneous chorus of “Kiss Him Goodbye” (nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey, go-odbye) broke out as we pulled away from the parking lot. Sixth grade was the major leagues, and we felt the rush.

We certainly had high hopes for that summer. There were no plans to backpack around Europe, but there was talk of activities infinitely more exciting to a twelve-year-old. Ralph said we’d go to the beach sometime. James promised to have us over for football. Maybe I’d even get ice cream with Isabell — only if mom said I could stay out past 8:30.

Then, the boredom hit. Summer didn’t deliver on its alluring promises of exhilaration. I found myself spending another three months cooped up in my bedroom, oppressed by the languor and humidity, as I memorized countless episodes of Spongebob.

So goes the universal summer folktale. But the importance of summer — and the drawbacks of wasting it — only grow with age. In high school, taking advantage of summer can save students from much of the stress that crafting college applications amidst the rush of the academic year can cause. This post seeks to provide some tips to defeat the summer sloth and suggest a timeline for the college-hopeful students wondering how they should spend their summer.

Rising seniors:
Congratulations, soon-to-be big dogs on campus! Senior year is an incredible time. Here’s how you can make sure that you hit the ground running:

  • Consider retaking the SAT or ACT. If you’re not satisfied with your scores, you might want to sit for the September or October exams, especially if you’re thinking about applying early.
  • Start the Common Application. Colleges that don’t use their own separate application will likely accept either the Common Application or the Coalition Application. Major public universities that boast multiple campuses — such as SUNY, CUNY, and the UCs — typically have a shared application that, once finished, allows students to apply to any individual school within the university’s system. Completing the common portions of these major applications (like entering as your extracurricular activities, address, and contact information) will save you considerable time during the academic year. Both the Common Application and Coalition Application publish an updated list of participating schools, but if you’re unsure of a particular school, be sure to check that school’s website for their specific application requirements.
  • Draft your personal essay. Crystallizing the nuanced fibers of your personality into just 650 words can be the most challenging part of an application. If you brainstorm some possible topics and aim to finish a first draft by the end of the summer, you’ll have ample time to edit, revise, and solicit feedback from your college counselors and teachers.
  • Write a resume. Consider submitting it as a supplement to colleges — many colleges ask for one. And even if you’re not including your resume in your applications, it’s a useful tool to have!
  • Whittle down a list of colleges. Plan to visit a few colleges that you’re interested in but never got around to. Knowing where you intend to apply will let you effectively plan your first semester.
  • Think about your senior year courses. Contrary to rumor, first semester courses matter! Senioririts is real. Succeeding in challenging classes in areas that truly interest you can highlight your intellectual potential and demonstrate the caliber of student you’ll be in college.
  • Do something productive! Whether you’re excited about your community service, job, or passion, crafting a narrative is a useful tool to distinguish yourself in the application process. And more importantly, it can be rewarding.
  • Realize that not knowing is okay. Well-meaning relatives might flood you with questions about high school, college, or even your career. Sometimes, their prying can be stressful. But you don’t need to have your entire life planned out.

Rising juniors:
Oh, boy. I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories about junior year. Although few of those tales are true, junior year is undeniably challenging. Here’s a few ways to lessen that stress:

  • Begin preparing for the SAT or ACT. An increased workload from your classes might quickly overwhelm you. By starting your preparation, you can discover your ideal study habits and plan a study schedule.
  • Try a practice test. Studying for the SAT and ACT simultaneously can present new challenges. Although some students may take both exams, the vast majority prepare for the exam that best fits their learning style. Taking a practice exam and researching the differences between each exam will help you determine whether you’ll perform better on the SAT or ACT.
  • Visit colleges. College visits are an incredibly useful way to determine whether you’d fit in at a particular school. Some might shy away from visiting colleges in the summer — when most students are away, it can be tough to gauge the “vibes” of a campus — but any visit, regardless of the season, can be helpful.
  • Do something productive! If you found something you loved in sophomore year, take the summer to explore that passion!
  • Breathe. There’s a lot of hype around junior year. Try to ignore the horror stories, but do your best to keep up with the academics and manage the stress. Any challenge can become what you make of it. The fastest pitch is the easiest home run.

Rising sophomores:
“Sophomore” is Greek for “clever fool.” With one year under your belt, it might be easy to forget the three more years of maturation that lie ahead. While you’re not experts just yet, sophomore year is a wonderful time devoted to exploration. Live it un-Apollo-getically.

  • Try to visit some colleges. Taking a trip to your local schools can be a great way to dip your toe into the water of college admissions.
  • Explore what interests you. You’ve completed the transition to high school, but you’re not yet focused on college. Take advantage of this “sweet spot” by exploring ideas and passions that excite you. Who knows? You might turn those endeavors into your college narrative — and, more importantly, they’ll make you happy.

Rising freshmen:
Congratulations on entering high school! Unfortunately, it’s nothing like High School Musical. No one breaks out into choreographed musical numbers in the cafeteria. Weird, right?

  • Try to avoid focusing on college. With the incessant buzzing of competitive admissions and the demands of perfection, it’s too easy to see high school as a mere stepping-stone to college. It’s not. These next four years will be a unique time of exceptional growth and maturation. Embrace that.
  • Read some books! Hide your AirPods, but reading can be a great way to start figuring out what interests you. When I visited my cardiologist, the ultrasound technician wasn’t shy with giving a nervous junior his advice. “Reading,” he contemplated, “is a portal into the conscience.” Ironic — his probe was projecting images of my pericardium onto the dark wall — but he’s certainly right. “Put all the books you read over the next four years into a box. When you graduate, open it. That’ll be your career.” Hmm.

So, how should you spend your summer to best prepare for college?

It all depends on where you are in your high school journey. Mapping out a productive summer is essential to spreading out your college tasks and maintaining your well-being during the school year. And above all, don’t forget to have some fun.

What is a Good SAT or ACT Score?

Guest blog post by J.K. Halsted

I’d like to propose an experiment. Bring a representative from each college to the Museum of Modern Art and sit them in front of Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 (1950). Readers dabbling in art history might recognize Pollock as one of the premier abstract expressionists, and One: Number 31 as the quintessential example of how indecipherable modern art can be. Here’s an example of something you might find inside the MoMA:

what is a good sat score or act score

Yikes. Talk about abstract.

Georgetown might see a vicious battle between a darker evil and a heroic good. Yale might see a calligraphic choreography of droplets. Hofstra might see a synesthetic fantasia conducted inside a lollipop forest.

Much like looking at modern art, each college formulates a different interpretation of their applicants. These unique interpretations stem from the college’s needs, philosophies, and policies — but nowhere is this more apparent (and confusing) than with SAT and ACT test scores.

You might have heard the strange vocabulary: superscore, single highest sitting, Score Choice, and All Scores. This post seeks to break down these policies and help you figure out how colleges evaluate your test scores.

First, what is superscoring?
Superscoring is a college admissions policy that seeks to evaluate students more fairly. To speak in college admissions jargon, it’s sometimes called “highest combined sitting.” Either way, superscoring involves dividing your standardized exams into their constituent parts and, in order to evaluate you at your best, considering only the highest of those sections.

Here’s an example: suppose you score a composite 1240 on the March SAT. You earned a 630 in the reading and grammar sections (reported as the “ERW” score) and a 610 on the two math sections (the “M” score). You decide to retake the SAT in May and score a 1320, with a 670 ERW and a 650 M. Yay! If a college superscores, they will evaluate your application in the context of your 1320.

Another scenario: suppose you still score a composite 1320 on your May SAT, but this time, you earned a 610 ERW and a 710 M. With superscoring, colleges will evaluate the highest of each section (the 630 ERW from March and the 710 M from May) and recalculate your composite score using these parts. Therefore, in the eyes of most colleges, you’ll have earned a 1340!

In other words, the majority of colleges will ignore your lower score and consider only the higher, especially for the SAT. Policies vary from school to school, so be sure to check each school’s official policy, but the majority of colleges have adopted superscoring. All of the Ivy League schools, for instance, superscore the SAT. [i]

There are two caveats. It may seem tempting to game the superscore and take one exam where you only focus on English and reading and take a later exam only to focus on math. The idea is certainly clever, but unfortunately, there’s no “cleverness” score on the SAT (though maybe they should develop that). Schools superscore to get a more complete picture of a student’s true capabilities. They’ll likely doubt an exam if it’s apparent that a student has focused way too heavily on one section and neglected the other in an attempt to take advantage of the superscore.

Also, you’ll probably notice that this discussion of superscoring has only mentioned the SAT. Most schools are more reluctant to superscore the ACT. This disparity between the two exams may initially seem odd, but the different approaches come from the scaling system each exam uses. Unlike the SAT, the ACT calculates its composite as an average of its four constituent parts. And since the ACT’s scale is smaller (each ACT section is graded out of 36 as opposed to the SAT’s 800), even tiny increases can skew the overall average. That’s not to say no school superscores the ACT—some do, and most others have official “considerations” that seem like superscoring in all but name. Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, superscore the ACT; five other Ivy League schools have “consideration” policies, where they consider a student’s ACT superscore but do not officially calculate it.[ii]

Okay, but what if my college asks for my single highest sitting?
Single highest sitting, also called “single highest test date,” is a policy similar to superscoring – but it doesn’t divide your test into parts. If a school follows a single highest sitting policy, it will evaluate your application in the context of the highest composite score you provide.

Suppose you earn a 1320 composite on the March SAT, with a 660 ERW and a 660 M. On the May SAT, you receive a 1340 composite, with a 600 ERW and a 740 M. Even though a traditional superscoring would mean you earned a 1500 (660 ERW and 740 M), a school that adheres to the single highest sitting policy will only consider your 1340 (600 ERW and 740 M), the highest composite score that you receive.

So, what does Score Choice mean?
If a school follows the Score Choice system, it means that you, the applicant, can choose which of your standardized test scores to send to that school. Typically, most students will use Score Choice when it comes to SAT IIs. Let’s say you received a 310 on the German SAT (one friend of mine actually did. How? He’s never taken a German class, and accidentally signed up for the wrong test). If you’ve done well on other SAT IIs—like earning a 670 on Bio M and a 720 on US History—then you can choose to disregard your lower scores and submit only the higher ones. Colleges, in turn, won’t see the scores you decide not to send.

But what about All Scores?
If a school follows a “Send All Scores” policy, then you must provide that school with all of your standardized exam results. This might seem unfair, but don’t fret. Colleges recognize that we’re all human, and that we all make mistakes. A poor test score will not obliterate your chances. In fact, challenging yourself with a higher-level exam might even demonstrate your curiosity and willingness to take intellectual risks.

So, what now?
Now that you know the lingo, you can start making sense of confusing admissions presentations. In 2015, the Collegeboard published a comprehensive list of the policies that each participating school follows.[iii] Obviously, schools will continuously update their requirements, so be sure to check with each school about their policies. You’ll typically find that information on the Admissions Department’s website.

As always, remember that your test scores do not define your worth. Scores do not become “good” when they bend closer to the asymptote of perfection; scores are worthwhile and meaningful if they challenge you. I offer zero apologies for my art metaphors, but painting your self-portrait as an applicant involves more hues, tints, and overall nuance than just your test results. Take that, Pollock.