Parent Check-In: Evaluating Your 10th Grader’s College Prep Progress
Junior and senior years are usually ultra-important for college applications. These are the days for the college lists, the standardized test scores that matter, and the grades and activities that will get the most scrutiny. Unfortunately, the best way to succeed in these areas is to start prepping well before. That’s probably not what your student wants to hear.
With that in mind, it’s usually best to spread this out a bit with proper pacing. Here’s a short list of priorities that you’ll want to introduce at various points throughout sophomore year. As you go, see what your student responds to, and what you might need professional assistance with.
Start Practicing Standardized Tests
Students don’t want to waste their summers slogging through dry standardized tests (which are, incidentally, deliberately boring to make things harder), so practice patience here. Doing this in a formal setting will get better results, like a school or local program hosting a practice test session. When you simply assign students a section of the test at a time or a stack of vocabulary words to memorize, especially if you’re not checking whether they’re completing it under timed conditions, they may slack.
Sophomores will take the PSAT this year for the first time, but this might be the first time your student has exposure to a test like this. Pay close attention to the post-test reactions. Be particularly wary of the “I totally aced it! Easy!” response. These tests are designed to be hard and draining, so your student might have missed something.
Don’t despair if bad scores come back. But there’s not as much you can do in junior and senior years to course-correct, so identify and address problem areas now while your student still has time. Remember that junior year is going to be highly stressful as-is, so there’s real benefit of alleviating this piece early on.
Go and Visit Colleges Now
Speaking from personal experience, I visited all of the colleges I was interested in over the summer between junior and senior year. Not only did that limit my access to classes and students, which would have given me a better sense of the campus vibe, but it also made me brain-dead by the time the trip was over. Boston College felt like Georgetown and Notre Dame, and I didn’t know well enough to write down my impressions right away to differentiate them.
Cramming, no matter the context, means that information gets packed in and some of it’s left out. Spreading out college tours (particularly if you can take a weekend to visit a local college or two without shelling out big bucks for far-away campuses) can introduce the subject gently and in a low-stakes environment.
Think about your student for a moment. Unless college has been a dream for a long time, or the student has had a chance to hang out on a campus before, this is a terrifying prospect. You are asking them to make a huge decision, with limited information, based on only a few points of information. They know you’re looking to them expectantly, waiting for them to tell you which colleges they love or hate. They’re probably feeling the heat, in a big way.
So make the college tour seem less scary by bringing it into their sphere early on without making huge pronouncements about their future. Pick a nice day where you can walk around leisurely and grab a bite. Schedule some time later on where your kid can shadow a college student and really get a sense of what going to college really feels like. Doing this early means that when the time comes for the big decisions, they’ve had access and freedom to really consider their options.
Solidify Extracurriculars and Grades
Now’s the time to check your student’s trajectory. Technically, the first time to do this is in 8th grade, right before a student enters into those important high school years. But now is the time to figure out how many APs your student is on track to complete, how their grades are looking, and what their activity profile looks like.
There’s no one right curriculum; it just depends on the student. Competitive Ivy League schools have a particularly rigorous set of expectations around just about everything, so start doing research on that now if that’s an option for your student. Ideally, no matter the context, you’re looking to develop a schedule for your student that is challenging but isn’t completely unrealistic. As a best practice, there should be one class that’s not an AP and comes easily for the student—taking French 4 instead of AP French, for example.
You’re also looking at focused diversity. Admissions officers aren’t looking for “a mile wide and an inch deep,” or a bunch of activities that a students spends 0.1% of time on. Instead, they’re looking for a few activities that explore passions and interests in a concentrated way. If your student is able to take on a leadership role, so much the better. In other words, doing ballet four days a week and being co-editor of the school magazine is better than doing ballet, field hockey, track, the magazine, debate club, tennis, and tutoring. (Also, unless your student is built for this kind of activity, burnout is basically guaranteed.)
If your student isn’t on the right path, or if a few rough classes freshman year mean that the GPA isn’t going to be a 4.0, don’t immediately stress—and no matter what you do, don’t pass on these worries to your student. Chances are they already feel guilty for their performance and don’t really need a reminder about what it means for their future.
Talk to the school and loop in those who know what they’re doing. See what changes your student might be able to handle, from summer school to extra help. Even if the curriculum can’t be tweaked, focus on opportunities your student can explore out of school like internships and summer jobs. Beef up their activities, which are a lot easier to join and excel in. Do some preliminary research on colleges, determine what’s feasible for your student early on, and then set proper expectations without judging them. Even the most high-performing students get messages that they’re not smart enough from school and their peers; they don’t need it from you too.
Given the competitiveness of colleges these days, sophomore year is as critical as junior year. But, it’s also a time to begin preparing your student effectively for what’s to come and put them at ease for the future. These basic strategies will help a lot to make the critical final years easier and more successful.
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