While high-achieving students tend to do well on the SAT and ACT, a slew of stellar report cards won't guarantee top scores. Fortunately, neither exam needs to be a "one-shot-deal." Sophomores and juniors should take either the PSAT (commonly known as a "practice" SAT) or the PLAN, which is a pre-test for the ACT, to gain an understanding of the material and build test-taking skills. They should then take a close look at the results of these tests and determine the learning gaps that need to be shored up before taking the SAT or ACT.
Many top colleges expect students to take classes that are far more rigorous than those in a typical high school course load. Most selective schools require students to take four years of English and literature, three to four years of mathematics (including advanced algebra and trigonometry), two to three years of a foreign language, two to four years of a laboratory science, two years of history and social science, plus three years of electives.
Admissions officers at most selective colleges and universities will also pay close attention to your son or daughter's out-of-school activities. While stellar athletes tend to capture the brightest spotlight, excellence in academic clubs, civic organizations, volunteer work and even part-time jobs can help your child stand out as well. Think about the skills and interests that your child has held for a long time. Then take a look at the activities available through the school or through your community. Work alongside your child to identify engaging and productive learning experiences that will enhance the learning process.
From signing up for the right courses to taking the right exams to finding the right institution, the path to higher education often feels like an obstacle course for students and parents alike. Fortunately, there are a number of resources to guide the way. The National Association for College Admission Counseling - at www.nacac.com - offers a detailed calendar that tells sophomores, juniors and seniors exactly which steps they should be taking each month of the year. The National Research Center for College and University Admissions - at www.nrccua.org - offers an online survey that helps students pinpoint institutions based on their interests. And the College Board, which administers the SAT, has a wealth of resources at www.collegeboard.org that likewise de-mystify the application and preparation progress.
While there's no substitute to your own personal involvement in this process, remember that neither you nor your child need to take this journey alone. Guidance counselors have invaluable insight, and most are more than willing to guide you, every step of the way.