The second half of your school year is in full swing. Your first set of grades for the year are in the past, but now is a great time to reflect on things you can change: study habits, class choices, relationships with teachers. Here are the academic items that students should focus on the 2nd Semester/2nd half (of the year):
Juniors: Make and commit to your SAT/ACT prep plan, strengthen your relationships with your teachers, and plan for a strong senior year.
I know there are a lot of things calling for your attention, but do your best to prioritize SAT or ACT preparation if you have one of these college admission tests planned this spring. I promise you will thank your future self if you can give these tests your best effort now, instead of postponing until the summer or fall of your senior year or having to restudy and retake the test later. A key component to successful test prep is a written plan. Pick your test date, and go back at least two months to start your prep. Mark in your calendar when, where, and for how long you will study. Putting away your phone and headphones so that you have a quiet space to study will help mock the test conditions so that you are prepared to retrieve the information under those same (quiet) conditions. Here are some advantages to testing the end of your junior, as well as tips to determine if you are ready to take the exam.
Additionally, now is the time to start thinking about which one to two teachers would be good advocates for your college applications. If you don’t have great relationships with any of your teachers, reflect on why that might be and what you can do to change that. Take the time to get to know your teachers, let them know what you are enjoying about their class as well as what topics are giving you trouble. Give them the opportunity to help you and to see your work ethic and willingness to grow.
Finally, now is the time that you will be selecting your senior year courses. Time to take it easy, and only worry about meeting high school graduation requirements, right? That might be what you want to hear, but colleges are academic institutions, and they want to admit students prepared to succeed at the college level. Planning for a strong senior year is important, and your senior year courses will be considered in the admissions process even if an admission decision is made before you receive grades for your senior year.
The University of Oregon lists “senior-year course load” as one of the many factors it considers, and Yale University states, “…it is very important that we see a high level (or an improving degree) of rigor and success throughout your high school years. This includes your senior year.”
College (and major) requirements and recommendations for coursework vary wildly, so you need to research (or simply ask) the colleges you are considering what competitive applicants to their schools look like. Usually, the most competitive applicants will take five core subjects (English, Math, Science, Social Science and Foreign Language) all four years. If you really don’t like Spanish and want to drop it, make sure you are replacing it with another rigorous class.
Sophomores: Continue to improve study habits and relationships with teachers, and plan your coursework and test dates for your junior (and senior) year.
For sophomores, the end of spring semester is a good time to think about an ACT or SAT plan for their junior year, as those test dates have a way of sneaking up on students before they have made enough room in their schedules to properly prepare. It’s not time to test prep yet, but simply a good time to look at the year ahead and make some tentative plans. If you do want to be an early test-taker, or try for the National Merit Scholarship (the October junior-year PSAT is the qualifying test) you should have PSAT results that give you an idea of your strengths and weaknesses, and you likely will have an idea of when you have the most room in the school year (or summer) to study. Spring/Summer is also a great time to review the differences between the ACT and SAT to determine which test you should focus on next year. Colleges accept both equally.
For both sophomores and freshmen, developing or improving study habits now will reap many benefits down the road. Learning how and when to ask for help is a life skill, and teachers (as well as college professors) generally want to help students. Take advantage of the time teachers make for you to connect with them, whether that is before/after school, study halls or extended breaks. If you don’t connect with a teacher’s teaching style, seek out other school or community resources, or try Khan Academy for free online tutorials.
Think about how, where, and when you study. Sometimes a 15-minute nap and a healthy snack after a long day of school are all that is needed to boost your memory and focus, but often students need help learning good study habits. Many students are simply never taught good techniques or new techniques as their academic course load increases. Thanks to my daughter’s 8th-grade teacher, I learned about “Retrieval Practice” which is a learning strategy where you focus on getting information out. Through the act of retrieving information that you have seen or learned, your memory for that information is strengthened. In other words, when you struggle to retrieve information, you learn the information better! Here are very simple yet specific study tips and techniques from LP Tutoring (Scroll down to the heading: I’M A STUDENT. HOW CAN I USE RETRIEVAL PRACTICE?)
Freshmen: Develop strong study habits, understand that freshman grades do matter and set yourself up for rigorous coursework down the road.
Freshman year is exciting and it is an adjustment. Now that the dust has settled, take time to evaluate where you are. How are you doing in your classes? If you are doing well or not being challenged in certain subjects, you should consider taking higher levels next year if offered (AP, IB or Honors), or forecast your sophomore year so that you are set up to take some higher-level courses your junior and senior year. Some high schools have prerequisite courses for higher-level classes and/or minimum grades. Read your high school course guide carefully and talk with your counselor. It is important to understand how the class choices you make now may affect your future options. How many higher-level classes students should take depends on what the school offers, what the student aspires to do after high school, and most importantly, it depends on the individual student, but here is a general guide. Are there subjects where you are struggling? Seek out resources and talk to your high school counselor about your choices for this subject going forward. Even though colleges focus more on your sophomore and junior-year grades, the foundation you set your freshman year is important. As time goes on, it can be harder to move your GPA up. Finding the right balance of challenging classes without overwhelming your life or tanking your GPA is important. You are allowed to make mistakes, especially freshman year, but try and learn from them.
Read the sophomore tips above about study habits.