Back to school tips for the college bound

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We are now two weeks into the ’20-’21 school year, and while it isn’t the year anyone would have expected, it’s inspiring to see so many teachers, staff, parents, and students making the best of a difficult situation.

For those looking ahead to college and thinking about, or planning for, testing, applications, and admissions, here are some top-level tips for each grade as we get settled into the school year. Want to explore any of these ideas further? Drop me a line.


  • Focus on your primary college admission essay with an excellent, compelling, well-crafted story as your personal statement. Use this to demonstrate who you are as a person and convince the reader you are going to be a unique and valuable contributor to their incoming class.
  • Take the SAT or ACT *if you can*. Though most high profile colleges are test optional right now, many are not. Frankly, it’s a great opportunity to further stand out among those who are not going the extra mile to take the test and submit scores. Of the two, I think the ACT is offering more reliable testing opportunities, so I’d go that route.
  • If you already have a GREAT test score from pre-COVID, then you are in great shape. If top schools, or even elite schools, interest you, then don’t be afraid to apply — under the circumstances, many fewer students across the nation will have a high test score on record and so this is your time to especially shine.


  • Prep for the SAT/ACT. Contrary to any suggestion you might hear to disregard entrance exams because of colleges’ test-optional policies, at most institutions, the test really will be your opportunity to rise above the crowd. (I explained why, in part, here and here.) Sign up for the November, December, and January tests. I really do believe that at highly competitive schools, test-optional still basically means test-required; and regardless, even schools that were test-optional prior to COVID still had the majority of students submit scores as a way to bolster their resume. For example, the University of Chicago has been test-optional for several years and still has 85 percent of students submit scores. Wake Forest has been test-optional for nearly a decade and averages 75 percent of students submitting scores. These students know that test scores can absolutely help and increase your chances of admission.
  • Work your hardest on grades, and don’t slack on the online classes; for more competitive colleges, course selection matters too. More selective colleges will want to see that you’ve taken a challenging slate of classes, and in highly competitive instances, they want you to try the most challenging slate your school offers.
  • Pay attention to extra-curriculars, even if it is online, “virtual,” or social-distanced right now. Continue to be a part of or join clubs at school that interest you and seek leadership roles, or if feasible, explore a part time job. Especially with the role of the personal statement taking on added importance right now, all of these experiences add a unique dimension to your life’s story.


  • Take the PSAT in January (save the date – Jan. 26, 2021 at Olympia High School). The PSAT is a competitive test for the National Merit Scholarship, but its also just a great way to get extra practice for the real exam that you’ll want to take next year. Its a great way to set a baseline and use it as a springboard for higher scores.
  • Start building relationships with teachers, counselors, coaches, and other mentors. These are the people you will be asking for letters of recommendation from in a couple years, and the better they know you, the better their recommendation will be.
  • Plan to take some time in the upcoming summer to prep for the SAT/ACT. It is doubtful these tests will ever completely go away until they are replaced with just another standardized option. Why? See the note above – even when not required, standardized scores will still be away to make student achievement stand out.


  • You have a ways to go, so don’t stress out. But pay attention to course selection (rigorous versus less rigorous). Now is your time to dream of which colleges you might want to attend and start building a profile that will give you the greatest possible success in gaining admissions.
  • Grades are important, so do your best. Do every extra credit assignment you can. With on-line classes, it is important to try your hardest and demonstrate to your teacher that you want to excel.
  • Start exploring interests in activities, sports, and outside pursuits and look for opportunities for leadership in them. What have you always wanted to learn more about? How can you help your community? Get involved! It will help you in the long run!

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