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How Smart Sophomore Planners Become Strong College Applicants

By January 30, 2024For Students, Test Prep

At Compass, we guide our families forward by working backward.

Spring is when most of our long term planning conversations with sophomores begin, as their actions over the next 18 months will determine their college application options. It’s helpful to start at the end of the process and then chart a course for how to reach your goals. In the fall of 2025, you’ll look back and see that many of your important first steps were taken around the end of 10th grade. 

Here is what we recommend you do this spring and summer.

Learn The Landscape

College admissions is a complex and ever-changing ecosystem. It’s tempting to make generalizations but it’s wiser to think independently, individually, and situationally when forging your own path. Becoming well-informed now will make forthcoming decisions easier and better. College admission outcomes can seem unpredictable and illogical. The system is indeed imperfect and obscure. Colleges consider not only the “whole” applicant but also external factors (institutional priorities) the applicant cannot control. And yet, most of the evaluation of a college application centers around the academic profile: grades, rigor, and test scores if submitted.

To help you better understand how college admission factors affect decisions, we encourage you to take advantage of our library of free resources, including:

In this variety of formats, we provide updated information, research, and data trends. We also answer popular questions that pertain to topics such as the New (digital, adaptive) PSAT and SAT, the subtlety and range of testing policies in competitive contexts, AP coursework and exams, National Merit, and more.

Begin With A Baseline

By the beginning of summer break, students should have developed some introductory knowledge of what the SAT and ACT are all about. The best way to gain that insight is through practice exams that give exposure to the content, format, and length of each test as well as feedback you can use. The first-hand experience makes the time investment worthwhile; the detailed analysis and interpretation of your performance makes it invaluable.

Some parents and students are understandably concerned about testing too early, even though these are merely practice baseline assessments. Might a disappointing benchmark result shake a student’s confidence? This is a valid concern that should be considered individually. But in most cases, we’d rather have some data a little too early than a little too late. Postponing an initial diagnostic test until a student feels “fully” ready could delay planning decisions and test preparation for the tests that will matter. 

Every Compass student starts with baseline testing so that we can tailor the work we do together. While standardized tests are not pleasant, they are predictable. Early exposure and subsequent practice breed familiarity and confidence. Gradually, with guided instruction and as experience grows, our students develop not only a better grasp of content and the features of a test but also important test-taking skills like pacing, endurance, time management, decision-making, and self-discipline.

To facilitate the process of practice testing, Compass offers regularly scheduled or on-demand testing opportunities for the SAT and ACT in a variety of formats:

We turn around results for you very quickly (immediately for computer-based testing; in 24 hours otherwise) and you’ll gain powerful insight into your testing abilities and opportunities for improvement.

Please contact us to schedule your practice exams at times that are convenient for you.

Prep Before You Prep

The most important thing a 10th grader can do is have a strong finish to 10th grade. Your grades follow you, for better or worse, so carefully watch grades and seek tutoring assistance in any class that begins to slip. Academic rigor generally increases in 11th grade, which is also when testing enters the picture and specific college consideration begins. Good early high school years pay dividends when things start to accelerate in the upper grades. Despite how competitive the college landscape may seem, those who reach the fall of senior year with solid transcripts and testing records will enjoy plenty of encouraging options.

As you ponder course selections for next year, also consider any extra support you may want to put in place ahead of time. If a student elects not to share SAT or ACT scores with a college, they should expect even greater scrutiny of their grades in advanced courses, including honors and AP classesMake sure you’re prepared and supported to reach your full potential in your most challenging classes because those grades will attract attention.

Last year, Compass tutors collectively taught 68 different subjects, including 29 AP subjects, to students nationwide and abroad. We also offer Study Skills and Organizational Coaching to help students stay on track. If you are considering these supplemental programs for the fall, we encourage you to schedule a call with a Compass director by this summer to discuss your specific needs and preferences.

Formal SAT or ACT prep itself usually spans 3-5 months. Plans are best finalized 6 months prior to an official test date to provide the most scheduling flexibility. Weekly private lessons, regular drill work, and monthly diagnostic tests occur as prescribed by a thoughtfully constructed plan you’d develop with your director. 

Some families will take advantage of this summer to get a jumpstart on test prep or academic enrichment before the busy junior year kicks off. But even if prep won’t begin until the fall or winter, we still suggest scheduling an initial strategic planning call with your Compass director toward the end of 10th grade. It would be most helpful to have diagnostic results from a practice SAT and/or ACT by then. With those, we can make appropriate recommendations about test selection, timing, and preparation.

The advantages of early planning are foresight and flexibility. We’ll help you map out likely test dates so that proper preparation and realistic timelines can take shape, factoring in all that contributes to optimal outcomes in the long run. We’ll ask about your anticipated coursework, your after-school and weekend schedule, your testing experience, and your overall academic strengths and interests.

Shop Around

If you’re exploring academic tutoring or test prep options, it’s good to be armed with questions to help you determine the best fit. Start with what matters most to you. Then ask friends and counselors for trusted recommendations. Finally, think of what to ask a prospective provider. A few suggested questions to get you started:

  • Does the firm specialize in test prep and high level (Honors, AP, IB) academic tutoring, or is instructional support on a long list of its college-related offerings?
  • Is tutoring the firm’s true area of expertise? Does the firm publish ongoing research and resources demonstrating expertise?
  • Is the firm equipped to handle all of your individualized learning needs (SAT, ACT, AP Exams, Academics, Study Skills and Organizational Coaching, Writing) with subject-matter experts? Does it have strong curricula and sufficient study materials?
  • Is the company technologically capable and fully invested in handling the transition to digital adaptive testing?
  • What is the firm’s history with college admission testing and preparation? Who provides leadership?
  • Is the firm’s recommendation placed within the context of your needs and goals? Did your contact take the time to ask thoughtful questions and listen to you?
  • Who are the instructors? How are the instructors hired, trained, supervised, supported, evaluated, and professionally developed?
  • How does the student-instructor match process work to ensure a good fit?
  • Who is ultimately accountable for a satisfying experience and outcome? Who is in charge of resolving issues along the way?
  • What exactly will test preparation involve on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis?
  • How are goals determined, pursued, and measured? What happens if goals are not reached?
  • What are the contractual terms of the program? Are the terms client-friendly? Are they student-centric? Are they easy to understand?
  • What are the firm’s expectations for the student? For the parents?

At Compass, we look forward to discussing these questions and many more with you this spring or summer. When you’re ready to reach out, we’re here to guide you on the road ahead.

Bruce Reed

Bruce graduated from Colby College and has served in leadership roles in education for more than 25 years. Bruce founded our Northern California office in 2004 where he continues to serve as its hands-on leader while also guiding our national team in his broader role as Compass’ Executive Director. Bruce is recognized throughout the Bay Area and beyond as a visionary and passionate voice in the realm of teaching, testing, and educational development. His extensive experience in one-on-one test preparation, college admissions, and professional development makes him a trusted resource for parents and counselors.

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