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How Smart Sophomore Planners Turn Into Strong College Applicants

By April 6, 2021 For Students, Test Prep

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

Spring of sophomore year is when most of our long term planning conversations begin, knowing that the moves you’ll make over the next 18 months will influence the shape you’ll be in as a college-applicant senior. So we find it’s helpful to start at the end of the process; to discuss what you strive to have accomplished by the time you’re applying to college and then chart a course for how to reach those goals. 

In the fall of 2022, you’ll look back and likely see that some of your important first steps were taken around the end of 10th grade. Here is an overview of some of the actions we recommend for you this spring and summer.

Learn The Landscape

Even without the extra turbulence of the past year, college admissions is a complex and ever-changing ecosystem. It’s tempting to make broad generalizations but it’s wiser to think independently, individually, and situationally when forging your own path. Find the frame of mind that fuels your ambitions. And seek out the guidance that honors your individual goals.

Spending the time now to become well-informed will make forthcoming decisions easier and better. College admission outcomes, especially in the midst of a pandemic, 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.

To help you better understand how college admission factors affect decision making, 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 subtlety and range of testing policies in competitive contexts, superscoring, AP coursework and exams, National Merit, and more.

Begin With A Baseline

Many high schools were forced to exclude sophomores from this year’s PSAT. Missing out on an early practice test is not a major setback, but we still recommend you find an opportunity to complete a full-length diagnostic assessment in the coming weeks. Or better yet, two! 

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 proctored exams that give exposure to the content, format, and length of each test. The first-hand experience makes the investment of time 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 early on shake a student’s confidence? This is a valid concern that should be evaluated at the individual level. But when given the choice between two imperfect options, we typically favor having some data a little too early over a little too late. Postponing an initial diagnostic test until a student is “fully” ready could delay planning decisions and test preparation for the tests that matter. For example, next fall’s PSAT won’t generate feedback until December of 11th grade.

Every Compass student starts with baseline testing so that we can better individualize 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 private 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:

Proctored (weekly)
Computer Based Testing (ACT only; on-demand by appointment)
Self-Administered

We’ll turn around results for you very quickly (immediately for CBT; 1-2 days 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

Right now, the most important thing a 10th grader can do is have a strong finish to 10th grade.

Academic rigor generally increases in 11th grade, which is also when testing enters the picture and specific college consideration begins. A good sophomore year will 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 face 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 assume even greater scrutiny of their grades in advanced courses, including honors and AP classes. Make sure you’re prepared and supported to reach your full potential in your most challenging classes because those grades will attract attention.

Compass provides ongoing academic 1-on-1 tutoring in over 40 subjects including all AP courses. 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 may span only 3-5 months. Plans are best finalized 6 months prior to a target date to provide the most scheduling options. 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 choose to 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, ACT, or both 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 by asking yourself 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 academic/AP tutoring and SAT/ACT test prep, or is tutoring on a long list of its college-related offerings?
  • Is the instruction individualized and tailored to each student, or delivered in group format?
  • Does the firm publish ongoing research and resources demonstrating its expertise?
  • Is the firm equipped to handle all of your tutoring needs (SAT, ACT, AP Exams, Study Skills) with well-matched subject-matter experts? Does it have strong curricula and sufficient study materials?
  • 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 pairing 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

About 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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