Yesterday was the official last day of school in our local district.

In the coming days and weeks, students will be set free to enjoy their summer fun. And unlike the COVID cancellation of many 2020 activities, there are numerous outlets for fun in the months ahead. Many of our students have some exciting summer plans, and I hope your child has something to look forward to in the weeks ahead.

With the approaching hiatus, I’m hearing some familiar questions from parents, some related to summer but all involving the college application process. I thought I would share some of them, as it’s possible that you may have similar questions.

What is the right number of services hours that I should target?
Summer is a great time to give back to the community and volunteer. Many students hope to use this time to earn service hours, which are often required for graduation depending on your school district. Here in Florida, service hours are also required to earn a Bright Futures Scholarship, with 75 hours required for a 75% tuition/fees scholarship and 100 hours required for a 100% tuition/fees scholarship.

When it comes to service hours, quality of hours is more important than quantity. Colleges don’t really focus on the number of hours, instead they are more interested in exactly what you did, who you helped, and the value of your experience. And let’s face it: many students earn excess hours for service they perform – a 3 hour volunteer activity cleaning up the beach can yield 10 hours from a generous supervisor. While it’s important that you earn enough to graduate (check your school’s requirements) or to earn a certain scholarship, achieving 500 service hours or more does not ensure admission to any college.

So, while there is no magic number of service hours that should be earned, try to earn them gradually over the 4 years of high school rather than all at once during senior year. Identify a group of people or a local cause that could use your help, and volunteer your time. Start now, and be sure to enjoy the experience.

Will a pre-college experience look good for my child?
Many students like to spend their summer on a college campus, taking classes in subjects that are not taught in high school. These experiences are known as “pre-college”, and they are offered on campuses throughout the country. Some programs remain virtual this summer, but there are still many opportunities even as of this writing to apply and attend an on-campus pre-college program. Examples include Summer Discovery, EXPLO, and the National Student Leadership Conference.

Pre-college programs are intended to be fun more than anything else. Attending a summer program at UCLA, Michigan, Yale or any other campus does not by itself impress a college admissions office. And yes, they can be expensive. Still, the benefits of attending a pre-college program are numerous and include meeting new people from different backgrounds, learning to live with a complete stranger, learning a subject not taught in high school, exploring a particular interest without any academic pressure, and growing/maturing while enjoying some independence from mom and dad. Also, if you have a certain experience that is life-changing you may wish to write about it in your college essay.

When should I start test prep, and when should I take the SAT/ACT?
Prepping for the SAT/ACT is the most uninteresting part of the college admission process. But it remains very important, even if it invites controversy around the fairness of standardized testing. I won’t elaborate on the fairness other than to say that I welcome the test optional movement. I should also note that the SAT/ACT remains highly relevant to the admissions process, and test prep is extremely important. I often compare test prep to visiting the dentist – nobody wants to go to the dentist, but we all need to go because it’s the right thing to do and provides clear benefits.

Many parents want to use the summer months for test prep. I do not support this idea unless you’re planning on taking the July ACT, and even in that case don’t make test prep the cornerstone of your summer activity. For any student, plan on prepping for the test about 8-10 weeks in advance of the test day. In the meantime, read as many books as you can – fiction, non-fiction, biographies, fantasies – anything that exercises the brain and makes you think.

For most students, 11th grade is the year to sit for the SAT/ACT. The timing of your first test should depend on your math level – if you have already completed Algebra 2 then take the test early in 11th grade. If you are enrolled in Algebra 2 then wait until March of 11th grade. Schedule your test prep course 8-10 weeks in advance. And remember, a top test prep service is only as good as the student’s commitment to the process.

If you are looking for a test prep service, feel free to contact us for a recommendation depending on your needs.

Which teachers should write my recommendation(s)?
I recently wrote about teacher recommendations, so I won’t go into full detail here, but it’s important that you seek recommendations from teachers of core subjects (English, Science, Social Studies, Math, Foreign Language). You may also request a rec from a Computer Science teacher, but I would avoid seeking a rec from elective teachers (Drama, Band, Art, Business, Engineering, PE, Debate, SGA, etc.) unless colleges allow you to submit recs in addition to core teachers. Not all colleges require recommendations, but for those who do they will want core teachers and preferably from 11th grade. That may be a challenge for students who spent the entire year on Zoom and didn’t really have a chance to connect with their teachers. Contact the college admission office for guidance on this – they will be happy to take calls from students (NOT from parents!).

Choose teachers who can offer specific examples of your contribution to class discussion, your intellectual curiosity, or your resilience in the face of adversity. At the most selective colleges and universities, teacher recommendations can be an important part of the application so treat this with the respect it deserves. And remember, your teachers are doing you a favor. A teacher rec is not an entitlement.

When should we visit colleges?
Many families like to use the summer months to visit college campuses. Last summer was a complete shutdown, but campuses are starting to open up again for in-person visits. Be sure to check the admissions page and register with them beforehand. The best time to visit a college is when school is in session so that you can see actual students, but summer visits are convenient and the admissions office is usually open and welcoming to prospective students. Visiting campus is also a great way to show interest in schools, so if you are able to get out there and show your face, then it’s clearly worthwhile. It’s OK to visit even after you’ve applied and before decisions are made, but a visit before completing the application can save time and assist your student in answering the question, “Why here”? Many colleges ask this question as a supplement to their application, as in “Why BU?”, “Why Tufts”?, or “Why Michigan?” If you can focus on some specific reasons that you learned while touring, then your response will be far more impactful.

If your child is finishing 11th grade and you want them to get an early start on the application, then check out our Summer Application Program which starts June 30. Summer is a great time to get this done so that your child can enter 12th grade with confidence, knowing that this process is behind them.

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