Monday, October 05, 2009

College Prep 101: A Guide for Middle School Parents

Recently the faculty of JPII sponsored a seminar designed to help parents get their middle school children ready for college. This article is a highly condensed summary of what was said; for a more complete presentation of the seminar, go here.

If I’m a parent of a middle school child, how do I best prepare my child for college? What matters most in the college admissions process for selective schools? Does my child’s EXPLORE score (a pre-ACT test in 7/8th grade) indicate my child in on the right path? What can I do to guide him or her through the early teen years successfully?

In a national survey, colleges claimed the five most important criteria for admissions were: Grades in college prep classes, strength of curriculum, ACT or SAT scores, grades in all courses and admissions essays. However, the evidence suggests the greatest discriminator between selective and less selective schools are the applicant's ACT/SAT scores. Vanderbilt and Notre Dame students, for example, have a median composite score of a 31-32 on the ACT (or 97th to 99th percentile). Rhodes and Belmont students average 26-28 (84th-91st percentile), whereas U. Tennessee and U. Alabama students average 24-25 (75th-80th).

The average grade point averages of entering frosh in all six of these schools only varies by .46, from a 3.86 average at ND to a 3.4 average at U. Alabama, supporting the proposition that test scores matter more than GPA’s. This makes sense: GPA’s vary wildly among high schools, making them an unreliable way to measure applicants, whereas standardized test scores compare “apples to apples”. Should tests matter this much? Probably not, but the reality is that selective colleges receive tens of thousands of applications and must find ways to sort through them quickly.

For similar reasons, we also believe that the difficulty of curriculum taken in high school is an increasingly important factor for college admissions. On the common application now used by hundreds of colleges, high school counselors are asked to rate the student’s curriculum as “most demanding”, “very demanding”, “demanding”, “average” or “below average” compared to their classmates. For students who are serious about getting accepted at top schools, anything less than “very demanding” undercuts their cause dramatically.

If, then, test scores and strength of curriculum matter so much, what does this mean for middle school and high school programs? We must look first at what the ACT test measures. (For purposes of this seminar, we’ll focus on the ACT since it is most common in the south. Many colleges are now accepting both the ACT and the SAT, which ever the applicant prefers.) Surprisingly, the ACT does not assume advanced course work. The Math test, or example, is comprised of predominantly Pre-Algebra, Algebra I/II, Geometry and a few Trigonometry questions. Most of the Science questions are Earth Science, Biology or basic Physical Science. The English test is predominantly reading and grammar, whereas the Reading test measures comprehension and ability to interpret tone and nuance.

It is likely then that by late junior year, when students should begin taking the ACT, they will have covered the necessary topics in high school. HOW they’ve covered these topics, however, is critical: The ACT Science test places a heavy emphasis on interpreting data from experiments, drawing conclusions from charts and graphs and analyzing research. Are students doing these things regularly in their 7-12th grade program? Are students solving a variety of word problems in their Math courses, using manipulatives, drawing sketches, being asked to communicate mathematical ideas to their classmates and teacher, or are they merely learning techniques to solve a battery of similar algorithms? Are students reading consistently, picking out main ideas, asked to discuss tone, working with original documents, reading novels, being stretched in their vocabulary? How strong is the foundation students receive in grammar? Do they know the rules of grammar or do they just pick what sounds right? Students in schools that do these things consistently will improve their ACT performance dramatically.

But how do I know if my child on the right path for a good ACT score? Many schools give the EXPLORE test, a pre-ACT test for 8th graders and the PLAN test, another pre-ACT test for 10th graders. Predicting ACT performance in junior or senior year based on scores earned in 8th grade is partly a guess—there are many variables (quality of school, effort, rest before the test, work ethic during high school) that skew such predictions. Nevertheless, the ACT folks publish estimated PLAN scores from the EXPLORE and also publish estimated ACT scores from the PLAN, so putting these together, we’ve been able link EXPLORE to ACT and make broad predictions, available here.

What, then, are some practical things I can do as a parent to put my child in the best possible position for college?

1) Emphasize foundations. Middle school parents may worry their child is falling behind if he or she is not taking advanced courses in middle school. Don't worry--a thorough understanding of Algebra I and Comp I is more important. Not only will a firm foundation make the curricular “house’ sturdier throughout high school, remember that the ACT does not measure proficiency in Calculus!

2) Once in high school, insist your child takes the most difficult curriculum he or she can handle. Honors and A.P. classes will not only help with the "strength of curriculum" admissions criteria, it will help your child improve ACT performance.

3) Grades, though important, matter less than we may think, so be forgiving on grades, but unforgiving on effort. If your child is truly taking demanding courses, he or she will stumble from time to time. That's OK. Focus on consistent effort and the grades will take care of themselves in the long run.

4) Help your child develop good homework habits. Though it varies based on the child and the curriculum, we believe 10 minutes per grade level is a good minimum, so that 8th graders should be doing a minimum of 80 minutes, even if “he doesn’t have any”. There’s always reading to do, notes to review, a test to prepare for.

5) Help your child say “no”. Students take on too many commitments, hoping that a long resume will impress colleges. Most colleges, however, value depth over breadth. It’s better to be a 4 year member of the Debate team and indicate greater achievement and leadership in the Debate club each year than to dabble with Debate one year and something else the next. Also, being part of an athletic team is terrific, but these days varsity athletes are expected to play their sports year-round with club play and off season requirements; be careful your son or daughter isn't playing too many sports to the exclusion of other good activities, the most important of which is serious study. Kids wear down!

6) Insist on a regular cycle for sleep. Teens don’t get enough of it. Furthermore, they disrupt their body clocks on weekends by staying up late and then sleeping late in the mornings which makes Mondays almost useless as their bodies re-adjust.

7) Help your child develop a love of reading. Read to your children when they’re young, visit the library often, subscribe to magazines of interest as they get older, read books on long car trips together instead of watching DVD’s, become a reader yourself to model its importance to your children, insist on definitive bedtimes but allow reading in bed, and read the books your children must read for school so you can discuss with them. Reading ability is the single best predictor of future academic success.

8) Limit screen time. The average teenager watches three hours of T.V. per day, not counting time on the Internet.

9) Ensure that missing class is a rarity. No matter how diligent your child in making up missed work, the discussions, questions, and back and forth between teacher and child is irreplaceable.

10) Encourage your child and pray for him or her. The teenage years are rife with uncertainty, awkwardness, worry and stress. Prayer will help us keep things in perspective and our teen will be comforted knowing we’re praying for him or her. We can take comfort in knowing our child's future is in God's hands.

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