Advice for Freshmen, part 3

Selectively ignore testing in freshman year.
(with three caveats)

In the first two parts of this series, I made the case that freshman year is both about finding your academic footing, and about shaping your story by figuring out which academic and extracurricular interests you’re going to pursue wholeheartedly throughout high school.

In this section, I want to talk about standardized testing in freshman year, a source of great anxiety for many students and their families.

In an ideal world, the brilliant track record we leave behind us as we go about our interesting academic and extracurricular projects would be plenty for a college admissions committee to evaluate an application. In this world, however, we need to present a strong set of standardized test scores to make sure an application gets the attention it deserves. In short, a strong set of standardized test scores helps to get you sorted into the right pile of applications from the start. I’ll give my take on standardized testing and the freshman year, and then add short caveats about special circumstances, testing accommodations, and the SAT Biology E/M Subject Test.

When should you start working on standardized tests?

Let’s get one thing straight: standardized test scores are important for admissions, but they’re as much a measure of hard work and dedicated practice as anything else. I tell my students: take these tests seriously but not personally. Tests like the SAT or ACT are teachable, and with one-on-one or small group tutoring we can help you get much better scores, so that you submit a strong application.

For freshmen, though, my inclination is not to spend time on the tests. Ignore them. Instead, get academically grounded and figure out your set of deep interests. Make sure that you truly understand the math you’re doing, and work on developing your skills at reading and extracting data until you’re confident you can tackle any piece of writing, fiction or informational. This is expertise you’ll need in every year of schooling, and it’s best to get these skills under your belt now, in freshman year.

The first caveat: your history and your schedule.

The exception to waiting until later in high school to start test preparation is if you’ve historically had a tough time with standardized tests, or you have a consistently unforgiving schedule where you travel for sports or other time-intensive extracurriculars. In these situations, it’s worth getting started earlier and laying out a concrete plan of action. Get in touch, and we can address your situation proactively and make sure you’re on the right track.

The second caveat: testing accommodations.

Many students who receive testing accommodations in school on an unofficial basis–things like extra time on tests, or splitting assignments across multiple days–are surprised when their requests for testing accommodations on college admissions standardized tests are denied. Other students struggle in freshman year with aspects of their school work, but delay educational or neuropsychological testing.

In all situations, the companies that administer the ACT and SAT look for evidence of an established need for and history of testing accommodations when they assess such requests. The SAT, for instance, has recently decided to grant accommodations based on a student’s IEP. Whether or not you start studying for standardized testing in your freshman year, you need to evaluate whether you’ll need to request testing accommodations, and make sure that both you and your school have documentation that will support your request. In some cases, this will mean talking with a school counselor or seeking outside evaluation. If you need them, freshman year is the time to get on top of testing accommodations.

The third caveat: SAT Biology E/M Subject Test.

If you’re not familiar with Subject Tests (also called the SAT IIs), you should know that some colleges–particularly highly competitive schools–require two Subject Tests for admissions. Each test is an hour of multiple choice questions, and you can take up to three different tests in one sitting. Despite the seemingly-endless list of subject tests, there actually aren’t that many: the sciences, math, history, literature, and languages. Some are notably nastier than others (Literature, I’m looking at you).

Biology E/M is one of the friendlier SAT Subject Tests. But many schools offer biology in freshman year and many of us don’t think about testing until sophomore year.

If your biology class is advanced enough, if you’ve got an affinity for biology, and if you’re not planning on taking AP Biology later in high school, you may want to take the SAT Subject Test in June of your freshman year, right when you’re studying for the final. It’s much easier than trying to remember the Krebs cycle a year later.

If you’re currently a freshman taking biology, it’s worth looking at the differences between the Ecological and Molecular Biology Subject Tests. In the College Board’s language, Biology Ecological “Leans more toward biological communities, populations, and energy flow,” while Biology Molecular is “Geared toward biochemistry, cellular structure and processes, such as respiration and photosynthesis.” In fact, the two tests share 60 questions in common, and only 20 questions are specifically geared at E or M.

It’s also worth looking at sample tests early, to make sure your biology class is preparing you well for the SAT Subject Test. You’ll want to work your way through multiple sample tests, and practice under simulated conditions to make sure there are no surprises on test day.

Onwards and upwards, freshmen!


Got a story to tell about figuring out freshman year, or testing in your freshman year? Drop me a note!