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!


Advice for Freshmen, part 2

Shape your story.

In part 1, I talked about why in freshman year you need to find your academic footing, and flagged some fundamental skills that all freshmen need by the end of the year.

In part 2, I turn to why freshman year is about shaping your story—both in academics and in extracurriculars—and why you should think about how to leave a brilliant track record behind you.

In freshman year, you’re setting yourself up to recognize what you genuinely think is interesting and worth pursuing, and you’re trying a variety of potential interests on for size. You’re trying out sports, clubs, activities, and extracurriculars that make you excited–genuinely, palpably excited–and demonstrating your wholehearted commitment.

You don’t need to be an ace at everything to be a fantastic college applicant. While some measure of well-roundedness is super, students who are the stars of their own stories–those who delve deep into a small subset of activities–have truly compelling stories to tell, and they’re interesting people to boot. You’re going to find the things you absolutely love, and start plotting a path to see how far you can take them. And you’ve got to love them; otherwise, working hard at them is going to feel like drudgery. As a freshman, you’re figuring out what these areas of deep interest are, and starting to map out the path that will let you pursue those activities seriously.

It’s worth stopping for a second here: there’s a difference, subtle but important, between developing deep interests that produce a brilliant track record, and letting the quest for a perfect college application drive your interests. Even as a new high school student, you can direct your own learning and pursue a set of interests enthusiastically and persistently—with no downside. This kind of work is motivating and fun because you find it fascinating. In the lingo, this “growth mind set” is a skill set you’re going to develop as a successful high school and college student. It helps you put your least favorite classes into perspective and to exploit your own strengths to address the things you find less intuitive.

Produce a brilliant track record.

In freshman year, you also need to figure out how your track record of achievement will shape your story. This track record provides natural material for college applications, a handful of activities that show you’ve spent significant time developing serious know-how. Some things leave their own track record: if you’re an Intel Science Talent Search finalist, a member of a nationally-ranked chess team, or a state volleyball champion, you have a brilliant track record of achievement. Some things don’t create a brilliant track record without some extra effort, though. The solution? You’re going to make it happen yourself. Writing magnificent short stories isn’t enough in itself to set you up for a strong application; start sending those creative pieces out to be reviewed for publication in literary magazines.

Your freshman year is the right time for this academic and extracurricular exploration, because you don’t suddenly find yourself on a nationally-ranked chess team; you work consistently hard to get there. You don’t magically end up with an app that goes viral; you write a lot of code and produce some duds and figure it better versions through a lot of practice.

Many of us will end up with a couple specialized interests that take most of our time and effort, and some (seemingly) oddball extracurriculars that don’t fit perfectly with our main interests. That’s okay—in fact, it’s more than okay. The danger lies in trying to be so well-rounded that you don’t shape your story to develop areas of deep expertise, and that your track record won’t show deep achievement.

The summer between freshman and sophomore year is a great chance to follow a specialized interest or two, to shape your story. A relevant internship, a service project for a cause that you’re passionate about, a college class in a subject you adore, a job in a field you’re fascinated by: these are ways to figure out what you love and want to explore. You’re laying the groundwork for the ambitious work you’ll take on later in high school.


In part 1, I show that the freshman year is about finding your academic footing.

In part 3, I talk about standardized testing in freshman year.

Got a story to tell about figuring out freshman year? Drop me a note!


Advice for Freshmen, part 1

Most advice I see aimed at high school freshmen (and their families) about academics and testing is fairly generic and even a bit unhelpful: work hard but have fun too. Get good grades but don’t worry too much if they’re not perfect. Take risks but don’t do anything crazy. None of this is wrong per se, but it’s not terribly useful for those looking for concrete, meaningful guidance.

Since I have strong opinions about all things academic, and I often meet with families for the first time in sophomore or junior year, I wanted to pass along advice I’ve distilled from years of work with high school and college students, about freshman year academics, testing, and extracurriculars.

In part 1, I’ll talk about the importance of finding your footing, and lay out some indicators that you need extra help.

In part 2, I’ll turn to shaping your story, the importance of developing a set of deep interests and establishing a track record of achievement.

In part 3, I’ll address what standardized tests you need to anticipate in freshman year.


Find your footing.

I’m going to make some basic assumptions, and you should adjust your reading based on how neatly these assumptions fit you and your aspirations.

Assumption 1: You’re an academically-motived student, or the parent of such a student. You want to go to a great college and do interesting things with your life.

Assumption 2: You’re interested in the world around you. You want to figure out how you fit into and will contribute to that world.

Assumption 3: You’re fundamentally levelheaded, but you’re concerned either that you’ll miss some vital part of college preparation, or that you’ll get caught in the maelstrom that is New York City (or elsewhere) schooling and college admissions.


In my experience, there’s a rational, reasonable line to walk between avoiding all thoughts of college and making yourself anxious. This goes for all four years of high school, but especially the first year. In freshman year, you really have two overarching goals:  first, to find your academic footing, and second, to shape your story by figuring out what interests you most. In part 1, I’m going to focus on getting situated academically and recognizing when you need to step up and get help.

There’s a lot of chatter among college counselors over whether the freshman year matters academically in college admissions. It certainly does, but not always in the way students think. The freshman year sets you up for high school. This may seem obvious but is worth restating: freshman year isn’t middle school. The work load is heavier, teacher expectations for independent learning are higher, and the pacing is faster. Freshman year is about setting yourself up with rock-solid skills. Either you’ll come out of ninth grade with a solid foundation of basic knowledge, or you’ll struggle to play catch up in later years. Either you’ll develop good work habits, or you’ll wait until the eleventh hour to whip out projects that are “just fine” but don’t represent your abilities.

In your freshman year, your real goal is to put together a repertoire of independent learning skills. Your ultimate goals are to foster an agile brain, develop serious academic depth in some subjects, and become comfortable in the basics across subjects. These skills take root in freshman year.

Some questions to ask yourself:

Have you got solid writing and math skills, or did you mostly fake your way through developing an outline or solving linear equations? Can you gauge when you’re doing well or when you’re a bit lost? If you’re getting nervous that you’re not having an easy time of it, let me assure you: you’re a work in progress with an impressively flexible brain, and there’s more under your control than you realize.

Here are some suggestions for concrete actions in your freshman year:

Start building a reputation among your teachers as a dedicated student and a hard worker. This means you need to work hard, ask questions, and follow up when you say you will.

Speak up in class. If you’re leery of chiming in spontaneously, get in the habit of writing down questions ahead of time based on the homework and reading. Habits like this don’t magically pop up junior year. They start now.

If you’re offered the chance, revise your work and resubmit it. Ask for comments on first drafts, and give your teachers plenty of lead time to respond.

If you don’t have a system for keeping track of homework and deadlines and can’t seem to stay on top of assignments, march yourself into your counselor’s office and ask for help.

Use the year to figure out which advanced courses interest you most, including APs. Make sure you’re on track to fulfill any prerequisites so you can take a few AP or advanced classes in your junior–not just your senior–year.


But… what about grades?

In a perfect world, all students would transition easily to high school and make top grades from the start. Realistically, some students have a rockier road in ninth grade. Strong freshman grades are great, but schools take very seriously a consistent upward trend in grades across the high school career. Ultimately, taking care of fundamental skills and finding your academic footing you will correlate with strong grades.

Plan your progress.

A struggle in sophomore or junior year doesn’t typically come out of nowhere. If you’re learning material barely well enough to spit it out on the test, you won’t be able to build on that information later.

A quick note, though: in freshman year, every snag you hit, every skill you’re struggling with is a teachable, learnable skill. If you recognize yourself in the list of fundamental skills to flag that follows, you’re going to be completely fine as long as you tackle things head-on. When I work with students on some piece of dastardly math, their standard reaction is “I can’t believe that’s all there was to it.”

In freshman year, it is a big deal if you don’t really, truly own a set of fundamental skills. What do I consider fundamental skills to flag? You should be able to:

Read a passage for information, extract information accurately, interpret the author’s tone and intent, and anticipate how this passage would relate other passages.

Write a variety of grammatically-correct complex sentences, identify and correct run-ons and fragments, and use transitions appropriately.

Adjust your writing style to the occasion and use the appropriate tone and format for the genre.

Put together a cohesive, coherent essay with a sharp introduction, appropriate connections between paragraphs, and a clear thread of argument all the way through.

Manipulate an equation to solve for a variable, graph basic functions, and manipulate exponents and roots.

Extract mathematical information from a word problem and translate that information into an appropriate equation.

Recognize math problems (“this is a problem about proportions,” for instance) and internalize orders of operation

Recognize unfamiliar applications of familiar math concepts.


These are, without exception, skills you’re going to need to build on. If you’re having a tough time, get help now. Don’t wait, don’t justify a bad test grade to yourself, and don’t assume things will get easier with a different teacher next year. Get extra help, before things feel grim.


In part 2, I turn to shaping your story, to finding out what interests you most, and to setting yourself up to pursue those interests wholeheartedly.

What do you wish you’d known as a new freshman, or as the parent of a new freshman? Got a story to tell about figuring out freshman year? Drop me a note!