College move-in days are happening all across the country, despite school at all levels looking different due to COVID this year than it has in the past.
Yesterday, I repeated the same three pieces of First Day advice to our son as he begins his first semester at the University of Cincinnati. It’s the same three mandates I’ve shared with students for years as they begin their first days of college. In reflecting on this advice during our 8-hour drive home, I realized two critical things:
These three keys are as relevant now in the midst of a pandemic than they’ve ever been. In fact, they are more important now than ever before.
These three keys are just as important for high school students as for college students. These three keys can help high school students start strong this school year, even though school looks different due to COVID. However, the way you apply them looks different this year than in the past.
Three Keys to A Strong Start in College and High School This Year
The three keys to a strong start for you this year, whether you’re a college student or high-school student are these:
Start something on Day One of College or High School
The long version of this mandate goes something like this. On day one of school, you’ll get something called a syllabus from your teachers. This outlines what you’ll cover throughout the semester, key assignments, due dates and more. Most if not all of what’s on that syllabus isn’t due today. Ignore that. START IT TODAY. Start SOMETHING today. A HUGE part of becoming a Student is taking responsibility for moving your own stuff forward. That will be more important for you this year than ever before. For most students, there’s not a bell moving you from room to room this year. So take initiative. Start something. Read your syllabus on day one (this is one key that surprisingly few students actually do.) Then commit to the plan to do the work. This means transferring the contents of the syllabus into whatever planning tool or calendar you use. Plan the work. Work the plan. It starts today.
Then, start the first assignment. Read the chapter. Read the rubric. Give some intentional thought to what the assignment is all about. Take the first step day one.
Start something on day one of the school year this year. Do not let your head hit the pillow on day one until you can say that you took the first step in at least ONE thing that you will need to complete this semester.
Join something on day one of the school year
Engaged students are invested students. Colleges host events to boost engagement among students in the first few weeks of the school year. They’re called Involvement Fairs, Engagement Fairs or something similar. Colleges will do the same thing this year, but quite possibly these engagement events will be virtual or look different than they have in the past. No matter. The goal is the same. Get students engaged. For most college students, the easiest way to track down your school’s upcoming engagement fair is to check your student email. If you don’t see it there, Google “[name of college] + student organizations”. There will likely be the details of the event listed right there on the Campus Life page. Worst case, there will be information for contacts you can reach out to in order to get information.
If you have not already, spend some time researching your school’s student organizations and activities online. Pick 2-3 opportunities that light your fire. Then track down how to reach out to them and get involved.
Not ready to sign on the dotted line? Okay, join something more informal, whether it’s a pickup basketball game happening at the rec center, a game of frisbee on the quad, a conversation in the hallway of your dorm where you start by introducing yourself. Or simply JOIN your roommate for lunch or dinner in the dining hall. Extend yourself to others. If you have your eyes peeled, you will see folks all over campus walking around doe-eyed, waiting to be invited to do something, anything.
Will this feel strange? Yup. Unnatural? Totally. Do it anyway. Will it always result in success? Nope. You will face rejection, poor fits, changing your mind, full rosters, lack of response by folks you reach out to, and more. Doesn’t matter. Keep doing it. By the 21st or 25th time you do it, you will start to develop a habit of joining, engaging, reaching out, extending yourself. You are the new kid. This is what new kids have to do in strange situations to form community. More importantly, this is what ADULTS do to get involved. You are now a young adult. It is on you to get involved. Join something today.
For high school students whose activities have been severely impacted or cancelled by COVID, reaching out may be more important for you than ever before, and probably requires more initiative, guts and gumption on your part than ever before. The opportunities are still there if you look for them. Non-profit organizations need volunteers. Your nearby neighbors need help. Your church needs assistance. Your peer group needs community now more than ever, and so do you.
If you’re really in doubt about what’s available to join that is of interest to you, ask someone. Ask your guidance counselor. Ask a school administrator. Ask your parent. Ask your neighbor. Ask your coach. Google local organizations whose views you support, and ask them how you can help. Look up. Look out. Join something.
Say something on day one of the school year
The long version of this mandate sounds like this. College students, your professors hold office hours for a reason. They expect you to reach out to them when you need help. Go one step further. Reach out before you need help. Reach out day one of college.
Even though classes will be held largely online, many or most college professors are on campus and available for student appointments. On day one, schedule one with each of your professors. Worst case, this takes place via Zoom.
The purpose of the visit is to see and be seen. Having read your syllabus (see step 1), you now know what will be expected of you in this class. Let the professor know what you’re looking forward to about the class and how it fits into your overall goals. Ask them how they prefer to be contacted if and when you have questions. Ask them what steps they’ve seen students take who are committed to being successful in this class. Ask them how you can help support them as a student. Ask them what they love about the campus and the school. Chances are, you’ll learn a lot of valuable insights during this conversation. No doubt, you’ll make a positive first impression on your professor. Most importantly, you’ve established a connection that will be easier to continue when and if you need help during the semester than if you waited until you’re in need to reach out to them.
Say something also looks like this: Participate in class discussions starting day one. No one’s dreading online classes more than teachers. It’s hard enough to stare out into blank stares when the eyes are right there in the room. It’s even more daunting for teachers and professors to try to manage a one-way monologue via Zoom when no one participates. Be the student who makes the job of facilitating a discussion EASIER for your professor. Come prepared to class. Engage. Ask questions. Respond. Raise your hand. Say something.
High-school students, this goes for you, too. If you cannot connect in person with your teachers, make sure you send EACH OF THEM an email on day one or at LEAST during the first week of class to introduce yourself, let them know you’re looking forward to the class, offer your help and build a relationship. You have no idea how grateful your teacher will be that you took the initiative to reach out to them.
Start something. Join something. Say something. These are the three keys to a strong start to this school year, and every year. Good luck!
On May 7, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents approved a new “test optional” policy for 12 of the 13 UW System campuses. We did a FB Live video regarding this announcement on May 8. You can view it here. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, the state’s flagship university, will still require ACT or SAT scores as part of college applications. For all other UW System schools, the class of 2021 and 2022 will not be required to submit an ACT or SAT score as part of the freshman application. Here are answers to common questions you may have about this announcement.
Do I still have to take the ACT with all other juniors next March?
Yes. As of now, the state-mandated ACT exam will be administered to all Wisconsin public high school juniors on March 9th, 2021 and is required.
Should I still prepare to do my best on the ACT or SAT? What importance does it have?
Yes. Standardized test scores (ACT or SAT) remain one of the top three criteria for the majority of colleges in the United States. For the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the majority of colleges beyond the UW System, a strong score is an essential piece of your application. Most sophomores and juniors do not yet know the complete list of colleges to which they’ll apply. Ensure you’re fully prepared and have the greatest number of options available to you when it’s time to complete college applications by earning your strongest possible ACT or SAT scores. Proven ACT Test Prep programs can help, or you can prep on your own.
What does “test optional” really mean?
Test optional simply means that you have the option of submitting an ACT/SAT score. You CAN submit ACT or SAT scores. It is not required, and by not submitting a score, you won’t decrease your chances of admission.
What if I have a good ACT score? Will they just ignore it?
Not at all. You’ll still be rewarded for a strong ACT/SAT score if you submit it as part of your application. Test optional does not mean “test blind”.
Should I still submit my ACT or SAT score to a test optional school?
The answer is sometimes. It depends. For insight specific to your situation, schedule a free consult anytime. In general, for “test optional” schools, you should submit your score if it will improve your chances for admission and/or merit aid. Think of your college application as a portfolio that tells the story of you. If your GPA is on the low end of the school’s average GPA for admitted students, an ACT or SAT score that falls within the school’s “middle 50% range” for admitted students could help. You can find the “middle 50% ACT range” on a college’s website or use a site such as collegedata.com to find this. Your score should fall within this range, and ideally toward the higher end of that range. Other factors such as cumulative GPA and extracurriculars can impact the score you may need for your best chance of acceptance.
What about the impact of an ACT or SAT score on scholarships and merit aid?
Many colleges and universities reward strong academic performance with merit aid scholarships. Of the factors used to determine awards, the two most common are your cumulative GPA and ACT/SAT score. In many cases, a score beyond what you “need to get in” can dramatically increase your scholarship, and that extra effort and even expense to prep can make a big difference in which schools are affordable. Since merit aid policies vary greatly, you may wish to contact the admissions or financial aid office of any test optional schools on your list to know if ACT/SAT will or will not be used for awarding merit scholarships.
I still have questions about ACT scores, SAT scores and college admissions. How can I get answers?
We’re always here to help. Email Tom Kleese with questions, call Tom directly at 608-553-3445 or schedule a free consult. Freshman, sophomore or junior year is a great time to come in, get your key college questions answered and develop a plan for achieving your college goals.
Without the right ACT Test Prep approach, it’s the bane of many students’ existence. At 60 minutes, this ACT math marathon is a full 15 minutes longer than English and 25 minutes more than the sprint-length Reading or Science sections of the ACT exam. Worst of all, it’s 100% math, the subject most hated by young minds since the invention of finger counting (and toes for advanced math).
When we work with students for ACT Test Prep, many students generally despise or fear the math section. The most common post-exam text I receive is, “I thought it went well, but the math seemed really hard (frowny-face emoticon)”. Why is that? Aren’t we teaching math well enough in the schools? Actually, it’s not the fault of our schools or our students. And don’t blame it on calculators. (I’ll come back to that point.) It’s more of a translation or transference issue. ACT Math is like a different language. Herein lies the frustration, but also the cure. Interested? Read on.
First let’s start with the reasons students hate the ACT Math Section.
The ACT is a cumulative exam.
No one likes a cumulative exam. The most common question teachers get pounded with is probably, “Is the final exam cumulative?” As a society of learners, we’re better at short-term recall than long-term mastery. (Quick: Who was Gerald Ford’s vice president?) The ACT exam forces you to relearn essential concepts, and this is especially true for the ACT Math section.
Students in Advanced Algebra are focused on this year’s content, not the Geometry they learned last year, or easier Algebra from 8th or 9th grade. Time after time, I see low scores in the Math sub-section of Pre- and Elementary Algebra. Yes, they’re missing the “easy questions”. And since all questions count for exactly one point each, those pieces of low-hanging fruit are just as valuable as the Trig on question #57. During ACT Test Prep, I assign a systematic review of 100 essential math concepts and formulas, most of which they’ve learned, but have since forgotten. “We’re reinstalling some brain software,” I tell them. When you’re working on a problem that involves subtracting the area of one circle from another, you can’t be scrambling to remember the formula for the area of a circle. You have to have it down cold, so you can focus on the real work to be done.
The ACT Math Section is timed.
Set a timer, and then attempt something difficult. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Not much fun, is it? Students take timed quizzes and exams all the time, but most math work in schools and at home is done without time limits. They’re used to practice problems during class and homework. During ACT Test Prep, we don’t “study” for the ACT as much as we “prepare” for it using specific strategies designed for ACT Test Prep. It’s a unique test which requires a unique approach. Suffice it to say that kids aren’t initially prepared for the rigor of 60 problems in 60 minutes, in the context of a four-hour exam early on a Saturday. That can be a recipe for disappointment.
The order is all mixed up on the ACT Math Section.
Math is the only ACT section in which the difficulty level of questions increases from start to finish. You don’t, however, simply move from Pre-Algebra to Elementary Algebra to Coordinate Geometry to Intermediate Algebra to Trig. The content is scrambled, and that conflicts with standard operating procedure for learning math. EX: Learn a new concept based on a similar concept from the day before, watch the teacher do some sample problems, and then work on a batch of related questions for homework. The problems alone are difficult enough without adding the seemingly random order of it all. The adolescent brain isn’t great at multitasking.
The ACT Math section speaks a foreign language.
Okay, here’s a mini-rant on the use of calculators, which you may have anticipated from the beginning. For many good reasons, kids are taught how to use available technology. In this case, that means plugging the right numbers into calculators to get the right answers. That’s a valuable skill, and the ACT allows the use of most calculators during the exam. (Be sure to put in fresh batteries, and make sure your calculator doesn’t get bumped and go into a Spanish default mode. True story.) But more often than not, I witness good students struggle to perform simple calculations in their head or with just a pencil and paper. The ACT is notorious for asking the types of questions which are foreign or certainly less common than what is found in textbooks. What do you do when you don’t know what the question is asking, and that expensive piece of technology won’t help? You think on your feet and problem-solve. That makes kids uncomfortable, but it’s actually one of the positives of this standardized exam. And practice during ACT Test Prep can help with this.
3 Steps to Loving The ACT Math Section You Now Hate
How can we fight the ACT Math beast? When we meet with students for ACT Test Prep, we focus on doing math “by any means necessary”. We prepare for the timing and rigor of the ACT Math section by “practicing how we play”, by tapping into the power of our brains and our pencils and by pushing back when the ACT pushes us to our limits.
I don’t have a quick fix, but these three key steps can help a lot.
Step 1: Don’t wait for “more math”.
I hear it all the time. “I couldn’t do well on the Math section because I haven’t had that yet in school.” The ACT is far less advanced math or trig than most people think. With the right ACT Test Prep, most students can achieve their math goals by nailing the questions they DO know how to do.
Don’t “wait until you’ve had more math” to tackle your first official ACT. Often, students wait too long to prepare for and take the ACT because they believe more advanced math classes will help them. The truth is that by spring semester of sophomore year most students have already been taught 90% of the math content on the ACT. While we end up covering content, we are much more focused on strategies when it comes to beating the ACT.
Overall, the advantage of tackling the ACT exam early (and being done with it by the end of your junior year) far outweighs the small handful of questions that another semester of advanced math would help you answer.
Step 2: Tackle the ACT Math section like preparing for an event, not like math homework.
Doing practice math problems at home alone won’t work. This isn’t homework. It’s preparing to perform in a unique 60-minute event. Everything you do to prep for the ACT needs to be timed, and you need to take a cumulative exam approach. This is why we “practice how we play” using real ACT exams and a real watch to make sure we pace ourselves correctly.
Step 3: Reinstall your math brain software.
Because it’s a cumulative exam, preparing for the ACT Math section will require investing time to remember stuff you KNOW and HAVE LEARNED, but haven’t used in awhile. This is one of the very few times I would support the use of online study aids for the ACT, and only to relearn essential formulas and concepts. Preparing for the ACT will require preparation for the biggest cumulative exam of your life, and that’s especially true of the Math section.
Reinstalling your math brain software also means using your brain and your pencil. We talk about this a lot and we practice this repeatedly during ACT Test Prep. We coach kids on pushing back at ACT Math problems and using their brain and their pencil. Honestly, this isn’t something our tech-savvy students are used to doing, but it’s table stakes for crushing the ACT. Best of all, we find that when students prove to themselves what they’re capable of with their brain, their pencil and some common sense, confidence soars.
It’s surprising and inspiring to see how many math-hating students can learn to love (or at least not hate) Math once they take these three steps and learn to beat the ACT Math section.
Most importantly, to learn to love math more, ask for help.
Find an ACT Test Prep professional who understands the complexities of the ACT Math section and whose coaching style fits your student’s learning style and goals. Yes, I do this for a living and would love to help you raise that Math score as part of our overall ACT Test Prep program. But my style doesn’t work for everyone, so if your child is Johnny/Jenny Technology and wants to do all their prep on a Samsung Galaxy Note-thingy while Insta-Chat-o-Gramming, then they may not warm-up to an old school, back-to-basics approach. Find what works for your student and your family.
Bill Gates said, “Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not.” Whether a headline is good or bad news, Gates is right. You won’t buy a newspaper or click the link to a story about a company’s marginally noticeable process improvement, or about an athlete’s long and arduous journey in daily detail from underdog to middle of the pack.
Here are five headlines won’t generate clicks, or sell books or newspapers.
How To Succeed In One Million(or More) Difficult Steps
Work Up To Average, and Keep On Going: A Slowcooker’s Guide to Progress
Exercise More, Eat Less & Stop Expecting a Miracle to Happen: The Realist’s Guide to Slow Weight Management Over the Long Haul
Reduce Debt Over the Long Haul By Living Within Your Means and Not Buying Stuff You Can’t Afford
The Zero-Guarantees Parenting Method: Even if you Parent Right, Things Can Still Go Horribly Wrong
Perseverance isn’t sexy, but it’s the only thing I’ve found that actually works (most of the time).
There is no magic pill.
High school students come to OnCampus College Planning to raise their ACT scores, find the right college or write a great essay for a college application. We coach them, teach critical strategies, share information, equip them with an action plan and send them out with new skills and whatever motivation we can offer. I wish we had a magic pill that would eliminate the hard work, perseverance and commitment it will take on their part to put those insights to work.
Ultimately, though, they have to really work at it on their own, or it’s just going through the motions. There is no magic pill.
Getting better is better than just getting done.
Around here, we often say, “Getting better is better than just getting done.”
I perform my best when I’m invested in the process (and not just the product) of continual improvement. I must embrace the reality that achieving my goals is about discipline over time, not about finding the right shortcut.
I’ve done too many things in life where I’m doing it just to check off the box, but I haven’t really pushed myself to get better. When I’m tired and tempted to get into check-box mode, I try to dig down and think “What can I do right now to get me one inch closer to where I want to be?” I try to share this philosophy with our students. My hope is that the lessons we share during the college planning process are lessons students can apply in other areas of their life.
When it comes to college planning, I want students to give every little step of the process their all — not for me — for THEM. The work is not for my benefit. It’s for their benefit. Participation in sports, music, theater, clubs, academics, friendships, part-time jobs…all of these things present opportunities to build a part of you that adds up to something bigger.
Each student is on a journey.
We as the adults who love them tend to get focused on all the individual assignments, events, games and tasks. We lose sight of how everything should and could be part of a journey…from the person they are now to the person they want to be.
I could have easily skipped the long walk I penciled in for early this morning. That one walk didn’t really change anything, but it felt good. I know if I keep at it, it will begin to add up as I do more and more. I’m not focused on crossing the finish line. I’m just focused on getting better.
Parents, too, have to focus on getting better — not just getting done.
As parents, it requires discipline to stick to this. Especially when it comes to tough lessons in life, like perseverance, patience, long-suffering or managing expectations. Especially when our child’s in pain. MOSTLY when things aren’t going according to “PLAN” — ours or theirs — and we want to “fix it”. But sometimes if we rush in to fix it or join our kids in the goal to simply “be done”, we miss the lessons of the process. As a dad, I can relate to the desire to rush my sons through tough spots, because being done with the tough stuff is way less painful and more comfortable (for them and for me) than slogging through it and accepting our current reality. Sometimes when I find the strongest urges to “just be done” is precisely the moment that if I pause and resist that urge, I’ll gain the most from working on “just getting better”. Life’s funny that way. It sucks sometimes, too. But hindsight’s taught me this is true both for me and for my kids.
I’m trying to be kinder and gentler with myself as I work on getting better at things that are important to me in life. I’m trying to do the same with our two sons.
I take great joy in watching a student say, as one junior did recently, “Hey this is still hard, but it’s not as hard as it was yesterday. I’m not perfect, but I’m getting better.” To me, that IS a headline.
Barack Obama once said, “If you’re walking down the right path, and you’re willing to keep on walking, eventually you’ll make progress.” Wise words from someone who knows.
I’ve been at this college planning gig for more than 10 years, and I continue to see the same themes over and over again. I find this reassuring because it means that sometimes, what feels uncomfortable and worrisome, and maybe even hopeless, is actually normal. I also have two sons of my own, one in college and one a senior in high school. I’m experiencing firsthand the “messy middle” of being a college-bound student and parent.
I’m learning to be grateful in the middle, both at home and with each and every amazing student I get to work with on the college planning process. Often the difference between gratitude and frustration isn’t a change in circumstances, but a change in perspective. Have you noticed that sometimes the circumstance doesn’t change, but you change and that changes everything? It’s kind of like that.
In my line of work, I have the privilege of getting to peer behind the curtain and get a glimpse into the rather messy, humbling and chaotic parts of a college-bound student’s life. And that is truly a gift. When I have the privilege of seeing the beginning and middle of the process, I can truly appreciate the glorious final outcome. The struggle bears gifts of its own, regardless of the result. It just takes time to recognize what those gifts were. As they say, hindsight’s 20/20.
My In-The-Middle Gratitude List as a College Planner
I’m grateful for Authenticity.
When students come to me, it’s because they don’t have it all figured out. Guess what. No one does! But not everyone will admit it to themselves. Even fewer will admit it to another person. It’s a blessed person who can openly say “I don’t get it.” I’m grateful that I get to be the guy who says, “No one does. It’s confusing. That’s why you’re confused.” Or “It’s hard. That’s why you’re struggling.” And then, “But I can help you. Together we can do this.” And I get to watch the relief wash over their faces because now that we’ve been Authentic and we know what we don’t know, we can make some forward progress.
I’m grateful for first drafts.
We’ve helped students with hundreds of college essays, and here’s what I know. No one goes straight from concept to final, single-spaced, typed and polished final product without a few messy first drafts. The benefit of first drafts is that they reveal where work is needed. They’re about getting a sketchy view of your story, and then stepping back for a few minutes and pondering what the real story behind the story is. Usually, students discover something about themselves between first draft and final essay that they didn’t know before, or that wasn’t as clear as it is now. And it is a privilege and a joy to witness that discovery process. If all of us could learn to appreciate first drafts or first attempts for the messy, sketchy teachers they are, we’d probably all be a lot better off.
I’m grateful for getting off topic.
Typically our ACT Test Prep or College Search sessions with students are incredibly focused and productive. They’re jam-packed with tasks we’ve both agreed are priority number one. But some days we get off topic. On more than one occasion, I’ve had the experience where I can tell a student’s had a particularly rough day, or they’re feeling stuck, or they’re feeling inept. Or the whole big jumbled process of planning for college is weighing them down. And then we take a break, and we get off topic. I share some relatively inane story about when I was a high school student and felt the same way. Or we watch a funny YouTube video as a mental breather. Or I ask them about something they’re passionate about that has nothing to do with college. And in these moments, we meet each other, human-to-human, and we truly connect. Perhaps we didn’t clip through the agenda as quickly as we will the next meeting, but the off-topic moments build trust and build relationship. They’re just as critical to the process as checking things off the to do list. This is true for all of us in all of our relationships. When I can let go of my agenda and let the conversation go off topic, there’s no telling what I’ll learn in those unplanned, “unproductive” moments.
I’m grateful for failure.
Sometimes students forget appointments. Sometimes they fall short of their goal ACT score. Sometimes they forget to do the assignment I gave them. Sometimes they give me some pitiful excuse for why they didn’t have time to study or write that essay or do that research. Sometimes students just come up short. Don’t we all? My usual approach in these instances is honesty combined with grace. I don’t let them off the hook, but I don’t beat them up about it either. Because I know from my own failures in life that failure is its own best teacher. The worse the failure, the less likely I am to let that happen again. So I try harder next time. In working with students, nothing gives me greater joy than watching kids learn from their own mistakes, on their own time. I work with kids in their formative years, when they’re making huge strides in maturity, responsibility, intelligence, independence. BIG STUFF. I’ve learned that if I can stand failure and not shrink away from it, I can learn from it. And my students are learning the same thing. It is a joy to get to witness this lesson in real life.
These are just a few of the things I’m grateful for about the messy middle.
I can’t believe I get to wake every morning and do what I do, and work with the amazing people I work with. And be part of one of the most important phases of a young adult’s life. How did I get to be so blessed? To those of you who’ve entrusted your college planning process to my help, thank you for making me one of the luckiest men alive. Can’t wait to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.
Blessings to you and yours this Thanksgiving. If your middle is particularly messy right now and kind of uncomfortable, and not altogether pleasant, may you take comfort in knowing you’re more normal than you think you are. One day, the gifts of the struggle you’re in will become clear. I truly believe that. I’ve seen it over and over again, in my work and in my life.