A PSAT Afterthought – What of that “intended major” bubble?

Last year, I decided that the hardest thing about taking the PSAT was filling out the student information sheet. You know, where you put in your name, school, etc. This may seem rather strange if you’ve never taken the PSAT, particularly since my score left a fair bit of room for improvement. However, if you have taken the test, as all sophomores at my school are required to, you might recall that the information sheet is long, exceptionally complex, covered in long columns of bubbles.
Additionally, there is an entire sheet of codes for your “intended major.” I found this confusing, as I thought that most, if not all colleges do not require that you declare a major right away, or even in your first year. And the majors aren’t broad or general, like “math” or even “biology;” they are highly specific, like “biomedical engineering” and “applied cognitive psychology.” I don’t know even one high school junior who knows, to that degree of precision, what they want to major in. Some know exactly what they want to do for a living, but most of us haven’t been contemplating since kindergarten what our intended major is. A friend of mine just wrote a random code on hers last year. As it turns out, she claimed she wants to major in “advanced choral technique.”
So, I asked around and did my research on how much your intended major actually matters. Apparently, not much. Colleges seem to understand that a typical high school junior does not understand these things. It does help admissions offices know who to send their annoying but often helpful emails to, and what sort of things they might tell you in these emails. But they aren’t going to reject you because when you were sixteen you said you wanted to major in applied cognitive psychology and now you want to major in research cognitive psychology.
So if you accidentally claimed to want to major in fencing, you can rest easy. It’s not the end of the world. The bigger deal is, y’know, your actual scores. Your scores reserve the right to be the end of the world (kidding).

A Last Minute Post on the PSAT

Seriously though, the ASVAB tests accuracy and speed not depth
The best thing about schools is sometimes, they find themselves a sense of humor. It doesn’t happen often, but when they do, it’s almost always laugh-out-loud hilarious.
For example, the typical procedure for PSAT testing is that if you want to man up and take it, go ahead. Or, you can sleep in until ELEVEN O’CLOCK. Seriously. Who would take it under those circumstances (me, but that’s beside the point)? Nobody, that’s who. So this year, the district decided it would be fun to watch some juniors cry tears of despair and utter exhaustion, and make all of them test. Except, they didn’t have the funds to make PSAT testing required. So they needed a creative solution to the issue, and boy, did they find one.
Now, all juniors are, in fact, required to test. But if you don’t sign up for the PSAT, you are automatically required to take another test (AMSELM, AMSLOL, or something?). Specifically, the US military aptitude test. In other words: “Take the PSAT, or have fun at boot camp, kiddos.” Granted, it makes sense to offer the test for those students who are interested in going into the military. There’s plenty of them, and they deserve the same benefits as the college-bound. But it seems a little silly that the test would be required of all students not taking the PSAT.
In either case, I’m definitely taking the PSAT, much as I would like to see what the military aptitude test looks like. Would they have questions about flying planes or shooting people or civil service or laws? Do they make you do chin-ups, the anathema of all sixth grade PE students? Is there an angry drill instructor that shows up and yells until the tiny kid at the end of the line wets his pants? Or is it just a boring test?
Which, of course, brings me to PSAT preparation. Apparently, it’s not like TAKS, where you just write words somewhere in the blank or fill in a nonzero amount of bubbles and hope for the best (at least, that’s what I always do). The PSAT is a pretty big deal, since apparently all your scholarship money hinges on that neat little test.
The degree of freaking out seems to vary between the many groups of the school. Most of the ones who care about these things are either completely self-assured and ready to go, or one step away from a mental breakdown. Everyone else seems to be disappointed that the 11:00 sleep in option isn’t still available. In any case, it should encourage more kids to take the PSAT, which is a good thing. If your school is planning on requiring all juniors to take a test on PSAT day, I have to throw in a recommendation for the PSAT. It can give you an idea for how your SAT scores might look, and again, scholarships abound if you can score especially highly. If you’re interested in the PSAT and want to find more about why you might want to take the test, check out “A Brief History of the PSAT/NMSQT”.

The Great College Class Adventure

At the beginning of the school year, I wrote a post on what college must be like, based on my high school experiences. Now, as I am in a college class (albeit an online one), I can give a more accurate picture of the college experience. Here are a few things I’ve noticed as the school year has begun:

• College professors may or may not care about late work.
So far, my fellow classmate, who is assigned to work on the course at the same time as I am, has turned in a total of six assignments late. She has not offered any excuse for doing this. Either our professor didn’t notice, or our professor doesn’t care. Some professors I’ve heard about definitely would not be fine with this; a friend of mine who graduated last year has a professor who will not take assignments even a minute late. Though perhaps our professor doesn’t actually exist, and we are being gradually brainwashed by a robot. Hey, gotta do something to get through the long hours of block day, why not dream big?

• College classes teach in an entirely different manner than high school ones.
Instead of structuring lessons around units and all lessons in a unit going together nicely, we have currently studied pre-European America, China’s empire, the Salem witchcraft trials, the ethics of slavery, and Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative. This has been interesting, and probably a lot more fun than whatever those smart kids are doing in AP US History. Plus, since the class is discussion-based, we spend less time memorizing dates and more time arguing with each other.

• College classes are a good way to meet strange people.
Online, people tend to be far less inhibited about what they say, and may reveal their knowledge or lack of it in the most amusing ways possible. For example, when we had our discussion on the Columbian Exchange, I learned about the crops brought to the New World, the interactions of the natives and the explorers, and the Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria—you know the drill. But from message board posting I learned that a) the Columbian Exchange is hoax, and Columbus never existed, b) The Native Americans discovered Europe, but the snobby Europeans destroyed all the evidence, c) The Native Americans traded walri and seals to the Europeans in exchange for livestock, and d) The first immigrants to the Americas climbed the Arctic ice with “ice packs” to get across the Pacific.

Conclusion: College classes are like high school classes with an added risk of adventure. It’s like comparing swimming in a baby pool with deep-sea diving. Yeah, high school is safe, predictable, and easy enough… But college classes are liable to include weird people, zombies, robots, loud arguments, and possible lobster infestation issues. Live big, you know?

Putting The “Camp” In Campus Experience

Orchestra Camp can be fun, too!
Orchestra Camp can be fun, too!
Orchestra Camp: Just like Band Camp, only stringier...

After a week of practicing until my fingers just about fell off, I have returned home from orchestra camp. I have to say, I was really surprised. To explain, 35% of the students were bass players (the bass section was largest, instead of its usual place as smallest), only 30 students were present at all, and only two other violists were there!

Because of the small class size, the teachers got to know all the kids really well, and we got a lot of individual attention. As a bonus point, they were the Texas Tech music school staff (not all of the teachers at the music school, that would be way too many teachers), so we got to know what the professors there are like. The teachers were really nice and very helpful, so everyone got along really well.

Plus, getting to live on-campus and see the school is especially great for those of us who have realized that college application time is looming in. The campus is huge, so I didn’t see all of it (the guys’ counselor said that TTU is the second largest in the US in terms of square miles, and second only to the flight academy since they have airplane fields everywhere), but what I did see was really beautiful. It was quite toasty, above 100 every day, but walking around outside at least felt like walking. Here, it’s more comparable to swimming, specifically, swimming in boiling water.

If I decide to major in music and attend college in-state, and, at this point, I have no idea how likely either of those contingencies are, I would want to go to TTU (I don’t think I’d get into Rice, but I guess technically I’d rather go there). The professors I met were fantastic musicians and teachers. Since it was so close to the end of the summer, a lot of students were there, some of them living in the same dorm just down the hall from us! I saw a lot of orientation and beginning-of-the-year type activities going on, and overheard some hilarious conversations of the cafeteria (“Wait, we need to buy the textbook for that class? And we have to read the required reading? I thought it was optional!”).

Seriously though, I think I could see myself going there. Not just because I enjoyed the camp, but more because the campus seemed like the kind of college experience I would enjoy. I guess it’s hard to know for sure at this point, but I think it was pretty good.

I certainly haven’t made any final decisions (or even any preliminary decisions), since I won’t start visiting schools seriously until next summer. I’m glad to have gotten a visit in to a few Texas schools already, though. It should cut down on the number of prolonged trips all over the place.


The ABCs of Choosing Courses

If only choosing courses were as easy as opening the door...
If only choosing courses were as easy as opening the door...
If only choosing courses were as easy as opening the door...

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a high school student stressing about the SAT, or double AP Ultracalculus ABCD-III, or maybe gym class. We all have our worries about the various things we have to do, pass, or ace if we want to succeed in life. Now, when you haven’t started the glorious journey, and you’re planning your courses from your low-vantage point seat of an eighth grader, you occasionally make some mistakes. Like, major mistakes.

At least at my middle school, eighth graders are required, before graduating middle school, to:

  • Choose all courses for your freshman year
  • Choose all courses for all subsequent high school years
  • Choose your top five colleges
  • Choose your intended major
  • Memorize all course requirements (4 years math, 4 years English, 2 years foreign language, so on and so forth)
  • Choose between honors, on-level, AP, Pre-AP (yes, AP and Pre-AP are both offered in some courses), remedial, extra remedial (okay, it’s called “models based”) AB Pre-AP, BC Pre-AP, AB AP, BC AP, and accelerated for all courses

Of course, it’s easy enough to change your 8th grade plan, and most people do about a thousand times before they graduate. Unfortunately, if you get far enough following it, it becomes essentially written in stone. For example, I decided at the mature and responsible age of 13 that I wanted to take my “computer competency” course online (makes a lot of sense, right?).

As it turns out, most online courses are great; you don’t have to deal with crusty old teachers breathing down your neck and you never have to listen to anyone. Just learn material, pass final. Easy enough, except for computer competency. Apparently, the real final exam is actually administered prior to enrollment. Essentially, it’s a web scavenger hunt as the program instructions for downloading your course send you to jump through various hoops on 12 different websites in an epic quest to figure out how the heck this thing is supposed to work.

I spent several hours on, according to my computer history, literally 16 different sites desperately attempting to purchase my textbook and take the friggin’ class. As it turns out, friends of mine have taken gym, Latin, health, and economics online, with none of these shenanigans.

To add irony to injury, when I finally got to start the program, my diagnostic test revealed that I (the person not “computer competent” enough to figure out said program) was in the top 95 percentile of computer competency. This begs the question of how on Earth the other 94% figured it out.

The only thing I can say I’ve learned from this experience: never, ever do what your 8th grade self would. It’s a bad idea.


Putting the Camp in Campus

If you can survive this, you can survive college
If you can survive this, you can survive college
If you can survive this, you can survive college

As we all learned from my last post, summer camp can be the best part of summer (or at least it’s a bit more interesting than doing absolutely nothing). It can also, it some ways, prepare you for college, especially if you get to live on a college campus for a bit and learn your way around. But not all summer camps are like that; when I was younger, I went to wilderness camp every year.

Wilderness camps can also give you additional knowledge about the wonderful world we live in. For example, you might learn that eating cockroaches is gross, and kind of a bad idea. You might learn to check your canoe for leaks before you begin the white-water rapids section of the river. You might even learn that it’s wise to pack multiple sets of clothing.

In the modern world, though, a lot of people devalue summer wilderness camp. They see it as a waste of time to voluntarily remove oneself from the technology of today. Skills like kayaking and mountain climbing are totally useless, they may argue, and no one really needs to deal with that many insects. I think, though, that I still like going to camp in the middle of nowhere. I miss it. And that’s not just because it was fun.

Camp gives you a chance to learn how to take care of yourself, and makes you face your fears. For instance, at camp, participants must be able to squash bugs, hike miles upon miles uphill, eat weird food they’ve never had before that probably was frozen for several millennia by an ancient alien civilization, and handle their own problems, like when they tip over their boats and all their supplies are gone forever (yes, I’m speaking from experience here). Being able to solve problems and go with the flow (of the river that just stole your worldly possessions) really helps in life, and it definitely has helped me, at least, feel less apprehensive about college.

The idea of going to college is scary; you won’t know anyone there, nobody is there to make sure you brush your teeth, do your homework, or wear clean clothes. I guess you have to make yourself be good, and relatively clean. Going to camp has helped me prepare, though, because you don’t have anybody to baby you there, either.

So although I doubt the sanity of those who shun air conditioning in the heat of summer, and although I don’t miss the horror of seeing everything I own floating away, I’m glad I went to camp. I learned things there I wouldn’t have been able to any other way; I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn how to handle stuff on your own.

But not if you don’t really like bugs. And alien food. Because those are both a given.

Parents (Still) Just Don’t Understand

You can't spell procrastination without S-A-T
You can't spell procrastination without S-A-T
You can't spell procrastination without S-A-T

One of the best things about summer vacation is the fact that you don’t have to worry about the numerous responsibilities that you (probably less than willingly) agreed to take on during the year. One of the worst things is that some adults just don’t get it. If I made a list of the worst birthday/Christmas gifts I’ve ever received, topping the list are three things in particular: a used gift card (no money left on it at all), hand-me-down socks from my cousins who live on a farm in Nebraska, and an SAT prep book. Now, the prep book may be by far the most useful, but you have to see where I’m coming from. Nobody wants homework for a present.

Unfortunately, grandparents don’t really see it that way. And parents like to set deadlines. So mine told me to finish the first section by yesterday. So, of course, I procrastinated until the day of the deadline, since I always work fastest given an approaching limit. I thought this would work out fine. But things went from fine to pretty bad awfully quickly. One of our neighbors called and asked me to babysit at the last minute. I love babysitting, but her kids (three boys, aged 1, 3, 5) are a real handful, and they stay up all night-I’m talking later than I usually do. I spent six extremely exhausting hours running up and down stairs, cleaning up spills, and mitigating arguments. When I got home, it was 11:27 (in case you’re wondering, that’s when their parents got home. They still weren’t asleep). On a typical night, 33 minutes would be just enough for me to blitz through a section of SAT prep, but that night, it was way beyond me.

So as it stands today, I may or may not be up to this book. Of course, I could work on it now, but that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? In any case, I’m wondering how much I really need it. I probably do; I know pretty much everyone’s scores go up if they study or practice or whatever you want to call it. But I felt like I should know exactly where I’m starting. Otherwise, how will I know if I’m learning anything? Despite my less-than-illustrious start to SAT prep, I decided to take an SAT practice test online. The results were interesting. I got an 800 on math, but I missed two questions (I know this happens sometimes, but I’m not sure if two questions is too many). I only got a 640 in writing and 580 in reading, but when I looked at the answers and explanations, several questions had statements such as “The correct answer is D. A is the correct answer because…” and full explanation for why A was correct following. When I recalculated my scores using the second answer, I got an estimated 680 in writing and 720 in reading. A decent place to start, I guess, but still, I have to wonder about the accuracy of that one. Most practice tests, I’ve heard, overestimate what scores you’ll get on the tests, because of no essay section and no accurate way to scale. Also, given the scoring mistakes (and the whole not-so-qualified random internet test, oops), I’m going to have to take the scores with a grain of salt.

As it is, I’m back to studying. Three cheers for summer. So far, I haven’t managed to read past the introductory section with “Major test-taking strategies.” They don’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but maybe they will once I actually try them on a test; we’ll see. For now, I’m just hoping I don’t have to babysit any more.


Lies, Damned Lies, and … College Applications?

Do College Applications call for True Lies?

There are some circumstances in life that require a less-than-entirely-truthful approach. Think of job applications, or signing the yearbook of that kid who sat next to you in sixth period, the one who kind of smelled and who you didn’t like much. College applications require a different kind of dishonesty; they don’t really provide space for you to furnish all the details of your numerous escapades. You’re not supposed to lie, but you have to shorten some things.

Do College Applications call for True Lies?

Honestly, a flat-out lie might be more truthful. In any case, I’ve been looking over myhigh school records and achievements. I personally found that there were few things that could be considered application-worthy. To make things worse, I’ve seen what applications are supposed to look like when you’re done with them. They all seem to be bursting at the seams with volunteer work, club membership, and academic decathlons (bonus points to anybody who actually knows what an academic decathlon is; I don’t). Basically, all of it sounded really boring. But when I looked at what I’ve done, I realized that while I probably should be doing more, I have a decent start already.

1. What it will say on my college applications: I made Region Orchestra every year since starting high school. Last year, I was ranked third in the region.

What really happened: A bus broke down so a bunch of kids couldn’t try out. Half of them, actually. My friends and I spent most of the audition day convincing freshmen that the audition cuts included “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga and trying to steal each others’ instruments (1 success with the Bad Romance efforts, no successes in stealing).

2. What it will say on my college applications: I attended All-State Solo and Ensemble competition and received ratings of 1’s and 2’s in a total of three events.

What really happened: I got to take a charter bus to Austin, hang out with my friends for seven hours, and eat Chipotle. I played my instrument for a grand total of eight minutes out of the twenty hour trip.

3. What it will say on my college applications: I participated in the school musicals every year, and in our school symphony orchestra.

What really happened: I discovered that playing in the musical means getting to hang out with the theater kids, who everyone knows are way cooler than orchestra kids. Plus, they have to put up with us, or perform their musical minus the music (which, according to a band legend, happened one year). Symphony means going to IHOP with the band kids and staying up late at clinics with weird old professors.

Together, all of it meant laughing a lot and having the time of my life. Looking in to what I’ve done so far provided some valuable insight: Extracurriculars don’t have to be grueling time-suckers that steal your soul. Crazy, I know. But the only good thing about college applications is that you can put almost anything on them. They’re your story, so you have the freedom to write them as you please (side note: I personally do not recommend trying to start a walrus-hunting club, even if you really enjoy it). I know my approach will be to simply do the best I can with what I love to do: waste time, eat good food, and trick credulous freshmen in to believing the most ridiculous stuff I can. So far, it seems to have served me well enough.


Choosing a Science Class Isn’t a Science

In the curriculum of many schools, the core subject that gives high school students the most freedom to choose what specifics they want to study is science. You have to take some basic courses, but are free to take, or not to take, a second year of biology, chemistry, and/or physics, or a first year of a “specialty subject” in science, like marine biology, intro to engineering, aerodynamics, and a lot of others (side note: floral design is considered a specialty science. Yes, science).
If you took your science classes in the typical order and didn’t opt for IPC or your school’s equivalent science course (an introductory class to help prepare you for the basic sciences), then senior year, you have a lot of options. To move from the general to the specific—I have a lot of options.

The only ones that count for AP credit, at least that my school offers, are second year biology, chemistry, and physics. I opted out of honors for my chemistry and physics classes, so I probably wouldn’t have a very good time in AP Chem or Physics. My teacher last year did recommend that I go for the three AP sciences approach, but I’d rather retain my sanity, thank you very much.

At this point, it’s looking like I’ll be taking AP Biology and one or two specialty sciences. I’m good at science, and I’ve managed to free up my senior year quite a lot by taking multiple online classes, though that’s its own story. I think I want to take Anatomy, but who knows what sciences will be offered next year, since apparently, they’re cutting down the number of small classes. We’ll see.

I’ve talked to my school counselor about it and got no information, because the school’s “houses” got rezoned this year and I now have a new one who has no idea what’s going on. Some of my friends recommend choosing lots of non-honors specialty sciences, and others say forget everything that isn’t AP. From what they’ve said, I think I’ll do a bit of both.
Specialty sciences aren’t especially difficult, for the most part (I did hear aerodynamics was positively wicked hard, but that was from a dubious source). But apparently, they allow you to figure out what you’re good at, and what you want to do. I could use some career help, so I’ll be giving it a try. One girl discovered that her life dream is to study birds in South American rainforests that will unfortunately all be extinct by the time she’s gotten her Ph.D. Maybe I’ll discover something just as good…

To Read or Not To Read?…

Start reading before you're old enough to go to college.

English teachers have a natural propensity to assign reading. For the most part, this is simply an unfortunate side effect of the nature of the class they teach, and not intended maliciously, with some notable exceptions. Most students, even honors students, don’t even begin the reading, and even fewer finish it. I won’t lie; I don’t finish it every single time exactly when I should, but I personally always have the material read by test day at the latest.
I would recommend it, for a few different reasons. First off, you’ll do better on the tests/quizzes/dreaded “reading checks” if you prepare ahead of time. Sparknotes, cliff notes, etc. can be very helpful in refreshing your memory if it’s been awhile since you’ve read the work or if you can’t understand it much (think A Tale of Two Cities). But even though some kids effectively rely on these resources instead of reading throughout high school—it’s certainly doable—their usefulness slowly diminishes as you move through school. For example, in elementary school, I’m not convinced reading the assigned books would have actually been any more useful than Sparknotes on the test. Maybe that’s just me, but at that point, all our tests were plot-based. When it comes to analyzing texts on a deeper level, though, “cheating manuals” become unhelpful.
Besides just boosting your grades, reading the assigned material teaches you to read better, a skill that is overwhelmingly useful on college-entrance exams like the SAT and ACT. A lot of kids I know who struggled with the Reading sections wished they read more often, as it’s a great way to prepare long-term (although reading 2000 pages a night starting a month before the test won’t help; at that point, you should get a study guide and/or take a class). And reading skills are great once in college. After you hit the level of about high school English III, you’ve passed the zone where all works are abridged on Sparknotes.
Our current read is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If you somehow avoid having this book assigned—read it. It is hysterically funny and speaks volumes about controversial issues of Twain’s time, many of which are relevant today. So far, I’m the only person I know who’s read the whole thing. I loved the novel, and it’s made me wish that I’d read more in middle school. I was the type to not even bother reading a plot summary and just guess on the tests. I wish I’d read more in middle school (I don’t, however, regret sitting out on Call of the Wild or Tom Sawyer, as they were boring as dirt), and I really enjoy English class when we get to have student-led discussions of the works we’ve read, especially now in our humor unit.
At risk of sounding like a crusty old librarian, I have to advise reading that book your English teacher just gave you. It might even be good.