When working with students and families, we always begin with a simple premise: a high school student’s most precious resources are time and energy – and how the student allocates these resources will have a deep imprint on his or her success in high school. As college admissions decisions for seniors begin to roll in, we’ve been reminded that while standardized test scores remain crucially important at competitive schools (which is true despite the continuing trend toward test-optional application processes as Cristiana Quinn explains here), it is never a good idea to shift too much time and energy away from the vehicle which most represents a student’s ability and effort during high school: the transcript.
For many students, the prospect of standardized testing looms large from the moment they enter high school. As a clearly quantifiable measure, it’s not surprising that families focus on testing months (or even years) in advance. While not necessarily wrong to do so, such efforts are best viewed as peripheral to a what should a student’s primary focus early in high school: building a compelling transcript.
At competitive colleges and universities, a discrepancy between an inconsistent transcript and strong test scores can be problematic. Admissions officers may conclude that a student hasn’t worked to his or her potential, spent an inordinate amount of time (and money) drilling for testing, or both. The admissions officer’s ultimate assessment is whether a particular student will be successful at that school if he or she matriculates. Nothing speaks to that question as directly as the student’s high school transcript.
Most independent counselors say that the college process begins in earnest during junior year (when it serves students well to begin taking on a few college-related initiatives). We agree – specifically insofar as focusing too hard on particular colleges early in high school probably does more harm than good on balance. However, from the perspective of a college admissions office and its decision-making, the college process begins as soon as a student’s high school transcript begins to take shape.