Proud of your high GPA and solid extracurricular participation, you watch as freshman year fades into your rearview. The freshly paved sophomore freeway lies ahead, and you’re in the driver’s seat now.
To be fair, Mom or Dad’s probably riding shotgun, but that’s only in the literal sense because you only have a learner’s permit. After working hard during freshman year, many students think it’s okay to coast through sophomore year and get serious again after that. Big mistake. In the Daytona 500 of high school, you need to always be at top speed, pedal to the metal.
Automotive metaphors aside, if you’re not maximizing your potential at every given moment, it’s going to show later in your college applications. Admissions committees are vigilant in searching for gaps in your academic and extracurricular performance, and they’re not happy when they find them.
Here’s how to make sure your sophomore year is productive, enlightening, and totally gapless.
The ‘sophomore slump’ is a term used for musicians who had a hit record but follow it up with a clunker because there’s too much pressure to match the genius of the first album. A similar slump can happen with grades for high school sophomores, but for the opposite reason.
Suddenly after the intense academic adjustment of freshman year, it can feel like the pressure is off. “Hey,” says the cocky sophomore, “I get this whole high school thing. I’m pretty good at it, too.” While you should definitely be proud of conquering freshman year, you cannot rest on your laurels, my sophomoric friend. You need to be taking the toughest course load that you can handle and performing your best at it. Anything less spells L-A-Z-Y to AdComs.
To echo what we said in the freshman planning post, activities are really, really important. Curiously, many students don’t feel this way, much to their detriment. They think admissions committees are going to be paying more attention to stuff like test scores, but believe us when we say they’re not. Judging your level of extracurricular participation and commitment is a great way for them to discern whether or not you’re going to be an active, value-adding member of their university campus community.
During your sophomore year, you should be continuing your freshman year activities with an eye on leadership positions. If you really love student government or Key Club, consider running for elected office. If you’re enjoying a community service activity but feel like you could do more, look into avenues of increasing your participation and presence.
Finally, consider starting your own activity that aligns with a passionate interest or interests of yours. If you have an entrepreneurial drive and love design, start a t-shirt business. If you’re crazy about programming and also tutoring, consider creating a club that introduces younger kids to the wonders of coding. Whatever you do, be realistic and start small at first, giving yourself room to grow in the future.
Now that you’re a sophomore, you’re ready to be initiated into the world of standardized testing. Here’s an important tip! There’s only one thing in the world that’s worse than standardized testing: the fear of standardized testing. The tests themselves aren’t all that bad. They’re pretty straightforward, and you know what to expect going into them. But it’s the dread of these tests, that lump in your throat and fluttering in your gut, that can really hinder your performance. Brilliant students can botch entire tests from anxiety alone.
The good news is that there’s a surefire way to combat the testing jitters: preparedness. The more you experience and understand something, the less you fear it. Instead of going into a test cold, make sure you’ve taken full practice exams, simulating the test environment—i.e. taking the test in the exact time allowed with only the prescribed breaks. Also, take a prep course if you need to. There are great free ones online (like this, or this), or take a class in person if that’s more your jam.
The first standardized test you’ll take will be the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) in October. Your score on this will determine whether you are eligible to be a National Merit Scholar, a gorgeous feather in your college admissions cap. It can also mean money towards college for about 800 National Merit Finalists, but even being named a semifinalist is an excellent distinction.
After the PSAT you’ll take the SAT and/or ACT. We recommend that students take either one for the first time during the second half of sophomore year or the first half of junior year, at the very latest. You’ll want to give yourself as many chances to maximize your performance and create the best ‘superscore’ possible.
For international students, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam should be taken for the first time during sophomore year. Top colleges like to see a score of at least 100 on the TOEFL with 25+ on the Speaking section, and you’ll have to work hard to achieve that. The best way to prepare for the exam is to consistently speak, write, read, and listen to English, while also doing sample practice tests.
Sophomore year is the time to start thinking about what you could potentially write for your application’s personal statement. We’re not saying you should decide on a topic, but rather that you should consider what makes for a good topic.
- What have been your biggest achievements thus far?
- What have been your greatest struggles?
- Have you experienced failure—not in the “I bombed a test” way, but in the knock-down-drag-out way?
- What qualities make you unique?
- Which extracurricular activity are you most proud of and why?
Consider the answers to these questions as you work towards the midpoint of your high school career. Also, practice writing personal narratives, something you don’t get a chance to do in your schoolwork. Write about experiences of yours, large or small, and imbue the narratives with emotion and detail. The more you write like this, the better you’ll get, and you’ll be prepared when it’s time to start writing your application essays.
Ready for next year? Check College Application Planning Tips For High School Juniors.
Need some help with a college application? That’s what we’re here for!