Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | May 30, 2008

Out of the Starting Blocks

Junior high school—or for some, middle school—is all about preparation for high school.  It helps you acquire the skills you need to get out of the starting blocks in good shape.  That is important because four years of high school is like the four laps of a 1600 meter race.  A slow time on any one lap might be offset by a better time on another lap, but there are limits to what you can overcome.  So, the best strategy is to make sure you do your best right from the start and on each lap.

When you start the 9th grade you should have a fairly good idea of what is expected of you as a student.  That is, pay attention in class, do your homework, study for tests and make getting good grades your top priority.  However, to do well you also will need to understand how ‘high schools work’.

Most high schools are designed to prepare students for post-secondary education, which includes college, community college and technical school.  They also prepare students for direct entry into the workforce.  High schools prepare students for these different options by their curricula, which are the particular courses students take each year.  Curricula are made up of required courses that students must take and electives, which are the courses a student chooses. 

If a student is aiming for college then they should make sure that each year their schedule at least includes: math, English, science, social studies/history, and foreign language courses.  Of course, the way for a student to impress a college is to take the most challenging courses available and to do well on them.

College admission panels judge how well a student does in his or her coursework by the student’s grade point average (GPA).  The GPA is a number calculated from a student’s grades.  For example, many schools assign these numbers to letter grades:  A=4.0, B=3.0, C=2.0, D=1.0 and F=0.0.  Additionally, at some schools, students may have the possibility of getting an ‘H’ letter grade for honors courses; an H is often given a value of ‘5.0’. 

So, a student whose report card shows an ‘A’ in math, a ‘B’ in English, a ‘B’ biology, a ‘C’ in history and an ‘A’ in Spanish language will have a GPA of  3.200 [that is, (4+3+3+2+4)/5].  Of course, a semester of straight ‘A’s comes with a current GPA of 4.0.

The ‘current GPA’ is a student’s GPA for that grading period.   The cumulative GPA is a student’s GPA for all of the courses he or she has taken at that school.  It is the cumulative GPA that colleges use to evaluate applicants.

After the curriculum and GPA, the next factor colleges examine in an applicant is their score on standardized tests.  These can include either, or both, the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the ACT exam (formerly, American College Testing). Both of these tests examine verbal and quantitative reasoning ability.  Students typically take these tests in their junior and senior years.  Scores on these tests allow colleges to compare applicants from different high schools because the same test is administered throughout the country and also overseas.

A further factor that colleges consider for admission is an applicant’s involvement in extra-curricula activities.  These include participation in sports, orchestra or band, drama productions, clubs, volunteer activities and employment.  Participation in these activities shows colleges that the applicant has undertaken more responsibilities than was required and has had a broad range of experiences.  Moreover, participation in extra-curricula activities gives teachers and counselors something positive to write about in their letters of recommendation.

High school academics, like sports, is a competition.  Students are competing against each other for the best possible future available to them.  Globalization means that competition includes students from around the world.  As a student starting the 9th grade you have several factors to keep an eye on while you run your race: curriculum, GPA, preparation for the SAT and ACT, and participation in extra-curricular activities.  Doing well in all four areas will help your college applications be the best that they can be.


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