During my children's sophomore year in high school, I watched an interesting metamorphosis take place. Overnight it seemed, the chrysalis of childhood was shed and my young adults emerged. Light bulbs turned on. I believe the reason for this was that they bumped into rigorous upper-level academics for the first time and the shake-up forced them to mature. In courses, lightweight academics will keep your children stuck in childhood. The result of that is not pretty.
It's Time for AP Classes
For college-bound students, it is time to try an Advanced Placement class. This is a college level class taken in high school and followed by a 3 - 4 hour standardized test in May (offered at local schools). While not officially required, AP tests are becoming a standard expectation for admission to quality colleges.
My son knew he needed to take several AP classes in order to prove his abilities to a top college. After much research, (including several homeschool curriculums that claimed to be AP but on closer investigation proved inadequate), he decided to apply for a Biology class taught by Dr. Lauren Gross, Professor Emeritus of Johns Hopkins, taught through Pennsylvania Homeschoolers (www.pahomeschoolers.com). Dealing with an impeccably credentialed professor, a rigorous class load, and tons of practice essays prepared him to ace the AP test and to successfully compete for a slot at the prestigious Research Science Institute, where he worked in a neuroscience lab the summer after his junior year.
A word of caution is needed. There are many people cashing in on the online teaching market. Today all kinds of AP classes are advertised, most of which look insufficient. Just because it is called AP does not mean it is equivalent to a college course.
Below are a few things to consider when evaluating the worth of an AP class.
- Check the instructor's qualifications in the field
- What is their research and teaching experience?
- How many years have they taught this particular class?
- How have their students performed on the AP exam in the past?
- Will they cover all topics on the exam? (check topics out on
- Will there be rigorous training in the essay portion of the test?
- Do they use the standard, rigorous texts in the field?
- How many hours are required for the class per week? A good AP class is generally worth the 10 - 20 hours weekly investment.
- Talk to former students about their experiences with the class
The College Board finally put its foot down regarding its "AP" trademark. Now for a course to be called "AP," the teacher must submit his credentials and syllabus to the College Board for approval. Don't call a class "AP" on your transcript unless it was sanctioned by the College Board and your student took the official AP exam. Also, don't give your students an "A" on their transcript if they score poorly on the test. Admissions officers need to see that grades assigned by homeschool mothers can be trusted.
Instead of AP classes, some families will opt for dual credit at a local university. This can be a good option, but does tend to restrict your student's schedule more and there are the dangers of subjecting immature students to a college-age crowd. Further, the AP classes my students took far surpassed their options at our small local university.
SAT Subject Tests
Formerly known as SAT II tests, these one-hour tests assume a high-school-level mastery of the subject matter in math, science, English, languages, history, or social studies. Many colleges require at least two of these tests; some want as many as six. These are offered six times a year at certified testing facilities, although the language tests with listening seem to be offered only in November. Check out collegeboard.com for details.
If you take an AP exam, take the SAT Subject test as well, since it is so easy to dovetail your study time. For example, in May of their sophomore year my children took the AP Biology exam and the SAT Subject test in Biology.
I do recommend a test prep book and practice tests for each exam as they measure different things. My students try to take about 8 to 10 practice runs on any test they attempt, because much of the secret to doing well is being familiar with the way questions are asked.
It is easiest to sit down at the first of the school year with a blank calendar and map out your study schedule and practice test runs. By getting into the habit of advance planning this year, your student will learn the discipline to schedule in the 6 - 7 tests they will have to take as juniors.
You are allowed to take the PSAT in October of your sophomore year as a test run. Your score will not be available to colleges, so it may be good practice for your students. However, my kids were not ready for this and I was unwilling to blow their confidence by attempting something prematurely. This is a judgment call for parents.
Catch Up if Needed
If your student is behind academically, this is the year you must catch up if you want to be competitive in the college admission process. Many students are still behind in math or science and you must do whatever it takes to finish the necessary classes. Some families hire tutors, allocate more time each day for critical subjects, or work through the summer to make it happen.
Especially in math, the student needs time for concepts to sink in before testing. In other words, don't finish up geometry the week before you take the PSAT. Ideally you should plan to finish all required math courses six months before taking any standardized tests like PSAT or SAT. You need to have time to play with concepts and be really comfortable with them. On the other hand, it is best to take science tests immediately following the class, as many of them require encyclopedic knowledge that tends to drain away with the passage of time.
Your student needs to finish 10th grade ready to take trig/pre-calculus and chemistry in his or her junior year.
Follow Up Academic and Career Interests
If your student finds a new area of interest academically, pursue it. You just might find an unexpected career possibility or opportunities you never knew existed. My daughter loved the genetics portion of AP Biology and that summer asked a local professor to teach her the basics of molecular biology research. He was soon entrusting her with graduate-level work.
Follow Up Extracurricular Interests
Perhaps your student discovers a love of debate or public speaking. This is the age where those skills start to fall in place as well. These are real skills that will be useful as they navigate college and job interviews, give presentations, and engage in life. Just make sure you are pursing worthwhile activities and aren't dealing with distractions, as we discussed in the last column.
The sophomore year is the ideal time to develop a strong leadership record since the junior year is so hectic with college entrance tests. Both my children broke new leadership ground during this year. Austin built a state-wide organization under the auspices of TeenPact Leadership School. With her best friend, Natalie created a nation-wide debate network for isolated students. Single-handedly, she orchestrated a benefit concert to raise funds for a Pregnancy Care Center.
As in academics, we chose to let our children handle tough leadership projects as soon as they were developmentally ready. We were thrilled to watch them rise to the challenge and mature before our very eyes. As a bonus, they had built an incredible extracurricular record by the second year of high school.
What We Weren't Doing the 10th Grade Year
While most students this age are chomping at the bit to get their driver's license, both my students were so busy with academics, leadership, volunteering, and family life that they kept putting the driver's training on the back burner. While possibly not practical for some families, the choice to delay driving is worth your consideration. We all know the gruesome statistics of car accidents involving immature drivers, not to mention the fact that our insurance rates go out the roof for a newly licensed teen boy. I've seen tons of kids get caught in the distraction of working to pay for a car or gas and lose the most productive and precious years of their lives.
While you could say that continuing to chauffeur my children through high school was a burden, I found it to be a valuable time of connection with my academically busy kids. You have to take into account that we severely limited our outside activities and that most of what we did was done as a family anyway, so traveling together was natural. We live in a very isolated area, so when we do something, it's normally a 2 to 4 hour drive. Those hours provided a welcome pause in our busy world. It gave us time to discuss and make heart connections.
During the high school years, many parents drop out of the picture. As a result, my children's friends leaned on me as a surrogate mom, knowing that I was always there in the background to help if needed. Because I was present and observing, I could see problems developing and nip them in the bud. I could give my children advice that was totally lacking in the lives of other teens (including homeschoolers). We became friends instead of adversaries.
This year (and the rest of high school) is not the time to let schoolwork suffer in order to work in a low-wage job. While my children worked very hard when they were young, my husband and I saw this time in their lives as an investment that we were willing to fund. Never again will they have the time to study so diligently, to perfect musical abilities, to hone their skills that would grant them a place in the college of their dreams. However, had they been wasting time or making foolish choices, we would have immediately put them to work or upped the academic load.
This is a precious year as our butterflies emerge and begin to feebly test their wings. They are still unsure of themselves in many ways, but we have two more years to teach them to fly.
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