FAQ Videos

Our college counselors provide answers to the most frequently asked questions about the college application process in short one-minute videos (with transcripts).

For more information, contact a member of our College Counseling Team.

What Is The College Counseling Timeline for SSA Families in Grades 9-12?


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At Shady Side, the college counselors have contact with students and parents at every grade level in the senior school. We believe it is important to create a full and rich high school experience separate from the college process, so in the 9th and 10th grades, we meet with students in groups, to talk about major themes in the college application process. We also run a series of programs geared towards the parents of 9th and 10th graders, called Coffee & Conversation. In the Junior year, each student is assigned a counselor and meets one-on-one or as a family with their counselor about 3-4 times in the 2nd half of the year. Together, students and counselors craft college lists, devise visit plans, research, and create a timeline that works for the student and family. In addition to the individual meetings, there are workshops at the end of junior year and the start of senior year to cover details of the process. As students embark on the process in the senior year, most students have more meetings than they can easily count and work closely with their college counselor to put their best foot forward in every step of the application process.

How Can My Child Best Engage in Extracurricular And Summer Activities?

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Part of getting the most out of the high school experience is exploring new activities and ways to get involved. Here at Shady Side, most students find a couple of areas where they can find joy and contribute to something bigger than themselves. Whatever students are doing, it’s important that they’re doing something outside of class and homework. This is not simply to “build a resume,” rather, it is in these experiences where relationships form and students grow. There is no need to pay thousands of additional dollars for enrichment programs and there is not one magic formula for what colleges look for. Students should seek out opportunities to learn new things, take on challenges and reflect on those experiences.

What Is The Difference Between the SAT and the ACT?

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The SAT and the ACT are standardized assessments used in the college admissions process.

Let's start with how the exams are the same... Both are used in the admissions process, and no U.S. college prefers one test over the other; the SAT and ACT are used interchangeably. Both include an optional writing or essay portion that may be required by some colleges. The tests are both given on set Saturday mornings throughout the year, and can be taken multiple times if desired. Finally, both tests allow students to choose from 4 answers to find the correct one, and there is no penalty for wrong answers.

One difference between the tests is scoring - the SAT includes two sections, each out of an 800 for a possible total of 1600, while the ACT has four sections, each out of 36, with those four subscores averaged together for a composite that is also out of 36. The SAT sections include math and evidenced based reading and writing. The ACT sections include math and English, as well as reading, and most notably, a science section. Additionally, the SAT is slightly longer than the ACT, which is a few minutes shorter and has a faster overall pace during testing.

Because students often perform better on one exam or the other, the Shady Side college counselors encourage all students to try both tests once, to determine their individual preferences.

Is It Better to Take an Easier Class and Get a Higher Grade or Take a Harder Class and Get a Lower Grade?

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The standard response to this question by admissions counselors is: "take the harder class and get the "A."" While the Shady Side college counselors fundamentally agree with this goal, we recognize that it isn't always possible. It is our recommendation that students take the most rigorous course that they can be successful in. In other words, if you think you can earn a grade in the "A" or "B" range in a course, it is wise to take the more challenging option, whenever available. If you believe that you will finish a course with a "C" or lower, however, you are probably better off taking the less challenging class. In general, colleges appreciate students who push themselves to take the most rigorous curriculum available to them; college admission counselors understand that Shady Side’s curricular offerings are different from those at other schools, and they take this into account when reviewing applications! And, always remember that while academics are a very important part of your application, they are not the only thing; it is important to seek balance and ensure that your well-being remains a priority.

When Should I Take My Standardized Tests?

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The first standardized test that most Shady Side students take is the PSAT 10, which is administered in late February of the sophomore year. Students will then take the standard PSAT in October of the junior year. Both of these exams are truly for practice, and have no formal consideration in the college application process, although the junior year exam may qualify some students for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Students are automatically registered by Shady Side for both PSAT tests.

As juniors, the Shady Side college counselors encourage all students to try both the SAT and ACT once, to see if they have a preference, then re-take as necessary with their preferred test. This first exam should take place in the fall or winter of the junior year, with subsequent testing taking place in the winter or spring of the junior year. Often students will take their final SAT or ACT in the fall of the senior year, for a total of 2 to 3 sittings for their preferred exam.

What Are The Components of the College Application?

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Colleges review student applications to better understand a student's academics, extracurricular activities, writing skills, and personal story. Your transcript is the primary document used for academic review -- it will have a list of the classes you've taken, your term and year-end grades for each class, and a cumulative GPA for your high school career. Standardized test scores will be sent by the student directly to colleges. Extracurricular activities are portrayed through an activity list or resume -- students will describe each activity and note the time spent on each. Then there is the personal statement and supplemental essays -- this is a chance for the school to get to know you better. Finally, colleges want to know more about who you are as a student and as a person, which is where your teacher and counselor recommendations will come in. All components of the application matter, and the college office will work closely with each student to put their best foot forward.

How Do Colleges Consider The Differences Between Shady Side Academy And Other Schools As They Evaluate Applicants?

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In a holistic review process, colleges take the time to evaluate an individual student within the context of their school. Colleges visit our school and also spend time with a document called the school profile, which outlines in detail our specific offerings. For example, Shady Side offers AP courses in math, foreign language and computer science only. While some schools offer many more than this, a Shady Side student will not be at a disadvantage because of this. Colleges will look to see what courses a student has taken within what is available to them, and encourage students to take the most challenging classes available for which they are prepared to find success.

What Are The SAT Subject Tests and When Do I Take Them?

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An additional testing opportunity exists in the SAT Subject Tests, which are required or recommended by a very small number of schools, typically selective private universities. Subject Tests are hour-long, content-specific exams given in topics that correspond to the subjects students study in school, such as Literature, Biology, foreign language and others.

Students may take up to 3 Subject Tests on a given testing date, and can test as early as their freshman or sophomore year. (For example, a sophomore finishing Chemistry with a high grade and strong interest in the class may choose to sit for the Subject Test in Chemistry that June. Keep in mind that some additional preparation may be needed, outside of the standard coursework, so students should consult with their teacher prior to signing up for the test.)

The majority of students taking Subject Tests will take them in May or June of the Junior year. In general, when deciding which tests to take, students are encouraged to “play to their strengths” and take tests in the areas where they are most interested or naturally inclined.

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