College Success

And You

By Gaston Caperton, President of the College Board


ome people just know they want to go to college from the time they start kindergarten. Others don’t decide for quite a while. Either way, it is better to be prepared, to keep your options open. Consider carefully what you would like to do after high school and what you want to accomplish in life, then ask your school or career counselor for the best way to get there. These are big questions; but you don’t have to have all of the answers now. You only need to prepare yourself as well as possible. Life, after all, is a learning experience.

Chances are that your school counselor will advise you to take the most rigorous courses you can. In the long run, these courses will help you succeed in college and your future career.  Right now, challenging courses will help show college admissions officers that you are a serious student ready for college-level work. These courses also will help you to do well on the SAT, the most widely used college admissions exam.  The College Board recommends that students take four years of English, four years of math (including Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and pre-Calculus or Calculus), and a minimum of two years of lab science (some colleges require more), social science and history, and two-years of a foreign language.

In addition to the subject matter, to ensure college success, a rigorous curriculum that develops critical thinking and problem solving skills is essential; participation in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) class during high school will greatly improve the opportunity for college success. The College Board also encourages students to read and write outside of class as much as they can. These activities don’t have to be dull. Make them fun. The college success skills you learn now are also the life success skills you’ll need after you graduate.

Get involved in a couple of extracurricular activities you are passionate about, and stick to them. Volunteering in your community is also a good idea. You’ll help others and learn to work with different kinds of people. Your effort will pay off, too. Many colleges look for maturity, leadership, special talents, and a willingness to pitch in and get the job done—in addition to your class standing, grade point average, application essay, teacher or counselor recommendations, and test scores. Which brings us to college entrance exams.

Why do you have to take a standardized
entrance exam?

Very few colleges have their own entrance examinations. The majority use one of two national exams. Most students take the SAT®, which is owned by the College Board, the association for which I work. In fact, nearly 80 percent of all colleges and universities use the SAT in the admissions process. One of the reasons for this is that the exam was developed at the request of colleges and universities for a standard test that would allow them to compare students from all over the country on a fair and equal basis. Once again, this year, we expect students to take 2.8 million SAT tests, a number that, I’m proud to say, has grown faster than the student population itself. There is a good reason for this.

Colleges can’t learn everything from your application. For example, grading policies aren’t the same in every school. A B in your high school could mean much the same as an A in another school. Even if your A were the same as an A in another state, was the course the same? Yet on the SAT, on which the top score is 2400, a Writing score of 600 or a Math score of 650 means the same thing for all students. It gives colleges a quick way to compare your academic skills with those of more than two million other students who took the same test. That information helps an admissions officer predict that you will probably do well in your first year at his or her college; and research has shown that the SAT is very accurate in predicting the success of college freshman. After all, colleges want to admit students who will succeed.

So, although a standardized test score isn’t the main ingredient in your college application, it is an important one. Be ready to do the best you can when you take the exam.

How should you get ready to take the test?

The best way to prepare is to develop good reasoning and communication skills. You do that when you challenge yourself academically. Before taking the test, it is best to become familiar with the question types and format. Never take the test “cold.”

The best SAT practice is the PSAT/NMSQT, which covers the same topics under test conditions. The College Board offers the PSAT/NMSQT every October. The College Board’s SAT Readiness Program gives you even more test practice, plus a review of concepts, questions, and directions. The program includes free and low-cost materials in print and online. These resources help you do your best on test day. Because the program is from us, the test maker, you will take the test with the confidence that comes from knowing what to expect.

Free resources include The SAT Preparation Booklet, available in high schools, and the SAT Preparation Center at They both include a full-length practice test, directions, and sample questions. The Official SAT Question of the Day is available online and by email.

For more practice, pick-up a copy of The Official SAT Study Guide, which includes eight official practice tests, plus free online score reports. You can learn more about the Official SAT Online Course and SAT Readiness Program by visiting

Some students like to take a review course. Whether you will benefit from it or not depends upon the kind of learner you are. Highly motivated self-starters can prepare on their own easily. Familiarize yourself with the test, try some sample questions, get a good night’s sleep before the test, and remember to eat a good breakfast. You can take a snack along to eat during breaks. If you need the formal structure and discipline of a coaching course, see if your school offers free or low-cost SAT preparation. If you choose to take a commercial course, be careful. They vary widely in content, duration, and cost.  Avoid courses that “guarantee” a score increase, sell “secrets,” or teach “tricks.” Tricks are no substitute for knowledge.

Look at the whole picture.

College admissions officers consider the whole you when they evaluate your application. The SAT is just one part of the picture you paint through your application materials. It isn’t you; it is not your personality, not your talents, not your interests, or the energy you put into pursuing those interests. So do your best on the test, and go on with the great job of being you — doing strong schoolwork, taking challenging courses, pursuing your interests. That is the best way to use high school to get ready for college — and for life.

Sidebar: A Special Note

The SAT has three sections. The Writing section includes multiple-choice questions that ask you to identify errors and to improve sentences and paragraphs. It also asks you to write an essay. The Critical Reading section tests your reading comprehension using short and long reading passages, sentence-completion and passage-based reading questions. The math section covers numbers and operations; algebra and functions; geometry; statistics, probability, and data analysis. These topics are generally covered in the third year of high school math. The SAT was designed to encourage a focus on skills critical to success in college today. To prepare for your future, we recommend that you follow the advice in this article: Read a lot in your spare time, take courses that involve writing regularly, and take lots of math in high school. You’ll build solid skills that will pay off all during your life.