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Collegebound? What to Do in 9th Grade, Part 2

By Debra Bell | June 22, 2021 | by Debra Bell, High School, Homeschool For Success

This is the fourth in a series of decisions to make for the collegebound student. See the previous mission-critical decisions here, here, and here. Grab your planning grid here.

The best advice I have for teens who want to get into the college of their choice and earn the maximum amount of scholarship money is this: Approach high school like an athlete in training. Begin with the end in mind. Be strategic and intentional. Focus on the essentials. Don’t sweat the little stuff. Give yourself as much time as possible to get into the best academic shape of your life. Every decision you make about your academics, your extra-curriculars, your summer break, and where you work should set you up to attain the goals you have for yourself post high school.

Mom’s and Dad’s job: To support your ambitions, not determine them.

And what about the teen who just isn’t sure, or focused, or motivated? (Certainly a large portion, especially early in high school!) Parents, you can best help by assuming the role of a coach who inspires, who disciplines, who provides the training, schedule, and equipment, and who red shirts an athlete who is just on her or his own timeline. (That might mean taking 5 years for high school or a gap year between graduation and college entrance.) One thing a good coach doesn’t do is play the game for the team or drag a reluctant player through the motions.

With that framework in mind, let’s look at the second most important decision to make in 9th grade (or whenever your child is ready to start assuming responsibilities for her or his high school career.)

As early as possible, determine the Advance Placement (AP) or College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams your collegebound teen should start preparing for. Scoring high on these exams earns your child college credit at the lowest price possible and ticks off credits toward a degree early. Almost all universities and colleges in the U.S. award credit (without charging you for this). The score your child must earn, and the amount of credit received, will be listed on the school’s website.

Because top scores are so valuable in terms of college admissions, college credit, and scholarship consideration, the astute student will give herself or himself several years to master the content and skills on the target exams. That means taking classes or using curriculum in 9th and 10th grade that lay a solid foundation for the content and skills on the intended CLEP or AP exam.

For example, if your child might eventually sit for the AP U.S. History exam, complete a solid high school-level American history course in 9th or 10th grade, then take an AP U.S. History course in 11th or 12th, followed by the AP U.S. History exam. Use materials in both the high school history course and the AP course aligned with the AP U.S. History course description available on the CollegeBoard’s AP Central website.

You might also want to invest in a few study aids or a vocabulary program aligned with the exams your child is targeting—nothing too intense, just some fun resources that get your kid familiar with the terms and key concepts in a particular subject area—long, slow training is better than a short, fast (cramming) approach to mastering material. Quizlet or Brainscape Academy both provide online AP flashcards or you can purchase print versions from Barron’s on Amazon, as examples. Documentaries are another excellent resource for laying down fundamental understanding in a subject area—it’s always advantageous to get a broad global view of a subject before diving into the specifics.

CLEP exams are shorter and easier than AP exams—most are simply a computer-based series of multiple-choice questions—so any collegebound student can succeed on these. Students can retake the CLEP exams until they get their desired score, and exams are taken at your convenience at a local test center. You register online for the exam (bypassing negotiating with a local school official as you must to sit for an AP exam). CLEP exams can also be taken during college (that’s when my sons used them). So they are a great option if the goal is merely to earn college credit. Course descriptions for CLEP exams can be found here.

The AP exams are a much better choice for students seeking scholarship money.

How many AP or CLEP exams should your teen take in high school? That number should be driven by your teen’s interest in the subject matter and her or his willingness to prepare for the exam. It is better to take a few and score high than a lot and score middling (the exception is CLEP exams taken to earn credit and not intended to be reported for college admissions.)

I highly recommend the AP English Language exam for ALL collegebound teens because preparing for that will help your child learn to write well (the no. 1 goal for 9th grade). And that skill is going to come in handy in multiple places during the college admissions process! AP English Language will also help your child learn to read critically and expand her or his vocabulary—all skills measured on the SAT and ACT entrance exams, so prepping for this one exam covers several essential bases for you.

Take a look at these foundational courses at Aim Academy for 9th and 10th graders and their corresponding AP course:


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