Sophomore year continues the journey toward discovering your interests and preparing for college admissions. Whether you aced freshman year and are eager to continue building your admissions profile, or you got off to a shaky start in high school and want to refocus on your priorities, sophomore year is an important year for admissions. It’s one that can make or break admissions chances to selective schools, and one during which you are exploring your interests and laying the foundation for the rest of your high school years.
Extracurricular activities can be any activity you participate in outside of the classroom. They can be clubs and organizations, summer activities, volunteer projects, sports teams, and more. At extremely selective schools in particular, admissions officers like to see about 8-10 extracurricular activities over your high school years.
College admissions officers use your extracurriculars to evaluate your abilities and understand what you're capable of completing outside of the classroom.
Staying late after club meetings to help clean up and discuss upcoming projects with current leaders. Signing up for more responsibilities and demonstrating that you’re committed to the activity because you’re always willing to show up and do the work. Making friends with current leaders or other members so they recognize your passion for the activity and your potential for leadership.
You’ve probably been a member of some of your extracurricular activities for a full year or more now, so you have a feel for how the activity works and whether you like it or not. Sophomore year is the best time to critically assess your extracurricular commitments and be selective about which to continue pursuing — if you wait until junior year, you may not have time to develop those key extracurriculars into activities of substance that you can discuss in your college applications.
If you really love a certain extracurricular, you should definitely stay involved! If you aren’t a huge fan of an activity, though, you have a decision to make. Is the activity worth your time?
At the same time as you’re pruning away activities that aren’t meaningful to you, you should be leaning into activities that are important to you and seek leadership positions with increased responsibility as you move through high school.
Leadership positions in some activities are a little hard to plan for — for instance, you can never count on the results of an election, and application-based positions are still subject to the discretion of the consultant or other authority figure selecting the leader. It’s your responsibility to put in the most effort that you can to demonstrate that you’re a worthy candidate for a leadership position in the activities you’re passionate about.
Time sinks are activities that take up many hours per week but aren’t really doing anything for you.
For example, maybe you joined band in middle school as a required elective. Now, in high school, you practice your musical instrument and attend rehearsal for 5 hours per week outside of the school day. If you don’t really enjoy band and don’t see yourself being a professional musician in the future, you might consider that band is a bit of a time sink — something that you’re spending a lot of time on but aren’t getting a lot out of.
It might be the best decision to quit band and focus those 5 hours per week on something you’re truly passionate about.
The PSAT is the “Preliminary SAT,” also sometimes called the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). Your school usually sets up a session for you and all of your interested classmates to take the PSAT twice, once in sophomore fall and once in junior fall.
The PSAT doesn’t have a direct impact on the admissions process, unlike the SAT and ACT. Taking the PSAT is an informal way for you to practice your standardized testing skills and gain an understanding of your relative performance on a test similar to the SAT, so you can begin composing your SAT/ACT study plan and forecasting your admissions chances at colleges of interest.
However, the PSAT in junior fall is somewhat important in that it is an opportunity to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship program. The National Merit system awards honors to students who have the highest PSAT scores in their locality, their state, and ultimately the country. The highest level of the competition awards monetary scholarships, but even the lower levels of the competition provide distinctions that can be important in the admissions process as signals of your academic ability.
The students with the most successful SAT scores are those who start preparing as early as possible, usually in the latter half of sophomore year. After taking the PSAT in sophomore fall, you’ll probably have some idea of your projected performance on the SAT. If your score seems to be within your target range for admission at the schools you’re interested in, it’s still important to study for the SAT and maintain or, better, improve that score to maximize your chances.
If your score seems too low, you’ll want to work even harder to identify your strengths and weaknesses (are you a pro at English but struggle with geometry questions in the Math section?) and focus on those before you take the SAT for real.
In sophomore year, make a general plan for when you want to take the SAT for the first time (junior fall is a good goal) and then work back from the test date to plan how many full practice exams you want to take and how many hours per week you want to spend on practice problems. It’s a good idea to use the summer after sophomore year to do a lot of SAT studying because it’s harder to study for standardized tests during the school year when you’re juggling homework and extracurricular activities.
While extracurricular activities and standardized testing should be on your mind as a sophomore, your primary job is still to do well in school and demonstrate an "upward trajectory" of class difficulty for your eventual college applications. Admissions officers at selective schools like to see students take at least one AP class if their high school offers them for 10th graders, with the rest of your core subjects (math, English, etc.) being taken as Honors or Pre-AP level courses. Depending on the number of AP classes your school offers, you might want to take more than one AP class in sophomore year. For selective schools, your ultimate goal should be to take as many AP classes as you can by senior year (that you can handle), taking more classes each year. So, to make a plan, you might want to start with the maximum number of APs that you could take in senior year. Let’s say its 5. In junior year, you might want to take 3-4, and in sophomore year you want to take somewhere between 1 and 3.
AP classes are an important factor in the admissions process because they have relatively standardized curriculums across all schools, which allows admissions officers to easily compare the rigor of your high school course schedule with that of other applicants. Thus, you should be trying to take as many AP classes as possible, taking more each year of high school. We get asked all the time whether there’s a magic number of AP classes that you have to take to get into selective colleges. The answer is that the number depends greatly on the number of AP classes that your school has to offer. Admissions officers consider the context of your school, and want to see that you made use of all the academic resources at your disposal. So, if your school offers 10 AP classes total, you want to take as many of those 10 as possible over your entire high school career, probably at least 8 for admission to selective schools. But if your school only offers 3 APs, it’s okay to only have 3 AP courses on your transcript!
You have two main options for the summer: you can participate in an organized activity like a summer program, or you can craft your own path. Either option is equally valid in the admissions process, as long as you spend your time learning something (whether academic or life skills) and exploring your interests and passions.
Formal academic summer programs are often run by colleges and provide excellent opportunities to diversify your understanding of a subject that you’re interested in. There are also study abroad and leadership programs that provide great experiences to write about in your eventual college essays. If you’re interested in a formal summer program, make sure you stay on top of application deadlines, which usually fall somewhere between January and March.
If you’re more interested in crafting your own summer, there are a ton of ways to demonstrate valuable skills. You could get a part-time job, which shows admissions officers your ability to maintain a schedule and work hard (and also earn some money!). You could start a personal project or teach yourself a new skill You could explore internship or volunteer opportunities at local companies or non-profits. If you’re spending your summer doing something that interests you and that you’re genuinely excited about, you’re on the right track.