For students applying to competitive high schools, eighth grade can be a stressful whirlwind of tests, applications, school visits, and emotion. Over the past decade, we’ve learned through our one-to-one work with students that setting up a solid foundation in seventh grade can bring a measure of calm to the process. Here’s what seventh graders and their parents need to know and do to make the most out of this pivotal year!
The most important thing seventh graders can do is build critical math and reading skills. Solidifying these skills will enable them to perform well on high stakes tests, earn good grades, stretch themselves as learners, and work independently. [A special note for students applying to Chicago Public School Selective Enrollment High Schools: seventh grade grades are one-third of the admissions criteria. For many students, even one B will put them out of the running.]
Basics. Basics. Basics. You might assume that seventh graders can rattle off their times tables, find their way around a word problem, and recognize an answer that’s way off base. But that’s not the case for all students. Even those in advanced classes often need to brush up on their foundational skills.
Mastering these skills before eighth grade is important for a few reasons. First, calculators are not allowed on most admissions tests. Students must be comfortable with the basics so that they trust their mental math and can solve more complex problems by hand.
Second, the timing on admissions tests is tight. For example, on the quantitative section of the HSPT (High School Placement Test for admissions to Catholic schools), students have just 30 minutes to answer 52 questions! It’s not surprising that students who have never had trouble finishing a math test run out of time on these. In order to answer the questions more quickly, students must know their fundamental math facts.
Third, apart from being prepared for admissions tests, students who know their math basics will be able to extend their math learning. They’ll then be ready for advanced math classes by the time they start ninth grade. At many high schools, the math class a student takes freshman year dictates which math classes they’ll take the rest of high school. In other words, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to “jump” to a higher track sophomore, junior, or senior year. So students need to understand that the learning they do (or don’t do!) now will impact their academic progress down the road.
You know what makes a good reader? Reading. Every day. Students who are “at home” with a variety of genres will have an easier time not only on the reading section of tests, but also on the language sections that assess punctuation, grammar, usage, etc. So it’s important to expose your child to short stories, novels, newspapers, and poetry. Learning how to read short nonfiction passages is especially important since students don’t see many of them in school. They’re all over high stakes tests! Reading articles like those found on the Smithsonian Tween Tribune website will help students get the hang of that specific format.
Similar to math, the timing of the reading sections on standardized tests can trip up students. They must be able to read fluently, which means quickly, smoothly, and accurately. Good fluency helps with more than just timing; it also boosts comprehension. Again, daily reading will help with fluency, and high interest material is especially effective here. We’ve had great success with graphic novels!
Speaking of comprehension, it’s also not uncommon for children at this age to struggle with the questions that require them to make inferences, or read between the lines. Talking and writing about what they’ve read enables them to engage more deeply with a text. Bonus: all of this reading will build their vocabulary, another area of weakness we see all the time!
High school admissions gets more competitive every year, and we see that take a toll on both parents and children. It’s important to recognize and validate the anxiety before taking steps to reduce it. Tune in to what your child might be hearing from friends at school (yes, even in seventh grade). You’ll be amazed at some of the rumors and assumptions surrounding testing and admissions requirements!
In our work with students, we talk through what they can and can’t control in situations that cause them anxiety. For the aspects they can control, we teach and practice strategies that give them ownership. Letting go of what they cannot change is often just as impactful as taking charge of what they can.
Be aware of what you’re communicating to your child, too. Are you having conversations that encourage them to find a best fit school? Do they feel that you’ll still be proud of them if they don’t get accepted to their top choice school? Are they getting the message that while the high school admissions process is important, it is only one piece of their life?
While it’s too early to visit high schools in seventh grade, it’s not too early to pinpoint what you and your child want in a high school. Make a list of your must-haves, deal breakers, and hope-to-finds. Then start researching! Seventh grade is about understanding what your child needs to thrive – not just survive! – and discovering all of your options. You’re bound to find schools you’ve never heard of, and change your mind about others.
One caveat: Everyone will have an opinion about where your child should go! Be careful about making decisions based on others’ input. Do the work to that will enable you and your child to make informed choices.
Laying groundwork in seventh grade will reduce stress, build confidence, and solidify skills. These efforts will help not only with admissions, but also with the day-to-day work once they get to high school. Contact us if you’d like to learn more about how 1:1 tutoring can keep your child on track!