By senior year, you've had at least 13 years of writing instruction and at least 13 different ideas of what good writing is. You know you should "show, don't tell" and "use 5 paragraph essay structure" and maybe even "kill your darlings," if your writing teacher was particularly savvy. But those tips will only get you through revision. Then what? Use these four tips to make all your writing sing.
1) Abolish adjectives and adverbs. No, really, if every noun needs an adjective and every verb needs an adverb to paint your picture, your nouns and verbs are not strong enough. Sure, the character in your story could live in a "cozy little house." Or she could live in a "cottage," which is a house with the "cozy" and "little" built right in. The difference is denotation vs connotation. A word's denotation is its dictionary definition--a house is a structure people live in. The connotation is what the word makes you think of--cottage, hovel, mansion, hut, lean-to, cabin, foxhole--all of these words connote different things, but they are all "structures people live in." Similarly, "'That's awful,' she said mournfully" is weaker than "'That's awful,' she moaned." Strong verbs put us in the story, instead of you as narrator telling us what is happening.
2) Control your thesaurus. Use those SAT words, but use them correctly, sparingly and for effect. It's fine to talk about the "vagaries of the tax code" but don't get carried away. “To me, my education, activities, and community service are more than trite and monotonous undertakings of everyday life. I view these as intellectual and philanthropic cultivators of colloquial individuals in order to create the beautifully unique"* is all kinds of nope.
What's the most important thing to do to raise your ACT score? Practice, practice, practice! But not just any practice will do; you must engage in deliberate practice. This means not only running through a lot of timed tests, but also scoring those tests and analyzing your errors so you don't make the same mistakes twice. While it's easiest to analyze errors with a trained test prep instructor, many of the ACT practice books also walk you through the problems to explain how they should be approached.
SPOILER ALERT: This blog post includes actual math.
So, here's the thing: the grade point average is a simple mathematical average. You know, add up all the points and then divide by the number of values you added. An average gives a snapshot of the list of values as a whole--once you even them out, what's the take home message? The important part is that the averages evens out your performance. This is good for you if you have one really low grade; it's unlikely to bring down your GPA substantially. But it also means that one or two or even one semester of spectacular grades is not going to budge the GPA very much higher.
Let's look at an example. In the standard 4.0 grading scale, your grades are each assigned a point value, something like this. This is a simple, unweighted grading scale. We'll get to weighted grades in a minute. Let's say you've been getting A's and B's pretty much until the second semester of sophomore year, when you get a C in Phys. Ed. because the coach doesn't like you or whatever. Assuming you're taking six college-prep classes per semester (English, math, science, social studies, foreign language and some elective), you've earned 59-ish grade points--3.3 points average for each class. Then second semester sophomore year, you add 18.5 grade points instead of your usual 19.8. What does this do to your average? Well, 59ish + 18.5 = 77.9 / 24 (total number of grades you've earned in high school so far) and your GPA is now 3.25, down 5 hundredths of a point from your 3.3 average. You would still round this up to a 3.3, so you took very little hit from that C in gym. Yay for averages!
Now assume that you've finished your junior year with that 3.3 and you decide you want to apply to the Ivy League, so you need a 4.0. All you have to do is do fantastically in those classes senior year, right? Not so fast. 3.3 x 36 classes = 119 grade points, approximately. If you take six classes in that first semester of senior year and ace them all, you add 24 grade points for a total of 143. But then you have to divide them by 42, the number of classes you've taken up to that point. And you're sitting pretty with a (drumroll, please) 3.4.
Boo for averages!
If 4.0 means straight A's, how do people graduate with more than a 4.0?
They are using a weighted average, which means the more difficult classes are given a bonus point. The idea behind weighted averages is to give credit for the amount of work involved in earning the grade. A student who earns an A by reading 100 pages of Moby Dick a night for two weeks and then writing a 10 page critical analysis should earn more points than a student who took a month to read The Fault in Our Stars and wrote a one paragraph book report, right? So weighted grades assume that a B in an AP or college-level class is equal to an A in a regular class. Students who take all or mostly honors, AP, IB or dual-enrollment college classes will end up with GPA's higher than 4.0, even if they don't get straight A's in those classes.
So, let's go back to our "raising my grades at the last minute" example
If your 3.3 GPA has been earned in regular classes, and you suddenly switch to all AP classes and ace those, your GPA would become 119 + 30 = 149/42 classes = 3.5. In order to raise a 3.3 GPA to a 4.0 in one semester, you'd have to get 7.0 grade points in each class. I just don't know a school where that would be possible.
The Bottom Line?
If you want a high GPA as a senior, you need to start freshman year. On average.
It's midnight. You have a final tomorrow that covers every bit of information in your class going back to the beginning of the semester. What do you do? There are as many ways to study as there are students. Some students insist the key is to study in the room where you'll be taking the exam; "the things you look at while studying will jog your memory when you're taking the test," they say. Other students swear by pulling all nighters ("I do my best work in crisis mode") or sleeping with the text book under their pillow (Really!). Obviously, none of these methods work any better than the average old wives' tale, but there is one study technique that actually makes you less prepared afterward than you would have been if you never studied at all, and it's the approach most commonly used by students of all ages.
What's this terrible study process? Re-reading.
Yes, more than 95% of all students simply re-read their notes or textbooks and think they have "studied." Instead, they've done something far worse. They've become familiar with the material without actually having learned it. Cognitive science has shown that when we re-read information, the brain begins to check out. "I've seen all this info on the krebs cycle before. I got this. I wonder if there's any more pizza? Did Megan text me back yet?" says your brain, while your eyes are studiously following down the page. (Eyes are always better students than brains. Jerks.) This lack of focus leads to that "tip of the tongue" feeling where you know you know something about a familiar word or phrase, but you can't describe or define it. How many times have you heard "I know it, but I can't explain it"? Sorry to say but if you can't explain something, you don't know it. It's just that the term or phrase is familiar to you. Familiar is the enemy of knowledge.
Sorry to say but if you can't explain something, you don't know it.
So what should you do to make your studying time really count? Study actively. Active studying is work, and it's the effort you put in that makes it better. Incorporate as many pathways into your brain as you can, by rewriting notes, drawing diagrams or writing questions you can use to quiz yourself later.
Keep your brain guessing about how the information is going to come in and you'll be much more engaged, and understand and remember better what you study. Which means you'll have to study less to get better grades. They call this working smarter, not harder.
A final tip for you for next semester: The absolute best time to study is immediately after class. No, really, walk out of class, sit down in the lobby or under a campus tree and rewrite those notes immediately, reorganizing and making connections as you go. The second exposure to the material will strengthen the new neuron connections that were created in class while they're still young and strong. Spending 15 minutes right after class will save you at least 45 minutes of wondering what you thought "THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE!" had to do with the Panama Canal.
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