Whether you’re starting A levels or the IB (farewell Pre-U!), the first term of the Sixth Form is filled with new opportunities. These tips will help new Sixth Form students settle in, stay on track, and put themselves in a strong position to make applications to US universities in a year’s time.
Whether you’re starting A levels or the IB (farewell Pre-U!), the first term of the Sixth Form is filled with new opportunities. Returning to school after the summer holiday means not only a new academic year but a new curriculum, and for some students even a new school!
I hope the thought of navigating this transition brings excitement more than nerves, so here are some tips to help new Sixth Form students settle in, stay on track, and put themselves in a strong position to make applications to US universities in a year’s time.
You will likely have more independence in the Sixth Form and, dependinging on your curriculum, a lighter timetable. Make sure to get in the habit of using any free periods productively from the very first term: consolidate your notes, practice applying new concepts, read around your subject.
Not only will this skill be crucial at university, you’ll find yourself even better prepared when mock A level or IB exams come around, and these are often important assessments in helping your school work out your predicted grades, which go on a transcript for your US applications.
You don’t have to become the head of your school or a prefect to be a leader. While these positions are exciting to be nominated for and can be fantastic opportunities to contribute to your school community, don’t underestimate the impact you can make by getting involved in a project you’re passionate about from the start of the Sixth Form.
Leading a club or society is a great place to start. Try to attend any exploratory fairs that your school holds for the Sixth Form. If you notice that there’s an activity you’ve always wanted to be involved in that doesn’t exist at your school yet, now’s the time to take the lead and develop this initiative yourself.
That said, some leadership roles aren’t passed down to Lower Sixth students until the Upper Sixth begin their exam revision period. You can start having conversations with students and staff now, however, about the criteria that will be considered when making these handover decisions.
The last two years of school are a great time to start focusing on building competence and expertise in a few academic areas that really interest you. The A level curriculum encourages this by providing the opportunity for narrowed, more intensive study, but don’t feel like you’re left out if you’ve chosen the IB; the Extended Essay and CAS project can also be excellent opportunities to dive deeper into more specialized areas of your subject(s) of interest.
You should also think about how you can specialize in your extra-curricular interests, too. You’ll have put yourself in a good position to do this by giving a wide range of activities a try in the years leading up to Sixth Form. Don’t forget to record these somewhere! Remember, US universities are interested in the activities you’ve been involved in across the four years before university.
Spend some time reviewing this list of activities: which ones have you enjoyed the most or are you most excited about exploring further? How could you deepen your involvement in a chosen area?
Now that you’ve taken time to explore, think about really doubling down as you start the Sixth Form. Try to think of ways to demonstrate depth of interest in an area that you’ve become truly passionate about. Your counselor can help you think this through for your specific areas of interest. Finding your niche and making an impact will demonstrate specialization outside the classroom.
Most schools will allow for some flexibility in subject and even curriculum choice in the first part of this term, so you should think carefully about how well your choices suit your academic strengths and future plans.
It’s often the case that you’ll have made these choices almost six months earlier, and a lot can change between finishing GCSEs and starting the Sixth Form. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with your Head of Sixth Form if you do think you’d benefit from reconsidering your subject or curriculum selection.
This might look like taking on a fourth (or fifth!) A level subject to increase the challenge of your course load or adjusting your subject selection now that you know how you performed on your GCSEs. In general, it’s better to start out with more challenge in the Sixth Form and reduce this as necessary rather than trying to do the opposite later on.
Finally, if you haven’t already, make sure you learn who your school counselor for US university applications is. It seems obvious, but this is especially important if you are starting the Sixth Form at a new school, as many schools will reach out to interested US applicants the year before the Sixth Form—make sure you introduce yourself so you’re on their radar!
It’s important that you build a good relationship with your school counselor: they’ll be an important school resource for you over the next two years, and they may even write a letter of recommendation on your behalf, so now is a great time for them to get to know you better. Similarly, this is a really good time to get started working with an independent college counselor, if you haven’t done so yet.
The transition from GCSE to Sixth Form can be a time of serious growth for students, and I always enjoy looking back on the incredible personal and academic development that some of my students have made during this period.
That said, being a time of transition, you may find it challenging at times. But, if you make specific plans to implement these five tips, your experience throughout Sixth Form and applying to US universities will be infinitely smoother and more enjoyable.
So best of luck, enjoy the new opportunities, and don’t hesitate to get in touch for any advice or support you need!
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