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Was it perfectionism? Fear of failure? Or just teenage disorganization?

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It could have been any or all of those things, but the bottom line was that somehow, both Zac Shaner and Nathan Triggs flubbed taking the ACT test for college admission in October.

Zac, the musician, who has a habit of staying up late, managed to overcome his problem of oversleeping. At 6:30 a.m. on test day, he popped up from the living room couch where he usually sleeps, and woke his mother, Charla.

She made him breakfast. But an hour later, just as they should have been leaving for Topeka High, where the test was being given, he had a sneezing attack. When he couldn’t stop, he decided not to take the test, for fear of disturbing other students and hurting their scores.

“Right as we were about to leave, I started getting really bad allergies,” Zac said the next day. “Even after I took some allergy pills, I was still sneezing. I felt it wouldn’t be responsible for me to go sneezing like that. People would be distracted.”

So ignoring his mother’s entreaties, he went back to sleep.

Nathan’s problem was different. A few days before the test, he was closing some tabs on his computer screen when he realized that he had never pressed the final button to register for the ACT. He had filled out the form, but never submitted the payment – in his case a waiver allowing him to take the test free because of financial need.

“It was a freak accident,” he said later.

It was too late even to pay the late fee. So he registered to take the test in December.

“It kinda sucks,” Nathan said.

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Their classmate TaTy’Terria Gary woke up, got breakfast at McDonald’s and arrived at Topeka High in time to take the test, a sign of her disciplined approach to life. She is the captain of the step team, holds down an after-school job and has a 3.7 grade point average. Her top college choice at the moment is Oklahoma Baptist University, because she wants to go somewhere with a spiritual component.

TaTy, who hopes to become a doctor, said she believed spirituality was important for mental and physical health.

“I can’t really make it to church on Sundays because I work,” she said. “I like to be around people who have faith. One of my pet peeves is that you have to believe in something, even if you believe that we were birthed from the stars and the moon. I feel like believing in something helps you strive, helps you be a better person, because you are working toward a goal. Even if you believe in yourself, that’s O.K.”

TaTy’s belief in herself has helped her stay organized throughout the college search. And what happened to the boys shows how indecision, passivity and self-doubt can make an extraordinarily complex process even more daunting. Students must meet all sorts of deadlines for tests and applications, as well as make decisions about a future that may be hard to imagine, not to mention pay application fees and begin to come to terms with the ultimate cost.

Nathan has support from his college-prep teacher, and Zac from a sympathetic counselor. Still, with parents who are cheerleaders but do not have the experience, time and money to drag them through the process, it was easy for things to go wrong.

Such mistakes are fairly common, and the boys can still recover, said Paul Weeks, senior vice president of client relations at ACT and a former admissions dean at Ripon College in Wisconsin. He added that Zac’s “really strong score” of 27 the first time he took the test (without any commercial test prep) and other qualities, like his musical talent and his writing ability – he had a 33 out of 36 on the English section of the test – could propel him into all but the most selective colleges.

A little over half of students who retake the test improve their scores, but by just one point on average, Mr. Weeks said.

His advice to Nathan was to call the colleges he is most interested in and explain what happened. “My advice is always to contact the schools rather than speculate or make assumptions” about how they would react to a delayed ACT score, Mr. Weeks said.

Zac consoled himself that it was just as well that he did not take the test, because he hadn’t studied for it. But he knows that raising his score would help his chances of receiving scholarship aid.

Both boys have somewhat solidified their plans. Zac said he would aim to go to Washburn University, a public institution in Topeka, for the first year or so, where his family’s low income might qualify him for a free ride. He would live at home and return to work at Mike’s IGA – stocking, bagging groceries and running the cash register. Once he had enough money saved, he would transfer to the University of Denver or the University of Central Missouri to study sound engineering. But he would still want to stay fairly close to home, in case his mother or older brother needed him.

“I want to get out and explore,” Zac said. “But I don’t want to be too far, so I could come back in an emergency.”

In English class, Zac wrote a college essay about rebelling against his mother’s religious beliefs, and against his conservative upbringing. “The day I denounced my religion, the day I made my mother cry, was the day I decided to live,” he wrote. His teacher called it “powerful” in a margin note. But Washburn does not require an essay. He has filled out the Common Application, but that also seems like an empty exercise.

“They say that more than 700 colleges accept the Common App,” he said, quoting the website. “But it seems like not the ones I’m interested in.”

None of the people he knows at Topeka High are applying to private universities. “There’s always the kids who get 4.0s and perfect ACT scores, and numerous letters and accolades,” Zac said. “I’m not sure what their plans are, college-wise. I think some of them might go straight for the Ivy League.”

His teachers all say he has spark. Did he ever think of trying to get into a small, liberal arts college out of state? “I look at a lot of these schools that are out of reach right now, and my spark is intimidated,” he replied.

Nathan is thinking of Allen Community College, a short drive from Topeka, as his “safety” application; Washburn University as his “best fit,” because his stepmother works there and could get him a tuition discount; and Kansas State as his “stretch,” because, he said, it is known for its engineering and architecture programs. He does not have any brand-name colleges outside Kansas on his list, and neither do most of his classmates.

Today, Phillip Wrigley and Jennifer Womack, who teach the college prep classes that TaTy and Nathan are in (Zac is in a gifted track), will be asking them for proof that they have filed some college applications by the priority deadline of Nov. 1 – perhaps a screenshot of a confirmation email.

Soon they will be buffing their essays, because even if they are not needed to apply to most local colleges, they will be needed to apply for scholarships. The kids will also be learning the intricacies of financial aid.

Mr. Wrigley said the students thought about college in a practical way. “I think they are thinking about cost,” he said. “They are thinking about feasibility, about what’s going to fit for me. They’re very much pragmatists when it comes to college.”

Yet the other day in class, Nathan was pondering an intangible benefit that college could offer.

He asked his study group to help him understand the concept of social capital, which had come up in government, his favorite class.

“What’s a network?” the teacher, Mr. Wrigley, asked, as Nathan wrote the word on a whiteboard.

“A community,” Nathan replied.

“What defines a community?”

“I have no clue of the definition,” Nathan said. “But I can tell when something is.”

Eventually, the students arrived at the concept of building social capital through dinner parties, mentors, knowledge and connections. The teacher told them that was what they were doing in class.

It’s also something they would do in college.

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