High School 2 College

April 26, 2009

FAQ: Questions People Ask Me About Getting Into College

Here in no particular order are a few questions that people frequently ask me when they find out I know something about testing and college.  (I was just going to list the questions to be a smart alec but my “better self” won, and I’m going to give you the answers, too!)

Question:  Do colleges look at the SAT Writing section?  I heard they don’t even look at it.

Answer:  You may be right — or not — depending on the college.  When the writing section was added in March 2005, most colleges ignored it.  As each year goes by, more and more colleges do look at the writing section.  In fact, one of my students just came back from looking at colleges and told me that the admissions department to one school wanted a minimum of 1650 — so you KNOW they’re looking at all three sections (because each section has a maximum of 800).  If you are absolutely positive that NO schools you want care about the writing section, go ahead and refuse to prep for it.  On the other hand….

Question:  What does Score Choice mean to me?  Is there a strategy I should be using with my testing now?

Answer:  I used to recommend that students take advantage of the four free score reports each time they tested, sending reports to any schools they were interested in.  It was an effective way of letting schools know you were serious about them, and they often responded by sending students information about scholarships that they didn’t publish on their websites.  Now I advise students not to send scores anywhere until they are applying to college senior year.  Otherwise, my advice hasn’t changed.  I still recommend two SATs junior year, and one SAT senior year — unless one of your junior year SATs or your junior year ACT is marvelous.

Question:  How does Score Choice affect SATIIs?  If I take more than one in a sitting, do I have to keep them all or toss them all?

Answer:  For the SATs, you can “hide” any day’s test you want.  If you take three and one is just a loser, don’t send it to any colleges unless they require you send all tests.  For the SATIIs, however, if you take two in one sitting and one is great and the other embarrassing, you can hide one and keep the other.  (They do let you take up to three SATIIs in one day, but don’t take more than two in a day or you’ll regret it!)

Question:  Can I just take the ACTs and forget about the SATs?  I heard the ACTs are easier and they count for two SATIIs.

Answer:  Yes, you can — but I wouldn’t recommend you do that.  All schools now take the SATs OR the ACTs.  The problem with taking the ACTs only is that they aren’t easier for everyone.  About a third of kids do marginally better on the ACTs, but a third do marginally better on the SATs, and a third score about the same on both tests.  You won’t know which test shows you in a better light unless you take both under real test conditions at 7:45 a.m. in a too-bright classroom with a kid cracking his gum next to you.

Question:  What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

Answer:  Each test has pros and cons. 

  • The SAT requires figuring things out.  The reading might ask, “What was the author’s tone?”  The ACTs almost never ask a question like that. 
  • The ACTs are about recall:  Can you remember the math you were taught?  Can you remember what you just read? 
  • The SAT penalizes you for guessing.  You lose 1/4 point for each wrong answer.  They do that to discourage random guessing.
  • The ACT does not penalize you for guessing.  They do discourage random guessing, but they do that by asking many more questions per minute.  You really have to know what you’re doing to get things right — you can’t take time to work it out carefully.  Basically, the ACT is speed test.
  • The ACT has a (difficult) science section.  No one does well on that section, even kids taking two AP sciences.
  • Most colleges look at the three sections of the SATs – critical reading, math, and writing – and use the best of each no matter which test it was from.
  • Most colleges look at the composite ACT score which includes reading, math, English (equivilent to writing), and science.
  • The ACT essay is much easier.  The topics are kid-friendly, you have an extra 5 minutes, and you have more room to write.
  • The SAT essay is harder for some because it’s like a critical lens essay, you only get 25 minutes, and you only get about two notebook pages to say what you want to say.
  • The SAT is given in January, March, May, June, October, November, and December. 
  • The ACT is only given in April, June, and October, and fewer schools administer the ACTs so room at schools fills up far in advance of the deadline.


I hope these questions and answers were helpful. 

If you have other questions you’d like me to address, please feel free to leave a comment on this blog and I will address them soon.

Wendy Segal


April 20, 2009

SAT? ACT? SATII? Score Choice? HELP! How do I know what to take when?

When I was in high school, most kids (but not all) took the PSATs as practice, then took the SATs once or maybe twice.  I also took a couple of achievement tests (now called SATII Subject Tests).

Now students take a combination of SATs, SATIIs, ACTs with or without the writing section in addition to state and local exams; each test has its own focus, deadlines, and scoring.

It can get confusing, but I can help.  You might want to file this information away somewhere or share it with younger or older friends.

Here’s the testing schedule that works best for most of my students. 

9th and 10th grade: Students in honors science classes (bio, chem) should take the SATII in those subjects.  Sign up for those tests on www.collegeboard.comby March or April of the year in which you’re taking that subject so you can take the test in June.  So if you finish honors Biology (not necessarily AP) — or if you’re getting an A in regular biology — in 9th grade, you should take the SATII in June of 9th grade.  Do NOT send your scores to any college yet.  There’s plenty of time to do that just before you apply to college in your senior year.

Fall, 11th grade:  Start by taking the PSATs in October.  Your school will sign you up.  You will have to bring in a check for the registration fee, but the school will do the rest.  The PSATs are only given once a year.  Don’t miss them!  If you do extremely well, you will qualify for a National Merit Letter of Commendation or even as a National Merit Finalist.  That can lead to scholarships and a boost for your college applications.  Every college wants to be able to brag that they have several National Merit scholars. 

If you think you are especially apt at standardized tests, it makes sense to get some tutoring BEFORE the PSATs(probably starting the end of August or as soon as school begins) because you could be rewarded with scholarship money for exceptional performance.  Even if you don’t score brilliantly on the PSATs, you’ll be ahead for the spring when you will take the SATs.

Winter, Spring 11th grade:  Most of my students take the SATs twice in their junior year.  The SATs are given in December, January, March, May, and June, and then again in October and November.  The dates are published on www.collegeboard.com.    Before the test changed in 2005, you could be fairly sure that winter tests (December, January, March) would be more difficult than the spring tests (May, June).  Since 2005, that pattern isn’t as definite, but most students should still take one SAT in January or March and the next one in May if possible.  Sign up for the SATs on www.collegeboard.com

Don’t wait for the deadline to sign up — the high school closest to you will fill up up to a month or two BEFORE the deadline.  The first time you sign up for an SAT, the process will take about 10 minutes, but it’s a quick click or two for subsequent tests.  Suggestion:  write down your user name and password somewhere and give your parents a copy.  You might be at a tutor’s house and need to get into your scores, or you might want your parents to check if scores have come in yet. 

Because the tests do vary considerably in difficulty, it makes sense to take the SATs at least twice, but there’s no reason not to take it three times.  If an entire seating (say, March’s test) is awful, you can hide that whole test from nearly every college to which you might apply.  If you score better on March’s test in math but better on May’s test in critical reading, that’s fine.  Colleges look at your best reading, your best math, and your best writing (if the school counts the writing — more and more do each year) regardless of which date’s test it is.

Spring, 11th grade:  Most very selective colleges (Ivy League schools and other top tier schools) require two SATIIs.  The next level of school prefers (but doesn’t require) SATIIs.  The next level down will consider them if submitted.  Only the least selective schools don’t even look for them.  Many academically-inclined students take more than two SATIIs.  (My own kids took 4 or 5 each.)  Each test is only one hour and is all multiple choice.  You can even take two in one day.  (Technically you can take three, but don’t.  You’ll burn out after the second test.  Trust me.)  One hour is easy, right?  Maybe, but the tests don’t necessarily correlate with either the Regents or AP curricula, so you’ll need to take a practice test a few months before to make sure you know what will be on the test.  (Buy The Official Study Guide to All SAT Subject Tests by the College Board.  It has one of every test.)

If you won’t be taking a subject next year, take the SATII in that subject in June.  For example, most kids take U.S. History in 11th grade but not in 12th grade, so if you particularly excel in U.S. History, take the SATII in June of 11th grade.  For subject which you will also take in 12th grade (foreign language, math, literature), you should wait until the fall to take that SATII. 

The SATII Subject tests are given on the same day and at the same time as the SATs, so you can’t take both the SATs and the SATIIs in June.  That’s why I suggest you take the SATs in May, and the SATIIsin June when you’ve had another month of that subject.

Most schools allow you to submit the ACTs in place of two SATIIs.  The ACTs test English (grammar), reading, math, and general science and have an “optional” writing section (but you should consider it mandatory).  So it makes sense to take the ACTs either in April or in June — you might not need SATIIs if you do well on the ACTs.  If you do really well on the ACTs, you might choose to take them again in October instead of both the SATs AND the SATIIs.  (About a third of kids do better on the SATs, a third do better on the ACTs, and a third score about the same on each test.)  Most schools have no preference and you can indeed submit both SATs and ACTs and the school will use the one they consider most to your advantage.  Sign up for the ACTs on www.ACT.org well in advance of the test because even fewer schools administer the ACTs than the SATs.

Fall, 12th grade.  Take the SATs again in October or November.  Or take the ACTs again in October.  Some students take both.  Take SATIIs in October or November (whenever you’re not taking the SATs) in math, literature, or foreign language.

I know – it’s a lot of testing.  And yes, there are many, many schools that say they don’t require SATs or ACTs.  But what if you fall in love with a school that does require these tests and  you haven’t taken them?  And some schools don’t require SATs but do require several SATIIs instead.  I won’t try to convince you that the SATs are fun, but they do help colleges compare kids from very different high schools.  Is an A in Yorktown the same as an A in Yonkers or Scarsdale?  Maybe not, so standardized tests help colleges compare.

Here’s the most important thing I can tell you:  These are only tests.  They are tests of how well you can take tests.  If they were tests of your intelligence, a dozen weeks of tutoring wouldn’t help (and it usually does).  They don’t test whether you’ll succeed in college.  They don’t test whether you’ll marry someone good-looking or whether you’ll have healthy children or get a good job.  They don’t test who you are.  So take a deep breath in, prepare as best you can, and then let it out.

Wendy Segal

April 13, 2009

Start Preparing for College in 7th Grade? Yes, You Should!

Parents of seniors call me every year in August to help their students get ready for the SATs and ACTs and SATIIs and a few months later for help with college applications and essays. 

Most times, I wish they called earlier.  About 5 years earlier.

I agree with nearly all of this advice:  http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/education/bal-achieveside0412,0,571587.story

Here’s what I’d tell you if you had called me when you were in 7th grade:  If you want to get into a competitive college, you had better start planning now.  Top tier colleges are accepting fewer and fewer applicants every year.  (See articles like: http://www.usnews.com/blogs/paper-trail/2009/3/31/top-colleges-see-record-low-acceptance-rates.html?s_cid=et-0410 )

So what should a 6th, 7th, or 8th grader do to get a head start?

Read.  It’s the activity which will have the greatest impact on your future.  If you read, your SAT and ACT scores will be higher.  If you read, your grades in English and Social Studies will be higher.  Reading anything (including romance novels) is better than reading nothing.   Read something just outside your usual area of interest.  If you usually read fantasy or science fiction, read a mystery (Agatha Christie and Dick Francis are my favorite mystery authors).  If you read war novels, read a biography.  If you read The Onion, read Gulliver’s Travels.  Always have a book with you.  I keep a paperback in my pocketbook, a hard cover by my bed, and magazines in my bathroom.

Take the hardest classes you can manage.  If you have the option of taking advanced math in 7th grade, do it.  It’s hard to move back into the advanced track in high school once you’re out of it, and colleges want to make sure you’re taking the hardest classes you can (the rigor of classes is much more important than SATs in most cases).  Same with science — take the advanced or honors track if you can.  You can always drop back down to an easier level if you must in later years, but you’ll find it near impossible to move up a level later.

Take Spanish all the way through senior year.  There are more periods of Spanish than any other language.  That means you will have a wider choice of teachers as you move on, and a wider selection of levels (honors, AP).  Spanish class is not going to conflict with a more infrequently-scheduled class, like orchestra, but French might.  And competitive colleges prefer to see 3 or 4 years of a foreign language (not including 7th and 8th grades).

Improve your writing skills.  The best way to improve your writing skills is to have an amazing English teacher, but not everyone can have Mrs. Joyce Garvin as a teacher as I did.  Another way to improve is to hire yourself a good writing coach (ahem – I happen to know one!) and see her periodically when you have a project or an essay.  But writing frequently, writing with intent and determination, writing letters to the editor, writing book reviews on Amazon.com — writing anything is a good way to gain comfort and fluency with writing.

Take as many classes as you can.  In high school, that means no lunch.  You can eat in class.  Take two languages.  Take two sciences.  Get your requirements out of the way as early as you can so you can take more interesting electives that may only be open to juniors and seniors.

Make friends with your guidance counselor.  They’re busy, and they’re not going to call you up to tell you that you could fill that hole in your schedule with a new AP class — unless you go to them and ask.  They know which teachers might be teaching which classes, which new classes are being considered, which electives won’t be offered next year.  Your guidance counselor will have to write a college recommendation for you, so get to know him or her the minute you start 9th grade.  Bring him/her cookies. (My sons’ absolutely wonderful counselor loves chocolate.)  Stop by to show off that A you got on a test.  The better your guidance counselor knows you, the more helpful advice you’ll get.

Ask your friends’ parents what they do for a living.  Most kids enter college without a clue about what they want to do because the only professions they know are teacher, doctor, and businessman.  The earlier you become aware of all the different sort of jobs there are, the more you’ll find school relevant and interesting.  And the more interesting and relevant you find school, the better you’ll do.  Find out what a public relations person does.  Or a chef.  Or an advertising editor.  Or a graphic designer.  Or an office manager.

Listen to adults speak.  Since the demise of the cocktail party, kids don’t have as many opportunities to hear adults engaged in adult conversation.  When kids hear unrelated adults speak to each other, they learn phrases like “double standard,” or “righteous indignation,” or “above reproach.”  They won’t hear those things from parents talking about whose turn it is to take out the garbage or from their friends or sadly even from their teachers.   Too often when there’s a kid in the room, the conversation includes the child and parents adjust their vocabulary.  Kids need to hear adults speak to each other about the news of the day. 

Some might say that kids should be able to be free from the pressure of college until the application date looms near.  But I believe the earlier you start to prepare, the more options you have later and the more stressLESS thinking about college will be when you get to senior year.

Wendy Segal

April 10, 2009

Acceptance Letter Gimics

I just read an interesting article  that said that some colleges are sending some “fun” along with their acceptance letters this year.


The article says that these “extras” are meant to make acceptance more memorable.

So I have a few questions for you:

Did you get any cute extras in your admissions packages?

What did you get?

Would getting these extras induce you to accept one college over another school with a more boring welcome letter?  Or are these goodies just a waste of money that could better be spent on financial aid for a needy student?

I’m curious to hear your experiences.

UPDATE:  Just read ANOTHER article on the same topic, much more critical and more explicit:


Wendy Segal

April 9, 2009

What I Don’t Look For When I Look For Colleges Online

There’s a lot of good information out there, and there’s a lot of worthless chatter, too. How can you sort through all of it to find the 10 colleges that might be the perfect place for you?  (Yes, you should apply to about 10 schools.)

To find 10 good schools to apply to, you have to look at many, many more so you get an idea of what you don’t like as well as what you do like.  You might need a list of 20 or 30 schools to narrow your applications to 10. 

How do you pick those schools?  Clearly, you can’t visit 30 colleges.  Ah, the internet.  But where to look and what to look for?

Websites about colleges can be sorted into four basic categories:

  • school websites
  • data websites
  • advice websites
  • “gossip” websites

School websitesare put out by individual colleges to provide you with an opportunity to “see” that school online.  They have information about everything the school thinks you need to know, and everything the school is most proud of.  Now’s the time to make sure the school has not only the major you think you will wind up with, but majors you think you might  want to explore.  If you want to major in math but if that doesn’t work out you want to teach, make sure the school has both math and education courses available.

The college websites also have videos.  Nearly every school website has a video of the school — the trick is to find it.  Sometimes the videos are on the admissions page, sometimes you have to search the website.  I always presume the college has a video online; my goal is to uncover it.  Every video shows the school in its best light, but when you see several of them, you can begin to find important differences.  How come all the other videos talked about the great college town – and this one doesn’t mention it?  Why do all the other videos brag about how accessible the professors are and this one is silent?

The data websites  have information like number of undergrads, average SAT/ACT scores, average GPA or high school class rank, special programs (5-year masters, study abroad), sports.  The College Board website (www.collegeboard.com) lists the greatest number of schools, but it only has the most basic information. 

A much better choice is  www.Princetonreview.com .  Their “counselor-0-matic” is very useful in getting an initial list of schools to sort through.    Princeton Review has school and student comments on many schools, and very detailed information with every statistic you might possibly need — and several you don’t.  Forget about student/teacher ratios.  Forget about numbers of TAs teaching classes.  Forget about average class size.    Look at most popular majors, percent of students returning for sophomore year, number of kids who come from out of state.

Princeton Review’s rankings and lists are interesting and can be very telling.  Would you rather go to a school high on the list called “Reefer Madness” or “Don’t Inhale”?    How about “Jock Schools” or “Dodgeball Targets”?  If a school keeps showing up on all the wrong lists, it’s not for you.

In conjuction with Princeton Review, I always use US News and World Reports (http://www.usnews.com/sections/rankings/index.html ).  You have to pay to get the premium online edition, but it’s less than $20 for the year, and I think it’s well worth it for the additional information, like what percentage of kids take advantange of programs like study abroad or what percentage of kids actually play intramural sports.

Most guidance counselors will show you Naviance.  I’m not sure why that’s so popular with guidance counselors.  It shows you which levels of kids (by gpa and SATs) got into which colleges from your high school, but that’s about it.  Could it be that the high schools have to pay for Naviance (yes, they do) so the counselors want to make sure they make some use of it?

The advice websites, like some pages on Princeton Review, the New York Times, and others can be useful, but I find most of the information repetititive and painfully obvious.  I recently read an extended article on ACT.org that said that you can get into a good college if you work hard in high school.  Duh.  I read another than suggested that, on school tours, you ask about what majors they have.  Really?  A website wouldn’t do it for you?  You travelled all the way there to ask that? 

Lastly, I recommend you steer clear of the gossip websites.  Sites like College Confidential and StudentsReview.com encourage kids to vent.  They have discussion groups where you can find advice from other clueless people.  They provide an opportunity for kids in college to tell you why they made a bad choice.  The problem is that people mostly spend time complaining; few people get on to say they’re perfectly happy, thank you.  Look at them if you must, but check out any “information” you glean from those websites with actual people whom you know (or your mom knows or I know) who have attended recently.

My advice:  Stick with the informational websites if you have limited time or patience.  Only explore the others if you’re willing to take anything and everything you read with a big block of salt.

Wendy Segal

April 1, 2009

Be Brave, Be Polite, Be Nosy – How to Visit a College

Now that you have a rough list of colleges that might interest you, it’s time to plan a college tour or two. 

First, group schools together.  List schools according to these categories:

  • rural (country – not near a city or even much of a town)
  • suburban (near a college town or within an hour of a city)
  • urban (right in the middle of a city with or without a campus)
  • small (under 5,000 undergraduates)
  • medium (5,000 – 10,000 undergraduates)
  • large (over 10,000 undergraduates)
  • far north (of where ever you live, more than 5 hours by car)
  • north (of where ever you live, 2 – 5 hours away by car)
  • close (within an hour or two of where ever you live)
  • south (of where ever you live, 2 – 5 hours away by car)
  • far south (of where ever you live, more than 5 hours away by car)
  • you’re going to start collecting frequent flier miles

The purpose of grouping schools  is to make sure you visit one from each category if you can.  If you find out you hate urban schools, you can cross the rest of the urban schools off your list.  If you love the energy of a really big school, you can eliminate the small schools from your list.  Like most high school kids, you might think you like one kind of school or another, but many kids completely change their mind once they visit a few.

Find out where the schools are.  Visit the colleges’ websites and use mapquest.com to start planning your visit geographically.  Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York are huge states — Philadelphia is closer to New Jersey than it is to Pittsburgh.

Find out when the tours are.  Some schools have tours and information sessions.  Others have one but not the other.  I like the tours. 

Once you decide which schools you can see in a day (ideally, you should see two schools a day, but you might be able to squeeze in a third if you have to), go on those schools’ websites under “prospective students” to find out when the tours are.  Some schools only have tours on weekends.  Some schools only have tours during the week.  Reserve a spot if the school recommends or requires it.

It’s much harder to get the feel of a school without a tour.  Sure, they’re led by a perky student who is just in love with the place, but you’ll learn a lot by what she says and what she doesn’t say and by how she answers the questions of the other prospective students on the tour.

Here’s where the “be polite” advice comes in:  Do stop in to visit the admissions office.  If you can prearrange an interview, do so.  Dress neatly.  You don’t have to look like you’re applying for a job in corporate headquarters, but don’t wear anything ripped, dirty, or provocative.

Here’s where the “be brave” advice comes in:  Go to your admissions meeting ALONE.  Mom and Dad shouldn’t come with you into your interview.  Ever.  If you’re nervous, practice what you might say with a friend or your parents or with me, but go in alone.  Have a few questions ready, something you can’t find out on their website. 

Here are a few questions that might be worth asking someone in admissions if you can’t think of any on your own:

  • how many kids  graduate each year with the major I’m interested in?
  • do you house freshmen together?
  • do most of your graduates go on to graduate school or do they get a job right after college?
  • tell me about campus security.
  • is any of your campus wi-fi?
  • what percentage of kids belong to fraternities/sororities?

Practice answering questions, too.  Here are some questions they will likely ask:

  • why do you want to go to this school? (One good answer is, “My guidance counselor feels it would be a great fit for me.” Another might be, “My cousin just loves it here,” or “I met your rep at a college fair and it sounds just perfect.”  Gush a little.)
  • how did you hear of us? (Answer:  You have a great reputation for (whatever your major is or whatever they’re known for).)
  • tell me about yourself  (Answer:  I think I’m a really good student with lots of interests.)
  • what do you hope to get out of college (Answer:  I’m looking to grow academically and socially)
  • what did you think of the tour? (Answer:  it was great!  No other answer will do.)

Here’s where the “be nosy” advice comes in:  Spend some time in the student union or in the cafeteria.  Eavesdrop on what kids are saying to each other.  Go up to a random kid and ask questions.  Tell him you are considering this school and ask if you can talk to him for a minute.  Ask nosy questions, questions you wouldn’t ask someone in admissions:

  • would you tell your best friend to go here?
  • what’s the best thing about this school?
  • what’s the worst thing about this school?
  • is it hard to get into the classes you want to take?
  • are the professors approachable and helpful?
  • is there anything to do here on weekends?
  • is the food tolerable?
  • is there anything to do off campus?
  • do kids go to the teams’ games?
  • would you pick this school again if you had to reapply?

If you really can’t bring yourself to ask questions like this, have your parents do it.  They won’t mind – I promise.  As a matter of fact, send them off to the cafeteria while you’re at admissions and let them find a few random kids to quiz.

You will forget which school said which things,  and which school had which features.  You will.  Take cell phone photos and/or write on college brochures to remind yourself of any impressions.  Write yourself notes, like “This was the school with the smelly dorms,” or “This was the school with the amazing view.”  Don’t wait until you get home.  Write up a review for yourself of each school when you get back into the car if you can.

Thank you notes are very optional.  If you had an admissions visit and you remember the name of the person you spoke to, a quick email is a nice touch, but nothing more formal is required.

Remember that colleges begin exam week the first week in May  and often don’t offer tours then, so go and visit now!

Wendy Segal

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