High School 2 College

September 30, 2010

The Vocabulary Question

Dear Students,

Read to the bottom of this blog because I’m going to do you a favor, but you’ve got to stay with me till the end.

The SATs used to have analogies and antonyms in addition to sentence completions to gauge students’ vocabulary.  Now they only have sentence completion questions, so there seems to be less emphasis on vocabulary and more on reading comprehension.

Still, the reading comprehension section and the reading questions that follow often have vocabulary that’s very challenging for most high school juniors and seniors. And many of those words show up on test after test.  Many of the words are political in origin.  How many of you watch the news or read the newspaper regularly?  If you don’t have a good political vocabulary, you’ll miss words like gubernatorial, constituents, and even gerrymandering (which was on last year’s PSATs).

One way to improve your vocabulary is to buy a good vocabulary book and work with it. I think SAT Vocabulary for Dummies and Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis are the best two books on the market.  Neither of them will do you any good on your bookshelf.  Put one in your backpack and use it when you have to wait for the bus or when you have a sub or when there’s no one to eat lunch with.  Put one in your bathroom with a pencil.  You’ll use it.

Another way to improve your vocabulary is to go through your SAT book and look up any word you don’t know, whether it’s the answer to a question or not.  The writers of the SAT tend to repeat words year after year, so if you see a word on one test, it will likely show up on another.

My favorite way to improve a student’s political vocabulary is to have him watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central).  The Colbert Report is fun, but Jon Stewart has a remarkable vocabulary and he uses it fearlessly.  If you watch The Daily Show (I know it’s on late but it repeats several times the next day, and you can also watch whole episodes online) with an ear to learning vocab, you’ll be smarter while you laugh. It didn’t win eight consecutive Emmy awards for nothing.

Here’s the favor: I’ve been collecting vocabulary words that repeat on the SATs that seem to give kids the most trouble.  I’m going to email them regularly to my students (I’m thinking weekly, but let’s see how this goes) and put them on my Facebook page (friend highschool2college).  I’ll put out a bunch of words, and you look them up and see if you can figure out what they have in common.  Believe me, if you learn these words (not memorize, but learn them — use them in your school essays, use them when you’re talking to your friends, make them your own), your scores WILL go up. Now that’s a favor!

Let me know what you think.

Wendy Segal


September 13, 2010

My Second Rant: If I Could Parent Every Teenager

Filed under: Uncategorized — highschool2college @ 8:12 pm
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My first rant allowed me to vent a little, but the steam is building up again.

Day after day, I have students — college-bound, middle-class students — who don’t know whether “peril” is a good thing or a bad thing.  (Even when I sing, “…through the perilous fight, o’er the ramparts…” they don’t have a clue.) In fact, 90% of my students haven’t read a book for pleasure since Harry Potter.  And in 23 years, I haven’t had more than one or two students who know what “gubernatorial” means.  So they’re not reading books, and they’re not watching the news.

They have no thoughts in their heads but their own, no ideas to ponder, no issues to mull over, no concerns but their own.

Whose fault is it?

It’s the iPod’s fault. Remember when your mom drove you to practice, whether it was sports, dance, drama, or music?  Remember how she’d ask you from the front seat, “How was school today, honey?”  And remember how sometimes you said, “Fine” and clammed up, but sometimes you burst out with something that had been on your mind or heart for days, how Jimmy didn’t say hi that day in class or how your best friend was talking about you behind your back or how the teacher wasn’t fair.  When we were in the back seat and mom was in the front, we talked to her.  And she talked back.

Now, most parents glance back at their child in the back seat and say, “How was school today?”  And the kid, ear buds firmly in place, says, “Wait,” as she unplugs.  “What?” she grunts.  “Nothing,” says mom as she goes back to her own music or her own thoughts.

If I had my way, I’d forbid not only cell phones but iPods, iPhones,  and anything that gets between a kid and his own thoughts or a kid and a conversation with his parent or — heaven forbid — a friend’s parent. Kids learn to speak from listening to and interacting with their parents. The process doesn’t stop when the child says his first sentence.  It doesn’t stop when he enters first grade.  Children who talk to adults frequently have superior vocabularies and mastery of English.  Their sentences are more complex, they have a better grasp of verb tenses, they use idioms more frequently and more accurately.

Parents, please don’t let your kids text when they’re in adult company.  Don’t let them plug in. Talk to them.  Ask them open-ended questions.  (“Why do you think your Spanish teacher this year is better than last year’s teacher?”  “What do you do with your lunch period?”  “Who sits next to you in math class?”  “What do you think of [name of the latest controversy in the news]?”)

It’s also the cellphone’s fault.

Remember when a boy called the house?  He had, in all likelihood, been screwing up his courage for half the day. When he called, he had to use his best manners, just like in the musical Bye Bye Birdie:  “Hello, Mrs. Miller, this is Harvey Johnson.  Can I speak to Debra Sue?”  After a few calls, your parents were likely to ask, “Who is this Harvey who keeps calling?  Is he a nice boy?  Would you like to invite him to dinner?”   Your parents knew who your friends were because they called the house.  Once again, the friend and the parents talked.

Now, most parents have only a vague idea of who their children’s friends are.  Admit it, if your child had a secret romance, would you know?  How many conversations have you had with your children’s friends?  If you are one of those very tuned-in parents (and clearly you are because you’re interested enough to read this rant), you’re in the minority.

Parents, don’t be afraid of embarrassing your child by talking to his friends. Invite them out for a pizza and sit there with the kids.   Listen to them talk.  Add your thoughts.  Invite your friends and their children over for a adults-vs-children game night.   Your child’s language skills and his world will be so much better for it.

It’s also the parents’ fault. Not very popular or politically correct, but it’s true.

If you want your children to read, make sure they see you reading. If you want your children to know about the world around them, discuss your political views with them.  Tell them whom you vote for — and why.  If you want your children to be kind, do some charitable work with them.  Don’t send them off to collect community service hours.  See if your local food pantry needs helpers and go with your children.  Let them see you checking on an older relative.  If you want them to be generous, ask them to help you decide which charity to donate money to. And if you want your children to let you into their lives, let them into yours. Children shouldn’t have to deal with adult problems, but they can handle more than you think.  If money is tight, tell them.  If you’re worried about grandma, tell them.  If your boss is driving you crazy, tell them.  Share your life with your children so they can share their life with you.   Follow-the-leader isn’t just for toddlers.  It’s how kids learn.

Most people who know me know that I prefer the company of teenagers to the company of many adults.  There are, unfortunately, lots of adults I don’t like.  There are very, very few teenagers I don’t like.  To be a really rotten person, you have to be mean.  And to be mean, you have to wield power.

Teenagers don’t have power.  They can’t decide where to go, when to wake up, what to read.  They have to go to school, like it or not.  They have to live where you tell them to live, wear what you allow them to wear, go where you take them or where you allow them to go.  Anyone who says that adolescence was a great time doesn’t remember it well.

But you can help a teenager become an adult by ignoring the slammed doors and the earphones and the rolled eyes.  Listen to what they say, not how they say it.

And when you can’t stand them any more, pretend they’re someone else’s kid — and treat them that way.

Thanks for listening.

Wendy Segal

September 2, 2010

Read This Before You Apply to College

It’s not as easy as you might think.

You’ve filled out your share of forms over the years.  You finished your essay and you’re ready to start filling out college applications.  Should be a snap, right?

Not so fast! Here are a few suggestions to make the whole process a little more orderly.

I’ve got to give you this most important piece of advice right now up front before I forget and before you lose interest.  It’s not obvious but you need to know:  Don’t send in the application for your favorite school first. Even if you are applying to only one school early action or early decision, don’t send it in first.

After you send in your first application, you’ll notice an error.  I promise.  You’ll find a typo, or you’ll realize you should have put your afterschool activities in a different order.  You’ll decide to use your other email address or you’ll hear from a friend that colleges really don’t like when you go over 500 words and yours is 525.  It has been my experience over the past 23 years that you’ll want to change or fix or adjust SOMETHING on your application as soon as you hit “send.”

So don’t send your first application to your favorite school! (Don’t make me say it again.) Send your first application to a safety school, even if the deadline isn’t for several months.  Send your next application to another school you don’t have your heart set on.

Now, you have my permission to send your third application to the school of your dreams.

Now that I got that out of the way, here are some step-by-step instructions:

Go to https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/default.aspx and click on “download forms.”  Print out the application (student form).

  1. Complete the entire common ap in pencil first. The website has a timeout feature, and while you’re looking up your guidance counselor’s fax number, the website will time out on you.  It’s much easier to manage if you  have all the answers (where and when did your parents get their college degrees?  what’s your school’s CEEB number?  what’s your social security number?  what’s your father’s email address?) right in front of you when you sit down to type in the application.  Whether you use the common ap or a college’s own application, you’ll need the answers to those same questions.
  2. Print out blank copies of any applications you might be completing. What are those essays?  Can you use your common ap essay for all of them or do you have to write another essay?
  3. Write supplemental essays. If you don’t have any, you’re unusually lucky, but most kids have to write supplemental essays.  If you’re submitting the common ap for a school, don’t forget to check if that school has a supplement.  They’ll want to know why you want to go there (save their brochures and praise what they’re already proud of), or what you can bring to the school (thirst for learning and sharing experiences with others who aren’t like you) or why you consider their school a good choice (gee, if they need a 17-year old to tell them why their school is good…).
  4. Write your activities essay. The common ap requires an essay of no more than 150 words (a medium-sized paragraph) about an activity you do after school.  They’re really asking which of the activities, sports, jobs, or clubs is most meaningful to you – and why.  Don’t tell them you love baseball (or football or hockey or lacrosse) because you get to show your stuff while learning teamwork.  They know that already.  Think of a different angle if you can.  Or pick a different activity.  Community service activities are great to highlight here.
  5. Fill out the activities section carefully. Include everything you can think of and put them in the order that matters to you most.  Actually, although that’s what the application says, you should put them in the order that will most interest the admissions people.  They love activities that you’ve participated in for years.  If you’re a black belt at a martial art, say that early!  If you are an eagle or gold star scout, say that early!  If you’ve been dancing since you were four, say that early!  And where they ask if you’d like to continue that activity in college, the answer should almost always be “yes,” even if you’re not sure.  Warning: if you list an activity you never really did, they will find out. And if they find out after you’ve been accepted, they will pull your admission.  Don’t lie or even exaggerate.
  6. Complete the application on line. Save after every page you complete.  Print after every page.  I know, it’s a waste of paper.  Too bad.  You can reuse those papers once you get into college, but right now you need a copy of everything you submit. Print every page and have someone (moms and dads are good for this job) look it over before you click “send.” If they say they didn’t get it, you can fax in your copy.  And then print out the entire completed application in the end.  Save each application at least until you get online confirmation that they got it all.
  7. Don’t forget to print out blank teacher recommendation forms. Find out from your guidance department if they want you to deal with teacher recommendations yourself or they can manage that part for you.  If you’re on your own, make sure you give the teachers who are doing your applications a stamped envelope addressed to each school and the form with a sticky note on it with the deadline.
  8. If you don’t need financial aid, your application will be looked on more favorably. Even if the school says it’s need blind, they need to take kids who can pay their own way.  If you need financial aid, don’t be afraid to say so, but if you won’t be applying for financial aid (merit aid is different), that’s a plus. Read this NY Times article for more discussion on this topic.
These are just the basics. If you have specific questions, feel free to post a comment to this blog and I’ll try to answer as clearly as I can.
Sometimes I think they make the applications so difficult so they can make sure you’re really ready for all the forms and procedures you’ll be responsible for in college.

Good luck!

Wendy Segal

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