High School 2 College

February 27, 2011

Best Strategies for Night Before and Day of the SATs

If you think that there’s nothing more you can do to get ready for the SATs, read this!

If you haven’t already done so, go out and buy tootsie rolls, change the batteries in your calculator, look up a few vocabulary words to bring with you to the test, and remind yourself of the father’s name in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now you are nearly ready for the SATs.

Here are a few more things you can do:

1. The night before the test, get a good night’s sleep.  Don’t try to go to bed too early or you’ll be up half the night staring at the ceiling.  Just get a good amount of sleep after a restful evening.  NO STUDYING TODAY!  Not even for the SATs.

2.  Saturday morning, dress up a little.  When you’re wearing comfy, floppy clothes, your brain takes a rest, too.  When you dress up a little (whatever that means to you), you sit a little straighter and concentrate better.  Insider tip: several studies suggest that kids do worse on standardized tests if they see or wear the color red because they associate red with failure.  So, keep away from red.

3.  Have breakfast.  Even if you don’t usually have breakfast, have breakfast the morning of the SATs.  Make sure it’s mostly protein, not mostly carbohydrates like a bagel or muffin.  Carbs give you a quick burst but leave you feeling sleepy when they wear off.  You’re in it for the long haul!

4.  Get to the test site a bit early.  I’d recommend arriving between 7:30 and 7:45, especially if it’s not your own high school.  Get there early so you can settle in calmly.

5.  Choose your seat.  If they let you pick your seat, choose one away from distractors like the door or windows.  Some kids do better if they’re not near friends; others do better if they sit near friends.  Sit where you can concentrate.  You can socialize afterwards.

6.  Leave your cell phone home! If they catch you using it, even to check the time, they’ll take your SAT away from you and send you home.  It’s been done in Lakeland before.

7.  Bring the following:

  • photo ID — driver’s license or permit or school photo ID.
  • admit ticket — print out another from collegeboard.com if you lost it.
  • vocab words — you need something to start your brain moving before they say “Clear your desk.”
  • pencils – bring at least three or four #2 pencils with clean erasers.
  • calculator — change the batteries this week and make sure it works.  Yes, a graphing calculator is fine.
  • watch — many schools don’t have working wall clocks.  Even if the room you’re in has a working clock, it may be behind you or hard to see.  Don’t rely on the proctor to keep track of how much time you have left.  If you don’t want to wear a watch, put it on the desk in front of you.  Remember, you can’t use your phone to tell the time.
  • snacks — the most important thing you can bring! Bring lots of little chewy things (like tootsie rolls) that you can pop in your mouth easily.  Also bring a more substantial snack for the 10-minute break in the middle.  A power bar or granola bar works nicely.
  • drink — tea helps you concentrate.  The caffeine helps quite a bit, too.   Bring iced tea with sugar, not diet.  If you hate iced tea, bring soda with caffeine and sugar.  Gatorade has too much sodium, which ironically can make you more thirsty later.

Word of warning:  During the long break, if you need the restroom, go there BEFORE you eat your granola bar or drink your iced tea.  If a long line takes a while, they will start without you.  (This did happen to a few kids I know!)

Remember that each of you has the opportunity to take the test again either this year or next year if you don’t like the outcome, so there’s no need for test anxiety or panic.  If you do well, this test counts.  If you don’t do well, it doesn’t count.  You can’t get more low stress than that.  Just relax, remember some strategies, and stay alert!

Wendy Segal


February 24, 2011

Two Weeks Before the SATs – What You Should Be Doing To Prepare

The March SAT is coming up soon. Here’s my best advice for how to maximize your score on the test with only one week to go:

1.  Read the plot summaries of MacBeth and To Kill a Mockingbird on Sparknotes.   Read the plot summaries of another book or two that you liked or remember well.  Other books that are easy to use on the SAT essay are Lord of the FliesHuck Finn, and Of Mice and Men.  If you refresh your memory about the characters, author, and plot, you’re more likely to use a book successfully on the essay.

2.  Go through the blue SAT book and find words you don’t know.  The SAT people tend to reuse words, so if it shows up once, it will most likely appear again.  Be sure to know words like anachronism, aesthetic, pragmatic, censure, partisan, and adroit.  Don’t forget phrases like righteous indignation, mutually exclusive, and a pointed discussion.  Write down at least 20 words on paper or index cards so you can bring them to the test to study just before the proctors make you clear your desk.

3.  Get snacks. You should bring something to eat and something to drink to the test with you.  I recommend a snack that is not too salty because if you get thirsty, you won’t be able to concentrate — or you will drink too much and need the bathroom during the test (not good!).  You should bring something chewy like tootsie rolls, since several studies suggest you will remember better if you’re chewing while you take the test. Bonus:  the sugar and caffeine in chocolate will help you stay alert during the test.  They fit in your pocket and you can pop a tootsie roll between sections.  You should also have a bigger snack for the long break.  A granola bar or power bar works great.  Don’t forget to bring iced tea.  Studies show tea helps you concentrate, so bring tea with caffeine and sugar — nothing diet!

4.  Buy batteries for your calculator.  Unless you’ve changed the batteries this month, you’ll want to change the batteries in your calculator (yes, you can use a graphing or scientific calculator, but you can also just use a 4-function calculator).

During the week, I’ll post tips for test day itself, so stay tuned!

Wendy Segal

February 21, 2011

Getting into College: Do You Need All Those APs?

The AP test system is broken.

Documentaries like “Race to Nowhere” link students’ drive to take the most APs they can to extreme stress in students. Colleges all over the country are no longer using AP test scores to give college credit to students who score well (but they do use it for placement).

Even the College Board, which writes the AP curriculum and creates the AP tests, knows it’s broken.

In this NY Times article, the College Board explains the changes coming to the AP Biology exam and why students should wait a year if they can to take AP Bio in high school.  Changes to other tests follow.

So if you have a student in high school, what should you advise him about taking AP classes?  Is it true that the more, the better?

I believe that students should take honors and other difficult courses only in the subjects in which they have an interest. If you’re a science guy and you pass up the chance to take AP chem or bio or physics, colleges are going to wonder where your drive is.  If you say you want to major in communications but you passed up the chance to take AP English or honors English, does that mean you just like to gab but you’re lazy?

The Boston Globe had a great article a couple of years ago about how one college’s admissions department reviews applications.  In a nutshell, some kids were just obvious admits, some were clearly below standards and were easy declines, and a large number fell somewhere in between and needed to be discussed by the committee.  If you read the article carefully, you’ll see that it’s not the grades nor the SATs nor even the AP scores that tilt the committee in favor of one student over another.

So what are they looking for?

  • Grades
  • Scores (SAT/ACT)
  • Rigor of Coursework (honors classes)
  • Essay
  • Recommendations

But in many, many cases, they seem to be looking for a compelling “story.” You may be the first in your family to go to college.  You may have a tough family situation.  Or you may simply have a such a consuming love for your family heritage that it runs through all of your activities and is reflected in your essay.

If you are aiming at a competitive college, you need something that sets you apart from all the other applicants who score well, have good grades, and participate in sports, the student government, and Key Club or National Honor Society. I’m fairly sure that one student I was working with got into his first choice college not because of his great grades and scores nor because his family came from outside the United States nor because of his prowess on the football field but because he shared with the admission committee via his essay his secret pride — the ability to iron his shirts to perfection, a skill he honed when his mother became ill and unable to iron his school uniform and his father’s work shirts.

But what if you haven’t had a family crisis?

Most parents don’t want to hear it, but if your goal is to get your student into the school of her dreams, you have to build a portrait of your student in which all the elements point toward an enduring interest. Is she a dancer?  Make sure she dances at a dance school and that she also gets her friends together to put on dances for the local senior center and that her summers are spent as a counselor in dance camp.  Does she want to be an engineer?  See if she can run the lights at the local community theater and have her volunteer to help in the high school auditorium and have her volunteer to teach younger kids how to run the media equipment at their middle school and have her attend a summer program for potential engineers.  That’s how it’s done.

It may seem like a game, but from my perspective, it’s a matter of choices. Sure you can have the summer to play baseball or swim with your friends.  But when the colleges’ admission committees meet, don’t expect to outshine those who spend the summer exploring a potential college major.  It’s not a race to nowhere – it’s showing the college that you’re more focused and mature than you probably are at 16 or 17.

My suggestion, then, is not more work, not harder work, not more activities.  Just focused work and planned activities.

Do you have to program your students to fit into a mold starting in middle school?  Not at all – unless you want them to get into a very competitive college in a few years.  It’s not popular to say, but if you choose to indulge yourself,  remember that I told you so.

It’s not like I’m suggesting that if you love the idea of medicine you spend the summer writing for the local paper.  It’s not like I’m recommending that your son who is thinking about sports management should take creative writing classes all summer.  Do what you think you might like to do in college and later in life.  But if you think hanging out at the mall or playing World of Warcraft will get you into your dream school when others are crafting an application package, remember that I told you so.

Wendy Segal

February 12, 2011

“The Race To Nowhere”: Here’s Why I Agree – and Disagree

Several parents have asked me lately if I’ve seen the film “The Race To Nowhere” and what I think of it.  The short answer is, “No, I haven’t seen it.”  You know me, though.  Why should not having seen the movie prevent me from having an opinion?

So, here it is:  Boy, do I agree with this movement to reform education!

And boy, do I disagree with this movement to reform education!

You can see the trailers and clips from the documentary online, but from those videos and the petitions the website has available,  I can tell you a bit about what the “movement” is saying and where and why I agree and disagree so strongly. (I have a feeling this is going to be more than one blog post.  I have a LOT to say!  And thank you for giving me an audience to say it.  I look forward to hearing your opinions on the comment section below.)

1.  Volume of homework

The documentary discusses the amount of time students —  high school students taking several AP classes in particular but all students in all grades in general — spend doing homework.  I completely agree. From kindergarten on, homework is so voluminous that there is little time in a kid’s life for playing outside or making robots from cardboard boxes or even (gasp) reading comic books.  I completely disagree, however, that the answer is to limit or eliminate homework as their petition urges.  I think teachers have to be smarter about the kind of homework assigned.  I remember my son doing pages of math questions.  Why?  After he did one or two easy ones, one or two medium ones, and one or two hard questions, where was the added value in having him do hours of problems — especially when he already knew the material?

I’m a huge fan of pretests.  If the teacher pretests the students in math, for example, and a few kids score above a 90%, why are they sitting through the lesson and even worse required to do the assignments?  Those students should receive different materials, enriched materials.  For example, when my son was in kindergarten, his wonderful, creative, insightful teacher (bless you, Judy Giannelli!)  realized he already knew how to tell time, so she designed work for him on time zones.  Throughout the year, when she knew my son already knew the material, she challenged him with alternate assignments.  These may have taken even more time than the original homework, but he enjoyed them and learned from them.  That kind of homework is seldom a burden.

Likewise, if you pretest a class on a certain aspect of grammar and some kids score very well, allow them to bring in a book of their own choosing and read in class instead of participating in the lesson and homework.  That would show all the students that reading can be a pleasure and a reward, not merely something to get through so you can do well on the chapter quizzes.

Yes, the volume of homework most kids get is overwhelming and burdensome, but you don’t fix it by eliminating homework. If you eliminate homework, kids are not going to be inventing new instruments or writing novels; kids will be watching TV and playing video games.  You fix it by assigning targeted homework to kids who need reinforcement and create other learning opportunities for those who have already mastered that skill.

2.  Emphasis on AP classes

Students are often encouraged to take as many AP classes as will fit into their schedules.  I have answered countless parents who ask if the colleges prefer an A in a regular class or a B in an AP class that they’d prefer an A in an AP class.  In fact, colleges do weigh the rigor of a student’s course load about as heavily as they weigh the grade itself.  So way back in middle school, parents who believe that their children are headed for a competitive college (notice I didn’t say an Ivy-league college, but one in which many kids with good grades are competing for a very few slots) should encourage their students to try advanced math or advanced science early so they can continue on that track throughout high school.

I completely disagree with the Race To Nowhere’s conclusion that because students are asked to work too hard in AP classes they should refrain from taking several. The necessity of working hard is a poor reason indeed for declining to take a challenging class.  If your student thinks easy, low-homework classes are going to be enough to get into a good school, he or she is mistaken.

But I completely agree that taking too many AP classes can be a poor choice.

First of all, high schools lie about AP classes. They’re not just like college classes.  I repeat:  No AP class is like the equivalent college class.  I’ve spoken to hundreds of kids who have taken AP classes in high school and they’ve all agreed that the high school version isn’t as in-depth as the college course.  High schools tell you that if you take an AP class, you can get college credit for it.  That’s mostly a lie.  More and more colleges are only using AP classes for placement, not for credit.  (That’s because of what I said — an AP class is NOT like a college class!)  Even if they do allow you to use it for credit, colleges have requirements within your major so you have to take a set number of classes there.  It’s rare for someone to graduate in less than four years.  Many kids take 5 years to graduate.  What’s another class or two?  Even if you take fewer classes per semester in college because you’ve taken AP classes in college, your parents will still have to pay the same tuition per semester.

When colleges use a student’s AP classes for placement, students often find themselves in an intermediate level class without having taken the introductory class in that subject in college.  Students often find they’re way behind the kids in the class who have taken the first level of a subject.  Just ask anyone who took AP Macro or Micro Economics in high school and started one level up in college.  Every kid I know who tried that was lost.  Freshman year is difficult socially and academically.  Why start off scrambling to keep up?

Here’s a trend I really dislike:  Some kids take the AP test without taking the class. Some study on their own, and some take expensive private prep classes to take the test.  That’s the worst of all situations.  Colleges like kids to take AP classes not so their students can skip classes in college, but so the college can see how the student does in an advanced class.  If the student doesn’t even take the advanced class, the AP score is nearly worthless to them.

I completely agree that AP classes should be eliminated entirely. Teachers of AP classes need to focus entirely and solely on making sure their students get a good score on the test. For that reason, many high schools are very selective about the number of students who can enroll in an AP class, and the competition to get in can get unnecessarily stressful and contentious.  Because there’s a standardized test at the end of the class, if a teacher finds that the class needs more review on a certain topic, he can’t stop.  If he finds that the class is fascinated by a particular aspect of the topic, he can’t stop.  If the teacher would like to add a project or two or allow kids to discover the answers themselves, he can’t stop.  That’s poor pedagogy.  And because the AP tests are in the beginning of May, most AP classes do nothing useful for the last two months of school.  My sons took plenty of AP classes (and declined to try for others with my approval because they just weren’t very interested in the subject or because the teachers were better in the honors level in our school), and after the first week in May, they played board games, watched movies, and slept.  What a waste.

In place of AP classes, I would encourage schools (if anyone asked for my opinion) to offer honors classes. Honors classes can accept any number of students.  Honors classes are designed by the teacher or by the department within a school and don’t have to teach what the College Board (who writes the AP tests) thinks they should teach.  Teachers of honors classes have the luxury and freedom to teach what they have a passion for.  And if those honors classes weren’t given an extra weighting in calculating GPAs, only students who were interested in the subject or who liked challenging work would take them.  The colleges could still judge whether the student was willing to take a rigorous class load without all the petty number crunching that goes on to jockey for an artificially high GPA that weighted AP courses generate.


I have plenty more to say about resume-building (or resume-stuffing) activities, the value of SAT prep, later start times for schools, and too much schoolwork, but I’m eager to hear what you have to say about these topics before I address more of the issues that “Race to Nowhere” discusses.

Look for part 2 in a week or so!

Wendy Segal

February 7, 2011

Scary News for High School Juniors (and even sophomores!)

It’s baaaack!

Many of us who follow college admission trends thought that early decision and early action programs were going away.  Harvard did away with early decision a few years ago, calling it a rich kid’s game.  A few colleges followed Harvard’s lead, and all the magazine and newspaper writers published articles cheering the demise of early decision programs.

For those who are just starting the college admission process, there are a few terms you must know:

  • early admission – technically, this means that the college will take you before you’ve even finished high school. Some schools have a program whereby you can go to college a year early and finish up any mandatory high school classes while you attend college. Unfortunately, many articles and blogs confuse “early admissions” with programs that give you an early decision about admissions.
  • early decision – if a school has this program, you apply to that one school early (the deadlines are often before Thanksgiving), and the school will let you know early (often before Christmas) whether you got in.  Under early decision, you are committing to attend this school if you get in.  You agree to withdraw any and all other applications if you get in.  That’s why it’s known as a rich kid’s game – you have to commit without knowing what scholarships or financial aid packages other schools might have offered.
  • early action – if a school has this program, you apply to this school and any other school with an early action program early (often before Thanksgiving).  They’ll let you know early whether you got in (often before Christmas), but you have until May 1st, the universal deadline, to let these schools know if you are going to enroll.

Many people (not me, of course) predicted the eventual end of the early decision program.  The truth is that both early action and early decision are more popular than ever.  Articles, like this from Inside Higher Ed and this one from US News and World Report, confirm that more kids are applying early than ever before.

So why is this scary news for high school juniors (and even for savvy sophomores)?

Much of your college admission work must get done in your junior year if you want to get into the colleges of your choice. (Notice I didn’t say “the best colleges” — what’s best for your friend isn’t necessarily what’s best for you.)

Because you’ll need to apply to colleges by October of senior year, you’ll need to know which schools you’ll be applying to by this summer.

Because you’ll need to know which schools you’ll be applying to by this summer, you’ll need to visit schools by this spring.

Because you’ll need to visit schools this spring, you need to know which schools interest you and group them by geographic area so you can see several schools on each road trip.  So you’ll need to have your list of schools – at least a preliminary list – NOW.  If you follow my advice, you’ll be applying to a minimum of eight colleges and probably more like ten to twelve schools.

Yes, admission are once again up all over.  More kids are applying to schools, and each student is applying to more schools than ever before.  (Read this Inside Higher Ed article.) You might not like the trend, but it won’t help you ignore it.

Don’t wait for your guidance counselor to call you in.  Don’t wait for your friends to tell you which schools they saw and liked.  Don’t wait for your English teacher senior year to tell you to write a resume.

You need to get started right now. (What were you doing on all those snow days, anyway?)

This week, you should go to PrincetonReview.com and complete their Counselor-o-Matic program, the best free college selection program available.  It’s not easy to find, but it’s worth it.  Go to www.princetonreview.com. Under the “college” tab, go to “best fit school search.”  That will bring up Counselor-o-Matic.  Complete the survey as thoroughly as you can.  You’ll get a list of good match schools, reach schools, and safety schools.  That initial list shows you colleges that paid to be there.  BUT if you click on “view all,” you’ll get an extensive list of schools that fit your criteria.  Click on any school to see more information about that school, often including commentary by students and a link to a video.

I’ve recently found another site which looks promising for building a list of colleges to consider.  Try cappex.com and let me know what you think.  And of course, there’s Naviance.  It’s limited, but you’ll most likely need to complete their profile at some point anyway, so you might as well check it out now.

You’ll need an initial list of 30 or so schools to check out.  Go to their websites.  Tell them you want more information.  Look at the schools’ videos (they’re there, but they’re often hiding).  You will find several that aren’t as good a fit for you as they seemed.  Good!  It’s as important to know what you don’t like as what you do like.

Visit a few schools, go to their open houses.  Become familiar with names of schools you’d like to know more about so that when you go to the spring college fairs, you won’t be standing in the middle of the room staring and frozen like a deer caught in headlights.

Whatever you do, do something now.  Start on the computer, continue with road trips and open houses and visits, get interviews where you can.

The more you do now, the less frantic and overwhelming fall of senior year will be.  If you don’t believe me, ask any senior!

Wendy Segal

February 5, 2011

Advice for High School Seniors: Waiting for the “Congratulations” Email

By now, some of you have heard from a few colleges. (Are there really “fat envelopes” any more or just happy emails?)

If you’ve gotten into your early decision college, congratulations!  You worked hard for so many years in your classes.  You survived your SATs and ACTs.  You slogged through the applications, essays, resumes, and interviews.

But many of you are still waiting. You might have heard from a college or two , but the ones you really care about won’t let you know until mid- to late-March. Some hold back until April 1st.  Is that a cruel April Fools joke – or the beginning of the best spring ever?

Now what? Now you wait.  While you’re waiting, read some advice I’ve collected over the years to pass on to students like you.

First of all, don’t forget to have your guidance counselor send your mid-year report card to all of the colleges to which you applied.  If you’ve done something noteworthy since you applied, send it along to the colleges unless they’ve asked you not to.  (You should read their application page or instructions very carefully to see which schools welcome updates and which “seal” your application once the deadline passes.  If you can’t tell, call or email the admissions office.)

Next, read this article from Forbes.com about what colleges look for in an application and how many really qualified kids don’t get in.

It’s important to know that if a college says “no,” it’s not saying that you aren’t an appropriate candidate for the school.  It’s not saying you’re not smart enough, or pretty enough, or athletic enough.  The “sorry to inform you” email merely means they’ve got enough smart, pretty, athletic kids from New York, or they wanted to round out their orchestra with a French horn player but you play the oboe, or they already have too many psychology majors.  (Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

According to this New York Times article, we should have pity on the poor colleges who have to choose.  Admissions counselors have too many qualified applicants for too few spots.  The author interviews admissions counselors who talk a little about their work load at this time of year and how they make decisions. (Juniors, pay attention!)

So when a college finally says yes, you can relax, right?

Not so fast.

First of all, the colleges that said yes want you to say yes back to them. As this New York Times article says, now is the time that colleges really turn on the charm.   Among the factors that determine which colleges are ranked close to the top and which are ranked farther down the list is a statistic called “yield,” the number of students who actually enroll from among the ranks of those who were accepted.  Harvard’s yield is very high — almost everyone who gets into Harvard goes there.  Your safety school probably has a lower yield — nearly everyone who applies will get in, but not many will wind up going to that school.  Yield makes a school look sought after, so now that the college said yes, it will do everything it can to get you to enroll.  That can make it hard to decide.  (If you need a little help sorting out the pros and cons of specific schools, feel free to email me with questions.)

With all those colleges wooing you, you might think you’ve really made it and you can finally relax. I don’t want to be a party-pooper or a buzz-kill, but you should read this LA Times article about how UCLA and other schools do withdraw acceptances from students whose grades slip too much.  And this New York Times article, entitled “Slackers, Beware” echoes the same warning.

If your grades had been all A’s and you drop down to a B+/A- , you’re probably fine.  But if your A’s are now C’s — or heaven forbid, D’s — you need to know that colleges can and do change their minds about letting you enroll.

But that won’t happen to any of MY students, right?  So take a deep breath, laugh at the juniors who are slaving away, and keep up the good work while you wait.

When you DO hear from schools, please don’t forget to let me know where you applied and which schools said no and which said yes.  I use that information to help next year’s students, just like I used the information from previous years to help you.  Thanks!

Wendy Segal

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