High School 2 College

December 10, 2012

Is SAT Tutoring Worth It?

Two years ago, Princeton Review announced that it would cease making claims about how much your scores will go up if you take its test prep program.  It’s about time. I feel very strongly that test prep classes are a shameful waste of time and money for most students. Read on for my reasons.

Parents occasionally ask me if SAT tutoring is actually helpful.  I’m not sure what people expect me to say.  After all, tutoring is what I do. I supposed they want to be able to justify the expense to themselves.

Whether or not any particular family feels that test prep is worthwhile depends on several factors.

What type of prep are you considering?

  • class
  • small group
  • private
  • on line
  • webcam

By far, the most effective type of help is private one-on-one tutoring. That’s the only kind of tutoring I do, in person if at all possible and via webcam if I’m working with someone long distance. Classes benefit nearly no one.  If you’re very smart and just need a little technique, you’ll be bored to death.  If you need some serious remediation (help), you won’t be able to get the help you need because the class teacher has to cover certain material whether you understand or not.  And most teenagers are just not going to ask the teacher to explain subject-verb agreement or how to find the next number in a series if the rest of the class is rolling its collective eyes and sighing loudly.

What kind of help do you need?

  • grammar only
  • reading skills
  • test strategy
  • timing/pacing
  • writing essays
  • confidence
  • someone to force you to spend time looking at the test

Very few people are equally good are teaching reading comprehension, grammar, and math, yet many SAT prep centers have the same teachers teach math, reading, and writing. For two years, I taught an SAT class for a local program.  They gave me a manual of how to answer questions.  It said, “Explain problem #1 in the first math section as follows….”  If a kid had a question after that, I was sunk.  I’m not good at math.  My husband is great at math, but he can’t tell a direct object from an indefinite article.  So I only teach what I’m really good at, but I can help you find an outstanding teacher to help you with those subjects I’m not good at.

Furthermore, when I taught that SAT course, like most teachers I taught it twice a year — once in the spring and then again the following fall.  Now that I only teach one student at a time, I may have up to 34 students a season.  So I teach the SATs 34 times in the spring, and another 34 times in the fall.  I’ve been doing that for 23 years.  I could do the math, but I already admitted I’m not good at that.

How much time do you have before the test?

  • days
  • weeks
  • months
  • years

If you only have days left, see my blog (here and here) for advice on some last-minute things you can do.  If you have a few weeks, get thee to a tutor! If you have months, you can make substantial progress toward your goal of a high score with the right tutor, especially if you’re willing do a little reading or a few math problems on your own.  If you have years, congratulations!  You’re in an excellent position to achieve top scores.  Read, read, read – read magazines, novels, history books.  Pay attention in math class.  When you get an essay back from a teacher, see that teacher privately after it is graded to ask for specific suggestions on how you could improve next time.  And check in with someone knowledgeable (like me!) about what classes to take (I wish I could talk to parents of sixth graders before they decide which foreign language their student should take!), what activities to do, and what summer programs to take to ensure you that colleges will be begging you to go there, waving fists full of money at you.

How much time are you willing to devote to test prep?

  • I signed up for the test
  • I own a book – isn’t that enough?
  • an hour a week
  • 30 minutes daily
  • I’m devoting my life to the SATs

Don’t spend more than an hour or two a week.  Surprised, right? Well, this is only a test.   Actually, it’s a test to see how well you can take this test.  The SATs won’t determine where you go to college.  They won’t tell you if you’ll have a satisfying job, an attractive spouse, healthy children.  The SATs don’t determine much of anything — and I make my living from the SATs.  But colleges do look at scores.  And employers, especially those employing graduates right out of college, can and do ask for SAT scores.  So you want to do as well as you can without going crazy.

Here’s what a really good tutor can do for you.  You need a tutor if you want to:

  • Gain familiarity with the SATs or ACTs
  • Find out which test or tests you should be taking to maximize your chances of getting looked at by a good school
  • Get comfortable and confident going into the test
  • Learn and practice test-taking strategies, including how to answer each type of question, when and how to guess, and how to get a sense of timing during the test
  • Build your reading, writing, and grammar (and/or math) skills, for the test as well as for all future studies
  • Learn how to structure and write a decent essay
  • Get some advice about which colleges might suit you
  • Figure out some possible college majors based on your abilities and interests so you can look for colleges with those majors
  • Plan and write an amazing college application essay

Is test prep worth it?  It depends on what you want and what type you get.  Is finding a tutor who can help you through the entire college application and admission process (including those tests) worth it?  That’s what most of my students and their parents tell me.

I look forward to your thoughts!

Wendy Segal


December 4, 2012

What Do My PSAT Scores Mean?

If you took the PSATs in October, you should be getting the scores back within the next week or two.  You unfold the long sheet of gray paper.  Okay, you see your scores, but what do they mean?  Did you do well or not?

1.  What do my PSAT scores mean?   On the SATs, the scores range from 200 to 800 in each of the three sections.  On the PSATs, the scores range from 20 to 80 per section.  Same thing minus a zero. Your index on the right is just the sum of your three scores:  critical reading, math, and writing.  Your  index is used to determined your National Merit status (more about that in a minute).

2.  What do the percentages mean?  If you scored in the 50th percentile, you did better than 50% of the high school juniors in the country.  You also did worse than 50%.  If you got in the 80th percentile, you did better than 80% of the students in this country, and worse than 20%.  The best you can score is 99th percentile (you can’t score better than yourself!).

3.  Is my PSAT score good?  Did I do okay?  I get this silly question all the time.  Of course you did okay – for someone trying to get into community college.  Did you do well enough to get into an Ivy League school?  Perhaps not (more about high scores later).  Whether or not your score is “good” depends on your expectations.  Better questions include:  Did you score better or worse than other kids who get the same grades as you do in the same type of school classes?  Or did you score well enough so that if this were your SAT score, the college of your choice wouldn’t reject you based on your scores?   For the answers, you have to contact me individually, or ask your guidance counselor.

4.  How do I know which questions I got wrong?  There’s a code number on the top and bottom on your PSAT score sheet.  If you enter it on the College Board website, you can review the exact questions you got wrong.  Your guidance department also has the test booklet you used to take the PSATs.  All you have to go is go into the guidance department and request your PSAT booklet from any guidance counselor or guidance secretary.

5.  How close to my PSAT score will my SATs be?  If I did well on the PSATs, can I expect to do well on the SATs?  Not necessarily.  Six or seven years ago, before they changed the SATs to include a writing section and before they drastically changed the critical reading section, your PSAT score was a fair predictor of what you might get on the SATs.  Once they changed the test in 2005, the PSATs haven’t been a fair predictor of SAT scores.  (Last year’s PSATs were unusually difficult, though.)  Usually, the PSAT questions are a bit easier than the SAT questions.  There are more easy/medium questions on the PSATs and more medium/hard questions on the SATs.  The SATs are much, much longer and many kids have issues with fatigue, loss of concentration, and inability to sit for so many hours on the SATs.  The SATs have an essay to write.  The reading selections are longer on the SATs.  The math is one year harder on the SATs.  All told, many, if not most, students go down from the PSATs to the SATs — unless they’ve attended SAT review classes or had tutoring before or after the PSATs.

6.  Is my score high enough for me to be a National Merit winner?  Only your 11th grade PSAT scores count, not scores from 10th grade (I am against students taking the PSATs in 10th grade.  Don’t get me started!)  Is your 11th grade score high enough?   It depends.  First of all, the National Merit people don’t let you know until the fall of senior year.  Secondly, the score you need to achieve to be a National Merit semifinalist changes from year to year and is different from state to state.  The score you need is a percentage of all test scores taken in each state.  So you have to score higher in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut than you do in Alabama, Mississippi, or Arkansas.  Most years, if you get a 200 combined score (out of a possible 240), you’ll be a National Merit Letter of Commendation winner.  Not bad!  Most years, in New York, if you score a 221, you’ll be a National Merit Semifinalist.  That’s not a guarantee – the score could be a point or two higher in any given year.  Last year, the minimum National Merit Score for New York students was 219, the lowest it’s been in about 15 years, but it could go up again.  As I said, last year was particularly difficult.

To go from being a semifinalist to a finalist, they have to review your final course grades from 9th grade through the end of 11th grade (nothing lower than a C usually), you have to write a short essay (easy topic, like “Why do you want to go to college?”), and you have to take the SATs (by fall of senior year, nearly everyone has) and your SAT scores need to be in the same general range as your PSAT scores so they know you didn’t cheat (you need to get in the high 90-something percentile overall).  The vast majority of all semifinalists do become finalists.  As a finalist, you may or may not get a scholarship to college (the scholarships tend to be small, often around $5,000 for one year only), but the real benefit is that it just makes your application seem more appealing to colleges, all of whom like to brag that they have a certain number of National Merit Finalists in their incoming freshman class.

7.  What can I do before the SATs to improve my score?  In part, it depends when you are planning on taking your first SAT.  For most students, it should be in March.  Some students prefer to take the SATs in January because they’ve been preparing diligently and want to strike while the iron is hot, or because they have another commitment in March.  NO JUNIOR should be taking the December SATs – those are for seniors who need one last chance to improve their scores.

If you plan to take the SATs soon, at a minimum you should be looking at your PSAT exam booklet or entering your code online to see exactly which questions you got wrong.  Now that you know the right answer, do you see where you went wrong – or is the question still a mystery?  Can you find a pattern in the questions you got wrong?  Were they mostly the difficult questions?  Were they a certain type of question?  Buy The Official SAT Study Guide by the College Board from your local bookstore or from Amazon.com and do a few tests.  The answers are in the book, so make sure you look carefully at the ones you got wrong.

If you have a bit of time, please get yourself to a competent tutor.  SAT prep classes are adequate for introducing you to the types of questions you’ll see, but you could buy a book to do the same thing.  Only a tutor can help you identify and polish up your strengths and can help you remediate your weaknesses.  You’ll learn when to guess and when to skip a question (which will be different for every student), you’ll learn techniques to handle the questions that are harder than the ones you can get correct now, and you’ll gain confidence before tackling the SATs.  Whether you work with me (and I hope you do) or someone else, there’s nothing like someone paying attention to your own test-taking skills to give you the best chance to score where you ought to score based on your grades and what the colleges expect which are a good match for you.

Do you have other questions?  Just send me a comment and ask!

Wendy Segal

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: