High School 2 College

September 18, 2019

Should I Prep Before My First SAT/ACT?

Not many people ask me this question any more.  Now, most likely, I’ll get a call from a parent saying, “My son just got back his scores from his first SAT.  He didn’t do well, but he just went in to take it without preparing at all — you know, just to see how he would do.  Now he’s upset.  Can you tutor him?”

Well, is it any wonder he didn’t do well?  Would he have gone into a chemistry test without studying “just to see how he would do”?  But unlike a chemistry test, what’s the harm really in taking an SAT (or ACT) cold, just to see where his weaknesses are. After all, he can take SATs again and again. If we’re lucky, maybe he really doesn’t have any weaknesses, and he’ll  do just fine without my having to spend any money for classes or a tutor.  And if we’re really lucky, he won’t have to test again.  He won’t need to take any time away from his homework, his sports, his clubs, his work, his video games… and I won’t need to nag him to prepare.

Bad idea.

Reason #1 – The SAT and ACT aren’t like any tests your student has taken before.  On the SAT, there is a whole section of math in which your student won’t be allowed to use a calculator.  On the ACT, there’s a science section which asks questions about research in earth science, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics.  On the SAT, there may be reading selections written in the 1700s about why democracy won’t work.  On the ACT, if you don’t move very, very fast, you won’t finish.  And on both tests, the student has to know whether a sentence needs a comma, a semicolon, a colon, or none of the above, not to mention the difference between thus, moreover, however, additionally, eventually, and despite.  None of these tasks are easy under the best of circumstances.  Imagine trying to accomplish all that during a four-hour test you’ve never seen before.

Reason #2 – Some schools still ask for ALL scores.  True, fewer and fewer schools still require all scores, but some do.  Why would you want your “reach” school to see those crummy first scores?

Reason #3 – One disappointing test makes the next test harder.  I see it all the time.  A student does poorly on an SAT or ACT.  When she goes to take it again, a voice in her head is saying, “You are awful at this test.  You didn’t prepare as well as you meant to.  You didn’t do well last time and you won’t do well this time.”  It’s hard to fight against negative self-talk like that.  It makes much more sense to test when a student is ready to test and has done at least some preparation.

BIG Reason #4 – The ACT and College Board can cancel your student’s second score if there’s a huge improvement from the first score.  Nearly every tutor I know has had a student whose scores were canceled because the student made a major improvement, which the testing agency attributed to cheating rather than hard work.  (Yes, that did happen to one of my students.  Fortunately, I keep careful notes and the parents were able to prove the student had had plenty of tutoring to account for the increase in his score.) Last year, there were two court cases about this policy of cancelling scores when there’s a substantial increase in scores, one against the College Board (SATs) and one against the ACT.  (Here is just one article on the cases.)

A better plan:

If you’d like to know how your student would do taking the test cold – either to assess his weaknesses and strengths or to shock him into putting a little effort into this first stage in the college application process – have him take a full practice test at home or in the library to better simulate testing conditions.  There’s a full ACT with answers and scoring guide in the student guide available on their website for free. (Click here and scroll to page 11.)  And there are 8 free SATs on the College Board website. (Click here for tests – scroll down to “paper tests,” but I suggest you ignore test #1 and start with test #2 for reasons too lengthy to go into here.)

Simulate a testing environment as best you can: no access to her phone, just a clock, a calculator, and #2 pencils.  Time each section according to the instructions on each section, with only a 1 -2 minute break between sections 1 and 2, a 10 minute break between sections 2 and 3, and a 1 – 2 minute break between sections 3 and 4.

Not only will you save about $65 for each test, but no one has to see the results of the tests but you, your student – and any teacher or tutor you hire to help.  You can get all the information you would have gotten by having your student take the first test without preparing with none of the drawbacks.

If you need help evaluating the results of your student’s SAT or ACT – whether she takes the first one officially or at home – just let me know!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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March 27, 2019

What Are Colleges Looking For?

A balanced student used to be just what colleges were hoping for:  a student who gets good grades, high SAT scores, plays the clarinet and soccer, and helps at the local food pantry for the hungry.  Then colleges realized that if they enroll an amazing scholar, a world-class clarinetist, a star soccer player, and a devoted community service activist, a college could have a balanced incoming freshman class even though each student only had one area of expertise.  The sought-after student, therefore, should exhibit what was called “passion.”  Unfortunately, what that college got was a class with some very odd albeit accomplished people who had almost nothing in common.

In the past several years, colleges have not been looking for balance OR passion.  They seem to want what can best be described as “consistency.”  If a student says he wants to be an engineer, he should be getting excellent grades in honors math and science classes.  His math SAT scores should be high.  He should be doing science research or participate in the science club or science Olympiad.  He should be volunteering at the local elementary school to tutor younger kids in math or science, or, even better, he should start a science club in the local middle school.  Even his paid work should be about science or engineering – he might work at a Home Depot or Game Stop store or be the nature counselor at a day camp.

If a girl wants to be a biology major and she likes to dance, she should be a junior teacher at her dance studio, and she should organize other dancers to perform at a local hospital or senior center to combine medicine and dance.  Her grades in honors science classes should be high, but she should also perform in a school dance group or musical theater when she’s not working at the local hospital’s gift shop.

Colleges also want to see kids follow through on their commitments.  If you are a boy scout, continue on to become an eagle scout.  If you take taekwondo or karate, achieve your black belt.  If you played tennis as a child, play it all four years of high school.  If you start taking Spanish in 7th or 8th grade, keep taking it all the way through 12th grade, whether you like it or not – unless it’s a severe drag on your grade point average.

Once a college finds a stack of students with commitment and consistency, good grades and good scores, and a handful of very positive teacher recommendations, how does it decide which of those students to accept?

Much of the criteria are completely beyond your control.  (This article discusses how grades and scores aren’t always what determines who gets in.)  A particular college may want more girls in a certain major.  It may want more students from the mid-west.  It may want a tuba player, not a clarinetist.  It may want fencing, not soccer.

Is there anything a student can do to differentiate herself from the crowd?  I’m glad you asked!

First, there’s the application essay.  If a student is clearly a shoe-in, a uninspired essay might but likely won’t change that decision.  If a student is clearly unqualified, an amazing essay probably won’t change that decision, either.  But most students fall somewhat in the middle – a reasonably good fit, but fungible, that is, exchangeable for any other student with those qualifications.  That’s where a stellar essay can help.  Colleges are looking for an essay that doesn’t merely review what’s already listed on your Common App activity page.  Colleges want an essay that is so clearly YOU that even without your name on it, everyone in class would know that essay could only be yours.  What is there about you, about your story, about your interests that distinguishes you from the rest of the soccer team or your fellow dancers?

And one of the biggest things colleges look for now is “demonstrated interest.”  Because the Common App has made it so easy to apply to dozens or even scores of colleges with one or two clicks, no college is really sure if you’re applying because you genuinely want to go there or if you’re applying just because it’s easy.  So show the colleges you’re applying to some love.  Visit their websites and enter your name and contact information in the “send me more information” page.  And when they respond with an email, open that email and click on the links.  (Yes, colleges can tell when you open their emails, how long you wait to open the email, whether you click on the link, whether you assign yourself a password – and it counts!)  Visit the college if possible, take a tour, and check out the admissions building.  Stop by the college’s booth at a college fair or attend an information session (don’t forget to sign in so the college knows you were there.)  Email the college with a question (but not one whose answer is already on their website).  And don’t dare skip attending the meeting when a college representative visits your school’s guidance department, even if it means missing a class you’ll have to make up.  Those representatives aren’t merely traveling salespeople for the college — they’re the actual admissions counselors who decide who gets in!

If  you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email through my website.  If you need help with choosing colleges to go on your list, or assistance with the essay or the Common App, you know where to find me!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

October 31, 2018

How Often Should I Take the SATs or ACTs? Which Test Should I Take?

First let me answer a question that parents often ask: What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT – and which should my student take?

In a nutshell, the SAT and ACT are both college entrance exams, and ALL colleges in the United States (yes, even the Ivy League schools) accept either equally.  They want you to take whichever shows you in the best possible light.  All the colleges also know that there’s very little difference between the tests.  Academically-inclined students do well on both.  Students who are struggling academically will do poorly on both.  So it really comes down to which style you prefer.

Before I discuss which of these tests any given student should take, what about the schools that no longer require either test?  Parents often tell me that they’ve heard that students can just skip the tests.  That’s both true and false.  There are some schools that require neither, but there are more schools that require that you take the SATs or ACTs.  I think students who take neither test will regret having to narrow their school search exclusively to those schools that don’t require either.  Some of the schools that say they don’t require the SAT or ACT do require two or more SAT Subject Tests.  Some of the schools that don’t require any standardized tests require students to submit a few graded research papers or critical analysis papers from class, or they require several application essays.  If you decide not to take any tests, choose a few schools that don’t ask for tests and read their admission websites very carefully.  You may change your mind.

If I’ve convinced you that you’ll have to take either the SAT or ACT (or both), which one should you take?  In general, here’s a comparison:

SAT

  • more time per question in every section
  • more reading per question in every section (including math!)
  • reading questions can be fairly subjective (requiring interpretation)
  • math includes a section where calculators are prohibited
  • math includes questions that require you to figure out the answer yourself (not multiple choice)
  • five reading passages, usually including reading from 1900 or earlier

ACT

  • less time per question – speed is a signficant factor
  • math is a bit more straightforward – fewer logic questions, less reading
  • reading questions are straightforward and clear, but again, speed is a factor
  • calculator permitted in all math sections
  • all math questions are multiple choice
  • four reading passages, with most passages contemporary writing
  • includes a separate science section – knowledge of school-taught science only required for 2 of 40 questions but ability to analyze graphs and charts critical

 

Typically, students who excel in English and Social Studies do a bit better on the SATs, and students who excel in Math and Science do a bit better on the ACTs.  Slower readers can do well on either test if they are decisive about answering questions (can you decide quickly what the answer is, or at least decide you don’t know and move on to the next question?).

But how can you know for sure?  Some students sit for at least one SAT and one ACT to see which they prefer.  But you can find out the same information by buying the ACT book by the ACT organization or downloading for free the student guide which contains one complete test (starting at page 12 of the booklet).  Take the test TIMED (each section must be timed precisely because that’s the challenge of the ACT, even if you don’t take all sections on the same day.  Then try the SAT by buying the College Board SAT book or downloading a test for free (download a paper test).  Again, time each section, even if you don’t take all the sections in one sitting.  

About half of my students do precisely the same on the SATs and the ACTs.  Some decide to continue with the one test that feels more comfortable, but others decide to take both tests.

So how often should you take each test?  That depends on you.  Some students say, “I’ll practice as much as necessary and test as often as necessary to get the best possible score.”  Others say, “I’ll show up once a week for tutoring, but don’t expect me to do any preparation at home.  I’ll take one of the tests once or perhaps twice, but whatever I get will have to do.”  Which is closer to your feeling?

Most students are between those extremes.  If that’s you, you’ll probably find that you want to either take one test three times (either SAT or ACT) OR take two SATs and two ACTs.  Experts suggest you should expect to test at least twice, but you can test four or more times if you want.

Given that most students apply to most if not all of their college choices by mid-October to take advantage of the boost that applying early provides, you should plan on completing your testing by the summer after junior year at the very latest, but by June of junior year if possible.  (But you will be able to test once more senior year if necessary.)

So the prime times for most students to take SATs are

  • December of junior year
  • March of junior year
  • May of junior year
  • August before senior year

And the best times to take ACTs are

  • December of junior year (a different Saturday than the SATs)
  • April of junior year
  • June of junior year
  • July before senior year (but they’re not given in New York, so you’ll need to go to Connecticut or New Jersey to take them)

There are other test dates, both for the SAT and the ACT, but these are the most popular because they fit into the application cycle the best.

If you need help preparing for either test, you know where you can find me!

Good luck!

 

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January 21, 2018

College Woes: Quit, Transfer, or Stick It Out?

For the past 30+  years, I’ve helped students prepare for college.  We spend hours getting ready for the ACTs and SATs.  We discuss which colleges to visit and which colleges to apply to.  We write essays and applications.  When the acceptances come in, we sort through them and choose the one best suited for that particular student.  Then she’s off, a college freshman at last.

Yet four years later, surprisingly few of those bright-eyed, fresh-faced students are parading in front of that school’s president, diploma in hand.

Although their friends all seem to be having a blast — just look at those party pictures on Instagram and Facebook! — they are unhappy.  Their roommate is annoying or drunk or worse, their professors don’t have time for them and give boring lectures in large, impersonal halls, the food is boring and fattening, they miss their friends and family, the major they selected turns out to be too hard or just not that interesting and doesn’t seem like it will ever lead to a job, anyway.  Now what?  Quit?  Transfer?  Stick it out?

Shockingly, only a little more than half of students who start college ever finish.  Many students are doomed to fail from the start:  they were just not prepared for the rigor of college-level work.  Every year, I get a panicked email from a previous SAT student asking me to help them through freshman writing (which is fairly easy to do online).  I’m never surprised.  When I see the level of writing on SAT/ACT essays, I know that student will have a tough time in college, no matter what the major is.  No matter how strict your AP Literature teacher is, AP isn’t college.  No matter how well you did on your AP Economics test, it’s not the same as a first-year economics class in any reasonably selective university.

What can you do to help make sure you can handle college-level work?  First of all, take high school work seriously.  If you don’t get it now in math, it’s not going to get easier later. Get a tutor, stay after school for extra help, go on Khan Academy online for free review.  Don’t just blow it off or blame the teacher.  When you get to college, the professor won’t give you a decent grade once you’ve explained that your 11th grade teacher was terrible.  Who cares?  Take responsibility for your own work now.  If you keep getting papers and Social Studies DBQ essays back saying, “Needs more detail,” or “Not organized,” ask to see a paper that got an A for comparison.  Find a writing tutor.  Ask to write the paper again for a better grade.  But it’s not really about the grade — it’s about making sure you know how to write a proper sentence and a well-planned paragraph before you ever sit down in a college class.  I love working with 9th and 10th graders whose parents can already see that their student’s writing isn’t adequate.  THOSE kids have a good chance of having an easier time in college.

Reading more helps.  (You knew I’d say that!)  The more you read, the better your writing.  It’s that simple.

Another suggestion (and I hope this is not too late) is that freshmen should take the easiest classes they can find.  Now is not the time to dive in.  Everything about being away at school is disorienting.  Your friends and family aren’t there.  You look in the mini-fridge and don’t find any food.  You open your drawers and don’t find clean clothes.  You have no idea what will make your professors happy.  No matter how far you go or what you major in, college is not like high school.  Don’t add very challenging courses on top of that.  Give yourself time to get acclimated to the entire college experience before you tackle those very hard classes.  Even an “easy” class will be so different from an easy class in high school that you should give yourself a break.  Starting college off with terrible grades won’t make you feel good about the whole experience — and if you decide to transfer, poor grades will hamper your ability to change schools.

So if you find yourself getting poor grades despite turning in your assignments on time, if you’ve tried your best and you still aren’t getting the grades you expect, should you quit, transfer, or stick it out?

I think quitting should be your last option if the problem is academic.  If you were smart enough to get in, you’re smart enough to manage this.  Try to stick it out.  First, you’ll need determination.  You may have to party less, you may need to go to the library more.  You may need to swallow your pride and go to study groups or the writing center at your school.  You may even need to hire a tutor (perhaps a student who took that class successfully the year before or a graduate student).

Staying in the school you’re in will probably allow you to graduate sooner than if you transfer, so it will save your parents (and you, if you’ve taken out loans) quite a bit of money if you can manage to stay where you are.  When you transfer, you’ll likely have to retake a class or two, especially if you got poor grades.  Some classes you’ve taken in your original school might not have equivalents in your new school.  The new school will likely have different requirements for your majors.

If you really find that the teaching assistants aren’t available or aren’t helpful, if you’ve used the writing center to no avail, if you can’t find a tutor, AND if the problem is more pervasive than just one class, you may want to think about transferring to a school with more support.  That’s not giving in, that’s being sensible.

Don’t transfer because you don’t like your roommate, your dorm, or your cafeteria.  There’s no guarantee any of these will be better in your new school.  Don’t transfer because you miss your family.  You’ll miss them in your new school, too.  But if you can’t manage the work, you might be in the wrong place.  Make a plan, and transfer.  More than a third of students transfer at least once in their college careers.  Choosing a college isn’t an irrevocable decision.  Stick it out if you can; transfer if you can’t. 

And let me know if I can help.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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April 26, 2017

Should I Take SAT Subject Tests? Should I Really Start Testing in 9th Grade?

I have written in the past with answers to frequently asked questions.  Now I’m writing about one of the most frequently UNASKED questions.  It seems that everyone knows you have to take SATs or ACTs to apply to most colleges, but SAT Subject Tests aren’t on many people’s radar.  If you are applying to a college ranging from somewhat selective to highly selective (students who get B+ in school to those who have nearly perfect averages), then the answer is YES, you should be taking SAT Subject Tests.

WHAT ARE SAT SUBJECT TESTS?

SAT Subject tests used to be called SAT IIs.  Way back when I was going to school, they were called “Achievement Tests,” and that’s what they are.  There are 20 Subject Tests: math (2 levels), science (bio, chem, physics), foreign language (with or without a listening component), literature, US history, and world history.  Each test is one hour, multiple choice only.  None of the tests has a short answer section or anything you need to write yourself.

WHO SHOULD TAKE SAT SUBJECT TESTS?

A few schools have made the news lately (at least the news I follow, which is heavily about testing and college issues) by dropping their requirement that students submit two SAT Subject tests.  But, as this article confirms, many, many schools still recommend subject tests, which can and do make a difference in your application.  First of all, most of the applicants to any given college have GPAs in the same range with similar test scores and similar activities.  If 95% of those applicants submit subject test scores and you don’t, the college can’t help but conclude that either you’re too lazy to take the test or you did take the test, but your scores were very low.  The colleges seldom use the tests to make admission decisions (except as I said when you don’t submit them), but they are used to verify your school grades.  Is an A at your school the same as an A in a private boarding school in Boston?  Is an A at your school the same as an A in an inner city school?  An SAT Subject Test allows the college to compare levels of achievement on an objective basis.

You may have heard that if you take the ACTs instead of the SATs, you don’t have to submit Subject Tests.  For many schools, that’s true.  But for many schools, it’s not true — they still prefer you submit subject tests, as this article confirms.  So take them!  Each is only an hour.  If you’re not sure whether you’d do well on a given test, I STRONGLY recommend you take a sample test at home a few months before the actual test.  (There’s only one book I would recommend for your practice:  The Official SAT Study Guide for ALL Subject Tests by the College Board.  It has one of each test they offer.)  That way, if there are questions you get wrong, you can evaluate:  Did I get them wrong because I never learned that information?  Did I get them wrong because the test asked the question in an unfamiliar way but now I see how to understand that question?  Did I get them wrong because I forgot that information?

After you take the sample test, you’ll know whether you are prepared to take the test, whether you should NOT take the test because there’s too much content that’s unfamiliar to you, or whether you should go to your teacher and say, “I didn’t get these questions right about World War II.  Will we be covering that material before I take this test?”  Then you can either not take the test, wait for the teacher to cover the material, or learn it on your own.

WHICH SUBJECT TESTS SHOULD I TAKE — AND WHEN?

Some students mistakenly think that if they aren’t taking an honors-level or AP-level class, they won’t do well on the SAT subject test.  That’s not necessarily true.  Some students don’t even consider taking a subject test because their teacher didn’t mention it.  I haven’t found a high school yet (and I know quite a few) where teachers have a strong sense of who should take which tests, so you can’t rely on your high school teacher, or even your guidance counselor, to tell you to take SAT subject tests.

Colleges that require or recommend SAT subject tests usually want two.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take more than two.  If all of your subject tests are great, send them all.  If not, send your two best scores.

In general, if an area of study is completed after one year of high school, take the appropriate test in June of that year when your knowledge of that subject is fresh.  For example if you are taking chemistry this year and you are doing well, in April, take a practice subject test in chemistry.  Ask your chemistry teacher to explain the questions that seem unfamiliar — or ask him to confirm that you’ll be learning that material in class.  If you think you’ll do fairly well, take the Chemistry Subject Test the first Saturday in June.  Of course, you won’t be able to take an SAT in June since the SATs and SAT Subject Tests are given at the same place at the same time.  So you should then plan to take your spring SAT in May (if you plan on taking one — many students take ACTs only).

If an area of study is ongoing, like math or often foreign language, you can wait until October of your senior year to take those Subject Tests.  You are permitted by the College Board to take up to three tests in one sitting — but DON’T!  Every one of my students who tried it said, “I should have listened to you.  By the time I took the third test, I couldn’t see straight.”  You can, however, safely take two subject tests on the same day.

THIS IS THE PITFALL:

Many students take biology in 9th grade and chemistry in 10th grade, well before they are thinking about testing or colleges.  It doesn’t occur to them – or their teachers – that they should take an SAT Subject Test at the end of 9th grade.  They should!  If you are taking a science in 9th  or 10th grade and doing well, I STRONGLY suggest you take the SAT Subject Test for that science in June of that year, even if that year is 9th or 10th grade.  You may never take biology again, and by the time you’re in 11th grade, you’ve forgotten most of the details of the content.  Especially if you think you might want to major in math, science, pre-med, engineering, or another STEM subject, you should take your science subject tests as soon as you finish that subject.  Some schools that don’t require SAT Subject tests in general DO require them for STEM majors!

 

ADVICE FOR JUNIORS:

Check on the College Board website to see when the tests you’re interested in will take place.  (Language tests especially are not necessarily given more than once or twice a year.)  If you want to take more than two subject tests, in June take science or history or any subject that’s not repeating next year.  You can take foreign language, literature, or math in the fall if necessary.  You only have until May 9th to sign up, so hurry! Sign up for the June SAT Subject tests on the College Board website.

ADVICE FOR 9TH and 10TH GRADERS:

Don’t wait for your guidance counselor or teacher to recommend that you take an SAT Subject test.  Get the College Board book listed above.  The Subject tests don’t change much from year to year, so that book should last until you graduate from high school.  In the early spring, take a sample science test.  If you do well, take that Subject Test in June.  You’ll thank me!

WARNING:

Don’t forget that the subject tests follow the OLD SAT scoring policy.  You get points for correct answers, and you lose points for incorrect answers.  If you can make an educated guess, you ahead and try it.  But if you have no idea, you’re much better off skipping the question entirely.

If you have any questions about the SAT Subject Tests, feel free to send me a message on my website.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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February 11, 2017

What Do You Mean I’m Not Ready For College-Level Work?!

A recent report has spurned a flurry of even more reports on the problem of high school students’ lack of preparedness for college-level work.

It seems that the majority of colleges regularly accept students whom they subsequently assign to remedial English or math classes.  What’s the problem with that?

For colleges, it means that precious resources have to go to bring students up to the level where they have a chance of succeeding in college, rather than in creating offerings for students who can already manage the work.

For taxpayers, it means that the tax money spent on high school education may not be the investment taxpayers think it is, and more money has to go to re-educate students once they get to state-supported public colleges.

But the biggest problem is for the students themselves.  Students, nearly all of whom got passing grades (if not superior grades), grades good enough to get them into college, have been deluded into thinking they know more than they do and are smarter than they really are, and are more educated than they are.  These students who enter college unprepared have to spend several semesters on remedial work before they can begin the classes they really went to college to attend.  And even more disheartening, most of these remedial classes do not count toward required college credits.  Sadly, many if not most of these  overwhelmed, discouraged, and frustrated students who have to take remedial classes do not graduate from college at all, leaving school with loans or depleted savings but without a degree.

Surely, this phenomenon of unprepared students can’t apply to us in northern Westchester, can it?  After all, most of our students come from middle-to-upper-middle class families, attend schools that have rich curricula that are well-supported by our communities, and are bound for selective or highly selective colleges.

I’ve been tutoring students for just about 30 years, college-bound high school students whose parents are at least affluent enough to pay me, a private tutor, for extra SAT and/or ACT prep and advice about and help with college applications.  I can tell you with complete certainty that the majority of my students are not prepared for most college classes.  Yes, I include students who take honors and AP classes in high school.

Over the years, I have been contacted by many, many students who have asked me for help with college freshman writing and social studies classes. Not only is it embarrassing to get poor grades on freshman classes, it’s extremely expensive to repeat a class — and many academic scholarships require that students maintain a certain grade point average to keep that scholarship. Parents gratefully hire me to work with their college students online with freshman assignments. Paying me is certainly less expensive than paying for the class all over again or replacing that scholarship, but I wish my help weren’t necessary.

Is there anything that parents and students can do to make sure their students are adequately prepared for college-level work?  There is, but but it takes a concerted effort and the student has to want it.

Here’s my advice to students who want to ensure that they will be ready for college-level work:

Don’t be lazy about math.  Each math concept builds on the knowledge before, so if you don’t understand what’s going on in math class, don’t shrug and hope the teacher changes topics soon.  Even if you’re getting the homework right, if you don’t understand it, keep asking until you do.  Ask your friends who seem to get it.  If they DO understand it, ask them to explain it to you.  If they don’t, the group of you needs to approach the teacher after school and let him know that several of you really haven’t mastered the concept. And take advantage of other resources:  review the concept on Khan Academy or read about it in a Barron’s Regents review book.

Take time to read, even if it’s not assigned.  If you went to the gym once a year, you’d find it difficult and even perhaps unpleasant.  But if you went regularly, you’d find you can lift more weight more easily over time – and it might even become an activity you’d enjoy. The same is true with reading.  If you only read occasionally (and only what’s assigned), you’ll find it arduous and tiresome.  But if you read regularly (and books of your own choosing), you’ll find it increasingly easy and even pleasant.  Read whether you like to or not.  Read books that are a bit difficult.  Read books outside your normal area of interest.  If you expect to be able to read and understand college-level material on a subject you might not find interesting, you have to begin WAY before college and you have to keep it up.

Pay attention to your writing.  Unfortunately, too many teachers only give writing assignments that students can complete in class.  Imagine if you wanted to learn to hit a ball in baseball.  If the coach gave you a bat, threw a ball at you, and when you missed said, “Come back next month and I’ll pitch another ball at you,” do you think you’d improve as a batter?  Writing an essay and turning it in with no guidance about the student’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer, with no opportunity for revising, without prompt and thoughtful feedback is likewise not going to turn you into a good writer.  Unfortunately, just like in baseball, few writers improve without a good coach.  If your English teacher won’t give you detailed, specific, and meaningful feedback, you’ll have to find a writing teacher (or tutor!) who knows how to isolate all the skills that go into good writing and can explain them.  Do you use the best verbs you can find?  (Is/Am/Are = weak writing!)  Do you use nouns instead of adjectives?  Do you write the way you read rather than the way you speak?  Have you organized your thoughts into a rough outline before you write even one line?

This essay has been unusually long because I feel unusually passionate about student achievement.  Don’t presume that teachers will challenge you to hone your basic academic skills.  Challenge yourself!

If you need more suggestions or a bit of help, please feel free to contact me!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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November 9, 2016

6 Ways NOT To Choose a College

Choosing a college is a lot like choosing a husband or wife — there’s no single right way to find the perfect spouse, but there are a lot of wrong ways to go about it.  And the ideal mate (or college) for your best friend might be completely wrong for you.

Ideally, each student should attend a college that offers that student an excellent education in a field that interests him or her in a place that feels just right among people whom that student can feel challenged by but comfortable with and taught by professors who are knowledgeable, on top of their field but approachable and interested in each student’s progress.  How hard can that be?

To accomplish such an “easy” task, there are dozens of books, too many articles, and several ranking sites about how to choose a college.

Since I wouldn’t give the same advice to two different people, I’m not going to tell you how to pick the college that would be perfect for you.

But I can tell you some really awful ways to choose a college.  So please DON’T do any of these:

Only look at colleges you’ve heard of.  You probably have heard of about 20 colleges.  Your parents have probably heard of about 20 colleges.  Even if your lists don’t overlap, that’s 40 colleges out of the thousands in the United States.  Just because you haven’t heard of a school doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a stellar reputation among those in your field.  And just because you have heard of a college doesn’t mean it deserves its notoriety or that it’s necessarily a better fit for you.

Decide you want a really big college (or a really small college) without looking at one first.  Some big schools feel really big.  Kids generally feel lost, disconnected, not focused.  But some really big schools do a great job of making kids within a certain major or within a certain housing unit feel like they belong, like the faculty cares about their progress, like they have pride in their school.  The same with small schools.  Some have limited choices.  Others are creative and open to designing the perfect curriculum for you.  You don’t have to visit every school you apply to, but you shouldn’t make a blanket decision about a type of college without visiting a school of that type and a school of the opposite type.

Pick a school based on the dorms or the cafeteria or the weather.  If the freshman dorms are cramped,  remember that you won’t be a freshman forever.  If the senior housing is nothing special, you might be living off campus by then anyway. Don’t decide whether you like a school based on the unimportant externals.  Don’t decide you don’t want to go to school in Connecticut or Massachusetts because it’s colder there.  It’s not.  Don’t decide you want to go further south because you like the warm weather.  You’ll be in classrooms, your dorm, and the library most of the time anyway.  If your campus is lovely but you can never take the classes you like because seniors get priority and the classes are filled before you can register, you’ve picked a pleasant vacation spot but a crummy school.

Expect your guidance counselor or parents to help you choose a school.  As well as your parents know you, they aren’t you.  You’re the one who has to live at that school for four years (at least).  You’re the one who has to take those classes, interact with those students, learn from those professors.  Don’t be lazy.  Do some work yourself as you build a list of colleges to apply to.  Visit colleges when you can.  Look carefully at dozens of college websites.  (They all look good initially.  You can only differentiate between them when you’ve seen many.) Don’t stop at the admissions page of the college websites.  Poke around on the “majors” pages.  See what research the professors are doing.  See what sub-majors each school offers within your general area of interest. Count how many professors each college has in your major.  Look at the online course catalog to see whether you’d really like to take the required classes in your field.  Email the admissions office if your questions can’t be answered by the website — or email a department or professor directly.  By all means show your list to your guidance counselor; guidance counselors have excellent resources at their disposal and know which schools are well liked by previous students. But they may not know you well enough to know whether you like to get friendly with your professors or would prefer to talk to a teaching assistant, or whether you’d prefer a school where the university provides a lot of entertainment or you’re expected to explore the surrounding town or city on your own. Do your own background research as best you can.  Parents are (sorry, moms and dads) a bit less reliable, especially when it comes to advising their oldest child.  A school that was up-and-coming and quite selective 30 years ago might be much less prestigious now (or more to the point, may not be right for their child), and a school that was no great shakes 30 years ago might be truly amazing now.  (I remember when I was in college that Syracuse was a safety school for many solid B students.  Colleges change over time – for better or worse.)

Rely on the ranking reports.  As this New York Times article explains, there are many college ranking lists, most from prestigious institutions.  Each emphasizes different aspects of college statistics from future earnings of students to student satisfaction to peer review to percentage of applicants who are accepted and more.  And the lists disagree with each other quite a bit.  There really aren’t any indisputably “top schools,” even within a particular field.  If you check several lists, you’ll get an idea of whether a particular school generally is toward the top, middle, or bottom of the list of similar schools, but choosing a school because it’s ranked #10 over a school ranked #12 is like ordering vanilla ice cream because it’s more popular when you really love pistachio.

Wait until senior year in high school to start thinking seriously about which colleges you’d like to know more about.  To return to my previous analogy,  you wouldn’t plan a wedding and then a month before the wedding start looking for a potential mate, would you?  Then why plan to go to college but not concern yourself with which colleges might be a good fit until just a month or two before you need to submit applications?

Choosing the place you’ll spend four very important years takes a bit of time, planning, and work.  It’s not crazy to start gathering information at the end of 10th grade.  Think about it:  If you want to apply in the beginning of senior year, you’ll have to be looking at colleges by the end of junior year.  And to look at colleges in the spring of junior year, you need to have a reasonable list by the winter of junior year.  And to have a reasonable list by the winter of junior year, you need to start doing some serious thinking and research — NOW.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please send me a message through my website (which has plenty of good information including a link to schedule time with me): www.wendysegaltutoring.com  .

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May 27, 2016

What Do Colleges Want From Applicants Like Me – Part 1

I’m glad you asked, because there are indeed concrete steps you can take to enhance your college application whether you’re in 9th grade dreaming of college, a senior overwhelmed with the process of college applications, or any student (or parent) in between.

First, a little background.  When I first started advising students about how to get into a college that would be a great fit for them about 29 years ago, most colleges were looking for the “well-rounded” student.  The ideal applicant would get good grades, have high SAT scores, belong to several school clubs, play a sport, and perhaps even dance or sing or play an instrument.  The more areas in which a student showed competence, the more attractive the applicant.

About 15 years ago,  there was a shift.  Colleges decided that they could have a well-rounded freshman class even if each student wasn’t well-rounded.  In fact, perhaps a college could build a stellar class if they chose some students who were brilliant academically but had no other activities, some athletes who were stars on the field but didn’t test well and didn’t have wonderful grades, some virtuoso cellists who had played Carnegie Hall but never joined a club or held a job, and so on.  Colleges were looking for “passion,” drive, and singular achievement.

About 7 or 8 years ago, there was another shift.  Colleges found that sometimes star athletes, world-class musicians, and brilliant students kept those interests isolated from everything else in their lives, and so didn’t add much to the school environment.  Now, colleges are looking for something I call “consistency.”  They want to see that your interest or talent pervades your life, that you don’t merely dance or play lacrosse because someone said it would look good on an application.  They want to see how you use that interest throughout your life.  So if you dance, they want to see that you work part-time in a dance studio helping younger dancers, that you and your friends give free dance performances each Christmas in the local senior center, that you dance in your local dance group, that you’ve organized a dance group for your school.  If you play lacrosse, they want to see you get paid for coaching lacrosse, they want to see you spend your summers at a lacrosse training camp, they want to see you volunteer to coach kids in some sport in your nearest inner city Boy’s Club.  Your in-school, out-of-school, volunteer, and paid work should all be organized around your interest, talent, or ability.

The best applicants actually DO have a pervasive, enduring interest that shows itself in every aspect of their lives (while those applicants also get good grades and have good scores).  But if you know that’s what colleges are looking for, you can give them what they want.  Instead of going on your church’s midnight run to give food to the homeless in the city (or in addition to that), be sure you look for volunteer opportunities that complement your “interest.”  Better yet, create volunteer opportunities that both reflect your interest and highlight your leadership abilities.  Be thoughtful about how you spend your summers.  If you’re an athlete, camp or life-guarding is fine, but if you want to be an engineer, perhaps working theater tech for local community theater is better.  Choose after school activities wisely.  If your strength is academics, you may want to join the prom committee, but the debate club might be a better choice.

In many ways, I’m sorry for this trend.  I do think 14- , 15- , 16- , and 17-year old students should be exploring lots of interests.  How do you know if the chorus isn’t for you until you try it?  Maybe you’ll find that the Model U.N. ignites a passion for public service in you.  Maybe not, but you won’t know until you try.  So on the one hand, I’m giving you advice I don’t believe.  I don’t believe young people should be hyper-focused on one passion.  Your “passion” at 15 might bear no resemblance to your “passion” at 17 — and that’s how it should be.

On the other hand, people do pay me for my years of expertise about how to get into their top choice college — and telling students to focus, focus, focus on their grades and one big talent or interest will absolutely differentiate that student from the thousands of other smart, suburban, perfectly likable and capable students who will compete for a limited number of spots at that college.  So you need to decide whether your passion or talent is enduring or a passing flirtation, and how important it is for you to tailor your activities (beginning in 9th grade, if possible) based on college acceptance.  Or maybe this advice gives you permission to resign from clubs and activities that don’t light your fire in favor of those that feed your passion.  Feel free to comment (politely).

Shortly, I’ll write about other aspects of a college application over which students have control so they can give the college what they want.  Stay tuned!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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October 10, 2015

No More Vocabulary on the New SAT? HA!

When rumors of a new SAT were swirling, the College Board let it leak that they would be doing away with the fill-in-the-blank vocabulary sentences.  And they did.  The College Board representatives have held press conferences casting aspersions (look it up!) on so-called “SAT vocabulary,” insisting there would be no such vocabulary on the new test.  Instead, they’ll be using words that are more common and useful in typical high school and college reading.

The College Board released four sample tests of the new type.  In the first test,  you’ll encounter the following words.  Of course you know them because they’re not honest-to-goodness vocabulary words.  Or do you?

Can  you define these 29 words (all from Sample Test 1)?

  • anecdote (no, not antidote)
  • intrude
  • deference (nothing to do with deferring)
  • ambivalent
  • disparagement
  • mediation
  • imposition
  • reciprocate
  • celebrated (not the same as celebrating or celebration)
  • exclusionary
  • unprecedented
  • reminisce
  • substantiated (not the same as substantial)
  • template
  • momentous (nothing to do with a moment)
  • inquiries
  • hypothetical
  • feasibility
  • depiction
  • viability
  • refutes
  • objectivity
  • impartiality
  • grave (adjective, not the place you bury someone)
  • candor
  • solidarity
  • conducive
  • fanciful (nothing to do with fancy)
  • allude

Aren’t you glad they took out vocabulary?  Ah, you might be thinking.  The College Board said they’d be using words in context.  I’ll be able to figure out the meaning from the words and concepts around them.  Well, if they ask you if the author’s tone is sardonic or magnanimous, even if you understood the reading, you might not get the right answer because neither of those words would be used in context.  At least with the old/current SAT, you could learn a strategy for solving those fill-in-the-blank sentences.  With the new test, no such luck.

So don’t throw away your vocabulary books.  (By the way, one of the BEST vocabulary books, especially for students who already have a reasonably broad lexicon (again, look it up), is Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis.  It’s a rather ancient book (I was assigned chapters from it when I was in 7th grade, when phones were still attached to the wall with curly wires!), but year after year, the vocabulary in that book still shows up on SATs.  Furthermore, the author’s dry wit makes expanding one’s vocabulary almost fun!

If you plan on taking the new SAT, which will be offered starting in March 2016, it’s more important than ever to read, read, read.  You might put a sticky-note inside the front cover to note words that are unfamiliar to you (or even more likely, that are a little familiar to you but you couldn’t define).

Pay particular attention to common words  used in an unusual way.  (For example, as in the list above, grave normally means a hole in the ground for a dead body, but what does it mean when you say someone gave the student a grave warning?)

And lastly, don’t let your grammar get sloppy.  Grammar is now part of the reading section of the SATs.  So if  you are a stellar reader but think it’s okay to say, “Between you and I, Tom has less girlfriends than Ted,” you’ll ruin your critical reading score. (You caught both errors in that sentence, right?)

If you have any questions or need help, contact me at http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com or at wbsegal@gmail.com or on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Wendy-Segal-Tutoring-Highschool2college-202183139820161/timeline/

Wendy Segal

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June 22, 2015

Don’t Waste Your Summer! High School Students, Make Your Summer Work For YOU!

Do you want to go to college some day?  Every year, I have students who are seniors who tell me they wish they had used their summers more productively.  So don’t wait – follow my advice now and getting into a great college will be so much easier later.  Even the New York Times agrees that you should use your summers productively.

Grades 8 – 10:  Read.  Read.  Don’t stop – read some more.  Reading the back of the cereal box is better than reading nothing. Reading Sports Illustrated or Seventeen is better than the cereal box.  Reading TIME magazine is WAY better than reading Sports Illustrated or Seventeen.  TIME is written on the college level unlike many other magazines.  The articles are varied and interesting. I like the actual magazine rather than the online edition.  It’s closer to reading an SAT essay.  And don’t forget to read what others have written in, the page that used to be called “Letters to the Editor,” and then was called “InBox,” and that now might be called something else.  Unlike comments at the bottom of a blog, these letters are well-written, use correct grammar and spelling (or they don’t get published), and are written to try to persuade you that the letter writer’s point of view is valid — much like an SAT essay!

Don’t stop when you finish your summer reading.  Look for books outside your usual area of interest.  Each genre has a jargon.  Reading a mystery isn’t like reading a fantasy.  Reading science fiction isn’t like reading a romance or a biography.  Or if you’ve read a book before that you liked, read more by that same author.  Or read a harder book  that has more of what you liked about that other book.  If you like chick-lit or romances, read Vanity Fair by Thackery or Jane Eyre by Bronte.  If you like Dave Barry, read some Thurber or O. Henry short stories.  If you email me what you like, I’ll give you a few suggestions that will bump up your reading skills while you’re being entertained.

Grade 11:Read and follow the advice above for 10th graders.  Incoming Juniors should also be thinking about the PSATs that are coming up in October.  Most students should just go in and take the test when it’s given.  (Don’t worry, your guidance counselor will sign you up and tell you where to go and when.)  There’s a free booklet in the guidance department in which the College Board gives you advice about taking the test and a few sample questions.  This year, unlike previous years, the PSAT will be something of a mystery.  There’s a sample PSAT available (new type), but you can’t make generalizations from one test.

My most important advice for incoming Juniors:  start preparing for the old/current SAT.  The SAT as we know it will be changing drastically.  The first administration of the new test will be March 2016, but I think the January 2016 will be a tough one based on my 28 years of tutoring experience.  So far, all colleges that have posted a policy say they’ll accept either the old or new SAT.  We have a few sample SATs of the new variety, but again, I’m reluctant to generalize based on a few tests.  We have dozens and dozens of the old variety, and I have untold hours of experience tutoring students for that test.  Why not take advantage of that?  Warning:  Students who take the March 2016, May 2016, and June 2016 SATs will not receive their scores until the end of June (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that turned into early July).

Grade 12:  Read and follow the advice for 10th graders – when you take a break from college applications.

By now, you should have a list of colleges that interest you.  If not, read my blogon how to build a list of colleges.  Go visit some.  You don’t have to visit all the schools you apply to, but you should have an idea if you like small or large schools, rural, suburban, or urban schools, religious schools or secular schools, and so on.

If you are going to visit, interview with an admissions officer if it’s offered.  (Check back on my blog or join Wendy Segal Tutoring on Facebook for upcoming tips on how to interview at colleges.)

You should be writing your college essay this summer.Start now.  Don’t wait for your English teacher to mention it.  In fact, your English teachers can’t help you much since the topics have changed drastically each year over the past few years and teachers’ “follow this sample” handouts just don’t apply any more.   (Again, follow this blog or my Facebook page for upcoming advice.)  Go to the Common App website for the most current essay topics (but don’t start a Common App account until August 1st when they open the fall season or you might have to reenter everything!)

Lastly, don’t forget that, no matter how busy your summer is, you’ll be busier in September.  Decide which test to focus on, and get busy improving those areas in which you are weakest.  Start that essay.  Read as much as you can on any and all topics.  And let me know if you need some help.

You’ll have plenty of time to relax next year (just kidding!), but right now you should GET BUSY!

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Wendy Segal   http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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