High School 2 College

January 21, 2020

Three Rules about What You Should Major In

Every teenager I know, from the beginning of junior year until at least the middle of senior year, is asked the same two questions everywhere he goes:  What are you going to major in, and what do you want to be?

Not since you were five years old have as many strangers and near acquaintances been so interested in your plans for the future!  But you can no longer answer “superhero”; people expect you to answer something reasonable, like “doctor” or “businessman” or “psychologist,” or you risk looking like you have put absolutely no thought into your own future.

So how, at age 16 or 17, are you supposed to know?

Frankly, most adults I know are working at a job or career that’s not the one they planned for when they were teenagers. So why choose at all?

The key, I believe, is to start moving forward, knowing that your path may take a turn in an unexpected direction at some point.  But if you never start moving, for sure you’ll never get anywhere.  So pick a major or a career you think you might like and take some action to make that come about, even if you never actually get there.

From a practical perspective, why not just put “undecided” on your college applications, since the truth is that you really ARE undecided?  Sometimes that is the best choice.  If you’re a girl who thinks she might want to major in psychology or English, or a boy who thinks he might want to major in math or business or some science, undecided might be best.  Every college has a ton of female biology majors and male math majors.  Colleges like to balance their incoming freshman classes in terms of gender (few boys want to go to a college that’s 90% female, and few girls want that, either – or they’d be looking at women’s colleges).  But they also like to balance out each major by gender as much as possible.  So a girl who is considering majoring in English isn’t increasing her chances of getting in to a particular college by applying as an English major, but a boy who might  want to major in English is indeed giving his chances a boost by listing that major on his applications, presuming his grades in English and Social Studies classes confirm that liberals arts would be a likely good fit for him.

So rule #1 is apply undecided only if the major you’re thinking of is common for your gender.

Some majors are designed to teach you more stuff, and some majors are designed to teach you how to DO stuff.  As a history major, I didn’t need to learn how to do anything I couldn’t do before.  I just learned more history, and I learned how to analyze it better and write about it better.  But those who major in engineering, nursing, physical therapy, accounting, and similar majors are actually learning how to do something.  For my history major, it didn’t matter if I took a class in the late middle ages before or after I took a class on the causes of the American civil war.  But someone who is majoring in engineering learns the basics the first year, then learns a bit more the second year, then specializes into mechanical or civil or electrical or some other kind of engineering the third year.  An engineering student can’t take a third year class during his first year, because he just won’t have the background for it yet.

All those “learning how to do stuff” majors generally require smaller and more specialized classes.  A college can put 400 history majors in a lecture hall, but not 400 senior-year nurses.  So those skills-based majors are usually more selective.  In other words, those programs have more requirements (perhaps they require SATs or SAT Subject tests when in general that university is “test optional”) and take fewer students.

So if you’re planning on majoring in biomedical engineering, should you just list your major as undecided because it’s easier to get in?  No, you can’t.  In most cases, the engineering (or nursing) departments constitute a different college within a university, and switching in isn’t easy.  Changing from a physics major to an engineering major will require you to apply again and start back with freshman classes, likely ensuring that you’ll go to college for much more than 4 years just to get your bachelor’s degree.

It’s very easy – and common – to go in as an engineering major and then switch to just math or just science because you’ve already taken the basic coursework, but it’s much harder (and sometimes impossible within the same school) to transfer from majoring in science to majoring in engineering.

So rule #2 is to list as your probable major the hardest and most specific major that you’re considering, even if you know that you’re not at all sure that you’ll stay with it.  It follows my advice above about starting down a path.  If you start to be a nurse and after a few classes you realize it’s not for you, it’s easy enough to change to biology or psychology.  But if you start with biology, you might not be able to get into the nursing program.

Does it make sense to major in history or English or any other liberal arts subject?  What could you possibly do with it?  Because college is so brutally expensive, too many families presume that if their students aren’t majoring in something practical, something that will turn into a career like business, their kids are wasting their own time and their parents’ money.  Not so.  I majored in history and was in banking as a branch manager for 11 years.  My cousin majored in Peace Studies at Binghamton and is now working for an internet company making a very impressive income, living in New York City.  Employers often look for employees with liberal arts degrees because the employers can be assured that those candidates can read critically, can write intelligently, can think independently, can complete a program they’ve begun, and most importantly, have learned how to learn.  As this article explains, a liberal arts degree translates into a higher income for life.

Rule #3, therefore, is major in what you really like to study with the confidence that it will turn into a worthwhile job.  Just start walking down that path.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

 

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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July 24, 2017

Before You Pack For College, Read This

Congratulations!  You’ve made it all the way through high school.  You applied to many colleges (or just your favorite), got into at least one, and are headed off to college very soon.

Here’s my best advice for you to get ready for the big move:

1.  GET A SHOT!  I can’t say it loudly enough.  Get a meningitis shot.  The old ones lasted 5 years.  They now have vaccines that last 10 years.  If you’re not sure if you’ve had one, call your doctor and ask.  Hardly anyone gets meningitis, but it’s often fatal if you do.  Why take a chance?  One girl did — read about it here.

 Please, please don’t put it off.  Make an appointment now because they sometimes run out of vaccine.

2.  Start saving Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupons.  They come in the mail.  Save them.  The store doesn’t mind your using expired coupons.  Bed, Bath, and Beyond has a good selection of college stuff starting early in August.  Marsha, a wise friend of mine, gave me the following advice and she was right:  Buy everything you think you might possibly need, but don’t open it until you get to college.  If you don’t need it in your particular dorm room, your parents can always take it back to the store and return it if they keep the receipt.

3.  Start making a backpack of all the stuff you’ll need the minute you arrive at college:

  • duct tape
  • masking tape
  • extension cords (at least one with surge protector)
  • hammer
  • screw driver (flat and phillips)
  • flash light
  • sharpie marker (there will be something you forgot to label or that your roommate has the exact same one of)
  • small notepad and pen

There’s lots more stuff you will need, but these are things you might need right away to put your room in order and will certainly get lost if you pack them with the other junk.

4.  Get a new laptop.  If yours is more than 4 or 5 years old, you might want a new one.  You probably won’t need a printer (they’re handy but take up precious desktop room and every school has convenient places to print out papers), but you will need a laptop to bring to class, to submit assignments, and to drag to the library or to a friend’s dorm room for a group project.

5.  Ask what cell phone carrier works best at your school.  I know from my son that if you don’t have Verizon at Cornell, you don’t have reception.  If you know someone at the school you’ll be going to, ask about who’s got the best reception.  If you don’t know anyone there, find a facebook group of last year’s freshmen and ask them.  While you’re at it, try to get your parents to pay for unlimited text messages.  You’ll need it!

6.  Expect to feel out of place for a little while.  I have to confess — I cried through most of my freshman year.  I didn’t want to live home again, I just wanted my life the way it was back in high school with all my comfortable friends, with clean clothes that appeared regularly in my room, with free food in the fridge.  I thought everyone else was having a blast, and I was the only one feeling sad, lonely, uncomfortable, sick of hearing my roommate’s music.  I saw everyone’s happy faces going to class and I felt even more alone.  Little did I know that many of them were smiling on the outside and feeling exactly the same as I did on the inside.  I think if I knew that – and if I knew then how certainly this feeling would pass by springtime – I wouldn’t have felt quite so confused.  So I’m telling you now:  It’s not only okay to feel disassociated your first few months at college, it’s normal.  Really.

7.  Don’t forget who you are.  This article states it best:  don’t forget your goals, your abilities, your family, your values, or yourself.  Eat right at least several times a week.  Call home now and then.  Warn your parents in advance if you are dying your hair purple or shaving it off so they won’t faint when you come home for Columbus weekend or Thanksgiving.  Don’t ride the wave of good times and parties if you haven’t started that paper that’s due next month.

The key to success in college is to embrace the adult in you.  Plan out your schoolwork so you’ll have time for work and time for relaxation.  And asking for academic advice doesn’t mean that you’re letting someone tell you what to do — it just means gathering others’ expertise before you make a decision.

I hope I haven’t made you too nervous.  I just want you to be as prepared as you can be.  Keep in touch with your old friends, your family — and me!

Wendy Segal577070_479496568742293_1695834639_n

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

June 22, 2013

Top Mistakes College Freshman Make – Save for September

I’ve made some of these mistakes.  People I know have made others.  Try to avoid as many of these as you can when you start college.

Mistake:  Not checking out where your classes are. When you choose classes, keep a map of your campus handy.  Try to avoid classes on opposite ends of campus on the same day.

Bigger mistake:  Not checking out where your classes are once you’ve signed up. Before the first day of class, do a test run like you did before you entered high school.  Walk the route.  Check where each classroom is.  You don’t want to show up late the first day.  Some buildings have wonky classroom numbering systems, so do the test run BEFORE the first day.

Mistake:  Choosing classes by what people in your dorm suggest. What do they know?  Even if someone you know took that class before, it may not be right for you.  Hey, maybe they prefer papers to tests and you don’t.  Maybe a class is just right for their major but not yours.

Mistake:  Choosing classes by what the course catalogue suggests. They’re not always accurate.  Professors change at the last minute.  You might want to take a look at http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ .  If there are two sections of a lab or discussion group, this website might just help you pick a winner.  People love to complain, but it’s better than flipping a coin or choosing based on which section is later in the day.

Bigger mistake:  Not conferring with an advisor. This was my biggest mistake in college.  I chose courses based on what sounded good instead of what I needed to get into grad school.  So find an advisor and get his or her advice.  You don’t have to follow it, but you should know what your advisor has to say.

Mistake:  Not joining a club right away. You might presume that you need a bit of time to settle in.  Wrong.  If you wait too long, people will have joined clubs, assigned roles, made friends – and you’ll be out of the loop.  Join whichever clubs or groups seem like they might be even somewhat interesting.  You can always drop out if they’re not what you expected, but it’s harder to drop in once everyone has formed a clique.

Mistake:  Limiting yourself to one group of friends. I’m especially talking to girls here.  Girls can be passionate, loyal friends – or girls can be catty and mean.  If you don’t develop a few interests, join a few clubs, participate in some activity you enjoyed in high school (band, sports, community service), you’re relying too much on one group of kids.  If they all get housing together next year and leave you out, you’ll feel bereft.  Have more than one group of friends.  Trust me.

Mistake:  Not getting to know at least a couple of professors. You might not get to know any professors as a freshman.  But by sophomore year, you should be getting to know a professor or two.  They can be really helpful in planning classes, getting an internship, writing a recommendation for graduate school or a job.  Make friends by dropping by a professor’s office during office hours to discuss something you found interesting in class or something you didn’t understand.  Make friends by emailing questions to a professor.  If your school encourages students and professors to share a meal, do that.  Don’t be shy – if they didn’t like students, they wouldn’t be teaching.

Mistake:  Not keeping your parents informed. If things are going badly, tell your parents.  No one wants you to succeed as much as they do.  They might just have an idea that could help.  If things get worse and you’ve kept them in the loop, they won’t be shocked and angry.  They may be able to intercede for you.  If things are going well, tell them.  They’ve worked very hard to get you where you are now.  Let them have a little pride in your accomplishments.  It’s a gracious way to say thanks.

Mistake:  Not telling me how you’re doing. I’m able to help kids create a list of colleges they’d fit into because older kids let me know about how their schools are, what’s good and bad about them, whether they made a good choice.  Knowing how you’re doing helps me to help high school kids.  So if we’ve worked together, please do keep in touch.  Sometimes kids need to or want to change schools.  Let me know why you’re changing.

To those of you in college now and to those of you who’ve graduated recently or long ago: what are some of YOUR college mistakes? I’d love to help others avoid them, so add a comment to this blog and let me know.

 

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

June 21, 2013

Don’t Forget This Advice As You Head Off To College

Congratulations!  You’ve made it all the way through high school.  You applied to many colleges (or just your favorite), got into at least one, and are headed off to college at the end of August.

Here’s my best advice for you to get ready for the big move:

1.  GET A SHOT!  I can’t say it loudly enough.  Get a meningitis shot.  The old ones lasted 5 years.  They now have vaccines that last 10 years.  If you’re not sure if you’ve had one, ask your doctor – or just get another one.  Hardly anyone gets meningitis, but it’s often fatal if you do.  Why take a chance?  One girl did — read about it here:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20519953/

Please, please don’t put it off.  Make an appointment now because they sometimes run out of vaccine.

2.  Start saving Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupons.  They come in the mail.  Save them.  The store doesn’t mind your using expired coupons.  Bed, Bath, and Beyond has a good selection of college stuff starting early in August.  Marsha, a wise friend of mine, gave me the following advice and she was right:  Buy everything you think you might possibly need, but don’t open it until you get to college.  If you don’t need it in your particular dorm room, your parents can always take it back to the store and return it if they keep the receipt.

3.  Start making a backpack of all the stuff you’ll need the minute you arrive at college:

  • duct tape
  • masking tape
  • extension cords (at least one with surge protector)
  • hammer
  • screw driver (flat and phillips)
  • flash light
  • sharpie marker (there will be something you forgot to label or that your roommate has the exact same one of)
  • small notepad and pen

There’s lots more stuff you will need, but these are things you might need right away to put your room in order and will certainly get lost if you pack them with the other junk.

4.  Get a new laptop.  If yours is more than 4 or 5 years old, you might want a new one.  You probably won’t need a printer (they’re handy but take up precious desktop room and every school has convenient places to print out papers), but you will need a laptop to bring to class, to submit assignments, and to drag to the library or to a friend’s dorm room for a group project.

5.  Ask what cell phone carrier works best at your school.  I know from my son that if you don’t have Verizon at Cornell, you don’t have reception.  If you know someone at the school you’ll be going to, ask about who’s got the best reception.  If you don’t know anyone there, find a facebook group of last year’s freshmen and ask them.  While you’re at it, try to get your parents to pay for unlimited text messages.  You’ll need it!

6.  Expect to feel out of place for a little while.  I have to confess — I cried through most of my freshman year.  I didn’t want to live home again, I just wanted my life the way it was back in high school with all my comfortable friends, with clean clothes that appeared regularly in my room, with free food in the fridge.  I thought everyone else was having a blast, and I was the only one feeling sad, lonely, uncomfortable, sick of hearing my roommate’s music.  I saw everyone’s happy faces going to class and I felt even more alone.  Little did I know that many of them were smiling on the outside and feeling exactly the same as I did on the inside.  I think if I knew that – and if I knew then how certainly this feeling would pass by springtime – I wouldn’t have felt quite so confused.  So I’m telling you now:  It’s not only okay to feel disassociated your first few months at college, it’s normal.  Really.

I hope I haven’t made you too nervous.  I just want you to be as prepared as you can be.  Keep in touch with your old friends, your family — and me!

Wendy Segal577070_479496568742293_1695834639_n

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

June 25, 2011

Should You List a College Major On Your Application – And How to Decide Which Major is Right for You

For some reason, I’ve had this discussion lately with a lot of adults.  What should kids major in?  What shouldn’t kids major in?  What majors lead to good jobs?  Which majors lead to working at McDonald’s?

I guess I’m not the only one discussing college majors.  Recently, I’ve read several articles listing top careers (where high-paying  jobs are available) and poor career choices (where there are no jobs available and they don’t pay well even if you could get one).

This article from TIME magazine lists 10 best- and worst-paid college majors.  If you click on each major, you will be brought to an article describing the major, common jobs with that major, and average salaries for new employees in that field.

This blog article, “The Most Useless College Majors” agrees.

Science wins.  Journalism loses.

But what about “undecided”?  Should you list a potential major on your college application if you’re not sure?

Sometimes, you have to list a major.  Some majors are housed in their own “schools.” Engineering, for example, often has a discrete faculty, carefully plotted courses, and a fixed number of students.  If you want to be an engineer, you have to let them know.  It’s nearly impossible to transfer into engineering even within the same university.  It’s easy – even common – to transfer out of engineering into math or physics or chemistry or even political science or philosophy, but you can’t go the other way.

If you are choosing an unusual major for that university, definitely list it on applications. If the college has a small physics department and you think you might want to study physics, that might give you the edge that you need to get into an otherwise extremely selective school.

Schools not only want to balance out the number of students in each major, they need to balance the gender in all majors.  Few girls want to go into a major where there are NO boys.  If you are a boy who wants to study English or women’s studies, list that major.  If you are a girl who wants to be an engineer or mathematician or sports therapist, list that major.

If, after reading the above articles warning against it, you still insist on majoring in journalism or psychology, don’t list that major.  Most schools have swollen communications and psychology departments.  If you list that as your major, you’ll be competing against more students than if you just checked off “undecided.”

But what if you have no idea what you want to major in?

Come talk to me.  I hope it doesn’t sound immodest, but I have a knack for suggesting majors to kids that they really like and perhaps hadn’t thought of.

Here are some questions I’ll ask if you want my help choosing a major:

  • What do you and your friends do with free time?
  • What does your bedroom look like?
  • Do you like group projects in school or do you prefer to work alone?
  • Would you rather write a paper or do a project?
  • If you had to waste half an hour at a store while your mom shopped elsewhere, where would you tell her to take you?

Or you could read an article like this one that helps you to identify a college major and subsequent career based on your academic and social interests.

Most colleges don’t require you to confirm your major until the end of your sophomore year in college, so putting a major on your college application won’t prevent you from exploring.

The best advice I’ve ever read about finding a major, finding a career, finding a passion is this one .  It’s rather long, but I find myself nodding my head at every paragraph.

Now get started on those college applications.  Let me know if you need help.

UPDATE:  Take a look at this interesting article from Inside Higher Ed, a newletter for college teachers/professors about choosing a major, about the range of salaries and how “women’s” careers are still the lowest paying.

Wendy Segal

October 26, 2010

Rant: If I Ran The English Department at Your High School

Let me be very clear — I’m not faulting any particular high school. I’ve worked with kids throughout Westchester, kids from schools from Chappaqua and Scarsdale to Peekskill and White Plains. I’ve worked with kids from Rockland and Orange counties.  I’ve worked with kids from New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and Alaska.  Very few schools are uniformly outstanding.  They each have weak departments and weak teachers.  Too often, it’s the English department that fails to offer students what they need to succeed.

I could do better.

I know it sounds arrogant, self-important, even smug.  You might say it’s easy for me to say, sitting here at home in my little messy office, working with only one student at a time.  But sometimes you can see problems — and can imagine solutions — when you’re not in the thick of it.

Here’s what’s wrong: Most English teachers become English teachers because they like to read.  If they didn’t like to read, they wouldn’t become an English teacher.  And because they like to read, they want to share that love of reading with others.  Students are a captive audience.  So English teachers present books to students and say, “Here.  Read this.  I’ll help you understand it, and then you’re bound to appreciate it.”  That’s what happened when they were in school:  A teacher gave them a book, they loved it, they read more, they majored in English in college, they became an English teacher.  They picked up good writing naturally as the result of loving reading.  They picked up good grammar because they read good grammar.  They know that good literature lifts your soul, enriches your life, expands your world.  Surely if they give kids the right books — and the right books are a mix of the books they had to read in school and the books they’ve enjoyed this past summer — surely if the kids are just exposed to good books, they’ll love reading.

It doesn’t always work that way.

My son understood subtraction before anyone taught him.  It’s the reverse of addition, he told me sometime around age 3.  The rest of us who don’t have an innate aptitude for math need to be taught.  It’s the same with English.  It’s not enough to be exposed to good writing and good grammar; some people need to be taught.

Our schools aren’t teaching.  They’re not teaching grammar. Most students learn grammar only from foreign language class.  When was the last time an English teacher said “direct object” in your English class? Do you know what a split infinitive is?  Do you know that you always use an object pronoun after a preposition?  If you DO know, I bet it wasn’t a high school English teacher who taught you.  Using good grammar not only clarifies your writing, it makes you sound intelligent– even if you’re not.  Poor grammar makes you sound uneducated — even if you’re not.

They’re not teaching reading. If a student loves to read, it’s rarely because of literature her English teacher introduced to her.  Few teachers articulate for students why any piece of writing is considered “great.”  Perhaps if a student knew BEFORE he or she started reading that a book was controversial when it was written (and why), he or she might approach it with greater interest, appreciation, and understanding. When I tell kids that iambic pentameter was like the rap of Shakespeare’s day, that no one spoke like that (just like no one speaks in rap) but that, like rap, it was stylized speech with a beat, they are less frustrated by some of the language that used to be just annoying.  Assigning a book and quizzing a student on a chapter a day prevents students who actually do like the book from consuming it in one or two sittings.  He must read it ploddingly and at the teacher’s pace so he can pass the chapter quizzes.  And since the goal of reading seems to be passing quizzes, what incentive does the student have to read the book itself?  If your goal is to pass a chapter quiz, you’d be foolish not to read the SparkNotes.

They’re not teaching writing. Most schools assign too few essays.  The essays they do assign tend to be in-class essays (easy for the teacher — she can catch up on paperwork while the students write essays).  I know that the Regents exam requires an in-class essay, but surely a student would learn more from writing an essay that he can revise over time and with more thought.  Slapping a B+ on an essay and writing, “Needs more detail” in the margin is not teaching writing.  Imagine a Little League boy stepping up to the plate with his bat.  The pitcher throws one pitch and the boy misses.  “Okay,” the coach says.  “Come back next month and you can try again.”  Do you think this kid would ever learn to hit a ball?  Of course not.  Then why do English teachers give an essay, write one or two terse remarks, and expect next month’s essay to be any better?

In my (fantasy) school, middle school and high school teachers would set aside 20 – 40 minutes each Friday for grammar. First, they’d give a pretest.  Anyone who scores better than 90% doesn’t have to sit through the lesson on that aspect of grammar.  He could sit in the back of the room — on a desk, on the floor, any place would do — and read the book of his choice.  That would teach the class that grammar is important (we’re making it a regular part of our curriculum), and would show kids that reading can be a reward, a pleasure, a treat.

In my school, students would read books in coordination with other subjects. If the juniors are studying the French Revolution in history, have the English teachers work on Tale of Two Cities.  If biology class is studying the circulatory system, have kids read Fantastic Voyage. If health class is studying the perils of drug addiction, ask the kids to read Go Ask Alice.  There are books on math, science, social studies, both non-fiction and novels.

In my school, only a few assigned books would be in the first person. Books written in the first person, even classics like Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby to say nothing of more current works, need to be written in colloquial, conversational style to imitate speech.  If kids primarily read books in the first person, they’ll always have difficulty reading sentences of any length or complexity.  In our local high school, the English department recently replaced Tale of Two Cities with Frankenstein.  I have nothing against Frankenstein, except that once again, they’ve replaced a fairly complex novel, both in plot and in language, with something written in the first person.  As in my Little League analogy, you can’t get good at something you never practice.

In my school, some assigned books would be funny. When was the last time your high schooler read something that the school assigned that made her laugh out loud?  Does she even know that books can be good AND funny?  Not only do humorous books, stories, and plays make reading a pleasure instead of a requirement, irony and sarcasm can build a young person’s confidence and logical thinking.  Why don’t schools assign O. Henry or P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber stories?  Why don’t they read the play Harvey? When I was in high school (but then again I had a superb teacher, Joyce Garvin, and went to a middle-class suburban high school with a fair respect for intellectualism), we thought Theater of the Absurd was a hoot.

In my high school, we would read essays and speeches and articles. Reading a novel is not like reading a speech, which is not like reading a play, which is not like reading a biography.  Each genre has its own vocabulary, its own flow and style and pacing.  Very few students will be reading Shakespeare in their thirties, but they should all be reading TIME or Newsweek or The New York Times.  You’d be surprised how few of my students can make sense of a political speech.  Kids need practice with all types of reading, especially kids who want to do well on the SATs or ACTs, or kids who want to be able to analyze a report for work when they grow up.

Finally, in my school, English teachers would set aside some time for reading. Imagine if every Friday for 20 minutes, everyone — teacher, too — took out a book of his or her choice and read.  I know they do this in some elementary schools, but why stop at fifth grade?  Why not continue all the way through high school?  Students might actually want to continue reading over the weekend.  The whole class might get to see what other students are reading.  They might even get to see what the teacher, that same teacher who became an English teacher because she loves to read, is reading.

But if I ran the English department, I would put myself, the tutor-for-hire, out of business so forget you ever read this.

Wendy Segal

October 20, 2010

What’s Up With Psychology?

Okay, I give up.  What’s up with psychology?

About 15 years ago, nearly every student I had, especially the guys, wanted to go into “business.” When I asked them what business meant or what they liked about business, they shrugged.  As long as they got to carry a briefcase and make lots of money, they were going to major in business in college.

Then it became Elementary Education.  Every girl student and half of the boys wanted to go into elementary education.  “Does that include fifth grade?” I asked.  “Oh, no, I’d only want to teach kindergarten or first grade because those kids are so cute!”  I had a feeling that these students felt fairly sure they knew at least as much as a first grader but weren’t at all sure they knew as much as a fifth grader.  And that was well before the quiz show!

Then it was Sports Management.  Everyone, male and female, wanted to go into Sports Management.  If all my students who wanted to major in sports management actually became sports managers, there would be more sports managers than athletes.

And it’s that way now with psychology. If all the students I have who are interested in majoring in psychology become psychologists, there will be WAY more psychologists than crazy people.  I recently met an old neighborhood friend I hadn’t seen in 30 years.  He told me he had a daughter who was going into her senior year of high school.  I couldn’t resist saying, “What does she want to major in — is it perhaps PSYCHOLOGY?”  Yup, it was.  In the same day, I had a two new students start working with me on SAT tutoring.  One was an A student taking mostly AP and honors classes.  The other was a B student (when she tried hard) with no honors classes.  Guess what BOTH of them wanted to major in?

Do you guys know that to do anything in the field of psychology you need at least a master’s degree — and that’s only to do the most grueling work.  To psychoanalyze anyone, you need a doctorate degree.  Are you ready to go to school for the next eight years?  Can you afford to?

Did you know that you’ll be studying the brain and the eye for at least a year or two before you ever get to find out why your mother treats you like a baby or why your roommate is nuts?  Were you especially good in biology in high school?

And did you know that psychologists don’t particularly like what they do?  Check out this article that lists professions by how satisfied the practitioners of that field actually are.

To pick a major, start off by considering which high school classes you liked.  Now think about which ones you did well in.  Ask your guidance counselor and some adults you trust which careers would make best use of your academic strengths.

Now think about what you like to do with your free time.  Do you prefer to be alone?  Do you have a million best friends?   Do you dread group projects?  Do you feel most comfortable with a small group of old friends or do you like to meet new people?  Do you like to talk more than write?  Would you rather read than play sports (yes, some people do!)?  Do you love to shop?  Do you have notebooks full of magazine articles or hairdos?  Do you want to be in a competitive field or do you only want to work hard enough to provide a roof, a car, and some beer?

Ask people about what they do, what they like about it, how they got their first jobs, how they got the job they’re in now.  Ask your parents, their friends, your relatives, your guidance counselors, your friends’ older brothers and sisters.  Ask me.  Ask people about what careers they thought they’d like when they were in school and why they did or didn’t pursue those careers.  Poke around websites like www.princetonreview.com – they have a little quiz about your interests and what careers might fit and they have descriptions of tons of careers you never even heard of.

Whatever you decide, please rethink majoring in psychology. If you insist that you were born to major in psychology, consider applying “undecided” so you’re not just one of the crowd.

Wendy Segal

June 26, 2010

My Best Advice Before You Pack For College

Congratulations! You’ve made it all the way through high school.  You applied to many colleges (or just your favorite), got into at least one, and are headed off to college at the end of August.

Here’s my best advice for you to get ready for the big move:

1.  GET A SHOT! I can’t say it loudly enough.  Get a meningitis shot.  The old ones lasted 5 years.  They now have vaccines that last 10 years.  If you’re not sure if you’ve had one, ask your doctor – or just get another one.  Hardly anyone gets meningitis, but it’s usually fatal if you do.  Why take a chance?  One girl did — read about it here.  Please, please don’t put it off.  Make an appointment now because they sometimes run out of vaccine.

2.  Start saving Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupons.  They come in the mail.  Save them.  The store doesn’t mind your using expired coupons.  Bed, Bath, and Beyond has a good selection of college stuff starting early in August.  Marsha, a wise friend of mine, gave me this advice and she was right:  Buy everything you think you might possibly need, but don’t open it until you get to college.  If you don’t need it in your particular dorm room, your parents can always take it back to the store and return it if they keep the receipt.  They even have a system where you can pick out stuff in your local store and pick up those items at the store near your college!

3.  Start making a backpack of all the stuff you’ll need the minute you arrive at college:

  • duct tape
  • masking tape
  • extension cords (at least one with surge protector)
  • hammer
  • screw driver (flat and phillips)
  • flash light
  • sharpie marker (there will be something you forgot to label or that your roommate has the exact same one of)
  • small notepad and pen

There’s lots more stuff you will need, but these are things you might need right away to put your room in order and will certainly get lost if you pack them with the other junk.

4.  Get a new laptop.  If yours is more than 4 or 5 years old, you might want a new one.  You probably won’t need a printer (they’re handy but take up precious desktop room and every school has convenient places to print out papers), but you will need a laptop to bring to class, to submit assignments, and to drag to the library or to a friend’s dorm room for a group project.

5.  Ask what cell phone carrier works best at your school.  I know from my son that if you don’t have Verizon at Cornell, you don’t have reception.  If you know someone at the school you’ll be going to, ask about who’s got the best reception.  If you don’t know anyone there, find a facebook group of last year’s freshmen and ask them.  While you’re at it, try to get your parents to pay for unlimited text messages.  You’ll need it!

6.  Make a communications plan with your parents.  Your parents may secretly be hoping you’ll call every day.  You may be expecting to call them every few weeks. If you start off calling them every day and then don’t call for a few weeks, they’re going to be disappointed.  Your leaving will be as big a life change for your parents as it will be for you, so if you want to help them out, have a discussion with them about expectations before you go.  And don’t forget to call your grandparents from college from time to time!

7.  Expect to feel out of place for a little while. I have to confess — I cried through most of my freshman year.  I didn’t want to live home again, I just wanted my life the way it was back in high school with all my comfortable friends, with clean clothes that appeared regularly in my room, with free food in the fridge.  I thought everyone else was having a blast, and I was the only one feeling sad, lonely, uncomfortable, sick of hearing my roommate’s music.  I saw everyone’s happy faces going to class and I felt even more alone.  Little did I know that many of them were smiling on the outside and feeling exactly the same as I did on the inside.  I think if I knew that – and if I knew then that this feeling would pass by springtime – I wouldn’t have felt quite so confused.  So I’m telling you now:  It’s not only okay to feel disassociated your first few months at college, it’s normal. Really.

8. Join the Facebook group for your school’s incoming freshman class. Whether you’re addicted to Facebook or can’t remember the last time you went on, it’s how people connect.  It’s hard enough to feel like you fit in those first few days.  Do yourself a favor and act like you’ve got school spirit even if you’re not so sure you do yet.  While you’re at it, remove anything you wouldn’t want your roommate’s mom to see.  (My son’s freshman roommate, a white suburban kid from Long Island, listed “Rastafarian” as his religion.  I knew there was going to be trouble!)

I hope I haven’t made you too nervous.  I just want you to be as prepared as you can be.  Keep in touch with your old friends, your family — and me!

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Wendy Segal

May 14, 2010

Congratulations, You’re (Nearly) a College Graduate! Now What?

Many of my previous students are just a year or two from finishing college.  Some of you may even be graduating this month.  Congratulations!   Just as you dreaded the “Where are you going to go to college?” question a few years ago, I bet most of you get a little queasy when you are asked “What are your plans for the future?”  For those of you who are graduating — but even more for those who have a year or more left of college — I have a few words of advice about your future.

You’ve only got a few choices.

1.  Become a bum. Living in your mom’s basement playing endless World of Warcraft on the computer may sound delightful after so many years of college, but it will get old very fast.  In my book, a bum is someone who sponges off his or her parents (whether or not they can afford to indulge you) with no plans for the future. Dreams are not plans.  No one will discover you in your room.  Get out of the house and make your parents proud.

2.  Go to grad school. The recession has made grad students out of many college graduates who might, in better times, have been eager to get out into the adult work world.  News articles abound about how much harder it has been these past two years to get into graduate school, but with good grades, decent GREs or GMATs or LSATs, a recommendation or two, and a stellar “statement of purpose”  (remember your college application essay?  It’s the same thing, just a little less clever and a little more sincere), you too can join the ranks of those hoping that a bit more education and a bit more time will bring them closer to the life they imagine for themselves.

If you’re thinking that graduate school might be necessary for your career (you can’t be a lawyer without law school) or useful for getting a better job (MBAs earn more than accounts receivable clerks), take steps while you’re in college to better your chances of getting accepted to few grad schools.

  • Cozy up to professors. Go to office hours of professors you like in your major. Get to know a few professors well enough that they know your name.  Take a few to lunch.  Ask them where they went to grad school.  Ask them for advice about what schools might fit your interests best.  And then ask them for a recommendation, even if you don’t need it for a year or two.  Some professors change colleges fairly regularly and might not be at your school next year.  Ask now.
  • Make use of your summers. Do something in your field.  Ask that professor you like if he or she needs help with research over the summer.  Find an internship. Get a job, even if it’s getting coffee for others, in a company in the industry you might wind up in.  Stay on campus and take another course or two, especially if you can defray costs by being an RA or getting an on-campus job.  Once again: DO RESEARCH. It will help you define what you like or don’t like about your field, and it looks great on a resume.
  • Investigate grad schools. US News is a great source of information on graduate schools for all kinds of majors.  Invest in the premium online edition.  It’s under $20 for the year and has lots of very practical information.
  • Prep for and take graduate school exams.  I bet you thought when you finished your last SAT and ACT you were done.  Not quite.  Some schools require graduate tests like the GREs or Miller’s Analogies (I’m great at those!).  Investigate and bone up.  Yes, there are tutors for those tests.  Let me know if I can help. Summers are a good time to study and take whatever tests you might need.

It may not be as simple as apply, get in, go to classes, get out with a great job. This article on how to make the most of your graduate school years gives practical and pointed advice about taking charge of your education even as you work toward an advanced degree.

3.  Get a job. Check out this article on mistakes that new graduates often make in their first jobs.  Most first jobs aren’t sexy or exciting or fulfilling.  They’re entry-level jobs meant for entry-level people like you.  Menial doesn’t necessarily mean meaningless.  If you’re lucky enough to get a job in a field you like, don’t worry about what your first job is.  You won’t be there in 5 years anyway if you follow the national trend.  Use this first job to get experience — experience in your field, experience working full-time (did you know that you have to work during July and August in most jobs?), experience having a boss who may or may not like you, experience making friends of different age groups, life circumstances, ethnicities, intelligences.  Any first job is better than being a bum (see life choice #1 above).

When you apply to college, you expect a response one way or the other.  When you apply to ten colleges, you presume you’ll get into at least five of them.  But when you apply for a job, they may not ever get back to you.  It’s up to you to follow up with them. (I should charge for that advice it’s so valuable.)  It’s expected that you will call a week or two after an interview and ask if you’re still being considered for the position or if they need more information from you.  And you might send out 40 resumes, hear from 5 companies, and get zero offers.  That’s the real world, kiddo.  So you might need to send out 80 resumes.  Or better yet, you may need to deliver a few of them in person.  You may need to talk to your college about job fairs or get their help with a resume and cover letter or alumni contacts.  You may need to do something you’re not comfortable with.  It’s called growing up.  None of us like it, but the rewards are pretty good.  Once you  have a job of your own, you get to run your own life.

Very few decisions you’ll make now are permanent. If you go to grad school, you can also work either during or afterwards.  If you work, you can go back to grad school some day.  If you’re a bum (shame on you!), you can get out and do something useful.  If you can’t decide what you want to do, volunteer and make someone else’s life better while you work on your own life.  (This website from the government is a good place to start looking for a worthwhile volunteer position.)

I sincerely enjoyed working with (nearly) all of my students, so let me know what your plans are for the future!

Wendy Segal

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