High School 2 College

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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August 5, 2018

When Should I Apply to College?

The Common App opens for the new application season every August 1st.  That’s the date students entering their senior year in high school can begin to create their college applications, but by August 1st, you should really be toward the END of the college application process, which should have begun the summer going into junior year. (Juniors, are you listening?)

Sometimes I find it’s more effective to explain the schedule to students when I work backwards, like this:

The vast majority of the students I work with apply to most of their schools early action.  (Unlike early decision, early action isn’t binding.  It merely says to the college, “I’m showing you my application early so that you can give me a decision early.”)  Early action deadlines are generally November 1st.

That means EVERYTHING needs to be in by November 1st at the latest — your recommendations, your essays (yes, more than one if the college has a supplemental essay), your list of activities, your transcript, your SAT or ACT scores (which have to be ordered from either the College Board or the ACT and sent to each college directly by that organization), any college credits you’ve earned by taking college-level classes.  EVERYTHING.

So realistically, you should have EVERYTHING in, done, and sent by October 15th at the latest because (1) you want to look eager to the colleges and (2) you don’t want to chance having the Common App website crash as you feverishly work to get everything in the last week in October (and it DOES crash – nearly every year!).  Most importantly, you want to apply by October 15th because the acceptance rate at nearly every college is higher for students who apply early action than for students who apply regular decision.  That’s not to say you won’t get into a college if you wait until the regular deadline between December and February depending on the school, but why not give yourself every advantage?  This article from last year explains that early action acceptance rates are getting higher every year (meaning colleges are taking more students who apply early and fewer students who wait until the regular deadline), and this year is certain to follow that trend.

To get your applications finished by October 15th, you need to have:

  • taken your SATs and/or ACTs as often as you think practical to show your best self
  • asked two teachers for recommendations (ideally, teachers you’ve had junior year in a subject area related to your intended major)
  • written your Common App essay (if you Google “Common App Essay topics 2018,” the list of possible topics comes up) and had your essay reviewed by a teacher or tutor or parent (as long as you don’t let your parents edit your paper for anything other than spelling or grammar – I can always tell when a parent has been too hands-on with an essay)
  • written your supplement essays (many schools require an additional essay or two or three!)
  • created a list of colleges to which you plan to apply, with at least three good-match schools, three safety schools (they’re almost guaranteed to take you unless you commit a felony between when you apply and when they get your application), and three reach schools, which are unlikely to say yes, but hey, you never know
  • visited several schools on your list (but it’s not necessary to visit every school to which you are going to apply)
  • filled out your guidance department’s forms so your counselor knows which schools to send transcripts to (some high schools substitute Naviance for this step, and some schools ask you to fill out information on Naviance AND fill out forms for your guidance department)
  • created a resume, or at least written down all of your extracurricular activities, including paid work, volunteer work, academic honors, and athletics grouped into those categories and in reverse chronological order (a resume makes it MUCH easier to complete the Common App and is useful when you go on interviews)

Look at the calendar.  October 15th is just about two months away.  What are you waiting for?

If you need help with your application or essay, don’t hesitate to book an appointment with me through my website.  I’ve been helping kids get into college for over 30 years, so the process doesn’t intimidate me at all, but it can be very daunting the first time.

Good luck!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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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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August 1, 2017

Before You Click Submit: Everything You Need to Know About the Common App

Every year on August 1st, the Common App opens for business.  The new essay topics are posted and all the site improvements are completed.  The Common App stands ready for your application.

What is the Common App?

Back in the old days, when you wanted to apply to ten schools, you had to complete — by hand or by typewriter! — ten different applications with ten different essays.  On some of the applications, they asked for your name above the line.  Some asked for your name below the line.  Some wanted your name written last name first.  Others wanted first name first.  Others asked for your social security number first.  Each application was a major project.

The Common App was designed to streamline that part of the college application process.  The student has to fill out only one application, and with one click he or she can submit an application to any of a few thousand colleges.  Of course, students soon began submitting dozens and dozens of applications because they could.  It became a game, and colleges had no idea which students were sincerely interested in attending their school. Many colleges, then, began requiring supplements (see below).  Now the Common App isn’t as “one-click” easy as it used to be, but more and more colleges prefer the Common App to their own application, and many have even dropped their own application and only accept the Common App.

What is the best way to complete the Common App without going crazy?

It’s a long, long application.  Every year, it gets fine-tuned and a little easier to manage, but it’s still overwhelming to many students.  You’ll have a much easier time of it if you gather this information and have it all in front of you before you even begin:

  • your social security number
  • your parents’ email addresses and cell phone numbers
  • where your parents work
  • what your parents’ job title and profession are (I’m always surprised how many kids don’t know)
  • where your parents went to college (all schools if more than one), what degree(s) they got, what year they got those degrees
  • your guidance counselor’s name, phone number, fax number and email address (Look on your school’s website under the guidance department. Look for something called “school profile.”  That should have everything you need.  Print it out if you can.)
  • when your graduation date will be
  • your SAT/ACT scores and when you took each test (exact date — look online at act.org or collegeboard.org if you don’t remember)
  • your resume

Why do I need a resume before I start the Common App and how do I create one?

A resume lists your activities in an organized, polished way.  There are dozens of ways to format a resume (try Googling “high school resume images” and you’ll see many excellent examples), but they all list your activities in reverse chronological order — from most recent to oldest, back to 9th grade.  Don’t include anything older than 9th grade unless you still are doing that activity.  For example, if you started Taekwondo or dance when you were 11 and still do it, fine, but don’t list soccer if you stopped in 8th grade. Break your activities into 3 categories if you can:  academic achievements, community service, athletics, and/or paid employment are groupings many students use.  Once you’ve got all of your achievements and activities listed with locations and dates on your resume, you’ll fly through the hardest part of the Common App:  the “interests” page.  You’ll also have a professional-looking document to bring with you when you go on college admissions interviews (or summer job or internship interviews once you start college).  You can also give your resume to teachers who promised to write recommendations for you as a way of reminding them of your interests and activities so they can include some in your recommendation.

Any advice about the Common App essay?

Many students begin filling in the Common App before they’ve written the essay.  Why?  I have no idea.  I think they just can’t face the essay and so start the Common App before the essay is done just to feel productive.  They’re not fooling anyone, especially me. Students, finish your essay.  Make sure you’ve shown it to your parents, your tutor, me, or anyone else you think can help you polish it.  It doesn’t have to sound like a 45-year-old dad wrote it — in fact, it shouldn’t — but it should make sense, be engaging, and be spelling- and grammar-error free.  The Common App has brought back the “topic of your choice” topic so there really aren’t any excuses.

When they say the maximum is 650 words, they mean it.  If you write an essay of 651 words, the last word won’t be sent to the colleges.  And you’ll look like a student who either can’t follow the rules or doesn’t care about the rules.  So you’re aiming for an essay that’s between 500 and 600 words, which is about one page to a page-and-a-half typed in size 12 font.  That’s shorter than you might think.

Don’t repeat what’s on your resume or transcript.  The colleges already know that stuff. Write about what makes you different from the kid who sits next to you in math class or the kid on your team.  Think about it this way:  if you dropped your essay in the hallway of your school without your name on it and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, would everyone know it’s yours because the essay is so “you”?  That’s one way good way to come up with a topic.

The other way to think about an essay topic is if that same scenario occurred and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, no one would think it was yours because it reveals something about yourself that’s not obvious.  Maybe you secretly love to iron, or maybe you adore your middle name.  Whatever it is, if you can’t wait to write about it, you’ve found the right topic.

Is there anything else I should do before I start the Common App?

Yes!  Glad you asked.  Many colleges require a supplement to the Common App in which you tell the college what your intended major is and whether any of your relatives attended that school.  Unfortunately, many of those supplements include an essay.  They’re usually shorter than the Common App essay, but there can be more than one supplement essay per school!

Don’t leave the supplement essays till the end.  Colleges care about those essays as much as they care about the Common App essay — or more so.  Go on each school’s website or on the Common App website and print out the essay topic for each supplement essay you have to write.  With just a little adjusting of each essay, you may find that one essay will suffice for more than one school.  For example, more than one school may ask why you want to go to that school or why you’ve chosen that major or what your favorite activity is.  Or you may decide that a particular school’s supplement essay is so odd that you’d rather drop that school from your list in favor of a similar school with an easier supplement.  It’s better to make that decision before you pay the application fee!

Any last words of advice before I begin to apply to college?

Based on more than 30 years of helping students apply to colleges, I have this advice. Not everyone follows it. Some who don’t forever regret not listening to me.  Here it is:

Don’t apply to your favorite school first!  

Have you ever sent an email and THEN realized you spelled something wrong or sent it to the wrong person?  Well, the same happens all the time with college applications.  I can’t tell you how often students find mistakes in their applications or realize they should have written something differently AFTER they hit “submit.”  So wise students send applications to their safest safety school first (they’ll take you even if you mess up), then a middle-difficulty school, and only then to their dream school.  Another benefit of following this method is that your safety school is likely to send an acceptance sooner, and once you get even one “yes,” the rest of your senior year should be a breeze.

Feel free to check out my website for more information and advice:  www.wendysegaltutoring.com .

Good luck!

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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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September 18, 2016

When the Admissions Department Comes To You: College Visits at Your High School

Every fall and spring, most students miss the greatest opportunity they have to impress the admissions department of dozens of colleges that might be a perfect fit for them.  To take advantage of this opportunity, you don’t have to travel or write an essay.  You don’t have to study for it and it doesn’t require you to get up early.  In fact, it comes to you.  Yet year after year, when I ask my students whether they’ve availed themselves of this free, easy, potent tool for getting into college, they look at me with blank stares.

When colleges come to visit our local high school, very often only a handful of students show up out of a combined junior and senior class of over a thousand.  All of the other students are wasting a huge potential advantage.

Here’s what THE COLLEGES do:

College admissions departments make appointments with high schools all over the country.  They schedule a visit of about 45 minutes to an hour on a particular day, and a list of these visits is usually kept in your high school guidance department.  (In my local high school, you can even have these visits synced with your google calendar, but in other schools, the appointment list is either online or available in guidance.)  At the appointed time, the admission counselor gives a brief presentation and asks if there are any questions.  Very often, he or she asks the students present to complete an interest form or merely to list their names and contact information on an index card.  Students have an opportunity to chat with this admissions counselor in an informal way.

After the appointment, the admissions counselor makes notes about his or her impression of the students who attended for later follow-up. Very often, that admissions person is in charge of a certain region in the country and will be making admission decisions for those same students.  They often think of the students they meet as “their” students and look forward to getting and considering their applications.  As you can imagine, it’s a significant advantage to have an admissions representative look out for your application and give it personal and careful attention.

Here’s what YOU should do:

Check your guidance department for the list of which colleges come and when.  You often have to sign up for these visits with your guidance counselor in advance.  When the day and time comes for the college admissions visit, you’ll have to leave whatever class you’re in, often mid-class, but if you’ve signed up in advance, the teacher will excuse you.  (Different schools have different procedures, but usually the visits are during the school day, and teachers are instructed to allow students to attend even if there’s a test scheduled.)  Arrive promptly at the designated room.  Listen politely, take notes where appropriate, smile and look engaged.  Most importantly, ask questions.  Since you’ve signed up in advance for this visit, you’ll be able to do a bit of research online about each college.  Ask questions that you could not find the answer to online.  Some appropriate questions might be:

  • How popular is my major at your school?
  • Is there help finding employment after I graduate?
  • Tell me about freshman housing.
  • What weight does your school place on AP courses / SAT or ACT results / grades?
  • If I’m not sure what I want to major in, should I guess or apply undecided?
  • Will there be a faculty adviser available to help me choose classes?

At the end of the talk, shake hand with the admissions person, thank him or her for coming, and get a contact name and/or email address for further questions (and use that info to write a quick thank-you email that afternoon).

What if you’re not sure you want to apply to a certain school?  Should you still go to the college visit?  

Absolutely!  You might find a school you weren’t even considering is a better fit for you than you thought.  Even if you decide a certain school isn’t right for you, you might hear another student ask a question you hadn’t even thought to ask.  And every time you speak to an admissions person, you’ll become more at ease and polished.  So don’t hesitate to go to as many of these appointments as you can.

Nearly all students who apply to the colleges that interest you will have about the same GPA, about the same SAT and ACT scores, very similar activities, and glowing teacher recommendations.  How can you stand out?  Be your most charming self with the person who is going to make your admission decision!  They can’t make it any easier for you to make a good impression.

If you have any questions, please contact me or your guidance counselor.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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July 29, 2016

How to Interview For College

Did you see my latest video, “How to Interview for College“?

Take a look, click “like” and share with anyone who needs to make a good impression at a college, admission, or alumni interview!

(And after that, take a look at my new website.  I think it looks great, but what do you think?)

Thanks!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

 

June 29, 2016

Applying to College: Common App Tips That Make a Difference

For the last several years – and for the foreseeable future – most students apply to college using the Common App.

When I was a student back in the days of Plato, if I wanted to apply to a college, I wrote to get their application, when I received it I filled it out in blue or black ink, I attached all my documentation in the order requested including my parents’ check, I mailed it back to the college, and I waited.

When I first started helping students with the application process over 25 years ago, the student would request an application online, receive a link to that application, print it out at home, fill it out, and mail it in.

Now nearly everyone uses the Common App.  You complete one application, enter a dozen or more college names, and click send. Within a day or two, you get a confirmation from each college that your application has been received, and you get periodic updates with invitations to visit, notices about parts of the application received, and, when the spring comes, a link to find out whether you got in or not.  The “fat envelope” or “thin envelope” metaphor is an anachronism.

Beware!  Don’t let the deceptively simple format fool you into believing you can just dash off the application without much effort required.  Each part of the Common App requires a deft hand and a certain technique.

Here are some of my best tips:

  1. Buy manilla folders and plenty of printer paper before you begin.  You’ll save the trees next year.  This year, you’ll be doing a ton of printing.  BEST TIP:  Print out every page you do, every essay you write, every confirmation you get.  Use one folder for your Common App copy, and a different folder for each college you apply to.  On the outside of each folder, list the name of the college, your user name, and your password.  (No one is going to break into your bedroom to find out your college application password.)  Each school asks for (or assigns) a different user name, and each has different rules about length of password and what it has to include.  You’ll never remember in May which one required a symbol and which one required a capital letter.  Write it down now.  Believe me.  You’ll thank me.
  2. Be honest.  If you lie about any part of the application, someone is bound to find out — and colleges talk to each other.  It’s not worth it to lie on the Common App.  If you can’t get into a certain school without stretching the truth, you probably don’t belong there.
  3. Wait until August 15 before Senior year to begin completing the Common App.  The new class’ application is online each year on August 1st, but very often there are corrections and glitches to be fixed so wait a week or two to prevent having to enter everything again. The Common App now allows students to “roll over” basic information from year to year, but your life might change and you could forget to update that piece.  Why not wait until the application is available for the year you intend to apply?
  4. Enter your name the way it is on your passport or school records.  If you’re James on your school records but you enter Jimmy, colleges won’t be able to match up your application with your transcript.  Stay consistent.
  5. After you enter your name, collect the information you need before you enter anything else.  The Common App website will time you out if you’re not careful.  While you’re texting your mother to find out what her college degree was in, you’ve been timed out of the website.  Collect this info before you begin:
    • Name of address of place where each parent works
    • What your parents’ job titles are
    • What college (if any) your parent graduated from (if he/she didn’t graduate, you can leave that blank on the Common App — it will boost your chances of getting into college if neither of your parents graduated from college)
    • When each parent graduated, what degree he or she received (AA/BA/BS/MBA and so on), and in what year
    • The name of your guidance counselor (correct spelling), his or her phone number with extension, and email address
    • Your SAT and ACT and Subject Test scores so far – and the dates you took each (if you forgot your user name or password, NOW is the time to get a new one)
  6. Next, select all of the colleges you might apply to.  Go ahead and choose way more than you think you might eventually apply to.  When you add a college name, that college gets notified of your interest, which helps if you decide you do want to apply to that school.  (See my blog post last month on demonstrated interest.)
  7.  Make a resume before you enter any activities on the Common App.  It’s a good idea to make a formal resume.  You  might need it when you get called into a college interview.  The teachers whom you’ve asked to write a recommendation for you might ask for it.  You can use it for summer jobs while you’re in college.  But most of all, writing a resume helps you to collect and organize your activities.  I usually prefer three categories in reverse chronological order (most recent to oldest — but nothing older than 9th grade).  Categories might be:  academic honors, extra-curricular activities, volunteer activities, athletics.  If you get stuck writing a resume, there are lots of samples online.  Google “student resumes” and you’ll have plenty to choose from.
  8. Have an honest conversation with your parents about financial aid.  Will they be applying for loans or financial aid?  You’ve got a better chance of getting into nearly every college if you click “no” for the “are you going to apply for financial aid” question (there are many articles that say so, like this one), but if you need help, you need help — and you won’t be alone.  Most families need some financial assistance to send their children to college.  On the one hand, if you don’t think you’ll get any aid, you might want to put “no aid” to boost your chances of getting in.  On the other hand, don’t decide you wouldn’t qualify because you live in a nice house or because your parents both work.  If you need financial aid, ask for it.
  9. Print out all of the supplementary essays of all of the schools you might apply to before you begin writing.  Of course you’ve heard of the Common App essay.  But many schools also ask for a supplementary essay or two.  They’re not throw-away statements.  They count.  Spend time on them.  But very often, you can make one essay work for several schools with a bit of tweaking, so print out all of the topics before you begin.  You’ll see which ones ask “Why do you want to go here,” “Why do you want the major you want,” “What can you add to our school,” and which are quirkier.
  10. Begin your Common App essay.  Try a few of the topics to see which is easiest to write.  It’s perfectly okay – even recommended – to start one, put it aside, come back to it in a week, then start a different one.  While the maximum number of words is 650 (about half as long as this blog post is so far), you should aim at 500 – 600.  It’s fine to write a much longer essay initially as long as you edit it down to 500 – 600 words.  I’ve helped dozens, maybe scores of kids write college essays, and I always find the more I edit them down, the better they get.  They’re less repetitive, they highlight important information, they choose words more wisely.

You should aim to complete the Common App including the essay by October 15th at the latest, whether you’ll be applying to any schools early decision, early action, or just regular decision.  An application sent in October shows the college you’re eager, organized, and serious, and it gives your guidance department time to make sure all of the parts have been submitted well before the deadline.

Good luck, and you know where to find me if you have questions!

 

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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