High School 2 College

December 9, 2019

I Got My PSAT Scores – Now What?

The PSAT scores should be available in the next few days.  (Log on to the College Board website to see if yours are back yet.)  You probably have a feeling you should be doing something with those scores, but what?

First of all, if you did poorly, congratulations, and if you did well, that could be a problem.

Let me explain.

First of all, there’s no such thing as failing.  As long as you bubbled in your name on the scan-tron sheet, you passed.  You’ll notice there’s a score for the language sections (the reading and the grammar), and a separate score for the math sections (both with and without a calculator).  The maximum score on each section is 760 for a maximum total of 1520, unlike the SATs themselves, which have a maximum score of 800 per section for a maximum total of 1600.  I think the College Board thinks it’s being helpful by changing the scale, but everyone I know finds it confusing.  The College Board believes if you get a 760 on the math on the PSAT, by the time you take the SAT in a few months, you’ll be a bit smarter and probably get an 800.

The problem is that’s just not true.

So if you’re disappointed with your score, the good news is that no one but you, your guidance counselor, and your parents get to see that score.  It can’t negatively impact your college application process.  You can see every question, what you answered, and what the correct answer should have been online.  You can review the math you used to know.  You can pick up a few grammar tips.  Or you can sign up for an SAT prep class or contact a tutor who will use those PSAT scores to hone in on your particular strengths or those areas that need a boost.  You should have all the time you need to make a plan of action so your SAT scores can make you proud.

On the other hand, if you’ve done well, there’s a strong urge to pat yourself on the back and wait till the actual test.  Unfortunately, many – perhaps most – of the kids I know who did well on their PSATs actually do worse on the SATs, sometimes significantly worse.  Because those students were so satisfied with their PSAT scores, they didn’t spend any time trying to learn from their mistakes.  I can’t tell you how many calls I get after the March or May SATs from parents who said, “My kid did so well on the PSATs that he just went in and took the SATs.  His SAT scores are dreadful, and now we’re months behind and we have to cram in some studying.”

Here’s why some kids do so well on the PSATs but not on the SATs.  The easiest questions on the PSAT aren’t easier than the easiest questions on the SAT, and the hardest questions on the SAT aren’t harder than the hardest questions on the PSAT.  The mix is different.  On the PSATs, there may be mostly easy questions with a few medium difficulty questions and just a couple of hard questions.  On the SAT, though, there may just be a couple of easy questions, several medium difficulty questions, and quite a few hard questions.  So it’s true that the PSAT questions are like the SAT questions, but it’s not necessarily true that a good PSAT score forecasts a good SAT score.

There always will be something that’s more pressing academically.  You’ll always have a test coming up or a project due.  It’s easy feel like you did good enough on your PSATs that you’ll just take the SATs and see how it goes.

That’s a mistake.  (Read my essay about why you shouldn’t go into the SAT without preparation.)

The best plan of action is to schedule time for SAT (or ACT) practice, just as you would schedule practice for an instrument or a sport.  No one makes the All-State orchestra without practice.  No one makes the varsity team without practice.  And it’s very uncommon to get a good SAT or ACT score without practice.

What’s a good score, you ask?  A good score is one that makes you a more attractive college applicant.  Is your score good enough for Harvard?  Perhaps not.  Is your score good enough for your local community college?  Undoubtedly.  Your score should be at least as good as the median score for the colleges that otherwise seem a really good fit for you.

A good tutor can help with college selection as well as helping you decide which college admission test to take, and then help you prepare for that test.  Where do you find a good tutor?  I’m always around, or ask your guidance counselor.  He or she knows which tutors yield a successful experience.

Now go and practice!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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June 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wendy Segal   http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

January 12, 2015

Should You Take The New SAT? The Post I’ve Dreaded Writing

I’ve been putting off writing this blog post for weeks – no, for months.  But I can’t put it off any more.  If you have a student in 10th grade, I’m sure you want to know what you should do to have the best chance at a decent SAT score.  So why have I been delaying when the new SAT was announced months ago?

1.  I need to make sure the information I give out is accurate.  There’s still too little information out there on the new SAT.  Yes, I’ve read every article.  I’ve watched every video by the College Board.  I’ve participated in every online discussion among SAT tutors and professional college advisors.  I’ve combed the internet and LinkedIn and every other resource I could find. This is what I do for a living and I take it seriously.  I put in time and effort, hoping to save you time and effort.  I like to think that parents, students, and guidance counselors rely on me for timely, accurate, clear, common-sense advice.  But until I see several full-length new SAT tests by the College Board, I just don’t know enough of what the new test will be like to help my students prep.  I know there’s a new College Board book coming out in June of 2015, but that may be too late if you’re in 10th grade now.

2.  Blogs are convenient for quick, general advice.  But there are so many variables, and students have such different strengths and needs, that it’s hard to write one essay that contains good advice for everyone.

The SATs are changing dramatically in March 2016.  The format will be entirely different.  The questions will be entirely different.  The essays (yes, plural!) will be entirely different.  So far, the College Board has only published fewer than a dozen sample questions, too few to use to prepare.

The ACTs are also changing in 2016, but much less drastically.  There will be optional logic-type questions and an optional essay.  So far, they’ve published no sample questions, but the changes won’t alter the way students should prepare for the test and we have lots of prep materials that will still be valid for the new ACT.

I got a good idea from a colleague on a LinkedIn tutoring group.  He created several schedules, depending on his students’ personalities and situations.  With his permission, I’m going to revise the idea somewhat.  I still think that individual advice is best until we’ve had a few years of the new test, but in the interim, this schedule should be helpful.

Explanation:  All colleges in the United States accept either the SAT or the ACT.  They don’t prefer one to the other.  Until now, most kids have told me that the ACT is easier.  That’s not true.  If kids universally did better on the ACT, no one would take the SAT.  The truth is that about a third of students do better on the SAT (at least on the current SAT), a third do better on the ACT, and a third score approximately the same (50% percentile on each test, for example).  There’s really no way to predict which students will score better on which test, so they just have to take at least one of each (often two SATs because they require less knowledge and more technique).  To get the best chance at a great score, now students will have to take a mix of old and new SATs along with old and new ACTs.  But that’s not the only way to go — or even the best way for every student.

Here’s an outline of suggested test schedules that should work for most students:

SCHOLAR (if you don’t mind taking tests and want the best possible shot at a top score):

  • May 2015 (while you’re still in 10th grade) –  old SAT (yes, that means beginning to prepare by February or March 2015)
  • June 2015 – SAT Subject test(s) (especially a subject that you might not repeat, like chemistry)
  • October 2015 – new PSAT (11th grade)
  • November 2015 – old SAT
  • December 2015 – old ACT (yes, the ACT is changing, too but the changes will mostly be less drastic and/or optional)
  • March 2016 – new SAT (should be fairly easy compared to future SATs; whenever they institute a major change, the first administration tends to be easier than subsequent tests.  They don’t want to frighten people!)
  • April 2016 – new ACT
  • May 2016 – new SAT (yes again)
  • June 2016 – SAT Subject tests(s)
  • June 2016 – new ACT
  • More testing might be needed for senior year, depending on your performance and goals – but you might be done!

STANDARD (if you are willing to take some tests for a decent score):

  • October 2015 – new PSAT (11th grade)
  • November 2015 – old SAT
  • March 2016 – new SAT
  • April 2016 – new ACT
  • May 2016 – new SAT
  • June 2016 – new ACT

MINIMAL TESTING (if you just want the very fewest tests possible – for any reason)

  • October 2015 – old ACT (11th grade)
  • April 2016 – new ACT
  • June 2016 – new ACT

There’s no moral judgment here — some kids look on testing as an exciting challenge, some grin and bear it, and others find tests difficult and frustrating  or know they don’t have the time or interest to prepare for multiple tests.  The key to this coming year may well be to be honest about who you are, what sort of results you want, and how much time and effort you’re willing to invest in achieving that result.

I hope the above outline is helpful in planning your college admissions testing.  Again, let me emphasize that personal advice is best since there are many variations on the above schedule, and the plan that works best is the plan that’s right for you!

You know where to find me (www.wendysegaltutoring.com).  I look forward to hearing from you!

Wendy Segal

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August 12, 2014

Quick Question: Do I Need to Take the PSATs This Year?

Here are a few questions I get all the time:

I took the PSATs in 10th grade.  Do I need to take them in 11th grade, too?

And I also am asked:

I took a practice SAT at the library.  Do I need to take a PSAT at all now?

The answer to both is an unequivocal YES!

It only makes sense that if your student did well on the PSATs in 10th grade, he or she will do even better in 11th grade, parents tell me.  First of all, if that turns out to be true and your student did well on the 10th grade PSATs, why wouldn’t you want your student to retake them in 11th grade when a superior score might get a National Merit Letter of Commendation or even a National Merit Scholarship?

No matter how well you do on the PSATs in 10th grade, only the 11th grade PSATs are considered for the National Merit scholarship.

On the other hand, more often than not, it has been my experience over the past 27 years that students who have done very well on the 10th grade PSATs and who skip the 11th grade PSATs have their scores GO DOWN on their first SAT.  The students are shocked, the parents are disappointed, and now there is much less time to correct whatever the problem is.  To make matters worse, some schools require that you send ALL SAT scores when you apply.  Too bad the student in that situation didn’t retake the PSATs in 11th grade.  Then, if the score go down, the colleges won’t know and the student has many months to work on improving.

Furthermore, I don’t trust those library practice SATs.  They’re usually not an actual SAT.  They’re an approximation of the SATs based on what a company seeking to sell you SAT preparation services believes is similar to an SAT.  Real SATs are tested over and over.  I’ve found substantial errors in SAT prep books prepared by Princeton Review, Kaplan, and all the others (and so have many other tutors of my acquaintance).  The SATs given at the library tend to be either too hard (“You see, you really do need our tutoring service!”) or too easy (“See?  With just a little help, you can rock this test!”).

If your student really wants to know how he’d do on a real SAT, have him take a real SAT, either from the book by the College Board or on online from the people who actually create and administer the SATs.  You don’t need a library and you don’t need a detailed analysis that you probably won’t understand (but the prep center will be glad to explain it to you, and show you why you need them).

The PSATs are given in October.  The score report from the PSATs is sent home to you some time in December.  If you’re not happy with your student’s scores, take them to a qualified tutor who can help your student work on her weakness as well as polish where she’s already doing well.

So yes, unless you’re ill on the day of the PSATs or you have a wedding to attend, no excuses!  Just take that 11th grade PSAT.

Do you have other questions about college entrance testing?  Let me know!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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March 6, 2014

Everything You Need to Know about Changes to the New SAT

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The College Board today announced sweeping and substantive changes to the SATs (click here to get the College Board summary).  Note that these changes will go into effect in 2016 and will affect current ninth graders.   If you are in 10th through 12th grade, none of these changes apply to you.

Here are my initial thoughts and a review of the changes – before I read what my colleagues and the pundits have to say about the one-hour announcement I just heard streaming live.

Clearly, the College Board takes itself very seriously.  It seems to think that the success of America – and indeed the world – is dependent on what the College Board does.  There were soaring pronouncements of how their new test and policies will lead to more minority students applying to more selective colleges and thereby able to go on to more successful lives.  Specifically, the College Board is going to be focused on supporting worthy African Americans, “Hispanics,” and Native Americans in a most avuncular way.  (Sorry, I didn’t mean to use what the College Board now calls an “SAT word,” one which their spokesman said isn’t likely to be encountered in the real world.  Forget you heard me use “avuncular.”  I didn’t mean to be supercilious.  Oops, I’ve done it again!)  The spokesperson implied we already have quite a few Asians (and we all know that all Asians are alike, don’t we?) who take AP classes and apply to selective schools, but what about the other minorities?  They will be given college application waivers and will be encouraged to take AP classes in high school and will be given counseling to make sure they apply to more selective colleges.  (Sadly, the College Board spokesman didn’t address the dismal rate of non-completion of college by these same minorities.  It’s good to get them in, but more attention has to be given to why there are such high minority withdrawal and/or failure rates.)  Much of the College Board’s initial comments had to do with encouraging more students to take more AP tests.  I wonder who designs AP tests, which cost about $90 each to take?  Oh, yes – the College Board!

MAJOR CHANGES:

1.  SAT tutors like me seem to be at the heart of the problem.  David Coleman, head of the College Board, said that my helping students prepare for the SATs isn’t fair.  And my charging for my time, effort, and expertise REALLY isn’t fair. So he’s going to help students prepare for the SATs.  Khan Academy, which I actually really respect and often recommend to students, will be providing free online videos and sample SAT questions.  Of course, he also said the College Board designed the new SAT to be one that will require diligence (oops, another “SAT word”!) and achievement in ongoing class work so that prepping won’t really help, but never mind – they’ll provide free prepping anyway.  But it won’t help.  But they’re going to give it to you for free.  But it won’t help.  (Yes, he spent a lot of time on that point.)

2.  Writing is crucial to high school and college success – so they’re going to make the essay optional, just like it is on the ACT.  (I wonder if colleges will, after 2016, stop requiring the ACT with writing now that it’s optional for both tests.  I hope so.  A quick, on-the-spot essay is a poor way of judging writing skills no matter what the essay topic is.)  The essay, if a student wants to take it, will be scored separately and will NOT be part of the SAT score.  The new 50-minute essay will be somewhat like a DBQ (document-based question) in that you’ll be asked to read a persuasive essay and/or a series of graphs and explain the persuasive logic employed.  I can’t imagine a lot of kids opting for that essay unless colleges absolutely require it.  The ACT essay, on the other hand, asks students to comment on a topic of general interest to average high school students, like “Should public school students wear uniforms?” or “Is it fair for high schools to require community service?”

3.  They will be going back to a 1600 score, which was the measure before 2005.  Reading and writing (not the essay, just the grammar) will be one combined score out of 800, and math will be the other component, again out of 800.  The essay, as I said, won’t be included in that score, just like they do it on the ACTs.

4.  The reading will include a wider range of subject matter including social studies and science (with graphs and tables), just like they do on the ACTs.  (Are you starting to see a pattern?  By the way, the College Board didn’t say they want to be just like the ACTs, but it’s rather obvious.  Of course, these changes have nothing to do with the fact that, as of last year, more students take the ACTs than the SATs.  Pure coincidence!)  In addition, every SAT will include at least one reading from the seminal (sorry, another “SAT word” that you’ll never see in real life) documents of American government and politics, such as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, or Federalist Papers.  (I’m not sure how this jives with Mr. Coleman’s statement that the SAT is a global test, but never mind about that.)  Questions will be not only on the content of the reading but will ask students to identify how or why they believe their answer to be correct.

5.  As I said before, there will be no more “SAT words” on the SAT.  In fact, there will be no more sentence completion questions at all, just like on the ACTs.  Instead, they will expect students to know myriad meanings (oops!) for words.  The example Mr. Coleman gave was “synthesis.”  Synthesis, he said, is a word that all of see all around us every day.  Not true for me.  Maybe it’s true for you.

6.  Grammar will be assessed within the context of editing, just like on the ACTs, but it will no longer be a separate section.  I actually like that.  This change will prevent students from asking me to tutor the reading only and ignore the grammar, which many colleges don’t care about.  I think everyone, including college admissions people, should care about clear, correct grammar, but that’s just my personal prejudice.

7.  Math will be more practical and will include sections in which students can use a calculator and sections in which they may not.  Actually, that’s another good idea.  As I wrote on my Facebook page recently, a startlingly high number of my suburban, college-bound students cannot add three two-digit numbers without a calculator, and that’s just wrong.

8.  In an effort to make the math more practical, the SATs will focus on numbers, logic, algebra, and functions.  Gosh, who needs geometry?  Certainly not engineers or anyone trying to figure out how much wallpaper to buy for her bedroom!  Coleman seemed to say geometry will be out completely.  (Now you math people can understand my frustration with eliminating vocabulary.)

9.  Biggest change:  there will no longer be a penalty (point deduction) for wrong guesses, just like the ACTs!  Remember, this is only starting in 2016, but I’m sure the 9th graders are relieved.

Why would any student want to take the SAT (after 2016) when the ACT is faster, easier, just as widely accepted, and a known factor, rather than this longer, less familar new SAT?  I certainly will be suggesting that my students, at least in the first year or so after the new test is in place, focus on the ACT.

As I take a deeper look into the changes, I might have more to say, but I was eager to get my take on the announcement out to my students, their parents, and local guidance counselors as soon as possible.

I welcome your comments!

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Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 2, 2014

Is Early SAT Prep Worth It? Is SAT Tutoring Worth It?

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I recently wrote a blog post with specific advice about how parents can help their students begin preparing for the SATs in middle school and early high school.

This week, a book was touted by local press in which a mother studied for and took seven SATs with her child.  Her advice agreed that it’s most effective to begin preparing years before the actual SATs.

Now I’d like to tell you WHY students should begin to prepare so early – and why it’s never too late or a waste of time and money to engage a private tutor.  

Is this shameless self-promotion?  Not really.  I already have a very busy practice, and this information is valuable whether you choose to work with me or another tutor.  In fact, as the mother who wrote the book (above) showed, you can be as own your child’s tutor if you have the ability and time and if your student will let you!

1.  Your student’s SATs will help him get into an appropriate, affordable college.  You all know that most colleges do consider a student’s SAT and/or ACT scores as part of his application package.  The larger the school, the more it relies on numbers for evaluation – numbers like GPA and SATs.  State colleges especially have a huge number of applicants and rely on numbers to eliminate some students on the bottom and grab some students on the top.  And state colleges – your state’s or another state’s schools – are generally thousands less expensive than a private college or university.

2.  Some colleges use SAT scores to give out merit aid scholarships.  Some just use the math and critical reading scores, others add the writing score.  Money spent on a tutor now might add up to much more money in college aid later.

3.  Very high PSAT scores might get your student a National Merit Letter of Commendation, Semi-Finalist, or Finalist designation.  These designations often turn into scholarship money, but even if your student’s first choice school doesn’t give aid based on the PSATs, a National Merit designation enhances her college application.  All schools like to brag that they have plenty of National Merit Scholars.  With a little early tutoring and the ability to score well on standardized tests, you could be one of those scholars, but the PSATs are given early in 11th grade, so many start working over the summer after 10th grade.

4.  Some employers ask for your SAT scores – even after your student graduates from college.  Articles like this one from the Wall Street Journal come around every year or two.  It might not be fair but it does happen:  Employers look at SAT scores when hiring for some types of white-collar jobs.

And for the most important benefits:

5.  I work with students to improve their grammar skills.  When was the last time your student studied grammar?  Has your student’s English teacher ever explained to her why a sentence written in the passive voice is weaker than one written in the active voice? Writing well is a skill that will be important in college and for most of one’s life.  Write a letter to the editor, write a proposal for a client, write a note to your child’s teacher, write an email to your boss – and you’ll be glad you studied grammar with me.  Your subjects will agree with your verbs, your pronouns will have clear antecedents, and your participles won’t be hanging.  Being able to write clearly and confidently will come in handy even when the SATs are a distant memory.

6.  I work with students to improve their test taking skills.  I watch kids answer test questions 5 days a week.  I watch some kids get low scores even though they have high grades, and others with modest grades get high scores.  Why are some students better test takers?  A private tutor can watch your student answer questions and correct his technique.  Some kids don’t pay enough attention to the question (they read the answers and hope something seems “true” to them).  Some kids second guess themselves and talk themselves out of correct answers due to lack of self-confidence.  Some kids race through questions because they’re afraid of running out of time or just because they want to be done with the test, often misreading questions.  Some kids need remedial vocabulary help (you can’t tell whether an author’s tone is curmudgeonly or benign if you don’t know what those words mean). That level of individualized instruction simply can’t be done in a class or small-group setting, but experienced private tutors do that sort of analysis and correction for a living.

7.  I improve students’ reading comprehension.  Yes, they read novels in school, but are your students reading persuasive essays like those on the SATs – and in news magazines?  Can your student understand an author’s tone – and how an accomplished reader can figure it out?  Many students can give me a one-sentence summary of an essay, but so many can’t put the individual sentences in their own words.  Understanding what you’re reading makes college studies easier. When you really understand what you’re reading, reading becomes less of a chore and more of a pleasure – a lifelong benefit indeed!

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Wendy Segal

 http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com/

June 9, 2013

How Your Summer Should Be Helping You to Get Into College – Grades 8 through 12

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

Grades 8 – 10:  Read.  Read.  Don’t stop – read some more.  Reading the back of the cereal box is better than reading nothing. Reading Sports Illustrated or Seventeen is better than the cereal box.  Reading TIME magazine is WAY better than reading Sports Illustrated or Seventeen.  TIME is written on the college level unlike many other magazines.  The articles are varied and interesting, but the real value is in the letters to the editor (called “inbox” in TIME).  When they print a letter, they also print the writer’s name and home town.  No one wants to look like a dope in front of his neighbors, so the grammar and vocabulary in every letter are gorgeous.   The letters and  essays are written with an agenda and a tone.  No one writes to TIEM because there was nothing good on TV.  Letter writers write to a magazine editor because they have a viewpoint, a slant, an opinion; your job as a reader is to figure out why the writer is REALLY writing.  You’ll seldom be asked to read this type of writing in school – extended essay or persuasive opinion – so get comfortable with it on your own.  Go online and get a subscription.  It’s much less expensive than buying individual copies.  And I like the actual magazine rather than the online edition.  It’s closer to reading an SAT essay.

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

And keep reading this blog for an advance look on what you’ll need to do as you get closer to senior year in high school.

Grade 11:  Read and follow the advice above for 10th graders.  Incoming Juniors should also be thinking about the PSATs that are coming up in October.  Most students should just go in and take the test when it’s given.  (Don’t worry, your guidance counselor will sign you up and tell you where to go and when.)  There’s a free booklet in the guidance department in which the College Board gives you advice about taking the test and a few sample questions.  If, however, you’re the kind of student who panics before every test and gets ill before important tests, it may pay for you to find a tutor and have a few sessions to get ready.  (You can take a course, although they’re so seldom useful.  But I covered that already in another blog.)  The only other type of student who should get pre-PSAT tutoring is one who regularly scores very, very well on standardized tests.  The National Merit Scholarship is derived from PSAT scores, so if you’re likely to qualify, get tutoring before the PSATs to increase your chances of getting a scholarship.  The PSATs are a bit easier than the SATs, mostly because the PSATs are shorter, but the questions are identical, so PSAT tutoring will give you a head start on SAT preparation.

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

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

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

You should be writing your college essay this summer. Start now.  Don’t wait for your English teacher to mention it.  In fact, your English teachers can’t help you much since the topics have changed drastically this summer and their “follow this sample” handouts just don’t apply any more.   (Again, follow this blog or my Facebook page for upcoming advice.)

Lastly, don’t forget that you’ll be taking the SATs or ACTs again in a few months.  Decide which test to focus on, and get busy improving those areas in which you are weakest.  Let me know if you need some help.

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

Wendy Segal   http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

December 4, 2012

What Do My PSAT Scores Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Segal

June 28, 2012

What You Should Be Doing This Summer – Grades 8 through 11

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

Grades 8 – 10:  Read.  Read.  Don’t stop – read some more.  Reading the back of the cereal box is better than reading nothing. Reading Sports Illustrated or Seventeen is better than the cereal box.  Reading TIME or Newsweek is WAY better than reading Sports Illustrated or Seventeen.  TIME andNewsweek are written on the college level unlike most other magazines.  The articles are varied and interesting, but the real value is in the letters to the editor (called “inbox” in TIME).  When they print a letter, they also print the writer’s name and home town.  No one wants to look like a dope in front of his neighbors, so the grammar and vocabulary in every letter are gorgeous.   The letters, and the back page essay which is a perfect length for SAT practice, are written with an agenda and a tone.  No one writes to Newsweek because there was nothing good on TV.  Letter writers write to a magazine editor because they have a viewpoint, a slant, an opinion; your job as a reader is to figure out why the writer is REALLY writing.  You’ll seldom be asked to read this type of writing in school – extended essay or persuasive opinion – so get comfortable with it on your own.  Go online and get a subscription.  It’s much less expensive than buying individual copies.

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

And keep reading this blog for an advance look on what you’ll need to do as you get closer to senior year in high school.

Grade 11:  Read and follow the advice above for 10th graders.  Incoming Juniors should also be thinking about the PSATs that are coming up in October.  Most students should just go in and take the test when it’s given.  (Don’t worry, your guidance counselor will sign you up and tell you where to go and when.)  There’s a free booklet in the guidance department in which the College Board gives you advice about taking the test and a few sample questions.  If, however, you’re the kind of student who panics before every test and gets ill before important tests, it may pay for you to find a tutor and have a few sessions to get ready.  (You can take a course, although they’re so seldom useful.  But I covered that already in another blog.)  The only other type of student who should get pre-PSAT tutoring is one who regularly scores very, very well on standardized tests.  The National Merit Scholarship is derived from PSAT scores, so if you’re likely to qualify, get tutoring before the PSATs to increase your chances of getting a scholarship.  The PSATs are a bit easier than the SATs, mostly because the PSATs are shorter, but the questions are identical, so PSAT tutoring will give you a head start on SAT preparation.

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

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

If you are going to visit, interview with an admissions officer if it’s offered.  (Read this blog post for suggestions on what you should be looking for during a college visit, and visit this blog post for thoughts on how to make a good impression when you’re on an interview.)

You should be writing your college essay this summer. Start now.  Don’t wait for your English teacher to mention it.  Take advantage of college early action programs by having your application and essay prepared before you start classes in September. (But please read this advice first.)

Lastly, don’t forget that you’ll be taking the SATs or ACTs again in a few months.  Decide which test to focus on, and get busy improving those areas in which you are weakest.  Let me know if you need some help.

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

Wendy Segal   http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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April 14, 2012

What Makes Some People Good Test Takers?

I’ve been watching my students take tests for over 25 years.  Some consistently score better than others.  Of course, some of the difference has to do with innate ability.  But if test taking were only about ability, tutors wouldn’t help a bit, and my students usually do quite a bit better after a course of tutoring than they did before. Why do some people just test better than others?  Why do some improve and other don’t, even with tutors?

Here’s what some students do wrong:

1.  Fail to be decisive.  Standardized tests are timed.  This is not a good time to be leisurely or contemplative.

2.  Second guess themselves.  You’re not smarter now than you were a minute ago.

3.  Lunge at the right answer.  Stabbing at choices that seem right before you really understand the question is never a good strategy.

4.  Take a practice test just to get a score.  It’s not just about counting up how many you got right or wrong.

5.  Go back to the exact lines of the passage indicated by the question.  The quote may be on those lines, but the answer may not be.

6.  Talk themselves out of the right answer.  Telling yourself you aren’t good at this type of test or this type of question is bound to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If you think you won’t get it right, you won’t.

7.  Decide the test is boring.  If you decide it’s boring, it will be.  You’ll be right, but what have you won?

8.  Decide their answer is better than the answer in the book.  The correct answer is whatever the test-maker says it is.  Your English teacher may find you very clever when you point out an alternate interpretation, but on a standardized test, you’ll just be wrong.

Here’s what excellent test takers do:

1.  Be decisive.  The ability to pick and answer and move on is what makes boys, on average, better at the SATs than girls.  If you ask a typical boy, “Which two of these three things go together: bird, rock, tree?”he’s likely to answer, “Bird and tree because they’re alive.”  If you ask a typical girl, she might say, “Well, bird and tree are alive, but bird and rock are small and can move.  On the other hand, tree and rock usually stay in one place…” and she’ll likely come up with other combinations and reasons as well.  We need more of that thoughtful reasoning to help solve global problems, but it’s a terrible strategy for timed tests.  Just pick an answer and forge on.

2.  Be confident.  This may sound strange, but I’m convinced your brain is faster than your mind.  Sometimes you choose the right answer because your brain has made a lightening-fast connection between the question and the right answer.  If your first impulse is that the answer is B, more often than not, the answer will be B.  Have confidence in your own brain and let it choose the answer.  How many times have students told me, “Oh no, I was going to put that answer, but then I thought about it and I didn’t.”  If you were going to put it, put it!

3.  Eliminate the wrong answers rather than look for the correct answer.  Very often, students’ eyes are drawn to the answer choices before they’ve even understood the question.  Test makers include choices that may seem like a familiar phrase or fact but don’t really answer the question.  Here’s a quick story:

When I was a senior in high school, the Meadowlands race track in New Jersey had just opened up near my home.  Every weekend, a bunch of us went to the track.  Since the minimum bet was $2, we could all chip in and bet all night with very little money.  One of my friends who always came with us was Mormon.  She also owned a horse.  She was great with horses and often had a good instinct for which riders seemed most comfortable on their horses.  Because she was Mormon, she didn’t feel right telling us which horses would win, as that would be helping us to gamble.  But she gladly told us which horses she thought would lose!  With ten horses in each race, when my friend said, “Not 1, not 3, not 4, not 6, and not 9,” we had a MUCH better chance of winning – and we usually did.

It’s the same with taking a test.  If you eliminate the losers, you have  a much better chance at finding winners.  Even though this technique sounds obvious, under the pressure of time, few students are methodical enough to eliminate answers patiently.  They’re so eager to grasp at the right answer that they get the question wrong.

4.  Find out why your answer was wrong and another answer was right.  If you take a practice test and look at the answer key to find out how many you got wrong and how many you got right, you’ve only just begun.  The time-consuming part of taking a practice test – or even a section of a test – is not taking that test but in analyzing your mistakes.  When you get an answer wrong (or if you get an answer right because you guessed well but you really don’t know why you were right), spend as much time as you need to look at the other answers.  Why was your answer wrong?  Why was the right answer right?  Why were the other wrong answers wrong?  Over the course of the section or the test, is there a pattern to your wrong answers?  Are they often at the end of a test?  Is there a certain type of question you consistently get wrong?  Taking a practice test isn’t where the work is.  You are only taking a practice test so you can examine your answers to see where your thinking or reading or vocabulary needs help.  When a student of mine gets a question wrong, I try to explain where he went wrong and why the right answer is right.  When a student seems impatient with that process, I know he has very little chance of making significant improvement in his score.

5.  Understand the quote in context.  When the test mentions a specific line number, always reread from a few lines above to a few lines below that line.  I can usually convince kids to read a line above, but they rarely read a line below.  As soon as they hit the quote, they jump back to the question.  That’s a mistake.  Very, very often, the quote is explained in the sentences that follow it.

6.  Prepare for the test, and trust your preparation.  When a parent calls me to set up a tutoring schedule with her student, so often she says, “My daughter is just not a good test taker.”  I cringe.  If the parent said that to me, she probably said it to her student, or her student said it to her, and she patted her kid on the head and concurred.  If you go into a test thinking, “I’m awful at this kind of test,” of course you will be!  If you prepare well, you can take any test thinking, “I may not be the very smartest kid in the room, but no one is more prepared than I am.”  Read this blog post over a few times and trust my advice.  Then you can say, “I used to be a poor test taker, but now I have the strategies I need to be an excellent test taker.”  It’s true!

7.  The test is meant to be a challenge that you can master.  Tests aren’t light entertainment.  They aren’t a sitcom or a comic book.  They’re not even Harry Potter.  They are a challenge, and you can win.  If you read a passage on the Supreme Court, think to yourself, “How interesting!  I wonder what they’re going to ask me about this.”  In college, especially your first year, you’ll have to read lots of stuff that you’d rather not read, yet you’ll have to make sense of it before you can move on to more interesting material.  Difficult reading is excercise for the brain.  Running laps isn’t fun, either, but athletes do boring activities to build their skills and strength.  Test reading passages aren’t meant to be fun.  Look on difficult reading as something designed to test your skills and strength.  Don’t stop paying attention halfway through the passage.  Press on, mighty student!  You can do it!

8.  The answer in the answer key is correct and you are wrong.  Very rarely, the makers of tests goof.  But going through a test trying to prove that your answer is as good as or better than theirs won’t get you any prizes.  Presume that the test maker has included the correct answer in your multiple choice list, but also presume he has put in a couple of almost-right answers.  Your job is to figure out why those answers are wrong before you worry about which answer is right.  Standardized tests are battles of wits:  you against the test maker.  You can only win by choosing the same answer as the test maker.  Clever alternatives don’t win.  Your job, if you choose to accept it, is to select the same answer as the test maker did.

Do you have other tips for taking standardized tests?  Let me know!

Wendy Segal

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