High School 2 College

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!

sat cartoon 1

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

September 9, 2013

Preparing to Get Into College: 7th Grade May Be Too Late

Parents of high school seniors call me every year in August to help their students get ready for the SATs and ACTs and SAT Subject tests and a few months later for help with college applications and essays.

Most times, I wish they called earlier.  About 5 or 6 years earlier.

By the time your student is a senior, many options have already been taken away  based on his or her prior decisions.

Here’s what I’d tell you if you had called me when you were in 6th grade:  If you want to get into a competitive college, you had better start planning now.  Top tier colleges are accepting fewer and fewer applicants every year. Not every student should be aiming for a highly selective college, but if you follow my advice, you’ll have the maximum number of options open to you when it comes time to apply to college.

So what should a motivated 6th grader do to get a head start?

Plan your middle school classes wisely.  Some time during 6th grade, most students in New York choose a foreign language to study for the rest of their high school careers.  If you choose French around here, you’ll be stuck in high school with the same French teacher for 4 years (like her or not).  And because so few kids take French, it’s only given one period a day.  If it conflicts with orchestra or AP science and you’d like to take one of those classes, you’ll have to drop French right in the middle of high school, even though most colleges want to see several years of the same foreign language.

Suggestion:  Call the local high school guidance department and find out which foreign language is given most often. That will give you the most flexibility once you reach high school.

Take the hardest classes you can manage.  If you have the option of taking advanced math in 7th grade, do it. Colleges want to make sure you’re taking the hardest classes you can (the rigor of classes is much more important than SATs in most cases).  Same with science — take the advanced or honors track if you can.  If you’ve been told you don’t qualify, find out the procedure to force yourself into that class (there usually is a procedure, but they don’t tell you unless you ask) if you have a feeling you could handle the work.  Taking an honors or advanced math now means you’ll be on track for honors and/or advance math and science throughout high school.  You can always drop down from an honors class to a regular class if the work gets too hard at some point, but you’ll find it nearly impossible to “drop into” an honors class later on.

Read.  It’s the activity which will have the greatest impact on your future.  If you read, your SAT and ACT scores will be higher.  If you read, your grades in English and Social Studies will be higher. And competance in reading can really distinguish you from your peers, a bonus when you’re applying to those difficult colleges.  (Start by reading this article on how poorly kids read!)  Reading anything (including romance novels) is better than reading nothing.   Read something just outside your usual area of interest.  If you usually read fantasy or science fiction, read a mystery (Agatha Christie and Dick Francis are my favorite mystery authors).  If you read war novels, read a biography.  If you like John Stewart’s Daily Show and the Colbert Report, read Gulliver’s Travels.  Always have a book with you.  I keep a paperback in my pocketbook, a hard cover by my bed, and magazines in my bathroom.

Suggestion:  If you’re really serious about improving your reading skills, put a sticky note in the inside cover of the book and keep track of new vocabulary words.

Improve your writing skills.  The best way to improve your writing skills is to have an amazing English teacher, but not everyone can have Mrs. Joyce Garvin as a teacher as I did.  Another way to improve is to hire yourself a good writing coach (ahem – I happen to know one!) and see her periodically when you have a project or an essay.  But writing frequently, writing with intent and determination, writing letters to the editor, writing book reviews on Amazon.com — writing anything is a good way to gain comfort and fluency with writing.

Take as many classes as you can.  In high school, that means no lunch.  Take two languages.  Take two sciences.  Get your requirements out of the way as early as you can so you can take more interesting electives that may only be open to juniors and seniors. Never have a free period if you can manage it.  Take your mental break in gym or art.  Eat lunch in math or English.  The most selective colleges want to know you love to learn and took advantage of everything your high school offered.

Make friends with your guidance counselor.  They’re busy, and they’re not going to call you up to tell you that you could fill that hole in your schedule with a new AP class — unless you go to them and ask.  They know which teachers might be teaching which classes, which new classes are being considered, which electives won’t be offered next year.  Your guidance counselor will have to write a college recommendation for you, so get to know him or her the minute you start 9th grade.  Bring him/her cookies. (My sons’ absolutely amazing counselor loves chocolate.)  Stop by to show off that A you got on a test.  The better your guidance counselor knows you, the more helpful advice you’ll get.

Ask your friends’ parents what they do for a living.  Most kids enter college without a clue about what they want to do because the only professions they know are teacher, doctor, and businessman.  The earlier you become aware of all the different sort of jobs there are, the more you’ll find school relevant and interesting.  And the more interesting and relevant you find school, the better you’ll do.  Find out what a public relations person does.  Or a chef.  Or an advertising editor.  Or a graphic designer.  Or an office manager.

Listen to adults speak.  Since the demise of the cocktail party, kids don’t have as many opportunities to hear adults engaged in adult conversation.  When kids hear unrelated adults speak to each other, they learn phrases like “double standard,” or “righteous indignation,” or “above reproach.”  They won’t hear those things from parents talking about whose turn it is to take out the garbage or from their friends or sadly even from their teachers.   Kids need to hear adults speak to each other about the news of the day.

Some might say that kids should be able to be free from the pressure of college until the application date looms near. But I believe the earlier you start to prepare, the more options you have later and the more stressLESS thinking about college will be when you get to senior year.

Please let me know how I can help!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

February 21, 2011

Getting into College: Do You Need All Those APs?

The AP test system is broken.

Documentaries like “Race to Nowhere” link students’ drive to take the most APs they can to extreme stress in students. Colleges all over the country are no longer using AP test scores to give college credit to students who score well (but they do use it for placement).

Even the College Board, which writes the AP curriculum and creates the AP tests, knows it’s broken.

In this NY Times article, the College Board explains the changes coming to the AP Biology exam and why students should wait a year if they can to take AP Bio in high school.  Changes to other tests follow.

So if you have a student in high school, what should you advise him about taking AP classes?  Is it true that the more, the better?

I believe that students should take honors and other difficult courses only in the subjects in which they have an interest. If you’re a science guy and you pass up the chance to take AP chem or bio or physics, colleges are going to wonder where your drive is.  If you say you want to major in communications but you passed up the chance to take AP English or honors English, does that mean you just like to gab but you’re lazy?

The Boston Globe had a great article a couple of years ago about how one college’s admissions department reviews applications.  In a nutshell, some kids were just obvious admits, some were clearly below standards and were easy declines, and a large number fell somewhere in between and needed to be discussed by the committee.  If you read the article carefully, you’ll see that it’s not the grades nor the SATs nor even the AP scores that tilt the committee in favor of one student over another.

So what are they looking for?

  • Grades
  • Scores (SAT/ACT)
  • Rigor of Coursework (honors classes)
  • Essay
  • Recommendations

But in many, many cases, they seem to be looking for a compelling “story.” You may be the first in your family to go to college.  You may have a tough family situation.  Or you may simply have a such a consuming love for your family heritage that it runs through all of your activities and is reflected in your essay.

If you are aiming at a competitive college, you need something that sets you apart from all the other applicants who score well, have good grades, and participate in sports, the student government, and Key Club or National Honor Society. I’m fairly sure that one student I was working with got into his first choice college not because of his great grades and scores nor because his family came from outside the United States nor because of his prowess on the football field but because he shared with the admission committee via his essay his secret pride — the ability to iron his shirts to perfection, a skill he honed when his mother became ill and unable to iron his school uniform and his father’s work shirts.

But what if you haven’t had a family crisis?

Most parents don’t want to hear it, but if your goal is to get your student into the school of her dreams, you have to build a portrait of your student in which all the elements point toward an enduring interest. Is she a dancer?  Make sure she dances at a dance school and that she also gets her friends together to put on dances for the local senior center and that her summers are spent as a counselor in dance camp.  Does she want to be an engineer?  See if she can run the lights at the local community theater and have her volunteer to help in the high school auditorium and have her volunteer to teach younger kids how to run the media equipment at their middle school and have her attend a summer program for potential engineers.  That’s how it’s done.

It may seem like a game, but from my perspective, it’s a matter of choices. Sure you can have the summer to play baseball or swim with your friends.  But when the colleges’ admission committees meet, don’t expect to outshine those who spend the summer exploring a potential college major.  It’s not a race to nowhere – it’s showing the college that you’re more focused and mature than you probably are at 16 or 17.

My suggestion, then, is not more work, not harder work, not more activities.  Just focused work and planned activities.

Do you have to program your students to fit into a mold starting in middle school?  Not at all – unless you want them to get into a very competitive college in a few years.  It’s not popular to say, but if you choose to indulge yourself,  remember that I told you so.

It’s not like I’m suggesting that if you love the idea of medicine you spend the summer writing for the local paper.  It’s not like I’m recommending that your son who is thinking about sports management should take creative writing classes all summer.  Do what you think you might like to do in college and later in life.  But if you think hanging out at the mall or playing World of Warcraft will get you into your dream school when others are crafting an application package, remember that I told you so.

Wendy Segal

April 2, 2010

Did You Hear? It’s Harder Than Ever to Get into College — and What to Do About It.

The record low acceptance rates of selective colleges this year are all over the news and all over the internet.  Everyone who knows a teenager has heard of kids who have stellar grades, high SATs, many activities, community service, and sparkling personalities who not only didn’t get into their early decision school, they didn’t get into several schools they thought were fairly safe bets.

The Washington Post reports on this year’s admission rates.  The Huffington Post’s article, “Application Rates Up, Acceptance Rates Down” says a lot. The New York Times admissions blog has a chart so you can see how tiny your chance was of getting into your top choice school.

Why am I telling you this?

First of all, if you are currently a college student, you should be grateful that you got in when you did.  Another year or two and you might not have made it to the school you’re in now.  Basically, the incoming freshmen at your school are probably more impressive candidates than you were.  If your parents went to a selective college, chances are they couldn’t get in to that same school now.

Second, if you are a high school senior and you didn’t get into the schools you expected to get into, it’s not your fault.  You’re in extremely good company.  Getting a “we regret to inform you” email (why do all the articles talk about a thin or fat envelope when everyone is notified by email?) doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have been a huge success at that dream school.  It certainly doesn’t mean you won’t get a good education.  Those who got into every school they applied to probably didn’t reach high enough for that dream school.

Third, if you are a high school senior and you did get into your dream school, be humble.  Don’t brag, don’t gloat.  It might be that you’re male and they needed more males this year.  It might be that you play the French horn and your friend plays the trombone, and they happen to need French horn players more this year.  Of course you worked hard, but so did most of those who didn’t get in.

But mostly I want to address the high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. There ARE things you can do to improve your chance of getting in. It may seem insincere, but if you want to get in, you have to:

  • Maintain good grades from freshman year through the middle of senior year. Colleges don’t see quarterly grades, only year-end grades, so if you’re starting to slip – even in 9th grade – reach out for help.  Stay after school to talk to your teacher, study with a friend, ask your parents and guidance counselor for help, hire a tutor.
  • Prepare for the SATs. Don’t wait until the end of junior year or -heaven forbid – the beginning of senior year.  Start preparing now.  You don’t need an SAT book or a course.  In fact, the best thing you can do to prepare is pay attention in math class and READ.  Read a magazine, read the newspaper, read a novel – even a trashy one.  Just read. Magazines like TIME and Newsweek are wonderful for vocabulary and reading comprehension.
  • Take the right classes. Colleges are concerned with grades for sure, but they care deeply about the rigor of your classes.  That means if the school offers an honors class, take it.  You don’t need to take ALL honors or AP classes, but you should be taking on as much challenge as you can handle.  I encourage students to give the honors class a try.  Warn your guidance counselor that you might need to slip back to the regular level class so he or she can schedule your classes so you can switch to a lower level without disrupting all of your other classes.
  • Find a passion and work it. If you like dance, you should be dancing in school productions, you should be dancing in a dance school, you should be volunteering to put on a dance show at your local senior center or nursing home, you should be teaching elementary kids to dance after school.  If you like math, join the math team, tutor lower level students in math, volunteer to help struggling elementary school students in math, teach seniors computer skills for free at a senior center.  Schools are looking for something they call consistency — they want to see you involved on every level in your area of interest.
  • Don’t waste your summers. Travelling and camp are fun but they won’t get you into college.  Take some courses.  Many colleges have summer programs where you can live on campus and take college courses for credit.  Volunteer. Work – not at K-Mart, but in your area of interest.

If you got into a good school, congratulations! If you got into any old school, you might just love it.  And if you don’t, you can join the thousands each year who transfer.  If you still have a year or more before you have to worry about college applications, there’s much you can do now to make your college admission quest successful.

Wendy Segal

April 13, 2009

Start Preparing for College in 7th Grade? Yes, You Should!

Parents of seniors call me every year in August to help their students get ready for the SATs and ACTs and SATIIs and a few months later for help with college applications and essays. 

Most times, I wish they called earlier.  About 5 years earlier.

I agree with nearly all of this advice:  http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/education/bal-achieveside0412,0,571587.story

Here’s what I’d tell you if you had called me when you were in 7th grade:  If you want to get into a competitive college, you had better start planning now.  Top tier colleges are accepting fewer and fewer applicants every year.  (See articles like: http://www.usnews.com/blogs/paper-trail/2009/3/31/top-colleges-see-record-low-acceptance-rates.html?s_cid=et-0410 )

So what should a 6th, 7th, or 8th grader do to get a head start?

Read.  It’s the activity which will have the greatest impact on your future.  If you read, your SAT and ACT scores will be higher.  If you read, your grades in English and Social Studies will be higher.  Reading anything (including romance novels) is better than reading nothing.   Read something just outside your usual area of interest.  If you usually read fantasy or science fiction, read a mystery (Agatha Christie and Dick Francis are my favorite mystery authors).  If you read war novels, read a biography.  If you read The Onion, read Gulliver’s Travels.  Always have a book with you.  I keep a paperback in my pocketbook, a hard cover by my bed, and magazines in my bathroom.

Take the hardest classes you can manage.  If you have the option of taking advanced math in 7th grade, do it.  It’s hard to move back into the advanced track in high school once you’re out of it, and colleges want to make sure you’re taking the hardest classes you can (the rigor of classes is much more important than SATs in most cases).  Same with science — take the advanced or honors track if you can.  You can always drop back down to an easier level if you must in later years, but you’ll find it near impossible to move up a level later.

Take Spanish all the way through senior year.  There are more periods of Spanish than any other language.  That means you will have a wider choice of teachers as you move on, and a wider selection of levels (honors, AP).  Spanish class is not going to conflict with a more infrequently-scheduled class, like orchestra, but French might.  And competitive colleges prefer to see 3 or 4 years of a foreign language (not including 7th and 8th grades).

Improve your writing skills.  The best way to improve your writing skills is to have an amazing English teacher, but not everyone can have Mrs. Joyce Garvin as a teacher as I did.  Another way to improve is to hire yourself a good writing coach (ahem – I happen to know one!) and see her periodically when you have a project or an essay.  But writing frequently, writing with intent and determination, writing letters to the editor, writing book reviews on Amazon.com — writing anything is a good way to gain comfort and fluency with writing.

Take as many classes as you can.  In high school, that means no lunch.  You can eat in class.  Take two languages.  Take two sciences.  Get your requirements out of the way as early as you can so you can take more interesting electives that may only be open to juniors and seniors.

Make friends with your guidance counselor.  They’re busy, and they’re not going to call you up to tell you that you could fill that hole in your schedule with a new AP class — unless you go to them and ask.  They know which teachers might be teaching which classes, which new classes are being considered, which electives won’t be offered next year.  Your guidance counselor will have to write a college recommendation for you, so get to know him or her the minute you start 9th grade.  Bring him/her cookies. (My sons’ absolutely wonderful counselor loves chocolate.)  Stop by to show off that A you got on a test.  The better your guidance counselor knows you, the more helpful advice you’ll get.

Ask your friends’ parents what they do for a living.  Most kids enter college without a clue about what they want to do because the only professions they know are teacher, doctor, and businessman.  The earlier you become aware of all the different sort of jobs there are, the more you’ll find school relevant and interesting.  And the more interesting and relevant you find school, the better you’ll do.  Find out what a public relations person does.  Or a chef.  Or an advertising editor.  Or a graphic designer.  Or an office manager.

Listen to adults speak.  Since the demise of the cocktail party, kids don’t have as many opportunities to hear adults engaged in adult conversation.  When kids hear unrelated adults speak to each other, they learn phrases like “double standard,” or “righteous indignation,” or “above reproach.”  They won’t hear those things from parents talking about whose turn it is to take out the garbage or from their friends or sadly even from their teachers.   Too often when there’s a kid in the room, the conversation includes the child and parents adjust their vocabulary.  Kids need to hear adults speak to each other about the news of the day. 

Some might say that kids should be able to be free from the pressure of college until the application date looms near.  But I believe the earlier you start to prepare, the more options you have later and the more stressLESS thinking about college will be when you get to senior year.

Wendy Segal

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