High School 2 College

August 16, 2020

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 -IF you decide to send any of the tests you’ve taken), any college credits you’ve earned by taking college-level classes.  EVERYTHING.

So realistically, you should have EVERYTHING in, done, and sent by October 7th 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 7th 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.

Even if you’re not applying to a particular school early decision or early action,  you still can and should apply by October 7th.  Applying well before the deadline is one way to demonstrate your interest to the college.  Colleges also tend to distribute financial aid on a first come, first served basis, so the earlier you apply, the more money the college can offer you.

To get your applications finished by October 7th, you need to have:

  • taken your SATs and/or ACTs as often as you think practical or possible 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 2020,” 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 (at least virtually)
  • 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 7th is less than 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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February 22, 2020

Hooray! A bunch of colleges want me! Now what?

Congratulations!  You’ve gotten into at least a few of the schools you applied to.  Doesn’t it feel good to be wanted?

Now all the adults you know are asking:  So, where are you going to go?

How should you choose among the schools that said “yes”? 

Make a few lists based on criteria. For example,

  • If all of the schools that said yes were down the block from each other, which would you pick?  (And now, decide how much distance matters.)
  • If all the schools that said yes cost the same, which would you pick? (Have you tried telling your top school that they ARE your top school, but you might have to decline because another school gave you a better financial aid package?  Financial aid departments have the most flexibility right now, while everyone is trying to get admitted students to commit.)

Revisit your top three choices.  See if you can sit in on a class or two, or, even better, stay the weekend.  Go eat in the cafeteria.

Check out the schools’ Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. Ask current students online about your particular major:  what are the best and worst things about that major at that school?

Ask me.  I’ve been helping kids get into college for over 30 years.  I have a fairly good sense of what most of the colleges my students go to are actually like, which ones have more of a clove-cigarette-smoking, birkenstock-sandal-wearing culture and which ones have more of a beer-drinking, everyone-goes-to-the-football-games culture and which ones have more of a we’re-here-to-study culture and which ones have more of a we’re-here-to-have-a-good-time culture.  I know kids who are attending or have attended most of the most common schools and I might be able to find you someone from northern Westchester for you to ask some questions.

Most important advice ever: Choosing a college isn’t a permanent decision.  

Some decisions are forever.  If you commit suicide, you can’t take it back.  If you have a child, you’ll be a parent forever, even if you don’t raise that child.  But choosing a school isn’t one of those forever decisions.  About a third of all college students do not graduate from the same college they first attended, so if you have to transfer, you won’t be alone.

Make the best decision you can with the information you have now, and then settle into it.  If you realize the school wasn’t what you thought in a few years, or if you yourself change in a few years, you can always change schools, especially if you’ve done a good job of keeping up your grades your first year or two.

Please don’t forget to tell me where you applied – and which schools said yes.  That sort of information really helps me give accurate advice next year’s students.

Congratulations on your success!

Wendy Segal

www.wendysegaltutoring.com

February 3, 2020

College Application Process Starts NOW, Juniors!

For most of my students, college seems far away.  The few 10th graders I have think they’re much too young to have college on their minds.  My seniors are patiently waiting to hear from the colleges to which they applied under regular decision deadlines (or from those schools from which they got wait listed). My juniors think they’re doing quite well if they’re coming once a week for SAT tutoring.

Not so!

Let’s back up the timing from the end till now.

  • You want to hear back from colleges as early as possible and get as many yeses as possible, so you want to apply to several schools early action.  That means applying by October of senior year.
  • To apply by October, you have to work on your applications, especially the application essays, over the summer before senior year.
  • To work on the essays over the summer, you have to know which colleges you’ll be applying to more or less by May or  June of junior year.
  • To know which schools you want to apply to by May or June, you have to have visited several  schools in March and April of junior year.  (Most schools discourage tours in early May when finals are in session, and most college students leave campus by mid-May.)
  • To know which schools you’d like to visit in March and April, you need a list of potential schools by FEBRUARY of junior year, which is now!

How should you start building that list?  I’m sure your high school guidance counselor has suggested you start with Naviance.  While Naviance can be of some help, the number of students is just too small to be useful. After all, it only includes students from your school.  If someone from your high school got into Big State U, is it because he was a sports star?  Did his parents go there?  Is he a coveted minority?  Was he an expert at the French horn?  You’ll never know from Naviance.  You need a search engine which represents more students.

Try the College Board college search. When their link is down, you can try College Confidential.  (I used to recommend Princeton Review, but they’re most interested in promoting their own paid service lately.)  US News & World Report also has an excellent college search tool.  They charge $30 to access it for a year, but it has very specific, very accurate information and I think it’s well worth the money.

Between US News and the other sites, you’ll have all the college information you need to start building a list. Think of how far away from home you want to be.  Think of what majors you want your school to have.  Do you care if your school has a big football team? Is on-campus housing important to you?  How do you feel about Greek life (fraternities and sororities)?

You want your list to be huge at first, maybe 30 – 40 schools.  Include every possibility. Then start narrowing.  Are religious schools out?  How about urban schools without a campus?  Please don’t eliminate a school just because you haven’t heard of it, and don’t include schools that don’t fit your needs just because your friends are talking about them.  Build a list on your own.

Once you have a list, group your schools geographically.  Can you visit all the New York State schools over a three-day trip?  What about Pennsylvania schools or Boston schools? You’ll probably want to take a few weekends to visit schools, so start looking for weekends that work for your parents. Don’t forget to make appointments for school tours and information sessions.  Some schools only give tours on weekends or in the morning. The most popular dates fill up quickly, and it’s absolutely worth it to take the tour rather than wandering around on your own.  Even if the tour guide isn’t the best, you’ll get credit from the school as “demonstrating interest” by going on an official tour.

While you’re at the school, don’t forget to book an admissions interview if the school offers one.  If you’re not sure what to do on a college interview, take a look at this YouTube video I’ve prepared on that very topic:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGkffIAqzhE.

It’s February — what are you waiting for? Let me know if you need help building your list or organizing your college tour.

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Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

January 21, 2020

Three Rules about What You Should Major In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

 

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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April 13, 2019

When Should I Be Visiting Colleges?

Right now is when you should be visiting colleges. Think about your schedule by backing up:  You probably want to apply to many colleges early action, which means getting the applications submitted by October of senior year.  That means you must have a good idea of which colleges you’ll be applying to by July or August following Junior year so you can get started on your application essay and have it finished by September.  That means you’ve got to visit colleges in the spring of your Junior year in high school BEFORE the students who attend college leave for the summer (so you can get an accurate sense of what sort of kids go there and whether you’d feel at home with them) so you can write your essay(s) over the summer.  That means you’ve got to visit before May when colleges have finals week followed by a mass exodus of students from campus.  That means you’ve got to visit colleges by March or April.  What month is this?  Do you still think you’ve got plenty of time to visit colleges?

Here’s some sensible advice:

1.  You should plan to visit schools by geography.  Many kids from my area of the US do a loop around Pennsylvania (Bucknell, Lafayette, Lehigh, maybe UDelaware), Or they do the Boston area run (Boston College, Boston University, Tufts, Brandeis, Northeastern, maybe Emerson).  Or perhaps the New York State trip (SUNY Albany, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Cortland, Cornell/Ithaca College, Syracuse). You may want to visit a few colleges in the same general area, but I think you should limit yourself to two or three a day; otherwise, the whole experience can be overwhelming.  Make hotel reservations if you think you’ll need them, and ask your parents to take a couple of Mondays or Fridays off work.

2.  Sign up online for tours.  Some schools publish a schedule and you are welcome to go on any tour that’s convenient, but many others require you to sign up in advance.  Do that.  You’ll get a much, much better sense of the school on a tour than just wandering around on your own.  Also, if you’re on an official tour, you get a check mark for “demonstrated interest,” one of the qualifications you have the most control over in the college application process.

3,  Find out if you can interview with an admissions person.  Very often, colleges will offer something called an information session or a one-on-one with someone in admissions.  If that’s available, take advantage of the opportunity to make a good impression. Whether it’s a real interview or just a meet-and-greet, dress casually but be clean and neat, smile and shake hands, and have a few questions ready (and make sure the answers aren’t on the school’s website).  Good questions might be about your major (How easy is it to change majors?  How many professors are in that department?  How many students graduate with that major?  Does the school assign a faculty adviser to you?), about housing (Do they house all freshman together?  Are there substance-free houses or theme houses?  Do they guarantee housing for sophomores and juniors?), or anything else that interests you.

4.  While you’re at the interview or while you’re walking around the science building/ performing arts center/ library/ other building of interest, send your parents to the cafeteria. You can meet them there afterwards.  NO parents should go with you on an interview ever, even if the school allows it.  Having Mom or Dad go with you to meet the admissions person gives the impression that your parents don’t trust you to handle the interview on your own.  Instead, parents should be in the cafeteria, asking students questions that would embarrass their children to hear.  Parents, your job is to find a typical student and approach him or her with questions like, “Would you choose this school again?  If you had a cousin interested in economics (or whatever major your student is interested in), would you send him here?  What’s the worst thing about this school?”  You’d be surprised how honest students can be.

5.  Take pictures as you go around on tours or write on brochures.  Six months from now, you won’t remember which schools had the great dining halls or the up-to-date science labs.

It’s not imperative that you visit every school you will apply to, but you want to take a look at several schools that are on your “probably” list.  If you get into Harvard, do you care what the dorms look like?  If you only get into a school on the bottom of your safety list, who cares what the student lounges are like – you’re going or you’ll stay home.  You might want to see one urban, one suburban, and one rural school.  You might want to see a large school and a small school.

I understand that the very idea of visiting schools can be intimidating.  Sitting down to make a provisional list can seem overwhelming.  Start with your guidance counselor. He or she can give you a great starting list if you share what your preferences and goals are. Or start online with collegeboard.org or get the paid subscription offered by US News ($40 for the year and VERY well worth it, in my opinion).

Warning:  Don’t rely on Naviance exclusively.  Naviance will tell you who got in to which schools recently from your high school.  But can you tell which of those kids was an athlete or a “first generation” student or a minority or someone who played an instrument on a concert level?  Naviance uses a very small data set from which it’s very hard to predict your own chances at any given school.  You’re better off combining the information from Naviance with a list from the College Board and US News.  If you start to see the same schools on all three lists, you should probably be investigating those school schools carefully.

4/21/19 UPDATE:  Check out this recent article, which confirms what I said above: Naviance is only useful in conjunction with other search tools. Its focus is too narrow to be used alone, and in fact just encourages students to apply only to the same schools that their peers apply to.

Most importantly, just get a list going, plan your visits, coordinate your schedule with your parents, and go.  After you visit the first school, you’ll find the next ones much less scary.

If you really feel stuck and don’t know where or how to build a list, I can help.  Schedule a session with me and we’ll work it out together.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 27, 2019

What Are Colleges Looking For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

October 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

SAT

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

ACT

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the prime times for most students to take SATs are

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

And the best times to take ACTs are

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

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

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

Good luck!

 

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January 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And let me know if I can help.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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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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