High School 2 College

October 10, 2015

No More Vocabulary on the New SAT? HA!

When rumors of a new SAT were swirling, the College Board let it leak that they would be doing away with the fill-in-the-blank vocabulary sentences.  And they did.  The College Board representatives have held press conferences casting aspersions (look it up!) on so-called “SAT vocabulary,” insisting there would be no such vocabulary on the new test.  Instead, they’ll be using words that are more common and useful in typical high school and college reading.

The College Board released four sample tests of the new type.  In the first test,  you’ll encounter the following words.  Of course you know them because they’re not honest-to-goodness vocabulary words.  Or do you?

Can  you define these 29 words (all from Sample Test 1)?

  • anecdote (no, not antidote)
  • intrude
  • deference (nothing to do with deferring)
  • ambivalent
  • disparagement
  • mediation
  • imposition
  • reciprocate
  • celebrated (not the same as celebrating or celebration)
  • exclusionary
  • unprecedented
  • reminisce
  • substantiated (not the same as substantial)
  • template
  • momentous (nothing to do with a moment)
  • inquiries
  • hypothetical
  • feasibility
  • depiction
  • viability
  • refutes
  • objectivity
  • impartiality
  • grave (adjective, not the place you bury someone)
  • candor
  • solidarity
  • conducive
  • fanciful (nothing to do with fancy)
  • allude

Aren’t you glad they took out vocabulary?  Ah, you might be thinking.  The College Board said they’d be using words in context.  I’ll be able to figure out the meaning from the words and concepts around them.  Well, if they ask you if the author’s tone is sardonic or magnanimous, even if you understood the reading, you might not get the right answer because neither of those words would be used in context.  At least with the old/current SAT, you could learn a strategy for solving those fill-in-the-blank sentences.  With the new test, no such luck.

So don’t throw away your vocabulary books.  (By the way, one of the BEST vocabulary books, especially for students who already have a reasonably broad lexicon (again, look it up), is Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis.  It’s a rather ancient book (I was assigned chapters from it when I was in 7th grade, when phones were still attached to the wall with curly wires!), but year after year, the vocabulary in that book still shows up on SATs.  Furthermore, the author’s dry wit makes expanding one’s vocabulary almost fun!

If you plan on taking the new SAT, which will be offered starting in March 2016, it’s more important than ever to read, read, read.  You might put a sticky-note inside the front cover to note words that are unfamiliar to you (or even more likely, that are a little familiar to you but you couldn’t define).

Pay particular attention to common words  used in an unusual way.  (For example, as in the list above, grave normally means a hole in the ground for a dead body, but what does it mean when you say someone gave the student a grave warning?)

And lastly, don’t let your grammar get sloppy.  Grammar is now part of the reading section of the SATs.  So if  you are a stellar reader but think it’s okay to say, “Between you and I, Tom has less girlfriends than Ted,” you’ll ruin your critical reading score. (You caught both errors in that sentence, right?)

If you have any questions or need help, contact me at http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com or at wbsegal@gmail.com or on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Wendy-Segal-Tutoring-Highschool2college-202183139820161/timeline/

Wendy Segal


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


October 15, 2014

I Want To Apply To College – How Do I Find Reliable Information?

This year or next year, you’ll be applying to college.  There are thousands of colleges and universities in the United States. How can you find out which ones might be the right ones for you?

There are definitely some wrong ways to go about gathering information about prospective colleges:

Only applying to colleges that you’ve heard of.  WRONG.  There are hundreds of amazing schools you’ve never heard of that could be perfect for you.  There are huge schools in the south, on the west coast, near the ocean, in the mountains, in some major cities.  There are small schools a short drive away.  There are more than just 2 or 3 state schools – and there are more than just 2 or 3 states.

Asking your friends or your friends’ parents which schools they’re applying to. WRONG.  What might suit a friend of yours might be a disaster for you, even if you two loved all the same things in high school.  The college years are times of exploration, growth, and change.  Start that journey now!

Applying to schools that email you with offers of waived application fees.  WRONG.  College is going to cost you or your parents thousands, probably tens of thousands or more, and you’re going to live there for four years.  Saving $75 shouldn’t even be on your list of criteria.

Relying solely on information from Naviance.  WRONG.  Naviance saves guidance counselors a lot of time and effort and assures them that your transcripts get to your college choices safely, but their scattergrams and other charts gather information from too narrow a pool of applicants to be your primary source of information.  That kid with your GPA and SAT who got into your first choice school — Does he play an instrument?  Does he play a sport?  Did his parents go to college?  Is he from an underrepresented minority group?  There’s no way to tell from Naviance.

Basing your choice on information on college complaint sites.  WRONG.  Websites like “College Confidential” encourage students to express their frustrations with their schools, so by far most of the posts will be negative.  If 98% of kids love a school and 2% hate the school and post on College Confidential, does that mean you’ll be unhappy there?  Probably not. There are better barometers of how students regard a school.  (Read on!)

So how should you go about building a list of schools to consider?

Ask your guidance counselor.  SMART.  Your guidance counselor knows you (more than you think, sometimes), knows what schools you might qualify for based on your grades and scores, knows what schools might be a good fit for your extra-curricular interests, and knows where other students with similar qualities have been admitted.  Ask your guidance counselor for a list of colleges that might work for you.  That list is a great place to start.

Complete the survey on collegeboard.org.  SMART.  With an enormous base of students and excellent data collection, the College Board has very accurate information.  Their college search tool will help you generate a list of schools that you can consider.  If a school shows up on their list and your guidance counselor’s list, you definitely want to check it out carefully. (Be sure to look at all schools on the list they generate.  In the past, they’ve put the colleges that pay to be on the top first, like Google does.)  IMPORTANT:  The College Board website can tell you what percentage of freshman go back for sophomore year, a critical statistic to determine what students really think of a school.

Pay for the listings on US News & World Report.  SMART.  Their “Compass” program not only tells you whether a school has junior year abroad, but how many kids actually go.  It not only tells you whether they have a certain sport at that school, but what percentage of kids are in sports there.  It provides a level of information not available anywhere else.  It does cost $30 for the year, but I’ve always found that money well spent.

Go to college fairs.  SMART.  In northern Westchester, there’s one in October and one in the spring each year.  The spring one is just right for high school juniors (and their parents) and the October one is great for seniors who haven’t yet made a list of colleges.  The first thing you’ll notice at a college fair is the huge number of schools present, most of which you’ve never heard of.  Go in with a plan.  Ask each school whether they have a certain major, or ask how many students are in your major, or ask how many kids go on to grad school, or ask if they require freshman writing class.  And don’t forget to collect free pens, bookmarks, key chains, candy, and other giveaways at every table as you fill out “send me more information” cards.

Attend college visits at your high school.  VERY SMART.  Your guidance department keeps a list of which colleges will be visiting your high school and when.  Sometimes, you can even find the list on your school’s website.  At a college fair, the college representative might be an admissions person, or she might be an alumna, or she might be a parent of a local student.  When the college comes to your high school during the day, it’s nearly always a college admissions person, often the man or woman who will be reading your application and deciding whether or not to accept you.  You can’t miss that opportunity!  You want to show the colleges interest by going to the campus, but that’s not always possible.  If they’ve taken the trouble to come to you and you don’t even take half an hour out of your day to meet them, that’s not showing yourself to your best advantage.  Yes, you’ll have to miss a class, but you’ll get a pass from guidance.  Even if you’re not sure you have any interest in that school, go.  Very often other students who have shown up have questions you never even thought to ask.  I’ve heard students ask, “Do you house freshman together?”  Would you have thought to ask that?  Or “If your SAT II Subject tests aren’t great, should you send them anyway?”  Take advantage of the small group and ask whatever you can think of — but please don’t ask information that you can easily find on their website.  Go to these meetings prepared with at least the basics.

The goal is to come up with a nice long list of colleges so you can have plenty of schools to choose from when it comes time to visit schools and then apply.  It’s not crazy to have 20 – 40 schools on your initial list!

I hope this information has been helpful, but if you have questions, don’t hesitate to email me!  Contact info is on my website: http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com .

Good luck!

Wendy Segal


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



December 17, 2013

Major Changes Coming to SAT – and Why Middle School Students Need to Know

Major changes are coming to the SATs and ACTs.  They were supposed to be implemented in time to affect today’s high school sophomores, but the College Board just announced that they changes will be delayed by a year. What will those changes be?  Well, no one knows for sure, but there have been some hints.

Changes to the ACT:

While the press has hinted at changes to the content of the ACTs, the only change that the ACT organization will confirm is that they will offer a computer version in addition to the paper-and-pencil version of the test that students now take.  Students in some (but not all) states will have the option beginning at some time during 2015 to take the ACT test at a computer testing location and leave with their scores in hand as is done for the GRE graduate school exam.  While that sounds like an attractive feature, most students I’ve spoken to are justifiably leery of a computer-based test.  (Interestingly, most adults think it’s a swell idea but most kids, who are more familiar with computers, don’t.) What if the computer freezes?  How difficult will it be to go back and review your work?  Is it easier to hit a wrong letter than it is to circle a wrong answer in the booklet and then bubble the wrong letter on a scantron sheet?  At least for the first year or two, I concur with those students who tell me that they’ll take the paper-and-pencil version until the computer version is well tested.

Changes to the SAT:

The College Board has been hinting at major changes to the current SAT exam format, changes that would, according to their latest communications, impact current 9th graders.  Why the changes?  For the first time last year, more students took the ACT than the SAT.  (I recommend ALL high school juniors take at least one SAT and one ACT before determining which is their stronger test.)  Clearly, that fact has the College Board shaken.  And the scores of those who have taken the SATs this past year have been disappointing nationwide.  Several years ago, when the average SAT scores declined several years in a row, instead of insisting that we examine our education system, the College Board merely “re-centered” the scores so students had to get fewer correct to achieve the same score.  Just like the can of tuna that used to have 7 ounces, then 6.5, then 6 ounces, and now 5.5, a student can get several critical reading questions wrong and still get an 800 which used to indicate a perfect score.

The new SAT essay, added to the test in March 2005, has been roundly ignored by college admissions people, who find length of essay a poor criterion for grading anything. David Coleman, president of the College Board, has said that the written essay will be moving more toward content-based questions on the essay (right now, you can make up whatever you like as long as the essay itself and your sentences are long).  The SAT essay, then, might become more like a social studies DBQ (document-based question).

Some pundits have examined a statement by the head of the College Board that some of the more esoteric “SAT Vocab” words will be removed and easier words that are more commonly used emphasized.  Since students’ vocabularies have worsened over the past many years, instead of encouraging students to learn more, they’re going to make the test easier.  Others have discussed the possibility that the SATs will focus on words with multiple meanings.  In an article in The Atlantic, James S. Murphy quotes a College Board official as saying, “Vocabulary in the new SAT will focus on multiple meaning words and phrases that ask examinees to determine their meaning based on the context in which they are used.   Testing to see if the examinee knows the one and only one meaning of a word will no longer be tested in the new SAT.  Rather, we will be testing students’ understanding of the meaning of words in context.”  I wonder if they are considering eliminating the sentence-completion questions entirely.

If the College Board begins to concentrate on these words, lists of so-called “SAT vocabulary” won’t help much.  If multiple-meaning words become more important, a student won’t need to know what “somnolent” means, but will need to know that “discriminate” doesn’t always mean to act in a biased manner.  (It means to be able to discern fine differences between similar things, like having a palate so discriminating that you can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi.)  For those who follow my Facebook page or who are on my email list, I’ll be compiling a list of some of these words that have been used by the SATs in the past few years.

But the best way, actually the only way, to prepare for the new SAT vocabulary strategy, is to read.  Students should be reading daily!  (Yes, even on weekends and on vacations.)  Students should be reading in addition to anything assigned by the school.  Students should be reading magazine articles.  Students should be reading essays and speeches.  (Try 50 Essays if you want a student-friendly anthology.) Students should be reading biographies, novels, short stories.  (Check out these collections  or this one or this one by one of my favorite funny authors – all available on Amazon.com.) Students should be reading things that are slightly harder than they think is comfortable.  In short, students should read.  Always have a magazine in the bathroom, a hardcover by your bed, a paperback in your backpack, and a Kindle in your pocketbook.  And parents should model this reading behavior by reading when and where their students can see them, and by discussing what they are reading.  (Nothing makes someone want to read like an enthusiastic review.)

Predictions are that the gap will widen between high- and low-scoring students, at least on the critical reading section.  And the single determining factor, the greatest predicter of whether your student will score low or high, will be his long-term, ongoing reading habits.

While current freshmen will be affected, all this reading needs to start in middle school, just when most students lose interest in reading.  I blame the sorts of books assigned by middle school teachers.  In my town, nearly every book students have to read centers around abuse or death.  My kids had to read books on killing young people, killing soldiers, killing birds, child abuse, and sexual abuse.  They read all about all sorts of heinous behavior as middle school students to the exclusion of anything else.  If it weren’t for me, my sons would have thought that all reading is disheartening.  I understand that teachers must think kids can relate better to reality, but I disagree.  Most kids I know who love to read, love to read fantasy or science fiction.  So why not assign some books that take kids out of their own worlds into another, be it real or imaginary or historic or foreign?  If the school won’t assign books like that, parents, please be your student’s reading coach and encourage him or her to read something engaging.

Students, if you believe that attending a competitive college might lead to a successful future, you need to prepare to get into a competitive college by getting good grades and good scores.  And you need to prepare to get good grades and good scores by reading – starting right now!

(Don’t hesitate to look up any words in this blog post that you don’t know!  And if you need book suggestions, I would be only too happy to help.)

Wendy Segal


March 5, 2013

Last Minute SAT Advice: Is There Anything I Can Do With Only One Week To Go?


If you think that there’s nothing more you can do to get ready for the SATs, read this!

If you haven’t already done so, go out and buy tootsie rolls, change the batteries in your calculator, look up a few vocabulary words to bring with you to the test, and remind yourself of the father’s name in To Kill a Mockingbird.  (If you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird, at least review one or two of your favorite works of literature.)

Now you are nearly ready for the SATs.

Here are a few more things you can do:

1. The night before the test, get a good night’s sleep.  Don’t try to go to bed too early or you’ll be up half the night staring at the ceiling.  Just get a good amount of sleep after a restful evening.  NO STUDYING TODAY!  Not even for the SATs.

2.  Saturday morning, dress up a little.  When you’re wearing comfy, floppy clothes, your brain takes a rest, too.  When you dress up a little (whatever that means to you), you sit a little straighter and concentrate better.  Insider tip: several studies suggest that kids do worse on standardized tests if they see or wear the color red because they associate red with failure.  So, keep away from red.

3.  Have breakfast.  Even if you don’t usually have breakfast, have breakfast the morning of the SATs.  Make sure it’s mostly protein, not mostly carbohydrates like a bagel or muffin.  Carbs give you a quick burst but leave you feeling sleepy when they wear off.  Remember that the SATs are over four hours long!

4.  Get to the test site a bit early.  I’d recommend arriving between 7:30 and 7:45, especially if you are not testing at your own high school.  Get there early so you can settle in calmly.

5.  Choose your seat.  If they let you pick your seat, choose one away from distractors like the door or windows.  Some kids do better if they’re not near friends; others do better if they sit near friends.  Sit where you can concentrate.  You can socialize afterwards.

6.  Leave your cell phone home! If they catch you using it, even to check the time, they’ll take your SAT away from you and send you home.  It’s been done in Lakeland before.

7.  Bring the following:

  • photo ID — driver’s license or permit or school photo ID.
  • admit ticket — print out another from collegeboard.com if you lost it.
  • vocab words — you need something to start your brain moving before they say “Clear your desk.”
  • pencils – bring at least three or four #2 pencils with clean erasers.
  • calculator — change the batteries this week and make sure it works.  Yes, a graphing calculator is fine.
  • watch — many schools don’t have working wall clocks.  Even if the room you’re in has a working clock, it may be behind you or hard to see.  Don’t rely on the proctor to keep track of how much time you have left.  If you don’t want to wear a watch, put it on the desk in front of you.  Remember, you can’t use your phone to tell the time.
  • snacks — the most important thing you can bring! Bring lots of little chewy things (like tootsie rolls) that you can pop in your mouth easily.  Also bring a more substantial snack for the 10-minute break in the middle.  A power bar or granola bar works nicely.
  • drink — tea helps you concentrate.  The caffeine helps quite a bit, too.   Bring iced tea with sugar, not diet.  If you hate iced tea, bring soda with caffeine and sugar.  Gatorade has too much sodium, which ironically can make you more thirsty later.

Word of warning:  During the long break, if you need the restroom, go there BEFORE you eat your granola bar or drink your iced tea.  If you are delayed by a long bathroom line, they will start without you.  (This did happen to a few kids I know!)

The SAT is a stamina test.  The most important thing you can do is get some rest the day or two before.  Know that no matter how smart the other kids in the room may be, if you’ve been working with me, you’re as prepared as anyone there and you’ll do just fine.  Don’t forget to let me know your scores when they come back!


Wendy Segal

December 10, 2012

Is SAT Tutoring Worth It?

Two years ago, Princeton Review announced that it would cease making claims about how much your scores will go up if you take its test prep program.  It’s about time. I feel very strongly that test prep classes are a shameful waste of time and money for most students. Read on for my reasons.

Parents occasionally ask me if SAT tutoring is actually helpful.  I’m not sure what people expect me to say.  After all, tutoring is what I do. I supposed they want to be able to justify the expense to themselves.

Whether or not any particular family feels that test prep is worthwhile depends on several factors.

What type of prep are you considering?

  • class
  • small group
  • private
  • on line
  • webcam

By far, the most effective type of help is private one-on-one tutoring. That’s the only kind of tutoring I do, in person if at all possible and via webcam if I’m working with someone long distance. Classes benefit nearly no one.  If you’re very smart and just need a little technique, you’ll be bored to death.  If you need some serious remediation (help), you won’t be able to get the help you need because the class teacher has to cover certain material whether you understand or not.  And most teenagers are just not going to ask the teacher to explain subject-verb agreement or how to find the next number in a series if the rest of the class is rolling its collective eyes and sighing loudly.

What kind of help do you need?

  • grammar only
  • reading skills
  • test strategy
  • timing/pacing
  • writing essays
  • confidence
  • someone to force you to spend time looking at the test

Very few people are equally good are teaching reading comprehension, grammar, and math, yet many SAT prep centers have the same teachers teach math, reading, and writing. For two years, I taught an SAT class for a local program.  They gave me a manual of how to answer questions.  It said, “Explain problem #1 in the first math section as follows….”  If a kid had a question after that, I was sunk.  I’m not good at math.  My husband is great at math, but he can’t tell a direct object from an indefinite article.  So I only teach what I’m really good at, but I can help you find an outstanding teacher to help you with those subjects I’m not good at.

Furthermore, when I taught that SAT course, like most teachers I taught it twice a year — once in the spring and then again the following fall.  Now that I only teach one student at a time, I may have up to 34 students a season.  So I teach the SATs 34 times in the spring, and another 34 times in the fall.  I’ve been doing that for 23 years.  I could do the math, but I already admitted I’m not good at that.

How much time do you have before the test?

  • days
  • weeks
  • months
  • years

If you only have days left, see my blog (here and here) for advice on some last-minute things you can do.  If you have a few weeks, get thee to a tutor! If you have months, you can make substantial progress toward your goal of a high score with the right tutor, especially if you’re willing do a little reading or a few math problems on your own.  If you have years, congratulations!  You’re in an excellent position to achieve top scores.  Read, read, read – read magazines, novels, history books.  Pay attention in math class.  When you get an essay back from a teacher, see that teacher privately after it is graded to ask for specific suggestions on how you could improve next time.  And check in with someone knowledgeable (like me!) about what classes to take (I wish I could talk to parents of sixth graders before they decide which foreign language their student should take!), what activities to do, and what summer programs to take to ensure you that colleges will be begging you to go there, waving fists full of money at you.

How much time are you willing to devote to test prep?

  • I signed up for the test
  • I own a book – isn’t that enough?
  • an hour a week
  • 30 minutes daily
  • I’m devoting my life to the SATs

Don’t spend more than an hour or two a week.  Surprised, right? Well, this is only a test.   Actually, it’s a test to see how well you can take this test.  The SATs won’t determine where you go to college.  They won’t tell you if you’ll have a satisfying job, an attractive spouse, healthy children.  The SATs don’t determine much of anything — and I make my living from the SATs.  But colleges do look at scores.  And employers, especially those employing graduates right out of college, can and do ask for SAT scores.  So you want to do as well as you can without going crazy.

Here’s what a really good tutor can do for you.  You need a tutor if you want to:

  • Gain familiarity with the SATs or ACTs
  • Find out which test or tests you should be taking to maximize your chances of getting looked at by a good school
  • Get comfortable and confident going into the test
  • Learn and practice test-taking strategies, including how to answer each type of question, when and how to guess, and how to get a sense of timing during the test
  • Build your reading, writing, and grammar (and/or math) skills, for the test as well as for all future studies
  • Learn how to structure and write a decent essay
  • Get some advice about which colleges might suit you
  • Figure out some possible college majors based on your abilities and interests so you can look for colleges with those majors
  • Plan and write an amazing college application essay

Is test prep worth it?  It depends on what you want and what type you get.  Is finding a tutor who can help you through the entire college application and admission process (including those tests) worth it?  That’s what most of my students and their parents tell me.

I look forward to your thoughts!

Wendy Segal

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

October 5, 2012

How to Write the SAT Essay

First, I need to tell you that the SAT essay doesn’t count for much.  It’s 30% of the writing section, and the writing section is only one third of the SATs – and the least important third, at that.  The colleges know that most writers don’t do their best work with a forced topic in 25 minutes.  So promise me you won’t stress over the essay, okay?

Here’s the bottom line:  What the graders are looking for in the SAT essay is length.   They’d prefer a long, mediocre essay to a short, powerful essay.  So keep writing until you’ve used up all the space they allow you, which is the equivalent of about both sides of a sheet of notebook paper.

The best way to answer the question is to think of three examples to support your position:  an example from literature, an example from history, and an example from current events.  If you can’t think of one, double up on the other.  So if you can’t think of an example from history, use two works of literature, or two current events, or even one current event and one movie/fable/song/TV show.

Suppose the question is, “Do kids have heroes any more?”  You should be thinking, “In what book I’ve read in school (NOT Harry Potter!) is there a hero?”  What comes to my mind first is Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.  (That’s a great book to use, by the way.  It has lots of juicy themes.  If you don’t remember it, go read the SparkNotes to re-familiarize yourself.)

Then I’m thinking that George Washington is a hero (father of our country and all that), and that the first responders on 9/11 were heroes.  Add an intro that mentions all three examples in case you don’t get to finish (they’ll see where you were going), and a one-sentence conclusion if you have time, and you’ve got yourself an 8 out of 12, presuming your grammar and spelling aren’t atrocious.

8 out of 12 is pretty good, sort of like a B+.  Not amazing, not embarrassing.  Just pretty good.

How do you get better than an 8?

Make sure your examples are connected or related.  What if I picked Atticus Finch again, but this time, I asked myself, “WHY is he a hero?”  He’s a hero because he was a white man who stood up for the rights of an unfairly accused black man in a prejudiced town.  This time, instead of a history example that just happened to pop into my head (George Washington), I think, “Do I know of anyone or group of people in history who also stood up for African Americans – even though he or they weren’t part of that group?” Perhaps now I think of Abraham Lincoln instead, since he championed the freedom of blacks despite the risks to his political career and his life.

And instead of the first responders, perhaps this time I think of whites who marched in civil rights marches in the south to protest unfair treatment of blacks in education and housing and transportation and other areas.

NOW my introduction starts with that theme, that heroes are people who stand up for others who can’t stand up for themselves.  NOW my examples are connected and make sense.  NOW, if I can write a decent essay, I get a 10 or 11 out of 12.

What if the question can’t be answered with a book, a historical example, and a current example?  What if the question is something like, “Are innovations in technology always a good thing?”

If your answer includes three thematically-tied examples, you’re on your way to an outstanding essay.  You might use the railroad, the car, and the plane either as examples of innovations that were good or flawed, but they’re all transportation.  You might use the pager, the car phone, and the cell phone, but they’re all communication devices.

Let me end as I began.  The essay just isn’t that important.  But why not get as good a score as you can?  Three linked examples in a long, long essay should do the trick.

Wendy Segal


January 29, 2012

What Juniors Should Be Doing This Winter

You know that this year really counts, so you’re working hard at keeping your grades up.  You’ve taken your PSATs.  You’ve met with your guidance counselor to discuss your plans for after high school.  You’ve even started to plan next year’s classes.

Is there anything else you ought to be doing right now to help get you into college?  Absolutely!


You know that test scores really count, so you took your PSATs .  Now what should you do with the information you got back?

Go to your guidance department and ask for your PSAT test booklet if it wasn’t mailed home to you.  Yes, you can see the questions online with the code number on the bottom of your score report, but you should get your actual booklet.  It’s interesting to know that on the second math question, you put B but the answer was A.  If you look online, you can get the actual question.  But if you look in your own test booklet, you can see how you set up the problem.  Was your multiplication at fault?  Did you use the wrong figures?  Was your equation faulty?  Take a look at the critical reading section.  Did you seem to get the answers down to two and you always seemed to pick the wrong one?  Were you clueless and shouldn’t have answered it?  Or did you mean B but blackened bubble C?

Sign up for spring tests right now.  Go to the College Board website to sign up for the SATs.  Most kids take two SATs their Junior year, so I suggest you sign up for March (which is often a bit harder but is great practice) and May.

You should also go to the ACT website to sign up for the spring ACTs.  They’re given in April and June.  I recommend the April test.  If you do well and want to try again, you can take the June test.  If  you do great, you might be able to skip SAT Subject tests (SATIIs).  Most schools accept ACTs instead of SAT Subject tests, so if you take the ACTs in April, you’ll know whether or not to prep for those Subject Tests in June.  And you must sign up for the ACT with writing.  If you want to use your ACTs instead of SATs to get into college (all colleges accept either SATs or ACTs – which ever you think shows you in a better light is fine), colleges want the ACTs with writing so you have an equivalent test to the SATs, which also have a writing section.

If you haven’t started preparing to take these tests, get going!   Sign up for word of the day email alerts.  Sign up for SAT Question of the Day email alerts.  Start taking practice tests.  Scrutinize the wrong answers to see if you can improve.  Time yourself when you take the practice tests.  Better yet, find a tutor to help you find your weaknesses and capitalize on your strengths.


Let’s back it up.  You want to be going to visit colleges once the weather turns nice.  You don’t want to wait until the fall.  You hope to apply “early action” to as many schools as possible, so you want to begin your applications over this summer.  Smart move.  So in order to apply to colleges over the summer, you have to have visited some this spring.  And in order to have visited some this spring, you have to tell your parents where you want to visit.  They’re much more likely to cooperate if you have a plan.  For example, you might say, “Mom, I want to take three trips.  I want to see the Pennsylvania/Delaware/Maryland schools in one trip, the Boston area schools in another trip, and the New York State schools to the west in a third trip.”  Mom’s bound to be impressed!

You probably want to take your first college trip mid-March when the threat of snow is passed.  No school looks great in the muck.  Wait until the weather clears.  You can visit schools until the first week in May, when most schools stop tours so the kids who actually attend college can concentrate on their finals before college lets out for the summer in mid-May.  That gives you about 10 weeks to visit schools.  That’s it.

How do you know which schools to visit?  Spend the winter on the computer.  Check out the schools your guidance counselor recommends.  (Don’t put too much stock in Naviance – the sample of kids is too small.  Did that student get into that great school because of his grades or because his parents went there or because he was on the lacrosse team?  No way to know from Naviance.)

The best free site to find and compare colleges is the Princeton Review website.  They keep changing it, but as of today, you get to the school finder by clicking on “Find Your College” under “Know It All School Search.”  Then, under each category in black on the left, you can refine your search until you get a good list of schools that might fit.

The best website that requires a fee is the U.S. News compass.  U.S. News is the group that puts out the college rankings, and for under $20 for a year’s subscription, you can find information that’s hard to find anywhere else.  Most websites can tell you if a school has a study abroad program, but U.S. News can tell you how many students at that school actually take advantage of that program.  Most websites can tell you about the sports program, but U.S. News can tell you how many students actually participate in, for example, club level sports.

You need to build a list of 20 – 30 schools so you have plenty to reject.  For each of those 20 – 30 schools, visit the school’s website.  See if you can find a video on the website.  Click on “send me more information” and enter your name and address.  Go to the website of the major you’re interested in at that school.  Go to the website of any clubs or sports you might be interested in.  Poke around.

Once you’re down to a list of 10 or more schools, group them geographically so you can visit them effectively.  You don’t have to go to every school on your list.  But you should see one large school and one small school, one urban school and one suburban school, and so on.  You’ll soon get a better feel for what type of college feels like home to you.

By the time you’re done with all of that, it will be spring — time to take your tests and visit schools.

Let the fun begin!

Wendy Segal

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