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

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May 11, 2015

How Much Will My Scores Go Up With Tutoring?

I get asked this question all the time.  When I’m on the phone with a parent and he or she can’t see me rolling my eyes, I just say, “It depends.”

Before I tell you what it depends on, permit me a not-so-brief rant.  

The press is full of articles and blog posts lately decrying the new SAT and wondering if college entrance tests are necessary or fair.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m far from a fan of the new SAT.  But that doesn’t mean that a national standardized assessment isn’t a valid way for colleges to get an idea of whether a student can handle college-level work.  I encourage you to read this blog post that was in the New York Times recently about the new SAT, the old SAT, and whether either of them are worth anything.  Does the author seem to make sense to you?

Well, it’s nonsense.  I belong to several LinkedIn groups of SAT and ACT tutors who generously exchange information, insights, techniques, and news.  One of the participants, Matt McCorkle, co-founder of Clear Choice Test Prep in California, gave me his permission to share his comments with you.  Read his reaction to the New York Times article, and I think you’ll agree with him – and me. (Click here: Matt McCorkle)

Now, to answer the question, how much will my scores go up with tutoring?

1.  How much your score will go up depends on where you’re starting.  If you tell me that your writing score (the grammar part) is currently at a 420 out of a possible 800, I am confident that I can help you get your score up into the 500s or better.  Can I expect a similar 100+ point improvement if you come to me with a score of 700?  It’s not as likely that you’ll make as dramatic an increase.  Will you go up?  Probably.  By the same amount as someone who starts lower?  Probably not.

2.  How much your score will go up depends on your native ability in that area.  If you’re a good reader with a modest vocabulary, I can pretty much predict that your score will go up much more than that of a poor reader – or someone who just avoids reading.  If you’re fairly good at math, we’ve got a better shot at increasing your score than if you’ve always hated math and really haven’t mastered fractions.

3.  How much your score will go up depends on how much work you’re willing to put into it.  Work doesn’t just mean time.  When I have a student here in my home office, and as we’re grading a section that student is staring out the window, chances are his progress won’t be dramatic.  If I have a student, on the other hand, who wants to know why each wrong answer is wrong and why my answer is right, that student is actually learning from the process of taking practice sections and I can bet that that kid will indeed make a nice improvement.  If I ask you to do an essay at home, and you don’t, and I remind you the next week and you still don’t, it’s much less likely that your score will go up.  Just showing up at tutoring sessions is good and it helps, but not as much as showing up willing and ready to learn and become invested in the process.

4.  How much your score will go up depends on how nervous you get during standardized tests.  Some kids just panic.  It’s hard to score brilliantly when thoughts of “I’m no good at this.  I’ve never been good at this” are running through your mind.  One of the best benefits of tutoring is starting to build a sense that, although you won’t know precisely what’s on the test, you have a strategy for dealing with every type of question and that you’re as well-prepared as anyone in the room.  Still, kids who have a history of doing well on standardized tests go into a new testing situation with confidence and seldom second guess themselves or change answers just because they don’t trust themselves to answer correctly the first time.

Can tutoring really help my score?  Yes it can.  But read this blog post to see how and why your score will improve and why it really can’t be measured accurately.

If tutoring can really improve a student’s SAT or ACT score, isn’t that sort of unfair?  Yes, it is.  But the SATs and ACTs never promised to be an intelligence test.  It’s about being prepared for the test – both by virtue of having the academic skills necessary to perform well and having learned the techniques needed to gain the maximum score.  With or without a tutor, with or without a prep course, you can read the instructions in the beginning of the prep books, take practice tests over and over, grade them, analyze your wrong answers to see where you went wrong, draw conclusions about the type of questions you’re missing and try to fill in those gaps.  A good tutor can focus this process for you, but you can manage very nicely without any help at all if you’re self-motivated and are prepared to be honest with yourself about your weaknesses and are ready to work hard to improve.

Is it easier to improve with a tutor? Yes, it is.  It’s easier for the same reason it’s easier to get stronger with a trainer at the gym than it is to workout alone at home.  A tutor or coach can give you motivation, techniques, strategies, insights, and either a pep talk or stern lecture, depending on which you need.  But you can do it alone if you really, really put yourself into it.  And you can’t get more fair than that!

 

 

March 6, 2014

Everything You Need to Know about Changes to the New SAT

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

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

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

MAJOR CHANGES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I welcome your comments!

sat cartoon 1

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 2, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the most important benefits:

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

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

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

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Wendy Segal

 http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com/

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

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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

April 14, 2012

What Makes Some People Good Test Takers?

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

Here’s what some students do wrong:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what excellent test takers do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Segal

April 5, 2012

SAT Tip: Common Words with Several Meanings

Filed under: Uncategorized,vocabulary — highschool2college @ 4:53 pm
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These words have several meanings. but the SATs usually favor one meaning over the others – and it’s usually not the most common meaning.  How many of these alternate meanings do you know?

discriminateusually means:  to be biased or prejudiced

but on the SAT, usually means:  to be able to notice fine differences  between things or to be able to judge the quality of something

His palate was so discriminating that he could tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi blindfolded, although he tried not to discriminate and choose one over the other.

 

mediumusually means: in the middle, not large or small

can also mean: a psychic, someone who can talk to spirits

but on the SAT, usually means: a substance OR a means of communication  (medium is the singular of media)

            When I’m painting using the medium of oil paints, I prefer the medium of   radio to the medium of television, because my psychic medium and I find radio to be a medium rather than a big distraction.

modestusually means: not flashy or showing off or bragging; humble

but on the SAT, usually means: medium, not large or small

He made a modest attempt to score well on the test; he studied a little but he could have studied more, he explained modestly to those who scored even lower than he did.

economyusually means: the money system of a region or country

but on the SAT, usually means: using as little as possible

On the writing section of the SATs, the test favors answers that have an economy of expression and so prefers shorter sentences to longer ones, no matter whether the sentences are about politics, the economy, or another subject.

reservedusually means: saved or set aside for a particular purpose

but on the SAT, usually means: shy, withdrawn, quiet

His sister was outgoing and flamboyant, but he was generally reserved so he kept to himself and let her do all the talking while he sat in the reserved section of the theater.

resignedusually means: left the job, quit

but on the SAT, usually means: to accept something as inevitable or to accept something without fighting back

He hated having his kid brother follow him everywhere, but he was resigned to the role of big brother and guardian because both of his parents worked during the day so he knew he had no choice and couldn’t resign from his responsibilities.

 

temper usually means: showing rage or anger

but on the SAT, usually means: to calm down, moderate, or soften

The judge was so angry with the criminal that he nearly showed his temper, but instead, he decided to temper his disapproval with mercy and compassion.

convictionusually means: being found guilty of a crime

but on the SAT, usually means: a firmly held belief

The jury voted for conviction because of their conviction that the man was guilty.

divertingusually means: turning someone onto a different course or direction

but on the SAT, usually means: entertaining, amusing, fun

The police were diverting the traffic away from Madison Square Garden, where the most diverting circus was performing that day.

patentusually means: the right to market something exclusively, like a copyright

but on the SAT, usually means: obvious

The fact that he could apply for a patent for his new discovery in physics meant that he was patently a genius in the subject.

celebrated usually means: commemorated with a party

but on the SAT, usually means: famous

They all gathered together to have a party to celebrate the birthday of the celebrated musician.

flagging usually means: to get someone’s attention by waving a flag or another object

but on the SAT, usually means: diminishing, decreasing, fading

The stranded motorist had been unsuccessfully flagging down help for hours with an old towel, but now he could barely lift the towel because his energy was flagging.

veiledusually means: wearing a veil, hidden

but on the SAT, usually means: subtle or not terribly well-hidden

The veiled bride could not hide her barely veiled frustration with the caterer who forgot to supply a wedding cake.

concessionusually means: the place where you buy snacks

but on the SAT, usually means: to concede or give in, to compromise

The girl wanted to go to a fancy restaurant to eat and her boyfriend wanted to grab a hotdog at the concession stand, but they reached a concession and decided to go to Friendly’s instead.

substanceusually means: a thing, a material

but on the SAT, usually means: weight, proof, or truth

The scientist thought the substance might be flammable, but his opinion didn’t   have substance because he was unfamiliar with the new material.

October 26, 2011

How to Learn Vocabulary for the SATs

Vocabulary used to be a bigger deal on the SATs.  When I first started tutoring 24 years ago, there was a section on the SATs called “antonyms,” which was solely — you guessed it — antonyms.  They took that section away about 18 years ago, but left the analogy section until 2005.  You needed to have a clever mind and a sharp vocabulary for the analogy section.

The good news is you need to have an impressive vocabulary much less now than when your parents or teachers took the SATs.  The bad news is that if you’re a typical American teenager, your vocabulary is much, much worse than your parents’ or teachers’ vocabulary was at your age.

I’ve ranted elsewhere on my blog about my view of the causes of this decline, but you’ve come to this column to learn how to improve, so here are some suggestions.

1.  Use big words.  When you learn a new word, use it.  Use it with your friends.  Use it with your parents.  Use it in your next school assignment.  If you use it once, it’s yours.  You don’t have to memorize it any more; it’s part of your own vocabulary.

2.  Have fun with big words.  If you have a list of English vocabulary words to study, try to make a sentence using two or three of them.  Try to make a story using 10 or more words.  Try to make a sentence in which nothing but a synonym for your word would work.  For example, if I wrote, “I am ambivalent about my decision,” I might mean I am positive about my decision or I’m unsure about my decision or I’m depressed about my decision.  But if I said, “I’m ambivalent about my decision because both choices have so many pros and cons that I just can’t make up my mind,” you’re no longer ambivalent about what “ambivalent” means!

UPDATE:  I just learned about a program online in which you can make up your own flash cards, games, and quizzes to learn vocabulary – and pretty much anything else.  The good news is that there are already dozens of sets of SAT words available to learn, play with, and quiz yourself on.  Go to the quizlet link, look for SAT on the right, and have fun!

3.  Read big words.  Read books that are slightly harder for you than those you’d typically pick out.  If you like romance novels, read Vanity Fair by Thackeray.  If you like murder mysteries, read anything by Agatha Christie. Because each genre has its own vocabulary, read out of your usual area of interest.  If you like suspense novels, try a biography.  If you like chick-lit, read a play.  And if you just don’t like reading books, read a magazine with big words in it, like TIME magazine or Newsweek.  A subscription (check out prices online) is much cheaper than individual magazines, and once the magazine is floating around the house, most likely you’ll read articles here and there while you’re waiting for dinner to get done.

4.  Listen to big words.  Jon Stewart on the Daily Show (Comedy Central) has one of the best vocabularies on television.  His show keeps winning awards for writing because smart people write the show, and smart people watch the show.  If you watch the show, either on TV or online, you could just get smart, too.  A bonus is that the SATs are filled with political words, and Jon Stewart uses them correctly and with a wry sense of humor.  I love Stephen Colbert, but for vocab, Jon Stewart’s the man.  Sure, he’s a little ribald, but get your kid brother out of the room and tell your parents it’s homework.

5.  Play with big words.  Learning seems to be more palatable when it’s on the computer.  Sign up for the College Board question of the day.  Sign up for Merriam-Webster’s word of the day . Start playing on freerice.com, a site where you can learn vocabulary as you feed the world’s hungry. The words get harder as you get more correct.

6.  Work with big words.  Sometimes, you just have to do a little work.  If you’re serious about learning vocabulary, get a good vocab book.  Not all vocabulary books that say they’re good for the SATs are actually well thought out or effective.  For students with an average vocabulary who want to improve, the best book out there is SAT Vocabulary for Dummies.  I wish it were a bit less expensive and a bit smaller so it would fit in a backpack better, but it does an outstanding job at introducing and reinforcing just the right vocabulary words for the SATs without being too pedantic.  For those who already have a fairly accomplished vocabulary but still want to learn those tricky SAT words, I strongly recommend Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis.  How do you think I got my expansive vocabulary?  My teachers assigned chapters in this book way back in the olden days when I was in something we called “Junior High,” because my teachers were assigned that book when they were in Junior High.  It’s still packed with words you don’t know, presented with a sly wink and a dose of erudition that’s hard to come by these days.

It’s never too early to start improving your vocabulary.  That sounds pedantic, I know, but I can’t help it.  I am, after all, a teacher.

Tell me your favorite ways to learn new words.

Wendy Segal

February 24, 2011

Two Weeks Before the SATs – What You Should Be Doing To Prepare

The March SAT is coming up soon. Here’s my best advice for how to maximize your score on the test with only one week to go:

1.  Read the plot summaries of MacBeth and To Kill a Mockingbird on Sparknotes.   Read the plot summaries of another book or two that you liked or remember well.  Other books that are easy to use on the SAT essay are Lord of the FliesHuck Finn, and Of Mice and Men.  If you refresh your memory about the characters, author, and plot, you’re more likely to use a book successfully on the essay.

2.  Go through the blue SAT book and find words you don’t know.  The SAT people tend to reuse words, so if it shows up once, it will most likely appear again.  Be sure to know words like anachronism, aesthetic, pragmatic, censure, partisan, and adroit.  Don’t forget phrases like righteous indignation, mutually exclusive, and a pointed discussion.  Write down at least 20 words on paper or index cards so you can bring them to the test to study just before the proctors make you clear your desk.

3.  Get snacks. You should bring something to eat and something to drink to the test with you.  I recommend a snack that is not too salty because if you get thirsty, you won’t be able to concentrate — or you will drink too much and need the bathroom during the test (not good!).  You should bring something chewy like tootsie rolls, since several studies suggest you will remember better if you’re chewing while you take the test. Bonus:  the sugar and caffeine in chocolate will help you stay alert during the test.  They fit in your pocket and you can pop a tootsie roll between sections.  You should also have a bigger snack for the long break.  A granola bar or power bar works great.  Don’t forget to bring iced tea.  Studies show tea helps you concentrate, so bring tea with caffeine and sugar — nothing diet!

4.  Buy batteries for your calculator.  Unless you’ve changed the batteries this month, you’ll want to change the batteries in your calculator (yes, you can use a graphing or scientific calculator, but you can also just use a 4-function calculator).

During the week, I’ll post tips for test day itself, so stay tuned!

Wendy Segal

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