High School 2 College

April 26, 2017

Should I Take SAT Subject Tests? Should I Really Start Testing in 9th Grade?

I have written in the past with answers to frequently asked questions.  Now I’m writing about one of the most frequently UNASKED questions.  It seems that everyone knows you have to take SATs or ACTs to apply to most colleges, but SAT Subject Tests aren’t on many people’s radar.  If you are applying to a college ranging from somewhat selective to highly selective (students who get B+ in school to those who have nearly perfect averages), then the answer is YES, you should be taking SAT Subject Tests.

WHAT ARE SAT SUBJECT TESTS?

SAT Subject tests used to be called SAT IIs.  Way back when I was going to school, they were called “Achievement Tests,” and that’s what they are.  There are 20 Subject Tests: math (2 levels), science (bio, chem, physics), foreign language (with or without a listening component), literature, US history, and world history.  Each test is one hour, multiple choice only.  None of the tests has a short answer section or anything you need to write yourself.

WHO SHOULD TAKE SAT SUBJECT TESTS?

A few schools have made the news lately (at least the news I follow, which is heavily about testing and college issues) by dropping their requirement that students submit two SAT Subject tests.  But, as this article confirms, many, many schools still recommend subject tests, which can and do make a difference in your application.  First of all, most of the applicants to any given college have GPAs in the same range with similar test scores and similar activities.  If 95% of those applicants submit subject test scores and you don’t, the college can’t help but conclude that either you’re too lazy to take the test or you did take the test, but your scores were very low.  The colleges seldom use the tests to make admission decisions (except as I said when you don’t submit them), but they are used to verify your school grades.  Is an A at your school the same as an A in a private boarding school in Boston?  Is an A at your school the same as an A in an inner city school?  An SAT Subject Test allows the college to compare levels of achievement on an objective basis.

You may have heard that if you take the ACTs instead of the SATs, you don’t have to submit Subject Tests.  For many schools, that’s true.  But for many schools, it’s not true — they still prefer you submit subject tests, as this article confirms.  So take them!  Each is only an hour.  If you’re not sure whether you’d do well on a given test, I STRONGLY recommend you take a sample test at home a few months before the actual test.  (There’s only one book I would recommend for your practice:  The Official SAT Study Guide for ALL Subject Tests by the College Board.  It has one of each test they offer.)  That way, if there are questions you get wrong, you can evaluate:  Did I get them wrong because I never learned that information?  Did I get them wrong because the test asked the question in an unfamiliar way but now I see how to understand that question?  Did I get them wrong because I forgot that information?

After you take the sample test, you’ll know whether you are prepared to take the test, whether you should NOT take the test because there’s too much content that’s unfamiliar to you, or whether you should go to your teacher and say, “I didn’t get these questions right about World War II.  Will we be covering that material before I take this test?”  Then you can either not take the test, wait for the teacher to cover the material, or learn it on your own.

WHICH SUBJECT TESTS SHOULD I TAKE — AND WHEN?

Some students mistakenly think that if they aren’t taking an honors-level or AP-level class, they won’t do well on the SAT subject test.  That’s not necessarily true.  Some students don’t even consider taking a subject test because their teacher didn’t mention it.  I haven’t found a high school yet (and I know quite a few) where teachers have a strong sense of who should take which tests, so you can’t rely on your high school teacher, or even your guidance counselor, to tell you to take SAT subject tests.

Colleges that require or recommend SAT subject tests usually want two.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take more than two.  If all of your subject tests are great, send them all.  If not, send your two best scores.

In general, if an area of study is completed after one year of high school, take the appropriate test in June of that year when your knowledge of that subject is fresh.  For example if you are taking chemistry this year and you are doing well, in April, take a practice subject test in chemistry.  Ask your chemistry teacher to explain the questions that seem unfamiliar — or ask him to confirm that you’ll be learning that material in class.  If you think you’ll do fairly well, take the Chemistry Subject Test the first Saturday in June.  Of course, you won’t be able to take an SAT in June since the SATs and SAT Subject Tests are given at the same place at the same time.  So you should then plan to take your spring SAT in May (if you plan on taking one — many students take ACTs only).

If an area of study is ongoing, like math or often foreign language, you can wait until October of your senior year to take those Subject Tests.  You are permitted by the College Board to take up to three tests in one sitting — but DON’T!  Every one of my students who tried it said, “I should have listened to you.  By the time I took the third test, I couldn’t see straight.”  You can, however, safely take two subject tests on the same day.

THIS IS THE PITFALL:

Many students take biology in 9th grade and chemistry in 10th grade, well before they are thinking about testing or colleges.  It doesn’t occur to them – or their teachers – that they should take an SAT Subject Test at the end of 9th grade.  They should!  If you are taking a science in 9th  or 10th grade and doing well, I STRONGLY suggest you take the SAT Subject Test for that science in June of that year, even if that year is 9th or 10th grade.  You may never take biology again, and by the time you’re in 11th grade, you’ve forgotten most of the details of the content.  Especially if you think you might want to major in math, science, pre-med, engineering, or another STEM subject, you should take your science subject tests as soon as you finish that subject.  Some schools that don’t require SAT Subject tests in general DO require them for STEM majors!

 

ADVICE FOR JUNIORS:

Check on the College Board website to see when the tests you’re interested in will take place.  (Language tests especially are not necessarily given more than once or twice a year.)  If you want to take more than two subject tests, in June take science or history or any subject that’s not repeating next year.  You can take foreign language, literature, or math in the fall if necessary.  You only have until May 9th to sign up, so hurry! Sign up for the June SAT Subject tests on the College Board website.

ADVICE FOR 9TH and 10TH GRADERS:

Don’t wait for your guidance counselor or teacher to recommend that you take an SAT Subject test.  Get the College Board book listed above.  The Subject tests don’t change much from year to year, so that book should last until you graduate from high school.  In the early spring, take a sample science test.  If you do well, take that Subject Test in June.  You’ll thank me!

WARNING:

Don’t forget that the subject tests follow the OLD SAT scoring policy.  You get points for correct answers, and you lose points for incorrect answers.  If you can make an educated guess, you ahead and try it.  But if you have no idea, you’re much better off skipping the question entirely.

If you have any questions about the SAT Subject Tests, feel free to send me a message on my website.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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November 9, 2016

6 Ways NOT To Choose a College

Choosing a college is a lot like choosing a husband or wife — there’s no single right way to find the perfect spouse, but there are a lot of wrong ways to go about it.  And the ideal mate (or college) for your best friend might be completely wrong for you.

Ideally, each student should attend a college that offers that student an excellent education in a field that interests him or her in a place that feels just right among people whom that student can feel challenged by but comfortable with and taught by professors who are knowledgeable, on top of their field but approachable and interested in each student’s progress.  How hard can that be?

To accomplish such an “easy” task, there are dozens of books, too many articles, and several ranking sites about how to choose a college.

Since I wouldn’t give the same advice to two different people, I’m not going to tell you how to pick the college that would be perfect for you.

But I can tell you some really awful ways to choose a college.  So please DON’T do any of these:

Only look at colleges you’ve heard of.  You probably have heard of about 20 colleges.  Your parents have probably heard of about 20 colleges.  Even if your lists don’t overlap, that’s 40 colleges out of the thousands in the United States.  Just because you haven’t heard of a school doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a stellar reputation among those in your field.  And just because you have heard of a college doesn’t mean it deserves its notoriety or that it’s necessarily a better fit for you.

Decide you want a really big college (or a really small college) without looking at one first.  Some big schools feel really big.  Kids generally feel lost, disconnected, not focused.  But some really big schools do a great job of making kids within a certain major or within a certain housing unit feel like they belong, like the faculty cares about their progress, like they have pride in their school.  The same with small schools.  Some have limited choices.  Others are creative and open to designing the perfect curriculum for you.  You don’t have to visit every school you apply to, but you shouldn’t make a blanket decision about a type of college without visiting a school of that type and a school of the opposite type.

Pick a school based on the dorms or the cafeteria or the weather.  If the freshman dorms are cramped,  remember that you won’t be a freshman forever.  If the senior housing is nothing special, you might be living off campus by then anyway. Don’t decide whether you like a school based on the unimportant externals.  Don’t decide you don’t want to go to school in Connecticut or Massachusetts because it’s colder there.  It’s not.  Don’t decide you want to go further south because you like the warm weather.  You’ll be in classrooms, your dorm, and the library most of the time anyway.  If your campus is lovely but you can never take the classes you like because seniors get priority and the classes are filled before you can register, you’ve picked a pleasant vacation spot but a crummy school.

Expect your guidance counselor or parents to help you choose a school.  As well as your parents know you, they aren’t you.  You’re the one who has to live at that school for four years (at least).  You’re the one who has to take those classes, interact with those students, learn from those professors.  Don’t be lazy.  Do some work yourself as you build a list of colleges to apply to.  Visit colleges when you can.  Look carefully at dozens of college websites.  (They all look good initially.  You can only differentiate between them when you’ve seen many.) Don’t stop at the admissions page of the college websites.  Poke around on the “majors” pages.  See what research the professors are doing.  See what sub-majors each school offers within your general area of interest. Count how many professors each college has in your major.  Look at the online course catalog to see whether you’d really like to take the required classes in your field.  Email the admissions office if your questions can’t be answered by the website — or email a department or professor directly.  By all means show your list to your guidance counselor; guidance counselors have excellent resources at their disposal and know which schools are well liked by previous students. But they may not know you well enough to know whether you like to get friendly with your professors or would prefer to talk to a teaching assistant, or whether you’d prefer a school where the university provides a lot of entertainment or you’re expected to explore the surrounding town or city on your own. Do your own background research as best you can.  Parents are (sorry, moms and dads) a bit less reliable, especially when it comes to advising their oldest child.  A school that was up-and-coming and quite selective 30 years ago might be much less prestigious now (or more to the point, may not be right for their child), and a school that was no great shakes 30 years ago might be truly amazing now.  (I remember when I was in college that Syracuse was a safety school for many solid B students.  Colleges change over time – for better or worse.)

Rely on the ranking reports.  As this New York Times article explains, there are many college ranking lists, most from prestigious institutions.  Each emphasizes different aspects of college statistics from future earnings of students to student satisfaction to peer review to percentage of applicants who are accepted and more.  And the lists disagree with each other quite a bit.  There really aren’t any indisputably “top schools,” even within a particular field.  If you check several lists, you’ll get an idea of whether a particular school generally is toward the top, middle, or bottom of the list of similar schools, but choosing a school because it’s ranked #10 over a school ranked #12 is like ordering vanilla ice cream because it’s more popular when you really love pistachio.

Wait until senior year in high school to start thinking seriously about which colleges you’d like to know more about.  To return to my previous analogy,  you wouldn’t plan a wedding and then a month before the wedding start looking for a potential mate, would you?  Then why plan to go to college but not concern yourself with which colleges might be a good fit until just a month or two before you need to submit applications?

Choosing the place you’ll spend four very important years takes a bit of time, planning, and work.  It’s not crazy to start gathering information at the end of 10th grade.  Think about it:  If you want to apply in the beginning of senior year, you’ll have to be looking at colleges by the end of junior year.  And to look at colleges in the spring of junior year, you need to have a reasonable list by the winter of junior year.  And to have a reasonable list by the winter of junior year, you need to start doing some serious thinking and research — NOW.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please send me a message through my website (which has plenty of good information including a link to schedule time with me): www.wendysegaltutoring.com  .

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September 18, 2016

When the Admissions Department Comes To You: College Visits at Your High School

Every fall and spring, most students miss the greatest opportunity they have to impress the admissions department of dozens of colleges that might be a perfect fit for them.  To take advantage of this opportunity, you don’t have to travel or write an essay.  You don’t have to study for it and it doesn’t require you to get up early.  In fact, it comes to you.  Yet year after year, when I ask my students whether they’ve availed themselves of this free, easy, potent tool for getting into college, they look at me with blank stares.

When colleges come to visit our local high school, very often only a handful of students show up out of a combined junior and senior class of over a thousand.  All of the other students are wasting a huge potential advantage.

Here’s what THE COLLEGES do:

College admissions departments make appointments with high schools all over the country.  They schedule a visit of about 45 minutes to an hour on a particular day, and a list of these visits is usually kept in your high school guidance department.  (In my local high school, you can even have these visits synced with your google calendar, but in other schools, the appointment list is either online or available in guidance.)  At the appointed time, the admission counselor gives a brief presentation and asks if there are any questions.  Very often, he or she asks the students present to complete an interest form or merely to list their names and contact information on an index card.  Students have an opportunity to chat with this admissions counselor in an informal way.

After the appointment, the admissions counselor makes notes about his or her impression of the students who attended for later follow-up. Very often, that admissions person is in charge of a certain region in the country and will be making admission decisions for those same students.  They often think of the students they meet as “their” students and look forward to getting and considering their applications.  As you can imagine, it’s a significant advantage to have an admissions representative look out for your application and give it personal and careful attention.

Here’s what YOU should do:

Check your guidance department for the list of which colleges come and when.  You often have to sign up for these visits with your guidance counselor in advance.  When the day and time comes for the college admissions visit, you’ll have to leave whatever class you’re in, often mid-class, but if you’ve signed up in advance, the teacher will excuse you.  (Different schools have different procedures, but usually the visits are during the school day, and teachers are instructed to allow students to attend even if there’s a test scheduled.)  Arrive promptly at the designated room.  Listen politely, take notes where appropriate, smile and look engaged.  Most importantly, ask questions.  Since you’ve signed up in advance for this visit, you’ll be able to do a bit of research online about each college.  Ask questions that you could not find the answer to online.  Some appropriate questions might be:

  • How popular is my major at your school?
  • Is there help finding employment after I graduate?
  • Tell me about freshman housing.
  • What weight does your school place on AP courses / SAT or ACT results / grades?
  • If I’m not sure what I want to major in, should I guess or apply undecided?
  • Will there be a faculty adviser available to help me choose classes?

At the end of the talk, shake hand with the admissions person, thank him or her for coming, and get a contact name and/or email address for further questions (and use that info to write a quick thank-you email that afternoon).

What if you’re not sure you want to apply to a certain school?  Should you still go to the college visit?  

Absolutely!  You might find a school you weren’t even considering is a better fit for you than you thought.  Even if you decide a certain school isn’t right for you, you might hear another student ask a question you hadn’t even thought to ask.  And every time you speak to an admissions person, you’ll become more at ease and polished.  So don’t hesitate to go to as many of these appointments as you can.

Nearly all students who apply to the colleges that interest you will have about the same GPA, about the same SAT and ACT scores, very similar activities, and glowing teacher recommendations.  How can you stand out?  Be your most charming self with the person who is going to make your admission decision!  They can’t make it any easier for you to make a good impression.

If you have any questions, please contact me or your guidance counselor.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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June 29, 2016

Applying to College: Common App Tips That Make a Difference

For the last several years – and for the foreseeable future – most students apply to college using the Common App.

When I was a student back in the days of Plato, if I wanted to apply to a college, I wrote to get their application, when I received it I filled it out in blue or black ink, I attached all my documentation in the order requested including my parents’ check, I mailed it back to the college, and I waited.

When I first started helping students with the application process over 25 years ago, the student would request an application online, receive a link to that application, print it out at home, fill it out, and mail it in.

Now nearly everyone uses the Common App.  You complete one application, enter a dozen or more college names, and click send. Within a day or two, you get a confirmation from each college that your application has been received, and you get periodic updates with invitations to visit, notices about parts of the application received, and, when the spring comes, a link to find out whether you got in or not.  The “fat envelope” or “thin envelope” metaphor is an anachronism.

Beware!  Don’t let the deceptively simple format fool you into believing you can just dash off the application without much effort required.  Each part of the Common App requires a deft hand and a certain technique.

Here are some of my best tips:

  1. Buy manilla folders and plenty of printer paper before you begin.  You’ll save the trees next year.  This year, you’ll be doing a ton of printing.  BEST TIP:  Print out every page you do, every essay you write, every confirmation you get.  Use one folder for your Common App copy, and a different folder for each college you apply to.  On the outside of each folder, list the name of the college, your user name, and your password.  (No one is going to break into your bedroom to find out your college application password.)  Each school asks for (or assigns) a different user name, and each has different rules about length of password and what it has to include.  You’ll never remember in May which one required a symbol and which one required a capital letter.  Write it down now.  Believe me.  You’ll thank me.
  2. Be honest.  If you lie about any part of the application, someone is bound to find out — and colleges talk to each other.  It’s not worth it to lie on the Common App.  If you can’t get into a certain school without stretching the truth, you probably don’t belong there.
  3. Wait until August 15 before Senior year to begin completing the Common App.  The new class’ application is online each year on August 1st, but very often there are corrections and glitches to be fixed so wait a week or two to prevent having to enter everything again. The Common App now allows students to “roll over” basic information from year to year, but your life might change and you could forget to update that piece.  Why not wait until the application is available for the year you intend to apply?
  4. Enter your name the way it is on your passport or school records.  If you’re James on your school records but you enter Jimmy, colleges won’t be able to match up your application with your transcript.  Stay consistent.
  5. After you enter your name, collect the information you need before you enter anything else.  The Common App website will time you out if you’re not careful.  While you’re texting your mother to find out what her college degree was in, you’ve been timed out of the website.  Collect this info before you begin:
    • Name of address of place where each parent works
    • What your parents’ job titles are
    • What college (if any) your parent graduated from (if he/she didn’t graduate, you can leave that blank on the Common App — it will boost your chances of getting into college if neither of your parents graduated from college)
    • When each parent graduated, what degree he or she received (AA/BA/BS/MBA and so on), and in what year
    • The name of your guidance counselor (correct spelling), his or her phone number with extension, and email address
    • Your SAT and ACT and Subject Test scores so far – and the dates you took each (if you forgot your user name or password, NOW is the time to get a new one)
  6. Next, select all of the colleges you might apply to.  Go ahead and choose way more than you think you might eventually apply to.  When you add a college name, that college gets notified of your interest, which helps if you decide you do want to apply to that school.  (See my blog post last month on demonstrated interest.)
  7.  Make a resume before you enter any activities on the Common App.  It’s a good idea to make a formal resume.  You  might need it when you get called into a college interview.  The teachers whom you’ve asked to write a recommendation for you might ask for it.  You can use it for summer jobs while you’re in college.  But most of all, writing a resume helps you to collect and organize your activities.  I usually prefer three categories in reverse chronological order (most recent to oldest — but nothing older than 9th grade).  Categories might be:  academic honors, extra-curricular activities, volunteer activities, athletics.  If you get stuck writing a resume, there are lots of samples online.  Google “student resumes” and you’ll have plenty to choose from.
  8. Have an honest conversation with your parents about financial aid.  Will they be applying for loans or financial aid?  You’ve got a better chance of getting into nearly every college if you click “no” for the “are you going to apply for financial aid” question (there are many articles that say so, like this one), but if you need help, you need help — and you won’t be alone.  Most families need some financial assistance to send their children to college.  On the one hand, if you don’t think you’ll get any aid, you might want to put “no aid” to boost your chances of getting in.  On the other hand, don’t decide you wouldn’t qualify because you live in a nice house or because your parents both work.  If you need financial aid, ask for it.
  9. Print out all of the supplementary essays of all of the schools you might apply to before you begin writing.  Of course you’ve heard of the Common App essay.  But many schools also ask for a supplementary essay or two.  They’re not throw-away statements.  They count.  Spend time on them.  But very often, you can make one essay work for several schools with a bit of tweaking, so print out all of the topics before you begin.  You’ll see which ones ask “Why do you want to go here,” “Why do you want the major you want,” “What can you add to our school,” and which are quirkier.
  10. Begin your Common App essay.  Try a few of the topics to see which is easiest to write.  It’s perfectly okay – even recommended – to start one, put it aside, come back to it in a week, then start a different one.  While the maximum number of words is 650 (about half as long as this blog post is so far), you should aim at 500 – 600.  It’s fine to write a much longer essay initially as long as you edit it down to 500 – 600 words.  I’ve helped dozens, maybe scores of kids write college essays, and I always find the more I edit them down, the better they get.  They’re less repetitive, they highlight important information, they choose words more wisely.

You should aim to complete the Common App including the essay by October 15th at the latest, whether you’ll be applying to any schools early decision, early action, or just regular decision.  An application sent in October shows the college you’re eager, organized, and serious, and it gives your guidance department time to make sure all of the parts have been submitted well before the deadline.

Good luck, and you know where to find me if you have questions!

 

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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March 4, 2016

5 Crucial Tips for High School Juniors About Visiting Colleges

It’s not at all too early to be visiting colleges. Think about your schedule by backing up:  You probably want to apply to many colleges early action, which means getting the applications submitted by October of Senior year.  That means you have to have a good idea of which colleges you’ll be applying to by July or August following Junior year so you can get started on your application essay and have it finished by September.  That means you’ve got to visit colleges in the spring of your Junior year in high school BEFORE the students who attend college leave for the summer (so you can get an accurate sense of what sort of kids go there and whether you’d feel at home with them) so you can write your essay(s) over the summer.  That means you’ve got to visit before May when colleges have finals week followed by a mass exodus of students from campus.  That means you’ve got to visit colleges by March or April.  What month is this?  Do you still think you’ve got plenty of time to visit colleges?

Here’s some sensible advice:

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

2.  Sign up online for tours.  Some schools print a schedule and you are welcome to go on any tour that’s convenient, but many others require you to sign up in advance.  Do that.  You’ll get a much, much better sense of the school on a tour than just wandering around on your own.

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

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

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

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

I do get that the very idea of visiting schools is intimidating.  Sitting down to make a provisional list can seem overwhelming.  Start with your guidance counselor. He or she can give you a great starting list if you share what your preferences and goals are. Or start online with collegeboard.org or get the paid subscription offered by US News ($30 for the year and VERY well worth it, in my opinion.  Get a list going, plan your visits, coordinate your schedule with your parents, and go.  After you visit the first school, you’ll find the next ones much less scary.

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

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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November 18, 2014

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Dear Students,

I’m sure your parents have told you that when THEY were your age, they applied to two schools, got into one of them, and went to that school.

Well, things are different now.  When the Common App was created, it allowed students to apply to several schools just as easily as they could apply to one. Fill out one application and click.  Sure, you had to pay an admission fee at each school, but in the scheme of things, big deal.  So students applied. Students began to apply to more and more schools.  That meant schools received way more applications than they could accept.  The colleges loved it, because it made them appear more selective as they accepted an ever smaller percentage of the applicants.

Because the schools were now more selective, students panicked and, unsure of their chances of getting into any of these now-selective schools, applied to even more schools, just in case.

Now the colleges are complaining because students are applying to so many schools that the colleges are having a hard time figuring out who is sincere about going.  Sure, they like looking selective (what percentage of applicants are accepted), but their yield is now declining (yield is what percentage of students who are accepted actually choose to go to that school).

No student wants to be the one to try to stop the trend by applying to only a couple of schools.  So the cycle continues of students applying to an increasing number of schools and schools accepting a declining number of students.  (Read this NY Times article on the dilemma from a guidance counselor’s point of view.)

Unfortunately, in an effort to stem the tide, colleges are increasingly adding required “supplemental essays.”  Now nearly every college expects students to write the one major “Common App application essay,” the one they work on in school and that everyone talks about, but also a different supplemental essay for nearly every school.  Apply to 20 colleges and expect to write 21 essays (the Common App essay and a different supplemental essay for each school).   This recent article says that not only don’t schools pay that much attention to the essays, they compete to find the most clever essay topic, in part to ensure you want to go to that school enough to write yet another essay.

So, what’s the bedraggled high school senior to do?  How many colleges should a student apply to?  How many is too few? Is there such a thing as too many?

You’re not going to like my answer.

The answer is – it depends (I told you!).

  • If you are applying undecided, or if you applying to a liberal arts major, like history, psychology, or even math, I agree with this article that 10 – 14 colleges should do it.  You need to choose 3 – 4 colleges that you’d just love to get into.  These are reach schools, schools that might take you if they happen to need a tuba player this year and you play tuba, or schools at which you are in the mid- to bottom of their range, but hey, you want to give it a try because they do take a few people in that GPA and SAT range.  I say go for it, as long as you understand that a “reach” means they’ll probably say no.  No crying allowed if they reject your application.  (Remember that they’re not rejecting YOU, just the application.)
  • Then you need to choose 3 – 5 colleges that will definitely take you, as long as you somehow manage to graduate from high school.  These should be schools that you wouldn’t mind going to, but they don’t have everything on your wish list. Perhaps they’re too small or too close to home or don’t have a football team.  Remember that schools on this list are not only likely to say yes, but likely to offer you a scholarship that you might find difficult to turn down, so, as the previous article says, make sure you would actually like to go to these schools, because you might have to!
  • Lastly, pick 3 – 5 schools that are a good match for your qualifications.  They’re just as likely to say yes as no. They’re not guaranteed acceptances, but you’ve got a pretty good shot at any school on this list.  You should really, really love every school on this list because you’re probably going to attend one of them.  If you can only visit a few schools, visit the ones in this category.

Now, if you’re going to apply to a program where participation is limited, like nursing, or physical therapy, or engineering, it will be harder to get into a school with the same set of qualifications.  For example, you feel fairly certain that you could get into Whatsamatta U if you were going to major in English, but could you get into that school’s engineering program?  Much less certain.  So apply to more schools than you might if you were going to major in psychology or English, where it’s possible to have a few hundred kids in a freshman introductory class (and don’t forget to leave yourself time for all those supplemental essays).

How can you improve your chances of getting into any school on your list?

Show interest!  Go to a college fair and fill out a card (yes, that counts) for any school that even might possibly be on your application list.  Absolutely attend if one of the colleges on your list visits your high school (that’s a must).  Visit the campus if you can (but it’s not fatal if you can’t).  Definitely email the admissions department if you have a question that isn’t addressed on the college’s website (a much better strategy than asking your friends).  Ask for an alumni interview if you can’t get to the campus.  Let them know you’re not just applying because you had a free Saturday afternoon and didn’t mind writing one more essay.

Apply to colleges you’ve researched online, and then take a deep breath while you wait for them to email you.  You’ve done it right if you get a few no’s (that means to did stretch and reach a bit) and several yeses.  Good luck!

Questions?  Comments?  Need help with the Common App or essays?  My contact info and rates are on my website: www.wendysegaltutoring.com .

missing school - spanish

Wendy Segal

June 2, 2014

Applying to College: The Common Application Changes and Advice

Back in the caveman days when I was applying to college, a student picked out 2 or 3 or even 4 colleges, wrote out each application as nearly as possible, got a large manilla envelope, mailed it in to the admissions department, and waited patiently for a thin or thick envelope in return.

Now kids apply to several colleges electronically, mostly via one application which is sent to many college with a few clicks.  Or at least that’s students and parents who haven’t waded into the college application process believe.

Here’s where they’re wrong:

  • Most colleges do accept the Common App, but not all do.  Some use their own application and some offer the Universal Application, a Common App alternative.
  • Students still have to send away for transcripts for any college-level classes they’ve taken in high school (like College Spanish, for example, or SUPA English), and have them sent to each college to which they apply (and each transcript comes with a fee).
  • Students have to send each SAT and ACT they want the colleges to see to each college – again, with a fee for each test and each college.  Just listing your scores on the application isn’t enough.
  • Students now apply to 12 – 14 colleges because they can complete just one form (at about $70 per application).  Because so many kids apply to so many colleges, each subsequent student has to do the same or risk not being accepted to a selection of schools. Colleges encourage this volume of applications because they’ll have more students to decline.  Sure, they have more students from which to choose, but just as importantly, they’ll have lots of students to turn down.  The more students they decline, the more selective the school appears to be, and therefore the more desirable.
  • About two-thirds of the colleges add a supplemental essay (or two or three or four!) to “personalize” the application.  Some colleges have boring, predictable essays, like “Why do you want to go to our college?” or “Why do you want to major in what you want to major in?” but others try to be creative with their supplemental essays, like “If you could have dinner with any person living, dead, or fictional, who would it be and why?” or “What’s your favorite word and why?”  Of course, there’s THE college application essay, the one that’s going to go to all colleges, but don’t forget about all the supplements you’ll have to write.

Last year, the Common App people changed the Common App substantially.  Some of the changes made the application a little easier to manage technically.  Other changes made the application much less appealing.  (I wasn’t the only one who found the changes frustrating.  Read this article from last year’s NBC news.)  Among the changes I object to:

The student used to be able to download a copy of the blank Common App.  The student could use this template to gather all the information necessary before sitting down to input that information.  Because the application website is timed,  it makes sense to have all the data on hand before you start.  (Do you know your guidance counselor’s fax number?  Do you know what year your father graduated from college?)  Last year, they decided that no hard copy would be available.  NEWS: there is now a paper copy of the Common App which your guidance counselor can download for those students who want to fill it out in advance of typing in the information online.  (I can also download it for my students.  I’m not sure if students will be able to download it on their own.)
The Common Application essay used to be general, with the last option being “an essay of your choice.”  They took that away.  The current options are narrow and geared primarily for students who have a story to tell.  If I my own sons were high school juniors, I’d certainly have them working on those essays over the summer.  (Take a look at the essay topics.)  No matter how busy you are during the summer, it’s likely that you’ll be busier in September and October.  You can’t create an account on the Common App website until August 1, but you can certainly start on the essay.

Because of all the changes – and the increased number of colleges accepting the Common App – the website crashed very frequently last year.  If you were one of the students who waited for the deadline day to apply, you likely weren’t able to apply to many colleges on your list.

My advice?  

  • Write your Common App essay over the summer. (Yes, I absolutely can help with the essay writing process! )
  • Create a resume over the summer (or at least list all of your academic honors, your sports, your community service, your extra-curricular activities, and your paid jobs (yes, babysitting counts).
  • Ask your guidance counselor to print out a copy of the Common App for you now, before the guidance counselors are gone for the summer.
  • Go on Common App website as soon as you can after August 1st to create an account.

As always, I’ll keep an eye on the news and let you know if there are any updates on the college application process.

Let me know if I can help or answer questions for you.1527059_691929960832285_1905266631_n

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

February 15, 2014

Applying to Colleges Starts Now, Juniors – Don’t Waste February Break!

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

Not so!

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

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

How should you start building that list?  I’m sure your high school guidance counselor has suggested you start with Naviance.  Feh!  The sample on Naviance is just too small.  If someone from your high school got into Big State U, is it because he was a sports star?  Did his parents go there?  Is he a coveted minority?  Was he an expert at the French horn?  You’ll never know from Naviance.

Try the College Board college search.  (Yes, I used to recommend Princeton Review, but they’ve tinkered with it so much in the past few years that you now need a college degree to work their program.)  US News & World Report also has an excellent college search tool.  They charge $30 to access it for a year, but it has very specific, very accurate information.  Between US News and the College Board, you’ll have all the college information you need to start building a list. Think of how far away from home you want to be.  Think of what majors you want your school to have.  Do you care if your school has a big football team?  Is on-campus housing important to you?  How do you feel about Greek life (fraternities and sororities)?

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

Once you have a list, group your schools geographically.  Can you visit all the New York State schools over a three-day trip?  What about Pennsylvania schools or Boston schools? You’ll probably want to take a few weekends to visit schools, so start looking for weekends that work for your parents. Don’t forget to make appointments for school tours and information sessions.  The most popular dates fill up quickly.

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

precipice

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

September 9, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please let me know how I can help!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 8, 2013

Major Changes in Common App Coming This Summer: What To Do Now To Prepare

The makers of the Common Application, known familiarly as “the Common App,” last week announced big changes that will first affect current high school juniors, and then – at least until the Committee gets the urge to tweak it again – all younger students in turn.

For those who are unfamiliar with the college application “game” (and by “game,” I mean something akin to medieval torture), the Common App was designed to allow applicants to fill in their basic information (name, address, interests, grades, scores) once rather than over and over for each college application.  Moreover, the Common App allows the student to write one mighty, well-crafted, heavily reviewed and edited masterpiece essay that all schools (at least all schools that accept the Common App) will accept.  It should have been a boon to those applying to many colleges, as most students now do.  (My older son applied to 12 colleges; my younger son applied to 14!)  Sadly, while it is a great help to guidance counselors who used to have to mail hard copies of transcripts and recommendations to all those colleges, the Common App has not been much help to the average bedraggled college applicant.

Here’s what went wrong with the Common App:  Each college, in its quest to appear unique, takes advantage of the opportunity to require a supplement, which includes questions on legacy (family members who attended that college), major, and, of course, another essay or two – or three.  These supplements, over the past few years, have gotten longer and more complicated, and have substantially eroded any benefit the common app had to high school kids.

So what are these big changes?

1.  The activity essay is gone.  Too bad.  I rather liked that one.  It asked students to expand upon a particular after-school activity that they do and explain why it is important to them in under 150 words.  Gone.

2.  The three submission areas – application, supplement, and fee – have been consolidated into two submissions, with the supplement now part of the application.  Sort of (read on).

3.  The supplement ESSAYS are now a distinct submission, which means you can submit your application now and finish the essays later, as long as the whole thing is done before the deadline.  Sort of cancels the benefit of combining three submissions into two, doesn’t it?  We’re now back to three submissions  for each college, and three chances to fail to complete your application by only submitting one or two of the three required submissions.

4.  Download-able, paper versions of the forms have been eliminated.  I’ve always advised students to print out a blank copy of the Common App and complete that in pencil before completing the form online.  The Common App times out if you take too long between answers.  So while you look up your guidance counselor’s fax number or while you call your dad at work to find out what year he graduated from college, you’re timed out.  You did hit “save,” right?  Well, maybe it saved, and maybe it didn’t.  The best strategy is to fill out the application hard copy, and then you can type in your answers all at once.

TIP:  Print out a hard copy of the application NOW before they delete it this summer.  It will be a little different from the version you fill out online, but the questions will be the same.

5.  You can no longer upload the Common App main essay.  You can either type it directly onto the form (not a good idea – too easy to overlook a typo), or you can select, save, and paste (much safer).  Still, it’s an annoying extra step.

6.  The Common App essay topics have changed drastically.  There is no longer a “topic of your choice” choice.  There are only five choices (click here and scroll down), and you have to pick one.

TIP:  It may seem early to you, but there’s no harm in starting to think about the topics NOW.  You might try writing an essay for each topic, or at least two or three.  Write a few essays and put them aside for a month or two.  Coming at them after a break will give you a fresh perspective.  Are they still interesting and relevant?  Would your best friend’s mom or your aunt find it interesting?  Keep thinking, and you’ll be ready to tackle the essay in earnest over the summer.

7.  The length of the Common App essay has changed.  For many years, it was a maximum of 500 words.  Three or four years ago, they changed it to a minimum of 250 words with no upper limit.  Bad idea.  The upper limit of 500 words came back quickly.  The new limit will be a minimum of 250 words and a new upper limit of 650 words.  650 is a maximum, not a suggested target.  A 500-word essay might fit your needs better.  Wordier is not necessarily smarter or more clever or more engaging. And they will cut you off at 650.  Not 651.  You don’t want them to think you don’t know how to follow directions, do you?

8.  A new optional “additional information” essay has been added.  Some colleges used to include this in their supplement, but it will now be part of the standard Common App.  If you truly have nothing else to say, don’t feel you need to fill this section up with trivial information.  But if you need to explain bad grades (did you move from town to town?) or excessive absences (did you have to take care of an ailing parent?) or a lack of activities (were you required to babysit younger siblings so your parents could work?), use this space to explain what might look like a serious negative on your application.

9.  The arts supplement will be hosted off-site, and the athletic supplement will be discontinued.

10.  You will be able to edit your application (but not the essay) after your first submission.  So, if you notice you made a mistake after you submit one application, you can correct it before the next application.  HOORAY!  The inability to correct a mistake has always been my primary objection to the Common App.  Can I say it again?  HOORAY!!

There are other minor changes, but these are the big changes that were announced recently.

If you need help on the applications or essays over the summer or in the fall, you know where to find me!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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