High School 2 College

February 11, 2017

What Do You Mean I’m Not Ready For College-Level Work?!

A recent report has spurned a flurry of even more reports on the problem of high school students’ lack of preparedness for college-level work.

It seems that the majority of colleges regularly accept students whom they subsequently assign to remedial English or math classes.  What’s the problem with that?

For colleges, it means that precious resources have to go to bring students up to the level where they have a chance of succeeding in college, rather than in creating offerings for students who can already manage the work.

For taxpayers, it means that the tax money spent on high school education may not be the investment taxpayers think it is, and more money has to go to re-educate students once they get to state-supported public colleges.

But the biggest problem is for the students themselves.  Students, nearly all of whom got passing grades (if not superior grades), grades good enough to get them into college, have been deluded into thinking they know more than they do and are smarter than they really are, and are more educated than they are.  These students who enter college unprepared have to spend several semesters on remedial work before they can begin the classes they really went to college to attend.  And even more disheartening, most of these remedial classes do not count toward required college credits.  Sadly, many if not most of these  overwhelmed, discouraged, and frustrated students who have to take remedial classes do not graduate from college at all, leaving school with loans or depleted savings but without a degree.

Surely, this phenomenon of unprepared students can’t apply to us in northern Westchester, can it?  After all, most of our students come from middle-to-upper-middle class families, attend schools that have rich curricula that are well-supported by our communities, and are bound for selective or highly selective colleges.

I’ve been tutoring students for just about 30 years, college-bound high school students whose parents are at least affluent enough to pay me, a private tutor, for extra SAT and/or ACT prep and advice about and help with college applications.  I can tell you with complete certainty that the majority of my students are not prepared for most college classes.  Yes, I include students who take honors and AP classes in high school.

Over the years, I have been contacted by many, many students who have asked me for help with college freshman writing and social studies classes. Not only is it embarrassing to get poor grades on freshman classes, it’s extremely expensive to repeat a class — and many academic scholarships require that students maintain a certain grade point average to keep that scholarship. Parents gratefully hire me to work with their college students online with freshman assignments. Paying me is certainly less expensive than paying for the class all over again or replacing that scholarship, but I wish my help weren’t necessary.

Is there anything that parents and students can do to make sure their students are adequately prepared for college-level work?  There is, but but it takes a concerted effort and the student has to want it.

Here’s my advice to students who want to ensure that they will be ready for college-level work:

Don’t be lazy about math.  Each math concept builds on the knowledge before, so if you don’t understand what’s going on in math class, don’t shrug and hope the teacher changes topics soon.  Even if you’re getting the homework right, if you don’t understand it, keep asking until you do.  Ask your friends who seem to get it.  If they DO understand it, ask them to explain it to you.  If they don’t, the group of you needs to approach the teacher after school and let him know that several of you really haven’t mastered the concept. And take advantage of other resources:  review the concept on Khan Academy or read about it in a Barron’s Regents review book.

Take time to read, even if it’s not assigned.  If you went to the gym once a year, you’d find it difficult and even perhaps unpleasant.  But if you went regularly, you’d find you can lift more weight more easily over time – and it might even become an activity you’d enjoy. The same is true with reading.  If you only read occasionally (and only what’s assigned), you’ll find it arduous and tiresome.  But if you read regularly (and books of your own choosing), you’ll find it increasingly easy and even pleasant.  Read whether you like to or not.  Read books that are a bit difficult.  Read books outside your normal area of interest.  If you expect to be able to read and understand college-level material on a subject you might not find interesting, you have to begin WAY before college and you have to keep it up.

Pay attention to your writing.  Unfortunately, too many teachers only give writing assignments that students can complete in class.  Imagine if you wanted to learn to hit a ball in baseball.  If the coach gave you a bat, threw a ball at you, and when you missed said, “Come back next month and I’ll pitch another ball at you,” do you think you’d improve as a batter?  Writing an essay and turning it in with no guidance about the student’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer, with no opportunity for revising, without prompt and thoughtful feedback is likewise not going to turn you into a good writer.  Unfortunately, just like in baseball, few writers improve without a good coach.  If your English teacher won’t give you detailed, specific, and meaningful feedback, you’ll have to find a writing teacher (or tutor!) who knows how to isolate all the skills that go into good writing and can explain them.  Do you use the best verbs you can find?  (Is/Am/Are = weak writing!)  Do you use nouns instead of adjectives?  Do you write the way you read rather than the way you speak?  Have you organized your thoughts into a rough outline before you write even one line?

This essay has been unusually long because I feel unusually passionate about student achievement.  Don’t presume that teachers will challenge you to hone your basic academic skills.  Challenge yourself!

If you need more suggestions or a bit of help, please feel free to contact me!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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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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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!

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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/

January 28, 2014

How to Prepare for the New SAT If You’re in 9th Grade or Below

Changes are definitely coming to the SATs.  They’ll affect students who are currently in 9th grade (during the 2013-2014 school year).  No one knows precisely what those changes will be.

So how can you possibly prepare if you don’t know what the changes will be?

There are two changes which will be likely:

  • Fewer “SAT”-type words and more common words used in less common ways
  • Less emphasis on writing a long essay without any real content, and more emphasis on writing a DBQ-style essay that has to incorporate actual facts

To prepare for new vocabulary as it will appear on the SATs, be alert to words around you and in your reading that seem to mean something other than you might expect.  I’ll be giving a list out to my SAT tutoring students (and I’ll even send it to you if you request it by email), but think about the meanings of words like flag, check, arrest, and pedestrian.  Can you think of words that have more than one meaning?

To prepare for the new essay, take seriously your Social Studies teacher’s comments on your DBQ assignments.  Plan before you write so your examples are in a logical order.  Use sufficient detail.  Don’t forget to answer the question clearly and often.  Don’t just look for your grade — if you don’t understand a particular comment your teacher made, ask for clarification.

And the most important thing you can do to prepare for the SAT test you’ll be taking in 11th grade is to read, read, read!  Read on the school bus, read in the bathroom, read when you have a substitute teacher, read on weekends, read on vacation.  Once you’ve checked out how everyone is doing on Facebook, shut the screen, and read!  If you want a few suggestions, tell me what books you’ve read that you liked, and I can tell you about other books you might also enjoy.  But most of all, just read.

Don’t forget to let me know if you want a copy of my word list!

Wendy Segal

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

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

July 5, 2012

More Vocabulary Help: Words With Unusual Other Forms

Okay, boys and girls.  Have some fun with vocabulary.  Tell your mom or dad the harder form of the word and see if he or she knows the easier form.  These words have shown up time and again on the SATs.

Enjoy!

The word you know:                        Another form of the word:

resolve                                               resolution

parenthesis                                        parenthetical

analogy                                              analogous

credible                                              credit

expand                                               expansive

intrude                                               intrusive

concede                                             concession

inquire                                               inquiry

denounce                                          denunciation

prose                                                  prosaic

humble                                              humility

doubt                                                dubious

proper                                               propriety

retain                                                retentive

spontaneous                                  spontaneity

governor                                        gubernatorial

Do you know any other common words which have a more difficult other form?  Let me know!

Wendy SegalImage

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

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

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