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

11990425_1107572692595053_8999970069556348662_n

Advertisements

January 12, 2015

Should You Take The New SAT? The Post I’ve Dreaded Writing

I’ve been putting off writing this blog post for weeks – no, for months.  But I can’t put it off any more.  If you have a student in 10th grade, I’m sure you want to know what you should do to have the best chance at a decent SAT score.  So why have I been delaying when the new SAT was announced months ago?

1.  I need to make sure the information I give out is accurate.  There’s still too little information out there on the new SAT.  Yes, I’ve read every article.  I’ve watched every video by the College Board.  I’ve participated in every online discussion among SAT tutors and professional college advisors.  I’ve combed the internet and LinkedIn and every other resource I could find. This is what I do for a living and I take it seriously.  I put in time and effort, hoping to save you time and effort.  I like to think that parents, students, and guidance counselors rely on me for timely, accurate, clear, common-sense advice.  But until I see several full-length new SAT tests by the College Board, I just don’t know enough of what the new test will be like to help my students prep.  I know there’s a new College Board book coming out in June of 2015, but that may be too late if you’re in 10th grade now.

2.  Blogs are convenient for quick, general advice.  But there are so many variables, and students have such different strengths and needs, that it’s hard to write one essay that contains good advice for everyone.

The SATs are changing dramatically in March 2016.  The format will be entirely different.  The questions will be entirely different.  The essays (yes, plural!) will be entirely different.  So far, the College Board has only published fewer than a dozen sample questions, too few to use to prepare.

The ACTs are also changing in 2016, but much less drastically.  There will be optional logic-type questions and an optional essay.  So far, they’ve published no sample questions, but the changes won’t alter the way students should prepare for the test and we have lots of prep materials that will still be valid for the new ACT.

I got a good idea from a colleague on a LinkedIn tutoring group.  He created several schedules, depending on his students’ personalities and situations.  With his permission, I’m going to revise the idea somewhat.  I still think that individual advice is best until we’ve had a few years of the new test, but in the interim, this schedule should be helpful.

Explanation:  All colleges in the United States accept either the SAT or the ACT.  They don’t prefer one to the other.  Until now, most kids have told me that the ACT is easier.  That’s not true.  If kids universally did better on the ACT, no one would take the SAT.  The truth is that about a third of students do better on the SAT (at least on the current SAT), a third do better on the ACT, and a third score approximately the same (50% percentile on each test, for example).  There’s really no way to predict which students will score better on which test, so they just have to take at least one of each (often two SATs because they require less knowledge and more technique).  To get the best chance at a great score, now students will have to take a mix of old and new SATs along with old and new ACTs.  But that’s not the only way to go — or even the best way for every student.

Here’s an outline of suggested test schedules that should work for most students:

SCHOLAR (if you don’t mind taking tests and want the best possible shot at a top score):

  • May 2015 (while you’re still in 10th grade) –  old SAT (yes, that means beginning to prepare by February or March 2015)
  • June 2015 – SAT Subject test(s) (especially a subject that you might not repeat, like chemistry)
  • October 2015 – new PSAT (11th grade)
  • November 2015 – old SAT
  • December 2015 – old ACT (yes, the ACT is changing, too but the changes will mostly be less drastic and/or optional)
  • March 2016 – new SAT (should be fairly easy compared to future SATs; whenever they institute a major change, the first administration tends to be easier than subsequent tests.  They don’t want to frighten people!)
  • April 2016 – new ACT
  • May 2016 – new SAT (yes again)
  • June 2016 – SAT Subject tests(s)
  • June 2016 – new ACT
  • More testing might be needed for senior year, depending on your performance and goals – but you might be done!

STANDARD (if you are willing to take some tests for a decent score):

  • October 2015 – new PSAT (11th grade)
  • November 2015 – old SAT
  • March 2016 – new SAT
  • April 2016 – new ACT
  • May 2016 – new SAT
  • June 2016 – new ACT

MINIMAL TESTING (if you just want the very fewest tests possible – for any reason)

  • October 2015 – old ACT (11th grade)
  • April 2016 – new ACT
  • June 2016 – new ACT

There’s no moral judgment here — some kids look on testing as an exciting challenge, some grin and bear it, and others find tests difficult and frustrating  or know they don’t have the time or interest to prepare for multiple tests.  The key to this coming year may well be to be honest about who you are, what sort of results you want, and how much time and effort you’re willing to invest in achieving that result.

I hope the above outline is helpful in planning your college admissions testing.  Again, let me emphasize that personal advice is best since there are many variations on the above schedule, and the plan that works best is the plan that’s right for you!

You know where to find me (www.wendysegaltutoring.com).  I look forward to hearing from you!

Wendy Segal

431997_358167494208535_531538322_n

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

January 29, 2012

What Juniors Should Be Doing This Winter

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

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

TESTING:

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

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

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

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

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

CHOOSING COLLEGES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the fun begin!

Wendy Segal

October 16, 2011

SAT/ACT FAQ: SAT/ACT Questions I Wish People Would Ask

If you search back over all my previous posts, you’ll find the answer to many of your SAT and college application questions.  But some questions bear repeating.  So here are some questions I get asked all the time – and questions I wish people would ask before they make poor choices.

Question: I’m not even in my junior year yet, but I want to get started early.  What should I do to prepare for the SATs?

Answer: One thing NOT to do is take the 10th grade PSATs.  What a waste of time and money!  There’s no value in taking that test, and it might do you harm, because if you don’t do well, you won’t be able to take the 11th grade PSATs with confidence.  Another thing NOT to do is take practice tests given by testing organizations, even free ones given in libraries or community centers.  I’ve found the difficulty of the tests is unreliable. Either the tests are too easy so they can build your confidence, or they’re too hard so the testing organization can get you to sign up for a course of prep sessions.  Don’t do it. The best thing you can do to prepare early is pay attention in math class, asking for extra help if there are concepts you don’t understand, and read.  Read.  READ.  It’s especially useful to read TIME magazine or Newsweek, especially the letters to the editor (“inbox” in TIME) and the back page essay.  The more you read essays, the better you’ll be at reading essays. Makes sense.  If you think your vocabulary is particularly weak, try SAT Vocabulary for Dummies.  I hate the name of that book, but it’s very useful.

Question: I’m a high school junior.  I know my PSAT scores will be available by around Christmas break.  But when should I take the SATs?

Answer: I recommend that most of my students take the March and May SATs in their junior year. If you have a commitment when the March or May test is scheduled (March 10, 2012 and May 5, 2012), you can take the January test (1/28/2012) or June test (6/2/2012), but the January test is often difficult and is too soon after the PSATs come back for you to use that info to prepare for the next test.  And the June test conflicts with finals and SAT Subject Tests (SATIIs).  So for most kids, March and May SATs are just right.

Question: What about SAT Subject Tests (SATIIs)?  When do I take them?

Answer: SAT Subject Tests are one-hour multiple choice tests that are given in a variety of subjects, like math, science, foreign language and history.  The most selective schools require two or more SAT Subject tests.  The fairly selective schools like to see two or more.  The less selective schools don’t much care.  You can take up to three in a day, but DON’T!  Don’t take more than two in a day.  You’ll be wiped out. Most kids take those either in June of junior year  or October or November of senior year. They’re given the same day as SATs (except no SAT Subject Tests are given in March), so you cannot take both SATs and SAT Subject tests on the same day.

Question: I’ve heard about the ACTs.  Do I have to take those, too?

Answer: The ACTs used to be popular only for kids attending school in the mid-west.  Now nearly 100% of my students take the ACTs.  Some kids do substantially better on the ACTs, some do better on the SATs, and some score pretty much the same on both.  The ACTs are shorter and less stressful, and that’s reason enough for some kids to take them.

Bonus: If you take the ACTs and score well, you may not have to take SAT Subject Tests — and if you score really well, you don’t even have to take the SATs.  I’d recommend juniors take the ACTs in April.  They also give the ACTs in June, but why not take them in April?  That way, you’ll have your scores back in time to decide whether you have to take June SAT Subject Tests.

Question: Do I really have to take the SATs more than once?  How many times can I/ should I take them?

Answer: Don’t stop at once, even with score choice, unless you get something spectacular the first time, like above 730 on each section.  This isn’t a good time to be lazy.  And don’t take them more than three times.  After three times, your score isn’t likely to improve so significantly that it would be worth the extra time and effort.  So, take the SATs twice or three times, usually twice in junior year and once in senior year.

Question: Should I send my scores to schools when I sign up for the SATs to take advantage of the four free score reports?

Answer: I used to insist that my students send their scores to different schools each time they took the test, but now that they’ve instituted score choice (you can hide entire seatings of SATs if you want), there’s not enough benefit to sending scores now.  Wait until ALL of your tests are done, which means the fall of senior year for most students, then decide which SATs, which SAT Subject tests, and/or which ACTs to send.  Don’t send anything anywhere until then.

Question:  They’re offering a course at my school/church/temple/community center.  Should I take it?

Answer:  For most students, the answer is a vigorous NO!  Whether you hire me to help you with your test prep (and I hope you do), or whether you find another tutor, almost no one gets anything from those courses.  I used to teach at one for the first two years I did SAT prep, and I stopped because it was a disappointing waste of time and money for nearly every student.  For those students who are bright but need a bit of test technique,  the course is a waste of time.  You’ll sit there texting while the teacher patiently explains things you already know.  If you really need some help, you’ll be lost.  The teacher has to move at a steady pace whether any particular student understands or not.  The first time the teacher asks if there’s anyone who doesn’t understand, you might raise your hand.  The second time, you might raise your hand.  By the third time, you’ll be embarrassed and lost.  If you want to get an overview of the test, buy a good SAT review book and read the introduction.  Save your time and money.  If you really want your score to improve, find yourself a tutor who not only knows math and/or grammar and reading, but really knows the SAT and/or ACT inside and out.  I hate to blow my own horn, but when a prep course teacher teaches the SATs, he or she teaches it once in the spring and once in the fall.  When I teach the SATs or ACTs, I teach it 20 – 30 times every spring and 20 – 30 times every fall, year after year.  I can help you correct your particular weaknesses and I can help you strengthen your own particular areas of accomplishment.  Can a course do that?

Question:  I hear there are colleges that don’t require SATs or ACTs at all.  Is that true?

Answer:  Yes, but.  Yes, there are colleges that don’t require SATs, including some less selective schools and some very prestigious selective schools.  But many of those schools require two or more SAT Subject Tests in lieu of the regular SAT Reasoning test, or they require you to submit a graded writing sample in lieu of a test score. SAT Subject Tests aren’t easy, and I’m embarrassed to say that in my school district, students don’t really have a graded writing sample to submit.  Furthermore, if you don’t take SATs or ACTs, you are drastically limiting the schools to which you can apply.  So presume you’ll have to submit your scores, and practice!

Do you have any other SAT/ACT or college application questions?  Just ask!

Wendy Segal

May 13, 2010

Is SAT Tutoring Worth It? A Confession from Princeton Review

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

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

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

What type of prep are you considering?

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

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

What kind of help do you need?

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

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

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

How much time do you have before the test?

  • days
  • weeks
  • months
  • years

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

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

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

No.  Don’t spend more than an hour or two a week.  Surprised, right?Well, this is only a test.   Actually, it’s a test to see how well you can take this test.  The SATs won’t determine where you go to college.  They won’t tell you if you’ll have a satisfying job, an attractive spouse, healthy children.  The SATs don’t determine much of anything — and I make my living from the SATs.  But colleges do look at scores.  And employers, especially those employing graduates right out of college, can and do ask for SAT scores.  So you want to do as well as you can without going crazy.

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

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

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

Wendy Segal

November 25, 2009

I Need Help with the SATs: More Questions and Answers

If you search back in the previous posts to this blog, you’ll find the answers to most of your SAT, ACT, and college application questions.

But I’ve been collecting questions that have come up from students and parents since that blog, and I think it’s time to do another HELP question and answer.  Here goes:

Question: I’m a high school junior.  I know my PSAT scores will be available by around Christmas break.  But when should I take the SATs?

Answer: I recommend that most of my students take the March and May SATs in their junior year. Most but not all?  If you have a commitment when the March or May test is scheduled (March 13, 2010 and May 1, 2010), you can take the January test (1/23/2010) or June test (6/5/2010), but the January test is often difficult and is too soon after the PSATs come back for you to use that info to prepare for the next test.  And the June test conflicts with finals and SATIIs.  So for most kids, March and May SATs are just right.

Question: What about SATIIs?  When do I take them?

Answer: SATIIs, or SAT Subject Tests, are one-hour multiple choice tests that are given in a variety of subjects, like math, science, foreign language and history.  The most selective schools require two or more SAT Subject tests.  The fairly selective schools like to see two or more.  The less selective schools don’t much care.  You can take up to three in a day, but DON’T!  Don’t take more than two in a day.  You’ll be wiped out. Most kids take those either in June of junior year (6/5/2010) or October or November of senior year. They’re given the same day as SATs (except no SATIIs are given in March), so you can’t take both SATs and SAT Subject tests on the same day.

Question: I’ve heard about the ACTs.  Do I have to take those, too?

Answer: The ACTs used to be popular only for kids attending school in the mid-west.  Now nearly 100% of my students take the ACTs.  Some kids do substantially better on the ACTs, some do better on the SATs, and some score pretty much the same on both.  The ACTs are shorter and less stressful, and that’s reason enough for some kids to take them. Bonus: If you take the ACTs and score well, you don’t have to take SATIIs — and if you score really well, you don’t even have to take the SATs.  I’d recommend juniors take the ACTs in April (4/10/2010).  They also give the ACTs in June, but why not take them in April?  That way, you’ll have your scores back in time to decide whether you have to take June SATIIs.

Question: I’m not even in my junior year yet, but I want to get started early.  What should I do to prepare for the SATs?

Answer: One thing NOT to do is take the 10th grade PSATs.  What a waste of time and money!  There’s no value in taking that test, and it might do you harm, because if you don’t do well, you won’t be able to take the 11th grade PSATs with confidence.  Another thing NOT to do is take practice tests given by testing organizations.  I’ve found the difficulty of the tests is unreliable. Either the tests are too easy to build your confidence, or they’re too hard so the testing organization can get you to sign up for a course of prep sessions.  Don’t do it. The best thing you can do to prepare early is pay attention in math class, asking for extra help if there are concepts you don’t understand, and read.  Read.  READ.  It’s especially useful to read TIME magazine or Newsweek, especially the letters to the editor (“inbox” in TIME) and the back page essay.  The more you read essays, the better you’ll be at reading essays. Makes sense.  If you think your vocabulary is particularly weak, try SAT Vocabulary for Dummies.  I hate the name of that book, but it’s very useful.

Question: Do I really have to take the SATs more than once?  How many times can I/ should I take them?

Answer: Don’t stop at once, even with score choice, unless you get something spectacular the first time, like above 730 on each section.  This isn’t a good time to be lazy.  And don’t take them more than three times.  After three times, your score isn’t likely to improve so significantly that it would be worth the extra time and effort.  So, take the SATs twice or three times, usually twice in junior year and once in senior year.

Question: Should I send my scores to schools when I sign up for the SATs to take advantage of the four free score reports?

Answer: I used to insist that my students send their scores to different schools each time they took the test, but now that they’ve instituted score choice (you can hide entire seatings of SATs if you want), there’s not enough benefit to sending scores now.  Wait until ALL of your tests are done, which means the fall of senior year for most students, then decide which SATs, which SAT Subject tests, and/or which ACTs to send.  Don’t send anything anywhere until then.

Do you have more questions? Please do ask by posting a comment to this blog.  And feel free to tell your friends and guidance counselors about my blog.  It’s the teacher in me — I just like answering questions!

Wendy Segal

April 26, 2009

FAQ: Questions People Ask Me About Getting Into College

Here in no particular order are a few questions that people frequently ask me when they find out I know something about testing and college.  (I was just going to list the questions to be a smart alec but my “better self” won, and I’m going to give you the answers, too!)

Question:  Do colleges look at the SAT Writing section?  I heard they don’t even look at it.

Answer:  You may be right — or not — depending on the college.  When the writing section was added in March 2005, most colleges ignored it.  As each year goes by, more and more colleges do look at the writing section.  In fact, one of my students just came back from looking at colleges and told me that the admissions department to one school wanted a minimum of 1650 — so you KNOW they’re looking at all three sections (because each section has a maximum of 800).  If you are absolutely positive that NO schools you want care about the writing section, go ahead and refuse to prep for it.  On the other hand….

Question:  What does Score Choice mean to me?  Is there a strategy I should be using with my testing now?

Answer:  I used to recommend that students take advantage of the four free score reports each time they tested, sending reports to any schools they were interested in.  It was an effective way of letting schools know you were serious about them, and they often responded by sending students information about scholarships that they didn’t publish on their websites.  Now I advise students not to send scores anywhere until they are applying to college senior year.  Otherwise, my advice hasn’t changed.  I still recommend two SATs junior year, and one SAT senior year — unless one of your junior year SATs or your junior year ACT is marvelous.

Question:  How does Score Choice affect SATIIs?  If I take more than one in a sitting, do I have to keep them all or toss them all?

Answer:  For the SATs, you can “hide” any day’s test you want.  If you take three and one is just a loser, don’t send it to any colleges unless they require you send all tests.  For the SATIIs, however, if you take two in one sitting and one is great and the other embarrassing, you can hide one and keep the other.  (They do let you take up to three SATIIs in one day, but don’t take more than two in a day or you’ll regret it!)

Question:  Can I just take the ACTs and forget about the SATs?  I heard the ACTs are easier and they count for two SATIIs.

Answer:  Yes, you can — but I wouldn’t recommend you do that.  All schools now take the SATs OR the ACTs.  The problem with taking the ACTs only is that they aren’t easier for everyone.  About a third of kids do marginally better on the ACTs, but a third do marginally better on the SATs, and a third score about the same on both tests.  You won’t know which test shows you in a better light unless you take both under real test conditions at 7:45 a.m. in a too-bright classroom with a kid cracking his gum next to you.

Question:  What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

Answer:  Each test has pros and cons. 

  • The SAT requires figuring things out.  The reading might ask, “What was the author’s tone?”  The ACTs almost never ask a question like that. 
  • The ACTs are about recall:  Can you remember the math you were taught?  Can you remember what you just read? 
  • The SAT penalizes you for guessing.  You lose 1/4 point for each wrong answer.  They do that to discourage random guessing.
  • The ACT does not penalize you for guessing.  They do discourage random guessing, but they do that by asking many more questions per minute.  You really have to know what you’re doing to get things right — you can’t take time to work it out carefully.  Basically, the ACT is speed test.
  • The ACT has a (difficult) science section.  No one does well on that section, even kids taking two AP sciences.
  • Most colleges look at the three sections of the SATs – critical reading, math, and writing – and use the best of each no matter which test it was from.
  • Most colleges look at the composite ACT score which includes reading, math, English (equivilent to writing), and science.
  • The ACT essay is much easier.  The topics are kid-friendly, you have an extra 5 minutes, and you have more room to write.
  • The SAT essay is harder for some because it’s like a critical lens essay, you only get 25 minutes, and you only get about two notebook pages to say what you want to say.
  • The SAT is given in January, March, May, June, October, November, and December. 
  • The ACT is only given in April, June, and October, and fewer schools administer the ACTs so room at schools fills up far in advance of the deadline.

——————

I hope these questions and answers were helpful. 

If you have other questions you’d like me to address, please feel free to leave a comment on this blog and I will address them soon.

Wendy Segal

April 20, 2009

SAT? ACT? SATII? Score Choice? HELP! How do I know what to take when?

When I was in high school, most kids (but not all) took the PSATs as practice, then took the SATs once or maybe twice.  I also took a couple of achievement tests (now called SATII Subject Tests).

Now students take a combination of SATs, SATIIs, ACTs with or without the writing section in addition to state and local exams; each test has its own focus, deadlines, and scoring.

It can get confusing, but I can help.  You might want to file this information away somewhere or share it with younger or older friends.

Here’s the testing schedule that works best for most of my students. 

9th and 10th grade: Students in honors science classes (bio, chem) should take the SATII in those subjects.  Sign up for those tests on www.collegeboard.comby March or April of the year in which you’re taking that subject so you can take the test in June.  So if you finish honors Biology (not necessarily AP) — or if you’re getting an A in regular biology — in 9th grade, you should take the SATII in June of 9th grade.  Do NOT send your scores to any college yet.  There’s plenty of time to do that just before you apply to college in your senior year.

Fall, 11th grade:  Start by taking the PSATs in October.  Your school will sign you up.  You will have to bring in a check for the registration fee, but the school will do the rest.  The PSATs are only given once a year.  Don’t miss them!  If you do extremely well, you will qualify for a National Merit Letter of Commendation or even as a National Merit Finalist.  That can lead to scholarships and a boost for your college applications.  Every college wants to be able to brag that they have several National Merit scholars. 

If you think you are especially apt at standardized tests, it makes sense to get some tutoring BEFORE the PSATs(probably starting the end of August or as soon as school begins) because you could be rewarded with scholarship money for exceptional performance.  Even if you don’t score brilliantly on the PSATs, you’ll be ahead for the spring when you will take the SATs.

Winter, Spring 11th grade:  Most of my students take the SATs twice in their junior year.  The SATs are given in December, January, March, May, and June, and then again in October and November.  The dates are published on www.collegeboard.com.    Before the test changed in 2005, you could be fairly sure that winter tests (December, January, March) would be more difficult than the spring tests (May, June).  Since 2005, that pattern isn’t as definite, but most students should still take one SAT in January or March and the next one in May if possible.  Sign up for the SATs on www.collegeboard.com

Don’t wait for the deadline to sign up — the high school closest to you will fill up up to a month or two BEFORE the deadline.  The first time you sign up for an SAT, the process will take about 10 minutes, but it’s a quick click or two for subsequent tests.  Suggestion:  write down your user name and password somewhere and give your parents a copy.  You might be at a tutor’s house and need to get into your scores, or you might want your parents to check if scores have come in yet. 

Because the tests do vary considerably in difficulty, it makes sense to take the SATs at least twice, but there’s no reason not to take it three times.  If an entire seating (say, March’s test) is awful, you can hide that whole test from nearly every college to which you might apply.  If you score better on March’s test in math but better on May’s test in critical reading, that’s fine.  Colleges look at your best reading, your best math, and your best writing (if the school counts the writing — more and more do each year) regardless of which date’s test it is.

Spring, 11th grade:  Most very selective colleges (Ivy League schools and other top tier schools) require two SATIIs.  The next level of school prefers (but doesn’t require) SATIIs.  The next level down will consider them if submitted.  Only the least selective schools don’t even look for them.  Many academically-inclined students take more than two SATIIs.  (My own kids took 4 or 5 each.)  Each test is only one hour and is all multiple choice.  You can even take two in one day.  (Technically you can take three, but don’t.  You’ll burn out after the second test.  Trust me.)  One hour is easy, right?  Maybe, but the tests don’t necessarily correlate with either the Regents or AP curricula, so you’ll need to take a practice test a few months before to make sure you know what will be on the test.  (Buy The Official Study Guide to All SAT Subject Tests by the College Board.  It has one of every test.)

If you won’t be taking a subject next year, take the SATII in that subject in June.  For example, most kids take U.S. History in 11th grade but not in 12th grade, so if you particularly excel in U.S. History, take the SATII in June of 11th grade.  For subject which you will also take in 12th grade (foreign language, math, literature), you should wait until the fall to take that SATII. 

The SATII Subject tests are given on the same day and at the same time as the SATs, so you can’t take both the SATs and the SATIIs in June.  That’s why I suggest you take the SATs in May, and the SATIIsin June when you’ve had another month of that subject.

Most schools allow you to submit the ACTs in place of two SATIIs.  The ACTs test English (grammar), reading, math, and general science and have an “optional” writing section (but you should consider it mandatory).  So it makes sense to take the ACTs either in April or in June — you might not need SATIIs if you do well on the ACTs.  If you do really well on the ACTs, you might choose to take them again in October instead of both the SATs AND the SATIIs.  (About a third of kids do better on the SATs, a third do better on the ACTs, and a third score about the same on each test.)  Most schools have no preference and you can indeed submit both SATs and ACTs and the school will use the one they consider most to your advantage.  Sign up for the ACTs on www.ACT.org well in advance of the test because even fewer schools administer the ACTs than the SATs.

Fall, 12th grade.  Take the SATs again in October or November.  Or take the ACTs again in October.  Some students take both.  Take SATIIs in October or November (whenever you’re not taking the SATs) in math, literature, or foreign language.

I know – it’s a lot of testing.  And yes, there are many, many schools that say they don’t require SATs or ACTs.  But what if you fall in love with a school that does require these tests and  you haven’t taken them?  And some schools don’t require SATs but do require several SATIIs instead.  I won’t try to convince you that the SATs are fun, but they do help colleges compare kids from very different high schools.  Is an A in Yorktown the same as an A in Yonkers or Scarsdale?  Maybe not, so standardized tests help colleges compare.

Here’s the most important thing I can tell you:  These are only tests.  They are tests of how well you can take tests.  If they were tests of your intelligence, a dozen weeks of tutoring wouldn’t help (and it usually does).  They don’t test whether you’ll succeed in college.  They don’t test whether you’ll marry someone good-looking or whether you’ll have healthy children or get a good job.  They don’t test who you are.  So take a deep breath in, prepare as best you can, and then let it out.

Wendy Segal

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: