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



January 24, 2011

Is SAT Tutoring Worth It?

I recently saw an SAT course advertised. The course ran for several Sundays and each session was four hours long.  I gulped.  I could never sit still and pay attention to ANYTHING for four hours!  How could any parents expect their student to focus on something as unappealing as the SATs for four hours?

The ad went on to say that their instructor (they were careful not to say that it was a certified teacher, mind you) was very popular but if your student didn’t do well, he or she could take it again for free.  Well, if it didn’t work the first time, why would you submit your student to it again?

I went to the place where the course was being given, about two hours after it started.  I listened at the door.  “Okay, class, any questions about punctuation, then?  No?  Okay, on to question 43.”  Was that snoring I heard or just the clicking of text messaging?

Recently, 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.

Before you sign up for any course, ask yourself:

What type of prep would be most effective for YOUR child?

  • 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, 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
  • a combination

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 before your SATs, 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

July 1, 2010

The College Admission Essay: What, When, and especially How

So far, it has been a glorious summer in New York.  Not too cold, not too hot, not too dry, not too wet.  I’m sure the very last thing you want to do now is write a college essay.  Too bad.  The summer is passing quickly and if you’re going into your senior year in high school, it’s time to write your college application essay.

There was a wonderful article this week in the Washington Post (wonderful because it reiterates all the advice I give my own students) about writing a college admission essay.  Keep reading, and I’ll tell you about it.

I know that many high schools provide time for you to write your essay in English class in the fall, but don’t wait.  First of all, your English teacher isn’t an expert in college essays.  In most classes, he will distribute an article and/or a sample essay, and then sit back while you struggle with what to write and how to write it.   He can’t help you much because in most cases he only met you a few weeks before and doesn’t have the slightest idea what you should write.  Secondly, your English teacher will have dozens and dozens (and dozens) of essays to grade and at best will scan your essay for obvious spelling errors.  Most of all, if you think you’re busy now, wait to see how busy you’ll be in September and October.  So don’t wait.

But what should you write about? The first step is to answer the question.  What question?  The question that the college wants you to answer.  Most colleges accept the Common Application, a generic college application that purports to allow you to apply to many schools at once.  In a few weeks, I’ll write about my concerns about the common ap, but some schools only accept the common ap, so start there.

Print out the common application.  They’ve made a few changes next year.  The official application won’t be available until mid-August, so they’ve provided students with an official preview of the revised application. Every college application is some variation of this form.  You’ll want to complete this in pencil, so hang on to it (again, more about this in a few weeks). At the end of the common ap are the essay questions.

Print out applications of other schools that you are interested in. Nearly all schools have their applications available online now, so just print them out and read the essay topic.

Group the applications by essay topic. See if you can write one essay that would fit for 5 or 6 colleges.  Sometimes kids spend all summer writing an essay that will only work for one college.

I might as well confess this now (buried as it is in the middle of my blog) that there isn’t one college essay.  You’ll probably have to write at least 3 different essays because different schools want you to respond to different questions.  Sorry to be the one to break that news.

Think about what you want to write.  The goal of the essay is to let the college know something about you it couldn’t find out from your transcript, your resume, or your application.  They already know from your application if you play a sport.  They know about your community service activities.  They know how smart you are by your grades.

But what makes you different from the other kids on your team?  What makes you different from the other B+ students in your English class?

The best essays portray a moment in time, an insight into the “real” you.  The best essay I ever read was written by a student of mine, Chris M.  He was just an average student in high school, about a C+ student if I remember.  But he wrote about his first hunting trip with his father and his uncle, a trip he had longed for as a child.  Now here he was, in the frost of fall morning, alone with his gear and his gun, praying that a deer didn’t come by because he realized he didn’t really want to kill a deer after all, remembering his grandfather who had died hunting, and thinking that this was way more important than sports or girls.  It was brilliant, charming, engaging, honest.  Sure, it needed cleaning up, but every line showed me a Chris I hadn’t known in all the weeks we had done SAT tutoring together.  (He got into his first choice college.)

Have you had an experience that shows us an insight into who you are, what makes you vulnerable? Read this excellent advice on writing a college essay from the Washington Post.   Now there are at least two of us telling you the same thing: write from the heart, be humble, don’t take yourself too seriously, show them who you are.

Here are essays that you should avoid. I’ve read DOZENS of each of these, and if I gag reading these, so do the admissions people.

  • I play sports, and I blew the big game, but I worked hard and came back to victory
  • I play sports, and now I understand about personal effort and teamwork
  • I went to Nicaragua (or Arkansas) and now I realize that there are poor people in the world and I’m very lucky
  • My mother/father/aunt/cousin had a dread disease and now I’m going to cure cancer/multiple sclerosis/heart disease
  • I most admire my dad because he’s a swell guy and he works hard for our family
  • I’ve gone to Israel/Italy/Argentina on vacation and now I understand people of the world
  • My family moved when I was 8/10/15 and I had to really define myself

I do a lot of work with kids on college essays, and I know we’ve hit on the right topic when they begin to smile.  If it’s something you really want to write about, it’s more likely that someone else will want to read it.

Lastly, keep it to 500 words. That’s about one side of a typed page at size 12 font.  The common ap used to limit the essay to a strict maximum of 500 words.  Now they ask for a minimum of 250, but some colleges still want 500, so you might as well keep it to a maximum of 500 words.  Moreover, colleges are used to looking at essays of that length.  If you go over by more than a few words, college admission people will start to get cranky.  They’ve got hundreds of these to read — what makes you think that what you’ve got to say is so important that you can use up the time they should be spending elsewhere?  It’s just arrogant to write more than 500 words, so don’t do it unless you are a brilliant writer with something  charming to say.

Write an essay or two and leave it for a few weeks. Look at it after a while.  Is it as good as you thought?  Should it be revised?  Or should it be scrapped for a new topic?  Show it to a friend or family member.  Take your time.

But don’t take so long that the summer passes by completely.  Get started now!

Wendy Segal

November 28, 2009

First Rant: What’s the Matter with Kids Today

Usually, I write carefully worded advice for high school and occasionally middle school or college kids on some topic having to do with succeeding in high school or college.  When I work with kids each week, I am usually the model of patience and optimism.

Inside, I am often seething.

Kids can’t write.  Kids can’t read.  Kids have no idea how to construct a sentence and often aren’t quite sure what a complete sentence consists of.  Kids have an alarmingly truncated vocabulary.  (Yeah, like they would even know what “truncated” means.) When I talk to kids, I modify my speech so I don’t appear threatening by using big words.  And these are kids who have grown up with educated parents in a middle-to-upper-middle-class suburb with a highly-regarded school system who are headed for college and professional careers.

I’ve been tutoring high school kids in my town for about 22 years now. I’ve decided it’s not all the kids’ fault.

Sure, they could read more than the two books assigned for summer reading in their spare time. Of course they could read the whole assigned book rather than read Spark Notes for the chapter summaries. But if the teachers are going to gauge student compliance with the reading assignments by giving quizzes which ask the kids to regurgitate those summaries, the students would be foolish not to give up reading and go to the Spark Notes when time is tight.  I’ve asked nearly every student I’ve had over the past five years or so why their teachers are assigning literature to read, and not one of them has been able to articulate a reason.

So my first rant is about English teachers. Not all English teachers, mind you, deserve censure. Some are good (I like to think I’m pretty good).  Some are GREAT (thank you, Mrs. Joyce Garvin of River Dell Regional High School, the best English teacher in the world, as far as I’m concerned).

But I know an English teacher whose assignments so regularly contained grammar errors that my students had a find-the-error competition going on.  I know an English teacher who was surprised to hear me say that most Elizabethans didn’t speak in iambic pentameter.  I know an English teacher who told a student that “between you and I” was correct.

I’ve never heard of an English teacher who said, “Everyone should clear his desk.”  Or “Did each student bring his assignment pad?”  It only sounds odd because you’re not used to hearing it.

Even worse, most of the students I know can’t imagine reading for pleasure because they’ve never been given anything pleasurable to read.  Reading comes with chapter quizzes, outlines, skits, posters, but not with a purpose.  Books like A Tale of Two Cities and The Good Earth were taken out of the curriculum, I suppose because the teachers weren’t able to help the students understand them.  Instead, they were replaced by books written in the first person.  Even good books written in the first person, like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby don’t have complex vocabulary or sentence structure because they are trying to use colloquial speech to sound natural and realistic.

Where I’m from, English teachers generally don’t assign plays unless they were written by Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.  English teachers don’t assign novels or short stories written by authors from any country other than America or England. English teachers (with one notable exception in a nearby town) don’t assign essays or speeches. And English teachers never, ever assign anything humorous.

I know kids who’ve gone through high school taking Regents English classes who NEVER had a take-home essay to do. Well, I shouldn’t say never.  Perhaps they had one in four years, but they couldn’t remember it.  That’s shameful.  All the essays are in-class so the students can practice for the Regents exam.

My son got to college and had to take a freshman writing class.  After his first assignment, on which he got a less than stellar grade, he called me to say that he couldn’t imagine why his college writing teacher hadn’t asked them to do a poster or a presentation or a skit since he had become so proficient at them in high school.  Why, he even learned how to write in bubble letters and how to use a glitter pen!

So maybe the problem isn’t with kids after all.

I’m sure I’ll have to duck some harsh criticism about this rant, reminding me how television and computers have made it all but impossible for English teachers to teach reading and writing to kids today, but I can’t hold it in any longer.

What can parents and school districts and English teachers do to improve the situation?  Here’s what I’d love to see:

  • Introduce students to works of literature from different periods of time and from different cultures.  How about a Russian short story or a play from the 1920’s?
  • Offer students reading that’s slightly above their comfort level.  That’s how they’ll grow.  A juicy Agatha Christie is fun and challenging for most students.
  • Try humor.  Have you ever read P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber and kept a straight face?  How about Dave Barry or Ephraim Kishon?
  • Tell students about why the work is considered worthwhile before you read it, not afterward. Maybe then they’ll start the book with a sense of purpose.
  • Read for pleasure.  Have your kids read for pleasure.  No tests, no papers, no essays, no posters, no bubble letters.  Just pleasure.  Have “reading time” in school just like they do in second grade. Let the kids sit on the floor and eat a snack while they read.
  • Don’t be afraid of a little controversy.  Read and discuss TIME or Newsweek’s back page essays with kids.  Read the letters to the editor of those magazines, too, and figure out why the writer is really writing.
  • Ask kids to share their favorite authors with each other.  Some kids do read because they want to, and other kids should see that.

There.  I feel better now.

Do you have something to rant about when it comes to education and kids?

Wendy Segal

August 25, 2009

Biggest Mistakes People Make the First Week of College

I’ve made some of these mistakes.  People I know have made others.  Try to avoid as many of these as you can when you start college.

Mistake:  Not checking out where your classes are. When you choose classes, keep a map of your campus handy.  Try to avoid classes on opposite ends of campus on the same day.

Bigger mistake:  Not checking out where your classes are once you’ve signed up. Before the first day of class, do a test run like you did before you entered high school.  Walk the route.  Check where each classroom is.  You don’t want to show up late the first day.  Some buildings have wonky classroom numbering systems, so do the test run BEFORE the first day.

Mistake:  Choosing classes by what people in your dorm suggest. What do they know?  Even if someone you know took that class before, it may not be right for you.  Hey, maybe they prefer papers to tests and you don’t.  Maybe a class is just right for their major but not yours.

Mistake:  Choosing classes by what the course catalogue suggests. They’re not always accurate.  Professors change at the last minute.  You might want to take a look at http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ .  If there are two sections of a lab or discussion group, this website might just help you pick a winner.  People love to complain, but it’s better than flipping a coin or choosing based on which section is later in the day.

Bigger mistake:  Not conferring with an advisor. This was my biggest mistake in college.  I chose courses based on what sounded good instead of what I needed to get into grad school.  So find an advisor and get his or her advice.  You don’t have to follow it, but you should know what your advisor has to say.

Mistake:  Not joining a club right away. You might presume that you need a bit of time to settle in.  Wrong.  If you wait too long, people will have joined clubs, assigned roles, made friends – and you’ll be out of the loop.  Join whichever clubs or groups seem like they might be even somewhat interesting.  You can always drop out if they’re not what you expected, but it’s harder to drop in once everyone has formed a clique.

Mistake:  Limiting yourself to one group of friends. I’m especially talking to girls here.  Girls can be passionate, loyal friends – or girls can be catty and mean.  If you don’t develop a few interests, join a few clubs, participate in some activity you enjoyed in high school (band, sports, community service), you’re relying too much on one group of kids.  If they all get housing together next year and leave you out, you’ll feel bereft.  Have more than one group of friends.  Trust me.

Mistake:  Not getting to know at least a couple of professors. You might not get to know any professors as a freshman.  But by sophomore year, you should be getting to know a professor or two.  They can be really helpful in planning classes, getting an internship, writing a recommendation for graduate school or a job.  Make friends by dropping by a professor’s office during office hours to discuss something you found interesting in class or something you didn’t understand.  Make friends by emailing questions to a professor.  If your school encourages students and professors to share a meal, do that.  Don’t be shy – if they didn’t like students, they wouldn’t be teaching.

Mistake:  Not keeping your parents informed. If things are going badly, tell your parents.  No one wants you to succeed as much as they do.  They might just have an idea that could help.  If things get worse and you’ve kept them in the loop, they won’t be shocked and angry.  They may be able to intercede for you.  If things are going well, tell them.  They’ve worked very hard to get you where you are now.  Let them have a little pride in your accomplishments.  It’s a gracious way to say thanks.

Mistake:  Not telling me how you’re doing. I’m able to help kids create a list of colleges they’d fit into because older kids let me know about how their schools are, what’s good and bad about them, whether they made a good choice.  Knowing how you’re doing helps me to help high school kids.  So if we’ve worked together, please do keep in touch.  Sometimes kids need to or want to change schools.  Let me know why you’re changing.

To those of you in college now and to those of you who’ve graduated recently or long ago: what are some of YOUR college mistakes? I’d love to help others avoid them, so add a comment to this blog and let me know.

Wendy Segal

April 13, 2009

Start Preparing for College in 7th Grade? Yes, You Should!

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

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

I agree with nearly all of this advice:  http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/education/bal-achieveside0412,0,571587.story

Here’s what I’d tell you if you had called me when you were in 7th 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.  (See articles like: http://www.usnews.com/blogs/paper-trail/2009/3/31/top-colleges-see-record-low-acceptance-rates.html?s_cid=et-0410 )

So what should a 6th, 7th, or 8th grader do to get a head start?

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.  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 read The Onion, 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.

Take the hardest classes you can manage.  If you have the option of taking advanced math in 7th grade, do it.  It’s hard to move back into the advanced track in high school once you’re out of it, and 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.  You can always drop back down to an easier level if you must in later years, but you’ll find it near impossible to move up a level later.

Take Spanish all the way through senior year.  There are more periods of Spanish than any other language.  That means you will have a wider choice of teachers as you move on, and a wider selection of levels (honors, AP).  Spanish class is not going to conflict with a more infrequently-scheduled class, like orchestra, but French might.  And competitive colleges prefer to see 3 or 4 years of a foreign language (not including 7th and 8th grades).

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.  You can eat in class.  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.

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 wonderful 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.   Too often when there’s a kid in the room, the conversation includes the child and parents adjust their vocabulary.  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.

Wendy Segal

March 22, 2009

Fake Sincerity Works Just as Well

I’ve been giving the same advice for many years  to juniors who are applying to college as well as to seniors on wait lists:  Don’t be a stranger.

Of course, the Boston Globe agrees with me:


Colleges aren’t that different from teenagers — they like kids who like them back.

The college admissions jargon for that is “yield,”  the number of students who actually attend from the pool of those who are admitted.  Harvard has a yield that approaches 100%;  SUNY’s Purchase college has a yield of about 36%.  The higher the yield, the more desirable the college looks.  It has a lot to do with bragging rights, something to do with planning for a well-rounded freshman class, and very little do with education, but most schools want to accept students who actually want to go to that school.

So how can this information help you, the high school junior?

Whether or not it’s sincere, you’ve got to look interested:

  • Go to college fairs  and fill out those little postcards with your name and address.  Have a few standard questions ready (Do you house freshmen together?   Do you guarantee housing for the first two years?  How many students major in what I’m interested in?  Do most kids get a job upon graduation or do they go to grad school?)
  • Go to college admission counselor talks  held at your high school.  College admission counselors keep track of kids who show up when they visit your school.  Act perky.  Ask questions.  Look impressed if they give you a free pen.  Smile a lot.  (Hey, you’re missing class, so what’s not to smile about?)
  • Enter your info on the schools’ websites  and click on “send me more information.”  Even if you’ve already gotten something in the mail from that school, asking for info keeps you on their “interested” list.
  • Call up the admissions department.  If you have ANY questions at all, call.  (You need to call, not your mom.)  Leave your name.  Get the name of anyone you’ve spoken to, so when you call back, you can say, “I’ve already spoken to Mrs. Hassenfeffer, but I have another question.”
  • Email (for those too shy to call).  Use your name.  Now is a good time to get a sensible-sounding email address.  You’re too old for sparkle-cutie-angel.

And how can this information help you, the high school senior on the wait list?

If you really, really want to go to a particular school:

  • Have your guidance counselor call the school to put in a good word for you.
  • Get another recommendation or two — but they’ve got to be raves.
  • Send another essay  explaining why this is the school of your dreams.  Promise to withdraw all other applications if they say yes.

No matter what, don’t resort to adorable.  Don’t send candy or school mascots.  Don’t have your parents call.  Don’t threaten.  Don’t list all the famous people your parents know.

In the end, if they don’t want you, you probably wouldn’t be happy at that school anyway. 

They probably have a dumb mascot anyway.

Wendy Segal

March 19, 2009

TurnItIn: Worse than a Waste of Time

Filed under: Writing skills — highschool2college @ 5:32 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Two recent articles in Inside Higher Ed  made me ponder once again Yorktown High School’s use of TurnItIn.com as a plagiarism-detection protocol.  See:  http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/05/02/turnitin and

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/03/13/detect .

In Yorktown High School and other high schools and colleges, students are required to email their papers and reports to TurnItIn.com, which is supposed to notify teachers of suspected plagiarism by scanning the Internet for phrases in the students’ work that could have come from an on-line source.

The articles reveal that TurnItIn pays certain teachers to go to certain conferences, evidently in the hope that those teachers will present papers and generally be enthusiastic advocates for their program.

That’s disheartening, but not why I dislike our teachers’ relying on such a “service.”

The problems with using such a detection system are many:

  • TurnItIn gives too many false positives.  Papers may be flagged as plagiarized merely because the writer uses cliches.
  • TurnItIn doesn’t catch all plagiarized work.  A clever student can easily evade detection by rewording existing material.
  • TurnItIn doesn’t catch material plagiarized from non-online sources.  If you copy a chapter from a book, you’re home free — as long as the book doesn’t appear online.  If you copy your big sister’s paper from five years ago, TurnItIn can’t catch you.  If you copy your friend’s paper from Somers High, you’re safe.

One of the most egregious problems  with using a service like TurnItIn is that it doesn’t teach kids to write or to think for themselves.  It only teaches them that teachers want to snag them doing something wrong and if students are clever enough, they can avoid detection.  It breeds distrust between teachers and students and creates an adversarial relationship instead of a mentoring one. 

Another serious problem  is that it encourages teachers to rely on an electronic hound dog to do what a teacher should do — get to know his students well enough and have them write often enough that the teacher will be able to recognize his students’ writing. 

English teachers should be teaching students  how to think and how to write in equal measure.  Engaging, non-cliche assignments would help assure non-cliche responses, but nothing helps a student learn how to write like involved, engaged, frequent writing assignments that his teacher reads, responds to, corrects, and returns in a timely manner with helpful, plentiful, specific suggestions.

Sure, teachers have many students (haven’t they always?), and commenting thoughtfully on every student’s paper takes a lot longer than having the student submit his work to TurnItIn.com for inspection.  But mentoring, caring, involved, perceptive, insistent teaching taught me how to write  (thank you, Mrs. Joyce Garvin!).  I bet it would do wonders for our kids.

Wendy Segal

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