High School 2 College

April 13, 2019

When Should I Be Visiting Colleges?

Right now is when you should be visiting colleges. Think about your schedule by backing up:  You probably want to apply to many colleges early action, which means getting the applications submitted by October of senior year.  That means you must have a good idea of which colleges you’ll be applying to by July or August following Junior year so you can get started on your application essay and have it finished by September.  That means you’ve got to visit colleges in the spring of your Junior year in high school BEFORE the students who attend college leave for the summer (so you can get an accurate sense of what sort of kids go there and whether you’d feel at home with them) so you can write your essay(s) over the summer.  That means you’ve got to visit before May when colleges have finals week followed by a mass exodus of students from campus.  That means you’ve got to visit colleges by March or April.  What month is this?  Do you still think you’ve got plenty of time to visit colleges?

Here’s some sensible advice:

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

2.  Sign up online for tours.  Some schools publish a schedule and you are welcome to go on any tour that’s convenient, but many others require you to sign up in advance.  Do that.  You’ll get a much, much better sense of the school on a tour than just wandering around on your own.  Also, if you’re on an official tour, you get a check mark for “demonstrated interest,” one of the qualifications you have the most control over in the college application process.

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

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

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

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

I understand that the very idea of visiting schools can be intimidating.  Sitting down to make a provisional list can seem overwhelming.  Start with your guidance counselor. He or she can give you a great starting list if you share what your preferences and goals are. Or start online with collegeboard.org or get the paid subscription offered by US News ($40 for the year and VERY well worth it, in my opinion).

Warning:  Don’t rely on Naviance exclusively.  Naviance will tell you who got in to which schools recently from your high school.  But can you tell which of those kids was an athlete or a “first generation” student or a minority or someone who played an instrument on a concert level?  Naviance uses a very small data set from which it’s very hard to predict your own chances at any given school.  You’re better off combining the information from Naviance with a list from the College Board and US News.  If you start to see the same schools on all three lists, you should probably be investigating those school schools carefully.

4/21/19 UPDATE:  Check out this recent article, which confirms what I said above: Naviance is only useful in conjunction with other search tools. Its focus is too narrow to be used alone, and in fact just encourages students to apply only to the same schools that their peers apply to.

Most importantly, just get a list going, plan your visits, coordinate your schedule with your parents, and go.  After you visit the first school, you’ll find the next ones much less scary.

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

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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January 23, 2019

Should I Prep Before My First SAT/ACT?

Not many people ask me this question any more.  Now, most likely, I’ll get a call from a parent saying, “My son just got back his scores from his first SAT.  He didn’t do well, but he just went in to take it without preparing at all — you know, just to see how he would do.  Now he’s upset.  Can you tutor him?”

Well, is it any wonder he didn’t do well?  Would he have gone into a chemistry test without studying “just to see how he would do”?  But unlike a chemistry test, what’s the harm really in taking an SAT (or ACT) cold, just to see where his weaknesses are. After all, he can take SATs again and again. If we’re lucky, maybe he really doesn’t have any weaknesses, and he’ll  do just fine without my having to spend any money for classes or a tutor.  And if we’re really lucky, he won’t have to test again.  He won’t need to take any time away from his homework, his sports, his clubs, his work, his video games… and I won’t need to nag him to prepare.

Bad idea.

Reason #1 – The SAT and ACT aren’t like any tests your student has taken before.  On the SAT, there is a whole section of math in which your student won’t be allowed to use a calculator.  On the ACT, there’s a science section which asks questions about research in earth science, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics.  On the SAT, there may be reading selections written in the 1700s about why democracy won’t work.  On the ACT, if you don’t move very, very fast, you won’t finish.  And on both tests, the student has to know whether a sentence needs a comma, a semicolon, a colon, or none of the above, not to mention the difference between thus, moreover, however, additionally, eventually, and despite.  None of these tasks are easy under the best of circumstances.  Imagine trying to accomplish all that during a four-hour test you’ve never seen before.

Reason #2 – Some schools still ask for ALL scores.  True, fewer and fewer schools still require all scores, but some do.  Why would you want your “reach” school to see those crummy first scores?

Reason #3 – One disappointing test makes the next test harder.  I see it all the time.  A student does poorly on an SAT or ACT.  When she goes to take it again, a voice in her head is saying, “You are awful at this test.  You didn’t prepare as well as you meant to.  You didn’t do well last time and you won’t do well this time.”  It’s hard to fight against negative self-talk like that.  It makes much more sense to test when a student is ready to test and has done at least some preparation.

BIG Reason #4 – The ACT and College Board can cancel your student’s second score if there’s a huge improvement from the first score.  Nearly every tutor I know has had a student whose scores were canceled because the student made a major improvement, which the testing agency attributed to cheating rather than hard work.  (Yes, that did happen to one of my students.  Fortunately, I keep careful notes and the parents were able to prove the student had had plenty of tutoring to account for the increase in his score.) Most recently, there are two ongoing court cases, one against the College Board (SATs) and one against the ACT for doing just that.  (Here is just one article on the cases.)

A better plan:

If you’d like to know how your student would do taking the test cold – either to assess his weaknesses and strengths or to shock him into putting a little effort into this first stage in the college application process – have him take a full practice test at home.  There’s a full ACT with answers and scoring guide in the student guide available on their website for free. (Click here and scroll to page 11.)  And there are 8 free SATs on the College Board website. (Click here for tests – scroll down to “paper tests,” but I suggest you ignore test #1 and start with test #2 for reasons too lengthy to go into here.)

Simulate a testing environment as best you can: no access to her phone, just a clock, a calculator, and #2 pencils.  Time each section according to the instructions on each section, with only a 1 -2 minute break between sections 1 and 2, a 10 minute break between sections 2 and 3, and a 1 – 2 minute break between sections 3 and 4.

Not only will you save about $65 for each test, but no one has to see the results of the tests but you, your student – and any teacher or tutor you hire to help.  You can get all the information you would have gotten by having your student take the first test without preparing with none of the drawbacks.

If you need help evaluating the results of your student’s SAT or ACT – whether she takes the first one officially or at home – just let me know!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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October 31, 2018

How Often Should I Take the SATs or ACTs? Which Test Should I Take?

First let me answer a question that parents often ask: What’s the difference between the SAT and ACT – and which should my student take?

In a nutshell, the SAT and ACT are both college entrance exams, and ALL colleges in the United States (yes, even the Ivy League schools) accept either equally.  They want you to take whichever shows you in the best possible light.  All the colleges also know that there’s very little difference between the tests.  Academically-inclined students do well on both.  Students who are struggling academically will do poorly on both.  So it really comes down to which style you prefer.

Before I discuss which of these tests any given student should take, what about the schools that no longer require either test?  Parents often tell me that they’ve heard that students can just skip the tests.  That’s both true and false.  There are some schools that require neither, but there are more schools that require that you take the SATs or ACTs.  I think students who take neither test will regret having to narrow their school search exclusively to those schools that don’t require either.  Some of the schools that say they don’t require the SAT or ACT do require two or more SAT Subject Tests.  Some of the schools that don’t require any standardized tests require students to submit a few graded research papers or critical analysis papers from class, or they require several application essays.  If you decide not to take any tests, choose a few schools that don’t ask for tests and read their admission websites very carefully.  You may change your mind.

If I’ve convinced you that you’ll have to take either the SAT or ACT (or both), which one should you take?  In general, here’s a comparison:

SAT

  • more time per question in every section
  • more reading per question in every section (including math!)
  • reading questions can be fairly subjective (requiring interpretation)
  • math includes a section where calculators are prohibited
  • math includes questions that require you to figure out the answer yourself (not multiple choice)
  • five reading passages, usually including reading from 1900 or earlier

ACT

  • less time per question – speed is a signficant factor
  • math is a bit more straightforward – fewer logic questions, less reading
  • reading questions are straightforward and clear, but again, speed is a factor
  • calculator permitted in all math sections
  • all math questions are multiple choice
  • four reading passages, with most passages contemporary writing
  • includes a separate science section – knowledge of school-taught science only required for 2 of 40 questions but ability to analyze graphs and charts critical

 

Typically, students who excel in English and Social Studies do a bit better on the SATs, and students who excel in Math and Science do a bit better on the ACTs.  Slower readers can do well on either test if they are decisive about answering questions (can you decide quickly what the answer is, or at least decide you don’t know and move on to the next question?).

But how can you know for sure?  Some students sit for at least one SAT and one ACT to see which they prefer.  But you can find out the same information by buying the ACT book by the ACT organization or downloading for free the student guide which contains one complete test (starting at page 12 of the booklet).  Take the test TIMED (each section must be timed precisely because that’s the challenge of the ACT, even if you don’t take all sections on the same day.  Then try the SAT by buying the College Board SAT book or downloading a test for free (download a paper test).  Again, time each section, even if you don’t take all the sections in one sitting.  

About half of my students do precisely the same on the SATs and the ACTs.  Some decide to continue with the one test that feels more comfortable, but others decide to take both tests.

So how often should you take each test?  That depends on you.  Some students say, “I’ll practice as much as necessary and test as often as necessary to get the best possible score.”  Others say, “I’ll show up once a week for tutoring, but don’t expect me to do any preparation at home.  I’ll take one of the tests once or perhaps twice, but whatever I get will have to do.”  Which is closer to your feeling?

Most students are between those extremes.  If that’s you, you’ll probably find that you want to either take one test three times (either SAT or ACT) OR take two SATs and two ACTs.  Experts suggest you should expect to test at least twice, but you can test four or more times if you want.

Given that most students apply to most if not all of their college choices by mid-October to take advantage of the boost that applying early provides, you should plan on completing your testing by the summer after junior year at the very latest, but by June of junior year if possible.  (But you will be able to test once more senior year if necessary.)

So the prime times for most students to take SATs are

  • December of junior year
  • March of junior year
  • May of junior year
  • August before senior year

And the best times to take ACTs are

  • December of junior year (a different Saturday than the SATs)
  • April of junior year
  • June of junior year
  • July before senior year (but they’re not given in New York, so you’ll need to go to Connecticut or New Jersey to take them)

There are other test dates, both for the SAT and the ACT, but these are the most popular because they fit into the application cycle the best.

If you need help preparing for either test, you know where you can find me!

Good luck!

 

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August 5, 2018

When Should I Apply to College?

The Common App opens for the new application season every August 1st.  That’s the date students entering their senior year in high school can begin to create their college applications, but by August 1st, you should really be toward the END of the college application process, which should have begun the summer going into junior year. (Juniors, are you listening?)

Sometimes I find it’s more effective to explain the schedule to students when I work backwards, like this:

The vast majority of the students I work with apply to most of their schools early action.  (Unlike early decision, early action isn’t binding.  It merely says to the college, “I’m showing you my application early so that you can give me a decision early.”)  Early action deadlines are generally November 1st.

That means EVERYTHING needs to be in by November 1st at the latest — your recommendations, your essays (yes, more than one if the college has a supplemental essay), your list of activities, your transcript, your SAT or ACT scores (which have to be ordered from either the College Board or the ACT and sent to each college directly by that organization), any college credits you’ve earned by taking college-level classes.  EVERYTHING.

So realistically, you should have EVERYTHING in, done, and sent by October 15th at the latest because (1) you want to look eager to the colleges and (2) you don’t want to chance having the Common App website crash as you feverishly work to get everything in the last week in October (and it DOES crash – nearly every year!).  Most importantly, you want to apply by October 15th because the acceptance rate at nearly every college is higher for students who apply early action than for students who apply regular decision.  That’s not to say you won’t get into a college if you wait until the regular deadline between December and February depending on the school, but why not give yourself every advantage?  This article from last year explains that early action acceptance rates are getting higher every year (meaning colleges are taking more students who apply early and fewer students who wait until the regular deadline), and this year is certain to follow that trend.

To get your applications finished by October 15th, you need to have:

  • taken your SATs and/or ACTs as often as you think practical to show your best self
  • asked two teachers for recommendations (ideally, teachers you’ve had junior year in a subject area related to your intended major)
  • written your Common App essay (if you Google “Common App Essay topics 2018,” the list of possible topics comes up) and had your essay reviewed by a teacher or tutor or parent (as long as you don’t let your parents edit your paper for anything other than spelling or grammar – I can always tell when a parent has been too hands-on with an essay)
  • written your supplement essays (many schools require an additional essay or two or three!)
  • created a list of colleges to which you plan to apply, with at least three good-match schools, three safety schools (they’re almost guaranteed to take you unless you commit a felony between when you apply and when they get your application), and three reach schools, which are unlikely to say yes, but hey, you never know
  • visited several schools on your list (but it’s not necessary to visit every school to which you are going to apply)
  • filled out your guidance department’s forms so your counselor knows which schools to send transcripts to (some high schools substitute Naviance for this step, and some schools ask you to fill out information on Naviance AND fill out forms for your guidance department)
  • created a resume, or at least written down all of your extracurricular activities, including paid work, volunteer work, academic honors, and athletics grouped into those categories and in reverse chronological order (a resume makes it MUCH easier to complete the Common App and is useful when you go on interviews)

Look at the calendar.  October 15th is just about two months away.  What are you waiting for?

If you need help with your application or essay, don’t hesitate to book an appointment with me through my website.  I’ve been helping kids get into college for over 30 years, so the process doesn’t intimidate me at all, but it can be very daunting the first time.

Good luck!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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August 1, 2017

Before You Click Submit: Everything You Need to Know About the Common App

Every year on August 1st, the Common App opens for business.  The new essay topics are posted and all the site improvements are completed.  The Common App stands ready for your application.

What is the Common App?

Back in the old days, when you wanted to apply to ten schools, you had to complete — by hand or by typewriter! — ten different applications with ten different essays.  On some of the applications, they asked for your name above the line.  Some asked for your name below the line.  Some wanted your name written last name first.  Others wanted first name first.  Others asked for your social security number first.  Each application was a major project.

The Common App was designed to streamline that part of the college application process.  The student has to fill out only one application, and with one click he or she can submit an application to any of a few thousand colleges.  Of course, students soon began submitting dozens and dozens of applications because they could.  It became a game, and colleges had no idea which students were sincerely interested in attending their school. Many colleges, then, began requiring supplements (see below).  Now the Common App isn’t as “one-click” easy as it used to be, but more and more colleges prefer the Common App to their own application, and many have even dropped their own application and only accept the Common App.

What is the best way to complete the Common App without going crazy?

It’s a long, long application.  Every year, it gets fine-tuned and a little easier to manage, but it’s still overwhelming to many students.  You’ll have a much easier time of it if you gather this information and have it all in front of you before you even begin:

  • your social security number
  • your parents’ email addresses and cell phone numbers
  • where your parents work
  • what your parents’ job title and profession are (I’m always surprised how many kids don’t know)
  • where your parents went to college (all schools if more than one), what degree(s) they got, what year they got those degrees
  • your guidance counselor’s name, phone number, fax number and email address (Look on your school’s website under the guidance department. Look for something called “school profile.”  That should have everything you need.  Print it out if you can.)
  • when your graduation date will be
  • your SAT/ACT scores and when you took each test (exact date — look online at act.org or collegeboard.org if you don’t remember)
  • your resume

Why do I need a resume before I start the Common App and how do I create one?

A resume lists your activities in an organized, polished way.  There are dozens of ways to format a resume (try Googling “high school resume images” and you’ll see many excellent examples), but they all list your activities in reverse chronological order — from most recent to oldest, back to 9th grade.  Don’t include anything older than 9th grade unless you still are doing that activity.  For example, if you started Taekwondo or dance when you were 11 and still do it, fine, but don’t list soccer if you stopped in 8th grade. Break your activities into 3 categories if you can:  academic achievements, community service, athletics, and/or paid employment are groupings many students use.  Once you’ve got all of your achievements and activities listed with locations and dates on your resume, you’ll fly through the hardest part of the Common App:  the “interests” page.  You’ll also have a professional-looking document to bring with you when you go on college admissions interviews (or summer job or internship interviews once you start college).  You can also give your resume to teachers who promised to write recommendations for you as a way of reminding them of your interests and activities so they can include some in your recommendation.

Any advice about the Common App essay?

Many students begin filling in the Common App before they’ve written the essay.  Why?  I have no idea.  I think they just can’t face the essay and so start the Common App before the essay is done just to feel productive.  They’re not fooling anyone, especially me. Students, finish your essay.  Make sure you’ve shown it to your parents, your tutor, me, or anyone else you think can help you polish it.  It doesn’t have to sound like a 45-year-old dad wrote it — in fact, it shouldn’t — but it should make sense, be engaging, and be spelling- and grammar-error free.  The Common App has brought back the “topic of your choice” topic so there really aren’t any excuses.

When they say the maximum is 650 words, they mean it.  If you write an essay of 651 words, the last word won’t be sent to the colleges.  And you’ll look like a student who either can’t follow the rules or doesn’t care about the rules.  So you’re aiming for an essay that’s between 500 and 600 words, which is about one page to a page-and-a-half typed in size 12 font.  That’s shorter than you might think.

Don’t repeat what’s on your resume or transcript.  The colleges already know that stuff. Write about what makes you different from the kid who sits next to you in math class or the kid on your team.  Think about it this way:  if you dropped your essay in the hallway of your school without your name on it and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, would everyone know it’s yours because the essay is so “you”?  That’s one way good way to come up with a topic.

The other way to think about an essay topic is if that same scenario occurred and the principal read it over the loudspeaker, no one would think it was yours because it reveals something about yourself that’s not obvious.  Maybe you secretly love to iron, or maybe you adore your middle name.  Whatever it is, if you can’t wait to write about it, you’ve found the right topic.

Is there anything else I should do before I start the Common App?

Yes!  Glad you asked.  Many colleges require a supplement to the Common App in which you tell the college what your intended major is and whether any of your relatives attended that school.  Unfortunately, many of those supplements include an essay.  They’re usually shorter than the Common App essay, but there can be more than one supplement essay per school!

Don’t leave the supplement essays till the end.  Colleges care about those essays as much as they care about the Common App essay — or more so.  Go on each school’s website or on the Common App website and print out the essay topic for each supplement essay you have to write.  With just a little adjusting of each essay, you may find that one essay will suffice for more than one school.  For example, more than one school may ask why you want to go to that school or why you’ve chosen that major or what your favorite activity is.  Or you may decide that a particular school’s supplement essay is so odd that you’d rather drop that school from your list in favor of a similar school with an easier supplement.  It’s better to make that decision before you pay the application fee!

Any last words of advice before I begin to apply to college?

Based on more than 30 years of helping students apply to colleges, I have this advice. Not everyone follows it. Some who don’t forever regret not listening to me.  Here it is:

Don’t apply to your favorite school first!  

Have you ever sent an email and THEN realized you spelled something wrong or sent it to the wrong person?  Well, the same happens all the time with college applications.  I can’t tell you how often students find mistakes in their applications or realize they should have written something differently AFTER they hit “submit.”  So wise students send applications to their safest safety school first (they’ll take you even if you mess up), then a middle-difficulty school, and only then to their dream school.  Another benefit of following this method is that your safety school is likely to send an acceptance sooner, and once you get even one “yes,” the rest of your senior year should be a breeze.

Feel free to check out my website for more information and advice:  www.wendysegaltutoring.com .

Good luck!

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February 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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November 9, 2016

6 Ways NOT To Choose a College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 18, 2016

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

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

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

Here’s what THE COLLEGES do:

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

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

Here’s what YOU should do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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June 8, 2016

What Do Colleges Want From Applicants Like Me – Part 2

As I wrote in Part 1 of this “What Do Colleges Want” essay, colleges want you to be bright, engaged, a leader, talented — and they want you to score well on standardized tests, too (and if you play an unusual sport, that’s a big bonus)!

So what can you do if you’re just a regular student who does pretty well in school, participates in a few activities, has SAT or ACT scores that aren’t too bad — just like all of your friends?  If a college has two or three or 10 or 100 students like you, how does it choose whom to admit?

One factor that colleges use to influence admission decisions (and this factor has become increasingly important in the last 3 – 4 years) is demonstrated interest, which means how much you, the student, really care about going to that school.

How do they know if you really care?  How do colleges judge demonstrated interest?  Well, you’ve got to DEMONSTRATE interest (clever, right?).  That means you have to do some or all of these:

  • visit the school in person
  • go on a guided tour of the school
  • visit the school’s admission building
  • have an interview, either on or off campus, with an admissions person or alumnus
  • attend an information session at your school (usually through the guidance department) – this one is crucial
  • fill out a card at that school’s booth at a college fair
  • call or email the school to ask a question (must be done by the student, not the parent) – DON’T ask something that’s on the website
  • add that school to your Common App list as soon as possible after August 1st going into senior year (the Common App reports to the school when a student adds its name to their list)
  • join and “like” that school’s Facebook page
  • follow that school on Twitter
  • ask a question about that school on its Facebook page or tweet a question on its Twitter feed
  • attend an Open House or Information Session by that school if it’s within an hour or so of your house (that means you have to check out when and where these sessions are – check the school’s website)
  • go to that school’s website and submit a “send me more info” request
  • open the school’s emails (yes, they can tell if you’ve opened the email)
  • respond to the school’s emails or click on a link they send you (yes, they can track that, too)
  • if the school offers a way to begin your application online or has a way for you to set up a user name and password, so do
  • apply early action if available

Just applying early action alone isn’t sufficient to demonstrate interest.  The school needs to know you’ve spent time checking it out.  The school needs to know you’re applying not just because it’s easy to click “submit” on the Common App, but because you think you’d be a really good fit for that school for reasons other than it looks like it fits your criteria on paper.

One of the statistics colleges report is “yield,” which means how many of the kids who apply and get accepted actually do attend that school.  Your local average college probably has a mediocre yield.  Harvard and MIT have yields over 95%, meaning nearly everyone who gets in does go.  By accepting students who have demonstrated interest, colleges are more likely to increase their yield.  The more effort you put into investigating and engaging with a school, the more likely – the school believes – that you’ll say yes to the school if it says yes to you.  And all schools want a high yield.

So if you want to differentiate yourself from others with your same GPA, your same SAT/ACT scores, your same demographic, your same hobbies, exert yourself, get out there, and demonstrate your interest.  It might well make the difference between “Sorry, we had so many qualified candidates” and “Welcome, you’re accepted”!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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April 6, 2015

Am I Really Going To Have To Pay $71,000 A YEAR For College?

I nearly fell off my chair when I read this article in the Washington Post about NYU.  The headline runs, “What Happens When You Find Out A Year Of College Costs $71,000?”  Yes, it seems that that’s the sticker price for NYU including travel costs.  And that’s for this coming year.  Imagine what college will cost by the time your student is ready to attend!

Are you destined to sell your house and car and youngest child just so the oldest can go to college?  Not if you follow my advice.

1.  Financial aid is available at nearly every college. You might be surprised to learn that many middle-class families living in nice suburbs who own a car and a four bedroom house do actually qualify for aid.  But you’ll never know how much you qualify for if you don’t ask.  The first step in asking is filling out the FAFSA.  You can read about this form, which should be completed as soon after January 1st as possible (which means you should fill out your taxes as soon as possible), on several websites, including the FAFSA website and the College Board website, which also has a video tutorial.

2.  Student loans can help.  Some loans come from the government (see this site) or from the college itself.

3.  Private scholarships can help.  Online sites like fastweb can help you find scholarships targeted at specific groups of students.  Are you a female Armenian engineering student?  I bet there’s a scholarship just waiting for you!  Don’t forget to contact your high school’s guidance department.  They’ll have the inside track on scholarships given by local businesses and families, and you’ll be competing against a much smaller pool of applicants. Warning:  legitimate scholarships never ask you to pay money up front for a chance at a scholarship.  Beware of scams!

4. Merit scholarships are given by colleges to entice certain students to attend, especially students whom they predict will have lots of choices.  If your student is a great athlete, a talented artist, or an inspired musician, many schools will help you afford their tuition by giving you a merit scholarship.  Some schools give scholarships entirely based on SAT scores, so if your student is a good test-taker, it might make sense to pay some money for private tutoring now in the hopes of getting a big hunk of money off the bill later.

You have to be strategic about applying to schools, though.  The more selective a school (the harder it is to get into), the less likely it is that they have to convince you to attend.  Harvard and MIT don’t have to beg people to attend.  A school whose average GPA is 3.4, though, might be willing to cut the tuition bill in half – or more – for a student whose GPA is 3.9 or 4.0. That means, frankly, if you’re hoping for merit money, especially for academic achievement, it’s unlikely that you’ll get that from your first choice school.  If you’re willing to attend a school that’s further down on your list, however, you might find private college even more affordable than a public university.

5.  Your own state’s universities are usually a bargain.  In New York, SUNY schools vary greatly in their selectivity. Geneseo, Binghamton, and Stony Brook rival the most elite private schools in many ways.  Other SUNY schools have outstanding reputations for engineering, environmental studies, teacher preparation, and more.

6.  Check out other states’ universities.  These colleges are my favorites for all-around bang for the buck.  You may find the best of both worlds at another state’s school.  Many states encourage out-of-state students to attend so their own students can meet a more diverse group of fellow students.  Many state universities have campuses a few hours from home, international students, a broad array of majors, worldwide reputations for excellence, and a football team to boot!  The University of Virginia and the University of Michigan are world-class institutions, for example. Students at Penn State and the University of Delaware have great experiences.  Most states have schools worth checking out, and while you’ll pay more as an out-of-state student, those tuitions don’t come close to those of private universities.

7.  Start local and transfer.  Another smart strategy for some is to attend a local community college for a year or two and then transfer to the college of your dreams.  You might give up that dorm experience, but you’ll cut your college bill in half. And some SUNY schools have campuses where you can attend community college and live on campus!  When employers see that you’ve graduated from a certain school, none ever ask, “Did you go there all four years?”

My strongest suggestion for paying for college is this:  Parents, talk honestly with your student about what your family can afford to pay.  Tell your students, “We can pay $15,000 (or whatever) a year for school.  Apply any place you like, and if they can offer us enough in aid and scholarships, you can attend.  If they can’t, at least you know you got in.”

If you have any questions, I’ll try my best to help.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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