High School 2 College

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:


  • 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


  • 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!




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  .


November 18, 2014

How Many Colleges Should I Apply To?

Dear Students,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re not going to like my answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

missing school - spanish

Wendy Segal

January 29, 2012

What Juniors Should Be Doing This Winter

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the fun begin!

Wendy Segal

July 23, 2011

The Summer is Half Over – Don’t Waste More Time, High School Students!

Do I sound like your mother?  Right.  That’s because I am a mother.  But I’m also a teacher, a tutor, and a college adviser, and I spend a good part of each year getting kids into college.  Do you want to go to college some day?  Then follow this advice that students from each grade can use right now:

Grades 8 – 10:  Read.  Read.  Don’t stop – read some more.  Reading the back of the cereal box is better than reading nothing. Reading Sports Illustrated or Seventeen is better than the cereal box.  Reading TIME or Newsweek is WAY better than reading Sports Illustrated or Seventeen.  TIME and Newsweek are written on the college level unlike most other magazines.  The articles are varied and interesting, but the real value is in the letters to the editor (called “inbox” in TIME).  When they print a letter, they also print the writer’s name and home town.  No one wants to look like a dope in front of his neighbors, so the grammar and vocabulary in every letter are gorgeous.   The letters, and the back page essay which is a perfect length for SAT practice, are written with an agenda and a tone.  No one writes to Newsweek because there was nothing good on TV.  Letter writers write to a magazine editor because they have a viewpoint, a slant, an opinion; your job as a reader is to figure out why the writer is REALLY writing.  You’ll seldom be asked to read this type of writing in school – extended essay or persuasive opinion – so get comfortable with it on your own.  Go online and get a subscription.  It’s much less expensive than buying individual copies.

If you have finished your summer reading and want more, look for books outside your usual area of interest.  Each genre has a jargon.  Reading a mystery isn’t like reading a fantasy.  Reading science fiction isn’t like reading a romance or a biography.  Or if you’ve read a book before that you liked, read more by that same author.  Or read a harder book  that has more of what you liked about that other book.  If you like chick-lit or romances, read Vanity Fair by Thackery or Jane Eyre by Bronte.  If you like Dave Barry, read some Thurber or O. Henry short stories.  If you email me what you like, I’ll give you a few suggestions that will bump up your reading skills while you’re being entertained.

And keep reading this blog for an advance look on what you’ll need to do as you get closer to senior year in high school.

Grade 11:  Read and follow the advice above for 10th graders.  Incoming Juniors should also be thinking about the PSATs that are coming up in October.  Most students should just go in and take the test when it’s given.  (Don’t worry, your guidance counselor will sign you up and tell you where to go and when.)  There’s a free booklet in the guidance department in which the College Board gives you advice about taking the test and a few sample questions.  If, however, you’re the kind of student who panics before every test and gets ill before important tests, it may pay for you to find a tutor and have a few sessions to get ready.  (You can take a course, although they’re so seldom useful.  But I covered that already in another blog.)  The only other type of student who should get pre-PSAT tutoring is one who regularly scores very, very well on standardized tests.  The National Merit Scholarship is derived from PSAT scores, so if you’re likely to qualify, get tutoring before the PSATs to increase your chances of getting a scholarship.  The PSATs are a bit easier than the SATs, mostly because the PSATs are shorter, but the questions are identical, so PSAT tutoring will give you a head start on SAT preparation.

Grade 12:  Read and follow the advice for 10th graders – when you take a break from college applications.

By now, you should have a list of colleges that interest you.  If not, read my blog entry from last year on how to build a list of colleges based on online resources.  Go visit some.  You don’t have to visit all the schools you apply to, but you should have an idea if you like small or large schools, rural, suburban, or urban schools, religious schools or secular schools, and so on.

If you are going to visit, interview with an admissions officer if it’s offered.  (Read this blog post for suggestions on what you should be looking for during a college visit, and visit this blog post for thoughts on how to make a good impression when you’re on an interview.)

You should be writing your college essay this summer. Start now.  Don’t wait for your English teacher to mention it.  Take advantage of college early action programs by having your application and essay prepared before you start classes in September. (But please read this advice first.)

Lastly, don’t forget that you’ll be taking the SATs or ACTs again in a few months.  Decide which test to focus on, and get busy improving those areas in which you are weakest.  Let me know if you need some help.

You’ll have plenty of time to relax next year in science class (just kidding!), but right now you should GET BUSY!

Wendy Segal   http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 22, 2011

Don’t Waste April!

Here are some crucial words of advice for high school Juniors:

Don’t waste April!

If you don’t go to look at colleges in April, you won’t get to see them at their most typical until the fall.  March is too cold and snowy.  By May, exams have begun at most colleges so they don’t offer tours then.  You won’t see the students, anyway – they’ll be in the library.  By mid-May, everyone will be home for the summer.  You can indeed visit schools over the summer, but you won’t see them buzzing with activity and you won’t be able to have your pick of students to ask embarrassing but important questions.

So if you have to take a few three-day weekends in April, go ahead.  Most schools count college visits as excused absences similar to illness.  In other words, those visits are still absences but if you miss work, the teachers will let you make it up.

What if you don’ t know which colleges to look at?

  • Go on www.princetonreview.com.  It’s better than the College Board search and much, much better than Naviance.  Look for “explore colleges,” then “best fit,” then Counselor-o-Matic.  (Yes, it’s a stupid title, but it’s a great program.)
  • Complete all the pages of the survey and submit.  You’ll get a list of safety schools, a list of good match schools, and a list of reach schools.  WARNING:  those lists contains only schools who paid to be there.   Don’t stop there!
  • In each category (reach, match, safety), click on “view all schools” and then you’ll get the GREAT list of schools that match your requirements.
  • Review each school, view the video if there is one, and go on to the school’s website and fill in the “send me more information” form.  It’s a good way to let the school know you’re interested.

Once you have a list of schools, group them geographically. Most students in northern Westchester check out the Boston-area schools, the Pennsylvania schools (Lafayette, Bucknell, Muhlenburg, Lehigh, Penn State), the southern schools (UDelaware, UMaryland, Towson), the SUNY schools, and other categories.

Your goal is to start with a huge list that you can pare down to about 10 – 14 schools to which you will apply. You need to be sure there are at least two safety schools on your application list — schools that will accept you as long as you are still breathing by admissions time.

You should also apply to a school or two that you’re fairly certain you won’t get into, but OMG what if you did?  I believe that if you get into every school to which you apply, you didn’t aim high enough (as long as you’re not crushed if you don’t get in).

You don’t have to visit every school you apply to, but you should visit a few schools from different categories:  urban, suburban, rural, close, far, huge, tiny, medium, religious, secular, sports-oriented, academically-oriented, lots of fraternities, no fraternities, and so on.  Get a feel for what you like.

There are no right schools. There are only schools that fit your personality and intended major and preferences — or schools that just don’t feel like you could ever call them “home.”  A school that is right for you might be a terrible choice for your best friend.

Go, visit, and see what feels like a good fit for you!  (And click here for advice on making the most of a college interview.)

Wendy Segal

November 9, 2010

More Advice about the College Application

Of course, you’ve read my previous blog post about applying to college.  I’ve read a lot of articles lately that echo my advice in that post.

One question I’m asked frequently is how many applications a student should submit.

The answer is 12 – 14.

I know you were expecting a long “it depends” answer, but the truth is that more and more kids are submitting more and more applications because it’s hard to figure out why a college might take someone when someone else’s credentials seem better.  (See this NY Times article about admissions numbers at certain schools.)  So you can submit fewer or more, but I think 12 – 14 will ensure you a good selection to choose from.  Pick 3 – 4 safety schools (if you’re still breathing when they get your application, you’re in).  Pick 3 – 4 reach schools (you don’t have a chance, but what if a miracle happens?).  Pick 6 – 8 schools you’ve got a pretty good shot at.  You don’t have to visit 14 schools.  Wait to see where you get in, and then visit — or revisit — your top 3 choices.

But some of you still have questions.

First of all, let me state unequivocally that I can’t stand the Common Ap.  Hear me loud and clear:

Don’t use the Common Ap if the college allows you another choice.

Yes, the Common Ap allows you to apply to several schools at once, and yes, your guidance counselor will encourage you to  use the Common Ap because it’s easier for him to deal with one type of application than many varieties of application, not all of which work with Naviance or allow him to submit your transcript and other information electronically.

Too bad. You have to complete the application that’s most likely to get you into the school of your choice, even if it’s inconvenient for your guidance counselor or your teacher or your parents.

I admit that my method is more work.  But this isn’t the time to be lazy.   Get a bunch of manila folders, take a deep breath, and do what I tell you.

Here’s what you should do:

1.  Go to the Common Ap and download and print out the application (go to “Download Forms on the top, then “Student Application,” the third one down).  Don’t do anything online yet!

2.  Fill out the Common Ap in pencil so you have all the information you need in front of you.

3. This is critical:  Go to each school’s website. Click on “Admissions.”  See which application each school will accept.  My preference, in order, is:

There are other applications as well, as this New York Times article explains.  It sets out the pros and cons of a variety of applications, but it agrees with me that the Common Ap is frequently just not the best choice.

When you’re at the school’s website, print out the school’s application AND any application instructions. This is where the manila folders come in handy. Make a folder for each school’s application information, including the user name and password you chose for that school. Some schools encourage you to send extra materials, like resumes, videos, and newspaper clippings.  Other school frown on anything extra.  Not every school wants two teacher recommendations.  On the Common Ap, every school gets the same information, even if the college prefers more, less, or different information.

Why annoy the people whom you’re trying to flatter?

Most importantly, you can’t customize or change anything on the Common Ap. Once you’ve submitted it to a school, you can’t change anything, even if you found a mistake.  (Yes, I know there are ways to get around that, but if you’re going to do an application twice, you’re not saving any time or effort, are you?)  You don’t really want to hear my Common Ap horror stories.

Once you decide on an application (I hope it’s the school’s own application or the Universal Application), you may have still have questions. This New York Times article reviews some common confusions kids have with applications.

Then there’s the essay.  As  you’ll find out as you wade through the applications, there’s really no such thing as THE essay.  It’s likely, in fact, that  you’ll write 3 – 6 essays or more before you finish. The Washington Post’s article about the variety of essay questions explores out some of the more “unusual” questions.

And I’m sure you’ll want to review my blog post about the essay.

Do you have even MORE questions?  Do you see the comment section right below this blog?  Feel free to ask!

Wendy Segal

February 17, 2010

Latest Trends in College Acceptance and How 9th, 10th, and 11th Graders Can Take Advantage

I’ve been reading articles lately about how this year was supposed to be the year that it would be easier to get into college.

This year:

  • there are fewer seniors, statistically
  • the economy is bad, so fewer students should be going to college
  • colleges should be looking for more students to ease their own financial troubles

So far, though, it hasn’t at all been easier to get into college. In fact, in my own area of northern Westchester in New York, fewer qualified students have gotten into their first choice schools than in my recent memory.

What’s going on? And is there anything that high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors can do to make it more likely that they will be able to get into a “decent” college?

I believe there are several causes for the seemingly tough time kids are having getting into college this year.

Problem: First of all, more kids are applying to more colleges earlier. Kids are getting sophisticated about the early decision process.  Once magazines like U.S. News and World Report started publishing statistics showing that greater percentages of kids got into a given college if they apply early decision, even MORE kids felt compelled to apply early decision.  Then several colleges added “early action” to the mix, a non-binding early application/early response option.  Now most kids apply to at least one early decision college and as many early action colleges as they can.

Advice for current high school students: There’s no point in trying to buck this trend. You, too, will have to apply to some colleges early action or early decision, so begin to explore colleges – at least online or at college fairs – in 10th grade or in the fall of 11th grade.  By the summer before senior year, you should have contacted at least 20 schools online and have seen several schools in person.

Problem: Last year, the pundits all said that kids wouldn’t be applying early decision because they would need to wait to compare financial aid packages.  But the press has been so pessimistic about financial aid that many parents presume they won’t get much financial help and are encouraging their children to apply for schools that the parents can afford at the stated tuition rates.  And to have the best chance of getting some help from some place, kids are applying to a wide variety of schools.

Additional problem: Since money is tight, many parents are having their kids apply to many schools that the students have not seen or thoroughly investigated because travel is just too costly.

Advice for parents of current high school students: Encourage your student to apply to a several schools that are safety schools. If the school wants you more than you want that school, they’ll try to entice you with money.  But not all safety schools are equal. Prioritize what you want in a school: Are you willing to give up prestige for a good financial aid package?  Are you willing to go a little further from home?  Are you willing to accept a bigger school than your ideal?  What matters most to you and what are you willing to compromise on?

Smart college choices include plenty of out-of-state state schools. For New York students, check out the University of Delaware, the University of Maryland, Penn State, Rutgers (particularly affordable), the University of Vermont, Towson University and others.  These schools charge more to out-of-state students (which helps the colleges’ bottom line), but that’s less than a private school might cost.  With an out-of-state state university, you’ll get all the distance you need from your parents and all the educational excellence without costing them their retirement fund.

Make up for fewer college trips with more online investigation. Take advantage of college fairs.  Make sure you talk to college reps when they come to your high school (ask your guidance counselor for a schedule for your high school).  When you do visit colleges, try to visit at least one school from each category:  large, small, urban, suburban or rural.

Problem: Kids are being too self-indulgent (read: lazy and unfocused) when it comes to after-school activities.  Kids tell me that they don’t join more clubs because they’re tired after school.  Kids tell me the clubs aren’t interesting enough.  Kids tell me they want to go to sleep away camp because that’s where their friends are, or they want to hang out with their friends over the summer.  That’s lovely, but it won’t get you into college.  When kids are involved in activities, those activities often scattered, unrelated to a students’ potential college major or career interest, and temporary.  Dance and soccer are sweet, but won’t really help you get into college unless you plan on majoring in dance or sports management.

Advice for kids grade 9 and up: You DO need activities to get into a college you can be proud of.  You need to find something you like and stick with it for 3 – 4 years.  Sports are good, but not enough.  Student government is unimpressive to most colleges.  Merely belonging to a community service group like Key Club won’t get you into school.  Join a few groups, see what you like, and become the president of that group.  Or strike out on your own and start something new.  Get your name in the paper for starting a town-wide donation program to something important.  Get some friends together and raise money to replace all your school’s light bulbs with more “green” bulbs.

Most valuable advice for planning for the future: Your activities have to match your college or career plans. That’s tough to do in 9th grade, but you need to think that far in advance.  So if it’s likely that you’ll be studying something in the sciences, do science research in high school.  Your after school activities should have something to do with science or math. Join the math club or the math olympics.  Your volunteer work should have something to do with science, too.  Volunteer to run a 6-week after school science club for elementary-school aged kids.  Your paid work should have something to do with science, too.  Work in a pet store.  Be the nature counselor at a summer camp. Get it?  You need to have a focus, and every activity you do must build on that focus. Does that feel forced or phony to you?  Well, how badly do you want to be able to choose among good colleges rather than be stuck with something closer to the bottom of your list?

This article summarizes what I’ve been reading all over the place:  too many kids applying to too many schools for too few spaces.  But you can apply smarter if you plan ahead.

Wendy Segal

UPDATE:  Another article on high number of applications.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Here’s an article about Stanford’s record number of applications.  This article says the reason for the increase may be the poor economy —  jobs are so hard to get, students understand they need a good education to compete.  I’d also add that the job prospects are so poor, students might as well go to college rather than try to find a job.

December 16, 2009

10 Dumbest SAT and College Questions

Remember that teacher who said, “There are no dumb questions”? Well, she was wrong.  I occasionally answer questions on Yahoo Answers just to be a nice person in case there’s anything to that karma notion, but sometimes the questions are so foolish that I can’t believe someone asked.  I politely answer but then the next day, someone else asks.  I answer, a bit more tersely.  Then a week later, someone else asks that same question.  So I’m writing the answers here in the hope that they google the question and find the answer.

Here are a few of the dumber questions, with the answers:

1. Are these PSAT scores good?

Questioners on Yahoo Answers ask that every day — actually, several times a day.  My answer is always, “Are they good for Harvard? No.  Are they good for community college?  Sure.  Are they good if you’re an honors student getting A+ in everything?  Nope.  Are they good if you’re flunking out of high school?  Probably.”  The question really means, “Can I take the SATs without doing any more prep?”  And the answer is get out a prep book and start working, you lazy bum!

2. I missed the deadline for sending my SAT scores to colleges.  Can I still send them?

The answer is a deadline is a deadline.  That’s why they call it a deadline.  You didn’t do it – now you’re dead.  Figuratively speaking.

3.  My PSATs are really bad.  Can I improve?

Haven’t you seen all those ads for SAT prep classes?  Do you think they’d offer them if people couldn’t improve?  One complaint that academicians have against the SATs is that rich people have a huge advantage because to a small degree classes help but to a greater degree private tutoring helps.  I’ve tutored kids who have gone up 250 points in one category alone.  More common are increases of 50 -100 points in each category.  So yes, read some suggestions on this blog, go to a class, hire a tutor and you can and will improve.

4.  How do I send my scores to colleges?

If you can’t read the instructions on the website, you’re probably not ready for college.  Both the SAT website and the ACT website give very clear directions on how to order official copies of your scores to send to colleges.  You need a credit card and the name of each school or program that you want to get your scores.  They send all previous scores unless you block specific dates or tests.

5.  The college admissions website says I need to have the College Board send my scores, but they’re on my application.  Do I still need to pay to have the College Board send them?

Yup, that’s why the website says to have the College Board send them.  The first college test is if you can follow the application directions.  And you could put anything on that application.  Your guidance department might put the wrong scores on your transcript.  It’s going to cost a fortune to get through college.  It will cost less than $100 to send your scores to your schools.  Just do it.

6. Are the SATs harder than the PSATs?

Why not take a practice SAT and find out, you lazy bum?  There is a free SAT on the College Board website. Sit down and take it timed and you’ll have a reasonable idea if the SATs are harder than the PSATs.  People are different, but most consider the SATs much harder than the PSATs, so don’t get too excited by your decent PSAT scores.  The SATs are longer.  There’s an extra year of math.  The reading selections are longer and more boring.  There’s more difficult vocabulary, both in the sentence completion questions and embedded in the reading selections.  And don’t forget that there’s an essay on the SATs.

7.  I’m a senior and I’m taking my SATs for the first time next week.  What can I do to prepare?

No, I’m not kidding.  Before every SAT, this question is asked by several people, usually followed by a growing string of exclamation and question marks as the test gets closer.  If the test is a day or two away, I usually suggest they look for schools that don’t require any standardized tests.   I also recommend they read the March 2009 entries to this blog (this one and this one) which contain last-minute hints, like bringing plenty of candy and iced tea to the test, changing the calculator batteries, and wearing a watch.  Hey, you too can read all the suggestions — why am I repeating them here?

8.  My grades are really awful.  Can good SATs or ACTs overcome a bad GPA?

No.  Let me say that another way:  NO.  Unless you have a very unusual and serious reason for low grades (a hospitalized parent, frequent moves to different high schools, a documented mental or physical health issue), colleges care more about how you do in your classes over a period of time and the rigor of those classes (you know that photography isn’t as impressive as honors physics, right?) than they do about how you did on your SATs.  Get off the internet and start studying for that U.S. history exam!

9.  Can I get into [name of college] with these SATs?

Why are you asking random strangers?  Go to princetonreview.com and see what the average SATs are for colleges you’re interested in.  Understand, though, that colleges are looking for much, much more than a good SAT score.  They want kids who will fit in with their school’s atmosphere, who will add to what they already have at the school.  They want kids with intelligence, ambition, concern for the wider world, an upbeat attitude, an interest in sports, a willingness to volunteer, an ability to lead — you  have all that, right?

10. A college I’m interested in is coming to my high school.  Do I have to go to that meeting?

My, you are lazy!  If you have a school or two or ten that you’d like to check out, the more contacts you make with that school, the better.  Sign up for information on their website.  See their reps at college fairs.  Talk to their admissions counselors when they show up at your school.  Call the admissions office to ask questions for which you can’t find answers on their website.  Take advantage of the opportunity to visit the campus.


Do you have a dumb question you want to ask? Go ahead. I’ll try to answer without being snide.  And I promise I won’t put your name on a future edition of “Dumbest Questions.”

Wendy Segal

October 3, 2009

New Ruling: Common Ap and Score Choice

One reason I dislike the Common Ap, designed to let a student apply to several schools without having to enter the same information repeatedly, is that you can’t tailor the application to the school.  This year, the Common Ap is allowing students to change the essay for each school — a big improvement over last year.  It’s not easy to accomplish, but it can be done.

But what if you want to send all of your SAT scores to one school but only some scores to another school? Not many schools require ALL scores, but a few do, mostly the most selective schools.  Yet the Common Ap asks you to self-report scores.

Do you report some or all of your test scores on the Common Ap?

Read this ruling as reported in Inside Higher Ed just two days ago:


If any of you try this method (leaving your scores off the Common Ap and only submitting them directly through the College Board), please let me know if you are able to apply this way.

Sound complicated? Yes, it is.  Once again, I strongly encourage students to apply to colleges well before your high school’s deadline, which is probably three weeks before the college deadline to allow your guidance department to process all the paperwork.

And once again, I suggest you use a school’s own application if one is available.  Sure, you’ll have to type in your name and address all over again, but you can handle it.  You’re nearly a college student!

Wendy Segal

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