High School 2 College

February 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

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August 5, 2014

Applying to College: Where Do I Start? When Do I Start?

If you’re going into your senior year of high school in the fall, you probably have a nagging feeling that you should be doing something about college, but I bet the whole concept feels overwhelming.  (If you’re going into your junior year and you’re smart enough to be reading ahead to be well prepared, give yourself a big gold star!)

Where should you start?  Is it too early to begin the college process – or are you already behind?

Let’s think this whole application process through, step by step:

– You want to hear back from colleges as early as possible and get as many yeses as possible, so you want to apply to several schools early action.  That means applying by October of senior year.

– To apply by October, you have to work on your applications, especially the application essays, over the summer before senior year. (That means NOW!)

– To work on the essays over the summer, you have to know which colleges you’ll be applying to more or less by June of junior year.

– To know which schools you want to apply to by June, you have to have visited several  schools in March and April of junior year.  (Most schools discourage tours in early May when finals are in session, and most college students leave campus by mid-May.)

– To know which schools you’d like to visit, you need a list of potential schools by FEBRUARY of junior year.

So are you behind?  Unless you have a solid list of schools to which you intend to apply, I’m afraid you are!

How should you start building that list?  I’m sure your high school guidance counselor has suggested you start with Naviance.  Feh!  The sample on Naviance is just too small.  If someone from your high school got into Big State U, is it because he was a sports star?  Did his parents go there?  Is he a coveted minority?  Was he an expert at the French horn?  You’ll never know from Naviance.

Try the College Board college search.  (Yes, I used to recommend Princeton Review, but they’ve tinkered with it so much in the past few years that you now need a college degree to work their program.)  US News & World Report also has an excellent college search tool. They charge $30 to access it for a year, but it has very specific, very accurate information.  Between US News and the College Board, you’ll have all the college information you need to start building a list.

Think of how far away from home you want to be.  Think of what majors you want your school to have.  Do you care if your school has a big football team?  Is on-campus housing important to you?  How do you feel about Greek life (fraternities and sororities)?

You want your list to be huge at first, maybe 30 – 40 schools.  Include every possibility.  Then start narrowing.  Are religious schools out?  How about urban schools without a campus?  Please don’t eliminate a school just because you haven’t heard of it, and don’t include schools that don’t fit your needs just because your friends are talking about them.  Build a list on your own.

Once you have a list, group your schools geographically.  Can you visit all the New York State schools over a three-day trip?  What about Pennsylvania schools or Boston schools? You’ll probably want to take a few weekends to visit schools, so start looking for weekends that work for your parents.  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! Then go online and find out when those schools have available tours and/or information sessions.

Don’t forget to make appointments for school tours and information sessions.  The most popular dates fill up quickly.

While you’re online, definitely fill out the “send me more information” page at each school.  That’s how they know you’re  considering them.  Once the schools get specific information from you, they can send you targeted brochures for your interests or major or any scholarships that you might fit.

After you  make your list, go to visit schools.  You don’t have to see every school to which you might apply.  You don’t have to visit your reach schools.  Face it, if you get into Harvard, you’re going.  Who cares what the dorm rooms look like!  Visit the schools that are most likely to admit you.  Visit different categories of schools:  urban, suburban, rural, large, small, northern, southern – whatever your categories are.

Next, start writing your essay.  The Common App is live as of August 1st.  You can read the essay prompts here, so get started now!

Please don’t wait until school starts to begin the essay.  Sure, some English teachers give you time to work on your essay in class, but they don’t have much experience with the new prompts (prompts changed just last year and are radically different from prompt over the past 10 years or so) and they don’t know you particularly well.  Don’t tell me you work best under pressure.  They’ll be plenty of pressure in the coming few months.   A well-thought-out essay may require several drafts.  You may pick one topic, begin writing, and realize the essay is a dud and you’d be better off with a different topic.  You don’t have to polish it up now, but you should most definitely begin right away.  Get off Facebook and start writing!

Also, you should be making a comprehensive list of everything you’ve done in high school.

List:

  • academic achievements (pins, awards, honors)
  • after school clubs
  • sports
  • paid jobs (even babysitting)
  • volunteer jobs
  • community service

You need the name of the activity, the group you did it for or with, the dates, and perhaps a 5-word description.

Once you complete your list, show it to your parents.  You’re bound to have forgotten something!

After you really complete your list, make a resume.  Look online for samples.  The most important thing about a resume is that it is error-free. Have someone else review it.  Now you have something to bring with you on interviews, and completing college applications is SO much easier when you already have completed a resume.  Trust me!

If you follow all these suggestions, you should be busy until school starts (sorry about that!).

Need more help or advice?  Feel free to book some time with me (http://meetme.so/WendySegalTutoring ).

Good luck!

 

 

best college

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

June 2, 2014

Applying to College: The Common Application Changes and Advice

Back in the caveman days when I was applying to college, a student picked out 2 or 3 or even 4 colleges, wrote out each application as nearly as possible, got a large manilla envelope, mailed it in to the admissions department, and waited patiently for a thin or thick envelope in return.

Now kids apply to several colleges electronically, mostly via one application which is sent to many college with a few clicks.  Or at least that’s students and parents who haven’t waded into the college application process believe.

Here’s where they’re wrong:

  • Most colleges do accept the Common App, but not all do.  Some use their own application and some offer the Universal Application, a Common App alternative.
  • Students still have to send away for transcripts for any college-level classes they’ve taken in high school (like College Spanish, for example, or SUPA English), and have them sent to each college to which they apply (and each transcript comes with a fee).
  • Students have to send each SAT and ACT they want the colleges to see to each college – again, with a fee for each test and each college.  Just listing your scores on the application isn’t enough.
  • Students now apply to 12 – 14 colleges because they can complete just one form (at about $70 per application).  Because so many kids apply to so many colleges, each subsequent student has to do the same or risk not being accepted to a selection of schools. Colleges encourage this volume of applications because they’ll have more students to decline.  Sure, they have more students from which to choose, but just as importantly, they’ll have lots of students to turn down.  The more students they decline, the more selective the school appears to be, and therefore the more desirable.
  • About two-thirds of the colleges add a supplemental essay (or two or three or four!) to “personalize” the application.  Some colleges have boring, predictable essays, like “Why do you want to go to our college?” or “Why do you want to major in what you want to major in?” but others try to be creative with their supplemental essays, like “If you could have dinner with any person living, dead, or fictional, who would it be and why?” or “What’s your favorite word and why?”  Of course, there’s THE college application essay, the one that’s going to go to all colleges, but don’t forget about all the supplements you’ll have to write.

Last year, the Common App people changed the Common App substantially.  Some of the changes made the application a little easier to manage technically.  Other changes made the application much less appealing.  (I wasn’t the only one who found the changes frustrating.  Read this article from last year’s NBC news.)  Among the changes I object to:

The student used to be able to download a copy of the blank Common App.  The student could use this template to gather all the information necessary before sitting down to input that information.  Because the application website is timed,  it makes sense to have all the data on hand before you start.  (Do you know your guidance counselor’s fax number?  Do you know what year your father graduated from college?)  Last year, they decided that no hard copy would be available.  NEWS: there is now a paper copy of the Common App which your guidance counselor can download for those students who want to fill it out in advance of typing in the information online.  (I can also download it for my students.  I’m not sure if students will be able to download it on their own.)
The Common Application essay used to be general, with the last option being “an essay of your choice.”  They took that away.  The current options are narrow and geared primarily for students who have a story to tell.  If I my own sons were high school juniors, I’d certainly have them working on those essays over the summer.  (Take a look at the essay topics.)  No matter how busy you are during the summer, it’s likely that you’ll be busier in September and October.  You can’t create an account on the Common App website until August 1, but you can certainly start on the essay.

Because of all the changes – and the increased number of colleges accepting the Common App – the website crashed very frequently last year.  If you were one of the students who waited for the deadline day to apply, you likely weren’t able to apply to many colleges on your list.

My advice?  

  • Write your Common App essay over the summer. (Yes, I absolutely can help with the essay writing process! )
  • Create a resume over the summer (or at least list all of your academic honors, your sports, your community service, your extra-curricular activities, and your paid jobs (yes, babysitting counts).
  • Ask your guidance counselor to print out a copy of the Common App for you now, before the guidance counselors are gone for the summer.
  • Go on Common App website as soon as you can after August 1st to create an account.

As always, I’ll keep an eye on the news and let you know if there are any updates on the college application process.

Let me know if I can help or answer questions for you.1527059_691929960832285_1905266631_n

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

 

March 6, 2014

Everything You Need to Know about Changes to the New SAT

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The College Board today announced sweeping and substantive changes to the SATs (click here to get the College Board summary).  Note that these changes will go into effect in 2016 and will affect current ninth graders.   If you are in 10th through 12th grade, none of these changes apply to you.

Here are my initial thoughts and a review of the changes – before I read what my colleagues and the pundits have to say about the one-hour announcement I just heard streaming live.

Clearly, the College Board takes itself very seriously.  It seems to think that the success of America – and indeed the world – is dependent on what the College Board does.  There were soaring pronouncements of how their new test and policies will lead to more minority students applying to more selective colleges and thereby able to go on to more successful lives.  Specifically, the College Board is going to be focused on supporting worthy African Americans, “Hispanics,” and Native Americans in a most avuncular way.  (Sorry, I didn’t mean to use what the College Board now calls an “SAT word,” one which their spokesman said isn’t likely to be encountered in the real world.  Forget you heard me use “avuncular.”  I didn’t mean to be supercilious.  Oops, I’ve done it again!)  The spokesperson implied we already have quite a few Asians (and we all know that all Asians are alike, don’t we?) who take AP classes and apply to selective schools, but what about the other minorities?  They will be given college application waivers and will be encouraged to take AP classes in high school and will be given counseling to make sure they apply to more selective colleges.  (Sadly, the College Board spokesman didn’t address the dismal rate of non-completion of college by these same minorities.  It’s good to get them in, but more attention has to be given to why there are such high minority withdrawal and/or failure rates.)  Much of the College Board’s initial comments had to do with encouraging more students to take more AP tests.  I wonder who designs AP tests, which cost about $90 each to take?  Oh, yes – the College Board!

MAJOR CHANGES:

1.  SAT tutors like me seem to be at the heart of the problem.  David Coleman, head of the College Board, said that my helping students prepare for the SATs isn’t fair.  And my charging for my time, effort, and expertise REALLY isn’t fair. So he’s going to help students prepare for the SATs.  Khan Academy, which I actually really respect and often recommend to students, will be providing free online videos and sample SAT questions.  Of course, he also said the College Board designed the new SAT to be one that will require diligence (oops, another “SAT word”!) and achievement in ongoing class work so that prepping won’t really help, but never mind – they’ll provide free prepping anyway.  But it won’t help.  But they’re going to give it to you for free.  But it won’t help.  (Yes, he spent a lot of time on that point.)

2.  Writing is crucial to high school and college success – so they’re going to make the essay optional, just like it is on the ACT.  (I wonder if colleges will, after 2016, stop requiring the ACT with writing now that it’s optional for both tests.  I hope so.  A quick, on-the-spot essay is a poor way of judging writing skills no matter what the essay topic is.)  The essay, if a student wants to take it, will be scored separately and will NOT be part of the SAT score.  The new 50-minute essay will be somewhat like a DBQ (document-based question) in that you’ll be asked to read a persuasive essay and/or a series of graphs and explain the persuasive logic employed.  I can’t imagine a lot of kids opting for that essay unless colleges absolutely require it.  The ACT essay, on the other hand, asks students to comment on a topic of general interest to average high school students, like “Should public school students wear uniforms?” or “Is it fair for high schools to require community service?”

3.  They will be going back to a 1600 score, which was the measure before 2005.  Reading and writing (not the essay, just the grammar) will be one combined score out of 800, and math will be the other component, again out of 800.  The essay, as I said, won’t be included in that score, just like they do it on the ACTs.

4.  The reading will include a wider range of subject matter including social studies and science (with graphs and tables), just like they do on the ACTs.  (Are you starting to see a pattern?  By the way, the College Board didn’t say they want to be just like the ACTs, but it’s rather obvious.  Of course, these changes have nothing to do with the fact that, as of last year, more students take the ACTs than the SATs.  Pure coincidence!)  In addition, every SAT will include at least one reading from the seminal (sorry, another “SAT word” that you’ll never see in real life) documents of American government and politics, such as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, or Federalist Papers.  (I’m not sure how this jives with Mr. Coleman’s statement that the SAT is a global test, but never mind about that.)  Questions will be not only on the content of the reading but will ask students to identify how or why they believe their answer to be correct.

5.  As I said before, there will be no more “SAT words” on the SAT.  In fact, there will be no more sentence completion questions at all, just like on the ACTs.  Instead, they will expect students to know myriad meanings (oops!) for words.  The example Mr. Coleman gave was “synthesis.”  Synthesis, he said, is a word that all of see all around us every day.  Not true for me.  Maybe it’s true for you.

6.  Grammar will be assessed within the context of editing, just like on the ACTs, but it will no longer be a separate section.  I actually like that.  This change will prevent students from asking me to tutor the reading only and ignore the grammar, which many colleges don’t care about.  I think everyone, including college admissions people, should care about clear, correct grammar, but that’s just my personal prejudice.

7.  Math will be more practical and will include sections in which students can use a calculator and sections in which they may not.  Actually, that’s another good idea.  As I wrote on my Facebook page recently, a startlingly high number of my suburban, college-bound students cannot add three two-digit numbers without a calculator, and that’s just wrong.

8.  In an effort to make the math more practical, the SATs will focus on numbers, logic, algebra, and functions.  Gosh, who needs geometry?  Certainly not engineers or anyone trying to figure out how much wallpaper to buy for her bedroom!  Coleman seemed to say geometry will be out completely.  (Now you math people can understand my frustration with eliminating vocabulary.)

9.  Biggest change:  there will no longer be a penalty (point deduction) for wrong guesses, just like the ACTs!  Remember, this is only starting in 2016, but I’m sure the 9th graders are relieved.

Why would any student want to take the SAT (after 2016) when the ACT is faster, easier, just as widely accepted, and a known factor, rather than this longer, less familar new SAT?  I certainly will be suggesting that my students, at least in the first year or so after the new test is in place, focus on the ACT.

As I take a deeper look into the changes, I might have more to say, but I was eager to get my take on the announcement out to my students, their parents, and local guidance counselors as soon as possible.

I welcome your comments!

sat cartoon 1

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 2, 2014

Is Early SAT Prep Worth It? Is SAT Tutoring Worth It?

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I recently wrote a blog post with specific advice about how parents can help their students begin preparing for the SATs in middle school and early high school.

This week, a book was touted by local press in which a mother studied for and took seven SATs with her child.  Her advice agreed that it’s most effective to begin preparing years before the actual SATs.

Now I’d like to tell you WHY students should begin to prepare so early – and why it’s never too late or a waste of time and money to engage a private tutor.  

Is this shameless self-promotion?  Not really.  I already have a very busy practice, and this information is valuable whether you choose to work with me or another tutor.  In fact, as the mother who wrote the book (above) showed, you can be as own your child’s tutor if you have the ability and time and if your student will let you!

1.  Your student’s SATs will help him get into an appropriate, affordable college.  You all know that most colleges do consider a student’s SAT and/or ACT scores as part of his application package.  The larger the school, the more it relies on numbers for evaluation – numbers like GPA and SATs.  State colleges especially have a huge number of applicants and rely on numbers to eliminate some students on the bottom and grab some students on the top.  And state colleges – your state’s or another state’s schools – are generally thousands less expensive than a private college or university.

2.  Some colleges use SAT scores to give out merit aid scholarships.  Some just use the math and critical reading scores, others add the writing score.  Money spent on a tutor now might add up to much more money in college aid later.

3.  Very high PSAT scores might get your student a National Merit Letter of Commendation, Semi-Finalist, or Finalist designation.  These designations often turn into scholarship money, but even if your student’s first choice school doesn’t give aid based on the PSATs, a National Merit designation enhances her college application.  All schools like to brag that they have plenty of National Merit Scholars.  With a little early tutoring and the ability to score well on standardized tests, you could be one of those scholars, but the PSATs are given early in 11th grade, so many start working over the summer after 10th grade.

4.  Some employers ask for your SAT scores – even after your student graduates from college.  Articles like this one from the Wall Street Journal come around every year or two.  It might not be fair but it does happen:  Employers look at SAT scores when hiring for some types of white-collar jobs.

And for the most important benefits:

5.  I work with students to improve their grammar skills.  When was the last time your student studied grammar?  Has your student’s English teacher ever explained to her why a sentence written in the passive voice is weaker than one written in the active voice? Writing well is a skill that will be important in college and for most of one’s life.  Write a letter to the editor, write a proposal for a client, write a note to your child’s teacher, write an email to your boss – and you’ll be glad you studied grammar with me.  Your subjects will agree with your verbs, your pronouns will have clear antecedents, and your participles won’t be hanging.  Being able to write clearly and confidently will come in handy even when the SATs are a distant memory.

6.  I work with students to improve their test taking skills.  I watch kids answer test questions 5 days a week.  I watch some kids get low scores even though they have high grades, and others with modest grades get high scores.  Why are some students better test takers?  A private tutor can watch your student answer questions and correct his technique.  Some kids don’t pay enough attention to the question (they read the answers and hope something seems “true” to them).  Some kids second guess themselves and talk themselves out of correct answers due to lack of self-confidence.  Some kids race through questions because they’re afraid of running out of time or just because they want to be done with the test, often misreading questions.  Some kids need remedial vocabulary help (you can’t tell whether an author’s tone is curmudgeonly or benign if you don’t know what those words mean). That level of individualized instruction simply can’t be done in a class or small-group setting, but experienced private tutors do that sort of analysis and correction for a living.

7.  I improve students’ reading comprehension.  Yes, they read novels in school, but are your students reading persuasive essays like those on the SATs – and in news magazines?  Can your student understand an author’s tone – and how an accomplished reader can figure it out?  Many students can give me a one-sentence summary of an essay, but so many can’t put the individual sentences in their own words.  Understanding what you’re reading makes college studies easier. When you really understand what you’re reading, reading becomes less of a chore and more of a pleasure – a lifelong benefit indeed!

peering stupify demise

Wendy Segal

 http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com/

January 28, 2014

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

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

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

There are two changes which will be likely:

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Segal

www.wendysegaltutoring.com

March 8, 2013

Major Changes in Common App Coming This Summer: What To Do Now To Prepare

The makers of the Common Application, known familiarly as “the Common App,” last week announced big changes that will first affect current high school juniors, and then – at least until the Committee gets the urge to tweak it again – all younger students in turn.

For those who are unfamiliar with the college application “game” (and by “game,” I mean something akin to medieval torture), the Common App was designed to allow applicants to fill in their basic information (name, address, interests, grades, scores) once rather than over and over for each college application.  Moreover, the Common App allows the student to write one mighty, well-crafted, heavily reviewed and edited masterpiece essay that all schools (at least all schools that accept the Common App) will accept.  It should have been a boon to those applying to many colleges, as most students now do.  (My older son applied to 12 colleges; my younger son applied to 14!)  Sadly, while it is a great help to guidance counselors who used to have to mail hard copies of transcripts and recommendations to all those colleges, the Common App has not been much help to the average bedraggled college applicant.

Here’s what went wrong with the Common App:  Each college, in its quest to appear unique, takes advantage of the opportunity to require a supplement, which includes questions on legacy (family members who attended that college), major, and, of course, another essay or two – or three.  These supplements, over the past few years, have gotten longer and more complicated, and have substantially eroded any benefit the common app had to high school kids.

So what are these big changes?

1.  The activity essay is gone.  Too bad.  I rather liked that one.  It asked students to expand upon a particular after-school activity that they do and explain why it is important to them in under 150 words.  Gone.

2.  The three submission areas – application, supplement, and fee – have been consolidated into two submissions, with the supplement now part of the application.  Sort of (read on).

3.  The supplement ESSAYS are now a distinct submission, which means you can submit your application now and finish the essays later, as long as the whole thing is done before the deadline.  Sort of cancels the benefit of combining three submissions into two, doesn’t it?  We’re now back to three submissions  for each college, and three chances to fail to complete your application by only submitting one or two of the three required submissions.

4.  Download-able, paper versions of the forms have been eliminated.  I’ve always advised students to print out a blank copy of the Common App and complete that in pencil before completing the form online.  The Common App times out if you take too long between answers.  So while you look up your guidance counselor’s fax number or while you call your dad at work to find out what year he graduated from college, you’re timed out.  You did hit “save,” right?  Well, maybe it saved, and maybe it didn’t.  The best strategy is to fill out the application hard copy, and then you can type in your answers all at once.

TIP:  Print out a hard copy of the application NOW before they delete it this summer.  It will be a little different from the version you fill out online, but the questions will be the same.

5.  You can no longer upload the Common App main essay.  You can either type it directly onto the form (not a good idea – too easy to overlook a typo), or you can select, save, and paste (much safer).  Still, it’s an annoying extra step.

6.  The Common App essay topics have changed drastically.  There is no longer a “topic of your choice” choice.  There are only five choices (click here and scroll down), and you have to pick one.

TIP:  It may seem early to you, but there’s no harm in starting to think about the topics NOW.  You might try writing an essay for each topic, or at least two or three.  Write a few essays and put them aside for a month or two.  Coming at them after a break will give you a fresh perspective.  Are they still interesting and relevant?  Would your best friend’s mom or your aunt find it interesting?  Keep thinking, and you’ll be ready to tackle the essay in earnest over the summer.

7.  The length of the Common App essay has changed.  For many years, it was a maximum of 500 words.  Three or four years ago, they changed it to a minimum of 250 words with no upper limit.  Bad idea.  The upper limit of 500 words came back quickly.  The new limit will be a minimum of 250 words and a new upper limit of 650 words.  650 is a maximum, not a suggested target.  A 500-word essay might fit your needs better.  Wordier is not necessarily smarter or more clever or more engaging. And they will cut you off at 650.  Not 651.  You don’t want them to think you don’t know how to follow directions, do you?

8.  A new optional “additional information” essay has been added.  Some colleges used to include this in their supplement, but it will now be part of the standard Common App.  If you truly have nothing else to say, don’t feel you need to fill this section up with trivial information.  But if you need to explain bad grades (did you move from town to town?) or excessive absences (did you have to take care of an ailing parent?) or a lack of activities (were you required to babysit younger siblings so your parents could work?), use this space to explain what might look like a serious negative on your application.

9.  The arts supplement will be hosted off-site, and the athletic supplement will be discontinued.

10.  You will be able to edit your application (but not the essay) after your first submission.  So, if you notice you made a mistake after you submit one application, you can correct it before the next application.  HOORAY!  The inability to correct a mistake has always been my primary objection to the Common App.  Can I say it again?  HOORAY!!

There are other minor changes, but these are the big changes that were announced recently.

If you need help on the applications or essays over the summer or in the fall, you know where to find me!

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

December 10, 2012

Is SAT Tutoring Worth It?

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

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

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

What type of prep are you considering?

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

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

What kind of help do you need?

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

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

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

How much time do you have before the test?

  • days
  • weeks
  • months
  • years

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

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

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

Don’t spend more than an hour or two a week.  Surprised, right? Well, this is only a test.   Actually, it’s a test to see how well you can take this test.  The SATs won’t determine where you go to college.  They won’t tell you if you’ll have a satisfying job, an attractive spouse, healthy children.  The SATs don’t determine much of anything — and I make my living from the SATs.  But colleges do look at scores.  And employers, especially those employing graduates right out of college, can and do ask for SAT scores.  So you want to do as well as you can without going crazy.

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

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

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

I look forward to your thoughts!

Wendy Segal

October 5, 2012

How to Write the SAT Essay

First, I need to tell you that the SAT essay doesn’t count for much.  It’s 30% of the writing section, and the writing section is only one third of the SATs – and the least important third, at that.  The colleges know that most writers don’t do their best work with a forced topic in 25 minutes.  So promise me you won’t stress over the essay, okay?

Here’s the bottom line:  What the graders are looking for in the SAT essay is length.   They’d prefer a long, mediocre essay to a short, powerful essay.  So keep writing until you’ve used up all the space they allow you, which is the equivalent of about both sides of a sheet of notebook paper.

The best way to answer the question is to think of three examples to support your position:  an example from literature, an example from history, and an example from current events.  If you can’t think of one, double up on the other.  So if you can’t think of an example from history, use two works of literature, or two current events, or even one current event and one movie/fable/song/TV show.

Suppose the question is, “Do kids have heroes any more?”  You should be thinking, “In what book I’ve read in school (NOT Harry Potter!) is there a hero?”  What comes to my mind first is Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.  (That’s a great book to use, by the way.  It has lots of juicy themes.  If you don’t remember it, go read the SparkNotes to re-familiarize yourself.)

Then I’m thinking that George Washington is a hero (father of our country and all that), and that the first responders on 9/11 were heroes.  Add an intro that mentions all three examples in case you don’t get to finish (they’ll see where you were going), and a one-sentence conclusion if you have time, and you’ve got yourself an 8 out of 12, presuming your grammar and spelling aren’t atrocious.

8 out of 12 is pretty good, sort of like a B+.  Not amazing, not embarrassing.  Just pretty good.

How do you get better than an 8?

Make sure your examples are connected or related.  What if I picked Atticus Finch again, but this time, I asked myself, “WHY is he a hero?”  He’s a hero because he was a white man who stood up for the rights of an unfairly accused black man in a prejudiced town.  This time, instead of a history example that just happened to pop into my head (George Washington), I think, “Do I know of anyone or group of people in history who also stood up for African Americans – even though he or they weren’t part of that group?” Perhaps now I think of Abraham Lincoln instead, since he championed the freedom of blacks despite the risks to his political career and his life.

And instead of the first responders, perhaps this time I think of whites who marched in civil rights marches in the south to protest unfair treatment of blacks in education and housing and transportation and other areas.

NOW my introduction starts with that theme, that heroes are people who stand up for others who can’t stand up for themselves.  NOW my examples are connected and make sense.  NOW, if I can write a decent essay, I get a 10 or 11 out of 12.

What if the question can’t be answered with a book, a historical example, and a current example?  What if the question is something like, “Are innovations in technology always a good thing?”

If your answer includes three thematically-tied examples, you’re on your way to an outstanding essay.  You might use the railroad, the car, and the plane either as examples of innovations that were good or flawed, but they’re all transportation.  You might use the pager, the car phone, and the cell phone, but they’re all communication devices.

Let me end as I began.  The essay just isn’t that important.  But why not get as good a score as you can?  Three linked examples in a long, long essay should do the trick.

Wendy Segal

http://www.wendysegaltutoring.com

July 25, 2012

Everything You Need to Know About The College Application Essay

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

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

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

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

Print out the common application.  Every college application is some variation of this form.  You’ll want to complete this in pencil, so hang on to the version you’ve printed out.  The essay questions are at the end of the application.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lastly, keep it to 500 words. That’s about one side of a typed page at size 12 font.  When the application says 500 words, they mean 500 words or less.  Not 501.  501 says you don’t know how to follow directions, you don’t know how to edit, or you think what you have to say is more important than what other kids have to say.  Take the word counts seriously!

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

But don’t take so long that the summer passes by completely.  Get started now, and let me know if you need help getting started.

Wendy Segal

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