3 Tasks to Complete the Summer Before Senior Year

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Now that the school year has officially ended, both students and parents can breath a collective sigh of relief! The summer has finally arrived and should be treated as an important time for rest, fun, and the pursuit of enriching extracurricular activities. While the three-month summer break should be just that (“a break”), there are three tasks that I always encourage prospective high school seniors to engage in over the summer to alleviate the stressful college application experience once they arrive back at school.

1) Research (and Visit) Prospective Colleges
Seniors are often surprised by how little time they actually have to complete their college applications once they return to school in the Fall. “Early” applications are often due within 6-8 weeks after school resumes (November 1st) and “Regular Decision” applications only a few months thereafter (January 1st). Because there is such a preponderance of work to finish in such a short period of time, I always encourage students to visit as many schools as possible before they commence their Senior year. Try spending a few weeks at the beginning of the summer researching prospective schools and dedicating the second half of the summer to visiting as many of those schools as possible. Remember: Colleges remain open all summer long and are expecting visitors. Make sure to take formal campus tours and log your name into their “Campus Tour” Registers (FYI: some schools place added weight on applicants who have visited their campus).

2) Prepare for Upcoming Standardized Tests
An overwhelming majority of prospective Seniors will (and should) attempt to improve upon their SAT/ACT and/or Subject Test scores at least once during the Fall of their Senior year. My advice to these students: Do not let procrastination set in! I have helped students prepare for the SAT & ACT exams for well over a decade and can say with confidence that focused students tend to experience their biggest score increases over the summer. Completing as little as 30 minutes of test prep each day throughout the summer will not only help stave off potential rust, but will enable students to demonstrably raise their all-important test scores in the Fall.

3) Begin Working on the “Personal Statement”
Perhaps the most time-consuming and challenging aspect of the entire college application experience is the 650-word “Personal Statement” section to the Common Application. Most students are not used to writing about themselves and often struggle with the exercise, at least initially. Therefore, I always encourage students to begin thinking about possible Personal Statement topics at the beginning of the summer and to attempt to craft at least one or two successful drafts of the essay by the conclusion of the summer. I will provide more tips on how to write a successful Personal Statement in a later article.

 

2 Ways to Improve Your Reading Score on the SAT & ACT

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The SAT and ACT’s “Reading” portions are often the hardest sections for students to improve upon.  While students can easily raise their Math and Writing scores by learning various mathematical formulas and grammar rules, respectively, there aren’t any such shortcuts for the Reading section. The SAT and ACT’s Critical Reading sections vary slightly (the SAT features vocabulary questions, for instance, while the ACT does not), but the principles of both tests are very much the same. Students who are rather voracious readers typically fare better on the Reading portion because they are able to identify the subtleties and nuances in the passages that the SAT and ACT test on.  I have found that the following two tips have helped students develop the requisite skills necessary to be successful on the Reading sections of both tests.

1) Read 30-60 Additional Minutes Every Night
It is important to make a commitment to reading more leading up to the exam.  Most students are able to demonstrably improve their reading comprehension skills in as little as 2-3 months of consistent nightly reading. I encourage students to begin this process by reading anything that they may find appealing (sports stories, biographies, magazine articles etc.).  As students progress in this process, however, they should eventually transition to more challenging material, such as the New York Times or New Yorker Magazine. Such publications are representative of the passages the SAT & ACT will include in their tests. Remember: it is always better to read slower if it will enable you to understand each detail of the text.  Speed and accuracy will improve over time.

2) Keep a Vocabulary Journal
While many test prep centers advocate memorizing thousand word vocabulary lists in preparation for the Reading section, I’ve found that it is always better to learn new words as you naturally encounter them.  If students are engaging in 30-60 additional minutes of reading a night (see point #1), they will most assuredly stumble upon scores of new words.  It is important to practice good reading habits and not to skip over any words that you cannot reasonably define or explain.  I recommend that students stop to catalogue each word they do not know by writing it down as well as its part of speech (noun, verb…etc.), definition, and the sentence of the article/book in which they encountered the new word.  Students will soon not only develop an organic list of new words that they have taught themselves, but will be better able to integrate this new vocabulary in to their vernacular.

It is important to remember that there are no shortcuts or quick fixes for the Reading section.  It takes hard-work and determination to experience success on this section.  However, these two basic approaches have yielded great results with students who have historically struggled on these sections of the test.

When is the Right Time to Take the SAT/ACT?

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The recent New York Times article When to Take the SAT chronicles a disturbing new trend in which students are preparing for and taking the SAT & ACT exams at an earlier age than ever before. The article points out that more than ten times as many middle school students completed an SAT test in 2014 than in 2010 and that this trend is likely to continue in the years to come. School districts at the middle school (and elementary school!) levels have already begun implementing SAT/ACT test prep into educational curricula while an increasing number of Test Prep Centers are advocating preparing for these exams at younger and younger ages!

The fact of the matter is that the SAT & ACT are very important exams that students should spend considerable time preparing for, however, there is very little to be gained by studying for these tests before Sophomore year. Both exams test students on advanced mathematical, grammatical, literary, and, in the case of the ACT, scientific principles that are rather universally included in Freshman, Sophomore and Junior high school curricula. The overwhelming majority of students I work with on these exams see their scores rise rather significantly from the end of their Sophomore year to the end of Junior year as they finish learning the aforementioned concepts in high school. Furthermore, there are seven SAT and six ACT tests administered each academic year with no limit or penalty for taking these tests multiple times. If test-anxiety is an issue, students can take the SAT and ACT exam as many times as they want their Sophomore, Junior and Senior year to achieve their desired.

In my experience, the best course of action is to focus on school work before weighing various test prep options one’s Sophomore or Junior year.

4 Key Differences Between the SAT & ACT Exams

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Several families I work with have recently asked me to clarify the key differences between the SAT and ACT exams. Do colleges prefer one over the other? Do both tests require students to write essays? Does the ACT  really benefit math/science-oriented students because it includes an additional Science section? Both tests are approximately the same length, include written components, and are regarded as equal by most universities, but as far as I’m concerned that is where many of the similarities end.

While the prevailing sentiment engendered by most guidance counselors is that the differences between the two tests are quite minimal, I have had an altogether different experience. One student I worked with recently, for instance, had trouble scoring above an 1800 on the SAT. Yet, her score on the ACT test was a 29.5 (equivalent to a 2050 on the SAT). Conventional wisdom would suggest that this student had a greater aptitude for Math and Science, but she had only ever taken two AP classes in high school: AP English and AP History. I’ve prepared students for each exam and have truthfully found them to be markedly different. Here are a few key differences that I hope will help you make an informed decision when it comes time to choose which test is right for you.

1) Time-Management: The format of the SAT and ACT could not be more different. The SAT features 10 “shorter” sections and asks students to frequently revisit sections at random. For instance, a student may be asked to answer Math questions on sections 2, 5, and 10. The ACT, on the other hand, features four “longer” sections, each of which focuses exclusively on a single subject. Ultimately, I find that the SAT benefits more versatile test-takers who don’t struggle with time-management issues and who can effortlessly switch gears between subjects. For students who utilize different test-taking strategies depending on the subject, I would suggest the ACT exam because it allows you to more easily focus your attention on a specific subject.

2) The ACT Does Not Test on Vocabulary: I hesitate to say that the ACT offers an “easier” English section, but the truth of the matter is that its questions are more straightforward and generally result in higher scores with the students I work with. I believe that the reason for this is twofold. First, the ACT does not ask vocabulary questions of any kind. The SAT will usually ask 15-18 vocabulary related questions. Second, the SAT asks many more inference-based questions that test the ability of students to detect and discern the subtle nuances of a passage. The ACT asks far fewer sub-textual questions, instead opting to test students on function and form.

3) The ACT’s Science Section is Not as Hard as One Might Think: Most students are intimidated by the ACT because it features an additional Science section that the SAT does not, but you don’t have to be a science wizard to perform well on this section. The Science component of the ACT generally asks students to interpret various data sets (i.e. charts, graphs…etc.). The truth of the matter is that the ACT Science section seldom tests students on topics that would require more formal scientific training. I usually find that students exceed their performance expectations on this section after only a few practice tests. The existence of this section should not deter any student from considering taking the ACT exam.

4) The ACT Math Section is Challenging: I can not emphasize this point enough. The ACT Math section offers consistently more challenging questions, including Log functions, Sine/CoSine/Tangent trigonometric functions…etc. The SAT does not generally test students to this degree. While you do not need to be an AP Math student to perform well on this test, it is essential that a student taking the ACT know basic trigonometry and pre-Calculus formulas to receive a strong score on this section. In general, I notice that non-AP math students I work with score approximately 100 points better on the SAT math section.

I hope this is a helpful breakdown of the Pros and Cons of both tests!

Three Important (& Necessary) Changes to the SAT Exam

As educators and parents of prospective test-takers may have heard by this point, the College Board is implementing sweeping adjustments to the SAT exam beginning in the fall of 2016. Here are three changes that I am particularly excited about and feel are long overdue!

1) The Essay Component is Now Optional
While I believe that a student’s ability to write a clear and cogent essay is arguably one of the most important metrics by which a college can gauge the success of a prospective student, I’ve always felt that the current SAT format does not represent an accurate indicator of such a skill. The SAT’s essay component does not reward writers who prefer to take a few extra minutes to thoughtfully craft a response. Instead, it asks test-takers to write a hurried 3-page essay to a previously unknown prompt in a scant 25 minutes. There are many deft writers who cannot compose responses under these highly pressurized conditions, which is why I believe that it is only fair that this portion of the test become optional.

2) Removing the Penalty for Incorrect Answers
Students will no longer be penalized for answering a question incorrectly. The current SAT scoring system discourages students from taking educated guesses in fear that an incorrect response will result in a rather harsh quarter point penalty. Some students are able to accurately eliminate three of a possible five answers choices on a particular question before selecting an incorrect answer. Yet, the current guidelines seemingly do not distinguish this student from one who is blindly guessing among any of a possible five answer choices. In my estimation, the new scoring guidelines will surely reward students who are able to make more educated and accurate guesses.

3) The Elimination of “Rarefied” Vocabulary
The College Board has pledged to rid the test of antiquated and esoteric vocabulary in favor of more commonly used words. The ACT did away with this unnecessary exercise long ago, yet the SAT clung to the belief that a rich vocabulary was paramount to future success. It is important to have a rich vocabulary, but young students have the rest of their lives to improve their language skills.