Author Archives: Brian

A Range of Difficulties on Standardized Tests

After taking the SAT or ACT students will often complain that the test was tougher than what they practiced for. They will also often say that it was easier than they expected. However, these observations don’t necessarily mean that student scores will go up or down. On the contrary, a test isn’t helpful to colleges trying to gauge a student’s ability if the test isn’t consistent. In order to ensure consistency in score the ACT and SAT curve scores according to the difficulty of the specific test taken.

So what does the mean for students taking the test? Well, first of all, students should do a wide range of practice from the easiest things they can find to the toughest.  Practicing a wide range of difficulties will allow students to be ready for anything.  This will hopefully allow students to remain calm on the test no matter what is thrown at them.

Second, students need to remember to stick to their strategies regardless of the difficulty. The temptation with easy tests is to zip right through it. However, this leads to simple, small mistakes; the curve on the easier tests makes those mistakes costly. Conversely, students need to make sure to stay calm on the tougher tests. Mistakes on those really difficult questions won’t count against them as much, but panicking will cause more mistakes. Having strategies in place and sticking to those strategies will help students maximize their scores on both ends of the spectrum.

In the end, students need to remember that they can’t control what is on the tests. They can only control how they react to it. Through careful and deliberate practice, students can ensure that they react in a calm manner which will allow them to live up to their potential!

The Grade/Test Score Gap

One of the most common comments I hear from parents during the tutoring process is that their students get good grades. Parents are confused as to why ACT or SAT scores aren’t on par with their student’s grades.  I also often hear the reverse from students who talk about friends and classmates who “seem dumb” or “have horrible grades” and yet do very well on standardized tests. The reason behind this is that most standardized tests are testing things that aren’t reflected in grades or directly taught in school. This makes sense though, since if the tests and the grades reflected the same things then colleges wouldn’t require SAT or ACT scores and would just look at student grades!

The issue for colleges is that different schools and even different teachers within schools have different grading criteria. Everyone knows that some teachers are an “easy A” while other teachers really make students work for good grades. How, then, are colleges supposed to compare two different students who have been in different schools with different teachers?

This is where the tests come in. Take the ACT for example. The first two sections of this test are fairly content based. They test how much students have been paying attention in English and math classes. Consequently, a student who does poorly in these subjects can improve their subject level understanding through hard work and thus improve their score (given that they have enough time). Students who have achieved good grades through cramming or other non-long-term learning solutions (like making sure they have easy teachers) may struggle with the content.
Despite being content exams, many people don’t realize that these exams are also testing other skills that are not explicitly taught in school. The math, for example combines many forms of math that students have learned over time forcing them to employ critical thinking skills to solve problems in new ways. Many teachers only test one math concept at a time so this is a struggle for many students. The English asks students not just to proofread for grammar and punctuation but also for understandability and clarity of message- another thing that students don’t often practice in school.

The second two portions of ACT test are not so much content based. They test quick reading comprehension and scientific comprehension. Many students read well enough to get by in school but have to put a lot of effort into all assignments. These students work very hard and long hours to ensure that reading is completed and understood. The standardized tests set a time limit, though, so that students who have good grades through hard work don’t have the time to complete the tests. Naturally good readers- students who have for the past ten years been ignoring classes to read a novel under their desks- excel.

The science has similar issues. When students in school don’t understand scientific information, they ask the teacher who explains it to them.  This doesn’t allow them to develop the skills they need to digest scientific data as required by the ACT. On the test, students are presented with information and concepts they’ve never seen before and, instead of having someone explain it, they need to figure it out by themselves- and quickly! Students who do well in science classes may still not have the skills needed to succeed.

In short- getting good grades does not mean that students have developed the quick critical thinking skills that colleges want and that these exams test for. Students need to take classes that will challenge them to develop critical thinking skills. They need to learn to read and understand complex questions quickly- not the simple to-the-point questions that are often asked in schools. Mostly, they need to read every day from an early age so that their reading comprehension skills are advanced enough for them to quickly understand each passage and every question.  These are the skills that will lead to high test scores.

The Summer Vacation Question

“What should I do this summer?” This is a question that I hear often. Students and parents want to know about the best camps, the best volunteer opportunities, the best jobs for the summer. Really what they’re asking though is, “what is the best way to pad my resume”. My response is generally the same- don’t. I’m not saying that you should sit at home all summer, eat cereal out of the box, and do nothing productive. Instead, I’m saying you should spend your summer pursuing your passion.  After all, what colleges really want are people who genuinely care, who will be active on campus, who will achieve great new things. You’re not going to do any of that if you are filling your free time with things you think will look good that you don’t really care about.

A second danger in not following your passion during your free time is that you’ll be showing colleges a false picture of yourself. If you spend every free moment volunteering (but really aren’t that into it) you may get into that college that values community service. Then, you’ll spend four years there, surrounded by people who are really into something that you don’t really care about. Your passions reflect who you are and they’ll help you get into a school where you fit in- but only if you’re honest.

Another concern that students have is about working over the summer or during the school year. They’re worried that having a job that takes up most of their time will make their applications look empty. Students should always include any job they’ve had on applications. Schools understand that many students need to work in order to help their families, or to provide spending, saving, and car money for themselves. Being able to have a job while balancing school and family as well as anything else shows colleges that students are responsible, dependable, and hard- working. Putting necessity before passion does not harm your application. Admission reps are humans; they understand.

In short, stop thinking so much about what you should do to get into college. Instead, do what you want to do or what you have to do. In doing so you’ll be able to show colleges the true you and if they don’t accept the true you then maybe you wouldn’t have been that happy at that college anyway.

ACT Academy: Friend or Foe

Recently, the ACT released a new practice tool called “ACT Academy”. This is their response to the SAT pairing up with Khan Academy. The ACT realized they too needed to be offering free online prep or they would risk losing students to their main competitor: the SAT. Khan Academy is well known for having excellent review of concepts and for being one of the best free online instructors available. The ACT, however, in a rush to create and release this new product, has fallen short of that mark.

The wonderful thing about Khan Academy is that it isn’t just practice tests. It offers comprehensive review of concepts through video and practice. The ACT has tried to duplicate this success. While the ACT’s practice tests are great resources which students should be using, the review process through video and practice has a few problems. The practice questions do not always reflect concepts and wording used on the test. In addition, the answer explanations are often brief. In some cases, there is no explanation at all but merely a video which explains the concept but not that specific question.

In addition to the review (which I do not recommend) and the practice tests (which I do) there is also a section on strategy for the test. This section is by far the worst part of ACT Academy. The strategies appear to be written by someone who hasn’t taken the test since they were in high school twenty years ago. The suggested strategies include one that asks the students to compete a passage every 11/2 minutes. Anyone who has worked with students or taken this test recently will know that timing every thirty seconds is something most students don’t want to have to worry about during a high-pressure exam. The strategies page is also riddled with typos which indicates that not a lot of thought was put into its creation.

In short, while the practice tests on this website are a great resource, the review and strategies offered are not up to par with the ACT’s usually high standards. Likely this is because the ACT rushed to release the Academy more quickly than they should have. In all likelihood as time passes they will fix many of the issues, but for now it is best to stick to more tried and true methods of preparation such as taking official practice tests or working with an experienced and trusted tutor or instructor.

State Funded Standardized Tests: SAT

Last year, the State of Ohio decided to pay for one standardized test for each junior in the state.  This decision was made after the ACT and SAT were included as pathways for graduation and, in part, to help reduce college application costs for families. Last year (as far as I know) all the schools here in central Ohio chose to have their juniors take the ACT. This year, however, one very large public district and one small private school are choosing to give their students the SAT as their free test.  Many of my students who attend these schools are curious as to why they are being forced to take the SAT: a test that is largely forgotten by most students in Ohio.  For many students who have chosen to focus on the ACT this is a nuisance. It is simply another test on their schedule that they have to study for even though they already have ACT scores that will take them to the college of their choice.  I believe that the school districts, however, have made a choice that will be good for many students.

The ACT and SAT are more similar now than they ever have been before. However, the tests still have differences that make some people more prone to succeed on one over another. For example, deep thinking and algebra strong students tend to succeed more readily on the SAT. Most students don’t realize this. They plan on taking the ACT because that’s what all their friends are taking and what (most) schools have as their standard junior test. By forcing students to try the SAT schools are helping students realize what test they are better on so that they can focus on it from there on out.

If your junior is at a school where they are offering the SAT encourage him or her to go in with an open mind and just do his or her best. Afterword, ask him or her which test felt more comfortable. Then, when scores come out see which one is better and have the student focus on that test moving forward. If your junior doesn’t go to a school where the SAT is being offered, consider signing up for a public test date. After all, you’ll never know if you don’t try!

When Should I Guess On the ACT?

The ACT is always quick to remind students that there is no guessing penalty on the test. Fill in every answer, they assert. But it’s more complicated than that. After all, every question is worth the exact same amount. It’s not like in school where a tough question might be worth four points while a simple one is worth one. On the ACT, regardless of difficulty, every question is worth the same. Given that it is a timed test, students should focus on completing the easy questions first so as to maximize their score potential.  Then, if you are running out of time, all that you have to guess on are the difficult questions, questions you might have missed anyway, questions that would have taken a lot of time. Leave no easy question on the table!  All you need to know to implement this strategy is where the easy questions are on the test!

The English section is the place where it is more difficult to tell the difference between easy and hard questions. In general, there are two types of questions: those that ask about nitpicky details and those that ask about the big picture. Do a practice test and try to see which ones you do worse on. Then, save those for the end of each passage. Fewer people run out of time on the English section than any other section of the test, so  it’s okay if you aren’t sure. There is a good chance you won’t need to use this strategy on the English.

The math section is the easiest to remember. The questions start out at a fairly easy level and get progressively more difficult throughout the test with the last ten questions being by far the most difficult.  If you routinely run out of time on the math focus on crushing 1-30, completing 30-50, and just guessing on 50-60.

On the reading, timing tends to be tough for just about everyone. The questions are in no particular order of difficulty so you need to learn what tough questions look like. Start on each passage with questions that tell you where the answer is. If a question says in line 27… then that will be a question that you likely can answer quickly and efficiently. Next, try to answer and questions that are brief and to the point or have simple answers.  At the end of every passage answer long and complex questions that ask about big picture ideas and complex feelings and emotions.  Since you get about nine minutes for each passage make sure you incorporate a few seconds at the end for guessing. Then, move on to the next passage where there are more easy questions.

Finally, the science has a fairly predictable pattern. Each individual passage starts out with simple questions and progresses to more difficult questions. The simple questions generally just ask for basic scientific knowledge or for you to read a graph or chart. The more difficult questions require you to make connections and apply scientific principles to specific scenarios. If you need more time on the science consider guessing on the last question of each passage.

Remember, while it is good to guess on questions you don’t have time for, it is even more effective if you ensure that the questions you guess on are the ones you would have struggled with anyway. Make sure that you practice this strategy before test day to ensure that you’re comfortable with it and happy testing!

Should I Take the ACT or the SAT?

I would highly recommend that students try BOTH the SAT and ACT.  While both tests are accepted by colleges everywhere some students find that they prefer one test over another. Why not focus on your strengths? However, you can only know for sure where your strengths are by taking them both.  Once you have taken both tests, you will know whether you should focus on just one of them going forward.  If your scores on both were pretty comparable, you can try both of them again.

Let’s say that you don’t want to take the time and money to explore which test is preferable – you want to pick one and stick with it.  Here are some ways you can make that decision.

  1. Look at your PSAT and Pre-ACT scores.  The PSAT corresponds to the SAT, and the Pre-ACT corresponds to the ACT.  Most students take the PSAT as juniors, and most take the Pre-ACT as sophomores.  The easiest way to compare them is to look at the percentiles that you earned on each test.  If, for example, if you have an 80thpercentile on the PSAT and a 65thpercentile on the Pre-ACT, it would probably make more sense to focus your efforts on the SAT.  If the percentiles are comparable, you should probably do both the ACT and SAT at least once.
  2. Do you qualify for extended time? If so, I would recommend focusing on the ACT.  In my tutoring experience, students who have extended time tend to find the ACT easier than the SAT.   Students find this to be the case because the questions and passages on the ACT tend to be a bit more straight-forward and less “outside-the-box”, making them much more doable for students who have more time to process them.  Much of the coaching I do for students with the ACT is with respect to timing, and if you have extended time on the ACT, you can focus much more on your critical thinking process rather than on how quickly you are doing things.
  3. Do you struggle with timing? You should almost certainly focus on the SAT.  The ACT Math, Reading and Science are all pretty tough for students to finish.  In my experience, few students have difficulty finishing the SAT.
  4. Do you have test anxiety? If so, the SAT may be a better fit because the questions go in order from easiest to hardest on almost every section, so it is much less likely that you will become stuck on a tough question.  Also, you won’t have to worry about time as much.
  5. What is the Superscoring Policy of the College you Most Want to Attend?  Most colleges will superscore the SAT, which means they will take the best score from each section of the test over several test dates.  A few colleges superscore the ACT.  If you are applying to a college that DOES superscore the ACT, you may want to be more open to taking the ACT because you will have more opportunities to earn a solid score.  If the college only superscores the SAT and you tend to be somewhat inconsistent in your performance on test day, the SAT may be a better fit for you.

 

What Colleges Want: Essays

Yep, it’s that time of year! Requests for essay help are flooding in! As students sit down to write their college essay their primary question is generally “what do colleges want” or maybe “what can I say to make colleges want me”. This mindset is one of the biggest mistakes that students make as they carefully craft their essays.  Students should keep in mind that the essay is really just the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of their application (shout out to At the Core for this awesome metaphor).  In other words, a lot of other things- GPA, test scores, class rigor- are more important. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work hard on your essay, but rather I’m pointing out that the schools you’re applying to already know exactly how academically gifted you are; don’t try to blow them away by sounding like a college professor!

In addition to thesaurus writing, many essays show up on my desk looking like the student wrote them with a crown on their heads. Students try to sound like they are enlightened, like their life experiences have made them better than every other candidate. Scores of essays talk about experiences that made students want to help humanity, tons of essays discuss the student’s experiences with people less fortunate, boat loads of essays loft the student up to make it seem like they are the best thing since sliced break. Maybe they are. However, when a reader has read 500 essays just like that it starts to get old. Not every one of those people can possibly be as amazing as they say. So one essay about volunteering at a soup kitchen blends into the next about working with low income children blends into another about a mission trip to a third world country. It all sounds the same eventually and it all sounds disingenuous.

By now you’re probably despairing that the experience you wanted to write your essay about won’t work. Here is the trick though. You can write about anything- anything at all. If that trip to a poverty stricken country really changed your life then write about it, but stop thinking about what colleges want to hear and start thinking instead about what you want to say. This is the one chance that you have to show colleges something that isn’t on your application somewhere else.  If you don’t have a life changing experience that’s okay! Students can write about small things that show who they are. One essay I read was about a young man who grew strawberries in his locker. It didn’t change the world; in fact, all it did was give him a few strawberries. But it allowed him to show who he was: a creative young man, willing to put in some work in order to try something new for little reward.  Who wouldn’t want that kind of person around?

We’re all amazing people. There are very few students around who  don’t want to help the world. Focus instead on what makes you unique, on what you’ll bring to the college, on something that shows who you are. Stop trying to be more than yourself. Just do you; it’s enough

What Colleges Want

College application season is well underway. Juniors are starting to put together lists and seniors are filling out the common app, getting letters of recommendation, and writing essays. Often it seems that all students do during the first half of senior year is think about what colleges want and how to give them what they want. However, by senior year it’s often too late to really change much.  They should have started thinking about it Freshman year! So here are some of the main things that colleges are looking for. Keep in mind that every college is different but in general here are the top three things that colleges consider in making admissions decisions.

  1. High GPA
    Yes, colleges like to see a high GPA. In fact, it’s the number one thing most colleges look at. What students often don’t realize though is that colleges want to see good grades in challenging classes. What does this mean? It means that a 4.0 without a single honors or AP course isn’t going to mean the same as a 3.8 on a loaded schedule. Start challenging yourself a little each year so that by senior year you have courses that college like to see! After all, they don’t want people who take the easy way out! If you go to a school that doesn’t offer many challenging courses don’t panic. I grew up in a tiny town in a school that offered no honors courses and only three AP classes. Colleges get this information about your school along with your application. They will take into account the fact that you may not have had the same resources that other students had! You may also be able to take college classes online or through a local community college during high school! Such programs also show initiative and prove to colleges that you aren’t scared of hard work.
  2. Standardized test scores
    Who isn’t worried about standardized tests (besides the kids who got perfect scores)? Standardized test scores don’t mean as much as you think they do. They are a solid second priority to most colleges. In fact, there are almost 1000 colleges in the U.S. that don’t require students to send in scores at all! (Check out fairtest.org).  Keep in mind though that if you choose not to send in your scores everything else becomes more important! If you are sending in scores remember that the national average on the ACT was just 20.8 in 2016. That probably seems terribly low. Remember that only people who get really good scores brag about their scores. There are way more 20s out there than 30s! Look at the averages for the schools you want to go to. You might be surprised! Also, keep in mind that 50 percent of students are below the average ACT at any given college. The averages are not set cut off points.
  3. Everything else
    Extra-curricular activities, letters of recommendation, and essays all fall into this category. Different colleges weigh them differently. This is where you get to show the schools who you really are. The key here is not to be a Jack of all trades but rather to actually care and commit to a few things throughout your high school career. Having 50 activities that you attend once a month is not impressive. Having 5 activities that you truly dedicate yourself to and have leadership positions in is much more attractive. Remember, colleges are looking for students who will bring dedication to campus! In the same way, letters of recommendation should come from people who can show your best traits. Ten generic letters from people who barely know you would not be as impressive as one genuine letter from a teacher who has been actively engaged in your education and knows you as a person!

Most of all don’t wait until your senior year to start thinking about college! Whatever grade you’re in in high school set forth a deliberate plan to put yourself into a good position when you find yourself filling out those applications.
I hope you’ve found this information helpful! Please feel free to share!

College Counseling with BWS

As many of you may have noticed, our blog has been a bit quiet lately. That’s because we have been gearing up to make big changes. We are happy to announce that BWS Education Consulting will now be offering college counseling! College counseling is a service that helps guide students through the process of applying for colleges. From creating a list to making a final decision, a college counselor is there to help. You may be wondering why you would want a counselor besides your school counselor: we can give you more support. Your school counselor is a wonderful resource but quite often you are simply not a priority because he or she has a couple hundred other students. With our private counselor you’ll be one of only a dozen students so you can know that you’ll get the help you need when you need it. Check back soon for the first blog from our new college counselor Michal; she’ll talk about what colleges want to see on your application!