Author Archives: Brian

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!

Extra Curricular Activities: Quality Over Quantity

“Wake Up To Politics is on hiatus while the Editor is at summer camp. The newsletter will return in August!” reads the header on a popular news blog. However, the Editor isn’t a summer camp counselor, nor is he away at one of the ever more popular adult summer getaway camps. The editor of Wake Up to Politics- a blog that has an ever increasing fan base- just finished 8th grade. That’s right, an 8th grader is writing a daily newsletter. The newsletter is sent out every week day morning before Gabe Fleisher, the sole editor, heads out to school. It’s been in publication since 2011 and, if you do the math, that means Gabe has been writing it since he was about eight years old. Granted, his only subscriber at first was his mom but still, it’s quite impressive.

Gabe writes Wake Up to Politics because following the news is something he genuinely enjoys. However, he will definitely be reaping the rewards of his hard work in just a few years when he is applying to colleges. Gabe’s extracurricular passion is something that will shine on his resume. Gone are the days where dabbling in every activity offered guaranteed college acceptance. Colleges no longer want well-rounded students: they want a well-rounded class.

What this means for students like Gabe and you is that focusing deeply on two or three extracurricular events (sports, hobbies, and volunteer opportunities) is better than briefly working on a dozen. In short quality reigns over quantity. After all, who cares if you spent a day or two working on a Habitat for Humanity project if you never did any other volunteer work? That day or two doesn’t really say much about who you are as a person. Maybe your parents dragged you there; maybe you volunteered because you had a crush on someone and wanted to impress them; maybe you really do care but you don’t have the drive to follow up.  Those two days don’t reveal a sterling character because it’s impossible to know why you were there. True commitment and character shines when you commit whole heartedly to something. For Gabe, that something is his newsletter. For you it could be anything: just show that you care by diving deep and colleges will be impressed.

If you want to check out Gabe’s newsletter follow the link below!

http://www.wakeuptopolitics.com/

Harvard Acceptance Revoked After Offensive Posts: The Internet is Never Private

For many students, receiving college admission letters means the end of a long process. They have toured, interviewed, written, called, begged, tested, and just generally stressed for so long that being accepted into a prestigious college seems like admission to heaven itself. What many students don’t realize, however, is that this is not the end of the road. Guidance counselors have long warned seniors not to let their second semester grades plummet: colleges do take notice and may reconsider! However, a more recent issue that students have to be careful to avoid after acceptance is having a negative online presence.

As can be seen at the link below a good handful of students are seriously regretting their online postings. Several recent high school graduates who had been accepted to Harvard had their acceptances rescinded due to their online posts. These posts were made to a Facebook group for upcoming Harvard freshman. The students, who were told they would not be reporting to Harvard in the fall, reportedly posted memes that were racist and sexist; they also joked around about child abuse. These students, who probably never thought anyone at Harvard would see their memes, are now living a nightmare.
So what happens when it’s already June and you don’t have a college to go to? Most of these students probably had great backup schools. However, with commitment day long past those other top notch schools are most likely full. If one does have space for someone kicked out of Harvard it is doubtful that there will be any federal financial aid dollars left for that school to give out. In short, these students are looking at a local school that has open admission or (at least) a semester off.

This should serve as a serious warning to both students and adults alike. The internet is public and forever. Even in a private chat your conversation is only one screen shot away from the whole world. The person you portray on the internet should be the person you would show to your recruiter, admissions officer, or boss.  Don’t let a foolish decision today chance your life forever.

http://www.nbcchicago.com/news/national-international/Harvard-Rescinds-Acceptance-for-Offensive-Memes–426393131.html

Good Practice Improves Scores on SAT

After years of denial the SAT finally admitted what we’ve known for a long time: preparation for the SAT improves scores. The SAT found that using the online Khan Academy official practice tests for six to eight hours results in an average 90 point increase and using it for 20 hours can result in a 115 point increase! Clearly practice is important! Make sure that your practice is worthwhile by using only high quality material.

The quality of SAT test preparation books is much higher than that of ACT test preparation books.  The reason behind this is that the SAT is much more popular in areas – large cities on the East and West Coast of the United States –   where parents can afford to invest significantly more money in test preparation for their students.  As a result, the market for creating high quality SAT test prep questions is far more competitive than it is for ACT test prep questions.  With more competition comes higher quality.  So, if you are looking for test prep materials for the SAT, you will find a lot out there, not all of which is good solid material.

I have worked with a number of books over the years for the SAT:  Princeton Review, Barron’s, Kaplan, Gruber’s and others.  Overall, these are all of pretty good quality to use for practice for the SAT and PSAT.  However, the very best book to use is “The Official SAT Study Guide” from the College Board.  You can find it here:

https://www.amazon.com/Official-SAT-Study-Guide-2016/dp/1457304309/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

Why is this?  Because it has 4 previously used SAT tests.  Even though it has very little in terms of strategy, it does have a decent content review for the Math and Writing sections.  Most importantly, it will give you the best idea of what you will find on the actual SAT because it comes right from the makers of the test.

Don’t Try Too Hard to Justify your Answers on Standardized Tests

When we take major tests like the SAT and ACT, we often expect WAY too much of ourselves by thinking that we should be able to clearly explain why we picked the answer we did. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Being able to explain why you picked the answer is a great thing.  The problem is when you feel you must spend too much time on a question because you cannot give a detailed justification to yourself as to why you picked what it is.

If you are teaching a class on test preparation, then you should definitely be able to explain and justify why a particular answer is correct.  I know that if I attempted to explain a question by simply telling a student, “well that’s just the obvious answer!”, they would ask for a refund.  If, on the other hand, you are simply taking the test, then you only need to have a good sense of what is correct.  This is a significant issue for test takers in the following situations:

  • On vocabulary questions where they hesitate to trust their intuition and instincts as to what a word might mean.
  • On math questions where they might be afraid to use unconventional methods, like plugging numbers in, because they are not what they have been taught as a “proper” method in school.
  • On grammar questions, they will know that something is incorrect, but because they can’t think of exactly what would replace it, they just leave it as is.
  • On science questions, they think they need to recall in-depth facts from school when what they actually need is just a bit of common-sense problem solving.

The SAT, ACT, and other major standardized tests are not long short answer and essay tests:  they are predominantly multiple choice.  You will not need to give extended explanations as to why an answer is correct – you simply must know that it is correct.  Do your best on these tests by letting your instincts and intuition guide you when it is called for.

Pros and cons of doing a gap year before college

This year’s Junior are soon going to get very tired of the question “where are you going to go to college?” As soon as Junior year is over and Senior year begins that will be the question on everyone’s lips. However, there is no rule saying that you have to go to college immediately after high school.  We often do things simply because they are “the next thing” to do.  You may want to think about doing a Gap Year – take a year off between high school graduation and college to do a whole host of things.  Here are several reasons to do a gap year.

  1. You want to see what different careers are like.  The best way to see what a career actually entails is to do some job shadowing.  If you are coming out of high school and you feel torn among several career options, taking the time to do some internships or apprenticeships may be a great way to spend a year.
  2. You want to build work skills. With as competitive as it has become to find jobs after college graduation, having a year of real world work experience may set you apart from other applicants.  If you are in a financial position to be able to do unpaid internships, you’ll have no trouble finding opportunities to build great work skills.  If you must work part time, try to fit in at least one day a week of job shadowing in areas about which you are more passionate.
  3. You know that you need to build your independence and self-discipline. Freshman year is a time when many students “go nuts” since they are out from under the watchful eyes of their parents.  If you know that you are not prepared to handle yourself in a totally free environment, take a bit of time to get yourself together before having a terrible freshman year experience.
  4. You want to travel.  The year before college is a fantastic time to see the world.  Even if you have little spending money, you could find a job teaching English in another country, being a tour guide, or house sitting for a wealthy family.  Travel may help you clarify your thoughts about what you want to do with your life before you invest tens of thousands of dollars in your education.
  5. You want to improve your college applications. Perhaps you’ve already been accepted to a school, but you would really like to go to a more selective institution.  You can potentially use a gap year to improve your college application.  You can focus on improving your AP, ACT and SAT test scores, and more importantly, having some in-depth extracurricular involvement that will distinguish you from other applicants.
  6. You are already in, but you need a break before starting.  Many colleges will allow you to defer admission for a year if you would like to spend some time working or travelling prior to matriculation.

Now, here are some reasons not to do a gap year.

  1. You don’t want to lose academic skills.  It is said that the first two months of school after summer break are spent reviewing material from the previous year.  If you know that you are going to have a difficult time getting back in the academic groove, you may as well go to college right after high school.
  2. You feel ready and eager for the independence of college.  Many students, more frequently female ones in my observation, find that they are ready to move on from the confines of high school and living with their parents. If you are ready to spread your wings, taking a gap year and living at home may be an absolute nightmare!  If you are particularly ready to move on to the next level, you may consider graduating a year early!  I know many students who have done this.
  3. You are planning on lots of education after college. If you are planning on becoming a doctor, earning a Ph.D. or doing post-doctoral research, you probably don’t want to add another year to when you will be able to begin your career.   (Then again, if you want to avoid burn-out and the fear of regretting that you have only been in school you entire life, taking a gap year may in fact be a good idea!)

Thanks for reading.  If you found this helpful, I would invite you to share it with your friends.  –Brian Stewart

 

Should I Clear the Calculator Memory Before the ACT

While many students get away with putting math formulas into their calculators, and many businesses market programs that enable students to download the math formulas that students need for the test, storing information on your calculator is prohibited on the ACT.  

With the test cheating scandals in recent years, the ACT is really cracking down on security procedures.  This test will lose its credibility if cheating is widespread, so the ACT is doing everything they can to stop it.  Instead of looking around for a way to put formulas into your calculator, have no worries by spending a few minutes memorizing what you need for test day.