Is the National Merit Scholarship a Big Deal?

To be named a National Merit Scholar is a recognition for which students strive – they will earn accolades from their school, their parents, and their community.  But is it as big a deal as people make it out to be?  In my humble opinion, being named a National Merit Scholar is not nearly as important as it once was for a number of reasons.

  1. You really don’t get that much money. In the 1960s or 1970s, and even when I went to college in the 1990s, the amount of money that the National Merit Scholarship often provides seemed like quite a bit relative to the cost of a college education.  Now, it is pretty insignificant.  You can expect an award of anywhere to $2000-8000, with many of the awards being a one-time scholarship of $2500.  When a private college education costs in excess of $200,000, National Merit is not enough to make a big dent. There are some colleges that may offer full or partial tuition scholarships to National Merit Scholars. These opportunities are rare, however, and the vast majority of National Merit recipients aren’t looking at receiving a ton of money as a result of winning. There are far more opportunities to win merit-based money through college programs like University Scholars, Presidential Scholars, and so on.  Many schools will give full rides to students who not only perform well on the ACT or SAT, but have strong grades and extracurricular activities.  Put your energy and effort into winning a University-based scholarship because that is where the real aid is.
  1. The PSAT doesn’t go on the Common Application. Colleges arefar more concerned about your performance on the SAT and ACT than the PSAT since there are actually spaces for these score results on the Common Application, and no space for PSAT results.  (You can report National Merit recognition as an academic honor on the common application if applicable.)  It is fascinating to me how much more stress people feel going into the PSAT compared to the PLAN, which is the practice ACT.  Other than the relatively insignificant scholarship dollars at stake, they both serve only to give you practice for the SAT or ACT respectively.
  2. Understand that your school wants you to make them look good! Because of the association that adults have with the National Merit recognition and significant scholarship money and academic quality, high school administrators know that having National Merit winners will help their public relations and reputation.  (Take a look at some private school websites and see how frequently they use this as a marketing tool!  Also, do a search of “national merit” on http://www.google.com/news to see how high schools love to play this up.)  As a result, they may overly emphasize the importance of high performance on this test, making you think it will make or break your entire future.  Know that they have an agenda, and don’t let their worries cause you concern.
  1. As our country has shifted its educational focus, the National Merit Scholarship has become less important. I was fascinated to learn that the National Merit program began in 1955.  This was right at the beginning of the Cold War, and two years before the Sputnik Launch by the U.S.S.R.  The U.S. was paranoid about its competitiveness with respect to the Soviets, and was reforming its educational system to emphasize math and science as well as to give highly intelligent students the tools they needed to develop technology that would enable the U.S. to be the best.  The National Merit Scholarship enabled students with high scholastic aptitude to attend great universities at a much lower cost, empowering them to focus on their academic development and become the scientists, engineers and inventors who would ensure American preeminence.  It is no wonder that people who grew up in this era believe the National Merit program to be of extraordinary importance; it once truly was.

    With the Cold War over, American education is shifting towards inclusion and diversity.  As a result, having one test – the PSAT – determine one’s eligibility for a scholarship is deemed by many to be too exclusive.  In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling came out strongly against the use of the PSAT for this purpose:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/09/22/testing

    As time goes on and the memories of the cold war fade, I imagine that colleges will continue to move away from emphasizing the PSAT and National Merit process, will look more comprehensively at a student’s academic and personal attributes when making scholarship and admissions decisions.

I hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

The July ACT

The ACT recently announced that they would be adding a new test date in 2018. The new date will be sometime in July. This is causing some students to ask “should I take important tests over the summer?” The answer to this question is multi-faceted.

Take a summer test if:

  1. You’re busy during the school year.

If your school year is packed full of activities, trips, homework, work, and other obligations you may not have time to properly prepare! If the summer is less stressful, the July test may be perfect for you! You would have all of June and at least part of July to prepare, free from the stress of school.

  1. You have definitive goals.

If you know exactly what score you want, then the July test might be a good idea, especially if you’re a rising senior. Rising seniors should have already taken the test once and know what score they’re shooting for. The July test allows these students an extra chance to reach those goals. Rising juniors probably don’t have to worry about these tests yet and can wait until the September or October tests to start.

  1. You are applying early action or early decision and want an extra chance.

If you will be a rising Senior next summer and you know that you’ll be applying early action or early decision you may want to take advantage of the July test as if gives you an extra opportunity to raise your scores. Before, you would have only had the September and possibly October test to reach those scores before applications were due. Now you have an extra opportunity.

Don’t take a summer test if:

  1. You tend to forget things.

If you’re a student who forgets what they studied as soon as a unit is over, this test may not be for you. The July test will take place at least a month after you’ve left school for the summer so your English and math scores may suffer if you have a “summer brain.”

  1. You aren’t self-motivated.

Yes, the July test gives you all of June and part of July to prepare. However, if you’re the type of person who can’t self-structure study time then this test might not be your best bet. During the school year, you have a definitive schedule into which you can work some ACT prep. However, during the summer you have all free time so you may not feel as motivated to get that work done! Unless you’re on top of things, leave test taking until the school year!

  1. You’re not a “morning person.”

The ACT is a morning test. This, in general, isn’t great for teenagers whose circadian rhythms make them “night owls.” However, during the school year most teens are used to getting up early, even if they don’t like it.  If, once summer rolls around, you revert to nocturnal ways, this test may not be for you. Wait until the school year when you’ll be used to waking up early. That way, your brain can be operating at full capacity.

 

I hope you have found this article to be helpful! If so, please share it with your friends!

Michal Strawn

What You Need To Know about the PSAT and SAT Test Math Fill-In or Grid-In Questions

The Math Fill-In Questions on the PSAT and SAT can be quite unsettling for many students because they are different than the other questions throughout the test.  In my tutoring and teaching experience, these are the four things that often surprise students when it comes to the SAT Math Fill-In Questions:

  • There Are No Negative Answers.  There is no way to bubble a negative response in, so if you ever find yourself coming up with a negative answer, know that you are incorrect!
  • Sometimes, There Are Multiple Correct Answers.  The SAT computer grading system will pick up on ranges of correct answers – sometimes there may be 2 or 3 correct answers, sometimes there may be hundreds! Knowing this may help you prevent overthinking.
  • There Is NO GUESSING PENALTY on the Fill-In Questions.   The new SAT has NO GUESSING PENALTY! Be certain that you answer every single one of the fill-in questions!
  • You DO NOT Have to Reduce Fractions!  If you enter a fraction like 3/24, the SAT computers will compute that you actually meant 1/8 and still give you the correct answer.

You can find practice for the Fill-In Questions on the College Board Website:

http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/psat/prep/gridins/gridins.html

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with your friends!  Thanks, Brian Stewart

 

 

What if You are a Bad Test Taker?

Having worked with thousands of students over the years, I’ve come to realize that some students, no matter how much content and strategy help they receive, are simply not very good test-takers.  What can you do with respect to college admissions if no matter how hard you work, you can only make miniscule improvements in your test performance?  Here are six ideas:

  1. Look into extended time.  Maybe your issues with timing and test anxiety are due to an underlying learning disability that only manifests when you are doing a major test like the ACT or SAT.  If you have never been tested for a learning disability and you find that you have serious issues with attention, reading, and problem solving, it may be worth checking out.  Typically, a school psychologist will do it at no cost.  If you want to move the process along, you may need to have a private psychologist conduct some testing.  If you end up finding that you have a learning disability, you would then need to get an IEP or 504 plan through your school.  After that, you could apply for extended time for the ACT and SAT.
  2. Know it’s only part of the process. In my reading of the blogosphere and my discussions with college admissions counselors, the consensus seems to be that about ¼ of the college admissions decision is based on your standardized test performance.  If you know that tests are not your thing, be sure to make your extracurricular activities and grades as good as they can possibly be.
  3. Check out Test Optional Schools.  Many colleges are now test-optional, making it possible to gain admission to a great college while having poor performance on the ACT or SAT.  You can find a complete list on the website Fairtest.org.
  4. Submit a Portfolio. If your true intellectual talents cannot be demonstrated with a test, take the initiative to demonstrate them in a different way.  If you are a great artist, send in a portfolio of your creations.  If you excel at music, submit a CD of your recorded work.  If you are an excellent writer, direct the admissions officers to your blog or novel.  Admissions officers will only know that you have non-testable talents if you show them – the application gets accepted, not the person.
  5. Have a personal meeting with someone on the admissions staff. Schedule an in-person meeting with someone who works in the admission office at the school.  This will give you the opportunity to explain your unique situation or share accomplishments that cannot be easily presented in an application.  Most colleges will be more than happy to do this with you, provided you give them sufficient notice.
  6. Evaluate if college is really the best choice for you.  So many recent college graduates find themselves with tens of thousands in debt and only able to find jobs that they could have gotten with a high school diploma.  If you feel that you are likely to end up with a degree that won’t really help you find work, perhaps you should look into an associate’s degree in a field that is more to your liking.  There are tons of people who have made great livings starting plumbing, electrical, and web design companies, just to name a few. Check out your options!

ACT Science Content

Although many people claim that the ACT Science test does not require any background knowledge, they are incorrect.  If you examine several ACT tests, you will find that you must have basic knowledge from these two high school courses:

  • Physical Science
  • Biology

They require you to have this background knowledge because high school juniors across the country should have taken these two courses, no matter the rigor of their individual high schools.  Expect to see just a handful of questions that involve actual background knowledge from these two areas.

If you have taken advanced science, such as AP Chemistry or AP Physics, that certainly won’t hurt you.  It will help in the sense that your general ability to reason through scientific charts and graphs will be stronger, not because you need to have specific knowledge from any of those areas.

The material they present on the passages can come from all sorts of general scientific areas:  physics, chemistry, biology, botany, zoology, astronomy, geology, and so forth.

The ACT Science Section has 3 types of passages:

  • Data Representation (38%). There are three of this type of passage, and each passage has 5 questions.  You will need to evaluate information presented in graphs, tables and figures.
  • Research Summaries (45%). There are three of this type of passage, and each passage has 6 questions.  You will need to analyze 2 or more experimental summaries, thinking about the results and the experimental design.
  • Conflicting Viewpoints (17%). You will only have 1 passage of this type, and it has seven questions.  It will present viewpoints from anywhere from 2 up to several scientists.  You will need to read a good bit here, although sometimes there is a graph or two given as well.  You will need to sharpen your ability to compare and contrast differing scientific explanations.

The passages are in a random order of difficulty, so just be on your toes to think critically at any point.

I hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

Reading Test Content and Material

The Reading Test always have the same four types of reading passages, and they will  always be in the same order:

  1. Prose Fiction–a short story or an excerpt from a longer fiction story.  Something you would typically find in your English class.
  2. Social Sciencesomething that a teacher from Social Studies would instruct, including history, economics, psychology and more.  This is basically, any non-fiction area that is not a “hard” science like physics, chemistry, etc.
  3. Humanities – This is about art, music, films, and other creations.  You’ll find first-person and third-person accounts of human creative tasks.
  4. Natural Science – Could be anything from the sciences, such as astronomy, geology, or physics.  You won’t have to have any specialized scientific knowledge – it will be material you can understand simply based on the passage.

Each passage is approximately 700-800 words, and has 10 questions that follow.  You will have two subscores: The Social Studies/Sciences subscore is based the Social Science and Natural Science passages, and the Arts/Literature subscore is based on your performance on the Prose Fiction and Humanities passages.

This is the one section of the ACT where no background knowledge is required, other than having the skill of knowing how to read.

This test is extremely quick; if you want to finish the whole thing you must be a fast reader. You can improve your overall reading speed and comprehension by reading high quality books and magazines.

Hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

ACT Math Test Content

Before you take the ACT make sure you read the information they give you on each of the sections! Here is what the ACT tells us about the math, “translated” into normal English.

The ACT will always allot the Math questions the same way, with each type of math content having the same percentage of questions from test to test.  If you have taken Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2, you should be in good shape.  They do have some topics that are occasionally covered in pre-calculus, so you may want to wait to take the ACT until you have covered all the material.  No need to worry about calculus – that won’t be on the ACT.

Pre-Algebra/Elementary Algebra

  • Pre-Algebra (23%)
  1. Number Basics:  Fractions, decimals, integers
  2. Scientific Notation
  3. Square Roots
  4. Exponents
  5. Factors of numbers and expressions
  6. Ratios and proportions
  7. Percentage calculations
  8. One variable equations
  9. Absolute Value
  10. Simple statistics (mean, median, mode)
  11. Simple probability (dependent and independent variable problems)
  12. Simple interpretations of data graphs

 

  • Elementary Algebra (17%)
  1. Properties of Exponents and Square Roots (multiplying, dividing, adding, subtracting, etc.)
  2. Solving equations using substitution
  3. 2 variable equations
  4. Order of operations (Parentheses/Exponents, Multiplication/Division, Addition/Subtraction)
  5. Factoring of equations

 

Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry

  • Intermediate Algebra (15%)
  1. Quadratic Formula
  2. Equations and expressions involving radicals and roots
  3. Equations with Absolute Value
  4. Inequalities
  5. Sequences and Patterns (Geometric and Arithmetic)
  6. More complex systems of equations (usually no more than 2 variables)
  7. More complex functions
  8. Turning word problems into algebraic models
  9. Matrices (addition, subtraction, multiplication)
  10. Complex numbers
  11. Once in a long while – synthetic division, standard deviation

 

  • Coordinate Geometry (15%)
  1. Be able to graph equations in the x-y coordinate plane, including lines and parabolas.  (Don’t need to worry about Hyperbolas or Ellipses).
  2. Be able to graph a circle in the x-y coordinate plane.
  3. Be able to graph inequalities.
  4. Slope formula
  5. Slope-Intercept form
  6. Parallel and perpendicular line rules
  7. Distance Formula
  8. Midpoint Formula

 

Plane Geometry/Trigonometry

  • Plane Geometry (23%)
  1. Vertical Angles
  2. Supplementary Angles
  3. Complementary Angles
  4. Alternate Interior Angles
  5. Area and Circumference of a Circle
  6. Perimeter of Shapes
  7. Area of Square and Rectangle
  8. Area of Triangle
  9. Area of Parallelogram
  10. Area of Trapezoid
  11. Basics of Proofs
  12. Cylinder Volume
  13. Box Volume

 

  • Trigonometry (7%)
  1. Sin
  2. Cos
  3. Tan
  4. Secant
  5. Cosecant
  6. Cotangent
  7. Basic Trigonometric Identities
  8. Graph of Sin and Cos
  9. Basics of Unit Circle (i.e. knowing quadrants)
  10. Radian/Degree Conversion

The ACT English Section

So what is on the ACT English? The ACT provides great information on what is on their test; that information is often hard to understand. I’ve broken it down for you here!

Usage/Mechanics – Half of the ACT English Test

  • Punctuation (13%).  Primarily you need to know commas.  Also, review usage of semicolons, colons, and dashes.  It is critical that you don’t just know simple punctuation rules but that you also know how proper punctuation affects the meaning of sentences.
  • Grammar and Usage (16%).  Look at subject verb agreement – words that need to agree with one another will often be separated, so you’ll really have to pay close attention to context.  Watch out for vague pronouns, idioms, and proper adjective and adverb usage.  Basically, make sure that the intended meaning matches up with the actual meaning.
  • Sentence Structure (24%).  You have to be more than a proofreader – you need to be an editor.  Be certain that individual words and longer clauses are placed in a logical order.

Rhetorical Skills – The Other Half of the ACT English Test

  • Strategy (16%). You will need to examine the intent of the author, and pick answers that do what the author actually intended to do.  You will also need to see if phrases and sentences are relevant, or if they can be removed.
  • Organization (15%).  You need to know where sentences and phrases should be placed – rearrange things until they make sense.  Also, you need to connect paragraphs, sentences and phrases with logical transitional words, like “but”, “also”, or “because”, as demanded by the situation.  You’ll  need to be able to see what a sensible introduction or a conclusion would be based on the context.
  • Style (16%). This is big picture stuff. How do you make an individual sentence have the same tone as the rest of an essay?  Depending on what the goal of the author is, how do you pick the best wording to express what is wanted?  How can you be clear with pronouns?  How can you prevent needless repetition and wordiness?

Check out our full length practice test and see how you do!

What to expect on the ACT: Timing

 

If you’re taking the ACT, you’re in for a long morning.  You should arrive at the test center before 8 AM in order to find your room and check in.  You will then have a roughly 4 hour test in front of you.

The ACT is broken up into four sections with an optional fifth section:  English, Math, Reading, Science, and Writing.  To remember the order in which the test sections fall, simply remember that they go in alphabetical order!  

Here is the breakdown for timing of the test, and how you should pace yourself on the ACT:

English Test – 45 minutes, 75 questions, 5 passages.  You should take about 9 minutes per passage.

Math Test – 60 minutes, 60 questions.  Questions increase in difficulty so start out quickly and then slow down about half way through.

You then have a 10 minute break when you should have a snack!  Bring it yourself. 

Reading Tests – 35 minutes, 40 questions, 4 passages.  Take about 9 minutes per passage.

Science Test – 35 minutes, 40 questions, 6-7 passages.  Take about 5 minutes per passage.

If you are sticking around for the writing, you have a 5 minute break.  If you are not doing the ACT Writing, you can go home at this time. 

Optional ACT Essay – 40 minutes.  Spend about 5 minutes prewriting, and 30 minutes writing and 5 minutes editing.  They typically give you 4-5 pages on which to write.

 

As the tests go on, they become more difficult for most students to finish.  English is very easy to complete, and Science is quite tough.  Practice ahead of time so that you have a good internal feel for the pace at which you should go.  Also, by practicing, you will have a good idea of whether it makes sense to skip and guess on some questions.  Remember, there is no penalty for guessing on the ACT, so if you don’t complete all the questions, be sure to at least bubble something in for each question.

I hope you found this article helpful!  If you did, please share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart

AP or IB?

With scheduling season coming up now is a great time to consider taking higher level classes. I have taught both IB and AP courses, attended several training for IB and AP, and been an AP grader. I hope, therefore, I am able provide a solid summary of the differences between the two programs.  Since I no longer teach high school and have no vested interest encouraging students to do one program or another, I am also free to be completely honest in my assessments.

  1. Which is less expensive and easier to implement for schools and students?  AP
  • The fees to set up an IB school can often be prohibitively expensive. This is why we don’t see a whole lot of smaller schools or private schools going the IB route – they can’t achieve the economies of scale that make it worth the investment.  IB works best financially in a large school district where one high school can be designated the “IB Magnet” school, drawing students interested in the program from throughout the district.
  • AP does not require any school wide investment; individual courses can be easily implemented rather than an entire program.  The IB requires full, school-wide implementation of the program, so a school cannot implement just one IB course at a time.  Moreover, there is an extremely rigorous school approval process before the IB program can even be allowed at the school.  This does help ensure a higher level of program quality, but it can be a major paperwork hurdle for a school administration.
  • As far as student fees to take the exams, AP is a bit less expensive.  If you take multiple IB exams, the costs are comparable, but if you are doing just one or two IB exams, the mandatory student fee can add quite a bit to the costs.
  • Finally, AP will allow individual students to take an AP exam without having taken the AP course.  IB doesn’t allow this, so self-study is not an option.
  1. What kind of student prefers each program?  It depends on the student.

Do AP if you like:

  • Multiple Choice Tests : AP Tests typically have multiple choice questions as roughly half of the overall AP assessment, and free response the other half.
  • More structured in-class essay writing: The rubrics for AP essay grading are more straight-forward and less open to interpretation than the more holistic rubrics for IB.
  • If you are able to quickly memorize information: You need to know a broader array of facts for the AP assessments.
  • You don’t care for big papers and projects: Most AP teachers will model their in-class assessments on the AP exams, which are generally combinations of multiple choice and free response.  It is unlikely that you will have as many large research papers or presentations in AP since these types of projects do not prepare you for the AP exams.
  • You learn well with lecture: It is more likely that your AP teacher will use lecture to cover the vast amount of material that’s needed for the AP exam.  There are plenty of AP teachers who don’t do this, but in my experience, lecture often comes with the territory in AP.

Do  IB if you like:

  • Writing: You will have tons of writing to do for IB.  The Extended Essay, Internal Assessments, and in-class essays, just to name a few.  There are relatively few multiple choice questions in IB.  If you are looking to improve your writing skills, you will definitely do so in the IB program.
  • Going in-depth: On many of the IB assessments, particularly those in the humanities, you will find that you are required to achieve mastery of deep areas of knowledge rather than going through a broader survey.
  • You like working in groups: There are more opportunities for group activities in the IB assessments and in-class activities.  Although an AP teacher may encourage group work, it is hard to not do group work as a part of IB.
  • You enjoy projects and presentations: In IB you will have all sorts of portfolio projects and unique internal assessments.  If you are good at demonstrating your knowledge in ways other than multiple choice tests, then IB may be right for you.
  • You don’t procrastinate: If you put off doing your internal assessments and extended essay, you will be in a ton of trouble.  If you have the discipline to get things done over a period of time, you will find IB tough but manageable.
  • You are interested in the intersection of different types of knowledge: AP is much more compartmentalized, i.e. the AP U.S. History course won’t discuss anything from the AP Physics Course.  In IB, particularly if you are doing the Theory of Knowledge course, you will look quite a bit at how we claim to know what we know, and what that means in different areas of scholarship.
  1. Which is more widely accepted by colleges?  AP for the most part.
  • If you are like most American Students and plan on going to college in the U.S., AP will make it easier to get college credit.  Although more and more colleges are becoming familiar with IB, many schools are behind the times and are more willing to award credit to AP students.  In addition, you may need to do the Higher Level IB course (a more rigorous 2 year option) in order to earn college credit.  With AP, and most colleges will give you credit after just a one year course.  The only way to be certain about this is to ask the colleges to which you want to apply what their policies are.
  • If you are thinking about going abroad for college, IB might make it easier.  IB was originally formed to make it possible for students who had to move around Europe a good bit to be able to transfer between schools without trouble.  Since so few American students are thinking about going to Europe, Canada or elsewhere for college, this usually isn’t a selling point.  (In my opinion, Americans should consider doing this.)  If, however, you are open to international schools, IB can be a plus.
  1. Which prepares you more for college coursework?  For the most part, IB does.
  • Freshman-level introductory courses are often survey classes that involve multiple choice tests, some essay work, and quite a bit of lecture.  AP will prepare students very well for these types of classes.  For upper level courses and independent studies that involve quite a bit of research and writing, IB is far superior in helping students learn the process.
  1. Which will likely have better teachers?  IB may have better teachers for the following three reasons:
  • Better training.  Having attended both IB and AP training, I found that the IB training to be more comprehensive.  We received more materials, had better discussion, and had smaller workshops.
  • They choose to do it.  Since IB is typically done as a “school within a school”, the teachers who teach IB courses typically want to be there.  This is not always the case, of course, but I think it is more likely than would be the case with AP teachers.
  • They choose what to cover.  IB allows teachers the flexibility to go in-depth into areas about which they are knowledgeable and passionate.  AP mandates covering everything more superficially.  This difference will be far more pronounced in the humanities courses than in math/science, but even in the IB math/science courses there is more opportunity for outstanding educators to do what they would really like to do.
  1. Do colleges prefer IB over AP, or vice versa, when it comes to applying?  
  • The consensus I have found is “no”.  Colleges want to see applicants who are doing the toughest courses offered at their high schools.  Both IB and AP constitute “tough” courses, so do whichever one you prefer and don’t worry about how it will look to college admissions officers.
  1. Are there any other options if I don’t want to do IB or AP? 
  • Yes!  Try to take college classes while you are in high school!  Talk to your guidance counselor about the logistics of this, but many states will allow you to take classes at State Universities at no cost while you are a high school student.

I look forward to your comments on this piece.  If you found it helpful, please share it with your friends and colleagues.  Thank you.