Author Archives: Brian

Updates to the ACT

On October 8th, 2019, the ACT put out a press release announcing some big changes that they’re planning to implement in 2020. These three impactful changes have to do with how the test is proctored and how scores are reported. These changes may greatly alter the test taking and college application process for students who choose to focus on the ACT.

The first major change that the ACT is making is likely geared toward make the test more competitive with the SAT. The number of students who took the SAT last year hit an all time high, and the ACT is probably looking to gain back some of that market share. Historically, many colleges have allowed super scoring on the SAT while significantly fewer have allowed super scoring on the ACT. The ACT is trying to bridge that  gap for students.

Super scoring is the process by which colleges only look at the best scores for each section over multiple test dates. For example, if your best English score was on a test in June but your best math score was on a test in July, super scoring policies allow you to build a new score with your best from each. The press release makes it sounds like the ACT will now be doing this in house. Whereas previously you would have to pay to send all your tests in to the colleges who would then build your super score (and see your lower scores), it seems that the ACT will now do that for you. As long as they don’t charge a fee for this service this will likely save students a fair amount of money in score reporting fees. In addition, more colleges will likely accept super scoring for the ACT. Keep in mind that the rising tide lifts all boats. ACT scores for all students may increase with this new policy. While we aren’t sure on the details of the policy yet, it should be a time, stress, and money saver.

The second big change is probably the one that students will like the most. The ACT has announced that they will allow students to retake individual portions of the test. While details aren’t out yet on how this would work, this is a big change from the previous policy that forced students to retake the entire test even if they only wanted to improve one section score. Policy details will impact this greatly. They may only allow students to retake one portion, or have other restrictions. However, this is still a huge boon for several reasons: it will hopefully allow students to focus only on where they think needs improvement, it will give students who get worn out taking a three to four hour test the opportunity to break the test up into manageable portions, and it will allow students to take tests without less testing anxiety since their entire score won’t be dependent on one day’s work.

The final change seems to indicate that the ACT is moving to online testing. Whereas previously, the ACT only allowed students to take the test online if they were testing on a in-school test, they will soon have the online option on the national test dates as well. While online testing has its pros and cons as we discussed in our blog here, for some students (especially those who test with certain accommodations or who are on time crunch to get scores back) this will be an enormous help.

Altogether, these are positive changes. Test prep providers like BWS will be able to better tailor content to students who are focusing on just one part of the test, students will be able to get their scores back sooner through online testing, and students will have more control over the tests they take and the scores they send out. While some people feel that standardized tests are outdated and antiquated, the ACT is proving them wrong by continually listening to the needs of the students and adjusting their policies accordingly. Read the full press release on the ACT blog.

What to Expect on Test Day

So you’ve practiced, registered, and driven to the test site. But what actually happens behind those closed doors?  It’s nearly impossible to create a practice environment that will mimic the environment of the test. However, knowing what to expect on test day can help calm nerves and improve scores. It’s important to stay flexible as your experience can vary from one site to another and one proctor to another. However, here is a little bit of what you can expect on test day.

Before you get to the test you should know what to bring with you and where to drive and park. If you don’t know these things about your testing site do some research so that you are well prepared on test day. When you first arrive, you’ll see a check in table. Take your ID and your entrance ticket to the table to check in. They’ll compare the picture on your ID and your ticket to your face, check your information, and give you directions to your testing room. They may also check you for non-allowed items. There is often a long line to check in. Arrive early to avoid having to wait and worry! Once you arrive at the test room the proctor should again check your face to either your ticket or ID. Generally, the proctor will then direct you to a specific seat, though some allow seat choice.

From the time you check in until you walk out the door after the test is totally over, you may NOT touch any electronic devices. The best option is to leave them at home or in the glove compartment of your car. If you choose to take it into the test it should be completely powered down. Not on silent, not on airplane mode, but OFF. If your phone goes off during the test you will be excused and your test will not be scored. In addition, the other students in your room may also be excused as well. Nothing is worth that. Don’t touch any electronic devices!

Before the test, you should hear the same instructions regardless of what site you’re at. The proctor will tell you exactly what to do, what to fill in, and any other pertinent information. Then, you begin the test.

Timing is standard across the board. Make sure you know how much time you get for each section of the test. The tests companies do not require that there be a clock in the room where you test, so make sure that you take your own watch. The proctor is required to give you a five-minute warning. Some proctors may be nice and give you more updates- I know of one site  that even starts a giant countdown on the whiteboard- but the five-minute warning is the only one that you can count on receiving.

You entitled to a 15 minute break halfway through the test. During this break the proctor may make you all get up and leave the room or he or she may allow you to stay, but this break is mandated by the test company. Make use of it. Even if the proctor allows you to remain in the room, get up and leave. You should eat a snack, stretch your legs, drink some water, and use the restroom. Do not sit in your seat and stare at the wall for 15 minutes. That is just enough time for your brain to shut off!

The environment of the room should be comfortable. There shouldn’t be noise, and it shouldn’t be freezing cold or boiling hot. You shouldn’t be easily distracted by anything going on within the room or nearby. In short, there should be no distractions that would continually take your attention away from the test.

If any of these things go wrong. If the proctor messes up the timing, if the fluorescent light above you is strobing throughout the test, if you don’t get your break, or if anything else is done that is not according to the testing guidelines, you should report it to the testing company. Testing companies work very hard to ensure that the tests are administered under fair and uniform conditions. If it is found that a mistake or disturbance did occur, the testing companies will to their best to make it right, from a refund to a free re-take.

Finally, if you’re taking the ACT you may encounter a section of the test that you’re not expecting. Sometimes, the ACT will have a 5th section after the final normal test. This section DOES NOT affect your score in any way. The ACT is merely using you as a guinea pig to test out some new passages and questions that they may use in the future. Everyone may have different questions, and some students may not get a 5th section at all. Do your best on this section to help future students have a fair test, but don’t let it stress you out in any way!

I hope you have found this information helpful in preparing for your test!

What Colleges Want in an Essay

The common app will be open for submissions in just a few weeks. Many students’ goal is to be relatively done with applications on August 1st when it opens. This allows students to have a (fairly) stress free senior year without worrying about applications on top of classes, sports, and work. To aid with this, the common app publishes their essay topics well in advance so that students can take advantage of the summer months and knock out the bulk of their essays. Here are the seven prompts for this year:

    1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
    5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
    7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Students often see these prompts and agonize how to pick one. This approach is entirely backwards! Instead of picking the prompt first, notice how incredibly broad they are! Figure out what you want to talk about and then find a prompt that fits it! In order to find what you would like to write about ask yourself some questions:

  1. What experiences have I had that are unique?
  2. What makes me different from my peers?
  3. When was a time that I worked hard to overcome a challenge?
  4. How would I describe myself in just a few words.

You should not be asking “what do colleges want to see?” This attitude of pandering to the colleges is bad for a number of reasons:

First, it will drive you crazy trying to figure what colleges want, which will result in poor or generic writing. Every sentence and word will sound like a humble brag as you try to spin a story that you think they will find amazing. While you want to show yourself in a good light, remember that no one is perfect! Pick something to write about that you’re confident in and that will shine through.

Second, every college is looking for something slightly different every year. One year at one school your experience as an oboe player in the national youth symphony may make you a top candidate. At another school or another year, they may have 5 wonderful oboe players on campus already. What colleges are “looking for” is often different year to year and campus to campus as colleges try to create a diverse student body. Every admissions department is different and puts emphasis on different things in their selection process.

Third, this may be the most important one. If you pretend to be someone you aren’t to get into a college there is a good chance the real you won’t be happy when you get there. Remember, colleges want to get you know you to see if you would be a good fit, not just academically, but personally. Think about it as a relationship: if you lie about who you are to the person you’re dating is your relationship going to be in good shape when you finally have to be yourself? This essay and your application are kind of like a first date- it’s not a good idea to air all your dirty laundry, but if you don’t act like yourself, there is a good chance you won’t be happy in the relationship down the road.

 

Put all of this together and the best advice a student can hear is this: be yourself. In your essay, try to be true to who you are. Ask your parents and friends what they think the best thing about you is. Do some self-reflection. You can’t control what the colleges want, what they think, or who they choose. You can control the portrait you paint of yourself. Make it a good one- put yourself in a flattering light, get the right angle, tell the right story, but leave the puppy filter and the photoshop for another day.

Free Local Activities for Summer Break

I was recently in a library here in central Ohio working with a student. As the student completed some practice problems I was watching the other folks coming and going from the library and saw a dad with his daughter come in to check out some books. The girl was maybe in 7th or 8th grade and I was excited to see her in the library- more kids should be reading over summer break! However, then I saw what the dad was checking out: every test prep book in the building.

Now, I’m the first to admit that the summer is a great time to get ready for the ACT and SAT tests, but students (especially students that young) should also have time to be themselves, explore their interests, relax, and do things they wouldn’t have time for during the school year. They need to recharge their batteries! That doesn’t mean they can’t learn- but the learning doesn’t have to be as structured as multiple hours of test prep every day! Many parents enrich summers by paying for lots of camps and activities, but parents whose budgets don’t allow for that may find enrichment more difficult. Here is a list of summer activities in the Columbus area where are free (or mostly free) to enrich your students’ summers.

Science:

1.                 Park of Roses
2.                 Franklin Park conservatory (Free the first Sunday of each month)
3.                 Educational Programs through Columbus Metro Parks

Social Studies:

1.               Find as many historical markers as possible
2.               Visit the Shrum mound
3.               Visit historical cemeteries
4.               Tour the Ohio Statehouse/ Ohio Supreme court (you may have to pay for parking)
5.               Attend Cultural Events (Asian Festival, Greek festival etc)

Art/Literature:

1.               Columbus Museum of Art (free on Sundays)
2.               Grandview Art Hop
3.               High Street Art Hop
4.               Tour the Thurber House (free on weekdays)
5.               Shakespeare in the Park (at Schiller park)

General:

1.              Check out programs at local libraries and community centers
2.              Ask an adult friend if you can shadow them for a day

Outside Columbus day trips:

1.               Great Seal state park (find the great seal)
2.               Hocking Hills nature hike
3.               Air Force Museum (Dayton)
4.               Great Serpent Mound (you pay for parking)

What free activities are you doing with your kids this summer? Let us know and we’ll add it to the list!

 

 

Summer Slide

As the school year winds down, students look forward to several months of sleeping in, few responsibilities, and plenty of fun. However, from an academic standpoint, the summer is the most dangerous part of the year. It is widely known that summer slide impacts many students; they end up returning to school in the fall having lost valuable information and skills over the summer.  Much of the beginning of the school year is often spent simply getting students back to where they were a few months prior. The key to avoiding summer slide is to keep students thinking over the summer. While a full course schedule isn’t necessary (and would probably result in a student rebellion), doing a little something each day to engage the mind can be very helpful. Students can engage their mind in any number of ways.

1. Summer reading

Summer reading gets a bad reputation from the lists of (often boring) books that teachers hand out to combat summer slide. However, any reading whatsoever is helpful. Go to the library- have the student ask the librarian for help finding books that the student will enjoy! Students are much more likely to read if it is a story or topic that they find interesting.

  1. Prep for tests

Students often don’t have the time during the school year to prep for standardized tests. If you have a high schooler, encourage them to spend just an hour or two each week working through a prep book or meeting with a tutor. The structure of having a meeting each week can help a lot as far as keeping students on track.

  1. Summer camps

If your student has an interest in a particular topic, explore the summer opportunities around that subject. Is there a camp being offered? Job opportunity? Shadowing day? Summer is a great time to work with students to help them better understand what career they want to pursue- don’t waste that time!

  1. Travel, museums, and other educational opportunities

If you can, use the summer to help students expand their horizons by doing the things you don’t have time for during the busy school year. Take a vacation to a historic city, have them learn about nature through a camping trip, or go to that museum just down the street. All of this will help keep their minds engaged!

 

Finally, keep in mind that your kids are kids! They had a long year at school. The older they are the more extra curriculars, jobs, and commitments they had.  The school year is often go-go-go. Don’t forget to give your students unstructured time to be kids over the summer. Let them relax, have fun, and enjoy their time off.

Taking the Online Version of the ACT—Pros and Cons

For the past few years, the state of Ohio has paid for all juniors to take one standardized test for free in the spring. Generally, schools in Ohio (with a few exceptions) have chosen the ACT as it is the student-preferred test in Ohio.  Over the past few years, an increasing number of schools have been offering this test only through an online portal.  With this trend increasing every year, it is a good idea to understand the pros and cons for online tests.

Pros:

The first advantage to the online test is that there is a timer on the screen. Since time management is such an issue for many students who take the ACT this is very nice.  However, timing is manageable by any student with a watch, so this is not a huge advantage. Similarly, there is a built-in calculator if a student doesn’t have one of his or her own. However, if the student is unfamiliar with the layout of this calculator, it can be as much a hindrance as a help.

A second advantage can be that many students might prefer working through a test on a screen if that is the format with which they are most familiar from school. Many schools now use tablets instead of paper versions of textbooks. For students who go to a school like this, an online version of the ACT may be more familiar.

The third and biggest pro for the online test is the speed with which test results come back. With online grading, it is just a matter of a few days before students can access their results. However, even with paper tests, ten to fifteen days is the most the majority of the students wait. I don’t think that is a big enough difference to justify switching to online tests.

 

Cons:

The cons are far more numerous. The biggest con that I see is the inability to write on the test. Many of the strategies that students find the most helpful involve interacting with the test instead of just looking at it. On the science and reading especially, circling, underlining, and writing on the test are enormously helpful. When schools decide to do online tests, they are taking away this resource from the students. When students are exhausted from this test, being able to write on the test so that they don’t have to remember everything can give their brains a bit of a break! While the online test does have some resources to cross out answers and highlight text, this is not going to be as quick or as natural as a paper test and does have limitations. In addition, students can expect a learning curve on the first part of the test until they are comfortable with the tools in the online portal. The best way to address this is to become familiar with the online portal prior to the test. We’ve included a link below that contains more information form the ACT.

Another big strategy that helps students maximize their scores is being able to do the easy questions first or skip questions and go back to them later. While the ACT online does all it can to make this easy, it still is tougher than with a paper test, which means that many students won’t focus on getting all the easy points first. Instead, they’ll do the questions in the order they are presented, often resulting in wasted time. Students may need to be reminded that the best strategy is to skip to the easy questions to start out with. They should practice doing this so that it feels more natural on the test.

The screen itself can also cause issues. Many students associate screens with entertainment. When students study with screens in front of them they are often flipping between what they should be doing and Instagram, Youtube, Reddit, music, and other distractions. While this certainly won’t be possible on the ACT, students have come to associate screens with distractions. Because of this, many students have concentration issues when they are looking at screens.

In addition, technical issues may be an issue for select students. Paper and pencil are fairly impervious to technical issues. In a school where every student is issued a computer, there is going to be a good handful of students who may not have their computer fully charged on test day. There can also be issues with internet connection, power supply, software etc. While some of these issues can be easily resolved, others can’t. Keep in mind that an easily solved issue is still going to cause stress for the student—something that should be avoided at all costs. Students who are bringing their own computer to the  test should do all they can the day before to make sure it is in good working order- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Another issue with screens is that many school issued computers are chrome books or other similar computers that have tiny screens. This can lead to issues with being able to see all the information at once (on the reading and science) and just overall makes it more difficult to interact with the test. If possible, request to take the test on a laptop brought from home or in a computer lab. The worst that can happen is that they say no!

Finally, as any optometrist will tell you, staring at a screen for three and half hours can cause physical issues. While students may say that “they’re used to it,” they probably don’t often stare at screen for that long. Even if they don’t realize it, they likely look up and around quite often to rest their eyes. On the ACT, all these mini-breaks can really add up to time lost.

In short, if your school is considering an online test you should, if possible, request a paper test. If you absolutely can’t get a paper test, prepare for the difficulties of online testing by using this resource given by the ACT

https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/Preparing-for-Online.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0e78F_CW6MhyIFX3835GZf1XWQ1QBt7brJTTc7L4aSeJVMeCVagIJfiP0

 

This will allow you, at the very least, to become comfortable with the program prior to test day!

Best of luck!

Michal Strawn

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.