Developing Critical Thinking Skills

With the prevalence of internet accessibility increasing across the board, one key skill in education is diminishing: the ability to figure it out. It may be true that students no longer need to memorize key facts because they can always look them up, but being able to puzzle through things is essential to many jobs. After all, what happens when something can’t be looked up? What kind of world would we have if we didn’t have people who were willing to figure out new things? This ability to figure things out starts very young. Remember the toy where the small child has to match the shape of the block to the shape of the hole? Somewhere along the line, though, many children and young adults begin to expect less work in figuring things out. They’re given fewer puzzles to solve and more things to memorize. They stop looking at learning as a puzzle solving and start simply asking for answers (from a teacher or Google) if they don’t know.

The result is that by the time students get to the ACT and SAT in high school they often have very weak concentration and critical thinking skills. They view math as a set of memorized steps, not a puzzle to be worked through. They view reading as something to do only to gain facts, not as something that requires critical thinking. This leads to poor results and to many students struggling to develop skills that have long lain dormant.  

One key part of ACT and SAT tutoring is strengthening these weak skills. Students will often become frustrated when they say “I don’t know how to do this problem” and instead of explaining the steps a tutor starts asking them questions. But this is how these skills are built. Instead of explaining and having students memorize every type of question that could be on the test (an impossibility), asking the students questions and assisting them in breaking the question down and solving the puzzle on their own will enable them to figure things out on test day when a tutor isn’t there to explain things. Nine times out of ten, when a student claims they don’t know how to do the problem, they actually already have all the math or reading skills they need to solve the problem, they just don’t realize what type of math they need to use or where to focus their reading. Developing critical thinking skills leads to much batter results. Besides tutoring, students can develop their critical thinking skills in several ways.

Here are some every day suggestions for strengthening this key skill.

  1. Hypothesize before looking things up:
    Let’s say you need to know the date for some key historical event for a school assignemnt. Before hopping on the internet or grabbing a text book, try to figure out at least a range of time that even could have happened in. Make a game of it to see how close to the correct answer you can get by using all the information you have already in your mind. For example, if I needed to know the date of the moon landing, I might go through a thought process like this: I know the moon landing was during the Cold War and the Cold War was after World War II but before the 90s, so it’s probably between the 50s and 90s. I remember back to a TV show I where the characters watched the moon landing. The TV was black and white and their clothes seemed bright. There were also a lot of hippies as characters. Maybe the moon landing was in the late 60s or the 70s. Only once I have thought through all of this and come up with a hypothesis do I look up the answer: the moon landing was in 1969.
  2. Do puzzles regularly:
    Sign up for a daily word or number puzzle. Maybe it’s a Sudoku. Maybe it’s a mini crossword puzzle. Make it something you can do most days, but that you can’t look up the answer to. Don’t let yourself give up quickly! If you need to, put it down for a few hours and then come back to it later. Work through feelings of frustration and focus on how much easier it gets over time! Try to be okay with not figuring it out if you puzzle on it for a good amount of time and can’t crack it.
  3. Ask specific questions:
    If you’re stumped on something at school or in anything you’re working on, focus on asking really specific questions. More specific questions force you to think about the problem a lot more before getting help and will avoid the helper just giving you the answer without making you think. Avoid saying things like “I don’t understand this thing” or “I don’t know how to do this” and try instead to say things like “what is the relationship between these two things- I don’t think I fully grasp that” or “If I’ve already done steps one and two, what should I consider to get to step four.” Once you’re comfortable with that try asking yourself those questions before asking other people.

Developing the skills needed to figure things out is difficult, but it’s well worth the effort and will pay off in many ways beyond just standardized tests. Keep working on those skills and let us know if you’d like any guidance along the way.

Michal Strawn


New Digital SAT Practice Tests

The College Board released four new non-adaptive full-length practice tests for the new digital SAT. These tests are designed for students who will take the digital SAT with accommodations that allow for a paper-based test. You can download them here:

https://satsuite.collegeboard.org/digital/digital-practice-preparation/practice-tests/linear

You can also practice the four released SAT digital practice tests in the computer adaptive format by downloading the SAT BlueBook app here:

https://bluebook.app.collegeboard.org/

These tests are excellent practice for International students taking the digital SAT starting in March of 2023 and U.S. students in March of 2024.

New Digital SAT Practice Tests Released

The College Board just released 4 new Digital SAT Practice Tests today. If you are a student, you can access them by downloading the free BlueBook app from College Board. You can do the tests on a personal computer, laptop, or tablet. If you already have the BlueBook app downloaded, you will need to reinstall it to get the new digital practice tests. Good luck!

–Brian Stewart

5 Reasons to Take the SAT and ACT Tests

Over the past two years, there has been quite a bit of upheaval in the world of college admissions and standardized testing.  Many schools are now “test-optional,” meaning that students can submit SAT and ACT test scores if they would like, but they are not required to do so.  Given the media reports about standardized tests, some parents and students may wonder if they should even bother taking the SAT or ACT.  Here are five reasons why taking the SAT or ACT is a still a wise choice in this uncertain environment. 

1.  Nearly all colleges would like to see your scores.

From what is covered in the news, it sounds like most schools do not care about evaluating your test scores.  According to fairtest.org, the reality is that only 3.7% of U.S. colleges are “test-blind,” meaning they do not consider test scores.  The most well-known test-blind schools are the colleges in the University of California system; the others are predominately smaller liberal arts colleges.  This means that  96.3% of U.S. colleges either require the SAT or ACT or will consider SAT/ACT scores if submitted.  Some, like Georgetown University, West Point, and the University of Florida, have required standardized test results even during the pandemic.  Others, like Ivy League Schools and Big Ten universities, give students the option to submit test scores, recognizing that there have been test site cancellations and health concerns that may have precluded students from being able to test. 

Probably the most well-known example of a test-optional university is Harvard.  When you look at their admissions website, you will see that they would indeed like to see your standardized test results if possible:

“Harvard accepts other standardized tests or other academic credentials if you choose to submit them. In any admissions process, additional information can be helpful. For example, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, A-levels, national leaving examinations, national or international contests, early high school assessment scores such as the PSAT or pre-ACT, or courses taken outside your school during the school year or summer are just some examples of information that could be submitted.”

If you call the Harvard admissions office, they enthusiastically encourage students to submit standardized test results—an admissions officer told me that the majority of applicants do submit test scores, and they would like you to send in your scores if you are able to test.  The bottom line is that colleges prefer as much information as possible to make an admissions decision, and they consider standardized tests an important metric in evaluating applicants. 

2.  Test scores provide protection against grade inflation. 

According to the Department of Education and the College Board, the average High School GPA was 2.68 in 1990, and 3.38 in 2016.  A recent national survey of K-8 parents found that 90% of parents believe that their child is achieving at or above grade level, and that 66 percent think that their kid is above average.  Inflated GPAs may give parents and students an incorrect impression of academic readiness, and they make it more challenging for college admissions officers to differentiate among applicants.  Consider this excerpt from the Harvard admissions website

“Given the wide variation in how students prepare for Harvard – as well as the fact that most applicants and admitted students have outstanding academic records – it is difficult for high school grades to differentiate individual applications. That does not mean that high school grades are unimportant. Students who come to Harvard have done well day to day in their high school studies, providing a crucial foundation for academic success in college, including a 97% – 98% graduation rate.  SAT and ACT tests are better predictors of Harvard grades than high school grades”. 

Good grades are certainly a key part of a successful college application.  However, students will stand out among the applicants if they have good test scores as well. 

3.  Those who submit test scores likely have a better chance of earning admission. 

According to the Future of Higher Education Newsletter, those who submit test scores are admitted at a rate that is often twice as much as those who do not submit test scores.  Here are some examples for applicants in the fall of 2021:

  • Emory: Admit rate 17% (with tests) vs. 8.6% (without tests)
  • Colgate: 25% (with tests) vs. 12% (without tests)
  • Georgia Tech: 22% (with tests) vs. 10% (without tests)

Colleges will happily accept applications from anyone who wishes to submit one—after all, they receive application fees and will see improved selectivity statistics.  Colleges will need to see clear evidence of academic strength in other areas to be confident about students who do not submit test scores.  To have a successful application, students would be smart to include test scores that demonstrate their readiness for college-level work. 

4.  Good test scores can lead to substantial scholarships. 

  • For those seeking major merit awards to Ohio State, like the Maximus, Trustees, Provost, or National Buckeye Scholarship (up to a $54,000 value), the criteria include SAT and ACT scores for those who have been able to take them. 
  • The University of Oklahoma awards out-of-state students who are National Merit Semi-Finalists (based on the PSAT and SAT tests) a $56,000 scholarship to cover four years of tuition. 
  • The University of Alabama gives a Presidential Scholarship for students with perfect ACT/SAT scores.  It includes four years of tuition, a stipend, a research grant, and a book grant, valued at $112,000 over a four year period. 

Three to four hours on a Saturday morning could be the best financial investment a student could make. 

5.  Colleges use ACT and SAT test scores to determine your course placement. 

It is one thing to be admitted to a college; it is another to get started on desired major classes as soon as possible.  Achieving certain section scores can allow students to place out of general education requirements, saving time and money.  Ohio State, among many other schools, use ACT and SAT test scores for English and math course placement.  The University of Louisiana, for example, gives students who score a 28 or above on the ACT English a full semester credit for English 101; those who score over a 30 on the ACT math earn two full semesters of credit for Math 109 and Math 110.  Since the ACT and SAT are designed to measure how likely a student will be successful as a college freshman, taking the tests will highlight areas that students should improve so they can be successful in collegiate coursework. 

I hope you found this information helpful.  Please contact us at www.bwseducationconsulting.com with other questions you may have about the SAT and ACT. 

–Brian Stewart

ACT Reading Update–Visual Quantitative Information Questions

The ACT has announced that at some point during the 2021-2022 school year, students may have an additional question type on the ACT Reading section: Visual Quantitative Information questions. These questions will most likely be found on one of the three Informational Reading passages, as opposed to a fiction passage.

What will these questions be like? Check out this link for some sample visual quantitative information questions. Unfortunately, until tests that have these questions are released, these appear to be the only official sample questions ACT has made available.

Why is the ACT adding this question type to the reading section? Most likely it is because the SAT has done so on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section, and the ACT would like to assess similar skills. This is yet another example of how the ACT and SAT tests have increasingly converged in recent years, making it easy for students to transition from one test to the other.

So, what should students who are concerned about these new question types do to prepare? First, go into the ACT reading section with a flexible mindset; if you come across a series of graph analysis questions, know that they will only test you on the information in the reading passage and the graph. No outside knowledge will be required. Second, practice with some SAT reading passages that have graph analysis questions. Each SAT reading section has about 4-5 questions of this type, so you will have far more to work with than the limited sample ACT has provided. Here is a link to several SAT practice tests that you can review.

Best of luck!

Thinking Strategically about Early Applications to College

Many students believe that when you apply early to a university, you must limit your application to a single college. When, you look more closely at the application requirements, you will find that you can apply more strategically. Highly selective schools in the United States–like Harvard, MIT, and Yale–have restrictive early action. For example, Harvard describes its Early Action program like this:

“If you apply to Harvard under our Restrictive Early Action program, you may also apply early to non-binding public or foreign colleges/universities (no Early Decision programs), but you may not apply early (in any form) to U.S. private colleges/universities.”

Note that the restriction applies only to U.S. private universities. So, where else could an ambitious student apply?

International Universities. Schools in Canada, like the University of Toronto or McGill, would be excellent candidates. Schools in the United Kingdom, like Oxford and Cambridge, could also be great possibilities. Given the weight that international schools put on academic qualifications, these schools could be good options for students whose academic qualifications are stellar but whose extracurricular qualifications are not as comparatively strong.

Elite State Universities in the United States. Schools like the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin would allow early applications that are non-binding.

So, instead of simply applying to one selective private school with an early application, you may want to also apply early to an international university or a couple of state universities. Doing so will likely ensure that you have more options for college admissions come December instead of having all of your eggs in one basket with a single elite private university.

Early Action? Early Decision? Early Confusion?


Early decision and early action deadlines are creeping up on students right about now at the beginning of November. While some students may have decided to apply early some time ago, many of their friends may be left in a panic as they watch the deadlines go by thinking “what does this mean?”. “Should I apply early?” Many students experience FOMO (fear of missing out) as they realize a bit belatedly that many of their peers are wrapping up applications just as others are only getting started. What is early action? What is early decision? Who are they right for? Below are the basics that students need to know in order to make informed decisions about early applications.

Early Action:

Early action is a pretty good bet for most students. Applying early action means that students apply sooner (generally early fall of senior year) and then they get their decision early. Students can apply early action at as many of their colleges as have an early action program. Early action applications come with no commitment and are a good way to get the applications out of the way sooner so that students can focus on and enjoy senior year. Early action also allows for students to have more time to make their decision once they get acceptances and it takes the burden off students’ shoulders much sooner.

Early Decision:

Early decision applications are a much bigger deal than early action. Not many schools offer early decision; those that do tend to be highly selective institutions. Many students, therefore, may not even have the option of applying early decision. The key thing to remember is that early decision applications are legally binding. Students are required to attend the school and withdraw applications from all other schools if accepted into their early decision school. This means that students who apply early decision are committing to attending before they see what financial aid the school will offer them. Students should not apply early decision unless they are sure that the school is the right fit and they are committed to paying the full price for the school. At most schools, applying early decision does increase your chances of being admitted and, similar to early action, gets the work and the decision out of the way much sooner which is attractive to most students.

In Conclusion:

If you’re in your senior year and you haven’t yet submitted any applications, it’s okay! You still have time for those regular decision applications, so don’t rush to apply early if it means submitting subpar work. Generally, schools accept regular decision applications until the beginning of January, but make sure you check with your schools to find out their specific deadlines. Try to have your applications in as soon as you can; don’t wait until the last moment. The sooner you get accepted the sooner your school can put together your financial aid package. Most schools have a limited amount of aid to give out, so you don’t want to be last in line. If you need any help with your applications or essays reach out to us and let us assist!

How to Start the College Process: Three Tours

A lot of students start junior year not entirely sure what they want in a college. By the time they reach the start of senior year, they need to know. The summer before senior year and that school year itself will be full of college applications, essays, letters of recommendation, and financial aid paper work. To make this process go more smoothly, students should try to have their list of colleges just about ready before senior year starts. This means that the summer prior to 11th grade and junior year itself are the time for figuring out what a student wants in a college and writing a list of places to apply to. While some students have had their dream school picked out for years, others approach the process with a completely blank slate. If this is you, you might be overwhelmed, wondering how to narrow down the thousands of available options.

A great place to start is on any college campus. An even better place to start would be on three college campuses. You can make life easy on yourself by touring three campuses close to where you live. There is no need to travel far, you’re just looking for things you like and things you don’t like. Indeed, knowing what you don’t want is just as helpful as knowing what you do want!

So which colleges should you start with? You should aim for three distinctly different options: one large, one mid-sized, one small. At least one of the three should be private and at least one public. One could be a city campus with others being in small towns or rural areas. In short, you should try to see as much diversity in options as possible.

When planning these visits make sure to sign up to take the official tour. This will give you a chance to see classrooms, dorms, and cafeterias as well as to ask questions about majors, campus culture, and graduation rates. You should take careful notes on what you like- if you don’t write it down, you’ll likely forget it!

After the three colleges tours are done sit down a write a list of “must haves” for a college. Are small class sizes a “must” or a “never”? What major or majors must be available to you? Must the campus be bustling or quiet, city or country? Once you get all of your “musts” on a list start doing research on schools in your desired geographic area. You’ll find that it’s much easier to narrow down your possibilities now that you know what you want!

If you want help with this process reach out and let us know- we’d love to work with you as you get ready for college!
Michal Strawn

The Summer Before Senior Year: To Do

By Michal Strawn

Many students don’t begin thinking about colleges until late in their junior year or early in their senior year of high school. The perception is that until the applications are open, there isn’t much you can do. Boy is that a misconception! In the months prior to the start of senior year, there are many steps that students can take to help reduce the stress of application season and help the entire process move smoothly. Consider making our to-do list your to-do list for the summer.

1. Finish that list

Filling out applications isn’t actually all the difficult, it’s just time consuming. What can be difficult is finding the colleges to apply to! Take time over the summer to find a handful of colleges at which you can see yourself being happy and that have a strong program in your chosen field. Look up their admission requirements to make sure you have a few “sure things” on your list so that you’ll have options no matter what!

2. Visit

If you didn’t get any visits in during Junior year then need to happen now. The next break you have from school will be at Thanksgiving and that’s too late. Visit at least a few colleges to get a good feel for what you like and what you dislike. Adjust your list from there.

3. Prepare for the ACT or SAT

You’ve likely already taken these tests once or twice. The summer before senior year is the final big push for any improvements that you want to see. Fall of senior year will be your last chance to take these tests and get your scores back before applications are due.

4. Write your essay(s)

College applications may not be due until the late fall or early winter, but essays tend to pile up. It can be a lot of work to complete a few main essays plus a dozen supplementals for all the colleges you wish to apply to, especially on top of school work, sports, and other school year commitments. You can get a head start by completing the common application essay (and any others you know you’ll need) over the summer.

5.Start the scholarship search

Many students assume that they should first apply for colleges and then figure out how to pay for it. Nothing could be further from the truth! Many scholarships have deadlines that are early in senior year. Make sure they’re on your radar early or you may miss out!

With these things completed you’ll have a head start on senior year and be prepared for success in your college application process!

End to SAT Subject Tests and the SAT Essay, and Digital SAT Development

The College Board made some major announcements today. First, they are immediately discontinuing SAT Subject Tests (the one hour tests in subjects like Literature, Math Level 2, and Chemistry) for students in the United States. They will continue to offer SAT Subject Tests for International Students who wish to take them in May or June of 2021. Students may still be able to submit existing scores from SAT Subject tests, but should check with individual colleges on their policies. If you are registered to take an upcoming SAT Subject Test, the College Board will cancel your registration and give you a full refund.

Second, the College Board is phasing out the SAT Essay by June of 2021. Students who need to take the SAT Essay for their state’s school day administration will still be able to take it. All the other parts of the SAT–Reading, Writing & Language, and Math–will remain the same.

Third, the SAT is developing what they call a “more flexible SAT—a streamlined, digitally delivered test.” They will provide more details about this in the spring.

What does all this mean for high school students?

  1. The SAT and ACT will become more important. Students who previously could show their subject knowledge with multiple-choice SAT Subject Tests will no longer have that option. With fewer tests that colleges will consider, each test will become relatively more influential.
  2. AP and IB test results will become more important. One major reason that the College Board gave for eliminating the SAT Subject Tests was that students already have the opportunity to show subject knowledge with AP exams. Top AP test scores–like a 4 or 5–will be a critical component of college applications. If students are in the International Baccalaureate program, scores from those exams can also show college readiness.
  3. There will likely be a digitally adaptive SAT in the future. My best guess as to what the SAT has in store for the digital SAT is a test much like the current GRE. The GRE is adaptive–if you are performing well, you get more difficult questions, and if you are performing poorly, you get easier questions. By having an adaptive format, the digital GRE takes about half the time a paper version of the test would take. I believe that in the coming years, the SAT will be offered both as a longer paper test, and as a shorter digitally adaptive test. A digital version of the test would require much less time for a school-administered version, making it a popular option.

Stay tuned to our blog for the latest updates on SAT test changes.