A Message to Parents about SAT Prep
Aren't you glad you graduated when colleges didn't scrutinize what you did with every month of your summer vacation? We who attended high school in the 1970s and earlier didn't face nearly the pressures in terms of time as the kids who will graduate this decade.
At Ivy Bound we want to alleviate the pressure as much as possible. Given that test preparation is important and that it takes time, our method is to ask for six to eight good weeks of effort. The improved scores that are likely to result relieve the pressure of having to take the SAT again and balance course work against extracurriculars and/or more test prep.
We know how busy teens can be. So we try to "create" SAT study time. We self-drill vocabulary while flossing and hair drying. We ask students to eschew all but one hour of weekly television while they're taking the class. Parents can help get the obstinate TV watcher on board by videotaping the kid's top shows for viewing AFTER the SAT.
I certainly don't want to replace you in the most important job you have, so with humility, but with nearly 13 years experience on the coaching end, I offer some tips on how to best support your college-bound teenager.
How to be a Great SAT Parent
- Make sure your interest in your child's success coincides with his or her interest.
- Be willing to assist with the fun drills we give as homework.
- Encourage your child's friend to attend the Extra Help sessions with your child. Though we offer these free of charge, we find them to be under-attended, potentially because of a perceived stigma.
- Don't blindly trust the public school. The majority of public schools have good guidance counselors who know how to help. Since some do not, we urge you to see what your kids' friends who might be in parochial school or college prep schools are doing. If you know nobody in that category, consider an independent consultant.
SAT, PSAT, ACT and SAT Subject Tests
A Primer for Beginners
Though top schools have become more competitive, kids tend to be better able to grapple with these processes and pressures than most of us were when we applied to college. Little has changed about the process: testing in the junior year, applications in the senior year. Along the way, standardized testing has generally increased in importance. Since that's my area of expertise, let me fill you in on how it affects kids eyeing four-year colleges.
SAT and SAT Subject Tests (formerly SAT II)
The SAT Subject Tests are important for admissions committees at the most competitive colleges (typically the "top 100" scrutinize SAT Subject Test scores). These were once known as "Achievement Tests" and mattered only for advanced placement purposes. Now the more competitive four-year colleges use SAT II scores for ADMISSIONS purposes. Many schools desire three strong scores, others just two. Some colleges insist on certain ones being included among them, typically the Math, and if you are bound for an engineering school, one of the sciences. Ivy League schools use the SAT Subject Tests as part of their "Academic Index" for athletes, a base evaluation that includes GPA, SAT I, and SAT subject tests about equally.
The good news is that the same work that results in good SCHOOL grades tends to result in strong Subject Test scores. These are knowledge-based tests, similar to most school finals. Thus SAT Subject Test mastery can coincide with a strong report card, with only a little extra prep. We suggest 4 to 8 hours with a tutor per subject. A student who feels s/he NEEDS more than 12 tutoring hours on an SAT Subject Test should not be taking the test in that subject.
It is the SAT that demands extensive prep. The SAT tests skills as well as knowledge, and many of these skills are not taught in high school. Even good high school math teachers rarely combine Algebra and Geometry the way a single SAT question might. Even good English teachers rarely invoke the kind of detailed reading comprehension skills the SAT demands. And hardly any high school curriculum teaches "reasoning", which has crept into the SAT more and more over the last 15 years.
As important as the SAT is, few high schools incorporate SAT study in their curricula. To many teachers, "teaching to the test" is mildly repulsive. It's too bad - many parents would prefer their schools devote a few hours to targeting the SAT than to reading yet ANOTHER novel or doing MORE personal reflections. Parents whose kids are in stodgy schools thus look elsewhere for help that directly targets college-bound kids. Organizations like Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Ivy Bound exist and succeed in helping students because they exclusively target the tests.
In one-on-one tutorials where the instructor comes to the home, or in classes, students join us after school or on weekends to make sure they maximize their skills and test-taking abilities. Along the way, many parents tell me that the process of targeted test prep has helped their children with their overall academic test-taking, study skills, and time management. Though none of these is a direct goal of an Ivy Bound tutorial, I am happy to see they are worthy byproducts.
SAT Subject Tests and APs
AP stands for "Advanced Placement". These tests are given once a year, in May, in various subjects. Scored on a 1 - 5 scale, the APs are used by colleges to determine whether a student's high school achievement merits her starting in "Spanish 2" or "Advanced Chemistry" for example. Rarely do AP scores influence college admissions committees. Exceptions include students from high schools where the curriculum is lax, taking AP courses and earning As, but only getting 1s and 2s on the AP tests. On the other hand, a 5 on the AP might corroborate a student whose application showed a "C" in the subject, but a note that "the teacher hated me because I was mean to his daughter".
APs have largely replaced SAT Subject Tests as guides for advanced placement. Thus the Subject Tests have become important PRE-admission, and APs can be important for POST-admission.
SAT and ACT
The ACT is a competitor test to the SAT. Colleges view the ACT as an equally valid standardized test and ALL colleges accept either test score. The ACT tests a broader range of subject matter than the SAT: in addition to math and verbal skills similar to those on the SAT, the ACT has trigonometry and a "Science Reasoning" section testing data interpretation. The ACT's breadth makes it a more difficult test to study for. The exception is students with a weak vocabulary, as vocabulary is extensively tested in the Sentence Completion sections of the SAT, sections that do not appear on the ACT.
Other significant differences between tests include:
- ACT tests trigonometry; SAT does not.
- ACT math questions are more straightforward; SAT math requires very careful attention to the ENGLISH aspect of math questions
- ACT is on a 1 - 36 scale; SAT has a 600 - 2400 scale, including many more gradations.
Our general advice is to target SAT study exclusively. Since SAT is more "coachable" than the ACT, we suggest ACT study only if a student has done thorough SAT study but still has scores well below his or her goals.
SAT and PSAT
What's the difference between the PSAT and the SAT? First, every SAT I is seen by the colleges. The PSAT is not seen by colleges. Unless you get a tremendous score (top 2%), the PSAT is meaningless. The top 2% in each state qualify for National Merit recognition. While that's nice for self-esteem, colleges are not impressed if that recognition is not followed up with an equally strong (or close) SAT score. Second, the format differs. The PSAT is shorter and does not require an essay. Its "writing" section os error recognition and grammar. Third, the scoring differs, though not significantly. PSAT gives two-digit scores from 20 - 80 and SAT gives three digit scores from 200 - 800. For National Merit recognition, a strong PSAT verbal ability is doubly rewarded, as the formula is Math + Verbal + Writing. Again, "Writing" should be called "Error Recognition" or "Grammar"; it is a 30 minute multiple choice section that comes at the end. It is NOT a handwritten entry (your child didn't miss something).
There is no discernible difference in level of difficulty between PSAT and SAT. However counselors find that SAT scores move towards the median for Reading - i.e. high PSAT scorers usually fall on their SAT (unless they prep); low PSAT scorers usually rise on their SAT. Since the SAT tests the same level of reading and the same type of vocabulary as the PSAT, we surmise that this "norming" owes to the SAT being a longer test. Longer questions rein in extremes. For Math, the PSAT is meant to be easier. The test makers exclude some "third year" math that will show up on the SAT. Also, the PSAT does not have "stopper" questions. The hard questions on the PSAT Math come at the end, whereas very hard SAT math questions can come in the middle of a section. Students who struggle a long time with a single question are then pressed for time on the rest of the section, often leading to careless errors or incomplete sections.
Since the PSAT is not the best indicator of SAT performance, we have an antidote for parents interested in seeing their child's likely SAT prowess early on. Buy "The Official SAT Study Guide" from Barnes & Noble. Have your child take any of these tests. (If taking the Ivy Bound course, use any of the first 3 or last 3 tests, as our students will get this book at Lesson 1 and we reserve 4 or 5 tests for true practice testing.). Though 30 minutes shorter, these tests contain the same questions that appeared on the actual SAT for those dates. They can be scored at home on the same 200 - 800 scales. That will allow you get a realistic snapshot of how s/he would do on the test.
I say "snapshot" because by no means are SAT scores set in stone. The SAT measures knowledge and skills. Both can be coached. To the extent the SAT may measure intelligence (I'm agnostic on that issue), it's an intelligence that can be improved upon. It's not "randomness" that leads so many of our students to raise their scores 200 points or more.
Better: take the SAT in the sophomore year in addition to (or if the school permits, instead of) the PSAT. That gives a truer snapshot.
Who should prep, and when?
SAT prep is not for everybody. Kids bound for junior college do not need the SAT at all. Kids who expect to attend four-year college but who show little interest in doing anything beyond their class assignments will get something out of a course, but they may be better served by waiting until summer before senior year. Kids who are willing to do the extra work for a 2 – 5 month period should find significant improvements. The majority of Ivy Bound’s students improve over 150 points, and enough make 250 point improvements for us to say that diligent SAT prep is well worthwhile. Considering the number of merit scholarships available, where crossing a certain threshold earns the student $5,000 - $15,000 PER YEAR, it is sensible for the serious student to devote 2 – 5 months to a potentially life-changing test.
Such students should consider doing the prep early. The SAT is offered seven times a year, so there is always a "target" date that they can look to. Even if their school is not giving the test, a neighboring school will be available in January, March, May, June, October, November, and December. We at Ivy Bound stay with the students throughout their Junior year: if they prep for the January exam, we'll send emails throughout the winter and spring to reinforce reading and math skills. For any test date, Ivy Bound students are invited to "attend" the statewide conference calls we hold the Sunday prior to each SAT just as a final tune-up.
Getting Top Scores
Why Strong Students Do Not Always Lock In High SAT Scores, And How to Change That
by Mark Greenstein, Founder and Lead Instructor, Ivy Bound Test Prep
While there remains a strong correlation between high grades and high SAT scores, it is especially exasperating for parents to see their diligent teens failing to complement their high grades with high SAT scores. Since explanations may lead to solutions, allow me to hypothesize based on my experience with high school test-takers and the SAT in particular.
Correlation does not equal causation
Though the correlation between high grades and SAT scores is strong, it is wrong to say that mastering a school's English and math curricula will result in 1200+ SAT scores. Any causation is better attributable to work ethic by the student than to a transfer of skills in traditional curricula, especially in the English section. Since the SAT tests very coachable skills, a student's desire to master those skills plays a large role in her/his performance.
The correlation that I believe has the highest elements of causation is parent expectations. It is no secret that the children of doctors, engineers, lawyers, and professors garner a huge share of the highest SAT scores. Though some attribute "smarts" to genetics, I am not one of them. The children of well-educated professionals have high standards that they are 1) exposed to and 2) motivated to meet.
Exposure and motivation
For students at a strong public school or even a mediocre prep school, exposure to the college admissions process and standards comes almost automatically. For motivated students in schools that send few kids to competitive colleges, I recommend that their parents stay in touch with parents who chose a college preparatory school for their kids. If they do not know such parents, consult actively with a college placement counselor. Form a posse to seek out the information that many other kids are exposed to beginning in 9th grade. My first class of students took place in south central Los Angeles. The four students who chose to be in the class were daughters and sons of working class Mexican Americans. Three of them are among Ivy Bound's top improvers and one attained the school's record for highest-ever SAT score. As far as exposure to the SAT itself, that's easy --$19.95 at Barnes & Noble buys any kid The Official SAT Study Guide. There is no excuse for not knowing what skills are tested on the SAT.
How does a student get the desireto master the SAT? I cannot say. Fear of not keeping up with peers who are bound for competitive colleges is a good motivator for some. Fear of failing their parents' expectations is a motivator for others, but a dangerous one. (The reward for meeting such expectations is probably a more positive motivator). Though far from a scientific survey, I find that the students who have improved the most just want to meet a certain number for the sake of meeting that number. By this I mean they are not telling me "I just have to get in to ______ college", or "I have to meet the score my dad expects", but "I want a 2100".
Here's one reason why "I want a 2100" is a good attitude and can lead to success: it divorces the consequences of the test from the studying and doing of the test. Consequences are the things we both aspire to and fear. Unfortunately fear too often takes over. In the process a student's mental energies along with emotional energies are distracted. When the student can remind himself "here's how I'm supposed to do this test", instead of "here's what happens to me if I don't get into Stanford", the anxiety is reduced.
One thing that dampens desire is the attitude that "the SAT is a stupid test". A test that helps evaluate grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension, math, and logical reasoning is not a stupid test. Anyone in your child's midst who is purveying that attitude should be quarantined, teachers included. The current SAT is a decent test of skills and knowledge that are important in higher education, if not everyday life. It could be a broader, less coachable, and thus fairer test, and I'd like to see it untimed, but on the whole it is a well-crafted test and is no longer racially biased. If not convinced, see my piece on "Why The SAT Is A Decent Standard".
Why SAT Verbal Skills may not meet expectations
A reason why even the diligent child of two well-educated professionals might not lock in a good SAT score is that the child's verbal education never targeted skills tested on the SAT. Particularly if the child is not an avid reader, s/he is unlikely to absorb the vocabulary tested on the later (tougher) SAT questions. Drilling vocabulary can only go so far, and it's not especially fun. I don't blame schools for eschewing vocabulary drills, but in its place they MUST instill a reading ethic.
A failure to target skills includes a neglect to instill careful reading. Though students at fine schools might proudly cover Dickens, Hemingway, Hawthorne, and Wharton in one semester, they are rarely called upon to parse a single paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word. The SAT tests short, dense passages. The makers of the test excerpt passages from fiction and scholarly reviews and further edit them so as to pack a lot of information in a mere 60 lines. Few high school teachers invoke similar passages, followed by questions where the right answer sometimes turns on the forcefulness of a single word. (I took nine English courses at a very good prep school; only when covering Shakespeare and a few other poems was I asked to analyze a sentence word-for-word.) Yet SAT Reading Comp success is driven by careful analysis, both at the "big picture" and at the "detail" level. In 1994 the ETS significantly changed the format of the SAT verbal section and in 2005 ETS re-formatted to place even more weight on reading. A careful reader, armed with good vocabulary, should score a 700 on the verbal.
Why SAT Math Skills May Not Meet Expectations
The math section of the SAT has more questions that directly correlate with a traditional high school curriculum than does the verbal. Nevertheless, many "A" math students receive only mid-range scores on the SAT math.
One reason is that even in a well-taught math class, the students never see questions that the SAT asks. Kids spend a whole year in Algebra I, and a whole year in Geometry. They may never fuse the two, yet at least some SAT questions combine Algebra and Geometry.
Another reason is that high school math makes use of intricate and often lengthy calculations. The SAT rarely does. When students are tempted to take out their calculators for what is bound to be a two-minute or more exercise, they should think again. Step back, for there is usually a creative, simple way to nail that problem in less than 60 seconds.
Rarely does a high school teacher teach "logic". The closest is typically geometry, which builds logical thinking through proofs. SAT never asks for proofs, yet it very much rewards logical thinking. Indeed, since 1996, ETS has called its test the "SAT I Reasoning Test". Buried into the math section are questions relying on "pure logic" and others relying on “vision”. The "housing lots" questions on the May 2000 SAT, profiled in the cover story in the April 2001 Time magazine, exemplify a combination of logic AND vision questions.
"It's Just Test - Taking"
Notice that my analysis is void of discussing "test-taking". That is because I attribute little to it. The "tricks" and time management skills that can avoid test-taking impediments can be taught in 90 minutes. Students these days are used to standardized tests. Once kids are familiar with the format of this test and a few test taking and time-management “tricks”, the remainder is skill mastery.
So I conclude by imploring schools to teach mastery of the valuable skills tested on the SAT. If "teaching to the test" is a taboo phrase, that's understandable. Teach good skills that the test rewards. That will reward the students.
Why An Elite College Provides A Valuable Degree
by Mark Greenstein, Founder and Lead Instructor, Ivy Bound Test Prep
Regarding the recently published Princeton University study that questions the value of elite college degrees, research and a bit of just plain common sense tells us the Berg Dale - Kreuger study is either very wrong or that the media is drawing the wrong conclusions from it.
Common sense says that when corporate recruiters seek out elite schools for on-campus interviews, it's difficult for the motivated successful student at a lesser tier college to compete for that first full-time job.
Common sense says that a tight alumni network gives the student more opportunities for landing that first full-time job with a well-paying employer.
Common sense says that since graduate schools have a predisposition for undergrads from recognized high caliber schools, the equally meritorious students at less-recognized schools have a higher hurdle to overcome. It does not take a scholar to know that income correlates very highly with level of graduate degree.
Irrespective of the training students receive at the top-ranked colleges, the imprimatur of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and CalTech carries significantly into the market for the first job, for graduate school, and perhaps even for promotions thereafter. Ask recruiters who unabashedly state that they have discrepant thresholds for interviewing candidates based on their school. Ask Nicholas Lehmann, who said in a PBS Frontline interview - "a good school puts you in the way of more opportunity".
Even the college drop-out has more access to funds for building his own business when his freshman year roommate is the child of a successful businessman or banker. Like it or not, the odds that that roommate falls into this category are markedly higher when attending a college that has been highly ranked for decades.
Professor Caroline Hoxby studied the financial returns to men who entered colleges of differing selectivities between 1960 and 1982. She concluded that the reward from attending the more selective college occurred in every age group, from those several decades past graduation, to those within one decade of graduation. The study accounted for differences in tuition, and her conclusion held true even for students who attended a less selective school on a "free ride", i.e. a full scholarship. Hoxby's study did not account for non-remunerative benefits of attending the college. Nor am I considering them here; it is clear that many students can find better opportunities for growth, diversity, enrichment, or academic course of study at a less selective school. The question for which many college-bound students need clarity is the financial return.
Many deplore a meritocracy based so greatly on grades and standardized test scores. And many regret what the pressures to gain admittance to top-ranked colleges do to teens. In the area of education, media reports too often confuse reality with what the reporter wishes reality to be. Publicizing a study that does not fully account for the prominence of these top-ranked colleges does a disservice to anyone seeking the truth.
It is wrong to cloud students' futures with bad advice, and that can easily come from studies like Berg Dale and Kreuger's.
We prepare high school students to do well on the SAT and ACT. The SAT is the biggest single test for determining whether good colleges will select the student.
Whatever university a child wants, a good SAT score will help. If there's no desire to attend an elite school, there almost always is a desire to get money, and merit scholarships are largely based on SAT scores. Even if a kid right now wants to go to a trade school, taking the SAT while in high school will at least open up options if he later decides he likes the college idea.
10th or 11th grade, as long as s/he has had a semester each of algebra and geometry.
It's not hard. The math is composed of basic skills, but the questions are asked in ways that require logic and sometimes creativity. Those are courses kids don't learn in school. As for the verbal, it's a test of reading comprehension and vocabulary. And when were those skills stressed in school? I went to an elite prep school in New England, but nobody drilled me in vocabulary, logic, or creativity.
Because it means so much. 3 years of hard work can go out the window if a student with a high GPA does only mediocre on the SAT. And the trends are more dire - colleges are getting even more competitive.
Yes. Start preparing early. And that means READ a lot. I hold a one hour "How to be a Great SAT Parent" session to start off each class. No matter how smart he is, a kid who reads very little is at a huge disadvantage on the SAT. Now my course can combat that, by intensive scrutiny of commonly used SAT words, but it's much harder.
Our students make this their number one priority for 2-3 months. They know that if they can pop a great SAT score in junior year, they can cruise through senior year with far fewer burdens, so they make the sacrifice. Some find it's not a sacrifice at all, because I tell them to turn off the TV for six weeks. Even a middle course - limited TV - can give the kid 40 free hours a month. I run a semi-militaristic class, so a lot of kids respect that, and it's something many parents have wanted to do for a while.
We encourage families who want tutoring to do semi-private
tutoring. Enlist with another student who has similar goals and is
academically compatible. This becomes 1-on-2 tutoring, and the
families split the tutor cost.
For families with deep financial need, we give tuition assistance for regular standing classes. It can be as much as 85% off. We don't want to keep anybody out based on need, so parents shouldn't be afraid to call. We're at 860-975-1600.
Remember, at many schools even a 100-point increase vastly improves a student's chances for both admission and merit scholarships. In the long run, many parents find that the value of Ivy Bound far exceeds the cost.
We encourage community groups who have diligent students to contact us about holding a low-cost class.
Probably. Honors and AP classes on a transcript attest to rigor of coursework, depth of learning, and to some extent a willingness to accept challenge. When college admissions officers choose to look beyond numbers, they strongly appreciate these factors. At schools where there is a grade inflator for taking AP or Honors courses, the kid's GPA is unlikely to suffer; indeed, for the hard-working kid, the GPA may be helped. To become more assured, find out from upperclassmen who took X course with Y teacher how the grade distribution went. You probably want to avoid a teacher who awards as many C minuses as As.
Assuming the GPA aspect is a wash, the main decision comes down to workload and intellectual interest in the subject. Taking honors classes in an elective you hate is just not worth it. Avoiding honors classes altogether is a mistake though - it's very easy for a college admissions officer to say "no" to a kid whose transcript rings of "just getting by", "had the opportunity to challenge himself, but didn't".
Maybe. Many "numbers-oriented" colleges, particularly large state universities, do not take the time to make minute discernment at the "first cut". Now, even the most impersonal admissions office will look at trends, essays, and letters of recommendation for the candidates who made the first cut and are "on the bubble". But making the first cut there may be difficult if a poor freshman year has slapped the kid's GPA well below the school's median.
The best solution for kids in the medium-but-rising category is to get a second recommender to call attention to the strength of the last few semesters. An extra recommendation can never hurt.
First, the SAT is seen by the colleges. The PSAT is not seen by colleges. Unless you get a tremendous score (top 1%), the PSAT is unimportant. The top 1% in each state qualify for National Merit recognition, and approximately half of these students ultimately win a "National Merit Scholarship" as a result.
Second, the format differs. The PSAT is shorter.
Third, the scoring differs, though not significantly. PSAT gives two-digit scores from 20 - 80 and SAT gives three-digit scores from 200 - 800.
There is no discernible difference in level of difficulty between PSAT and SAT. However we do find that SAT scores move towards the median - i.e., high PSAT scorers score slightly lower on the SAT, and low PSAT scorers usually improve. Since the SAT tests the same level of reading, the same type of vocabulary, and with a few exceptions the same math skills, we surmise that this "norming" owes to the SAT being a longer test.
An ED (Early Decision) applicant is allowed to apply to only one ED school, and if the word is "yes" the applicant cannot matriculate elsewhere. Colleges like this because they get a certain portion of the class committed early, reduce their workload for the regular round, and in some cases get earlier cash flow. Early Action (EA) is not a binding commitment; it only allows students to hear early. Some schools offer "Single-Choice Early Action" (SCEA), which is identical to EA except that applicants may apply to only one SCEA or ED school.
One possible advantage of Early Decision (ED) is that almost all colleges that offer ED have higher acceptance rates in the ED period than the regular time period. While that could owe to the best prepared students being more prevalent in the ED applicant pool, many colleges report a lower average GPA and SAT in the ED pool than the regular pool. For the student yearning to attend a school for which his numbers are slightly below the school's average, the ED tradeoff may be worthwhile. On the other hand, the ability to apply to a multiplicity of schools means the chance for multiple offers. Occasionally a "reach"" school comes through; occasionally one college awards not only an acceptance, but a significant merit scholarship as well. ED is a good option for kids who have enough zeal for a college that if accepted, they will have no regrets about spending four years there. ED is not good for students who need significant financial aid awards.
The availability of ED affects the SAT in terms of scheduling. The November test is the latest time a senior can take the SAT for ED purposes, and I recommend October as the latest test just to be safe.
ETS "flags" any score achieved under special conditions, including extended time or private testing. The percentage who applied for and received extra time has always been very small (under 1% of SAT takers). ETS has recently announced that it will review this policy regarding the SAT with the College Board. Should the policy be changed, there will be an incentive for many parents to get a child "classified" by ETS as having a learning disability. I predict a brief window of time under which that will be advantageous, after which the standards under which a disability is recognized will require higher scrutiny, and more (expensive) documentation.
My advice to a student who may have a learning disability has always been "see how much difference the extended time makes". With students whose disability is so severe that extended time means getting an additional 20 questions right, then almost assuredly the extended time is warranted. But a student who routinely covers all but two or three questions per section under regular timed conditions should not seek extended time and be visited with the automatic "flag", unless he/she has a tremendous GP