Thanksgiving marks not only the start of the Christmas season but also the beginning of the college process in earnest for many Juniors. Before December brings Santa down your chimney, it will bring PSAT results back to your high schools. The College Board will be sending your score reports back to your schools in the first couple weeks of December, which means you should have your scores in your hand just in time to put them under the Christmas tree. In this post, we’ll break down what the PSAT tells you about the SAT and if it impacts your future SAT score. (You should also check out “What Is The PSAT?” to learn more about what the test is and how it’s used. )
To make sure we can keep you informed about the impact of the security changes and test day experiences we send our teachers in periodically to take the actual SAT. This report was filed by Bell Curves’ own Aimee Slater, resident Jeopardy champ (in our hearts), office redhead, and SAT teacher.
Background – In a few years you won’t remember and no one will care
I took the SAT several years ago (20 still counts as “several,” right?). I was trying to remember my test day experience and my clearest memory about the test is “My high school made me take it 3 times.” (Editor’s note: Aimee attended Haverford College on a generous scholarship and doesn’t remember her SAT scores, but says they were just a bit better than average). I asked some high school friends what they remember, and that was their strongest memory too. My other memory is of the word “nadir.” I didn’t know what it meant, I wrote it on the label of my shirt so that I could look up the definition later (Editor’s note: these days, writing on your clothes might get you kicked out… don’t do it!).
So armed with fuzzy memories and the teaching experience I have obtained through Bell Curves, I sat down to take a modern day SAT on October 6th. I joined a few dozen area teens very early on a Saturday morning to take the test in Brooklyn.
Registration: Longer and More Annoying than You Think
Before I talk about test day, let me say a word about registration. Registering for the exam is at least a 25 minute process wherein you pretty much lay bare anything and everything you have been, currently are and will ever be. I had to upload a picture for my test ticket, which I had to carry with me on test day (even to the loo). The system, it turns out, is really picky about the photos it’ll accept, in fact, I had two perfectly lovely photos rejected before it accepted one I had a colleague take. The photo is not currently a requirement, but will be required starting with the Jan 2013 test. I also had to answer questions about my ethnicity, GPA, class ranking, parents’ level of education, indicate my college preferences (size, location single-sex, programs). It was 3+ pages of questions, many of which are optional, but they are mixed in with the required ones so it’s not immediately obvious which are which. It’s worth noting that “I don’t wish to respond” is one of the choices for all required questions, but still that’s a lot of work on my part without much in return. College Board will then sell my information to schools or publish it in studies. You’re welcome, College Board. You should send me a piece of that financial pie.
I dutifully showed up by 7:45am, number 2 lead pencils in hand and calculator (TI-86 was my calculator of choice) at the ready. I was assigned a seat in a classroom with the 19 or so other kids who have R-Z last names.
Here’s some stuff I noticed:
- No one cared that I was old and taking the test. I didn’t even get a double take.
- Three, 5-minutes breaks are not nearly enough. Powering through that last 1 hour and 4 minutes (sections 7-10) is rough .
- Kids were eating candy and drinking Red Bull early in the AM and at breaks. This lead to a lot of crashing in the middle or toward the end.
- A girl fell asleep, twice (probably due to a Red Bull crash). The proctor was nice enough to wake her up, but I think that was above and beyond what’s listed as duties in the proctor guidelines, and some proctors would have just let her sleep through the test.
- I am still not a fan of coordinate plane geometry but as usual there were about 5 questions.
- No section asks 40 questions, and yet each section on the answer sheet has 40 bubbles. I find this vexing.
- I miss analogies. The College Board removed them in 2005, and in doing so, took away the fun portion of the test (if there is such a thing).
- I did not have to write an essay the first time around, and was excited to do it this time around. I went in knowing that I was going to use The League of Nations and Game of Thrones. As we tell our students – the question hardly matters. Pick a position, have some examples at the ready, and write!
I know some old timers have gone back and taken the test in recent times and had negative experiences. I’m less negative about having to take a test, than about what it’s actually testing. Sitting through long exams is something I had to do in college (3 hour finals!) so I don’t think taking a test is too much to ask of students who want to go to college. The content of the test? Well, let’s just say that I have some disagreement with what and how things are asked. But that’s for a different blog post. For now, this is the system we have, and if our kids want to go to college, we need to work within this system to ensure as many of them as possible are prepared for the test, the admissions process, and college success.
I admit that my stakes are relatively low; I don’t have my admissions decisions or financial aid riding on my 2012 performance, although the College Board will be sending my scores to my high school guidance counselor so that person, whomever it is now, can go over them with me (I didn’t have an option to opt-out). I’m looking forward to that phone call. It was a long day, but most students seemed to sail through (aside from Red Bull Crash Girl. Airheads candy is not the breakfast of champions, chica!), and I think that anyone preparing for the November or December administrations should remember to
- review the content – get comfortable with how questions are asked and what information they are looking for
- take practice tests under real-test conditions (timed, with only the breaks given on the real test)
For test day:
- for Math, strategies like plugging in were still awesome and time-saving and helped me avoid mistakes on at least 7 problems
- for the Critical Reading, remember to answer the questions (all the questions) in your own words first (Click here to read up on how to Avoid Looking at the Elephant)
- bring brain-food snacks like trail mix, carrots, peanut butter crackers etc. Avoid caffeine highs which can lead to crashes, and go for hydration – water, seltzer water etc.
- UPDATE: check out this list of vocab words from the October 2012 SAT
As a 20 year veteran of test preparation, I’ve been enamored with the FairTest list of SAT/ACT optional schools for what seems like a decade now. I am sure many of you as parents, educators and students have also been impressed with such a list; it’s seemingly a harbinger of a radical shift in admission policy that will minimize the impact of standardized tests which have historically put low income and minority students at a disadvantage. I’ve seen the good and bad of testing for years and find it commendable that a school would be brave enough to defy convention when it comes to standardized test scores, forgoing both the benefits and the drawbacks, to weigh students on their broader merits.
Visiting colleges and universities in person is one of the most important – and fun – parts of the admissions process. At this step in the process you don’t have to study for exams, write essays or do paperwork. You simply get to visit a beautiful campus, talk to faculty, eat in the dining hall with students, and learn more about a college and your place in it.
Today’s guest post is from Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD Candidate at Emory University, an expert in for profit education and a former admissions and financial aid counselor in two for-profit schools. Ms McMillian Cottom took some time to share with our readers some insight into her research and insights on the growing for-profit college industry.
There are a lot of factors to consider your sophomore and junior year of high school when you embark upon your college application planning. Do you want to move as far away from home as possible or be close enough for Sunday dinners? Do you want the intimate environment of small, liberal arts colleges or the rush of a large, urban campus? What fields of study should your dream college offer? What kind of social life can you build once you get there? The list goes on and on.
One thing rarely considered but, perhaps, equally important to those other considerations is the institutional type of your dream school. Institutional type refers to the mission of the college. By college mission I don’t mean “to live and serve” but “to profit or not to profit.” If you don’t know the difference between a for-profit college and a not-for-profit college don’t feel badly. You’re not alone. A new research report found that among adults enrolled in online college degree programs, 17 percent had no idea if their school was for-profit or not-for-profit. More importantly, the question you might be asking is why you should care about the institutional type of your college.
On Friday July 20, two exciting things happened in the Bell Curves office; first, we received our copy of the May 2012 SAT and were able to peruse it for lot of fun vocabulary words and second, we went as an office to see the the Dark Knight save Gotham City. What was especially exciting was that in both the May SAT and Dark Knight Rises, bane played a prominent role! In DNK, Bane is the archenemy of our beleaguered hero and on the May SAT bane was one of the beguiling answers maliciously offered to hoodwink unwary test-takers! As we’ve often told our students, most superhero and villain names are English words that reflect their powers or character. As you enjoy your summer movies remember that there are lots of new words to learn which will help your SAT preparation.
To help you get started here are 100 words from the May 2012 SAT that you should learn. Words which have appeared once on the SAT are very likely to appear again.
Selecting a tutor is not unlike the process of choosing someone to date. It seems like there are thousands of options out there, but finding the right one be both difficult and overwhelming – not to mention a serious cash investment! We want to try to alleviate the stress a bit by providing you with a basic list of questions to ask of a tutor before making the final (and hopefully great) decision:
1. What is your experience with this particular test?
With experience comes an increasing amount of knowledge about not only how to do each question but more importantly how to effectively teach the test to students of different skill levels, backgrounds, and learning styles. Generally, the more experienced the tutor, the more likely you are to get a carefully crafted study plan that will allow you to reach your goals. Tutoring college-level Calculus for years does not automatically qualify someone as to be a stellar SAT or ACT tutor. These tests, particularly the SAT, are filled with similar “tricks” year in and year out that experienced test prep teachers will be familiar with and have the ability to explain to students.
The question I am asked the most often after revealing that I’m a professional standardized test tutor is, “How should I study for Test X?” The reply is always invariably a petition for more information such as the materials being used, past testing history, study habits, and anticipated testing schedule, all of which is just a baseline amount of information that I would then use to offer the most basic and topical plan of action. The reason for such a skeletal plan is because of a very simple reason: every student’s needs are different and if I haven’t spent any time observing a student’s habits and logical process then I can’t say what he or she needs. The effectiveness of tutoring lies in the customization and personalized guidance. A large part of a tutor’s job is identifying where in the process of answering a question, between reading it to choosing the correct answer, is there a disconnect. The tutor then formulates a way for that particular student to most effectively bridge that gap. With that said, here are three of the most common issues many of my students face across different tests have.
1. Lacking the fundamental knowledge base that is being tested.
2. Having difficulty recognizing the topics being tested by the questions.
3. Executing a strategy for specific question types consistently.
The first issue is usually the easiest to diagnose. This issue is most notable with math questions but can manifest with verbal questions (albeit less alarmingly and thus usually more ignored, unfortunately). My opinion on this issue, shared by the pedagogy of Bell Curves, is that regardless of how much test-taking savvy you have, if you don’t know the base content (e.g. geometry formulas, grammar rules, argument structure, etc.) there is absolutely no way to consistently answer questions correctly. The solution is pretty straightforward – study the material until you understand the rules and their applications.
One of the best ways to prepare for the SAT essay is to read and write SAT essays. After every SAT, many of our students give us permission to use their actual essays to help others learn from what they did. We’ve posted and discussed this essay to hopefully help you prepare.
A few quick points about the SAT essay for those of you a bit newer to the test:
- The essay is the very first section of the test.
- The essay is handwritten in 25 minutes with a pencil on 2 sides of 8.5″x 11″ paper.
- The essay is worth up to 180 points of the total SAT Writing score.
- Your full essay will be available on collegeboard.com about 4 weeks after your test date.
- Each SAT essay consists of a Prompt, which gives some background discussion and context, and an Assignment, which gives the specific assignment they have to complete.
Without further ado, here is a January 2011 SAT essay transcribed for your reading pleasure: