Monday, September 28, 2009

SAT Prep, The Good, The Bad, and The Goofy

Karen Stabiner

It's fall. Normal happy people watch the leaves change color, but parents of seniors care only for the stark black and white landscape of inked circles on bubble grids. Adults whose SAT prep involved two sharpened number two pencils and a good breakfast invest in test prep because we're terrified not to. If the test-prep czars ran the automotive industry, we'd all be out buying cars; they're that good at creating desire.

Just days before the first Super Saturday of the fall test season, seniors are finishing up weeks if not months of prep classes, private tutoring, guide books, on-line classes, or any combination of the above. Juniors are already underway; I know eighth-graders who take sample tests. Sometimes it feels as though standardized test prep is going to knock juice-and-nap time off the kindergarten itinerary.

How much are we betting? While thousands of students protested University of California system-wide tuition hikes that brought this year's tuition and fees to about $8700, a test-prep quotes $7599 for one high-end package and won't even publish the total cost of the more expensive and extensive Global Elite Tutoring. Power to the people, indeed.

On the theory that it's never too late to save a little money, I suggest we try to deconstruct the process and look for cheaper ways to achieve results:

• Test-taking strategies: If there's a consensus on anything, it's that your child doesn't want to spend valuable time reading the instructions for the first time on the day of the test. Before you pay for sample tests in a room at a prep center, or proctored by a tutor, consider a few free sample tests at home. If a student's reading comprehension isn't strong enough to make sense of the instructions, test-prep is probably not going to turn him into a star.

• Success, SAT math: A wildfire one-word chant, "Sudoku," went up when my daughter was in high school. No hard research but lots of enthusiasm among parents who saw a link between the obsessive working of Japanese number puzzles and good math scores. If your kid can't work even the easy puzzles, then you can always consider prep or find a school that no longer requires standardized tests.

• Success, SAT verbal: This strategy really should be put into play before the training wheels come off, but it's never too late to start: Encourage your child to read when he doesn't have to for school. Reading helps with tests that require you to, yep, read. Compare the cost of a library card to a stint in Global Prep.

Parents in the Bellevue, Washington school district endorse the test-prep equivalent of home-cooking, a lonely but comforting voice in the for-profit test-prep wilderness. Are you brave enough to try it?

Nah, at this point we all want results; we want our kids to be at the high end of the advertised score hikes. But test-prep carries risk, like any investment, so let me share a couple of potential odds-busters, to take junior off the hook if the score report is south of what you'd hoped for:

Finger length: Hormone levels in utero affect brain development - and finger length. Ring finger longer than index finger, innately greater math abilities. Index finger longer than ring finger, stronger verbal skills. And yes, researchers see a correlation in SAT scores.

• Menstrual cycles: Scientists say there's no significant relationship between test performance and a girl's cycle - and yet a prominent educational psychologist advises parents to make sure girls schedule the SAT to avoid the last four days of their cycles and the first four days of their periods.

• Personal psychology: Put one kid in a class with seven other students and he will be inspired to competitive excellence by all the ambitious energy in the room. Put another kid in the same room and the ambient anxiety sticks to him like H1N1 germs on a doorknob. You may not find out which type you have until it's too late.

Still, the two-generation peer pressure can be enormous; I'm only trying to provide a safety valve so you can get some needed rest before the exam. And for no charge whatsoever, I'm going to toss in one sophisticated tidbit that surfaced when the new essay section of the SAT was introduced a few years ago:

"Write big."

That's it. Readers slog through stacks and stacks of blue books for hours on end, and the word is that some of them get a wee bit testy, and quite possibly start to confuse volume with effort. If an essay covers a lot of pages, it must be serious; if it doesn't require the reader to turn the page, perhaps the student is blowing off the test. Big writing, it seems, matters as much as big ideas.

I have witnesses. Honest.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Admission dean reflects on college years

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Gregory Peck said that as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but the words of the favorite actor could very well be Richard Shaw’s personal motto.

As Stanford’s dean of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid, Shaw is the man with the power to make or break the dreams of thousands of high school students vying for admission at the Farm. But not so long ago, he was the one feverishly applying to schools and going through orientation.


In 1968, Shaw was a bright-eyed theater buff fretting over his college admission essay.

“I was so afraid of not getting in somewhere,” he told The Daily, repeating the words he’s heard from thousands of applicants. “I think it’s pretty normal.”

Shaw was grappling with his admission topic: Who was one of the great people of the 20th century who influenced you?

“Those are hard questions because you weren’t too sure of answering the way that you thought the admission officers wanted to hear or telling the truth about who was important to you during that time of your life,” he said. “That’s true today — students try to develop a strategy in which they try to game the system and tell us what they think we want to hear, rather than talking about what’s really important to them.”

Shaw decided to bite the bullet. He wrote about Jimmy Stewart.

“I wrote an essay that nobody would ever write,” he admitted. “I said the person who was important to me at that time was James Stewart. I wrote about his acting and his characters and the impact he had on me, and that was really odd. That was an odd choice because at that time, people would have said Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King. I’m hoping that it helped, but even if it didn’t, I told the truth, and that was important.”

It worked. In 1968, Shaw entered his father’s old stomping ground and began as a freshman at Dartmouth.

“I was terrified,” Shaw remembered. “I wondered in some ways whether I was a mistake — I think we all feel that way when you start to meet others in the class and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you did that?’”

Shaw says that a dear-old Dartmouth tradition didn’t exactly ease his move into college. Until the late ‘60s, Dartmouth required its freshmen to don floppy bright green beanies to identify them as tyros. The 19-year-old Shaw wasn’t too keen on gamboling about campus with Dartmouth’s equivalent of a freshman red-nametag.

“I was really offended when Dartmouth made me wear a beanie,” he chuckled. “I was so offended by that that I sort of sat around in my room — I was angry at them. I frankly think orientations are much better today.”

Dartmouth took the playful freshman hazing avenue of welcoming students in Shaw’s day, but he said that now, the administration takes a hats-off approach (literally) to opening its doors warmly to freshmen.

“My hope is that in these orientations and transition, there is a high level of comfort,” Shaw said. “I think the experience will be a little daunting, but tremendously awesome.”


Shaw’s world was upended when he got into college — a culture shock from the Ozzie and Harriet homogeneity he knew from his childhood in Colorado and Vermont. America was embroiled in civil rights unrest at home and trying to disentangle itself from the disaster of Vietnam abroad.

“Growing up, I was pretty sheltered and probably I was pretty clueless about what was going on around me,” Shaw said.
He woke up when he got to college.

“I’ve never seen student activism like it was then,” he remembered. “I saw students lying down prone on the highway. I saw actions of the Spartacist League [a far-left student movement] defending the Weathermen in Washington, submachine gun nests on the top of federal buildings pointed down at the crowd. Pretty interesting times.”


Just three days before the May 4 Massacre at Ohio’s Kent State, Shaw found himself in Washington, D.C. for the May Day protests, decrying America’s invasion of Cambodia. It was 1970.

“That had a tremendous impact on my perceptions of the world in which we live and the challenges and issues — issues around access and opportunity and for populations to be enfranchised,” he said.

“I came from a very conservative family,” he said ruefully, “so it resulted in having some pretty interesting conflicts within my own family.” Shaw’s involvement didn’t stretch to the peripheries of radicalism, but his activism irreparably damaged his relationship with his father, the then-Republican state chairman of Colorado, who disowned him.

“A lot of that period was not so much being swept up in radicalism as it was learning,” he said. “So, from my vantage point, it was all-night conversations for weeks about issues that were of concern to us — not just war but concerns over the nature of society and the opportunities that people did or did not have. There were political debates going on all the time.”


Shaw didn’t come to California until 1983, after nabbing the post of associate director of admissions and records at the University of California-Berkeley.

“I was really blown away by how incredibly diverse and representative it was,” he remembered. “It had huge influence on me in terms of my career.”
Shaw went back to the East Coast as Yale’s dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid officer for 12 years until he returned to California and signed on with Stanford in 2005.

Fast-forward to now. Shaw is a bit grayer than when he entered the hallowed ivy-covered halls as a freshman, but every bit as passionate.

“I’m with young people who have dreams and hopes for what is possible,” he said. “To me, why not be at a place like that, a place where your dreams are always ahead? At college, you don’t get stuck in a viewpoint. That’s what it’s all about.”

Forty-one years ago, he was sitting slumped on his new college bed with a green beanie flopped on his head, discussing politics. Now, as he beams out over the 1,700 new freshmen at Convocation, Dean Shaw will be speaking as much to the Class of 2013 as to himself at 19 years-old — college is going to be a great run.

By: Amy Julia Harris

Monday, September 14, 2009

14 Best Interview Tips from College Admissions Counselors

By Hannah Watson


These tips will help you ace your college admissions interview.

  1. Be on time: It’s simple-show your responsibility by coming to the interview on time.
  2. Have a positive attitude: Bring a positive, friendly attitude to your interviews.
  3. Dress neatly: Avoid wearing anything that might be considered inappropriate.
  4. Show your personality: Let the admissions counselor know what you’re bringing by showing off your personality.
  5. Take business cards: Take the business cards of people you meet with so that you can follow up with a call or email if you have questions.
  6. Ask questions: The interview isn’t just a time for you to be assessed-get your essential questions answered, too.
  7. Be ready to talk about yourself: Keep in mind community service, activities, and other information your interviewer may want to know about.
  8. Avoid offending the interviewer: Stay away from swearing or expressing extreme beliefs.
  9. Don’t just answer yes or no: Offer thoughtful answers to questions.
  10. Show you’re interested: Make it clear that you want to be a part of the college you’re interviewing with.
  11. Prepare in advance: Get familiar with the college before your interview.
  12. Know why you’re visiting the college: You will probably be asked why you want to attend the college-so be prepared to answer this question.
  13. Send thank you notes: Stand out by sending a thank you note after you meet with an admissions counselor.
  14. Have documents ready: Show that you’re serious and ready by bringing your important documents with you.

19 Best Tips for Writing the Essay from College Admissions Counselors

By Hannah Watson


These tips will help you write the perfect college admission essay.

  1. Don’t use the same essay: Using one essay for several applications may save you time, but it’s more effective to write each one from scratch, or at the very least, tailor each essay to the college.
  2. Consider your audience: Entertain the college admissions officers.
  3. Have an interesting opener: Catch the eye of the admissions counselor with a stunning introduction.
  4. Discuss what’s important to you: Discuss what’s most important to you in your essay.
  5. Put yourself as the focus: Even if your prompt is about someone else, always be sure to bring it back to you.
  6. Be brief: You don’t need a 10-page autobiography to be effective.
  7. Review your essay after a few days: Leave your first draft to sit, then pick it up again after some time.
  8. Tell a story: Consider the beginning, middle, and end of your story.
  9. Answer the question: Don’t just submit what you think colleges want to read, actually answer the question they have given you.
  10. Do not have your parents write your essay: Admissions advisors read lots of essays-it’s obvious when they are written by parents.
  11. Show your motivation: Demonstrate that you’re motivated to do well in college.
  12. Use your personal voice: Don’t take on a different voice in your writing for college essays-let yourself shine through.
  13. Don’t buy an essay on the Internet: College admission officers can spot an online essay a mile away.
  14. Go beyond the superficial: Communicate what you care about deeply.
  15. Don’t trust spell check: Watch for typos and grammar issues that spell check won’t catch.
  16. Ask others to read your essay: Have your parents, English teacher, and mentors read your essay.
  17. Be interesting: Counselors will read many applications each day-you want to be interesting enough to get passed around.
  18. Send the right essay to the right college: Avoid accidentally referring to another college in an essay that you send.
  19. Save time for editing: Be sure to edit your essay once you’ve written it, taking into consideration opinions from people who have read it and any fine tuning you’d like to do.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

25 Best Tips for High Schoolers from College Admissions Counselors

These are some of the things you can do to ensure acceptance while you’re still in high school.

  1. Challenge yourself: Be sure you take challenging courses your last year of high school.
  2. Attend a quality high school: If you want to make it into an Ivy League school, go to a feeder high school that sends many students to Ivy League schools every year.
  3. Take AP or honors courses: Get prepared for college and show that you can work hard by taking advanced courses.
  4. Have a strong GPA: It seems like a no brainer, but having a good GPA will help you get in to your chosen school.
  5. Don’t join clubs to fill your resume: Although quality clubs and activities are important, avoid taking on too much in your final year just for your resume.
  6. Be well rounded: Be a good student, but also participate in a handful of clubs and activities, and have an officer position so you can really stand out.
  7. Get help with classes: If you’re having trouble achieving the GPA you want, get help from your parents, tutors, or study groups.
  8. Don’t slack off: Your colleges will see your final grades even after you’re accepted.
  9. Get into an organized competition: Become a part of a national academic quiz bowl, international science fair, or other events that can show how you stack up against students outside of your community.
  10. Test more than once: If you don’t get the score you’re looking for in the beginning, test over again until you get it.
  11. Take the PSAT: Prepare for the SAT by taking the SAT as a sophomore.

Choosing a School

These are some tips for finding the right school for you.

  1. Look for a college with a wide variety of offerings: You may have plans for art school, but it’s best to stick with a college that has options just in case you change majors down the road.
  2. Find out the student/faculty ratio: If you want a more engaging college experience, find a school with a smaller ratio of students to faculty.
  3. Attend college fairs: Get a feel for colleges by attending college fairs.
  4. Consider whether the Ivy League is right for you: Don’t automatically shoot for the stars and try to get into an Ivy League school if it’s not the right fit for you.
  5. Start thinking about schools by the end of your junior year: Consider what kind of school you want in your junior year so you’ll have plenty of time to get ready.
  6. Check out college guides: The US News and World Report, Princeton Review, College Board and other sites can help you find the school for you.
  7. Check out the alcohol policy: Find out if your college is a party school or not by researching its alcohol policy.
  8. Consider the level of academic challenge: Think about whether you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond.
  9. Research the freshman retention rate: Find out how many people enjoyed their college experience enough to come back.
  10. Look up safety statistics: You can find out how safe your potential college campus is by looking up statistics for safety and security.
  11. Make your choice as an individual: Don’t make your decision based on your parents, or where your best friend is going-make the right choice for you.
  12. Find extracurricular activities: Find out what the most popular activities are on campus.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

SAT Scores and Family Income


Much has been written about the relationship between SAT scores and test-takers’ family income. Generally speaking, the wealthier a student’s family is, the higher the SAT score.

Let’s take a look at how income correlated with scores this year. About two-thirds of test-takers voluntarily report their family incomes when they sit down to take the SAT. Using this information, the College Board breaks down the average scores for 10 income groups, each in a $20,000 range.

First, here are the individual test sections:

SAT reading scores by incomeSource: College Board

SAT math scores by incomeSource: College Board
SAT writing scores by incomeSource: College Board

Here are all three test sections next to each other (zoomed in on the vertical axis, so you can see the variation among income groups a little more clearly):

SAT scores by income classSource: College Board

A few observations:

  • There’s a very strong positive correlation between income and test scores. (For the math geeks out there, the R2 for each test average/income range chart is about 0.95.)
  • On every test section, moving up an income category was associated with an average score boost of over 12 points.
  • Moving from the second-highest income group and the highest income group seemed to show the biggest score boost. However, keep in mind the top income category is uncapped, so it includes a much broader spectrum of families by wealth.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Are My SAT Scores Good Enough?

What are good SAT scores? Do you have the SAT scores you need to get into your top choice schools? This article explains the relationship between college admissions and SAT scores. You can also check out these SAT links (or ACT links):

Answer: SAT scores are just one of many criteria used by colleges to make admissions decisions. Nevertheless, their importance shouldn’t be underestimated. As much as admissions officers say they take an open-minded and holistic approach to their decisions, SAT scores can make or break an application. And let’s face it -- it’s easier to compare numerical data than it is to decide whether a semester in France should be ranked higher than a state soccer championship.

Also, schools usually make their SAT data public, and they know that their reputations depend upon high numbers. A college won’t be considered “highly selective” or “elite” if its students have an average SAT math score of 470.

So what is a good SAT score? The exam consists of three parts: Critical Reading, Mathematics and Writing. The scores from each section can range from 200 to 800, so the best possible total score is 2400. The average score for each section is roughly 500, so the average total score is about 1500.

Very few students get a perfect SAT score, even those at the country’s top colleges. The list below shows the middle range of SAT scores for different schools. The middle 50% of admitted students fell within these numbers. Keep in mind that 25% of students who were admitted scored below the lower numbers listed here.

Finally, you'll see that some of the school profiles include the critical reading and math scores, but not the writing scores. This is because the writing part of the exam is still new, and many schools do not yet use it in their admissions decisions. We're likely to see that change in the next couple years as colleges figure out the relationship between the writing score and academic success.

Click on the school names to see the full profiles.

Auburn (Main Campus)

  • Critical Reading: 520 - 620
  • Mathematics: 550 - 650
  • Writing: 520 - 620


  • Critical Reading: 670 - 750
  • Mathematics: 660 - 740
  • Writing: 640 - 740


  • Critical Reading: 690 - 770
  • Mathematics: 690 - 790
  • Writing: 680 - 780


  • Critical Reading: 690 - 800
  • Mathematics: 700 - 790
  • Writing: 690 - 780

MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • Critical Reading: 660 - 760
  • Mathematics: 720 - 800
  • Writing: 660 - 750


  • Critical Reading: 630 - 740
  • Mathematics: 640 - 740
  • Writing: 630 - 740


  • Critical Reading: 690 - 760
  • Mathematics: 680 - 760
  • Writing: 680 - 760


  • Critical Reading: 660 - 760
  • Mathematics: 680 - 780
  • Writing: 670 - 770


  • Critical Reading: 570 - 680
  • Mathematics: 610 - 720
  • Writing: 580 - 690
By Allen Grove,

College Admissions Negative 101

Here's some news that will help ease the guilt of all you parents who desperately want to give your children a leg up on the stiff competition that faces them on their journey to institutes of higher education.

So you occasionally help out with your student's science projects or you maybe drafted a few of his research papers and had him pass it off as his own. Not good. But, definitely not as bad as what Caroline Maria McNeal did to help increase her daughter's chance of getting into the college of her choice.

The overzealous mom, who used to be employed as a high school secretary, recently admitted to changing her daughter's SAT scores--on more than one occasion.

McNeal reportedly confessed that she used the school's computer to tamper with students' tests scores. In one case she allegedly changed her daughter's SAT scores from 1370 to 1730. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Police, who arrested the score-tampering mom, claim that McNeal spent the last two years consistently changing other students' grades as well, in an effort to improve her daughter's class ranking. All tolled school officials estimate that McNeal changed more than 200 test scores or grades.

The tech savvy mom is now facing criminal charges, including 29 felony counts of unlawful use of a computer and tampering with pubic records. McNeal was also fired from her job. In addition, her daughter, who graduated from high school in 2008, says she has become the target of outraged former classmates, and is completely humiliated by her mom's poor decisions.

Meanwhile, McNeal maintains that she was only trying to help her daughter "get ahead."

Oh, her daughter has gotten ahead all right; she's way out there... far, far away from the embarrassment she once called "mom."

What do you make of McNeal's decision to make her daughter look smart? Pretty dumb, huh?

Michele Cheplic

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The New SAT Explained

For parents who took the SAT 30 years ago, the new “perfect score” of 2400 may seem confusing. The SAT used to be comprised of two sections: critical reading, commonly called the verbal section, and mathematics. Each section yielded a range of scores from 200 to 800. This meant a “perfect score” on the SAT was a 1600 for many decades.

In 2005, a new section was added to the test. Taken from what was once the SAT II exam, the writing section is divided into short answer and essay portions. The section is additionally now worth anywhere from 200 to 800 points.

Today, the SAT is longer than it used to be. The critical reading portion is broken into sections totaling 70 minutes. Mathematics also totals 70 minutes. The writing portion of the exam is only allotted 60 minutes.

Once common area of confusion is how this portion of the exam is scored. It is hand-graded by a board of graders who compare the answers to others given that day. The answers are compared in areas such as logic, organization and strength of thesis. Smaller errors such as grammar and spelling are not graded, although usage and vocabulary should be appropriate. The graders will compare all the essays submitted and give the best essays highest scores. This means the same essay may be assessed at a different level on two different days.

While this may seem unfair, the SAT score has always been a comparative score. Depending on the average score received in a particular day, you may generate a different score for the same number of right answers. This is because the test questions vary tremendously. To protect a student from losing points because a particular test was harder than another, all students are graded on a scale compared to individuals taking the same test.

Some Colleges Opting Out of the SAT ‘Score Choice’ Option

I recently answered the question "should I cancel my SAT score?" with information regarding the upcoming Score Choice option on the SAT. To refresh, the SAT used to require that all scores from every test administration be sent to colleges. With Score Choice, students are permitted to send only the scores of their choosing to colleges. In other words, they may choose to send only their top combined score, and the university would never see the lower scores.

However, this idealism seems to have changed.

It has now become clear that colleges can opt out of Score Choice, and require that applicants report every SAT score. Newsweek has indicated that Stanford, Cornell, Pomona, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Southern California will demand all scores. Other schools, including Harvard and the University of Chicago, say they will honor Score Choice. Many more, such as Yale and Princeton, say they have yet to decide.

This may be disappointing news for several students who believed Score Choice to be the cure of test taking anxiety. However, remember that the playing field has not really changed. Just because certain schools are requiring all reports does not mean that having lower scores will necessarily preclude you from admission; colleges still view the entire application -- scores included -- in totality. All this means is that when you decide to take the SAT, you should be ready for it.