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Familiarity Breeds Comfort by Jennifer Karan

1 Dec

Today many high school students around the country and more overseas, took their SATs. Last month, super storm Sandy forced many testing centers to close and those affected had to postpone taking the exam. The storm created additional stress on top of what was already a stressful experience.

Ms. Jennifer Karan, executive director of the SAT Program at the College Board, is the guest blogger for this post in which she offers some advice on how to prepare for the SAT.

Every so often I find myself speaking to some high school students who, upon finding out that my work involves the SAT, look at me in awe. (At least, I like to think it’s awe). 

And then they take a big step backwards.

Unfortunately, to them the SAT represents some huge and inscrutable test that they fear, some Goliath that they are going to have to conquer in high school for which nothing can ready them.

Relax, I tell them, the SAT is nothing to be feared; and when the time comes, you will successfully conquer it. In fact, there are things you are probably doing right now that are preparing you that you don’t even realize. 

The best preparation for the SAT, I counsel, is to do well in school. First, make sure you are on the path to completing a core curriculum; then, make sure those courses are truly challenging – don’t take the easy way out. Study hard and read as much as possible.

There are little things that students can do early on. Create an account on the College Board website which has a bunch of free planning and preparation resources. One of my favorite tools is the SAT Question of the Day, or QOTD for those in the know. It’s an actual question from a past SAT and it’s a great way to become familiar with the exam content as well as get your brain up and running in the morning. 

I receive the SAT QOTD each morning in my inbox. If you don’t want to register for the email, you can visit the site each day and “play”. 

Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer, once wrote, “Practice is the best of all instructors.” The Question of the Day is a great way for underclassmen to engage with the SAT in a fun and less intimidating manner, and for those who are practicing more seriously. With practice and familiarity the SAT won’t seem intimidating at all. 

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Testing 1, 2, 3

18 Mar

Last Saturday morning the alarm on my cell phone chirped brightly at 6:15 a.m.  With a muttered oath and groan, I stuck my arm out from under the warm cocoon of my blankets to turn it off.  Five minutes later, it chirped again announcing that my snooze time was up.  Time to make the donuts.  Like Fred the baker from the 1980s Dunkin Donuts commercial, I stumbled into the bathroom, shuffling in my slippers.  In my pre-dawn haze, I wondered how swimming or ice skating parents do it every day, waking up at 4 a.m. to take their children to practice.

It was SAT exam day and it seemed like my daughter’s entire junior year class was taking it.  After weeks of test preparation and tutoring, this was it.  I made my daughter a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast and packed some snacks and water.  By 7:30 I dropped her off at the test site and watched as she and other students disappeared into the school building.

Taking the SAT is a rite of passage for American teenagers applying to college.  Most colleges require submission of either the SAT I Reasoning test or ACT scores, although a growing number of colleges are now standardized test-optional.  According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing’s website, there are over 830 colleges that no longer use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of first year college students.  The list includes highly selective schools like Bates College, Bowdoin College, Mount Holyoke College, and Smith College.  These colleges have evidently determined that standardized tests are no longer a good predictor of college academic success.

In my posts I often compare the way things are with the way things were, if only because I’m at an age where I can.  Thirty years ago, everyone I knew took the SAT and dispensed with the ACT, which was more popular with students in the south and Midwest.  Thirty years ago, there was only one SAT; now there’s the SAT I Reasoning test, and myriad SAT II Subject Tests from biology to U.S. history.  The good news is, because colleges today will accept either the SAT I or ACT, students can pick the test that will better highlight their abilities.

Neither test is easy and the consensus is that the ACT tests knowledge while the SAT I tests aptitude.  There are other major differences:

  • The ACT does not penalize wrong answers while the SAT deducts one-quarter point per wrong answer.  So guess away on the ACT.
  • The ACT math section tests up to trigonometry while the SAT I tests up to geometry and algebra 2.
  • The ACT includes a science reasoning section that the SAT I does not have.

Lots of articles have been written about which test may be better for your child and here are two that summarize the issues succinctly: one by NPR and one in the New York Times.  Both were written in 2007 but the information is still relevant.  To help figure out which test is more suitable, students can do free practice tests on the Internet (see the College Board and ACT websites).

To complicate matters – and what’s not complicated in college admissions? – many colleges require SAT I scores along with at least two SAT II subject tests in lieu of the ACT test with writing alone (e.g., Swarthmore College).  This means that a student will need to take at least three SAT tests.  But then there are schools, like Carnegie Mellon University, that require applicants who submit their ACT scores to also submit two SAT II subject test scores.  So always double-check each college’s testing requirements.

All of this is a lot to think about and keep straight.  What’s more, students can take the tests more than once and many colleges say that they will consider the higher scores.  And there are different testing strategies to consider: picking one test and taking it more than once, taking both tests and submitting the better score, and variations thereof.  However way you look at it, it amounts to a lot of testing and test preparation in junior year.

Test-optional colleges, anyone?

 

Helicopter Parent

5 Jan

Recently I had occasion to wonder, “Am I turning into a helicopter parent?”  Defined as an overprotective, overbearing parent who “hovers” over her child, taking care of (or control over) her child’s life whether the child wants or needs it, helicopter parents have gotten a bad rap in the press lately and are being blamed for raising a generation of children unprepared for life’s setbacks.

When I first heard this term, I was so aghast at the concept, I vowed never to become one.  But being part of a generation used to scheduling play dates and making sure that our little ones are exposed to every sporting, musical or artistically life-enhancing activity imaginable, I’m figuring out the boundaries when it comes to college admissions.

This issue confronted me when it came to registering for the SAT and ACT tests.  My daughter recently decided that she was going to take the standardized tests in spring.  In the back of my mind, I kept meaning to remind her to register for the tests.  Alas, my addled middle-aged brain kept forgetting.  Finally, when a friend urged me to sign up early to avoid being shut out at the test site, I went online to register without waiting for her.

I thought, I’ll just go into the website, select a test venue and pay for it – it’ll be simple.  Instead, the website took me through a litany of questions about my daughter’s college preferences, the majors she is interested in, her current subjects in high school, her GPA, her extracurricular activities and so on.  Many of the questions I could answer but as I continued clicking through – the questions seemed endless – I grew steadily uneasy.  Hmm, perhaps she should answer these questions?  Judging from the wording, the website evidently assumes that the student is filling out the questionnaire.  But then in a mixed message twist, the website expects payment by credit card; few teens I know own credit cards.

Little did I know that registering for the SAT and ACT would become a metaphor for setting boundaries between parent and child in applying for colleges.  Since we’ve embarked on my daughter’s college search, I have needed to remind myself that she is the one going to college, especially when I’ve spent too many bleary-eyed hours reading college guidebooks or trolling college websites.  I’m not the only neurotic parent.  Kelly Dunham wrote a helpful checklist of do’s and don’ts for parents and students during the application process (New York Times, December 15, 2010).

Much as I’m invested in helping my daughter find the right college and getting in, I don’t want to drive her college search.  So I hesitate, uncertain about what to do next.  The webpage stares back at me, its blinking cursor oblivious to the tug-of-war in my head.  I look for a way to skip ahead and go directly to payment; luckily the website lets me do that.  After successfully registering her, I make a mental note to talk to my daughter about going back and filling out the questionnaire herself.

She’s going to college, not me.

 

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