The Fat Envelope
A Discussion Of All Things College Admissions and Test Prep
The College Board has just announced major changes to the SAT coming in spring 2016.  So no worries if you're taking the test on Saturday...this doesn't affect you!

It's a little challenging to sift through the information and get a real picture of what's going to change, but here's my best attempt at this point:
  1. The essay will become optional, and will require students to analyze a passage rather then argue a point.  Both analysis and writing will be scored.
  2. The changes to the reading section are vague at this point, but there appears to be some free response elements requiring students to justify their answers with citations from a passage.
  3. The overall scoring will revert to a 1600 scale.  The writing section will be scored separately.
  4. Wrong answers will no longer be subject to a 1/4 point penalty, allowing random guessing.
  5. The vocabulary elements will change, but it's unclear in exactly what way.  The College Board wants to emphasize words like "synthesis" and "empirical" over more esoteric/obscure words.  
  6. "Founding Documents" and "Greal Global Conversation" passages will be included on every test (i.e., Declaration of Independence, "I Have a Dream"), presumably on both the reading and writing sections.
  7. Changes to the math section are also vague, but appear to reduce the body of math on which students might be tested.  Math questions will also be "less abstract" and focused on how to use math in science, social studies, etc.  Calculator use will now be allowed on only part of the math test.
  8. Computer versions of the test will become available, though the standard paper and pencil version is not being eliminated.  Hopefully this means students will be able to schedule testing by computer during the summer!
Overall, my take is that the SAT is going to be an easier test, and that it is clearly making some changes based on the growing popularity of the ACT.  I wonder if the SAT is actually tolling its own death-knell by shifting to an easier product that's less useful to colleges.  But on the other hand, maybe a lower than average score will more clearly signal to colleges that a student is not ready for college level work.  I guess it remains to be seen!

My final comment rests with the College Board's touting of a partnership with Khan Academy to provide free test prep videos.  From one perspective, this is far from earth shattering since Khan Academy has provided free SAT prep videos for years based on the Official SAT Study Guide (aka the Blue Book).  But thinking about the bigger picture, the College Board is tacitly admitting that test prep is important.  For years, the CB posited that all you needed to prepare for the SAT was your standard high school coursework.  Of course, that wasn't true, and it's interesting to see the CB state as much. 

More to come when I have specifics...
Taking the PSAT?  Here's my brief take for Examiner.com on what the PSAT is and isn't when it comes to scholarships.

I’m not a fan of SAT or ACT classes.  My feelings on this subject were developed over years of teaching these classes, so I can make that statement based on personal experience.  My major gripe is that classes can’t be personalized enough to meet specific students’ needs and that general “tips and tricks” can only get you so far on test day.  

But I also recognized that the group dynamic worked to the detriment of most of the students.  While I was teaching for private companies, most of the classes were offered on high school campuses.  For obvious reasons, the students tended to know each other already.  The temptation to giggle, pass notes, and generally slack was tough to overcome when you’re stuck at school on a Saturday with your friends.  Add in lack of motivation to be doing test prep, and you get the typical SAT/ACT class.  There were a few exceptions, but for the most part, this was de rigeur.

Thanks to some new research, though, there are reasons to avoid prep classes based on more than anecdotal evidence.  Researchers at Cal Tech have found that group learning experiences can actually LOWER IQ.  Not exactly ideal for getting yourself ready for test day, right?  For students who are particularly sensitive to social feedback (doesn’t this describe every teenager?), the group setting impairs performance.  While some subjects were able to overcome the negative effect, others never recovered to their pre-group study capabilities.  Further, women were more likely to fall into the low performing group. 

The study’s authors surmise that the self-evaluation and self-ranking that happens in the classroom impacts students’ willingness to show what they know.  In the presence of individuals who are perceived to be higher ranking socially (or intellectually), socially sensitive people may, in effect, shut down.  In thinking about my past teaching experiences, most of my classes already knew each other and already had internal maps of the social hierarchy.  Those who perceived themselves to be lower on the totem pole may have been unwilling to show their knowledge, ask questions or otherwise contribute in class.  Those students probably learned much less in class, and would have been better off prepping with a tutor or on their own.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some classes and teachers do a great job in a group setting and small group classes and tutoring can be very beneficial.  The take-home message here, as I’ve said before, is that the one-size-fits-all approach of the classroom just isn’t going to be right for everyone.  Just be honest with yourself (or your child) and think about all of the possibilities.  Classes are still a good bet for students for whom tutoring isn’t an option and self-prep is asking too much.  So do your homework and find what's right for you!

In my tutoring business, I'm occasionally asked to help a student prepare for both the SAT and ACT.  There's a growing trend nationwide for students, especially those aiming for very selective schools, to take both tests.  A recent Kaplan survey of college admissions officers indicated that some colleges looked favorably on students taking both tests.  But the overwhelming majority (79%) said that submitting both tests was not necessary.  Further, a recent New York Times article quotes Harvard's Dean of Admissions admissions officer:

"We see a lot of test results between the ACT, the SAT, the subject tests, Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate," he added, "so it doesn't concern us at all whether students send the SAT, the ACT or both."

My take on that is that kids are submitting plenty of test data already, so taking both the SAT and ACT is overkill.  So why does the myth of multiple tests persist?

One possible factor is that students think they should take both tests to figure out which one they prefer.  I'm all for this in theory, but why would you spend the money to take the real thing when a freely available practice test to take at home will do?  Test taking is pricey ($51 for the SAT; $52.50 for the ACT with Writing), and it's just not a smart use of money to use the "real deal" as a practice test.

Peer pressure is also certainly at play, as well as fear of leaving some stone unturned.  The perception that college admission is a blood sport can force students, and parents, into thinking that taking only one of the tests could be a lost opportunity.  However, as noted above, most college admissions officers don't feel that taking both tests is a real advantage.  Further, many students who take both tests submit the results of only one of them in the end.  

Another, admittedly cynical, view is that tutoring companies and tutors themselves are encouraging the trend out of self-interest.  Two tests means more hours with one student.  This means more income.  I do my best to help students choose their best exam before doing any formal preparation.  It saves time, money and stress to focus on only one exam.  I would only recommend prepping both tests in very exceptional circumstances.  If the tutor or company you're considering is pushing both tests, ask for more information before committing to that plan.

In the end, choosing a test and sticking with it is a good thing.  You can thank me later!
Following are the SAT and ACT test dates for the 2013-14 school year, along with the registration deadlines. The registration deadlines below are for on-time registration; the late registration deadlines are 10-14 days later. As a heads up, the October SAT administration is so popular that we strongly recommend registering now.

SAT test dates:

October 5, 2013 (September 6 registration deadline)
November 2, 2013 (October 3 registration deadline)
December 7, 2013 (November 8 registration deadline)
January 25, 2014 (December 27 registration deadline)
March 8, 2014 (February 7 registration deadline)
May 3, 2014 (April 4 registration deadline)
June 7, 2014 (May 9 registration deadline)

ACT test dates:

September 21, 2013 (August 23 registration deadline)
October 26, 2013 (September 27 registration deadline)
December 14, 2013 (November 8 registration deadline)
February 8, 2014 (January 10 registration deadline)* 
April 12, 2014 (March 7 registration deadline)
June 14, 2014 (May 9 registration deadline)

* The February ACT is not available in New York state.

Here is a public Google calendar with all SAT/ACT dates, registration deadlines and accommodations request deadlines:

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A couple of years ago, I blogged about the difference between the SAT and SAT Subject Tests, but I didn't offer any advice on how to prepare for them.  It's about time to rectify that!  I've been working with a student on her prep, and I thought I'd share what I've learned through that process.

First, take the Subject Test for a particular subject as soon as you finish that course in high school if at all possible.  This requires a lot of thinking ahead, but trust me.  You'll be so glad you took that Biology test right after you finished Biology, rather than having to review all the materials two years later!

Next, invest in some quality prep materials.  In general, the content of the Subject Tests is pretty straightforward and they don't require the type of intensive practice most students need for the SAT or ACT.  You'll want to buy the official College Board SAT Subject Test book, but don't dive in and take the test until you've reviewed all the material.  There's only one readily available official practice test for most subjects so don't waste it!  If you're hungry for other official materials, seek out established tutors who may have access to previously released tests that are no longer in print.

Beyond the official book, look for strategy guides from the Princeton Review, McGraw-Hill and/or Barron's.  All of these will provide an adequate review of the content you'll need to know on test day.  I've been particularly happy with McGraw-Hill's books, so check them out.  Barron's has a reputation for particularly challenging practice questions so don't worry if your score is lower than expected on a Barron's test!

Finally, don't rule out taking the Subject Tests even if your target colleges don't require them. This is particularly true if your SAT or ACT scores are not as strong as you'd like.  The Subject Tests give you a chance to shine in your favorite topics.  If you're a history buff, taking the US History Subject Test can add a gold star to your application!  You can opt to report only your strongest scores, so it doesn't hurt to take three different Subject Tests on one test date.  

Hope I've convinced you to give the Subject Tests a whirl.  Good luck!
I had the good fortune of attending a workshop last month led by Loring Brinckerhoff, Ph.D., the Director of the Office of Disability Policy at ETS.  If you don't know ETS, it's the organization responsible for the GRE as well as a host of other standardized tests.  While ETS doesn't administer the SAT, it is closely affiliated with The College Board.  I'm only pointing this out to make it clear that the following information will shed some light on The College Board's process for the SAT (and I did make it a point to ask one of the presenters how close ETS' policies are to the College Board's, and she confirmed they're likely to be very similar).

So, on to the good stuff!  Applying for accommodations can be a challenge, so it's an enormous help to have information from a testing organization on its accommodations process.  Here are a few key points:

 - Documentation is critical, and the primary evidence used in decision making.  Documentation must support not only the disability, but the specific accommodations requested.  In other words, you can't just request a reader because you think it might be helpful.  Your documentation actually needs to support it.

 - A personal statement from the student would be considered secondarily.  Students can submit a letter with their documentation explaining how the disability affects them, how they have used/benefitted from accommodations in school, and why accommodations are needed on the exam.  I think this is particularly important for students whose documentation from professionals is less than ideal.

 - Additional documentation from the school may be helpful, including letters from counselors and/or teachers describing how accommodations are implemented for the student.

According to the presenters, the most common reasons for denial of accommodations are:

 - Outdated documentation (test results must be current to last five years for the SAT and last three years for the ACT)

 - Insufficient documentation (documentation may be missing specific test scores, a DSM diagnosis or clear evidence of the need for each accommodation requested)

 - No previous use of accommodations

Overall, the session convinced me that parents and students need to be very proactive in ensuring that the documentation is as thorough as possible.  The school counselor who submits the application may or may not be conscientious in entering information.  The educational diagnostician may not include the correct achievement tests.  The neuropsychologist may not write the report in a way that supports accommodations.  If a student is denied, it can be very helpful to have a specialist (like me!) review the documentation. Additional letters from diagnosticians, psychologists or physicians clarifying their reports can make a difference in an appeal as well.

The take-home message is that applying for accommodations should not be treated as only a formality.  While the testing companies tended to be generous with awarding accommodations in the past, the climate has changed.  Rather than searching for reasons to give accommodations, the current tactic seems to be searching for reasons to deny them.  Plan ahead, be thorough and seek out good advice.  Good luck!
If you missed it, the Scripps National Spelling Bee announced a major change last week. If you want to advance to the semifinals or finals, you must now understand definitions. The change is of course controversial and not everyone is happy. Since we run a vocabulary-focused SAT and PSAT site here at Word-Nerd, we think the change is great!

The spellers, many of whom devote insane amounts of time to practice, have roughly six weeks to adjust to the new rules. Will there be a practical effect? Who knows? In theory, the top spellers should already have an understanding of definitions in order to best know how to spell. Knowing roots, word origins, etc. are part of the process, and these naturally bring definitions into the thought process. However, it's possible certain kids simply memorize words (and roots) without focusign on meaning, and these students will be the ones who have problems.

Now if only there were rules changes to eliminate all the nervous twitching and the repeated "May I have the country of origin?" stalling questions....
I recently had the good fortune of attending the Learning Disabilities Association of America's national conference.  I learned some things, made some great contacts and hope to make it back next year.  

I had the good fortune of attending a presentation by Ruth Brodsky, an independent college counselor who works with a lot of learning disabled students.  She has a background in special education, and her session on the SAT and ACT largely reflected my own views and strategies. But she made a recommendation for dyslexic students that had not occurred to me, but which makes a lot of sense.  Dyslexic students should consider requesting a large format test booklet for the SAT or ACT.

Yes, I know this may sound strange.  Large format test booklets were originally intended for visually impaired students, and I would guess are still almost always used by that population. However, there is some evidence that dyslexic students can benefit from large type print. Larger letters and extra space may help with decoding, which could improve comprehension.  

I doubt that either the SAT or ACT will be awarding this accommodation to dyslexic students on a large scale, but if a student is receiving that accommodation in school he or she could be approved.  Ms. Brodsky noted that students should ask about the desk available to them for testing if they are given a large text booklet.  Because the test booklet is physically larger, the desk-chair combos common in schools can be a disaster.  A large desk that allows a student to "spread out" is ideal.

Visit Ruth Brodsky's website for more information about her services if you're in the DC area.
I was fortunate enough to have the National Center for Learning Disabilities post my article on its website a few days ago.  SAT vs. ACT is a big decision for all students, but there are additional considerations for ADHD/LD students.  Check it out!
Sometimes it amazes me how few students know about the test question and answer services offered by the SAT and ACT.  Getting a copy of your actual test, as well as your answers, can be invaluable in fine tuning your preparation for another attempt.  Here's some more information on how to take advantage of this service.

The SAT offers two types of answer reporting, QAS (Question and Answer Service) and SAS (Student Answer Service).  Read on...

 - QAS is by far the more desirable of the two.  QAS provides not only a student's responses.  It also gives students a copy of the actual test questions.  This gives the opportunity to analyze your mistakes, just as you would when taking any other practice SAT.  Unfortunately, QAS is only offered for the October, January and May tests.  The good news is that you have up to five months after the test date to order it (so if you're already registered for the January SAT you won't miss out!).

- SAS provides only your answers to the test questions, not the questions themselves. Obviously this gives you much less information, but it can be helpful for determining if you have a pattern of missing easy questions or if geometry is still causing trouble.  SAS is available for the November, December, March and June administrations.

The ACT offers only the TIR (Test Information Release) service.  Similar to the SAT's QAS, TIR provides both your responses and the test questions.  TIR is available for the December, April and June administrations only, and can be ordered up to three months after your test date.

Note:  If you take the SAT under non-standard conditions or on a non-Saturday test date, you are only eligible to request the SAS service.  For the ACT, TIR is not available for non-national test dates (standard extended time IS eligible, but double extended time is not).

You can download the request forms here for the SAT and ACT.
I recently had the opportunity to review Testing Timers for Examiner.  You can read the full review here.

To sum up, I think they're terrific.  The timers are a simple way to keep track of time, as well as gauge where you should be within a section at a certain time.  As of right now, the ACT timer is available on the Testing Timers website.  The SAT watch is arriving shortly.  Unfortunately, there is no extended time option (yet!), but Testing Timers hopes to have them available by this summer.  Check it out!
I've been meaning to blog about this for a while, and the time has finally presented itself. Officials from both the College Board and ACT responded to questions from The New York Times readers about their tests, how they compare to each other, how colleges use them, etc.  While I wouldn't say any of it was earth-shattering news, these posts are good reads for the college bound.  For those of you who don't feel up to reading FIVE lengthy blog posts on the tests, here's a summary of the most interesting points.

1. Unsurprisingly, both sides advocate taking both tests, despite the fact that there just isn't great evidence that this practice benefits students.  While they're non-profit, the College Board and ACT, Inc. are still businesses and they don't want to miss out on your test dollars.  In a recent survey, only 20% of college admissions officers indicated submitting scores from both tests could strengthen an application, and only if both scores were equally strong.  In other words, it's unlikely you'll benefit from taking both tests, and the effort you'd need to put in to be sure your scores were strong on both tests is more than it's worth.  TAKE HOME:  Pick one test and stick with it.

2. When asked about test-optional schools, both sides avoided taking on the question directly and simply pointed to the correlation between test performance and performance in college.  At the same time, they defended the tests as measures of achievement that should - theoretically at least - even the playing field for students who hail from relatively unknown schools.  

3. On test prep, both sides minimize the importance and effectiveness of preparation.  The party line is that paying for prep courses and tutoring won't make large differences in scores. However, in a classic instance of talking out of both sides of one's mouth, both spokespeople point to free prep materials on their websites.  Of course, both the College Board and ACT, Inc. offer their own prep materials as well, in the form of books and online courses.  There's an implicit acknowledgement that prep helps - the "official" prep materials wouldn't exist otherwise - but neither side wants to admit it.  The ACT representative emphasized that "short-term" prep doesn't help.  The SAT official acknowledged that tutoring can help students who don't understand certain concepts.  Both sides point to research saying prep courses achieve only nominal results.  The problem is that most test prep focuses only on "tips and tricks," which are typically good only for a few points.  High quality test prep does offer significant results, and it can remediate knowledge gaps for benefits far beyond test day.

4. On cheating, both sides emphasized their "extensive" security procedures.  While I understand that there's justification for such vague answers -  they don't want to give too much away to would-be cheaters - the effectiveness of the security measures is questionable given recent cheating scandals.  I suppose time will tell whether the new procedures are effective. 

You may have noticed I used the phrase "both sides" repeatedly above.  Neither representative said anything widely divergent from information you could find on the tests' websites.  There was nothing earthshattering and little that differentiated the two sides.  While the SAT and ACT are competing tests, they've clearly decided it's in everyone's best interests to present a united front on most topics, at least to the general public.

On a side note, it was no surprise that Fair Test was one of the names cropping up on the questions about test prep, along with a couple of folks whom I know are tutors.  I also found it hilarious that the SAT spokesperson could barely bring herself to acknowledge that the ACT exists.  That sort of "ostrich-head-sand" mentality is probably partially contributing to the SAT losing ground to the ACT.

If you do want to read the articles in full, you can find them here, here, here, here, and here.
Here are some tips on college interviews I posted over on Examiner.com.  Happy holidays everyone!
U.S. News has put together a terrific list of scholarships specifically available to ADHD/LD students.  The earliest deadline is December 31, so there is still plenty of time to apply!
Check out my article on Examiner.com about possible changes to the SAT coming out of The College Board Forum that just wrapped up in Miami.  Nothing set in stone, of course, but it's interesting!
I came across a tweet today from a small test prep company that was intriguing enough for me to check out its twitter profile.  Unfortunately, I was greeted with this description:

helping students defeat evil college admissions monsters since 2007!

When you’re in the test prep industry you see a lot of similar hyperbole about the evils of the SAT, ACT and any other standardized test out there.  I admit to engaging in some of this myself.  But upon further reflection, I’m vowing to erase any sort of references to nefarious test writers who are out to trick unsuspecting students.  It’s easy to guess why teens feel this way.  Standardized tests are a big deal for them, and it’s often easier to blame the nasty test makers for lower than anticipated scores than it is to admit that maybe a bit more studying would have helped.  What gets me about the above is that adult professionals are essentially perpetuating conspiracy theories, not to mention fostering a sense of learned helplessness when it comes to college admissions exams.  Now for a little Freud-ish navel-gazing to try to understand why we pros find it so easy to hop on the test bashing bandwagon...

First, we want our students to like us!  Having a good working relationship makes sessions more fun and possibly more productive/effective.  It’s easy (arguably TOO easy) to find common ground by commiserating over the evils of The College Board. However, our job isn’t to be our students BFFs.  Laughing about malevolent test makers does more harm than good.  More on that in a moment.

Next, I suspect there’s some unconscious self-preservation happening, too.  By shifting control for his/her performance to the student, and by extension, the tutor, we’re sticking our necks out a bit more than is comfortable for some.  Blaming the test makers for deceptive practices shifts responsibility for lower scores onto the test itself.  It’s not OUR fault the kid bombed the math; it’s those dastardly test makers!

Finally, like our above advertisement, a lot of test bashing really comes down to marketing tactics.  We think that if we speak in the language of our test-hating students, they’ll be more likely to purchase our services.  If we can position ourselves as the “cool” tutors who are sympathetic to the plight of high school students, we might make a few more bucks.  While I’m obviously not against selling myself, I’d rather be seen as the imperturbable sort who instills confidence in both parents and students.

So enough about why we talk this way!  On to why I think it’s important we stop doing it.  In short, it sends the wrong message to students by taking control for their performance out of their hands.  If the test is really out to get them, why do we bother with test prep at all?  We wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t believe that prep makes a difference (at least I hope not!), so why would we give our students the wrong impression?  I want my students going into test day feeling confident and that they are in the driver’s seat.  They’re not helpless pawns facing certain doom; they’re capable kids ready for a challenge!

So I’m pledging to stop grinning whenever a student tells me about how a question tricked him into getting it wrong.  Who’s with me?

* Wanted to give a shout out to Akil Bello of Bell Curves for this great post on "trickiness" for students.  Read it.

Hey everyone!  I'm going to be doing a presentation on SAT and ACT prep for LD/ADHD students for the Park Cities Learning Differences Association this Thursday, October 18, 2012. The event is free and open to the public.  Find more information here.
I received an email from a parent today that made me want to do a little clarification about these two tests.

I've written before about the PSAT, and how the name gets tossed around much more than it should be to refer to just about any practice SAT.  Actually, the PSAT is a specific practice SAT administered in high schools nationwide on two dates in October.  The PSAT is available just about everywhere and is most commonly taken by high school sophomores and juniors.  It is intended to be practice for the SAT, but the junior year administration also serves as the qualifying test for National Merit recognition.

The PLAN test is less widely available, although it seems to be getting more common.  The PLAN is a practice ACT - it plays the same role as the PSAT but for the ACT instead of the SAT. While the PLAN doesn't have the double duty of serving as a qualifying test for a scholarship competition, it is valuable for gauging a student's strengths and weaknesses.  Like the PSAT, it can assist in prep planning, and gives students an "official" test experience that comes as close as possible to the real thing.

So if your student has the option to take both tests, should he/she do it?  Unless he/she has already made a decision about which test to take, definitely!  These are both risk-free opportunities to try out the tests and can help a student decide which he/she prefers. 
Got questions about the PSAT?  Check out my article on Examiner.com.