The Fat Envelope
A Discussion Of All Things College Admissions and Test Prep
Summer is a fantastic time to do your test prep.  Three months without the regular distractions of school and extracurriculars is the perfect time to commit to getting ready for the October SAT.  I've written a guest blog post on developing a summer prep plan over on MyUsearch.com.  Find it here! 
The scores from the May SAT are out, and variations on this question are popping up all over Yahoo! Answers.  I'm a bit incredulous that students who have invested four hours of their time to take the test, not to mention the hours they may have spent in prep of some sort, don't know how to interpret their scores.  But perhaps it's time to lay it all out and end the confusion!  For an example, I'm going to take some scores from an actual Yahoo! Answers question.  Here they are: 

Critical Reading 320
Math 460
Writing 420
Multiple Choice 39 (score range: 20-80)
Essay 8 (score range: 2-12)

The SAT has three sections, Critical Reading, Math and Writing, each of which is given a score ranging from 200 to 800.  An average score on each section is 500, and statistically approximately 2/3 of all test takers will score between 400 and 600 per section.  Looking at our example, this student is below average on each section.  Math and Writing are within striking distance of 500, but her Critical Reading score is well below average.  Before she takes the test again, she'll want to emphasize Critical Reading in her preparation.  Your total SAT score is the sum of the three subtest scores.  In this case, 320 + 460 + 420 = 1200. 

So what does that multiple choice thing mean?  And what about the essay?  These scores break down your performance on the Writing subtest.  Don't make the mistake of adding these numbers to your total score (a valid SAT score will ALWAYS end in zero)!  The multiple choice score tells you how many of the multiple choice Writing questions you got correct.  There's not much you can do with this score, so you can probably disregard it.  The essay score, however, is relevant.  Your essay is evaluated by two readers, each of whom will give you an essay score from 0-6.  Those two scores are added together to get your total essay score.  In our example, this student's essay score of 8 indicates that the two readers both gave her a score of 4 (the two readers' scores can never differ by more than one point, so a score of 8 has to come from two scores of 4).  This is an average score, so she produced a solid essay on her test.

The next step, now that you know what your scores mean, is to see how they stack up against the colleges you're considering.  If you already fall within the schools' typical range for admitted students, terrific!  Your SAT career is over.  If they're lower than what you hoped, you know it's time to start preparing to take the test again.  Good luck!
Standardized tests are education’s current scapegoat. Since the SAT is a standardized test, it gets its share of abuse, deserved or not.  The stated arguments against the test range from “it doesn’t actually predict college performance” to “it’s biased” to “it doesn’t test anything that students really need to know.”  An entire cottage industry has sprung up specifically to engage in test bashing, to the point that there are organizations funded by large foundations researching why standardized tests are evil.  While some of the criticism is legitimate, much of it is overstated, or based on outdated research.  Most colleges still require standardized tests for admission, and it’s unlikely that will dramatically change in the near future. So why is the SAT the target of so much venom? It’s complicated, but a part of the answer is narcissism.

Narcissism is good. OK, I’ve said it, and it’s true at the most basic level. Narcissism is that instinct for self-preservation that kept us from being eaten by lions in our earliest days, and today keeps most of us from participating in Ultimate Fighting matches. We need a healthy amount of it or we’d all go jump off a cliff at the slightest provocation. Beyond that essential narcissism, an elevated sense of self-importance is a normal part of adolescence, but if current trends continue, the current generation may be the most self-absorbed in history. And it all comes down to parenting trends, with a little help from technology.

Full disclosure, I’m not a parent so you can take my observations with a grain of salt. However, it only takes watching kids texting at the movies while ignoring the person sitting next to them to know that teenagers are narcissistic.  Does anyone REALLY care if you just ate some popcorn?  Of course not, but that tidbit of information is considered worthy of posting on Facebook.  Technology created by and for the “me” generation makes this level of narcissism possible.  And it’s the “me” generation because of current trends in parenting.  Parents of today’s teens are terrified of injuring their kids’ self-esteem.  They’re intimately involved in their children’s daily lives, and they bend over backwards to make their kids feel “special.”  A co-worker recently told me that her 9-year-old son’s basketball team had made the playoffs in their league.  Great right? Not so much, since EVERY team makes the playoffs!  Actual competition has been sacrificed in the name of warm fuzzies.  This same desire to boost self-esteem makes its way into schools.  For example, many schools have dropped class rankings because it creates competition.

Reality is that kids are not all intellectually gifted, and most are average.  Sounds like a dirty word doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, no one really believes that they’re average.  Just look no further than Yahoo! Answers for proof that narcissism is alive and well.  Visit the testing section and you’ll see dozens of questions daily about IQ scores, usually variations on the theme of “So my IQ is 135.  Is that good?”  Without exception, these results come from the myriad online IQ tests that routinely hand out genius level IQs for a fee.  The amazing thing is that the askers truly believe that they have superior intelligence, although the grammar and spelling errors lead me to think otherwise!  But why wouldn’t they believe they’re geniuses when their parents have led them to believe they’re exceptional.  So an individual with an average SAT score may shout “I’m not average, I’m smarter than that!”  The SAT just reflects the realities of life.  It’s normed so that most students’ scores will fall within the average range.  There is nothing wrong with that, since most people are, in fact, average.  Colleges admit, even actively recruit, those average scorers every year.  Average students successfully graduate from college and go on to lead productive lives all the time.  But a test that generates primarily average scores must be a bad test in the culture of narcissism, so it’s roundly criticized for its inability to capture the “unique” abilities of average students.  The SAT awards scores that separate students from each other, and trophies are certainly not awarded to everyone.  Tests that might make our children feel less than extraordinary are awful, and should be eliminated.

Narcissism also begets an inability to critically assess oneself, which naturally leads to laying blame for failure at the feet of schools, teachers, and in this case, standardized tests.  Previous generations never hesitated to blame their children for their mistakes.  My grandparents certainly let my father know when he failed to live up to their expectations.  Not so today.  My mother is an elementary school librarian, and she tells frequent stories of parents arriving on campus to unleash a tirade at a teacher who dared to fail his or her child on an assignment.  It can never be the fault of the student for not paying attention in class or failing to complete homework assignments.  It is also never a parent’s fault for failing to help them with their homework or to motivate their children to succeed.  Confronting your child’s teacher requires a certain amount of hubris, though.  Imagine how much easier it is to confront a faceless, defenseless test!  Ranting about a test comes naturally (everyone hates tests after all).  The SAT is a particularly good target because its creators are the well-educated minions of a large corporation, and what populist American doesn’t love hating a corporation?  Test bashing conveniently transfers blame, and allows the narcissist to believe that his poor score was the test’s fault, not his.

While I don’t think the SAT is perfect, it’s not worthy of so much ire.  It levels the playing field across high schools and reduces the effects of grade inflation in some schools.  It also gives students whose grades may not reflect their ability a chance to shine.  I had a professor in graduate school that referred to his exams as “opportunities.”  I thought it was a silly affectation, but on further examination, I think it’s a good description.  On a test, SAT included, students have the opportunity to show what they’re capable of.  Preparation, motivation and hard work may all be rewarded.  Your score may not be the deciding factor in college admissions, but it’s one piece of the puzzle that can differentiate you from others.  Accepting the test as an opportunity, rather than an act of persecution, can open doors and motivate students to live up to their actual potential.
If you haven't come across it already, Elizabeth King's new blog "Stay out of School" is turning education on its head, in the best possible way.  Her most recent series shows that knowledge of fundamentals is essential to jazz improvisation (and by extension creativity and solving SAT problems).  I wholeheartedly agree, and I can't recommend this enough.  Definitely check it out!

In thinking about some of Ms. King's points, I was reminded of a few relevant anecdotes.  One trend she mentions is that some teachers and schools are de-emphasizing fact memorization.  They argue that in the modern world, students need to be taught how to effectively use Google to find information, not taught facts in and of themselves.  I attended an alumni event not long ago  that featured the dean of my alma mater's Top 10 medical school.  He touted that "memorization" based learning was on its way out in medical education.  While part of my brain understands this (is it really essential for a neurologist to be able to spout off the intimate details of the kidneys?), it scared me a bit, too.  An ER physician has to think fast, and taking the time to google a symptom could mean life or death.  If that ER doc doesn't have a wealth of info stashed in his brain, he can't do his job well. 

Along the same lines, I had a discussion/argument with a teacher on Twitter's #edchat a few weeks ago on this same topic.  In my day job, I do psychological testing, part of which involves some basic knowledge questions.  The answers I receive astound me (no, the capital of Italy is NOT France...it's shocking how often that particular answer arises).  This teacher was essentially arguing that Google should replace memorization, and could not believe that there was any intrinsic value in knowing the capital of Italy by rote.  He further proposed that a student should only know that information if he or she was going to visit!  Seriously?  The internet is a powerful tool and source of information, but it should not be a crutch.  One need only watch late night night talk shows for evidence of Americans' ignorance of the world.  While I'm not intimately acquainted with the curriculum in Chinese schools, I would be willing to bet that Chinese students know the capital of Italy is Rome.

U.S. schools should not be encouraged to further espouse ignorance.  Using high level vocabulary or taking an interest in science can already make you the target of disparaging remarks.  While changing the views of teens on this topic is obviously an uphill battle (it will take a lot to make nerds cool in the eyes of teens!), part of the mission of schools is to encourage learning both in and out of the classroom.  Leaving education in the hands of students and Google is irresponsible.  A look at Google's hot searches for today reveal that we are interested in horse racing and salacious celebrity murders, not geography and science.  But how can we expect ourselves to search for information on the history of Rome, or the compositions of Verdi, or the art of Bernini when we don't even know about the existence of Rome?  Our lack of basic knowledge will severely limit our ability to problem solve in the future, and the ingenuity Americans have always prided themselves on will be quickly superseded by other countries that value education above all else.  Without the basics, we have no clue what questions to ask, much less how to answer them.
I'm a big fan of Stephen Colbert, a self-acknowledged nerd, so I was especially excited to see him give SAT advice on last night's show. Check it out!

His comments about the prohibitive cost of certain SAT prep services were right on the mark. Word-Nerd is a much better deal for your vocab prep!
OK, maybe that title is a bit of hyperbole, but there's a nugget of truth, too.  I don't want to sound too new age-y, but I have a regular yoga practice that does wonders for my tense muscles.  But, you ask, what do tense muscles have to do with the SAT?  Not much, but another of yoga's benefits is enhanced concentration, and who doesn't need help concentrating when you're juggling the demands of school, friends and Facebook!

Meditation, a common element in yoga practice, is a wonderful way to learn to focus, but it's a tough place to start your yoga practice.  But even the most basic practice will challenge you, and I dare anyone to think about anything outside of the moment when you're struggling to balance on one leg (half moon pose, I'm looking at you).  Yoga helps train your brain to be present in the moment.  Think about how much you need that skill to get through four hours of the SAT!

But you don't have to take my word for it.  There is plenty of research out there showing that yoga helps with myriad physical and emotional illnesses.  But the most relevant research for the SAT shows that yoga is helpful for ADHD (Attention Deficity-Hyperactivity Disorder).  If it can help focus kids with this condition, it goes without saying that it can help those of us with only run-of-the-mill concentration issues.

If you need further proof that yoga is great for students, check out the May 2010 issue of Yoga Journal (you can read it online here).  On page 22, you'll find an article about a high school student who has founded a yoga club in his high school.  Or check out local gyms, community centers and yoga studios for teen specific classes.  Who knows, you could be twisting yourself into this in no time! 
In a Fat Envelope first, today we have a guest vocab post from a student, Arielle Wilcott.  Arielle is a 24 year old art history major residing in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently taking a semester away from school to attend a program that will help her improve her academic skills. Arielle is interested in deconstructed materials made into art, B-movies, reading, and exploring new neighborhoods. You can check out her Verbal Soup blog here. 

“Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I know of no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…”

In the movie V for Vendetta (written by Andy Wachowski and directed by James McTeigue), V (Hugo Weaving) , a vigilante who has just saved a young woman, Evey (Natalie Portman) introduces himself.  Here is his infamous speech:

“But on this most auspicious of nights, permit me then, in lieu of the more commonplace soubriquet, to suggest the character of this dramatis persona. Voila! In view humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the “vox populi” now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified, and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin, van guarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.? The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honour to meet you and you may call me V.”

Now.  Let’s dissect this.  Shall we?

1.  auspicious- (adj)  promising success; favorable circumstances; propitious; opportune; fortunate
2.  in lieu- (idiom) in place; in stead
          a.  lieu- (n) place; stead
3.  commonplace- (adj.) ordinary; undistinguished, uninteresting; lacking individuality
          a.  (adj) trite; platitudinous
          b.  (n)  well-known, customary, obvious remark; trite or uninteresting saying
4.  soubriquet-  (n)  an assumed name or nickname
5.  vaudevillian-  (n) a person who writes for or performs in vaudeville
          a.  (adj) of, pertaining to, or characteristic of vaudeville
          b.  vaudeville- (n) theatrical entertainment consisting of a number of individual performances by comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats, and magicians; a satirical cabaret song
6.  vicariously-  (adj)  performed, exercised, received or suffered in place of another; felt through imagined participation in the experience of others
7.  vicissitudes-  (n)  a change or variation occurring in the course of something; mutation
8.  visage- (n) the face, usually with reference to shape, features, expression; aspect; appearance
9.  veneer-  (n)  a thin layer of wood or other material for facing or inlaying wood; superficially valuable or pleasing appearance
10.  vestige- (n)  a mark, trace, or visible evidence of something that is no longer present or in existence; surviving evidence or some condition or practice
11.  vox populi-  (n)  the voice of the people; popular opinion
12.  valorous-  (adj)  having valor; courageous; valliant; brave
13.  vexation- (n)  the state of being vexed; irritation; nuisance
14.  vivified-  (v) enliven; animate; quicken; brighten; sharpen
15.  vanquish-  (v)  to conquer or subdue by superior force; be victorious over; overpower
16.  venal-  (adj)  able to be purchased by bribe; open to bribery; mercenary
17.  virulent-  (adj)  actively poisonous; intensely noxious
18.  vermin-  (n)  noxious, objectionable, or disgusting animals; obnoxious or objectionable person
19.  vice-  (n) an immoral or evil habit or practice
20.  vouchsafing-  (v)  to grant, allow, permit, or give, as by favor or graciousness
21.  voracious-  (adj)  craving or consuming large quantities; exceedingly eager or avid
22.  volition-  (n)  the faculty or power of using one’s will
23.  vendetta-  (n)  a prolonged and bitter private feud, rivalry, contention
24.  votive-  (adj)  offered, given, dedicated; in consequence of a vow
25.  veracity-  (n)  habitual observance of truth in; conformity to truth or fact; accuracy
26.  vindicate-  (v)  to clear from accusation, imputation, suspicion; to afford justification; justify
27.  vigilant-  (adj)  keenly watchful to detect danger; wary
28.  verily-  (adv)   in truth; really; indeed
29.  vichyssoise-  (n)  a cream soup of potatoes and leeks, usually served chilled
30.  verbiage-  (n)  overabundance of words
31.  veer-  (v)  to change direction or turn about or aside; shift, turn, or change from one course or position to another
32.  verbose-  (adj)  characterized by the use of many or too many words; wordy

Sources:  dictionary.com, imdb.com, Microsoft Dictionary

Thanks Arielle! If anyone else wants to contribute a guest post on any test prep or college admissions related topic, please send us a note.