What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized college admission test developed by The College Board. Many college require that applying students take the SAT, or its competitor, the ACT (you can learn about the differences between the tests here).

The SAT is presently known as the SAT Reasoning Test, to distinguish it from the SAT Subject Tests, which are also written by The College Board. The Subject Tests, as their name implies, test specific subjects. This article is about the SAT Reasoning Test.

The SAT is administered seven times a year at schools throughout the U.S. The fee for the SAT is $49 (needy students can apply for fee waivers).

The SAT has three types of sections: Reading, Math, and Writing (which includes an essay). Three sections of each type count towards your score. In addition, there is an Experimental (“Variable”) Section, which doesn’t count, but is used by The College Board to test questions for future SATs. The ten sections take a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Students with special needs may apply for test accommodations, such as extra time or a live reader. Students who take the exam with extra time do not take the Experimental Section.

University of Chicago

Reading Section

There are 48 Passage-Based Reading (reading comprehension) questions, and 19 Sentence Completions.

Passages vary in length. Sometimes two related passages are given, and some questions will ask you to compare or contrast them.

Some examples: Questions may ask what is the main idea of a passage, or what the author’s tone is. You may be asked to define a word in context, or specify why the author included a quote.

Sentence Completions are sometimes called fill-ins. Sentences will have one or two blanks, and are asked to choose the answer that best completes each sentence.

Math Section

There are 44 multiple choice questions, and 10 student-produced responses (“grid-ins,” where you must fill in your answer).

Math topics include arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and some basic statistics and probability.

Calculators are permitted (be sure yours is approved for the SAT).

Writing Section

There are 25 “improving sentences,” 18 “identifying sentence errors,” 6 “improving paragraphs,” and 1 essay, which comprises an entire section.

The multiple choice questions test grammar and style, except for the “improving paragraphs” questions, which also test organizing paragraphs.

Each section is scored on a scale from 200 to 800, so 2400 is the highest possible score. On each section 500 is around average.

Click here for some sample questions of each type.

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When Should You Stop Taking SATs?

This is the third (and last) in a series of articles that began with The College Hunt and How Many Times Should You Take the SAT? If you have done your homework, and researched the polices of the colleges to which you plan to apply, you have presumably worked out the appropriate number of SATs for you to take.

But what if you score really high, and you still have one or more exam dates left?

That’s what this article is about – whether you should modify your initial plans.

An example of sleeping.

Remember, once you have already prepared for an SAT, the time you need to “get back in shape” for another test is relatively small. So, if you have any reasonable expectation of improving, you should probably go ahead and take another test.

Of course, if you are applying to colleges that reject Score Choice (i.e. you are required to send scores from all exams that you take), you might actually hurt your chances of admission or scholarship if your scores go down. If you have prepared well, and your practice scores are around 600 on Reading and Math (suppose your colleges don’t look at the Writing score), and you break 650 on both, then you are one of those rare students who shouldn’t repeat.

If you’ve read other articles in this blog, you know that I often give advice that differs from that of other teachers and counselors, but that I do my utmost to back up that advice with evidence and common sense. Many advisors take what I call a “moralistic” approach, and tell you to do “what seems right.” While I agree that it doesn’t seem right for a student to have to take a test four or more times, the current rules may make that your best practical option.

It’s also easy to rationalize that you shouldn’t take so many tests, since it is easier not to. But you want to look at the big picture here, and getting into a better school, or being awarded more financial aid, is certainly worth a few hours of your time.

SAT scores are not completely accurate. Some students will find that their scores drift by a couple of hundred points between exams. So if you get lucky and ace an SAT, consider stopping. Otherwise, take a break, and then go back to work.

In general, my best advice is: if you’re in doubt, it’s probably better to keep taking SATs.

Obviously, I can’t go into every detail that will impact your decision here. Many factors are involved, so if you’re still in doubt, I urge you to consult with a trustworthy counselor. I’m also happy to answer your questions – just go to the About page and ask away.

Satire – Prepare your Facebook Page for College

Disclaimer: Satire is a form of humor. Don’t really try any of this, unless you’re a pimply dweeb with a God complex.

It’s no secret that colleges comb the internet for dirt on applying students. Here is some advice on how to scrub away the dirt and replace it with fresh, sparkly glitter.

Deutsch: Glitter

What is dirt?

Really, you’re almost ready for college and you don’t know what dirt is? You want to remove all traces of anything embarrassing from the web. The dirtiest examples would be instances of drugs, drunkenness, nudity, or anything criminal. So you’ll begin by removing that picture of you in a thong, holding a beer, an Uzi, and a crack pipe. Immediately replace it with a nice photo of yourself in a rocking chair, reading a thick book and drinking Vitamin Water. Oops – you’re going to have to retake the shot. That “No Homos” t-shirt isn’t going to win you any style points.

Once you have replaced all of your interesting photos with boring, carefully staged ones that would be appropriate for 1950’s television, move on to your Wall (or Timeline, as Facebook is now introducing). Delete any references to your ever having had any fun, and replace them with quotes from famous philosophers.

“All truth is simple… is that not doubtly a lie?” – Friedrich Nietzsche

English: This is am image of Kyle David Kipp

Of course, none of this will look real if no one ever likes or replies to your comments. Just recruit a few friends, and instruct them to post really nerdy rubbish on each other’s sites.

Then you’ll want to edit your Info page. Begin with employment. Pardon, but you only had one crummy job at the soft-serve, and you were fired for writing nasty jokes with the colored sprinkles? No problem – remember the time you helped old Mrs. Wiggleboom with her groceries? You can add “senior charity” to your page.

Sports? What’s that? Leave this blank.

Art and Entertainment? Mozart, War and Peace, huge biographies, or anything by James Joyce. Movies, TV? Don’t watch ’em, except for the occasional documentary. Games? Too bourgeois.

English: A giant chess set at Chirk Castle, Wr...

And finally, you’ve come to Activities and Interests. Begin with the obvious “philosophy,” and sprinkle in “analyzing stock trends,” “world politics,” and “theoretical physics.”

That’s it – you’re now the biggest geek in your school. But you’re a geek with a scholarship!

Should You Take the SAT or the ACT?

For many years, when I have been asked this question, I have steered the majority of my students toward the SAT. For one thing, the SAT is much more popular in New York, where our students live. For another, the SAT is more coachable; our students have consistently made larger score increases on the SAT than the ACT (on a percentile basis).

However, this blog isn’t just for East Coasters; furthermore, the gap in coachability for the two exams has narrowed.

Today, almost all colleges will accept either exam (although some are exam-optional – see my Nov 29th article), so the simple answer is: take the test you’ll score better on.

The scoring scales for the two exams are very different. Here is a comparison of ACT and SAT scores.

Obviously, you’d rather not spend a lot of time preparing for both exams before you make you decision. Here is some information to help you choose:

The ACT has a science section; the SAT does not. Also, the ACT science section might better be called “Data Interpretation.” It tests your ability to understand charts, graphs, and pictograms. It does not require you to memorize a lot of facts about science.

The questions on the ACT are more straightforward. This test was designed to measure what you’ve learned in school, while the SAT was designed to measure intelligence (although the test writers no longer claim that the SAT is an intelligence test). One theory says overachievers do better on the ACT, while underachievers should go for the SAT.

SAT logo

The writing section on the ACT is optional, while you must do the writing if you take the SAT. However, some schools do require the writing if you submit the ACT (you can check a college’s policy here). Some schools do not consider the SAT writing scores (see my Nov 15th article).

On the ACT, you must answer more questions in less time (215 questions in 2 hrs 45 min + 30 min optional essay vs. SAT 140 questions in 3 hrs 45 min). If you have trouble with time pressure, favor the SAT. If you struggle with mental stamina, favor the ACT.

There are some other differences. The ACT tests elementary trigonometry, while the SAT doesn’t. There is no penalty for wrong answers on the ACT, as there is on the SAT. And all score reporting is optional on the ACT, while some colleges require that you send all your SAT scores (see my Sept 29th and Sept 13th articles).

If the differences just described have helped you make up your mind already, fine. Otherwise take a practice test for each exam (optimally before you’re prepped for either one), and then decide. If you know a good test prep teacher, you can also ask her for advice.

Remember, each student is unique, so there are no easy answers. Don’t choose an exam because a friend did well on it, unless you truly feel you are very similar to him. If you like, contact me with some information about yourself, and I’ll try to help you make the right choice.

Should You Apply to SAT-Optional Colleges?

SAT-optional colleges have grown from one (Bowdoin) in 1969 to 280 today (according to FairTest). Note that “optional” doesn’t mean these colleges disregard the SAT entirely; as of 2007, only one college (Sarah Lawrence) has done that (according to U.S. News).

The other SAT-optional colleges have a variety of policies. Some require the SAT (or ACT) only from out-of-state applicants. Others require the test only for certain majors, or only for students whose GPAs aren’t high enough.

Why did these colleges decide to become test-optional? There appear to be two primary reasons. For one, some colleges seek to admit otherwise-worthy students who perform relatively poorly on standardized tests. The second reason is that schools can achieve higher rankings by not reporting the scores of those who did not submit them for application (presumably, these tend to make up a large proportion of their lowest scores).

Standardized Test

Before I seek to answer the question posed in the title of this article, let me point out that the stated purpose of the SAT (and ACT) is to predict students’ grades in college. To some extent, that is the purpose of the entire application process. Colleges want students who will get good grades. I suppose that, to some extent, they would also like to admit students who will be successful after graduation, but that’s a lot more difficult to predict.

Now, getting good grades in college is heavily tied to – guess what? – scoring well on tests. True, there are other factors, such as reports, homework, labwork, etc. But tests are of prime importance (particularly at large colleges that have large classes). They may differ from standardized tests such as the SAT, but the fact remains that poor SAT takers are likely to be poor test takers. So competitive colleges have a big incentive to avoid admitting those students who score very low on SATs.

When you don’t send SAT scores to many of these colleges, you are in effect writing “I suck at the SATs” in big red letters across the front of your application. Remember, the SAT score reporting is optional; you can send your scores if you wish. And you can be sure that students with good scores are sending them.

So why bother applying? Clearly, some students who withhold scores (or don’t take the tests) are being accepted. And some SAT-optional schools are highly ranked.

So my conclusion would be: first, check on the policies of any SAT-optional schools to which you are interested in applying. Second, unless your SAT scores are so low as to be totally out of whack with your GPA and other qualifications, send them on. Admissions officers aren’t stupid. If your GPA is slightly above the school’s median, and you withhold your SAT scores, those officials will figure that your SATs are below the median, and decide accordingly. So you haven’t helped your cause if your SAT scores are slightly below the median, and you probably hurt your chances if you’re right around the median.

To sum up, I am saying that test-optional policies are of little help to those students who underperform a little on their SATs. However, they can help if you underperform a lot. For example, suppose you wish to apply to a school, and you see that 75 percent of its freshman class had a high school GPA over 2.5, and 75 percent had SAT scores over 1500. If you have a GPA of 2.6 and an SAT score of 1430, send it and hope for the best. But if your SAT score is 1300, withhold it (note that this is an oversimplified analysis; other factors may influence your decision).

List of SAT-optional colleges from FairTest

Should You Care About Your SAT Writing Score?

Quite a few students have told me something like “I heard that colleges don’t care about the Writing score. Why should I waste time on it?”

Let me begin with my answer: Yes – you should try to get your best Writing score! Here are four reasons why:

1) Studies did indeed conclude that the majority of colleges ignored the Writing score for determining who they accepted. But those studies were performed prior to 2008.

A little history: the Writing Section was added to the SAT in March 2005. Although it was based on the SAT II (Subject Test) in Writing, which had been administered previously, colleges were leery of using a new type of score for admissions, since there wasn’t enough data to confirm its usefulness. But The College Board released a study in 2008 that indicated that the Writing score was a better predictor of college grades than were the Reading and Math scores. Furthermore, the colleges have a lot more data available 6.5 years after the first Writing Section was included.

Graduation

Of course, you can find out a college’s policy by reading its website and/or calling its admissions office. But even if you’re applying to a college that says it doesn’t use the writing score, consider that they may use it to resolve borderline cases.

2) This is a simple one – many colleges use your Writing scores to determine placement in freshman English. Of course, if you don’t mind taking a remedial college English course, you don’t need to worry about this. However, be aware that such a course might not count toward your major.

3) A Writing score that is much lower than your Reading and Math scores could raise a “red flag,” and cause your rejection.

A stylized representation of a red flag, usefu...

4) Many colleges look at your Essay score to determine if your writing abilities match those indicated by your application essay(s). Today, nearly every applicant has someone edit his essays; many students stoop to having someone else write them from scratch. Wonderfully written application essays accompanied by a low Essay score are another red flag.

There is one other reason to work on improving this score, but I won’t give it a number, since it doesn’t relate to college admission. Studying for this section will indeed boost your writing ability, and that can go a long way toward helping you get a good job, keep your job, or receive a promotion. In today’s fast-paced industrial/technical society, writing has become something of a lost art, so accomplished writers have a marketable skill.

College Rankings

Scores of websites, books, and magazines offer college ranking lists, which they update each year.  Some rank according to academic prestige; others offer rankings based on quality of life on campus, while some lists are comprehensive. You can even find rankings based on perceived attractiveness of the female or male students, or which schools have the best radio stations.

The ranks that most colleges, parents, and students care the most about are the ones that concern  academic prestige. After all, we attend college to get a good jobs in the fields of our choice, and we want potential employers to be impressed by the colleges we attend.

Statue of John Harvard, founder of Harvard Uni...

Image via Wikipedia

The questions students and their parents ask most often are: 1) How accurate are the rankings? 2) How seriously should we take them? There are many articles on the web about the first question, so I will merely summarize: the rankings are fairly accurate. The same college may have rankings that are as far as 15 places apart on two of the major surveys. That’s really not so surprising, since different methods are used for various surveys.

For example, US News and World Report explains: “The indicators we use to capture academic quality fall into a number of categories: assessment by administrators at peer institutions, retention of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving, and (for National Universities and National Liberal Arts Colleges) high school counselor ratings of colleges and “graduation rate performance.” Some of these factors will be more important to some students than others.

So I wouldn’t get too hung up over whether Harvard or Princeton gets this year’s top ranking. But a prospective employer will probably be more impressed by a degree from the #15-ranked school, as opposed to #25.

Now on to the second question. Obviously, a college’s ranking shouldn’t be the only factor you consider when deciding whether to apply to and/or attend. Let’s consider some other factors, most of whose importance will vary from student to student.

1) $Money$ Given the current state of the economy, this will be the most important factor for many families. Many advisors admonish students that it would be a mistake to rule out private universities on the basis of cost, explaining that attractive financial aid packages can make these schools as affordable as public ones. Colleges are now required to include cost calculators on their websites, which allow you to determine how much money you’ll need, based on your family’s income. However, be aware that a college can modify its financial aid policy from year to year. I personally know two students who were forced to transfer after much of their financial aid was not renewed for their sophomore years. Furthermore, public schools are usually still a lot cheaper after you factor in financial aid.

2) Location This important factor is mostly self-explanatory. However, if your choice of schools in a particular area is too limited, you may need to be flexible. Also, be aware that two colleges in the same area can have very different campuses and external settings (e.g. within a city vs. a few miles away).

3) Size (student body) Many students all but ignore this factor, but I’ve placed it at #3 because it can have a huge bearing on your education and lifestyle. True, a large college offers diversity of professors and courses, but a small school offers small, intimate classes and a tightly knit student body.

4) Academic Programs If you know what field you want to study, you can apply to schools with strong programs in that area. If you decide later, or change your mind, you may end up wanting to transfer.

5) Safety What is the neighborhood like? How effective is campus security?

 

Flower Girl & Toy Gun

Image by greenmelinda via Flickr

 

6) Personal Preferences These include sports, religious affiliation, single-sex colleges, housing, social life, etc. Students may also opt for colleges which have more relaxed requirements for a degree, so they can take more electives.

These factors, along with others I haven’t thought of, may lead you to apply to less competitive colleges. Some students may even prefer a less competitive college, so the coursework won’t be as rigorous.

In any case, you should visit schools that you are seriously interested in attending. To be sure, I’ve known students who have been rejected by all of their top choices, and have opted to attend schools that they hadn’t visited. But remember that a school that “looks” good in an article or a website might not be to your liking.

Before I leave this subject, there is one final factor to consider: Are you planning to continue on to some type of graduate education? That’s not a factor that is often discussed in this context, but it can be very important. Obviously, you want an undergraduate education that will prepare you properly (e.g. a strong pre-med program before medical school). But it’s also important to realize that prospective employers will be more interested in your graduate college than your undergrad one.

Under certain circumstances, you can actually be better off going to a less competitive school.  For example, many law schools use an admission “index” based on your GPA and LSAT score (e.g. GPA + 1/10 LSAT). So, whether you earn an undergraduate GPA of 3.5 at Harvard or at Rinky-Dink College of Comic Literature, you will have an equal chance of admission to those law schools. Of course, your Harvard education will probably prepare you better for law school.