Review – How to Succeed in High School and Prep for College by Phyllis Zimbler Miller, M.B.A.

I had not heard of the author until she followed my Twitter account. I also took a peek at her LinkedIn account; her experience is in marketing and speechwriting (she has also written novels and screenplays).  What, no college counseling? I offered to read and review this book with the understanding that my report would be an honest one, and Ms. Miller agreed.

As I began to read, I was impressed. Before I reached the midpoint, I was converted. How to Succeed is a must read for students who are committed to playing the college entrance game to win.

The book is available in Kindle format (text-to-speech is enabled) for $9.99, and was 247 pages long on my iPad. It is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of the entire college application process. However, it is chock full of useful advice.


Here is the Table of Contents:





BONUS: Tips for How to Use Dynamic Language on a College Application Essay


How To Succeed offers a unique and effective way to do what the title promises: maximize your potential and win the “college hunt.” It begins by advising you to begin planning as early as the summer after eighth grade.  The guide is directed at the student, but useful advice for parents is sprinkled throughout.

Most teenagers put off thinking about their responsibilities as long as possible. A central theme of this guide is prepare early. Start working on your resume before you need one. Practice interviewing, use social media effectively, learn about colleges, etc. If you follow this book to the letter, you may even feel sorry for most other students when you realize how unprepared they are.

As mentioned above, the author does not have a professional background in college counseling. However, she has clearly had a lot of experience in the area, and has done exhaustive research. As a result, the guide includes helpful tips that aren’t found in many other books. For example, a student may not realize that, by completing 9th grade math in junior high, he may be required to take calculus if he plans to apply to colleges that require four years of math in high school.


My only real objection is not truly a criticism of this book. In order to best use the given advice, a teenager needs to be very ambitious and dedicated even before she begins high school. Unfortunately, not many students fit this bill. However, it is my feeling that many students who use this guide will experience a “rush of empowerment” as they begin to follow its recommendations, even if they were initially reluctant.

I found about ten minor grammar/style errors, which should be corrected by a proofreader.


As I mentioned, only highly motivated students will get the most out of this book. It will still be of use to others, including those who read it midway through high school. But those who do begin following the author’s regimen after eighth grade, and follow it through rigorously, will have a tremendous advantage at the college hunt. I have no doubt that this advantage will carry over beyond college. In any case, the author plans to write two follow-up books to help during and after college.

This guide is largely about developing a certain attitude. The author does not expect students to stop having fun; rather, she suggests that students learn to integrate fun activities into a driven, goal-oriented lifestyle.

To that end, the author’s background as a writer and marketer have served her well. As I read this book, I frequently felt energized as I thought “students who read this can morph into ‘movers and shakers.'”

I highly recommend this book. 5 stars.

Buy the book here.


Obama’s Proposal Tying Financial Aid to Tuition Rates

In last week’s State of the Union Address, President Obama proposed withholding federal aid to colleges that continue to raise tuition.

English: President Barack Obama gives his Stat...

Some facts: 1) Tuition (and other college costs) have been rising, making college less affordable and less accessible to poor families. 2) In recent years, states have been pulling aid from colleges. 3) To some extent, the loss of state aid has been compensated by increased federal aid, although much of that has been in the form of loans.

What that means is that poorer students are seeking alternatives to college, and those who do attend will find themselves saddled with a pile of debt.

Education is our future. Obama is certainly right to try to make college more affordable. And his proposal has “teeth” – that is, it would put tremendous pressure on colleges to rein in costs.

But is it misguided and simplistic?

If colleges have been hiking tuition to compensate for losing state aid, it isn’t right to point the accusatory finger at them. I fear that withholding federal aid will only exacerbate the problem. Some colleges will not be able to afford to teach need-worthy students. Their student bodies will shrink, and that could lead to bankruptcy.

It’s also hard to blame the states; in this economy, their income has shrunk, and they have cut their budgets out of necessity. One could say that decreasing funding for higher education is shortsighted; they would reply that it’s a matter of survival.

The simple fact is that, during an economic downturn, people and institutions suffer. The best way to get education back on the right track is to right the economy. Fortunately, that seems to happening, if shakily and slowly.

It seems to me that tying federal aid directly to tuition rates is indeed simplistic. State aid needs to be factored into the formula. Perhaps private endowments could be included as well; they also decrease during a recession. Maybe the federal government could offer incentives to states for maintaining college aid.

What do you think?

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

Textbook Prices Are Out Of Control!

If you’re in high school, you may not be aware of this problem, since you don’t pay for your textbooks out of pocket. But your school does, and that’s reflected in your school budget, which is in turn reflected in our taxes.

If you are in undergraduate or graduate college, than you’ve felt the pain directly. Undergraduates typically pay $500 to $900 per semester for their books; considerably higher costs are not unheard of. Graduate students often pay even more. Many textbooks ring up at over $200; a few are priced over $1000! Some students pay more for books than they do for tuition.

Studies indicate that, over the past decade, textbook prices have risen at 2-4 times the rate of inflation. Now, this is a rant, and a call to action, so I don’t want to digress to a detailed discussion of economics. But sometimes the cost of goods and services outpaces inflation for good reasons. If something becomes scarce (supply decreases), or rises in demand, price increases will naturally follow. But there has been no great shortage of paper or ink (indeed, ebooks require neither), nor has there been a sharp upturn in the number of students. That leaves greed as the only remaining explanation.

Bookstand with large textbook

Now, publishers have rung in with several explanations for their price increases. For example, they point out that sales of 3rd and 4th editions drop significantly, owing to used book sales. However, these same publishers encourage authors to make significant changes in each new edition, so that professors won’t accept earlier ones for their courses. I think it’s safe to ignore the posturing of those who stand to profit at your expense.

To be clear, I am not maintaining that publishers and authors should not be properly compensated for their efforts. Textbook publishing is a niche market, and it is only natural that a textbook should cost more than say, a novel or a biography. However, a quick perusal of the top 20 bestsellers on Amazon revealed prices between $5 and $20. Textbook publishers and authors are no longer being well compensated; they are getting fat.

As a student (or parent) what can you do? First of all, you can look for used books, online stores, and ebooks as alternatives to buying new at the campus bookstore. If you buy used books, look them over thoroughly for markings and missing pages. Many college students have also resorted to using pirated ebooks. Hopefully, it need not come to that, but it’s getting harder to blame them.

A Picture of a eBook

A federal law that went into effect in 2010 has helped the situation. Colleges are now required to release textbook information as early as possible, and publishers are required to disclose the prices of their books. But that simply isn’t enough.

Back to Economics 101: Free-market capitalism (whatever you think of it) is based on the notion that competition will keep prices down. If one company raises the prices on light bulbs, customers will buy cheaper ones from someone else. But that doesn’t work if an enterprise is a monopoly (or near monopoly). So the government steps in and regulates monopolies, who would otherwise have free rein to overcharge their customers.


As in those monopoly situations, students in most classes must buy specific textbooks from specific companies. But legally, one can’t easily classify textbook publishers as monopolies, since there are several large ones. So we have an awful state of affairs – the publishers aren’t regulated, and they have a firm grip on your wallet.


Pickpocket Macro May 24, 20101


Therefore, the best thing you can do is MAKE SOME NOISE, by signing petitions (here’s a link to Textbook Rebellion), or writing to your congressmen. In America’s current economic atmosphere, a politician who spearheads an effort to regulate textbook sales should be extremely popular.

Who knows – perhaps one of you will create a website with a catchy title like “Occupy College Street,” get rich, and fund a charity for needy students.