Archive for August, 2009

SAT FAQ: Score Choice; Using Summers for SAT Prep

The College Board recently changed their score reporting policy for students taking the SAT.  How does that affect me?

Prior to March 2009, the College Board sent all of a student’s past scores to all of the student’s requested colleges.  Previously, though most colleges claimed only to look at top scores, students were limited in the number of SATs they could take and the pressure to score well on any particular test was considerably higher.

However, as of March 2009, you can take multiple tests and choose which score to send to individual colleges.  For example, let’s take a student who has taken three SATs.  With the old policy, all three scores would get sent to all colleges that the student requested.  Now, however, the student could select to send the test with the highest math score to one college, and the test with the highest reading comprehension score to another.

This policy change gives you more flexibility in the number of tests that you can take and reduces your performance pressure.  If you score poorly, just take it again! Because a college sees only the scores that a student wants to send, you could take tests at every date starting in 9th grade and only send the top score.

However, that isn’t a license to over-test.  While practice testing can be a helpful preparation strategy, it must be done judiciously.  Practice testing can help calm nerves and build stamina, but no amount of testing (even years) will improve scores that are hindered by a student’s weakness in reading, English, and math fundamentals, or a weakness in test-taking skills.  With the guessing-penalty, you also can’t even count on luck.  What does that mean?

Instead of gross over-testing, students should use their resources (books, online software, and tutors) to efficiently isolate and improve their deficiencies.  Prepare early and plan to take your first test between the end of your sophomore summer and the Jan of your junior year.   With the new policy, you can confidently take advantage of your preparation and multiple test dates to give yourself the best shot at the score you need.

How should I use my summer for SAT preparation?

Each student’s test preparation period and number of tests they take will be slightly different.  However, unless there are extenuating circumstances, you should NOT begin preparing for your SATs before your sophomore summer, and you should plan to have all of your SAT preparation done and your scores ready by the beginning of your senior year.  Contrary to the opinion of many parents, more preparation than that is not necessary, can lead to burn-out, and, most importantly, takes time away from your other valuable activities.

Thus, my recommendation to students is to assess your SAT situation at the beginning of your sophomore summer with a practice test and preparation materials.  With the help of a qualified expert, estimate how long you will need to prepare, and then compare that to your upcoming academic schedule.  If you are free during your sophomore summer, begin preparation then and try to take your SAT early in your junior year.  For those who need more time, or already have summer plans, begin studying no later than the start of your junior year and plan to have your test out of the way by March of your Junior year.

Unless you performed poorly on the SATs, or had a junior year schedule that was prohibitive to studying, you should not use your junior summer to prepare for SATs.  Rather, you should begin to focus on your college application at that time.

Remember, the SAT is only a test and one part of your application.  Your preparation should be as short and effective as possible to get you the score you need, so you can take advantages of all of the other great experiences available to you.  If you need to, give us a call.  We’d love to help!

By Jay | Friday, August 21st, 2009 | No Comments »

Your Story: Uncovering Your Narrative for the College Application

As college application season moves into full-swing (yes, you should be in full swing on your college applications), I wanted to take a moment and talk about the “fundamentals” of your college application: the narrative.


By Jay | Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 | No Comments »

Easily get 30 points (or more) on the SAT: Do Practice Problems Properly

I recently read this article.  According to a recent poll of college admissions officials, a mere 30 point increase on the SAT can make a difference in the admissions outcome for a college applicant.*  In response to that, I’d like to share a few ways that students can easily get 30 points (or more) on the test.  In the following post, I’ll discuss how changing your approach to practice problems will get you more points on the SAT and, for that matter, any standardized test.

Most students acknowledge that practice is necessary to do well on the SAT; however, most don’t practice properly.  For most students and parents, practice means getting through as many practice problems as possible.  While there is value in that, it will be entirely useless unless done properly.  Think about it: to do better on the SAT you need to improve a set of skills that you have, not simply rehearse them.  If you’re simply repeating whatever you’re doing incorrectly–not consciously honing your skills–you’re just going to become more adept at whatever mistakes you’re making and not going to see the improvement that you want.

There’s a simple fix: think about quality of practice, not quantity.  The way to do quality practice is as follows:

1) First practice problems, then practice the test: Don’t get caught up in doing massive amounts of practice problems or full-length sections until you’ve mastered problems one-by-one.  Once you get the pieces–the problems–then you can put them together and do full-length sections or tests.

2) Work on one thing at a time: At the outset, isolate the particular topic you’re working on and focus on it.  If you’re doing reading comprehension, work on that.  If math, do math.  Don’t try to do everything together until you’re in the later stages of practice.

3) Content –> Problems –> Content –> Problems: Once you’ve decided what you’re working on, first scan instructional materials on the content.  If you’re doing math, make sure you know the basic math concepts.  If you’re doing reading comprehension, make sure you understand the basic question types.  Any good prep book will give you this information.  Don’t spend too much time on the content, just enough to understand it.  You’ll really learn the content when you put it into practice, so there’s not much sense in over-working it in isolation.  Once you’ve covered some content, jump to problems.  When you encounter something you don’t understand in the problem, go back to the content, and so on and so forth, until you understand the content inside out.

4) Repeat problems until they’re perfect (this is the big one): Mediocre students tend to do a practice problem, look at the answer, and then move on.  Good students will try to figure out what they did wrong.  However, that’s still not enough.  Becoming a better test taker requires building skills, and building skills requires correct practice.  Merely looking over your mistakes isn’t enough.  Instead, you should take a fresh version of the problem you got wrong (one that doesn’t have markings on it) and do it again.  You should do this in according to a schedule similar to this:

a) redo the problem immediately until you can do it quickly without pause: If you get a problem wrong, figure out why in the same practice session and then redo it correctly.  If you can’t figure it out, ask someone or look it up online (this is where a tutor is very useful).  Every incorrect problem is an opportunity to improve, so do not rest until you have figured it out.  Then, redo a fresh version of the problem.  Redo it until you can do it quickly.  Once you can, make note of the problem and move on.

b) redo the same problems the next day: Revisit the problem the next day and do it again.  The way that our memory works, it’s most efficient to revisit a problem right before you are about to forget it.  For most people, that means the next day.  Revisit a fresh version of the problem and do it again, making sure to analyze each step and not simply do the problem by rote memorization.  Do it over until you get it correct and can do it quickly.

c) revisit a problem periodically until it’s completely effortless: Once you go a day without doing a problem and get it correct, revisit it after two days, then four days, then a week, steadily increasing the time between iterations.  If you ever get it wrong, go back to (a) and start again.  Always remember to do the problems mindfully, thinking about the concepts and mechanics, not simply by rote.

5) Once you’re successful doing problems, then put them together: you should only be doing full-length practice sections or tests once you’re comfortable with individual problems.  If you do practice sections before you’re ready, you’re rehearsing mistakes and not practicing as efficiently as possible.

Why this works: This method encourages you to actually learn from the mistakes that you make, taking into account that doing well on the SAT is a skill.  Imagine if a musician simply ran through a piece of music once before a big concert without stopping to work on any problem areas, or if a hurdler who knocks over all the hurdles never stopped to improve her fundamentals: neither would ever improve.  Practicing for the SAT is no different.  If you don’t have a method to consciously isolate and fix your errors, you’ll see poor performance continue.  Use this method and learn from your mistakes.  Though you’ll do fewer problems, you’ll see much quicker and more sustained improvement.

By Jay | Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 | No Comments »

GRE: Basic Content Used to Test Your Critical Thinking Skills

An excerpt from the letter that Veritas Tutors GRE expert, Kyle Thomas, wrote to students beginning the fall Veritas GRE course:

GRE Introduction

As I’m sure you know, the GRE is a very important test which, contrary to popular belief, is unlike any you’ve taken before (sorry SATs!).  Your GRE scores are not only important for gaining admission into graduate schools, but are also a major component of successful post-graduate employment applications.  Of course, the magnitude with with your scores are evaluated varies widely across programs and institutions:  whereas many universities place considerable weight upon lofty scores (in fact, most adhere to a strict minimum when considering admissions), others view them as only a small piece in an otherwise broad  acceptance process.  However, gambling your future on the possibility that the program of your choice won’t judge GRE achievement too highly is paramount to failure – which is why you’ve come to us!

Features of the Modern GRE

Starting in 2006, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the company in charge of most elementary and upper-level standardized tests, did away with the traditional paper & pencil GRE exam and adopted a new Computer Adaptive Test (CAT).  The impact this has on you, the test taker, is rather ambivalent.  Whereas the modern GRE allows for quicker score processing and immediate feedback after exam administration, the CAT also allows for the test to shift and change based upon your ongoing level of performance.  What this means is, unlike other regulated exams you may be familiar with, no two GRE exams are exactly alike and no test-taker can “luck-out” by receiving a glut of simple questions.

In addition to the overall format change, the modern GRE, due no doubt to the ever increasing number of test takers, has adopted a somewhat deceptive score ranking system.  Similar to other exams, the GRE supplies the student with both a sectional raw score (out of 800) and a sectional percentile score (referencing how many other test takers got a score less than that of the one being judged).  Whereas for the verbal section, scores of around 700+ are typically enough to obtain a ranking in the 99th percentile, a perfect 800 on the math section will typically only place a student in the 95th percentile.  Essentially, it breaks down to the simple idea of more test takers means more perfect scores, and, accordingly,  more perfect scores means less opportunity to stand out above your peers.  For this reason, regardless of what type of program you are intending on applying for (math based or language based) high marks in ALL sections, regardless of relatedness to your intended major, are now the hallmark of successful GRE scores.

Success:  What it Takes

Because of the modern GRE’s many unique attributes, excelling on the exam requires extensive specialized preparation.  Arguably, though, the most important element of preparation is simply thorough familiarization with the test, its format, and the types of questions it utilizes.  After analyzing hundreds of practice problems it has become clear that while early in the process many questions appeared quite foreign and convoluted, over time patterns emerged and uniform (if not, predicatable) methods/solutions start to become apparent.  Because of this, just as a golfer practices his swing ad nauseum until it becomes second nature, so should you immerse yourself in practice questions until they all look familiar and the methods used for solving each become readily clear – even before you are finished reading the problem!

Remember:  The GRE is neither a math test nor a vocabulary test, but rather is a problem-solving test!  Memorizing vocabulary lists and mastering mathematical principles, while definitely an asset, will not be enough to guarantee a high score.  In addition to basic skill application, one must also understand how to read and dissect novel problems – problems written exclusively to elude and throw off the reader.  Put simply – critical thinking skills are a must.

The math that is covered in the GRE is fundamental:  basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.  Nowhere will advanced trig, calculus, or any other college level mathematics be tested.  This can be both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand,  you don’t need to know all that much math!  On the other, the math you DO need to know must be mastered!  Due to the elementary nature of the topics tested, their application will be anything but straightforward.  For example, rarely will you be asked to simply calculate an average; rather, you will use the basic and relatively simple knowledge of how an average is calculated to solve a novel problem such as ‘figure out what number was removed from this set based on the overall average change’.  As you can see, this is not a math question so much as a critical thinking exercise requiring mathematical knowledge.  The key to success is having a complete command of basic mathematical content, then learning how to apply this knowledge to solve opaque problems.

Similarly, the verbal reasoning portion of the GRE is not a simple vocabulary test; instead it is a reasoning test comprised of problems that require basic verbal knowledge.  In order to fulfill your potential on the GRE verbal section you must not only have in memory many definitions, but you must also master analytical techniques for implementing this knowledge towards the solving of various problems.  The key to success is learning as many vocabulary words as possible, acquiring the requisite analytical techniques, and then combining these to effectively reason about verbal problems in an objective manner.

One of the most important factors necessary for success on the GRE is this: practice, practice, practice!  Thus, start taking practice exams now to familiarize yourself with the types of questions and solutions used by ETS.  Again, there are many books on the market rife with practice questions just waiting for you to tackle.  Also, when you register for the GRE CAT exam, ETS will send you a CD with 2 practice tests.  Unfortunately, this CD takes 2-3 weeks to deliver via mail, so make sure to register at least a month before your exam date to take advantage of this tools.  Finally, the ETS website has some great materials including a free full length practice test, many sample questions, a very helpful math review, and links to other helpful resources.

By Jay | Tuesday, August 11th, 2009 | No Comments »
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