YOU JUST RECEIVED YOUR PSAT SCORES. NOW WHAT?

Students who took the PSAT in October 2018 recently received their scores. Many high schools are distributing hard-copy score reports and original test booklets to the juniors (and, in some cases, sophomores and freshmen) who took the test two months ago.

The detailed score report and the test booklet (the very same test booklet that you used during the test, with your name written on the front cover) will offer valuable insights into your current strengths and development needs and help determine the specific steps you need to take to perform better on the SAT and/or ACT than you did on the PSAT.

If your school does not hand back your test booklet, speak to your counselor to request the booklet. (If your counselor informs you that your school will not be distributing test booklets, you can still do meaningful review and analysis of your PSAT performance; my next blog post will include instructions on how to do this using the access you have to your test questions online, when you log in to your College Board account.)

Don’t squander this important opportunity to (a) understand the types of errors you are making and (b) develop a custom-tailored plan to strengthen your skills and develop more effective habits. Test prep is simply a great excuse (or excellent motivation) for learning the skills and habits that will help you perform at your best throughout your life, especially in high-pressure, challenging situations.

I strongly recommend that you do the following when you receive your scores:
STEP 1. Look at the scaled scores printed on the score report. Don’t pay too much attention to the percentiles. The numbers that really matter are the scaled scores; each of the overall sections (Math (M) and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (EBRW)) is scored on a 200-760 scale that corresponds to the SAT scoring scale (200-800). Thus, your score on a given section of the PSAT represents your likely score on that section of the SAT if you were to take the SAT without any additional preparation.
STEP 2. Give your score report and the test booklet to a sibling or parent; ask him/her to use a colored pen to circle in your test booklet the NUMBERS of the questions you omitted or answered incorrectly on each of the four subsections of the test: reading, writing (grammar), math without calculator, and math with calculator. Make sure your sibling or parent does NOT make any marks indicating what the right answer to each question is. This is critically important.
STEP 3. Now, do your “second shots” on the PSAT, untimed (in multiple sittings, if you wish). Second shots are your attempts to answer correctly (on your second try) the questions you missed the first time around. Grab a colored pen (don’t use pencil—your second-shot work should be easily distinguishable from the work you did on test day in October) and work through the questions that your sibling or parent just circled. Use your colored pen to do all of your second-shot work, including circling the letter of your new answer choice in the test booklet for each question.

Here is a summary of recommended techniques:

Reading: Underline key terms in each question; make sure you clearly understand what is being asked. Underline relevant evidence in the passage(s). Come up with an answer in your head (your hypothesis). Revisit and reconsider all the answer choices (other than your original incorrect answer choice, if that’s visible in your test booklet) as you look for the answer choice that most closely matches your hypothesis. Slash the letters of answer choices that you are ruling out. Consider underlining key terms in each of your last two (“finalist”) answer choices, to make sure you are noticing and correctly interpreting each element of each answer choice. Look for a word or phrase that disqualifies one of the last two answer choices you’re evaluating; consider drawing a slash through any disqualifying word or phrase.

Writing (grammar): For usage/mechanics questions (e.g., punctuation, subject-verb agreement, parallel structure, faulty comparison), read the full sentence out loud, slowly and carefully. Try to identify the problem (if any) and correct/edit the original underlined portion BEFORE looking at the answer choices on the right. For “rhetorical skills” questions (questions about transitions, sentence/paragraph order, etc.), underline key terms in the question (if applicable) and pretend you are working on a reading passage; look before and after the underlined portion to take the full context into account. You may also wish to underline key terms in or key differences between answer choices. For both types of questions (usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills), slash the letters of answer choices that you are ruling out.

Math: Underline key terms in each question. (Getting math problems right starts with correctly reading and fully processing the information in the question.) Use a pause/resume approach to reading each question; pause after reading a given chunk of the question to process and jot down relevant information, and only then resume reading (read the next chunk and do the same). Circle what you are being asked to solve for (e.g., “the length of the fence, in feet”). Do plenty of scratchwork, making sure to think on paper. Do not skip any steps, including the writing-out of your final answer before you circle the matching answer choice. Draw graphs or diagrams if appropriate; label existing graphs or diagrams with additional information as needed. Use plenty of space (don’t squish your scratchwork or diagrams into a tiny portion of the space provided; use a light-colored sticky note if you need extra space to do your second-shot scratchwork). On Section 4, do not use a calculator unless absolutely necessary (e.g., to do a complicated computation/calculation). Remember: the calculator cannot think for you.

You don’t need to do all of your second shots in one sitting, though you should work through in one sitting all the questions that pertain to one particular reading passage (or pair of passages) or that pertain to one particular grammar passage.
STEP 4. After you finish your second shots, compare your second-shot answers to the correct answers listed on your detailed score report. Place a check mark next to each second-shot answer that is correct; put an X next to each second-shot answer that is wrong. If your second-shot answer is wrong, you have the option of putting away the score report and returning to the test booklet to attempt a “third shot,” if your mind isn’t tainted by the memory of what the right answer is. (Alternatively, you could have a sibling or parent score your second shots so that you preserve the option of doing third shots.)

A student who gets most or all of his second shots right is in a stronger position than a student with the same scaled score who gets most or all of his second shots wrong: though both students achieved the same scaled scores, they have different levels of understanding and knowledge, as well as different habits and mindsets (e.g., attention to detail), and they will need to take different paths forward to attain higher scores.
STEP 5. Analyze each of your errors and omissions. Which ones were due to carelessness (e.g., a bubbling error or forgetting a negative sign in a math question), and which ones were unavoidable because you simply did not understand the material? Write “CE” next to each careless error and “LOU” next to each question that you got wrong or omitted on the original test because of a lack of understanding.

Analyze every error carefully. Did a lack of tenacity (you gave up on a math question as soon as you couldn’t see a clear path to the answer, or you didn’t spend enough time scrutinizing a reading passage) or a logical fallacy lead you to get something wrong that you could have gotten right? What patterns or tendencies do you notice? Perhaps you tend to get easy questions wrong (are you rushing through them without doing enough scratchwork or without looking back at the passage for evidence?) and hard questions right (does the difficulty make you sit up straight and work carefully and conscientiously through the question?). Perhaps you ace almost all the usage/mechanics questions on the grammar section, but you miss quite a few rhetorical skills questions because you’re taking a cursory approach to them and not thinking of them as more serious reading-comprehension questions. Perhaps you are surprised to discover that you performed better on grid-in math questions than on multiple-choice math questions—if so, it’s probably because you did more scratchwork and original thinking on the grid-ins, since there were no answer choices to consider and lean on.

As you can see, doing second shots is an essential component of any practice-test work and an essential component of PSAT score review. (You should also do second shots when your teachers hand back quizzes or tests in school.)
STEP 6. Figure out what your score on each section would have been if you had not made any careless errors or any other errors that prevented you from demonstrating your true abilities and the full extent of your skills on the test.

First, write down how many questions you would have answered correctly on each section if you hadn’t made any avoidable mistakes (e.g., “without CEs: 44/47 on PSAT Reading”).

Then, calculate the resulting scaled subscores and scores for each section. The College Board has provided scoring tables and conversions for the 2018 PSAT here. (Recent and estimated future National Merit Semifinalist cutoffs by state appear here.) Write down what your “without CEs” scaled score would have been on each section of the test. Let that current best-case scenario sink in; feel the (sometimes devastating) impact of your careless errors. Then ask yourself what you’re going to do about it.
STEP 7. Use the insights you’ve gained to make a comprehensive list of the things you need to do differently on each section in the future. Be as specific and concrete as possible.

Don’t just say, “Read more carefully.” What does that mean? Do you need to slow down when reading the passages, when reading the questions, when reading the answer choices—or all three? Do you need to underline more—in passages, questions, or answer choices (when you’ve eliminated all but the last two answer choices and you’re ready to choose one)? Do you need to underline more thoughtfully and judiciously? Mouth the words as you read them? Keep your pencil hovering above whatever you are reading at any given moment during the test?

Likewise, don’t just tell yourself, “I need to do more scratchwork on math questions.” Do you need to write down every step, making sure to “think on paper,” as I tell my students to do? Do you need to mark up the graphs, diagrams, and charts more? Do you need to draw graphs or diagrams when they are not provided, making sure to draw graphs and diagrams that are big enough to be easily labeled and contemplated? Do you need to “map out” or somehow lay out the information presented in the question before jumping into the problem-solving process? Do you need to write coherent, sequential lines of scratchwork instead of flinging seemingly random numbers and expressions, unconnected by equal signs or arrows, all over the space provided, often in a diagonal orientation? (I call this rather common phenomenon “helter-skelter scratchwork.” It’s the math equivalent of writing seemingly random words all over a page instead of writing sentences and paragraphs, or at least bullet points, and it often leads to wrong answers.)

One good way to ensure that the items on your “do differently” list are as specific as possible is to ensure that each “do differently” item is an action item you could video-record (e.g., “underline key terms in questions” instead of “be more careful”).

You may wish to write each “do differently” in the test booklet itself, next to each question you answered incorrectly or omitted. You can note, for instance, that you got #5 wrong because you neglected to notice that the question asked you to solve for “y+2” instead of “y”—and, in turn, the reason you didn’t notice the “y+2” was that you didn’t underline or circle it.

After you write these unique “do differently” items, customized for each question, you should compile lists of things to do differently, organized by section. These lists could be handwritten on separate sheets of paper or typed into a Google Doc; you will continue adding “do differently” items to these lists as you continue your test prep and take additional practice tests.

You should also create and keep a running list of topics or skills that you need to review substantively—e.g., functions, comma splices, semicolon usage, difficult vocabulary. I suggest that you “harvest” all unfamiliar vocabulary words anywhere in the test.

An essential part of your test prep will be reviewing the questions you missed on past tests, re-reading your lists of what to do differently, and addressing each skill gap enumerated in your substantive-review list. (For vocabulary study, see my suggestions here.)

In general, students who did not score stratospherically will need to spend almost as much time reviewing a given test as they spent taking the test. Most of the value associated with taking a test arises from the post-test process of extracting as many insights into your strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and habits as you can, and translating those insights into concrete next steps. Students often seek my help in analyzing their errors and ask for my recommendations regarding different approaches or techniques; my “prescriptions” for self-study work; and an overall game plan for the period of time before the next test.

What you learn from doing all of the above, and from test prep, properly approached, will enable you to perform better not only on future standardized tests, but also in school (both tests and homework) and in other areas of your life. If you start to cultivate greater attention to detail, for instance, you will probably find that you are paying closer attention to the little things in areas of your life other than test prep and test-taking. If you strengthen your grammar skills, you will become a better writer and editor. Working on math problem-solving skills can make you a more flexible and creative thinker, and so on.

Visit my website to learn more about my coaching work, most of which I do via Skype.

[Note: This post is an update to my 2014 post regarding post-PSAT analysis for the previous version of the PSAT.]

Mandatory April 5th SAT for juniors at Illinois public high schools

For many years, the state of Illinois required all 11th graders at Illinois public high schools to take the ACT in the spring.  Juniors did not need to sign up for the test; it was administered to them in school, free of charge, on a weekday morning in April, and they could report the scores to colleges if desired.  The state of Illinois used the scores for its own purposes, as an assessment of college and career readiness.

You have probably heard that the state of Illinois has now switched from the ACT to the SAT (read the February 2016 Chicago Tribune article here).  All public high schools in Illinois will administer the SAT to juniors on the same date this spring, April 5, 2017 (with a make-up date of April 25, 2017), according to the website of the College Board, the entity that designs and administers the SAT (as well as the SAT Subject Tests and AP Exams).

You may be surprised, however, to learn that your high school is REQUIRED to print your April 5 SAT scores on your school transcript, which will be sent to the colleges to which you apply next year.  (Read the Illinois State Board of Education’s SAT Implementation FAQs here; the transcript-reporting requirement is #2.)  So, as always, you should make sure you are well prepared for the SAT before you take it; your scores on April 5 will become part of your permanent high-school record, and there will be no way to “hide” them from colleges.

IMPORTANT:  Students should check with their counselors to verify whether or not the SAT, as administered at their school on April 5, 2017, will include the optional 50-minute essay that constitutes the last section of the recently redesigned SAT.  (According to this July 2016 Sun-Times article, the state-funded administration of the SAT on April 5 will include the essay, but it’s still worth double-checking with your school.  For example, Oak Park and River Forest High School will administer the essay.)  If your school does NOT plan to include the SAT essay, and you plan to apply to competitive colleges, you should make sure that you either (a) take the complete SAT, with the optional essay, on a different date before or after April 5 or (b) take the complete ACT, with the optional essay, at some point before or after April 5.  In general, if (and only if) you are sufficiently prepared earlier in your junior year, you should take the SAT or ACT in the late fall or winter.

In 2016-17, I’m teaching small-group workshops on Sunday mornings to help students prepare for the SAT and ACT, and I also offer private and semiprivate coaching sessions, either in person or via Skype.  Contact me through my website at http://www.sarasujones.com if you are interested.

Here Comes the New PSAT!

Summer is drawing to a close, and it’s time to look ahead to the tests that await you in 2015-16.

For most juniors and sophomores, the first test that looms ahead is the new PSAT. The redesigned PSAT/NMSQT will be administered for the first time in mid-October 2015, on either Wednesday, October 14, or Saturday, October 17 (depending on your school’s choice of dates). Thus far, the College Board has released only ONE official practice test for the new PSAT, and it is unclear whether any additional official practice tests will be released between now and mid-October. Currently available “unofficial” practice tests for the new PSAT are not particularly good simulations of the test.

Therefore, it is critical that you leave the official practice PSAT untouched for now. Designate it as the last complete practice test that you will do before you take the real test. I recommend that you take it (as your “dress rehearsal” practice test) no later than October 3 or 4, and no earlier than September 26 or 27. Make sure to take the official practice PSAT in one 3-hour sitting; select a Saturday or Sunday morning when you can set aside at least three hours in a row with no interruptions or distractions.

Before you take the official practice test for the new PSAT, however, you will have to prepare mostly by using unofficial materials. (The College Board has provided a limited number of sample questions for each section: reading, writing/grammar, and math.) Whenever a new test or a new version of a test is released, the initial versions of prep materials published by Barron’s, Kaplan, Princeton Review, and similar companies are decidedly suboptimal — I saw this in 2004-05, when the SAT was redesigned. This summer, I’ve found errors or poorly written questions in the new PSAT books published by Princeton Review, Barron’s, and Kaplan. (I’m currently examining Ivy Global’s book with three practice tests for the new PSAT, and I’ll render an opinion on that later. On its website, Ivy Global provides a free PDF version of one of its practice tests for the new PSAT.)

Despite the flaws in these prep books, you have no choice right now: you need to acquire at least one of the currently available books and start working through it. I’d recommend buying the Barron’s and Kaplan books for now, and perhaps also Ivy Global’s book.

You can start by taking a complete practice test as a diagnostic tool, but if your brain gathered moss during summer break (and I’m betting that it did), you would probably be better off learning about the format of the new test and reviewing substantive skills (e.g., by reading the material in the first half of the Kaplan or Barron’s books) before embarking on a complete practice test.

The current SAT will be administered for the last time on January 23, 2016, and the new SAT will be administered for the first time on March 5, 2016. I recommend that you NOT take the new SAT on March 5, for reasons I’ll discuss in a subsequent post. Academically strong juniors and sophomores should seriously consider preparing for and taking the current SAT while it is still available (October 3, November 7, December 5, January 23). Then, if they are seeking yet higher scores, they should prepare for and take the ACT sometime in the winter or spring of 2016, in addition to their SAT Subject Tests and AP Exams.  (The College Board has posted the schedule of May 2016 AP Exams; check the schedule now and note the dates and times of your AP Exams in your calendar/planner.)

I’ll be posting additional tips and thoughts on the new PSAT and the new SAT in the coming days and weeks, so check back regularly.

Summer: Vocabulary time!

“There are two fundamental ways difficult words make us smarter: They bundle concepts together so that they can be recalled and mentally manipulated. And they help us cut fine distinctions in our thinking about the world.”

— James S. Murphy, “The Case for SAT Words,” The Atlantic (December 11, 2013)

All 400 or so students I’ve worked with over the past 11 years, even the most stellar and high-achieving ones, have needed to develop their vocabulary knowledge and skills; their ability to read critically and to write effectively is significantly undermined by lack of vocabulary knowledge and fluency.

Summer is an ideal time to work independently on your vocabulary skills; indeed, for most students, it is the only time of year when systematic, steady progress on vocabulary is possible. Don’t miss this precious opportunity to expand your vocabulary, and with it, your ability to comprehend what you read and—even more importantly—to express yourself in a nuanced, precise way.

Vocabulary is not an abstract skill to be honed for standardized tests. You need vocabulary knowledge for college, for your career, and for your life, and the earlier you start learning words, the easier it will be for you to remember them forever.

Here is some advice on building your vocabulary, honed during my work with hundreds of students in grades 4-12 over the past decade or so:


No “drive-by” reading—instead, “harvest” words as you read: Whenever you read, don’t commit “drive-by” reading. You should “harvest” unfamiliar words as often as you can. This is the single best (i.e., most interesting, most meaningful, most effective, most durable) way of expanding your vocabulary. Circle or underline unfamiliar words (i.e., words whose meaning you are not 100% sure of) and write them down on index cards or in a notebook. (You can also copy and paste definitions from an online dictionary into a Word document and keep the document alphabetized for easy reference.) You should write down the part of speech, a definition that you understand, and a sentence in which you use the word (a sentence that demonstrates the meaning of the word). You may also find it helpful to write down the page number on which you found the word in the book you’re reading; that way, you can go back to the page and see how the author used the word. (Parents: I encourage you to help your children with selecting the most useful, relevant definitions and creating the best possible sentences, since students often cannot figure out which definition(s) are the most relevant or how to use a vocabulary word correctly in a sentence of their own creation.)

Make it a habit–daily study and practice: Building your vocabulary is a long-term process that requires a small amount of daily effort. I recommend that you study several vocabulary words EVERY DAY. Make it a daily requirement and habit for yourself, like brushing your teeth (which I trust that you do twice a day, every day).  Here are some tips on how to easily and effectively incorporate vocabulary learning into your daily rhythms and routines:

  • Make your list of harvested words (perhaps in flash-card form) and/or a vocabulary book (see the list of recommended books below) part of your bedtime routine.
  • Make it your breakfast, lunch, snack, or dinner companion.
  • If you must watch TV, learn one new vocabulary word during each commercial break.
  • Take a vocabulary book or list or some flash cards with you when you’re in the car (or bus or train).
  • Make vocabulary “wallpaper”: photocopy a page or two of vocabulary words and tape the copies to the wall above your desk or bed, or next to your bathroom mirror, or even (most effectively of all) on the wall opposite your toilet!
  • Use your cell phone to take photos of the pages you are currently studying, and view those images whenever you have a moment free.
  • Create one or more customized audio files using the voice recorder on your phone: say each vocabulary word out loud (making sure to pronounce it correctly, of course!), spell it out loud (if needed or desired), read the part of speech and the definition aloud, and perhaps include a sentence or two using the word in context.

IMPORTANT: Make sure you know how to spell and pronounce every word correctly.  It only takes a moment to look up the pronunciation (and meaning) of a word, and if you don’t know how to pronounce a word correctly, you won’t feel confident using it. You also won’t recognize the word when someone around you does pronounce it correctly, and your studying efforts will be wasted.

Devote small chunks of time to vocabulary study: Vocabulary study can be painless and efficient if you just do a few words here and there when you have small chunks of free time – even if you only have 1-2 minutes free, you can learn a new word or review a few words that you recently learned.  In fact, I advise students not to spend more than 15 minutes at a time working on vocabulary; it’s better to study vocabulary several times a day for short periods of time than to sit down and try to “power through” a list of words for 30 or 60 minutes straight.

“Buy one, get three+ free” (learning related words): Be sure to take advantage of the “buy one, get three (or four or five) words free” aspect of vocabulary study. If, for example, you are learning the word “reverence” (noun), make sure to also learn “reverent” (adj), “reverently” (adv), “revere” (verb), “irreverent” (adj), “irreverently” (adv), and “irreverence” (noun). That’s a super bargain—learn one word and acquire six related words at the same time!

Bedtime learning: Review words just before bed each night so that your brain will process the words as you sleep, enabling you to learn them more deeply and retain them more permanently.

Weekly review of “old” words: Once or twice a week, devote a day not to learning new words, but to reviewing a larger volume of previously learned words to ensure that you continue to retain those “old” words.

Vocabulary “workout” — making new words part of your “repertoire”: Try to use newly learned vocabulary words every day when you speak and when you write, especially in the company of your parents or others who can coach you on how to use these words correctly in context. Use it or lose it!

Parents: I encourage you to quiz your children on vocabulary every day, or to have your children quiz each other.  Even younger children can quiz older siblings—and learn quite a bit in the process.  I also encourage you to use advanced vocabulary words in conversations with your children; follow up with questions to make sure they know what the words mean.


Recommended vocabulary resources for students in grades 7-12:

  • Direct Hits Core Vocabulary of the SAT, Volume 1 (2011 edition); Direct Hits Toughest Vocabulary of the SAT, Volume 2 (2011 edition). The Direct Hits series is excellent, and unless you are attempting to cram a large number of high-frequency SAT words into your head in a short amount of time, I recommend the Direct Hits vocabulary books as your primary vocabulary resource. They are ideal for self-study during the summer.
  • Hot Words for the SAT, 5th edition (ISBN 1438002200). Each lesson consists of a group of words with similar meanings, and most students report that this grouping enables them to learn the words more quickly than would otherwise be possible. Study one lesson at a time, and then have someone quiz you on at least two (preferably three or more) lessons at a time. All of my students who have taken the real SAT have reported that there were “lots” of Hot Words on the test.  Hot Words is the single best vocabulary resource for the current SAT (which will be administered through January 2016).
  • Rock the SAT (ISBN 0071469036). The book comes with a CD of 13 songs, whose lyrics appear in the book. Listen to the songs (load them onto your iPod); read the lyrics; carefully review the definitions, sample sentences, and usage notes; and do the exercises in the book. You’ll remember these words better (and know how to pronounce them too!) if you listen to the songs. Rock the SAT includes many of the words in Hot Words, set to music, but its coverage is spottier in that some words are too easy for high-school students and are not as frequently tested on the SAT. However, some students are more motivated to study vocabulary in Rock the SAT than in other books because of the Rock the SAT
  • The Insider’s Essential Guide to SAT Vocabulary (ISBN 0985291214) and The Insider’s Essential Guide to SAT Critical Reading and Vocabulary (ISBN 0985291228). The former book covers 500 “essential” SAT words. Part I of the latter book covers “the essential 600 words” that appear most frequently on the current SAT (which will be given for the last time in January 2016), and Part II trains you to handle SAT sentence completion questions as effectively as possible. Most of these “essential SAT words” are in fact essential for all college-bound students; you won’t understand much of what you read in college (and in advanced high-school courses) if you don’t know what these words mean. So, even if you plan to take the ACT or the redesigned SAT, you should make sure you are familiar with and comfortable using these words before you show up for your freshman year of college.

Recommended resources for students in grades 5-10:

Have you found an iOS or Android vocabulary app that you enjoy using and strongly endorse? If so, please comment below. I am a big fan of using the books listed above as a primary means of vocabulary study, but I think it’s fine to supplement your work in these books with a well-designed app that covers important, high-frequency words.

I will enhance this post from time to time with additional vocabulary study suggestions and advice. I welcome your ideas and feedback!

Juniors: Time to start planning your college application work this summer!

It’s the start of May, the frenzied end of the school year for high-school juniors, who are dealing with Advanced Placement (AP) exams, SAT Subject Tests, the SAT, and the ACT, in addition to final papers, projects, and exams in their school courses. Juniors, this is the toughest month of the toughest year of your academic life so far, and I wish you the best of luck with all of the challenges that loom ahead in the next several weeks.

(Regarding SAT Subject Tests: check here to see whether the Common Application colleges you are interested in require SAT Subject Tests in addition to the SAT or ACT.  Check the websites of non-Common App schools to see whether those schools require SAT Subject Tests.)

As tempting as it may be to put everything else on hold until the school year ends, you should at least start thinking about how (not whether) you will incorporate intensive work on your college applications into your summer plans. If you will be participating in any “camps” (e.g., debate camp or summer academic programs) or traveling for extended periods of time this summer, you should dedicate the remaining weeks of the summer, before and after your travel or structured programs, to college application work. You should try to finish most of your college applications, including most essays, BEFORE the start of your senior year. As miserable as the spring semester of junior year may be, the fall semester of senior year is worse – much worse if you still have a great deal of work to do on the college-application front after school starts.

Here is my suggested timeline for your summer college-application work:

Early June through late July:

After school ends, take a few days or maybe a week to decompress and relax. Then start working on the following:

  • Refine your list of colleges, making sure that you have enough schools in the “core/target/match” group and in the “likely” group once you’ve arrived at the optimal number of schools (8-10, for most students). Remember that your “reach” schools might as well be called “unlikely” schools, and that you should definitely have more schools in the “core” category than in the “reach” category. Curating the “core” group of colleges (i.e., the colleges where you, with your particular GPA/test score/extracurricular profile, have about a 50-50 chance of getting in) as thoughtfully as possible is the single most important component of the work that you do on your college list. Research colleges online and on Naviance and feel free to visit campuses, but keep in mind that campus visits are best done during the school year. You will get a radically different impression of a college if you visit during summer vacation; you won’t see the regular students or get a feel for what it’s really like on campus during the school year.
  • Start working on the essays that you already know you’ll need to write.  Brainstorm topics for your Common Application essay (here are the 2015-16 prompts) and for the essays required by non-Common App schools (e.g., University of Illinois), if those essay prompts are available.  Brainstorm content for each of the topics you come up with.  Start working on rough drafts.  Do not delete or erase anything as you brainstorm.  I often find that the drafts a student thinks are his/her worst are actually his/her most compelling!
  • Work on your list of extracurricular activities by creating a landscape-format Microsoft Word table in the same format as the Common Application activities list and drafting a list that is initially as inclusive as possible. You can then save a new version of the document when you start consolidating entries, winnowing the list, and listing your activities in descending order of importance. It’s critical that you include the best possible description of each activity and your position(s), award(s), and responsibilities in the rightmost column. Remember that the admissions officers reading your list of activities may not be familiar with the selectivity, prestige, or implications of certain accomplishments.  It’s your job to make sure that admissions officers understand your accomplishments as accurately as possible.

Late July through mid-August:

  • Kick into high gear on your essays and on other components of your applications. The new application season on the Common Application website begins on August 1. (Don’t enter data into the Common App before then because it will all disappear as of August 1!) By late July or early August, most Common App colleges will have released their supplemental essay topics, and most non-Common App colleges will have made their essay topics and application forms available. Your goal should be to complete most essays and all other application components BEFORE school starts in late August or early September. Over the past 11 years, I’ve seen that most students end up needing to write 8-15 short and long essays, some of which are variants of each other (e.g., a few different versions of the “academic interest” essay on why you’ve selected the major that you’ve selected, and what your professional goals are). Some students end up having to write as many as 20 essays.  The Common App essay word limit is 650 words, and your other essays will typically range from 150 to 600 words, with most essays containing between 250 and 500 words.
  • Do not underestimate how difficult it will be to write these essays, and how long it will take. Be prepared to experience the worst case of writer’s block you’ve ever had! I’ve seen stellar writers who were essentially paralyzed by the prospect of having to write college application essays. In general, to accurately estimate how long it’ll take you to work on your essays and other components of your applications, make the most conservative (i.e., biggest) estimate possible, and then triple that number. Or multiply it by five.
  • Resume test prep.  If you need to retake the SAT or ACT in the fall, or if you need to take SAT Subject Tests, use July and August to do all necessary studying. You won’t have time to do anything more than a cursory review of the material once school starts.
  • Do some interview prep, if there are colleges on your list that require or recommend interviews as part of the application process.

I sometimes offer one or more College Application Workshops to get a group of students started on their college apps over the summer. If you are interested, please contact me as soon as possible, since space is limited.

To receive notice of future blog posts with additional advice on test prep and college admissions, click “follow blog via e-mail” to the right of this blog post.

Analyzing your PSAT scores

Students who took the PSAT in October 2014 will soon receive their scores. Within the next week or two, high schools will be distributing hard-copy score reports and original test booklets to the juniors (and, in some cases, sophomores) who took the test nearly two months ago.

The detailed score report and the test booklet (the very same test booklet that you used during the test, with your name written on the front cover) will offer valuable insights into your current strengths and development needs, and the specific steps you need to take to perform better on the SAT and ACT than you did on the PSAT. If your school does not hand back your test booklet, speak to your counselor. Demand that the school return the test booklet to you — your counselors are supposed to do so.

Don’t squander this important opportunity! I suggest that you do the following when you receive your scores:

1. Look at the scaled scores printed at the score report. Don’t pay much attention to the percentiles. The numbers that matter are the scaled scores; each section (critical reading, math, and writing) is scored on a 20-80 scale (like the SAT scoring scale, but with the last zero lopped off). To get an idea of what your SAT score on a given section might look like, add a zero to your scaled PSAT score on that section. So, for instance, if you scored 69 on Math, you would probably score around 690 (or somewhere in the upper 600s) on the SAT Math section if you took the SAT today.

2. Put away the score report (for now) and the test booklet. Have a sibling or parent use a colored pen to circle in your test booklet the NUMBERS of the questions you omitted or answered incorrectly on each of the five sections of the test (the two critical reading sections, the two math sections, and the writing section). Make sure your sibling or parent does not indicate anywhere what the right answer to each such question is. This is critically important.

3. Set aside an hour or so to do your “second shots” on the PSAT. Work through the questions that your sibling or parent just circled. Use a colored pen to underline key terms in each question (for CR and M), underline evidence in the passage(s) (for CR), do scratchwork (for M), slash the letters of answer choices that you are ruling out (for CR and W, and for some M questions), and circle your new answer choice.  It’s important to use colored pen so that you can distinguish your second-shot work from the work you did in pencil during the test in October.  In general, doing “second shots” is an essential component of any practice-test work (whether for the SAT, ACT, PLAN, ACT Aspire, SSAT, ISEE, or even regular in-class tests in school) and an essential component of PSAT score review.  A student who gets most or all of his “second shots” right is in a stronger position than a student with the same scaled score who gets most or all of his “second shots” wrong.  Same scores, different levels of understanding and knowledge, and different paths forward to attain higher scores.

4.  After you finish your “second shots,” compare your new answers to the correct answers listed on your detailed score report.  Determine which of your “second shots” are correct.  If your second-shot answer is wrong, you have the option of putting away the score report and returning to the test booklet to attempt a “third shot,” if your mind isn’t tainted by the memory of what the right answer is.  (You could have a sibling or parent score your “second shots” so that you preserve the option of doing “third shots.”)

5.  Analyze each of your errors and omissions.  Which ones are due to carelessness (e.g., a bubbling error or a silly mistake on a math question), and which ones were unavoidable because you simply did not understand the material?  Did a lack of tenacity or a logical fallacy lead you to get something wrong that you could have gotten right?  What patterns or tendencies do you notice?  Perhaps you tend to get easy questions wrong (are you rushing through them without doing enough scratchwork or without looking back at the passage for evidence?) and hard questions right (the difficulty makes you sit up straight and work carefully and conscientiously through the question).  Perhaps you ace almost all the passage-based CR questions, but you miss quite a few sentence-completion questions because your vocabulary skills are weak.  Perhaps you are surprised to discover that you performed much better on grid-in math questions than on multiple-choice math questions — if so, it’s probably because you did more scratchwork and original thinking on the grid-ins, since there were no answer choices to consider and lean on.

6.  Figure out what your score on each section would have been if you had not made any careless errors or any other errors that prevented you from demonstrating your true abilities and the full extent of your skills on the test.  Let that best-case scenario sink in; feel the (sometimes devastating) impact of your careless errors.  Then ask yourself what you’re going to do about it.

7.  Use the insights you’ve gained to make a comprehensive list of the things you need to do differently on each section (CR, M, W) in the future.  Be as specific and concrete as possible.  Don’t just say, “Read more carefully.”  What does that mean?  Do you need to slow down when reading the passages, when reading the questions, when reading the answer choices — or all three?  Do you need to underline more — in passages, questions, or answer choices (when you’ve gotten down to the last two answer choices and you’re ready to choose one)?  Do you need to underline more thoughtfully and judiciously?  Mouth the words as you read them?  Keep your pencil hovering above whatever you are reading at any given moment during the test?  Likewise, don’t just tell yourself, “I need to do more scratchwork on math questions.”  Do you need to write down every step, making sure to “think on paper,” as I tell my students to do?  Do you need to mark up the graphs, diagrams, and charts more?  Do you need to draw graphs or diagrams when they are not provided, making sure to draw graphs and diagrams that are big enough to be easily labeled and contemplated?  Do you need to “map out” or somehow lay out the information presented in the question before jumping into the problem-solving process?  Do you need to write coherent, sequential lines of scratchwork instead of flinging seemingly random numbers and expressions, unconnected by equal signs or arrows, all over the space provided, usually in a diagonal orientation?  (I call this rather common phenomenon “helter-skelter scratchwork.”  It’s the math equivalent of writing seemingly random words all over a page instead of writing sentences and paragraphs, or at least bullet points, and it often leads to wrong answers.)

One good way to ensure that the items in your “do differently” list are as specific as possible is to write each “do differently” in the test booklet itself, next to each question you answered incorrectly or omitted.  You can note, for instance, that you got #5 wrong because you neglected to notice that the question asked you to solve for “y+2” instead of “y” — and, in turn, the reason you didn’t notice the “y+2” was that you didn’t underline or circle it.  After you write these unique “do differently” items, customized for each question, you can compile a list of things to do differently, organized by section (CR, M, W).

You should also make a list of topics or skills that you need to review substantively — e.g., functions, comma splices, difficult vocabulary.  I suggest that you “harvest” all unfamiliar vocabulary words anywhere in the test; don’t just look at the words in the answers to the sentence completions.

As a rule of thumb, you should plan to spend about as much time reviewing a test as you spent taking the test.  Most of the value associated with taking a test arises from the post-test process of extracting as many insights into your strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and habits as you can, and translating those insights into concrete next steps.  Students often seek my help in analyzing their errors and ask for my recommendations regarding different approaches or techniques and my “prescriptions” for self-study work and an overall game plan for the period of time before the next test.


What you learn from doing all of the above, and from test prep, properly approached, will enable you to perform better not only on future standardized tests, but also in school (both tests and homework) and in other areas of your life.  If you start to cultivate greater attention to detail, for instance, you will probably find that you are paying closer attention to the little things in areas of your life other than test prep and test-taking.  If you strengthen your grammar skills, you will become a better writer and editor.  Working on math problem-solving skills can make you a more flexible and creative thinker, and so on.  Test prep is simply a great excuse (or excellent motivation) for learning the skills and habits that will help you perform at your best in general, especially in high-pressure, challenging situations.

2014-15 SAT & SAT Subject Test dates announced

The College Board has announced test dates for the upcoming school year (PSAT and AP, as well as SAT and SAT Subject Tests). See http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/ap/College-Board-Examination-and-Test-Dates-2014-15-final.pdf.  (There appears to be a typo in the AP exam dates — the first week of AP exams will be May 4 through 8, not May 4 through 5.)

Rising seniors who know that they need to retake the SAT or take/retake one or more SAT Subject Tests should register as early as possible for the October 11 test date in order to maximize their chances of securing a spot at their preferred test center.  Don’t wait until the registration deadline to register.  The same is true of the November 8 and December 6 test dates — these are all fairly popular test dates.

 

Math questions test critical reading skills – not just math skills

Math isn’t just about math.

When a student answers a math question incorrectly, or when a student omits a math question because the student doesn’t think he or she knows how to tackle it, the obstacle is more likely to be a reading issue than a math issue.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen all kinds of students, elementary-school students and high-school students, math whizzes and kids with math phobias, make mistakes on math questions exclusively or primarily because of reading errors.

“Every math question is actually a critical-reading question until you reach the question mark at the end of the question,” I tell my students.  Accordingly, I advise students to concentrate on processing and understanding each piece of information that is being conveyed in the wording of the question.  The best way to truly engage with any text is to keep your pencil hovering above the text as you read, ready to pounce on and underline or circle important pieces of information. So you should always underline as you read a math question; there is something worth underlining in every question.

When revisiting a question that they didn’t get the first time around, students tend to give the question itself only a cursory glance and then (convinced that they already know everything there is to know about what the question is saying or asking) start busying themselves with another round of scratchwork.  Or they just throw up their hands without re-reading the question and insist that they don’t even know where to start.

I insist that a student start the second look by carefully re-reading the question and then underlining key terms, paying extra attention to exactly what the question is asking the student to calculate or solve for. (This, of course, is what the student should have done when he or she encountered the question the first time.)

I can’t tell you how many mini-epiphanies (and facepalms) have occurred as students take a second look at a question that they thought they couldn’t do, or that they made a mistake on.

“Oooohhh, it says ‘consecutive ODD integers’!”

“Oh, it asks for 2x, not x. My bad.”

“24 is the PERIMETER, not the area. Wow.  I can’t believe I missed that.”

“Oooohhh, it’s asking how much GEORGE earned, not how much Lisa earned!”

Raise your hand if you’ve had a facepalm moment like these.

I’m raising my hand — I’ve done this before.  After all, we are all human and fallible; mistakes happen, especially careless mistakes.  But there are procedures we can follow — notably underlining — to minimize the chances that such mistakes will happen on a test, mistakes that will make a student appear less capable in math than he or she truly is.

Good processes usually lead to good outcomes. (This is a theme that will run through many of my posts.)

In general, students are capable of nailing quite a few more math questions than they think they can, and the majority of those questions aren’t particularly difficult; they just require careful, focused reading and processing of the information presented (both text and diagrams).

That isn’t too much to ask of a student, is it?

It turns out, however, that habit change – replacing the habit of superficially reading questions (and other texts), eyeballs rolling nonchalantly across each line of text, with a habit of reading those questions more deeply and attentively – is slow and tough going for most students, especially older students (those in high school). Older students have spent more days, weeks, months, and years reinforcing long-held habits. With each passing day, a student who approaches math questions and other texts casually and superficially will find it more and more difficult to break that habit, no matter how earnestly he wants to reform his ways.

In a subsequent post, I will discuss habit change and why it’s important to develop the right habits as early as possible, ideally starting as early as 4th or 5th grade.

“Are you psychic? Or do you have a hidden camera here?”

After a student completes a practice test, I always try to guess how he/she did – how many questions he/she answered correctly, which questions he/she answered incorrectly, and which wrong answers he/she selected. I do this because I want to test my understanding of the student’s progress, of his/her current performance level. And I do this whether the student is meeting with me in person or via Skype (or phone).

Lately I’ve been working with more and more students via Skype, most of whom I have never met in person. Here’s a conversation I had via Skype with an 8th grader last fall after he completed the reading section of a practice SSAT on his own at home:

SSJ: “Let me guess…did you get 35 right out of 40?”

Student (looking slightly surprised): “Um.…yes.”

SSJ: “Which question numbers did you get wrong in this section?”

Student: “3, 11, 18, 29, and 32.”

SSJ: “OK. Let’s start by taking a look at number 32. Hmm.…did you originally select answer choice (D)?”

Student: “Whoa. How did you know?”

SSJ: “Well, I know that when you’re not sure which answer is correct on a passage-based reading question, you tend to gravitate toward the answer choice that sounds most formal and most complex. (D) fit that description. Is that the reason you chose (D)?”

Student: “You got me.”

After discussing why the correct answer was correct and why the answer the student selected was wrong, we tackled the next question.

SSJ: “OK. Let’s move on to number 29. For that one, did you pick”—pausing to scan the answer choices—“answer choice (B)?”

Student (regarding me quizzically, one eyebrow raised): “Yeeeesss….”

SSJ: “Did you pick (B) because you noticed that the word “stimuli” appeared in lines 6-10, which the question referred to, as well as in answer choice (B)?”

Student: [nods his head, slowly and a bit ruefully]

SSJ: “Remember, you shouldn’t play ‘bingo’ when you’re answering reading comprehension questions.”

We reviewed a couple more questions in this way. Then:

Student (looking increasingly perplexed): “Are you psychic or something? Or”—looking around his room, focusing on the ceiling above him—“do you have a hidden camera installed here?”

SSJ: “No, I just know you well, and I understand how your mind works.”

Student: “You know me WAY too well.”

SSJ: “That’s a good thing, believe me.”

And so it goes. I can usually figure out which wrong answer choice a particular student selected for each question that he/she answered incorrectly. After I’ve had two or three Skype (or in-person) sessions with a student, I have a good sense of how that student’s mind works and what his or her strengths and development needs are in reading, vocabulary, math, grammar, and writing. For example, I know which answer choices that student finds most tempting on reading comprehension questions and why. I also understand what kinds of careless errors the student typically makes on math questions, and how the student tends to compensate on or react to math questions involving concepts he or she knows less well.

(A note on word choice: Ever the optimist, I prefer the McKinsey performance-evaluation term “development need” to the word “weakness,” which can suggest to a student that he or she has an innate, permanent deficit of some sort. Until proven otherwise, I believe that every person is capable of strengthening his/her skills in any area, and it is critically important to convey that belief to students who are still in the process of figuring out the breadth and depth of their abilities.)

With each student I work with, whether individually or in my small-group classes, I develop ever-greater insights into how that student operates, including but not limited to the following:

  • how the student tends to approach a given type of question on a given section of a test;
  • how perceptive the student is, and how thorough and attentive to detail;
  • how readily the student absorbs feedback and internalizes guidance;
  • what the student thinks of his/her own abilities in a given area and how that level of confidence (or lack thereof) affects his/her test performance;
  • how the student approaches the test as a whole; and
  • how well the student manages time and deals with stress.

So, I don’t possess powers of extrasensory perception, and I don’t spy on my students with hidden cameras or other nifty gadgets. But I do make it my business to understand, as deeply as possible, how and why my kids do what they do, so that I can in turn help them notice the specific habits, actions, and tendencies that prevent them from demonstrating their full potential on tests—or in any other situation, whether in school or out of school, in which they are called upon to show what they can really do. (This is a point I will reiterate frequently in this blog: that when students learn how to show more of their true abilities on tests, they also develop skills and habits that will empower them to perform better in the other areas of their lives. As my mother used to say, “Learning one thing helps you learn another thing.”  The attitudes, habits, and skill gaps that depress a student’s test scores also tend to hold him/her back in other areas.)

If we become more aware of the decisions we make and the lines of reasoning that we follow, and more cognizant of what works well and what we need to do differently, we will perform better. We will be able to recognize and resist unhelpful tendencies, to develop positive new habits that replace destructive old habits, and to consciously adhere to good processes and sound ways of thinking.

The best job I’ve ever had

For the past 10 years, I’ve been working with students both individually and in small groups, challenging them to realize what they are capable of and coaching them to fulfill their potential – as perceptive/analytical readers, critical thinkers, creative problem-solvers, and clear communicators.

In a sense, I still do the type of work that I did as a McKinsey consultant and as a lawyer: I analyze and solve complex problems on both the macro and micro levels, while advising and supporting clients. However, educational coaching – from test prep to writing to admissions – is by far the most rewarding, meaningful work I’ve ever done, and I feel blessed to work with so many wonderful kids (whom I can’t help referring to as “my kids”), from 4th graders through high-school seniors and beyond. The specific challenges and skills may vary from student to student, but the heart of the enterprise is always the same—encouraging students to believe in themselves; coaching them to develop the right mindsets, habits, and skills; and helping them to discover the pleasure of hard work, the fulfillment that comes when you know you have given your absolute best effort.

In this blog, I will share insights I’ve gained over the past decade of teaching and coaching students, as well as lessons learned from my own educational and professional experiences. Whether you are a student, parent, or educator, I welcome you to this blog and invite you to share your comments, observations, and questions.

Visit my website at sarasujones.com.

Follow me (@sarasujones) on Twitter.