My May SAT scores were bad – Help!

May SAT test results are in. Unfortunately, maybe you – like plenty of other students – woke up Thursday morning to disappointing news. Despite studying hard and doing better and better on your practice tests, you scored low on the real one. How could that happen?

The reality is that this test is a very long, stressful challenge and the experience of the real one is different from one taken at home, even under timed conditions. However, if you’ve made progress in bringing your scores up in home practice, you CAN translate that into real test improvement, too.

When you get the full 10-page SAT score report from the College Board, go over it in depth to analyze your weak areas. If you haven’t already ordered Question and Answer Service from the College Board for the May exam, do so right now. It costs $18 and takes 6-8 weeks to arrive, but it will provide you with a copy of the May exam, the answers, and your specific errors. It’s a tremendous study tool to help you work on optimizing your time, boning up on weaker math skills, honing reading comprehension, etc.

Now, summertime is here and you are free from the stresses and time constraints of other courses and tests and so you can really push your SAT skills. You can take the test again in August or October – even November (which is probably not too late for Early Decision, but call the admissions offices of any schools you are considering for ED to confirm.) For Regular Decision, even December is an option. Check out all the dates here – and remember to coordinate them with any SAT Subject Tests you need to schedule.

Or how about trying the ACT? About 10% of students do better on one test than the other. Maybe the ACT is the one for you. You can take the ACT in September and be done, too. Here’s the ACT calendar.

Having the luxury of multiple additional test dates to retake the SAT or switch to the ACT is just the start, though. If you want to raise your scores, retaking the test alone is not enough.

Plan on a serious, regular regimen of SAT or ACT study this summer, putting in 1-2 hrs of study time on a daily or near daily basis. If you can’t study all summer, make that 2-4 hours a day for at least three weeks, preferably a month. Treat test prep as a full-time course. (It certainly is more important to your admissions than any actual full year course you took in high school!) Make sure to take a full practice test once a week and review your results, analyzing your errors, redoing mistakes or questions you guessed on. The more comfortable you get with the timing and the stamina needed for a full, timed test taken in one sitting, the better you’re likely to do on the real one.

Getting in to competitive middle schools and high schools in NYC – top resources

Karen Berlin Ishii, Dana Haddad, Maurice Frumkin
“Getting In! Solving the NYC Middle School and High School Admissions Puzzle,” a panel presentation from The Brown Club in NY, 2015 and 2017 (2015 panel pictured)

Ah, springtime in New York City … crocuses and tulips tentatively pushing fresh green leaves out of the warming earth and everyone walking with a bounce to their step…

Springtime is also the season of private and public school admissions decisions and the start of a new test prep season for those students planning to apply to competitive middle schools and high schools in the fall – thus an ideal time for a panel presentation on the subject. Recently, I produced and participated in a terrific panel for The Brown University Club in New York, “Getting In! Solving the NYC Secondary School Admissions Puzzle,” with the goal of enabling parents and their children to make smarter choices – from test prep to applications to school choice. The all-star panel included former admissions directors of elite private schools in the city, top experts in school admissions counselling for both public and private schools, an expert from the beloved and venerable Parents League, and me, the test prep expert (for ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, COOP, TACHS, HSPT, New York State ELA and Math tests, and more).

In coming columns, I’ll share insights from the presentation and our individual experts. One perennial question from parents is how to get started in preparing their children for their exams: What are the best books, apps and links to find more information about all of the tests? I’ve created an up-to-date list with a concise summary of all the top resources that I use and recommend to students. Read it below or download the .pdf version here. And as always, feel free to get in touch with any questions about admissions testing.

Study tips and resources list for competitive middle and high school admissions

Best study materials for SHSAT
– Official DOE practice tests and information about the changes in 2017:
Note: Some of these test booklets, though labelled for different years, contain the same practice tests:
2008-2009 = 2009-2010 = 2010-2011
2011-2012 =  2012-2013
2013-2014 =  2014-2015  = 2015-2016
2016-2017 is mostly recyced material with only 2 new reading passages and 1 new math question out of 190 questions.

Argo Brothers SHSAT
– Violetta Dubinana’s “Practice Math Tests for New York City SHSAT” Vol. 1 and 2
Barron’s SHSAT
Cracking the New York City SHSAT (3rd Edition) from The Princeton Review (expected date of publication May 2018)

SHSAT strategy observations

Best study materials for ISEE
What to Expect on the ISEE – guide to the ISEE with 1 full practice test + a few pages of sample questions for each section of exam. Free to download, or purchase as a booklet $20 here

The Princeton Review Cracking the ISEE and SSAT – for math basics, excellent Verbal chapter for both ISEE and SSAT
– Ivy Global ISEE Guides: ISEE English, ISEE Math, ISEE ML Tests, ISEE UL Tests
Barron’s SSAT/ISEE – good for math chapter

Best study materials for SSAT
General information about the SSAT
Official SSAT Test Guide (with 2 practice tests + sample questions) $35
Official SSAT online practice test and drills
The Princeton Review Cracking the ISEE and SSAT – for math basics, excellent Verbal chapter for both ISEE and SSAT
– Ivy Global SSAT Guides: SSAT English, SSAT Math, SSAT Practice Tests
Barron’s SSAT/ISEE – good for math chapter

Other admissions-test-score dependent public middle and high schools in NYC
Hunter College High School  Admissions info
The Anderson School 6th Grade Admissions info
NEST+M Middle School Admissions info
LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts Auditions information

Best study materials for COOP, HSPT, TACHS (Catholic school entrance exams)
Barron’s COOP/HSPT/TACHS – has lessons and 2 practice tests/exam type
Peterson’s Master the Catholic High School Entrance Exams
RedwoodPrep’s HSPT Preparation Manual – has 3 practice exams, lots of drills, all HSPT

Best study materials for NYS Common Core ELA and Math tests
– Official NYS released questions and scored answers: start here
– Practice tests published by the same test makers, available on Amazon from 3rd party sellers or create an account and order directly from Curriculum Associates

engageny.org
This is the official site for published materials from previous tests. It is a little confusing to navigate, as much of the site is geared to educators. But here are some useful links within it:

Released 2016 grades 3-8 ELA and Mathematics State Test Questions
Released 2015 grades 3-8 ELA and Mathematics State Test Questions
Annotated grades 3-8 ELA and Mathematics State Test questions 2013-2014

test prep books and study materials:
Common Core Math Workbook: Grade 4: Multiple Choice, Daily Math Practice by Argo Brothers

How to build vocabulary and reading comprehension skills:

Why work on vocabulary? Vocabulary is not specifically tested on the SHSAT or NYS ELA tests as it is on ISEE and SSAT, but knowledge informs Reading Comprehension and ELA questions. Students cannot cram, so make this a long-term project:

Read challenging and diverse materials, starting with The New York Times daily (front page and a variety of articles every day, 10 minutes daily) for older students, easier newspapers for younger ones. Look up a few words that are new each time and start a Quizlet.com folder to review and practice them.

– Put your own, simplified definitions into your Quizlet.com cards and include a sentence that uses the word in a way that gives you an indication of the meaning. Do not bother with writing parts of speech or tertiary, archaic definitions. Use oxforddictionaries.com for your dictionary; many others are funky.
– Supplement with reading of other online publications (online because its most convenient and easier to look up new vocabulary): Vanity Fair, New Yorker Magazine, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Wired, The Wall Street Journal for older students. For less advanced readers, try USA Today. For younger students, Time for Kids, Ranger Rick and popular newspapers such as Metro are good places to start.

– Download the vocabulary app Visual Vocab and master the 50 word starter set. Then buy the next set and work on those words in free time in between classes, at the bus stop, etc. Aim to master 2 words/day every day!

Links to aids for building vocabulary and critical reading skills for all these tests:

Visual Vocab app – terrific tool! Use it on the go, in-between times, really helps solidify vocabulary learning with audiovisual components, quizzes, lists. First 50 word app is free. Additional extension apps for ISEE, SSAT, SAT-Pro, SAT-Epic ($5 each – totally worth it!)

Quizlet.com – free app that every student MUST have on his or her cellphone and computer. Set up own folders and make flashcards or use sets from class or others.

Oxford Dictionaries – the best online dictionary, imo, with solid, clear and concise definitions and useful examples of the words in a phrase or sentence. No weird, sketchy definitions like on dictionary.com. Pronunciation feature is a plus, too.

Sadlier Vocabulary Workshop series – terrific classic vocabulary workbook series for all grades, incorporating fiction, history, assorted drills and extras that make vocabulary learning engaging.

Great challenging periodicals for middle school students and above:

New York Times (20 articles free/month with registration, otherwise $15/month to subscribe)
The New York Times for students (The Learning Network)
Smithsonian Magazine (free)
National Geographic Magazine (one free article /month or $12/year to subscribe)
Time Magazine
Popular Mechanics

The new SHSAT: What’s changing and how to prepare NOW

Quick!

• What test is more competitive and arguably harder for the grade level taking it than the SAT or ACT is for its cohort?
• And what test shuts out over 80% of its 27,000 test takers, dooming them to one of three unattractrive choices: accept a mediocre public school, pay over $40,000 per year for private school – or move out of town?

You know it’s the SHSAT, New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, taken in October of eighth grade for entrance to high school the following fall. This test, taken only once, is the single detemining factor in whether students are offered admissions to one of the top eight public high schools in New York City – all of which are among the most elite in the entire country, famous prep schools included.

Given that the stakes are enormously high for New York City families, smart students start their SHSAT prep long before the October exam. The test has recently been revamped after criticism that its content, in the Verbal section in particular, was unfair to students who lacked extra prep resources outside the classroom. This material – scrambled sentences to put in order and logical reasoning questions – was deemed outside the scope of the school curriculum.

So, as of Fall 2017, the dreaded Scrambled Paragraphs and inscrutable Logical Reasoning are gone. In their place is a new ELA section, encompassing the unchanged Reading Comprehension content plus a new language arts grab-bag of questions.

The revised SHSAT is three hours long, a half hour longer than the old exam. This additional thirty minutes reflects the increased number of questions: 114, up from 95. Those additional questions will be used for “field testing” of future exam material to ascertain its “appropriateness” for the test, according to a Department of Education (DOE) representative’s talk this week at  the PA meeting of MS 51 in Park Slope. That is politically correct speak to say that the city wants to be sure that these questions don’t shut out traditionally lower scoring student populations. Whether the questions will be chosen going forward in an effort to bend the curve their way is to be seen. The bottom line, however, is that this test must stay incredibly competitive because in order for these top schools to remain academically advanced, they have to be competitive in some way.

So how can students best prepare for the revised SHSAT? Half the test is Math, and while a new format of question has been introduced (for 5 questions, non-multiple choice grid-in answers), the content is unchanged. There are great resources from the DOE, previous tests and samples to download. Start with the 2014-2015 handbook (same as 2013-14 and 2015-16) here. It contains two full tests and explanations of every question. Math and Reading Comprehension sections are unchanged from previous form and content. Google search for additional practice tests from years 2008-2012. Violetta Dubinana’s Practice Math Tests for New York City SHSAT Vol 1 and 2 are also excellent for Math practice, as is Barron’s text.

For the new section in ELA, refer first to the meager sample offered by the DOE in its FAQ about the new test here. The department has promised a full practice test by June 2017, but for students who want to get a head start, I recommend working on ACT English practice test sections and PSAT Writing test sections. Official samples with explanations of answers can be found on the ACT and College Board websites.

The SHSAT is on my mind now because this week I was invited by the Parents’ Association of MS 51, a NYC public middle school for gifted and talented students, to participate in their SHSAT test prep fair. For my table presentation, I put together a summary of my BEST TEST TIPS of all time, focussing on key techniques for middle school students’ admissions tests: the SHSAT, plus the ISEE and SSAT for private high schools. I also adapted a demo page of my very special techniques for the Sentence Completions section of the ISEE.

Below are links to my test-taking secrets – I’m giving them to you! It’s crazy – get them now before I come to my senses! Please download either or both of these .pdf files and see if your student finds them helpful. And feel free to email me if you have questions or are interested in my tutoring.

Karen’s Best Test Tips, especially for the SHSAT, ISEE and SSAT
ISEE Verbal Section Sentence Completions Techniques

Good luck to all in their quests for terrific high school opportunities!

The Real ACT Test Prep Guide 2016-2017: Deeply flawed but indispensible

As a long-time ACT and SAT tutor, I was excited to hear that the ACT people were finally updating their “Real ACT Test Prep Guide.” For too long, they offered a single book with a measly 3 practice tests, eventually upped to 5, while the College Board had many more resources. In Fall of 2015, the ACT essay was suddenly changed and a new “Real ACT Test Prep Guide” appeared, but it actually was just a new publisher and cover with no new content! Seemed underhanded of them but it was almost surely just clumsy timing. The ACT has, until recently, not been subject to the heat that the College Board has historically felt to be responsive to the public. The ACT website was corny and lame (just a few years ago, they promoted an annual student video contest and the winners’ video showed students asking each other what to bring to the exam. Super creative!) and their services were generally a step or two behind the College Board’s for the SAT. That is starting to change now as the ACT has become a major player and is competing head to head for the same students as the College Board.

But when the first true new edition of the “Real ACT Test Prep Guide” came out in 2016, it was a disappointment. This book has been widely panned by tutors and test prep teachers: Once again, the ACT is down to only 3 full practice tests and much of the material is recycled from previous exams (that are readily available from multiple sources online)! As for the new essay format, although the essay questions given are new, there are zero scored essays for guidance and, in fact, the scoring system has changed again since the book was published.

The book is a deeply flawed, overpriced, recycled resource. However, it is the only real ACT resource with answer explanations from the company that makes the test. Also, math is the one section that is not completely recycled, and it does show evidence of harder questions and math topics that have not appeared previously, confirming the rumors that the math section is getting harder.

Btw, now that the book is published by Wiley – publisher of the “Dummies” series – purchasers can access some freebie resources from the Wiley website, using a code given under a scratch sticker in the inside back cover of the book. The extras are not terribly useful, however, and I would recommend that students seeking extra study resources check out the Applerouth textbook for the ACT (only available from their website here). For advanced Math students, Barron’s Math and Science text is useful (the math section more so than the science).

Get ready for SAT test day

Taking the SAT soon? Follow these tips to approach your test with confidence.
1.    Study, but don’t cram.
2.    Get in the zone! Focus in a quiet environment before working on your practice tests, as if at the actual test.
3.    Take a working holiday for test prep. Consider taking the day before test day off from school (with a parent at home to help) – do a practice test, review, and get into your zone: calm, focussed and positive.
4.    Have everything ready to go the day before.  You’ll need: calculator, several sharpened #2 pencils, ID, ticket, extra calculator batteries, snack, drink, layers of clothing (zipped sweatshirt, etc), wrist watch (preferably one with a bezel or silent stopwatch function that you have studied with so you can pace yourself). Put those extra batteries in a pocket; you may not be allowed to bring your backpack into the test room.
5.    Know the route. Know how to get to the test center and how long it takes, keeping traffic in mind. Got gas in the tank?
6.    Get a good night’s sleep. Set your alarm and a backup.
7.    Warm up the brain! Get up a little bit early and do some practice questions before you go.
8.    Food is brain fuel. Eat a sensible breakfast and bring a good snack and drink to the test. Are you a coffee drinker? Great; get your caffeine on. If not, however, don’t choose test day to start.
9.    Arrive early. Thirty minutes early is good so you can choose where you want to sit, away from distractors, if possible.
10.    Ignore idle chatter. Focus on yourself, instead, and your test.
11.    Congratulate yourself. You’ve done your best: you should be proud!

Testing Timers silent stopwatch aids pacing on the SAT and ACT

A boy, a test, a watch: That’s the combination that made for success on the ACT – and a deceptively simple business idea.

Students have always struggled with time management on the SAT and ACT, but amazingly – despite the vast variety of stopwatches and timers on the market – no one has made one that was silent and allowable for use on these tests. When high school student Jordan Liss took the ACT, though, he decided to change that.

“This has been my vision since I took the test three years ago,” said Jordan, a student at the University of Michigan. “It’s always been about me knowing how to do it the right way. I knew how the watch had to be designed based on my own test prep, using the training I had, using the textbooks and my test experience.” Like most students, Jordan didn’t start out using a watch to pace himself. He used his cellphone as a timer when practicing at home, but at the test site, no cellphones are allowed. Students may or may not be able to see a clock on the wall, and the proctor won’t be giving detailed timing notices.

But pacing is critical on the exam. The science section of the ACT, for example, has six-seven passages with complex experiments, graphs, tables and text. Students are expected to digest the material and complete thirty-five questions in thirty-five minutes – that’s a brutally slim five to five and a half minutes per passage, including bubbling in the answer sheet. For students caught on a difficult question in an early passage, time is up before they reach the later passages.

Jordan’s watch, Testing Timers, is a terrific tool for SAT and ACT prep and invaluable on the exam itself. With a dedicated model for the SAT and a separate one for the ACT, the watch allows students to choose the test section by name and length, start timing, pause if desired, and go back to regular watch at any time. One of the cooler features of the watch is a digital running stitch border around the digital time that indicates time remaining. For some sections of the test, it is divided by passage number, which is extremely helpful on the ACT, in particular, where speed is a major factor in the test’s difficulty. Jordan says he came up with the unique feature as he was at gym, working out. Describing the epiphany, he says, “I was on the elliptical, wondering how far I was on my workout, when I suddenly realized that’s exactly what I needed for my watch! That was the last thing I put in the watch when structuring the conceptual design.”

One point that Jordan emphasizes is that students should do their timed drills and practice tests using the watch; don’t save it for test day. Before bringing the product to market, he shared it with high school students studying for the ACT and “wasn’t too surprised to hear students talk about raising their scores.” He advises students, “If you practice with this watch and you raise your score, I’m not surprised. Don’t sit in the kitchen eating your dinner, watching TV, using your iPhone to time yourself. Practice like it is the real test; keep pace.”

The Testing Timer watch is a unique and very helpful tool for test preparation and at $40 ($48 for extra time accomodations model) it is reasonably priced. It’s simple to use and the manual is even on the website, always convenient for the wired generation. Check it out and see if it helps your pacing on the test.

One caution: Since the new SAT was introduced in mid-2016, the list of  items prohibited at the test center has gotten longer. It is possible that this watch may be prohibited by a proctor. The ACT is a little less stringent, but in any case, be prepared to put it away if challenged.  It can be used as a simple digital watch when not in timer mode and I have not yet heard any stories of students being prohibited from taking the watch into the test. Still, even if you don’t use it on test day, it remains an excellent training tool for  practice tests and internalizing your pacing strategies for either SAT or ACT.

What you should be reading to prepare for the new SAT

Sure, you are slogging through challenging novels in English class, muddling along detail-strewn sagas in history and still trying to keep up with the Kardashians (stop that, by the way). It’s all good, but it’s not quite enough. If you are a sophomore or junior in 2017 or later, you don’t know what it was like before, but trust me: the SAT is a lot different in mood, emphasis and difficulty than it was just a year ago. Yet, you are still studying the same curriculum at school as students who took the old test. You are going to have to do something different if you want to distinguish yourself on this new test.

The new SAT is obsessed with historical documents (not these historical documents, but if you haven’t seen Galaxy Quest, do watch this extremely charming movie that won’t help you on the SAT but will give you a little joy). The new SAT also has a thing for what I call archaic parlor dramas: works by Oscar Wilde and other snarky Victorians, Jane Austen, and the writings of other authors –just crying out for a Merchant-Ivory production. Then there’s a smattering of sociology, anthropology and hard-core science writing.

I find that most students are surprisingly adept at the science passage; I guess that’s one thing the new SAT has got right. The current high school curriculum, now geared more towards STEM and designed to fulfill Common Core standards, does prepare students better for challenging science writing. But parlor dramas and 18th-19th century political treatises? Not so much.

Here is a starter list of some works that my recent students have found helpful:

• Franz Kafka’s Metamophosis is excerpted in one of the official SAT practice tests. If you’ve never encountered Surrealism, you’ll be flummoxed, but you can read the story in full here.

• Another writer whom I recommend is Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who died in 2015. You can find his articles for the New York Times and some excerpts from his works here. His books are here. Dr. Sacks is a favorite of both the SAT and ACT; both tests’ makers have excerpted his works more than once because he wrote beautifully with tremendous humanity – and sophisticated vocabulary and style. You can learn from him to apply to your essay, too…

• Check out some Oscar Wilde’s stories and/or plays: The Importance of Being Earnest (silly, funny, very facetious), The Picture of Dorian Gray (thrilling story).

• If you like this sort of thing, check out Lost in Austen, the British mini-series about a modern Londoner who magically becomes enmeshed in her favorite romantic tale. Tremendous fun and it will build your vocabulary and understanding of rich English speech. Did you know that “want” also means “lacks”? If not, it seems that your vocabulary wants sufficient depth.

Speaking of vocabulary, I’ll address that in a post soon. Suffice to say, vocabulary is NOT over; it’s just harder to study for in the new SAT.