No, ACT and SAT grammar is not dead

With the redesign of the SAT in 2015, many students rejoiced at the prospect of a revised Writing test: no more grammar, they thought! Actually, their celebration was premature. There still is plenty of grammar in the SAT Writing test – up to one-half of all the questions test grammar rules directly. The remaining half test usage, idioms, vocabulary in context, organization and understanding of the text. Similarly, the ACT English section – which has not changed in over 20 years – tests plenty of grammar, usage and punctuation. So strong grammar skills are still required.

The good news is that the grammar, usage, punctuation skills and knowledge tested on both these exams is quite circumscribed and thus predictable. Students who master this material can devote more of their time and focus to the content and context questions, which often require careful analysis – analysis that those caught up in grammar dithering don’t have time for.

For a fun introduction to some common grammar rules tested on both these exams, check out my Grammar Bloopers. I’ve collected over 30 grammar errors from popular publications (whose editors should know better!) and assorted advertisements (that get away with it because they can). Click through to the end or jump to Blooper answers and explanations at any point. 

Master these, and you’ll smile knowingly when you encounter one of your new grammar facts on the test. But be forewarned: you are likely to become of one of those who sees the grammar errors where others do not. Have you found some of your own? Great! Email the links to me and I’ll add them to the collection!

Reminders for the night before the ACT

OK, students is it – ACT this weekend. I know you may be nervous, but don’t be: If you are a junior, this is early in the game and you can consider this test a practice test. Seniors, you’ve probably got some “keeper” scores for your composite and Saturday’s test gives you a chance to raise one or more of them. For everyone, it’s just win-win.

Juniors (and seniors who think you might take the test one more time): you should bring a notepad and as soon as the test is over, instead of rushing out of the hall, stop and jot down whatever you remember RIGHT AWAY. Once you leave the room or the building, it will be much harder to recall. Note any math topics that were new or hard, science questions that were surprising, reading passages that were difficult due to topic or style and whatever else you can think of.

* Did you guess on a lot of questions in the Math? What kinds of math questions gave you trouble?
* Did you run out of time on the Reading or Science – and if so, on which passage?
* Can you recall any vocabulary words that you were unsure of?

On the way home, continue to try to recollect what you missed and JOT THEM DOWN. This will be a real help in guiding your study for the next test, should you choose to retake it.

Your checklist to get ready for exam day:
– Review your techniques and the test format overall, but stop studying for this test by Friday afternoon or early evening, at the latest. No cramming!
– Collect all your test day essentials by late afternoon on Friday:
– a half dozen sharpened #2 pencils
– fat eraser to cover the answers in Reading section!
– calculator with fresh batteries and some backup new ones for your pocket just in case
– tasty, energizing and filling snack and beverage (Energy drink or other caffeine-containing drink ONLY if you usually drink it for school or study. Don’t try anything new on your body for test day.)
– ticket for the test, ID
– wristwatch for pacing!
– Get a good night’s sleep!  <– This is the single most important thing you can do to raise your scores!
– Set a couple of alarm clocks so you can’t possibly oversleep and won’t have to worry about doing so.
– Make sure you confirm – by looking at your ticket – where you will be taking the test, know how to get there and allow enough time in order to get there a half hour EARLY. If you are hoping to get a seat standby, definitely be early so you can be first in line.

In the morning:
– Eat breakfast, then take a few minutes to do one easy problem in each section of the test from a textbook – even a problem you’ve already done is ok, just to warm up before you go.
– Dress in layers in case it is too warm/cool in the test center.
– Pack tic-tacs (take them out of the noisy plastic case, put directly into your pocket), chewing gum or other surreptitious snack that you can pop discretely when your attention flags.

At the test center:
– Try to get a seat that has a minimum of distractors around it (other students on all four sides, windows, fishtank, etc)
– Don’t let others distract you even during break time. They’ll all be talking about how some question was hard, or whatever. Ignore them! You will be in YOUR ZONE, focussing on eating your snack, and psyching yourself forward – not reliving the past!

Remind yourself: You did great work preparing for your test and you are going to be rewarded with great scores and soon enough you’ll get to choose your next adventure – your college! (And know that wherever you go to college, your dedication to preparing for this exam will serve you well.)

Good luck this weekend!

Don’t confuse SAT “Student Answer Service” with “Question and Answer Service”

Here’s a sample of QAS, showing Reading section results.

The College Board offers two different post-SAT services that have confusingly similar names but are very different in value. Everyone should order QAS, but most students should NOT order SAS.

For students in the US and Canada, Question and Answer Service (QAS) is offered in October, March and May. It costs $18 and may be ordered from the College Board website at the time of test registration or within five months after your test date. Internationally, it is only offered in May. Student Answer Service (SAS) is offered worldwide for every administration of the SAT that does not offer QAS.

Until recently, both of these services were on paper and took up to eight weeks after the exam to be sent to students, often too late to be used as a study tool for the next SAT. Now, most students access these digitally through their College Board accounts and they may appear as soon as SAT scores are available, just three weeks after the test.

What’s the big difference between QAS and SAS? Question and Answer Service (QAS) is a tremendous resource, giving students access through their College Board account to a computer-based version of the entire test they took, showing a hyperlinked answer key with their answer choices noted, the correct answers and difficulty levels, types of question for each – just like the online PSAT review (minus the answer explanations). Students can – and should!– go back into the test pages to rethink and redo those questions they got wrong. Then click on “View Answer” to see if they got it this time and analyze their errors. This is a fantastic tool to learn from your actual tests, instead of just being handed a number. The QAS is so useful, that I recommend students plan their test schedule to include QAS dates whenever possible.

sample QAS for a Math question

The Student Answer Service (SAS), on the other hand, is almost laughably useless. It gives you everything that the QAS supplies – except the test questions! That’s right: just answer letters marked correct or incorrect. The only reason to order this is if you have located a pirated copy of the test, in which case you could cobble together your own makeshift QAS from knowing which questions you got wrong based on the SAS. It would only make  sense to order this if you have found a copy of that test after the exam.

I’ll be posting follow-up articles on how to leverage your QAS to best advantage and use QAS dates to guide your testing schedule. Be sure you subscribe in order to be notified when those articles are posted.





Why apply Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action or Early Action?

Top colleges and universities are receiving a record volume of applications on a yearly basis. With a limited number of seats in each entering class, the consequence is an appallingly low admit rate. Take Cornell University – perceived as one of the easiest Ivies to get into. Just seven years ago, its admit rate was 16.2% and now it hovers at just over 10%. In that same period, Harvard’s admit rate went from 5.9% to a record low of 4.59%. If the trend holds true, the class of 2023 and beyond may face stiffer competition among the single-digit club of elite colleges and universities.

Applying early to a binding program such as Early Decision (ED), Restrictive Early Action (REA) or a non-binding Early Action (EA), is the best way to hedge your bet and increase your chance of getting into one of these illustrious schools. The advantage is HUGE! It’s a known fact that the admit rates are more generous in early admissions than regular, with some two to three times higher than the regular decision admit rate. For Harvard, the rate was even more extreme at 14.5% in EA yet only 2.43% in regular decision. What’s important to know is early admissions program are a tool for colleges to confidently admit those who qualify academically and have a profound love for the school. In the words of Dean Fitzsimmons of Harvard, ‘early admissions is the new normal’ in which Harvard over the past several years has offered admission to 950-960 students, well over 60% of their expected enrollment of 1500 first-year students. Harvard is not alone in leveraging its early admissions program. Princeton is expecting to enroll close to 1300 students for the class of 2022, with 800 admitted from their REA.

Clearly, an admit rate in regular decision of 3-5% is something you should avoid if at all possible. Applying early can increase your odds of acceptance very significantly. Remember, students with 4.0 GPAs and perfect SATs are in plentiful supply at these schools. Differentiating yourself through quality involvement in and outside of school, articulating your passion for learning and succeeding via the supplemental essays, and committing to your college choice in the early admissions process are key to defying the ridiculous odds of getting into an Ivy-Plus institution.

This guest post was written by Solomon Admissions Consulting, an international college admissions consulting company based in New York, which helps applicants apply to and be accepted by colleges, MBA and MD programs, and private schools.

NYC Public High School Admissions Success – FREE WEBINAR –

Are you a New York City parent, middle school student or counselor? Don’t miss this free presentation from NYC school admissions über-expert Maurice Frumkin on Wednesday, August 29, 2018, 7-8 pm.

NYC Public High School Admissions: Fall 2018 Keys to Success

Topics will include:

  •  Your summer is over – now what?
  •  Timeline:  What to expect and when, and how to keep track!
  •  Myths vs. reality
  •  Applying to specialized & selective high schools, and the SHSAT
  •  Practical next steps to put in place immediately
  •  Changes for this year
  •  Key resources you should be using
  •  Leveraging your school counselor
  •  How to avoid round 2 & appeals

   (content subject to change)

About Maurice:
Maurice Frumkin is President of NYC Admissions Solutions and former Deputy Executive Director of High School Admissions with the NYC Department of Education (DOE). Maurice has counseled hundreds of families on the HS admissions process, and while with the DOE he supervised the SHSAT administration and trained and supported dozens of school counselors throughout NYC on all aspects of the HS admissions process. Maurice is a frequent lecturer at schools and PTA meetings across the city.

Register at    Capacity is limited – register now!

Bad PSAT scores? Here’s what to do

1) First, don’t despair! Go over your PSAT results in depth. Don’t focus on the scores; those are just your starting point. Go to the College Board website and follow the links to review your results in detail. That’s how you learn and improve!

Analyze your errors: Were you rushed? Did you lose focus? Were there math topics you haven’t learned yet? Was a reading passage too dense?

2) Plan your study time in order to make substantial score improvement – at least two hours of prep every week until your SAT. Once a month, take a full, timed practice test and then analyze your results, learning from your mistakes.

3) Take advantage of College Board and Khan Academy resources by registering for a free account on Khan Academy and linking it to your College Board account and test scores to get free personalized practice for the SAT.

4) Build your SAT power using great study tools. The Official SAT Study Guide from the College Board has sample SAT exams written by the writers of the real SAT – with full explanations for every question, both in the book and on the College Board website. For more practice tests, The Princeton Review, Kaplan and Applerouth offer good facsimile SATs. For Math, get the terrific PWN the SAT: Math. For a comprehensive list of the best study resources for both SAT and ACT, here‘s a full, annotated list.

5) Finally, there’s one more thing to do: Check out the ACT. You may find it a better fit. Download and print the official ACT practice test on the ACT website. Take the test under timed conditions in one sitting, using the bubble sheet, and without distractions. Compare your results and consider which test you can most improve upon – not just which score was better now.

Whichever test you choose to take, you can thank your bad PSAT scores for the wake-up call. Now is the time to start your test prep in earnest.



6 Classic College Application Essay Errors Stephanie Klein Wassink

December is college application season and although we all know you meant to get your essays done last summer, if you are like most seniors, you still have at least a few left to go.

I recently reached out to Stephanie Klein Wassink, Brown University grad and founder of, for her college essay tips. AdmissionsCheckup is a unique application review service that offers students a fresh eye for their applications and essays after the usual editing and review is done.

Here are a handful of Stephanie’s key cautions to keep in mind when writing and reviewing your essays:

1) Overusing the word I: There is no “I” in team….so overusing it simply comes across as arrogant. Vary your sentences, choose another topic or make sure you are attributing your success more broadly, beyond “I.”

2) Being Boring: Admissions officers can and do skim essays. If you had 2,000 applications to read, who would you prefer to admit? Someone who almost put you to sleep, someone who made you realize that you read the same paragraph seven times or someone who captivated and held your interest while showing you his experiences? Boring is an uphill battle and the kiss of death combined.

3) A Plethora of SAT Words: Consider the fact that your reader has not taken the SAT in the last 5 (or more) years. Keep the vocabulary accessible. Nothing bothers an admissions officer more than reading an essay that doesn’t sound like a 17-year-old wrote it.

4) Bragging: I once read an essay about a student who had seen five of the seven wonders of the world. Impressive right? No, not impressive at all. It said more about his parents’ bank account than his actual accomplishments. Bragging just doesn’t come off well.

5) Another School’s Name: This one is obvious, but happens more often than you think. Here is a trick I like to tell my students: before you submit your application, read your essay from the last word on the page forward to the first. It will make catching the wrong name much easier. It is also a good idea to wait a day or two before submitting, and read it again.

6) Regurgitating your Resume: The application provides a place for you to list and describe your activities. If you list them in your essays, you are wasting a valuable opportunity to show the admissions officer who you are. The whole point of the essay is to tell the admissions officer something they would not get by just reading your resume.

For more application tips from Stephanie and’s team of former admissions officers, visit her blog at



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
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 folder to review and practice them.

– Put your own, simplified definitions into your 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 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!) – 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 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


• 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!