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!