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The Admissions Mystique: What Do Colleges Expect?

colleges, admissions, students of color, test preparation,, college counseling, GPA, affirmative action, affluent, impoverished, SAT, ACT

What do colleges expect?

The good news about college acceptance? Even “the experts” don’t possess the “silver bullet.”

The bad news? No one does.

College acceptance rates and their corresponding criteria vary from year to year based on a range of metrics including, but not limited to:

  • The pool of applicants and its characteristics
  • A college’s diversity and financial quotas
  • The allowable occupancy of specialized programs such as computer science, engineering and nursing

Nonetheless, there are some readily apparent trends that university data reveals.

According to the New York Times, “What Colleges Want In an Applicant (Everything),”  GPA or grade point average and ACT/SAT scores still function as the gatekeepers of most reputable four year universities.

“U.S. News Data: Admissions Trends at Top Public Colleges” has recently confirmed that student SAT scores are rising, therefore raising the bar for the average student. In layman’s terms, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to compete.

College Acceptance Criteria

Other nuanced factors bear influence on a college applicant’s acceptance:

  • Ability to pay whether through loans, scholarships or family money
  • Family alumni connections
  • Race
  • Disability
  • Socioeconomic status
  • High school class rank
  • A student’s high school state ranking
  • Student educational opportunities and resources

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “What You Need to Know About Race-Conscious Admissions in 2017” asserts that the most contentious criteria are likely policies of “Race Consciousness,” which proponents argue increases diversity and opportunity for underrepresented youth by ”privileging black, Hispanic, Native American, and other disadvantaged groups.” Opponents claim that such policies discriminate against more qualified white and Asian applicants based on GPA and standardized test scores.

Whether we defend or criticize these policies, “affirmative action” policies exist in higher education, the expectation being that if a student has more, he or she can achieve more. Therefore, these policies have not been deemed unconstitutional as educational opportunities remain inequitable and disproportionately allotted to more affluent students.

Regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity, every student, with the support of his or her educational “village” of parents, teachers, counselors, mentors and tutors, must work to “make the grade.”

General “Rules of Thumb”

Consider the following models to identify safety, match and reach colleges:

Affluent Students are expected to exceed expectations in school, 3.8- 4.2+, and on standardized tests, 1350-1550 SAT score.

  • Most colleges require parents who claim their students as a dependent to report their financial information via their previous year’s tax return
  • In certain cases, these families also have alumni connections, which aid a student’s acceptance prospects
  • Depending on the university, ethnicity, race and/or religious affiliation may sway admission’s departments to meet a diversity quota; albeit, not all colleges have specified “diversity quotas”

Lower Income Students are expected to meet expectations in high school, 3.0-3.7, and on entrance exams, 1100-1300 SAT score. These students will likely need to secure funding through:

  • Public or government grants
  • Military funding or the GI bill
  • Private “need-based” scholarships
  • A student’s ability to pay tends to be more significant here

Students Living at or Below the Poverty Line are expected to “survive.” These students have a larger margin of grace, particularly for state and certain private colleges. Earning a 1000 SAT and a GPA of 2.5+ is a start:

  • Grants and scholarships abound, particularly if a student belongs to a marginalized group
  • A student’s ability to pay is less significant
  • Colleges analyze “growth” on high school report cards; if these students show progress between 9th and 11th grades, universities often wager these students will continue to show promise, grit and determination

Students Who Do Not Meet the Expectations of their peers may have other options:

  • Family alumni and connections
  • Wealth
  • Athletic talent
  • Severely adverse or difficult childhood experiences, trauma or disabilities
  • Strong resume of sports, art, community service, internships, etc
  • Safety schools with high acceptance rates

                     -Texas A&M, 67%

                     -Wofford College, 72% 

                     -University of Denver, 73% 

  • Community College

Most troubling, recruiting students of color from lower-class and impoverished inner city communities is far from equitable; these students often lack fundamentals from basic necessities such as food security and a safe space to study to adequate educational opportunities such as quality teachers, tutors, and test preparation. Although racially diverse underprivileged students are expected to pass their classes and “survive” standardized testing as prospective candidates of safety schools, the vast majority will not qualify for admission at ranking universities unless they possess:

  • Requisite athletic skills to play college sports
  • Intellectual prowess to perform well without extra support
  • Notable artistic aptitude in art, music or the performing arts

While numerous scholarships and public grants are available once students are accepted, poor minority students confront the steepest upward climb toward university admission’s success.

On the other hand, no matter who a student is categorically speaking, college acceptance remains a “cloak and dagger” enigma.

However, students and parents can prepare.

Start with a simple checklist:

  • Maintain 3.5+ GPA
  • Strive to perform on college entrance exams
  • Rise to meet college admission standards
  • Secure college funding (FASFA first)
  • Analyze college freshman profiles (GPA, test score and demographic data)
  • Identify safety, match and reach schools- There’s no shame in attending community college first
  • Seek sound college counseling advice and often

University entrance is an uphill trudge no matter who you are, but colleges are well within reach if students and parents know where they stand, have a plan and stick to it.

Stay tuned for my next article regarding college admissions and the “nature vs nurture’s” impact on university candidates.

I Have Less; Can I Achieve My Best Test?

achievement gap, testing, SAT, tutoring, education, college, literacy, students,, teaching

How do I ace a test, the SAT, or any standardized test? How can they expect me to know everything? What if I don’t have the skills or the advantages?

They, whether a teacher, professor, ETS (Educational Testing Service), or the College Board, absolutely do not expect you to know everything that could potentially arise on an exam. In fact, that is precisely what they don’t want.

However, an increasingly globalized international climate has advanced educational accessibility for students with disabilities. Additionally, educators and public schools are painfully aware of the educational inequities among subgroups and have enacted policies in the United states to lessen the Achievement Gap, the persistent disparity in educational opportunities due to ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, etc. Many public schools and districts have pursued feasible and affordable reforms, which include picking students up at their homes, extending campus hours to accommodate economically disadvantaged students so they have a place to study and use computers, or facilitating after school peer tutoring.

Nevertheless, there is so much more to do. According to Marina Bolotinikova, author of Harvard Magazine’s article, “FAS’s Inequality in America Initiative,” educational imbalances continue to exist even now in 2017 at even some of the most elite universities, including Harvard itself.

We have people who are looking at inequality across race, gender, and class, but also thinking about the different domains of inequality–education, health, the labor market. We have all this on campus, but they’re not always in conversation…The idea here is to pursue a strategy that’s focused on greater collaboration, some new investment, and more dialogue.

On the other hand, prior to Harvard’s initiative, 21st century educators have supported progress along many avenues to “even the playing field” with the advent of student chromebooks, better cheap wifi, enhancing school libraries with used or donated books, and offering online courses and school approved websites. To be sure, students around the globe and across the country are better equipped “to know” and learn more than in previous eras. And yet, educational inequality persists. Not all students have access to private tutors, good schools, educated parents and technology in the home.

So, how do students with less, born and raised in neighborhoods that are so violent, sometimes they avoid school to avoid getting jumped? How do food insecure, homeless, and/or minority youth do well enough on tests to “pass go” and level up? How do young girls who are prescribed as homemakers, not college students,  transcend barriers? What about the SAT, a test so daunting, even students with every resource at their disposal struggle to hit their target score?

In many cases, the best source for success is you, the high school student.

So, let’s ask some fundamental questions and brainstorm some real-word solutions.

What can I do to build skills in reading comprehension and math?

  1. Read more outside of school assignments. Read a variety of materials: newspapers, novels, graphic novels, biographies.
  • Most library cards are free
  • Schools often have materials on hand in their libraries
  • Print out online publications at school; it’s cost free to you.
  • Visit the College Board for free test taking tips and practice tests
  1. Annotate what you read.
  • Underline main ideas
  • Circle and define new vocabulary in the margins, on a separate sheet of paper or make your own quizlet online
  • Stop every paragraph or two and ask, “What did I just read?”
  1. Explore purplemath or mathisfun, websites that will help you review and clarify:
  • Exponents
  • Arithmetic (PEMDAS)
  • Algebra
  • Coordinate Plane Geometry
  • Geometry
  • Basic Trig

What strategies can I use on multiple choice tests and college entrance exams?

  1. Process of Elimination
  • For each answer choice, ask, “Is it wrong?” If it’s not wrong, do not cross it out. Keep it. The choice may not be great, but it may be the least wrong.
  • Underline the word or words that make an answer choice wrong; then, cross it out.
  • The answer that’s not wrong is the correct answer
  1. Annotate all test questions, whether math or English.
  • Hunt for the most specific words and underline them.
  • Ignore everything else- it wastes your time to read words you don’t need.
  • In the following example, inferred, both, and agree are your key words:

It can be inferred from both passages that the authors would most likely agree that

  1. Don’t do anything you don’t have to do on a multiple choice test.
  • Less is more
  • Keep it simple
  • Let your answer choices guide you, particularly in math
    • Sometimes solving half the problem is all that is required.
  1. Set up a Khan Academy account online and practice for free.

The world of educational opportunity remains a far cry from egalitarian or “equal,” but there are resources available to students of every circumstance. If your school or home doesn’t have what you need, perhaps a bus pass and the public library will. Combined with determination, hard work and basic resources, every student can succeed if you have the desire.

Breaking Bad Habits: The Right ACT Attitude

Hawk Educational Solutions, ACT, college, tutoring, college counseling, college admissions, test prep, SAT

Developing Bad Habits

As students gain academic experience, they cannot help but develop coping mechanisms or “bad habits,” which they wholly believe will enable their survival under the competitive pressure of college admissions. These behavioral patterns often serve them well…until they don’t.

For better or worse, we mimic the behavior of others, mistakenly accept bad advice as truth and obstinately cling to our ways and means of achievement even if these methods imperil our future goals. Consequently, “undoing” erroneous habits and rigid ways of thinking is essential for students to make genuine progress toward college acceptance.

It only stands to reason then that students, parents and educators alike must adopt a more adaptable and flexible attitude when approaching college entrance to ensure eventual student success.

Without Pretense or Euphemism, the ACT is a Beast of a Test

  • Many tout it as “knowledge based,” when in fact the ACT requires nuanced reasoning, particularly in the Reading and English sections.
  • Time is of the essence; in other words, you rarely have enough of it. In fact, students have only 35 minutes to complete 40 questions in both the Reading and Science sections, which boils down to 48 seconds per question! This barely accounts for time to read and truly comprehend the text.
  • Lastly, the ACT is deceiving; in other words, it is not an honest, straightforward exam. Specifically, questions supply answer choices that contain misleading details from the passage that may be true in one context, but don’t actually answer the question at hand.
  • Eliminate wrong answers before taking a stab at choosing the correct one.

Given Its Rigorous Timing and Trickery, Might the ACT Be One of Many “Bad Habits?”

  • There is an abundance of costly SAT/ACT diagnostic tests, abbreviated exams that tout accurate predictions of which one is the more appropriate. 
  • The long and short of these magical shortcuts; they are not magic and rarely reveal an accurate picture.
  • Rather, students can print a free online ACT and SAT, and complete each full length exam on their own or with a parent. Don’t forget to set the stop watch- timing is everything!

Be Willing to Confront and Accept the Frustrating Facts: The ACT is Not Your Friend

  • Some college counselors and for-profit testing companies are often the perpetrators of bad advice that steer impressionable teens in the wrong direction.
  • At ages as young as fourteen, some students are convinced that there’s only one way to succeed even when their testing data suggests alternative methods are necessary.
  • For example, a young scholar may believe the ACT is the only route to college admittance even when he’s scoring a 16 out of 36with guided instruction– which is an unacceptable score for any undergraduate institution.
  • In actuality, the new “overhauled” SAT is usually the better test generally for one reason: more time per question.
  • It’s imperative to switch gears if the ACT isn’t working and try something different!

Success Involves Many Avenues; When One Dead Ends, Follow Another

  • Take both the SAT and ACT to start.
  • Prep for the test with the higher score- See the Study Point Score Conversion Chart here
  • If you’re scoring comparably or at roughly the same level on both, analyze which areas you’re scoring better or worse in; if the science section of the ACT is dragging you down, the ACT may not be your test.
  • If you are a slower reader, the ACT is definitely not your test!
  • If you’re scoring poorly on both, even with test prep, consider other options:
  1. Retake certain high school courses that you didn’t pass the first time around to fortify your basic English and math skills.
  2. Consider community college; if you perform well in your classes, you can save a boatload of cash and skip both ACT and SAT to transfer to a four-year.
  3. Don’t get stuck! Attempting the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is one definition of insanity! When it’s time, move on.

To achieve college acceptance, you must first accept yourself. Unless you’re a gifted test-taker to begin with, the ACT will assuredly be a brutal, if not impossible journey.

If the ACT isn’t working, there are better choices that will reveal themselves to you if you’re mind is open and you adapt your behavior. Break some “bad habits;” turn left instead of right this time- try the SAT or junior college- or reverse course altogether and shore up basic skills before moving forward.

You will arrive at the gates of the university you were meant to attend when you finally step foot on the right path!

What about Summer? 5 Benefits of the New Summer SAT

Summer SAT, SAT prep, college readiness, college planning, tutoring, teaching, higher education

What about Summer?

Thinking about a blissful summer sojourn, not the summer SAT? Perhaps a six week program with Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, the Young Writer’s Camp at UCSD, playing some Park and Rec club soccer or tennis, jet setting around the globe, or just gaming with friends next door?

Perhaps, we should reconsider the summer plan, or at the very least, make some room in the schedule; the College Board is finally offering the golden ticket- an opportunity to tackle the SAT over the summer for the first time!

First, let’s put it on the calendar, August 26th, 2017! More importantly, let’s list why summer preparation is better than the alternative, cramming it into an already inundated and stressful school year.

5 Benefits of the Summer SAT and Test Prep

  1. Minimize Test Prep’s Competition, with..
  • Sports and athletics
  • AP courses and exams
  • Rigorous academics
  • Clubs and extracurricular activities
  1. Increase Preparation, Decrease Stress
  • Schedule routine practice 3-4 times per week
  • Meet with a qualified Test Prep instructor as needed
  • Simulate the exam and take full practice tests
  • Take some time out- meditate, hike or nap. It is summer after all!
  1. Focus on College Preparation as a Whole
  • Target your “match” and “reach” college prospects
  • Align your target exam score with your target universities
  • Think scholarships: Higher SAT scores and GPA’s = more funding!
  • Create or research college planning checklists, which include testing
  1. Use the SAT Essay as a College Writing Resource, because it requires
  • reading comprehension and analysis
  • citing evidence and providing relevant commentary
  • effective grammar usage and word choice
  • classic essay organization and structure
  • quality revision and editing
  1. Time- There’s so much more of it!
  • Drag your books to the beach or pack em’ in your suitcase
  • Haul them out on work breaks or while riding the bus
  • If you have no other homework, summer is the time to focus!

Spare just some of that precious summer time; chances are, it’ll be harder to master the SAT during the school year with one more high stakes ball to juggle, especially as an 11th grader. Avoid amplifying the school year’s nail biting pressure by attempting a summer test prep program. Whether it’s self-study, light weight tutoring or a comprehensive curriculum, you’ll likely be better off for it!

Three Crucial Tips for the Engineering College Applicant

#engineering #collegeadmissions #testprep

Engineering is just harder; there is no other way to categorize its seemingly insurmountable college acceptance expectations. However high the general admissions standards are for a given university, expect that these have become a monumental “Goliath” for the prospective engineering candidate. Let’s consider California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo or Cal Poly SLO. Engineering applicants whose combined GPA/SAT is 4.2 and 1450 stand a 50% chance, give or take, of admittance. In contrast, every other department at Cal Poly considers students with lesser GPA’s and tests scores, ranging from 1250-1350, according to its recently released freshman profile.

Is this par for the course now? Generally, yes. Larger, more established institutions such as the Universities of California, California State Schools and Ivy League Universities have all raised the proverbial bar for our future engineers. Even smaller private colleges can be equally competitive in their own right, such as Harvey Mudd and the Claremont Colleges, The Franklin W. Olin School of Engineering and Cooper Union School of Engineering.

However, there is hope. It is not impossible to study engineering, but students and parents may have to redesign their strategies and attitudes.

Here’s how:

1. Do not hesitate- Begin test preparation for the ACT or SAT as early as the 9th grade, and yes, it does work!


  • As published in an earlier post, large and expensive cram classes are mostly ineffective, but individual or small group instruction is well worth it if you start early enough.
  • Highly motivated students can and should begin practicing on their own years in advance of the target test date during their junior or senior year. The SAT isn’t changing for the foreseeable future.

2.Parents- Work with an experienced, private college counselor.

  • Public and Private school college counselors employed are overloaded, often times at a ratio of one counselor to 500 students!
  • Find an experienced educator that communicates well and listens to your needs.

3. Students- Work Hard (and Play Hard) In and Out of School

  • Pursue internships in robotics
  • Tutor younger students in math
  • Volunteer at the local library and lead a book discussion
  • Research colleges well in advance of your senior year
  • Ask, ask and ask again. Asking the right questions lead to the best options- If one school isn’t a fit, another will be!

Private School Entrance Exams: The Misnomer of “Verbal Reasoning”

#education #testprep #tutoring

We can all relate to the stress of an progressively competitive 21st Century. Increasingly, I encounter panicked parents who fearfully insist that their children brutalize themselves in preparation for private school exams such as the SSAT or ISEE. Many are compelled to enroll their children in expensive private schools because they wholeheartedly believe private institutions offer a better education and the only shoo-in to the Ivy League. Simply put, this is not always the case. According to US News, the highest ranking K-12 schools are in fact public district and charter schools. Whitney High School, a public school, is 2016’s number one in the state of California and San Diego’s own Canyon Crest Academy, a San Dieguito Union High School District school, ranks number five. Furthermore, multiple studies, including  Christopher Lubienski’s 2013 publication, The Public School Advantage, discovered the following:


We analyzed instruction and performance for over 300,000 elementary and middle school students in 15,108 public, charter, and private schools. What we found surprised us. Students in public schools actually outperform those in private schools.


While many public schools clearly offer advantages, there are a number of private commuter or boarding schools known as “feeder” schools  to the Ivy Leagues, which are attractive to America’s elite because of their lengthy legacies and exclusivity. Few would argue that San Diego’s top private schools, Bishops and Francis Parker, are not top notch- they are. Nonetheless, these are not the sole avenues to America’s top tier universities. So, how is it possible that some families and even educators firmly believe that private schools, which typically cost $30,000-$40,000 annually, are the only option? Bluntly put, because they cost more, they must be better. Because the wealthiest families attend them, they must provide higher quality.

Therefore, flashcard after pointless flashcard, children are pressured to memorize and prepare for the “Verbal Reasoning,” a section of isolated vocabulary words that still remain on private school entrance exams. Generally, preparation for this section entails the rote memorization- not reasoning- of vocabulary words beyond the grade or developmental level students. As a result, as soon as students cease cramming for this synonym section of the test, most promptly forget the vocabulary they so vigorously inhaled.

Let’s look at an example from an ISEE Lower Level ERB practice guide:


(A) alarmed

(B) disgraced

(C) embarrassed

(D) puzzled

Certainly, if students by the third or fourth grade have learned Greek and Latin prefixes and roots, they can dissect certain words to guess at the meaning even if they don’t know the precise definition of the target word. For instance, the etymology of the word “perplexed” stems from the Greek root “perplexus,” which means “confused or entangled.” However, English is not merely Latin, but a “sponge” language that has also descended from ancient Anglo Germanic languages and numerous other linguistic influences. The correct answer, “puzzled,” actually developed from the medieval French word, “aposer.” If students happened to know the ancient French word, “aposer,” they may be able to identify the Latin root, “pos” or “to put.” However, knowledge of the root “pos” does not enable students to connect “pos” or to put directly to “perplexed.” 

The only way to really know the answer to this question like many on the ISEE is to memorize, memorize, and memorize as many vocabulary words without any context as possible. According to other standardized tests, including the college entrance exams, the SAT and ACT, as well as the CAASP, SBAC and other Common Core tests, have aptly disavowed this type of testing since memorization does not equate to higher level thinking. Furthermore, words without other words or context offer little meaning. Rather, single words work in “concert” (together, not a musical performance) with other words to convey the myriad of nuances and connotations or “shades” of meaning the incredible English language possesses.

The Verbal Reasoning section on private school entrance exams disservice our students because, in many cases, they destroy the confidence of many of our brilliant youth and  ineffectively measure intelligence and talent. In my 16 years of experience as an educator, not all K-12 private school students make the Ivy cut, and yet some students who attend public district and charter schools do; public school students can ultimately achieve academic excellence at the most noteworthy institutions of higher learning in the nation, including the University of CA Berkeley, Stanford, Princeton, and numerous others- no “Verbal Reasoning” required.

Against All Odds- An Effective SAT Essay Introductory Paragraph

#testpreparation #highschool #writing #teaching #tutoring

Hawk Educational Solutions 2016 SAT Essay

Prior to the adoption of Common Core, the No Child Left Behind approach to education reigned for over a decade, “relying too heavily on standardized tests” according to many critics. One of the policy’s greatest deficits was the abandonment of writing curricula throughout the nation’s districts, charter schools, and other Local Education Agencies in order to focus on “teaching to the tests,” all of which were multiple choice. Unfortunately, the 21st century appears to demand effective writing skills, which are trending once again and in high demand, not only by the College Board, the engineers of the SAT, but also by college professors, universities and employers.

Furthermore, given the excruciating competition of college admissions, particularly with respect to top performing Ivy Leagues and the University of California system, 2016 SAT qualifying scores range between 1400-1600 and a formidable score on the new 2016 SAT essay of 7-8 is a must!

So, how can parents, teachers, and students themselves prepare for the SAT essay after the prolonged absence of sufficient public school writing programs?

Familiarize yourself with the SAT Essay directions prior to taking the exam.

Know that the prompt; it will always be the same, except the author and passage will always be unique.

As you read the passage below, consider how Dr. King uses


  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.


Practice reading various test released essay passages, annotating and constructing a brief outline of quotes for a five paragraph analysis.

Craft your introductory paragraph. Let’s use  Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “Beyond Vietnam,”  speech as an example to illustrate how to compose an impressive, emotionally potent introductory paragraph:

I. “Hook” the reader:

  • Poignant observation
  • Rhetorical Question
  • Reference to the Constitution
  • Personal anecdote
  • Quote from the passage
  • Combination of all of the above


Example Has the U.S. consistently upheld the civil liberties of every American citizen? Some might question the United States’ credibility as the enforcer of democratic ideals around the world when it has not always defended the Constitutional rights on its own citizens at home.

II. Present a relevant summary of the author’s argument with:


  • Title, author and genre (TAG)
  • Powerful quotes from the passage


Example: In his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argues that the United States, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” has undeniably failed many of its civilians, particularly the poor and African American communities. Furthermore, he claims that such hypocrisy has “crippled” our nation’s ethical and literal health.

III. Establish your thesis:


  • Use your outline
  • Answer the SAT Essay Prompt: “Write an essay in which you explain how Martin Luther King Jr. builds an argument to persuade his audience that American involvement in the Vietnam War is unjust.”
  • Use unique verbs- replace uses with maneuvers, applies adopts, employs, etc.


Example: Dr. King maneuvers expert emotional appeal or style, and reasoning to build his argument that the US government’s involvement in the Vietnam War is an unjust constitutional violation which Americans must ardently “attack” with free speech to promote a healthy and free society.

Stay tuned for more information about how to build an effective SAT essay outline!


SAT Math: Integrated Multi-step Mayhem and Reading Reinforced


sat-exam-multiple-choice-mini-graduation-cap-47044907“Math is supposed to be math!” so some insist.

According to these “resistance forces,” integrating or “muddling” content matter results in the unnecessary pollution of an untainted or “pure” subject, and merely confuses young test takers who are muscling their way through the brawny bearers of high standards that fastidiously guard the gates of our nation’s most competitive colleges.

Despite the clamoring of these educational “purists,” the clear-cut compartmentalization of content simply isn’t the reality of life’s demands and, more importantly, is no longer the assured path to classroom or test taking success.

Common Core and the corresponding SBAC and/or CAASPP testing systems are on the move with or without the approval of students, parents and teachers, and the College Board, among other college entrance test makers, clearly understand it. The new 2016 SAT and the implementation of Common Core in school districts such as San Diego Unified School District, require the synthesis of interdisciplinary or cross curricular skills and concepts, heavily concentrated on reading, writing and listening, in order to accomplish a task or goal. Gone are the days when English was English, geometry was geometry, and arithmetic was arithmetic. The integration of reading and math has permanently arrived.

The new 2016 SAT Math No Calculator and Calculator sections are merely two illustrations of the skill-based consortium that is required of our future generations. Author Rebecca Safier of the PrepScholar’s, “What’s Tests on the SAT Math Section?” accurately portrays SAT math as a wordy hybrid of algebra and data analysis with a limited number of geometry and trigonometry questions.

Since I’ve been personally providing SAT math instruction over the course of the last year to predominantly 11th grade males who are current Calculus students, I’ve discovered that their greatest challenge is effectively reading, annotating and identifying the question. Why? The fundamental pieces of medium and difficult “math” problems are often obscured in a sea of 40 or more words per question! In layman’s terms, the new SAT is half English!

The Problem:

Let’s examine a College Board sample, shall we? Consider the following 40 word Calculator Section (this is deceiving as a calculator is not required) example:

A radioactive substance decays at an annual rate of 13 percent. If the initial amount of the substance is 325 grams, which of the following functions f models the remaining amount of the substance, in grams, t years later (t is an exponent)?

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t

The Approach

  1. Thoroughly read the whole text first.
  2. Work backwards- Identify the question, which is not the entire 40 word text, and Underline the keywords in the quesiton only.

A radioactive substance decays at an annual rate of 13 percent. If the initial amount of the substance is 325 grams, which of the following functions f models the remaining amount of the substance, in grams, t years later (t is an exponent)?

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t
  1. Work backwards once again- Return to the given information and identify only the most essential information.

A radioactive substance decays at an annual rate of 13 percent. If the initial amount of the substance is 325 grams, which of the following functions f models the remaining amount of the substance, in grams, t years later (t is an exponent)?

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t
  1. Analyze (break down the text) and label its pieces, which are fundamental English Language Arts procedures.

Decays- 13% or .13

Initial Amount- 325 (will never change)

Remaining Amount- what stays each year is 100-13 or 1-.13

t years- unknown length of time in years

  1. Use the answer choices to guide you. Notice, select the accurate equation, but do not solve it. Do only what is required, nothing more!
  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t

The Solution

1.Employ the power of logic and the process of elimination.

Step 1: Since the initial amount of 325 is constant, 325 cannot be part of the exponent, t years. For instance, if t =2, then over the course of two years, the initial amount would be (325)(325) or 105625. Understanding the principle that an initial amount is fixed or unchanging allows the student to eliminate choices C and D.

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t

Step two: Return once again to the question; what is the remaining amount, which is 100%-13% or 87% each year. This is not the decay rate of 13%. Therefore, the test-taker can eliminate B and select A.

  1. A) f (t) = 325(0.87)t
  2. B) f (t) = 325(0.13)t
  3. C) f (t) = 0.87(325)t
  4. D) f (t) = 0.13(325)t

What We’ve Learned

In this two-step, easy to medium problem, students are required to demonstrate astute reading comprehension and sound logic in combination with basic algebraic knowledge. Most notably, students must separate given or “background” information from what the question actually demands. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen even my most advanced math students select B because they assume the equation should include 13% since it’s mentioned first in the text. Hence, they select incorrectly and their score plummets!

Students often avoid a close reading and careful annotation of the text, skills that have often previously been taught in English and history courses; many have insisted over the generations that reading simply shouldn’t be categorized as a mathematical skill. However, as one 11th grade test-taker acknowledged, “The (new SAT) math problems are more wrapped in narrative” than in the previous SAT, according to the New York Times article, “New, Reading-Heavy SAT Has Students Worried.”  So, now what?

Should students and parents be worried?

Absolutely not. Read carefully, work backwards by identifying the question first, then consult the given information and answer choices. Once all the pieces are understood, then apply the math, logic and process of elimination as needed. As a veteran G.I. Joe fan, the trope, “And knowing (that an integrated approach to SAT math) is half the battle,” just might be the moral of the evolving SAT story.


The Big, the Bad- The Monolithic Test Prep Class

IMG_1692The False Promises

Out of panic and pressure that their children will be “left behind” during the college admissions process, families often fall victim to the mega-test prep firm’s large class instructional package “deals.” Universities and private companies alike employ 100’s of instructors who guarantee “that students scoring in the 500’s will get in the 750 range,” according to Derek Briggs, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Education as quoted in the Wall Street Journal’s article, “Do SAT Prep Courses Help Test Takers?”

Simply put, there are no studies that support such promises, particularly in large class settings of novice test takers.

The Rough Reality

Rest assured, high performers excel in any environment. On the other hand, the vast majority of learners require skill-based teaching in addition to “one size fits all” test prep strategies. The College Success Network suggests that large class settings of over eight students do not yield the miraculous results universities and private test prep companies advertise:

With large group classes, students are exposed to test-taking tips and take multiple practice tests, but rarely have the opportunity for specific feedback or one-to-one coaching on areas of weakness.

Instructors not only lack the time to address individual needs in a large class, but they are also ill-equipped to provide fundamental grammar, reading comprehension, writing and math skills instruction that so many college hopefuls require.

The Colossal Cost

Unfortunately, the best prices these programs offer are large class strategy cram sessions that cost upwards of a $1,500 according to a New York Times 2014 study. In addition to the extravagant expense, students often leave more “deadlocked” than they were when they arrived; their confidence has been proverbially “shot” since their scores stagnate, and in some cases, drop because the courses fail to teach actual skills.

How would I know? Ironically, after all of the money they’ve spent, I host a gamut of one-on-one and small group test prep students who hire me after they’ve endured these torturous programs, having escaped with little else than a deflated sense of dignity.

Who These Companies Are

Generally, the owners establish successful businesses through expensive and enhanced marketing and highlight the success of their top test-takers.

Instructors are hired on the basis of their test score performance, not on their ability to deliver or explain difficult content to high school learners. Author Jared Wells explains in his LearnSpeed article, The Evolving Business of Tutoring and Test Preparation,” that test prep instructors are ultimately not prepared or skillful teachers.

By default, and without proper training and support, well intentioned instructors explain what the student fails to understand…The problem is that this model largely does not solve the underlying cause of why students struggle in the first place.

In a nutshell, large test prep companies that offer large class test prep demonstrate a good business model, rarely a quality education.

Think “Smaller”

At the major firm, expect one-on-one coaching to cost between $100 and $200 per hour! While the tutors are compensated very little, the bulk of the “tuition” pays the company’s overhead, executives and shareholders.

So how can families access qualified and affordable one-on-one and small class (ideally 3-5 students per group) teachers who happen to offer test prep services?

1.Research (google) Sole Proprietors and Small Businesses and their websites. Explore the following advertising forums:

2. Select credentialed and experienced teachers with references.

  • Check their references- How many points did their student’s score increase? What skills did their student acquire?
  • Did they actually learn the grammar rule or just another ineffective strategy?

3. Invest in one-on-one or small group lessons to ensure that all of your student’s needs are addressed on every section of the test, including the essay.

How To Survive the New ACT Storm


It’s irksome enough that standardized tests already wield a heavy-hand over the futures of our youth. What’s more, these tests unceasingly, or so they seem, change in ways that appear unmanageable, even disastrous.

The newest rendition of the ACT Essay, initiated this past fall, unquestionably represents this unfortunate paradigm. According to a recent Washington Post article, “ACT Essay Scores Are Inexplicably Low, Causing Uproar Among College Students,” “The top five percent of students scored 32 or higher in English and reading. But they scored 30 or higher in math and science. And their scores were lower still in writing: 27 to 28 or higher.” Since every section of the ACT is scored on a 36 point scale, including the “optional” essay, even the highest ranking college-bound students are drowning in a sea of written catastrophe.

What is this daunting essay all about? Students must comprehend, analyze and evaluate three differing perspectives on a debatable issue, and supply their own multitude of detailed examples and logic to address each point of view in 40 minutes. Most college educated adults would struggle to breathe let alone craft a masterful essay under such an forceful tide of pressure and perfection in so short a time!

As always, however, the proverbial “lifeboats” are on the way. Consider 6 essential tips below.

The 2016 ACT test prep books are finally available. Start reading ACT essay prompts and corresponding student samples with your students in the following texts: Princeton Review’s Cracking the ACT, Kaplan’s ACT Premier 2016, McGraw-Hill Education ACT 2016, etc.

The younger, the better! ACT (and SAT prep) can begin among families as early as 6th/ 7th  grade.

Brainstorm, discuss and jot down one to two “real world,” scientific and/or historical examples for each of the three ACT perspectives in every essay prompt.

Do not generate a new or fourth perspective. There is no time! Students must critique the three provided perspectives and then do the same for their own. Avoid creating additional work that will need to be edited and revised in the final minutes of the exam!

Consider applying to universities that do not require the ACT (or SAT) essay, such as colleges like Point Loma Nazarene, Pepperdine and select California state schools.

Opt to take the SAT. The new 2016 version requires that students analyze a piece of given or provided non-fiction rather than produce an argument based on their outside knowledge, which is a must on the ACT.

Prepare early and you’ll find that there’s plenty of choice even in a sea of disaster.

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