Test Prep Before School Starts

Test Prep Before School Starts

Summer is thought of by parents, students, and teachers alike as a time for rest and relaxation, free from the stresses and commitments of the academic year. However, for students entering the junior year of high school, it is also a window of opportunity to begin SAT and ACT test prep. 

Read More

College Admissions Boot Camp – Stand Out Among the Competition

If you’re a parent with a rising senior applying to college in the fall, you may be looking ahead with some trepidation. With gossip swirling about the horror stories of kids with stellar GPAs and test scores not getting into their first, or for that matter, third choice , it may leave you shaking your head about your child’s chances at Penn, Michigan, and UVA (and even UMD!). You might even be the kind of parent who refuses to buy into the rat race, telling people you’ll be fine with whatever school your child gets into, yet you know that if it’s not Maryland, the price tag is minimally $40k (and probably more). If you take the approach that your child can overcome the admission obstacles by applying to 20 schools you’re in for a long fall and winter application season.

In short, college admissions isn’t what it used to be, but it doesn’t have to be a roll of the dice. Streamline Tutors and College Match Plus are co-sponsoring an admissions boot camp, August 14-16, to help students know with reasonable certainty where to apply to college and how they can put their best foot forward in their applications.

“Our boot camp has a few important goals for students,” says Ian Siegel, CEO of Streamline Tutors. “The first is to conduct an admissions-committee style review of a student’s academic credentials and extracurricular activities. Based on the evaluation, a student receives a rating which is compared to enrollment selectivity data from 2500 competitive colleges. This enables us, based on students’ geographic, size and other college preferences, to provide them a targeted college search list with reasonable reach, 50-50 and safety schools where they have the strongest probability of admission. This evaluation system goes a long way to ensure students do not under or over reach for colleges while helping families plan successful and efficient college visits, information sessions, and the like,” adds Ian.

According to Siegel, boot camp faculty also will help students complete a polished draft of the major essay for the Common Application and/or the Coalition Application (e.g., the University of Maryland now accepts the Coalition Application). Strategies for how to write compelling college essays including supplemental essays required of many competitive schools also will be covered during the three-day admissions boot camp. “All other things being equal—such as a student’s test scores and GPA—the essay can make a positive difference in the admission decision,” explains Siegel. “Our goal is to give students an edge by helping them tell authentic, interesting stories about themselves that go far behind what an admission person learns through the student’s high school transcript or list of extracurricular activities. If 10-15 percent of applicants write essays that hit the ball out of the park, we want our students to be in that group.”

Siegel stresses that the admission boot camp will only take 10 students to ensure staff can provide students quality, highly personalized essay review and college search guidance. So help your teenager unpack the mystery of and get a leg up on the college search and application process by calling Streamline Tutors to learn more about the admissions boot camp.

Early Admission: A Strategic Move to Consider

Early Admission: A Strategic Move to Consider

Deciding whether or not to apply for early admissions can be challenging. Should you commit to a single school through Early Decision? Does early admissions really make a difference in your overall chances of being accepted? Here’s what you need to know.

Read More

ACT vs. SAT: Which One Should You Take?

ACT vs. SAT: Which One Should You Take?

The truth is, colleges don’t prefer one test over the other. Both the ACT and SAT are similar in terms of content but differ in pacing and style. So, it’s important to pick the one that puts your best foot forward – and focus only on that one.

Read More

Too Late to Apply for Accommodations on the SAT and ACT?

Too Late to Apply for Accommodations on the SAT and ACT?

In many cases, parents don’t even realize their students have a learning difficulty. They might just assume their student is a “poor test-taker,” without realizing there’s a legitimate reason why. Learning difficulties can be hard to detect, especially when high levels of intelligence mask underlying struggles with attention or processing.

Read More

I’m not happy with my SAT score!

I’m not happy with my SAT score!

With junior year creeping to a close, those who aren’t happy with their scores face a challenging array of questions: Should I jump ship on the SAT and try my hand at the ACT (or vice versa)? Should I sign up for a class? Seek out a private tutor? Switch tutors? Give up?

Read More

Applying to College? You May Want to Delete Your Facebook Account

A life without Facebook might seem incomprehensible to some, but high school seniors applying to college would be wise to consider it, if only temporarily. As cited in the Huffington Post, more than 80 percent of college admissions officers use Facebook and other social media sites to get a second look at an applicant. Unless the applicant’s a recruited athlete, whose Facebook or Twitter profile might get a coach’s cursory glance at any point of high school, now is the time when a student’s Facebook profile may come under scrutiny.

Of course, deleting a social media account may seem like overkill. Why not just delete any potentially negative content? Or even change the account name so that the profile is harder to find? These steps may be sufficient, but I wouldn’t take the chance. After all, if admissions officers find the hopeful college applicant on Facebook, they won’t necessarily encounter the best representation of the student, nor the one so thoughtfully put together in the application; they may see a much more limited side, one that tends to encourage flash judgments, rather than careful review.

Another reason to drop Facebook: It provides a distraction when grades matter most.  Seniors need to have their best academic performance yet. Even if applying Early Action or Early Decision somewhere, admissions offices will frequently request first quarter grades or, if not available, may even call the counseling office to check on how an applicant is doing.  The level of competition often forces officers to search for reasons to reject applicants, especially at the most selective institutions.  Don’t allow Facebook to be cause for a red flag.

So how do you delete a Facebook account? It’s not too difficult. Access account settings, click on “security” on the navigation bar, and select “deactivate your account” at the bottom of the page. The link will lead to another page that asks the reason for leaving. Just indicate a temporary absence. After you’re admitted into college and ready to join the Facebook world again, you simply sign in on Facebook’s homepage, and pick up right where you left off.

Just be grateful admissions officers can’t gain access to that Snapchat account.


Making Your College Application Stand Out--Focus on What Makes You Unique

(Post also found on the Baltimore Fishbowl here: http://www.baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/making-your-college-application-stand-out/)

It used to be that GPA and SAT scores dictated where a student would be accepted into college. Now high scores and top grades only get a student considered at selective colleges and universities. The admissions office at Harvard, for one, reports that over 70 percent of its applicants are more than prepared to succeed there.

On the other hand, I have been told by admissions insiders at several large universities that applications with numbers that aren’t up to snuff are read by part-timers who only suggest a second look to admissions when other intangible aspects of an application appear especially unique and impressive. In other words, they stand out.

The take away? Academic and standardized testing records are a great resource for formulating a college list, but, aside from safety schools, they are far from a guarantee of success in admissions.  Extracurricular profile, application essays, and letters of recommendation have become the de facto means of differentiation in a pool of otherwise very similar, competitive applicants.

So, as you meet with your junior’s college counselor this spring to craft a college list, think beyond whether each school is a good fit and consider whether your son or daughter’s application will stand out among applicants at a given school. Let’s take a look at each facet of the application to give you a head start on how your college-bound student can improve his or her chances, beginning with the extracurricular profile.

There are three primary ways in which admissions officers evaluate an applicant’s extracurricular activities (ranked according to level of importance):

1. Level of commitment: How long has your student been involved? How has his or her leadership roles expanded? What has he or she accomplished?

2. Uniqueness: How different are your child’s activities than those of other Baltimore students? Is your child a trail blazer, or does he or she simply follow the crowd?

3. Ripple effects: More time devoted to extracurricular activities means less time to study. Admissions officers take this into consideration, too.

What does this mean for Baltimore students? Well, lacrosse players come a dime a dozen, so unless your child is recruited, that shouldn’t be a focal point. That goes for all sports, actually. Like it or not, sports are the most common activity and also consume the most time, which, from a college admissions perspective, would be better spent exploring passions in more unique ways.

If your student doesn’t have a list of activities that would stand out on an application, consider this summer as the perfect opportunity to try something different. The college application essay also affords applicants a unique opportunity to shine—a responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. According to Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, the essay is “the one part of the application where [applicants] completely control the voice, and that makes it a really valuable document for us.” Unfortunately, relatively few application essays make a difference because they succumb to clichéd themes and insights. I remember speaking with a Vanderbilt admissions officer who said that fewer than 10 percent of essays make a positive difference; the rest remain either a neutral or negative contributor to an applicant’s chances.

In my experience helping students gain admission to the most selective colleges and universities, I’ve found that effective essays tend to fall into one of three general categories: the “overcoming a challenge” essay, the “I’m unique” essay, and the “pursuit of a passion” essay. Of course, essays that fit these categories can all go horribly wrong. The challenge essay can be whiny or culminate in a clichéd insight. The unique essay can focus on attributes that are too clearly a product of wealth. The pursuing a passion essay can lack the extracurricular experiences that make the essay’s claims compelling and credible. In short, I can’t stress enough the time and effort that need to go into writing the best essay possible.

Finally, teacher recommendations are one of the least discussed yet most important aspects of an application. I address this at length in one of my previous posts about making teachers your best advocates, but I want to emphasize how teachers are uniquely positioned to reinforce other aspects of a student’s application in a compelling way. For example, a future engineering major whose application essay focuses on the challenges of creating a robot with a team of classmates might have a physics teacher discuss the student’s insightful and enthusiastic contributions in class. In fact, the most successful applications are those whose facets build on one another to create a thematic unity.

Sound like a lot for a high school student to accomplish? Of course, it can all go away with an eight-figure donation to a beloved college or university. I’ve seen that work, too. Otherwise you might want to hire some outside help.

An Exercise in Critical Reading: Why the SAT Will Change in 2016

Please read the following post carefully, as you would an SAT passage.  Critical reading questions — consistent with those found on the current SAT — will follow!


In his speech March 5 announcing an overhaul of the current SAT, College Board President David Coleman owned up to criticism that the current SAT reinforces socio-economic inequality because the wealthy have greater access to quality test prep than the poor.  He also conceded that the current SAT is out of touch with today’s middle and high school curricula and explained that the new test would better reflect what students learn in class.  According to Coleman, these changes represent the “College Board’s renewed commitment to delivering opportunity.”

The last changes took place in 2005 when the College Board altered the test from a 1600-point to a 2400-point test by including an entirely new section, the writing section, comprised of a 25-minute essay and 35-minutes worth of questions on grammar and usage.  Today, the writing section has taken the most heat, including from Coleman himself, who says that the essay portion fails to test useful skills.  And this is where the irony begins: College Board was saying the exact same thing about the old 1600-point test in 2005 when it eliminated analogies and introduced the writing section in the first place.

The irony continues when you take a closer look at what the College Board really is—a monopoly.  Whereas the ACT may be attracting more test takers recently, the College Board has cornered the market on SAT Subject Tests, AP tests, and the lesser known CLEP tests, which are subject-specific standardized tests administered at more than 1,700 colleges and universities nationwide.  In fact, AP testing alone accounted for more than half of the College Board’s hundreds of millions in revenue back in 2012, whose share,because of College Board’s lobbying efforts, has likely increased since then.  In other words, due to its breadth of standardized test offerings, the College Board is a very profitable nonprofit.

So why change the test?  After all, doing so is expensive, and, like many businesses, the College Board loves cutting costs when it can.  (In 2007, for example, the public finally discovered that the College Board recycles questions and even entire tests because of the expense of creating completely new ones.)  Well, just as in 2001 when the University of California system was considering opting out of the SAT requirement entirely, the SAT is again under threat.  After a slew of small liberal arts colleges went “test-optional,” Wake Forest became the first top-30 university to follow suit.  More recently, a study published last month examined the difference in collegiate performance between those who submitted scores and those who didn’t at test-optional schools.  The study found a negligible difference in average GPAs between the two groups.

Backed into a corner about the waning legitimacy of a product so closely tied with its brand, the College Board hired as president David Coleman, a man who was previously the major architect of the Common Core curriculum.  For educators, this event might feel somewhat dystopian: one man is not only controlling what children learn in class but is also helping an organization turn a massive profit by testing the same material.   Good thing “[Coleman’s] heart is in the right place,” as MIT professor and SAT critic Les Perelman told The New York Times.

While announcing the SAT changes, Coleman proclaimed with a smile, “This is a sad day for test prep companies,” implying that the new test would be more difficult to coach, or professional test prep would be rendered useless because of the free tutorials that the College Board’s new partner, Khan Academy, would offer online.  The underlying assumption in his statement, of course, is that all test prep is the same, that it relies solely on teaching students test-taking “tricks.”  Any company that takes results seriously knows this is far from the truth.  Personally, I spend more time identifying and filling in the gaps in students’ knowledge and then I focus on fine-tuning their analytical abilities before even diving into the strategies that I, like others, have accumulated by studying the test for years.

And that’s the thing about standardized testing: it’s standardized, meaning certain patterns will underlie each test so that scores fall into reliable ranges that colleges can count on to tell them something about applicants AND bright, motivated tutors can pick apart to help students perform better on the test.

The only statement made by Coleman that I would resoundingly agree with is that, aside from the essay, the current test, although socially unfair, is a decent test.  Many questions on both the critical reading and math sections, for example, test a student’s ability to translate something concrete into an abstract idea or vice versa.  Other questions test a student’s understanding of how an author constructs an argument and its rhetorical effect.  Even the arcane vocabulary in sentence completions isn’t so bad: it tests the capacity to break down words into roots and prefixes — the building blocks of the English language — and then use these limited tools to make educated guesses.  To me, these skills are important, and students scoring at the highest levels on the SAT truly have a greater capacity to solve problems creatively and distill information to its bare essentials.

Perhaps the SAT isn’t reinforcing inequality so much as it is highlighting it.  The simple fact is that there is a gross disparity in the educational systems across the country, which makes standardized testing an easy way for colleges to differentiate thousands of applicants from different high schools with similar GPAs.  A lasting way to level the playing field would be to invest more in teachers on a massive scale, pay them competitive wages so the brightest and most innovative would enter the profession, and give them the freedom to circumvent this stunting standardization of education that’s going on today.  Until then, test prep tutors will continue to push students past what they think they’re capable of within the confines of a standardized testregardless of how much the SAT may change.

1]  In the context of the passage, the author’s attitude toward the quote at the end of the first paragraph (“College…opportunity”) could best be described as:

A)     Emphatic

B)     Appreciative

C)     Caustic

D)    Critical

E)     Skeptical

2]  The second sentence of the third paragraph (“Whereas…nationwide”) serves to:

A)     Dispel a misconception

B)     Reinforce a claim

C)     Provide a rationale

D)    Disprove a theory

E)     Define a term

3]  In paragraphs 3-5, the author uses all of the following rhetorical strategies, EXCEPT:

A)     Euphemism

B)     Sarcasm

C)     Rhetorical questioning

D)    Paradox

E)     Irony

4]  The second and third sentences of the fifth paragraph (“For…Times”) refer to the idea that:

A)     Too much power vested in one individual is dangerous

B)     Education is more efficient when standardized

C)     Only those with good intentions are worthy of authority

D)    Educators focus too much on dystopian societies

E)     Good intentions should be met with higher profits

Want to check your answers to see if you’re still college qualified?  Click Here

Tailoring SAT/PSAT Strategy to Fit a Student’s Needs

(Also found in the Baltimore Fishbowl here: http://www.baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/tailoring-standardized-test-strategy/)

With just a few days left until winter break, high school sophomores and juniors across Baltimore are powering through remaining tests and papers before the holiday vacation begins. But they’re also getting scores back from a standardized test they took in October: the PSAT.

Students across the nation take the PSAT as a form of preparation for the SAT. The PSAT, although half the size, possesses similar questions, organization, and time constraints as the SAT. Indeed, a section from a PSAT is almost indistinguishable from an SAT section. This is why a PSAT score is a solid indicator of an SAT score; just throw an extra zero at the end of the cumulative score and you’ll have a decent idea of how the same student would score if he or she took the SAT tomorrow.

But no one will take the official test tomorrow, and most will follow the recommendation stated at the bottom of the PSAT score report and take the SAT for the first time in the spring of junior year. Ostensibly, the suggestion makes good sense because students are at the furthest point in their schooling and still have the time to retake the SAT, if needed, in the fall of senior year. But, like most advice, it does not apply to everyone, and the implied logic behind the suggestion tends to be ill-founded.

Savvy parents of high school athletes, for example, realize that a strong SAT score early in high school plays a pivotal role in the recruitment process. This is especially true for the 99 percent of recruited athletes whose mailboxes are not jammed with letters from college coaches. These athletes must advocate for themselves by proactively contacting coaches and sending them updates about their GPA, SAT scores, and athletic accomplishments. Coaches begin building their freshmen classes years in advance, and they won’t hesitate to convey that strong academic numbers are crucial to getting on the list.

Sophomores who are already scoring fairly high on the PSAT (185+) can also benefit from a more proactive approach to the SAT than the College Board suggests. These students, when paired with a seasoned SAT tutor who can craft appropriate lesson plans to meet their needs, can prepare for the SAT and PSAT simultaneously and take both tests in the fall of junior year. Because of the similarity of the tests, they are essentially killing two birds with one stone by getting the SAT out of the way early and giving themselves a great shot at National Merit Semifinalist recognition.

What’s so great about being a National Merit Semifinalist? Aside from the eligibility to become a National Merit Scholar (and the scholarship money if selected as a scholar), it certainly helps a student stand out among college applicants. Although the minimum score to win the scholarship fluctuates, sometimes drastically, from state to state, the achievement as a scholar (and as a semi-finalist and commended student) is widely respected among the most prestigious colleges and universities, evidenced by the chart below. It includes scholars only, not semifinalists.

Percentage of enrolled national merit scholars.jpg

(Sources: National Merit Annual Report & Collegedata.com)

(To see a list of local National Merit Scholar Semifinalists, click here. You can bet they’ll be attending some of the top colleges in the country.)

Now let’s examine the thinking that more time in high school corresponds to better preparation for the SAT. Whereas reading comprehension, vocabulary, and understanding of grammar and usage all ideally improve, there are several aspects of the SAT that high schools tend to neglect. First, the math section covers topics like Numbers & Operations, Algebra, Geometry, and Probability—all subjects that bright juniors in Pre-Calculus and Calculus haven’t seen recently.

Secondly, the critical reading section tests a very different type of textual analysis than students normally experience in high school. In essence, it’s a test on rhetoric, involving the kind of close reading that analyzes why and how writers accomplish effects in their writing, not the theme-based writing that characterizes most high school essay assignments. Moreover, the passages are college-level, structured in the form of a conversation with past writing on a given topic, not in the bland thesis and three supporting details format often drilled in high school.

In this sense, for some students, when they take the SAT really matters, but for most, the important question is how they prepare before the test.  Assuming that going through the motions at school will make a major difference in a student’s score by spring of junior year is probably a risk. At the very least, you may want to enroll your student in an SAT class to enhance his or her familiarity with the test.  More ambitious students can benefit from an expert SAT tutor who will create a personalized test prep plan tailored to address areas of struggle and tackle goals.

Regardless of what you decide, the PSAT score report can be a fantastic resource in determining what skills your student needs to work on before taking the SAT.


Feel free to re-post this blog , as long as you link back!  Thanks!

Give Yourself an Early Holiday Present: Make Your Teachers and Counselors Your Best Advocates

Some consider teacher and counselor recommendations to be the icing on the cake of a stellar college application, but they serve an integral role in the college application process.

Most understand that the strongest recommendations don’t succumb to platitudes like, “Johnny is a great, hardworking student,” or “Sarah always goes the extra mile in class,” but use anecdotes and examples to illustrate a student’s unique brand of excellence.

The best recommendations, however, also accomplish even more, like corroborating the writing ability in Johnny’s essays or explaining the extenuating circumstances that had an impact on Sarah’s grades.  Recommendations provide context to the many intangible aspects of a college application.

On the Common Application’s recommendation form, for example, teachers are required to rate each student according to 15 qualities that don’t necessarily factor into a student’s GPA (see below).  In my opinion, it’s no coincidence that academic achievement, intellectual promise, quality of writing, creative thought, and productive class discussion feature at the top of the list.  After all, what college professor wouldn’t want a class full of students who excel in those five categories?

College counselors, on the other hand, fill out a form called the Secondary School Report in which, among other things, they rate the level of challenge of a student’s course selection.  Colleges take this evaluation very seriously: it helps them measure the quality of an applicant’s GPA.  All else being equal, a class schedule filled with honors and AP classes will always trump one without in the admissions process.

College counselors’ powers of advocacy extend beyond a single form.  Those who have been around a while and have developed relationships with admissions officers can call and advocate on a student’s behalf.  Let me clarify that it is counterproductive for a counselor to call when a student has an unrealistic shot at a particular college, but borderline applicants or excellent applicants who are applying to highly competitive colleges can certainly benefit when a counselor helps in this way.

So what can a student do about all of the important factors that seem outside of his or her control?  Quite a lot, actually, especially if college applications are another year or two down the road.

Here are a few ways for students to get started:

1.     Select recommenders who have seen you at your best. Remember, even if a teacher likes you, he or she will have to rate your qualities as a student, comparing you to all of your classmates and even to students that have come before you.  So think critically about where you stand in your teacher’s eyes.

2.    Select recommenders who teach subjects you may pursue in college.  If you have selected an area of academic interest, ask your teacher about ways to pursue it outside of class.  Find out if  you can do an extra project.  Maybe you could take a related class at a local college over the summer. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, try to start a new club at school to share your passion with your peers.  And don’t forget to inform your teacher of these extracurricular accomplishments!

3.     Write a letter to your recommender.  Before your recommender writes your recommendation, write a letter that details all of your impressive experiences in class, what inspires you intellectually, and how your teacher has prepared you for college.  And don’t forget to follow up with a thank-you letter afterward!

4.     Be proactive.  Your college counselor is more likely to be on your team if you don’t make his or her job any more overwhelming than it already is.  Meet all of the deadlines your counselor sets, communicate beforehand if there is a college at the top of your list, and make sure you’re selecting the most challenging courses you can handle.  In other words, make it easy for your counselor to be your best advocate.

Is the Ivy League Out of Reach for Most Baltimore Students?

Also published in BaltimoreFishbowl.com: found here.

Last year, Baltimore Fishbowl writer Rachel Monroe reported on the parental angst incited by the low acceptance rates of Baltimore students at elite colleges.  Since then, not much has changed: acceptance rates remain relatively low at area high schools while  New England’s best prep schools still send students by the dozens to top colleges.  Why is this so?  Myths abound claiming either children of billionaires or impoverished students who have overcome impossible circumstances have the advantage, but, in truth, these applicants remain the exception.

Well, what’s the difference?  Do the most competitive colleges have a prejudice against Baltimore?  Not at all.  The difference lies in a simple reality: Baltimore is situated in one of the most competitive geographic regions in the nation.  Colleges first evaluate applicants on a regional basis, and the vast majority of admissions offices group Baltimore with the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.  Savvy D.C. parents—like those in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston—understand the level of competition and realize that, in college admissions, doing well at a good school is only half the battle.  That’s why those aforementioned markets are saturated with excellent SAT tutors, subject tutors, and private admissions consultants.

In this respect, Baltimore lags behind.  Indeed, many Baltimore parents might balk at the rates that the best SAT tutors and private college counselors charge in hyper-competitive markets.  But in New York, $150 an hour for a private SAT tutor is considered on the low end.  Similarly, private counselors offer packages that range from $4,000 to $15,000.  That might sound pricey, too, but these counselors get results.  The best test prep consultants help students achieve an average 300-350 point increase on the SAT, which can make a significant difference in an applicant’s chances for admission.

Affluent Baltimore parents foot tuition bills that rival prep schools in other highly competitive zones. Given that for many top colleges GPA counts for just one-third of a student’s academic profile while the other two-thirds are determined by SAT and SAT Subject Test scores, maybe it’s time for local parents to reconsider high-end standardized test prep.  After all, isn’t the objective of sending a child to private school in the first place to afford him or her more opportunities in the future?

Moreover, studies have shown that higher SAT scores augment the advantage of being a legacy applicant as well as applying early action or early decision  (equivalent to 100 point boost to an SAT score).