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The Hazards of Anecdotal Advice

Preparing for the ACT or SAT can seem daunting. Often, people instinctively turn to friends or online articles for advice. While some guidance from these sources is helpful, it’s important to examine the limitations of students who could be referencing an outdated version of the test, whose only knowledge of the exam comes from taking it, and who may have needs that are dramatically different from your own.

Our students commonly pass along what they’ve heard from their peers, and while some of it is good, solid information, a lot of it rings completely or, at least, partially false. For instance, some students will swear that “C” is correct the majority of the time when in reality, the answers on the test are evenly distributed throughout the exam – so C is no more likely than any of the other options. Another common tip passed around among high schoolers is to take the test on a particular date – take June, for example – because it’s easier than the others. There are several issues with this. Maybe June felt easier for one particular student, but, as everyone’s strengths are different, that didn’t necessarily hold true for others. Additionally, if the June test in 2015 truly was easier for most students, that doesn’t mean that the 2016 test will follow suit. Most importantly, the curve on the ACT renders any differences in difficulty irrelevant. If the June test truly was less difficult, then the curve would just be harsher.

Additionally, we recently worked with a student who scored higher on the ACT, but was told by a friend at Harvard that she should take the SAT solely because she had already taken the ACT previously. This was amidst the new changes (which made the SAT unstable and a bad choice for the majority of students). Combine that with the fact that every college will accept either exam, and her friend’s direction amounts to some pretty rotten advice. In the end, the student remained focused on her stronger test and exceeded even her expectations.

Looking to current college students for help – particularly those who attend prestigious schools – seems intuitive on the surface. However, students who attend top schools are often scoring in the top 99th percentile of college bound students nationwide, and therefore do not reflect the reality for the majority of other students. Also, these students have a very limited experience. Scoring well on a test does not make you an expert – especially as the tests continue to evolve.

The newly revised SAT gives a perfect example of this. In this article, Business Insider presents the perspective of a “Harvard grad with a perfect score on the SAT.” In the article, Chris Ryan (the aforementioned Harvard alum) offers last minute tips to scoring well on the SAT. There’s a major problem with taking his advice: the test that Ryan took years ago hardly resembles the current SAT.

In another article, titled “College Students Share Their Best SAT, ACT Test Strategies,” students from Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard University are consulted. Their advice includes some valuable tidbits, such as beginning to study well before the test, striving to learn new strategies, realizing that these tests are “not the be-all, end-all,” and the importance of skipping questions that are sucking up all of your time. Alternatively, some of the advice falls flat and illustrates a lack of expertise. When counseling students on time management, the WashU student claims that you should skip passages on the ACT Science section that include charts if you struggle with reading them. This information is not only inaccurate, it’s potentially quite harmful. Of the six ACT Science passages, five of them will reliably have charts, while only one may not. If a student were to try to follow this advice on test day, they’d end up frantic and confused – as they’d potentially be trying to skip over all of the passages.

Overall, it’s vital to use discretion when following advice about college entrance exams that comes from friends or articles. While some of it may be valid, keep the source in mind. Just because your uncle recently had his home remodeled, that doesn’t mean you’d want him creating blueprints for yours. Instead, you’d turn to the experts.

Tips for a Successful School Year, Part II

Tips for a successful school year

Summer vacation has come and gone, and whether you’ve spent the last three months watching Netflix in your bedroom or volunteering in Haiti, now is the time to focus on setting goals for the upcoming school year. Regardless of where you’re at in your high school career, we’ve got a few tips for what to prioritize this year. For Part I of this series, which focuses on Freshmen and Sophomores, please click here!

For Juniors

1) Breathe.

For many students, Junior year is the most stressful of their high school career. Remember to balance self-care with all of your other goals. “Challenge yourself” is not the same thing as “destroy yourself at the altar of academic and extracurricular perfection.” Part of time-management is knowing when to take a break.

2) Continue taking challenging courses.

For many Juniors, Junior year means AP courses. Be realistic, but challenge yourself. Talk with your counselor about the right number of AP courses based on the classes you’ve taken so far and your future goals.

3) Pursue leadership roles within extra-curricular activities.

Stick with the activities you’re most passionate about, and consider becoming more active within those environments. Look for opportunities to pursue leadership roles and responsibilities

4) Create (or Narrow) Your College List.

If you don’t have a college list, now is the time to start. If your list currently includes every mid-sized private school with a decent psychology program, it’s time to start narrowing. Keep researching, evaluating what’s important to you, and work towards creating a list of schools that you’re truly excited about.

5) Visit More Colleges.

Take tours, meet professors, and sit in on classes. Visiting will help eliminate some colleges from your list and solidify the position of others, and it’s also a great way to demonstrate interest.

6) Get your test scores in order.

If you haven’t taken a Practice ACT, do so. If you have, and you’re happy with your score, take a real test, get an official score, and move on with your life! If you’ve taken a practice test and want to boost your score, work with a tutor to get the score you need.

7) Start thinking about recommendation letters.

Think about which teachers you might want to ask, and plan to do so in the second half of Junior year. Participate in class and make connections with your teachers.

For Seniors

1) Keep up your strong academic performance!

Senior course selection and grades are important! Remember, colleges are interested in your trajectory. Keep challenging yourself with difficult courses, including AP/IB classes, and keep your GPA up.  How you perform in difficult classes your senior year will give admissions officers insight into how well you will do in challenging college courses.

2) If you need to, take the ACT or SAT one more time.

Do you need one more point to get into the middle 50 for your top school? Go for it. Take one more ACT. Don’t take one more ACT if you’re “just wondering” if your score might go up, and you haven’t spent/don’t have any time to spend on prep.

3) Ask for recommendations.

If you didn’t do so at the end of Junior year, ask for letters as soon as possible. Your favorite English teacher is going to be asked to write recs for a lot of students. Writing good recommendations takes time, and bad recommendations are not going to help you.

4) Get organized.

Know your deadlines – applications, scholarships, everything. Make a plan and stay on task. Filling out applications can be overwhelming unless you break the process down into manageable steps. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for help.

5) Keep visiting colleges.

Even after applications are submitted, you may want to keep visiting colleges. If you apply to 6, 8, or 10 schools you’re really excited about (and hopefully you ARE excited about all of your schools), you may need more information to make your final decision.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.