Why You Shouldn’t Take the New SAT (Spring 2016)

Red Flags for College Admission

I’ve talked to a lot of parents and students this fall who felt the redesigned SAT, the one that will make its debut in March 2016, might be a better alternative for students. They couldn’t be further from the truth.

As usual there is a lot of misinformation and hype surrounding this change.

The College Board, the corporation that brings you the SAT and other tests, has spent all fall telling school counselors to push junors towards the new test. This is like the car salesman telling you to buy his brand. The problem is most counselors haven’t taken the time to test drive the new exam format and are blindly passing this “advice” on to students and parents.

Some students I’ve talked to have heard bits and pieces about the new test and think it might be easeir. The biggest factor for these students is the fact that the new test won’t penalize students for wrong answers. Yes, this is a move in favor of test takers, but only a small move. The ACT has had a similar scoring method for years. The fact that the wrong answer penalty goes away is greatly outweighed by the negatives of the new test.

Here are my reasons to avoid the SAT next spring:

1. Lack of Official Practice Materials.

College Board has only released five exams in the new
format—four SATs and one PSAT– not much to study from. In contrast students preparing for the current SAT or the ACT will have 10+ official exams for review.

2. Delays in Score Reporting.

Currently students wait two to four weeks to receive ACT or SAT scores. College Board says it may take 6-8 weeks to receive March 2016 SAT scores. In the past students received their March SAT results in time to register to retake the exam in May. Delays in score reporting may hurt students attempting to complete all standardized testing before their senior years.

3. Changes to Math That Will hurt Student Performance.

For the current SAT and ACT students need a solid foundation in Algebra I and Geometry, but don’t need higher-level or advanced skills. The new SAT math goes in-depth to test proficiency with Algebra II concepts. Some students may not have finished Algebra II by the spring; others will have been out of the class for almost a year.

The nature of the math section has changed as well. Currently the SAT and ACT test students with problems requiring higher-level thinking. While these problems challenge students and reward problem solving skills, they don’t intentionally distract. The new SAT math questions are wordy and deliberately include ample facts designed to sidetrack and confuse. Now students must sift through irrelevant red herrings before they can begin the math required to solve the question.

New SAT Math has a decidedly Common Core flavor to it. No wonder; the CEO of the College Board played a leading role in developing Common Core standards. I think it is apparent he wants to leave his stamp on the new SAT.

Add to all of this math mess a full section of the test where calculators are not permitted and most students will not score better on the new SAT math.

4. Extensive Reading (even in Math and Writing).

A quick glance at the new SAT format shows a very text-rich exam. The new writing section includes passages, math questions involve wordy scenarios with unnecessary details, and the essay asks students to respond to and evaluate a two-page document. More reading requires more focus and means some students will lose points in writing, math, and the essay due to reading errors.

The new test format contributes to reading fatigue. Students will begin with 65 minutes of reading passages. (Yes, you read right—one hour and five minutes of reading dense passages.) Next students will work through 35 minutes of passages where they will edit for errors and content—more eye-straining detailed reading. Once we’ve exhausted the typical student’s focus, they move on to math—25 minutes of no-calculator math followed by 55 minutes of more math where at least calculators are permitted. Whew! Then on to the 50 minute written essay where students need to read and respond to a two-page passage. Makes me tired just to read about it.

The SAT has always been about details. The new format will tax students’ abilities to read and focus. (Compare it to the current SAT or the ACT. You’ll see what I mean.)

5. Test Format That Taxes Endurance.

All sections of the new test are longer and the section order puts reading and writing first followed by 80 minutes of math. In contrast, the old SAT switched subjects every 25 minutes and the ACT’s structure of English-Math-Reading-Science breaks up the reading and numerical work students must do.

The new SAT has fewer answer choices and no penalty for wrong answers, but it will not be an easier test. The good news is that students have an alternative. The current SAT will be given in November, December, and January. The ACT is not changing and students will have enough official practice material to study. All colleges and universities accept the ACT or SAT with no preference given to either one.

I would tell juniors to actively avoid the new test. But don’t take my word for it. Check out the redesigned SAT for yourself. Print the full-length exam, sit down at your kitchen table, and take it timed. What do you think? Just make your decision based on the facts.

My last class for the current SAT begins this Sunday, October 11. We’ve got a few spots left. Registration and information here.

Next spring I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I will NOT teach classes for the spring 2016 SATs. I will have classes for the February, April, and June ACTs. You can find class schedules here.


Posted in ACT Success, SAT Success | Leave a comment

Are You Applying to the Right Colleges?

Apply to the right college

Today I’m featuring an episode of The College Prep Podcast from May. I thought it was timely for all seniors applying to college—check your list to make sure you have the right schools. It is also timely for the 9th through 11th graders and their families as you discuss colleges and start visiting campuses.

The main point I make in the podcast is that fit isn’t everything. (I know this goes against what everyone hears about finding colleges that are a good fit.) Although fit is an important criteria in choosing a college, there are additional factors that are more important:

Funding — Whether the colleges you are applying to are financially viable for your family, and

Recruitment Feasibility — Whether the schools you are applying to actually need and want students with your specific talent.

Listen to hear how to use these factors to guide your college search, so that you don’t make the mistakes that many families do — applying to colleges that are a good fit for your student, but which don’t give you enough financial aid to actually attend.

I know paying for college is a realistic factor in selecting a school. A lot of families are overlooking schools where they could earn enough scholarship money to make the cost of attending a private school equal to or less than the cost of an in-state university. You will hear me discuss a special scholarship program at Houston Baptist University, which is just one local example of the types of scholarships that might make certain schools more affordable. (There are hundreds of similar opportunities throughout the nation.)

You can listen to the full episode on iTunes (episode #54) or directly from your device here:

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College Admission Essays: 7 Topics To Avoid

guy studying with computer

It is essay time for seniors. College admissions essays are challenging. I tell clients I would rather write a 100-page research paper than two pages about myself. It is challenging to write a unique personal statement without relying on generalizations or slipping into clichés. The goal is for each student to present his or her personal strengths and demonstrate effective communication and college-bound writing. Here are some over-done approaches that won’t help your application.

College admission essays give applicants a unique opportunity to tell admissions officers about their unique talents, experiences, and strengths.  At many competitive universities, an applicant’s essay can play a significant role in the admissions decision, so your choice of topic is important.  Here are topics students wanting to write quality essays should avoid.

Before you think you need to tear up your current essay and start again, let me stress that any of these topics could be done well. Your challenge is to write a unique and captivating essay that could only belong to you.

1.  Recreating the Winning Online Essay

You can find dozens of successful essays on the Internet.  These essays are well written and capture the writer’s unique qualities.  However, as soon as a student attempts to replicate one of these winning essays, it loses its uniqueness.  You would be better served by observing the topics, writing style, tone, and variety of successful essays they find online, then using these traits for reference, writing your own story in your own words.

2.  Cliché Sports Victory

“I made the winning basket as the buzzer rang.”  “I led my team from behind to victory.” “I dug deep and found the strength in the last mile to pass my opponent and win the race.” Many high school students participate in sports and can identify moments when they overcame obstacles to enjoy success.  However, college admissions officers have read so many essays with these themes that the sports essay can sound cliché. If you want to write about your sports experiences, do so with a fresh perspective. Make sure your essay couldn’t apply to every cross-country runner or every pitcher who has faced an injury.

3.  Whining About Personal Misfortunes

Some applicants have faced tremendous challenges; colleges want to know about students’ struggles and how they have handled adversity.  However, no one wants to read a two-page essay in which a student whines about his or her personal misfortunes. Essays that complain, seek sympathy, or present the writer as a victim with no ability to change his or her circumstances can backfire.  Students should focus on the positive and explain how they have learned to adapt and overcome challenges (without whining). Again, your essay must have a fresh take on the situation—one that is unique to you.

4.  Illegal Activities

Yes, high school students can get into trouble, learn from their mistake, and turn things around.  However, featuring one’s indiscretions in a college admissions essay is a bad idea.  Colleges don’t want to admit students who may be violent or unstable.  Prospective students should avoid writing about drug use, underage drinking, shoplifting, date rape, or other illegal activities.  Even if a student has learned his or her lesson and changed, an essay on one of these topics may raise red flags.

5.  How Seeing the Underprivileged Made Me Grateful

Many high school students participate in community service opportunities in which they help others and in the process learn how fortunate they themselves are.  While these may be genuinely life-changing moments, too many essays present a clichéd view. Students should take care not to sentimentalize the “less fortunate” and instead focus on their personal achievements. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about your recent mission trip. But ask yourself, “Could this essay apply to anyone else in my group? Anyone who has made a similar journey?” If the answer is yes, you need to make major edits.

5.  Pathetic Attempt Humor

Everyone knows a person who thinks he or she is funny, but isn’t.  Humor can work well in an admission essay, showing the applicant’s true personality.  However, humor in an essay just as easily can be dangerous:  What comes across well in person may sound like a pathetic attempt at humor (or even offensive) on paper.

6.  Sarcastic Take on the Essay

Some applicants want to show their ability to think outside the box, so instead of answering the question presented, they present a quirky response in the form of a sarcastic take on the college essay.  Describing one’s biggest challenge as “finding a topic for college essays,” highlighting oneself as the person “having the most significant impact,” or writing a meta-essay in stream-of-consciousness style is likely to come off as flippant or arrogant, rather than intellectual and unique.

7.  Activity List in Paragraph Form

There is nothing more boring than reading a list. College applications already ask students to list their activities and achievements in other parts of the application process.  Admissions officers don’t want to read the exact same list in paragraph form.  You could create a better, more thoughtful essay if you focus on one or two significant activities and achievements and write about them in depth.

There is no “best” topic for college admissions essays.  The goal is for each student to present his or her personal strengths and demonstrate effective communication and college-bound writing.  Most topics can be done well, but when overdone or poorly executed they become cliché or ineffective.  No one wants to write a forgettable essay that sounds like all of the others, so it behooves prospective college students to choose carefully what topic to write about and to concentrate on writing about their own real experiences and ideas.

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8 Simple Ways to Start the Semester Strong

The school year has officially begun! Today’s newsletter offers some tips for getting the year off to a good start and taking the good intentions for better work habits and grades and turning them into achievable goals.

You may know that I’m the co-host of The College Prep Podcast, a free weekly internet show. My co-host, Gretchen Wegner, an academic coach from California, and I deal with topics including changes to the SAT, how to study effectively, tips for college applications and scholarships, time management, and listener questions.

If you haven’t heard the show, you can find it on iTunes or listen from our website. If you like what you hear, please tell others about the podcast and/or leave us a review on iTunes. Our goal is to provide this free resource to as many people as possible.

Starting the school year off right is the topic of this week’s podcast episode. These simple tips can be HUGE for parents and students looking to earn better grades, get organized, or simply reduce the tension that assignments, grades, and school can bring.

Listen to the episode: click here 

Here are the Cliff Notes if you can’t listen right now:

Sometimes school success is in the planning. Not just the hopes and dreams of a great year, but the execution of little things on a regular basis.

Hopefully you have set yourself up for a great year. We go into details in the show, but here are some things to review.  Have you…

1. gotten an organization system and supplies that work for you, including an at-home filing system?

2. read through all your syllabi to take note of attendance and late work policies?

3. introduced yourself to your teacher, and if you have a learning difference, told your teacher about it? Don’t assume you teacher will know.

4. gotten the phone numbers of 2-3 people in each of your classes?

5. established a “Homework Set Up Routine” for when you get home from school?

6. made an agreement with your parents about how often you (and they) will check your online grades? Parents, listen to find out why your grade checking might be causing your student to do less and not more.

7. gotten distraction blockers on your computer?

8. created an exercise regimen that is independent of whatever sports you will play? See my recommendation below to understand why this is such an important

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When Should I Take the ACT / SAT?

Students working in classroom

Even with the upcoming changes to the SAT, the answer to “when should I take the ACT / SAT” remains the same: sometime during junior year. Here’s why.

Complete Testing As A Junior

Your goal should be to complete all admissions testing prior to senior year. If you can take (and retake) the ACT or SAT and any Subject Tests during your junior year then you are free to devote 100% of your attention to college applications as a senior. The seniors who decide to retake either the ACT or SAT are left in a state of limbo– working to complete applications, but at the same time studying and waiting for the updated test scores. Simplify your application process and finish testing during your junior year.

Find The Best Time For You

Now that we’ve narrowed the testing window down to sometime junior year, you need to find the time that is best for you. There are two major factors to consider:

  • When will you have the most time to focus and prepare?
  • When will you be most motivated?


For most students, junior year of high school is the most academically challenging. There may be times during the school year when you are so bogged down with school that you don’t have much time or energy left for anything else. Take these times off your potential testing calendar.

Also try to avoid peak times for any sports or activities. I always joke that I teach all the baseball guys in the fall because in the spring they belong to coach. Trying to prepare for a major test at the same time you are spending nights and weekends practicing for marching band, the big theater production, the national qualifier debate tournament, or the basketball playoffs, isn’t your best option.

The ACT is given six times a year: September, October, December, February, April, and June. The SAT is given seven times a year: October, November, December, January, March, May, and June. I’ve crossed out those last test dates because starting in March of 2016 the SAT is changing and you don’t want to take the redesigned SAT this spring while the College Board is still figuring itself out.


You may not be able to wait until you feel perfectly ready, but you will study and test better when motivated. Studying because you have to or because mom says to isn’t usually motivated studying. My best students come to class with a purpose– “my goal is to get into Noter Dame and I want to improve my ACT by 4 points” or “the coach said I need a few more points then he will offer me a place on the team (and full scholarship!)” or “I need to study before competition season begins.”

You don’t have to have a specific school or score in mind, but when you can start connection your actions to your future college plans, you will do better. At the beginning of junior year many students still think of college in general terms as something that is still a far off dream. Usually by spring the junior class catches college fever and you will hear friends talk about taking the ACT or SAT, visiting campuses, and making plans to turn that dream into reality.

Allow Time to Retake

As you plan your first attempt at the test, understand that most students take the ACT or SAT more than once. You should factor in time to retake the test. For me, this means the June test dates are reserved for retakes; I wouldn’t suggest a student take the test for the first time in June.

What’s Missing?

I’ve outlined the key factors for planning to take the ACT and SAT. Notice what I didn’t mention? I didn’t suggest you give any thought to what you might learn in school this year. Why? Because a couple more months in English and math isn’t going to make much difference. The material covered on both the ACT and SAT has a basis in the concepts taught in school (grammar, algebra, vocabulary, geometry, etc.), but five more months in Ms. Binkley’s Algebra II class is unlikely to help your scores.

Do not think that you need to plan your testing around your school calendar. You would be better off finding a quality test prep program and spending four to ten weeks specifically reviewing for the exam.

The Decision Is Yours

Once you eliminate conflicts and find a time when you are motivated and ready to study, the choice of test date is yours. There is no easier or harder test. There is no better time to take the ACT or SAT. Scores are NOT based on the group who tests on a certain date, so you don’t need to play mind games trying to figure out when you can avoid the smart people. You test when you are ready. Period.


Posted in ACT Success, SAT Success, Testing | Leave a comment