How to Use 2015 PSAT Results for College Planning & Test Prep

Scores from the October 2015 PSAT and PSAT 8/9 are now available. Results have been online at since January 7 and today, January 29, high schools should receive individual printed score reports from College Board.

To help you make the most of the information, I’ve prepared two videos.

First, the full picture. In just over 19 minutes you can learn:

  • Where to access paper and online scores
  • What numbers are important and what doesn’t matter
  • How to tell if your scores are good
  • What you can expect for National Merit cutoffs
  • How to use PSAT results for college planning and future test prep

If you just want the basics, I also have a 2-minute overview. You will miss out on the nuts & bolts and some specific suggestions, but you will have a better idea of what all those numbers mean to you and your college admission plans.

Here’s the full version:

And the 2-minute summary:

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R. I. P. Old SAT


Tomorrow, January 23, we say goodbye to the old SAT as it is given for the last time. I will miss:

  • Math that emphasizes creative problem solving over long computation
  • The overt (and easily coach-able) emphasis on college-bound vocabulary
  • Short sections that never ask students to focus for more than 25 minutes on a given subject
  • Broad essay topics which allow multiple interpretations supported by any type of evidence

Going forward with the new SAT I think students will appreciate

  • The scoring system which no longer penalizes for wrong answers
  • A multiple-choice writing section based 100% on editing passages (like the ACT). Students won’t miss the Error ID sentences.
  • Changes to the written essay that move it to the end of the exam, remove it from the overall SAT score, and make it optional (like the ACT). Essay scores will now be “extra” and will not be factored into a student’s Evidence Based Reading & Writing score (again, like the ACT.)

The new SAT looks more like the ACT than its outgoing counterpart. Having two competing exams that share an increasing number of similarities is not good for students, many of whom benefited from having a real choice in admissions tests.

As the new format SAT moves from prototype to full implementation phase this spring, we will see how many students prefer it to the ACT and life will be simpler with two known choices and less speculation.

I guess it is time to recycle my old SAT books. I’ve had the new format book since it was released by College Board last summer, but it doesn’t have the same familiar dog-eared pages and worn cover held on by layers of packing tape.


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Why Go To College? (Or What College Is Not)

Tips to Succeed In College


As I go through the process of helping students prepare for college I’m often brought back to the essential question: why do we want our kids to get college degrees? If we can better understand the purpose then we can align all of our actions towards achieving that goal.

I will start with a couple things I think college is not. Of course, you’re welcome to disagree with me in which case your actions would be directed towards a slightly different goal than mine.

Don’t Go To College To Get A Job

We do not send students to college simply to get a job upon graduation. If the only purpose of higher education was to gain subsequent employment we would not need football games, sororities or fraternities, or any other social activities. College in this scenario would look a lot more like a trade school where students could take practical hands-on classes and begin internships or apprenticeships towards securing a future job.

If employment was the only goal for a college education most students could easily commute to their local junior college or state university. We would have no need for dormitories or residence halls and no need for any of the social components most schools offer.

Yes, some students are just looking for education to improve employment options. Trade schools, online classes, and local colleges can be the right answer. And, yes, we do hope that higher education will lead to more opportunities in employment, but most of us don’t think future employment is the only goal of a college education.

Don’t Go To College To Gain Social Status

A college education is not the route to acceptance in proper society or a recognized pedigree.

In the way that some people say that you need to go to college to get a job, others say you need to go to college in order to be accepted into the world. Often these are the people who justify the need to go to a bigger, better, or brand-name school because it will “open doors”. This is part of the myth of higher education in America.

I can assure you that a college diploma is not like the club card that will grant me access to the airport lounge. My undergraduate degree is from Rice University, an institution that perennially makes the top 20 list of national universities. I have that big name degree, but I have yet to find people fawning over themselves to extend me jobs, greater social positions, or extra fringe benefits.

We’ve seen a lot of backlash to this position in the past few years. You can find numerous articles listing successful people with degrees from non-prestigious schools or with no degree at all.

I believe it is important for students to seek out like-minded peers who will encourage them to achieve their best, but I don’t think you need to need a particular college name on your degree to earn status.

I’m not opposed to Ivy League or high ranking schools. I loved my time at Rice and feel I got a lot from the classes and the people I met. But that experience has not magically granted me a better place in society or opened doors. Doors have opened when I worked to open them.

Don’t Go To College To Play For Four Years

College is not a four-year country club experience. This is the complete opposite of the first concept that college is simply for a job. Under this focus people believe that college is a four-year social vacation as a transition from high school into the real world.

Few adults subscribed to this idea. Most understand that there has to be some practical balance between the fun parts of college life and the work that will prepare students for success in the future.

However, when I visit colleges and sit in on campus tours and information sessions, I see a lot of students who look like they are shopping for a good time. They pay more attention to fancy dorms, rock climbing walls, lazy rivers in the recreation center, and what’s being served for lunch. The fact that there is a Starbucks in the library should not be a major selling point for a university. But when students are just looking for the country club lifestyle it can be difficult to put the focus on what matters.

It’s been a few years (the example is dated) but this experience still stands out in my mind. I worked with a very bright young lady who was in the top 10% of her class at a private high school. We had spent a couple sessions discussing different colleges she might want to research and visit. She exclaimed at our next meeting that she had found the perfect school. After she told me the name of the school, a wonderful private liberal arts college, I asked her why this school was going to be “the one.” She told me that she was in love with this particular institution because they had outlet’s in the quad. (not classes, majors, research options, study abroad, or internships– the big issue was electrical outlets?!?) She could envision herself with her laptop computer plugged in as she sat from morning till night doing her schoolwork on the grass in the open air. All of these sessions, all of the information I provided, and the decision is swayed by outlets in the quad? !!!!!

Lifestyle perks are nice and colleges know that new dorms and fancy recreation centers impress prospective students. This is where you as a parent may need to step in and refocus the discussion on the actual merits of the institution if you are looking for more than a four-year country club experience.

What Factors Matter?

Why do we want our children to get college degrees? The answer is complicated and involves many factors. I want both of my own children to learn to think and express themselves, meet new people, develop academic skills they can apply to a variety of situations in the future, broaden their academic, cultural, and social perspectives, and take advantage of opportunities to work, research, and intern with people who can shape their careers. You can probably think of plenty of other things I’ve left off this list.

The problem is that all of these big picture reasons don’t show up in the quick online college search programs that limit your list by geography, major, size, etc. But having a better idea of what you are looking for in a college is important.

Even the very brightest high school students don’t always have clear priorities in what they want from a college. Their search process may be incomplete or completely off-track. As a parent you may assume you are looking at things the same way, but until you actually discuss and prioritize, you may find you and your student are looking for very different things.

Start By Finding Common Ground

I’ve started by giving some examples of what college is not. You might agree or disagree with me. So take some time and discuss your priorities.

  • What do you hope to get out of your college experience?
  • Why go to college?
  • What factors are most important?
  • What is less important or is something you can find at any school?

Not everyone will have the same answers, but if your family can identify these big picture goals, you will have a much easier time looking through the 4700+ degree granting institutions.

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Finding Colleges is Like Finding a Good Date

college students

When speaking to various groups about the college admissions process, I often make analogies to dating— a topic that most teenagers can identify with. Ideally, the perfect match for college is like finding the perfect boy or girlfriend: you are interested in them and they are equally interested in you.

One of the most common mistakes I see families make in the college admissions process is chasing after big-name schools that will not share the same interest. Follow me on this analogy for a minute.

Filling your college list with some of the most unattainable schools is the equivalent of trying to get a date for homecoming by only asking the most popular and well-recognized students on your campus. Even if you would be an ideal choice, there are only a handful of these “desirable dates” and each can only except one invitation to the dance, so the odds are working against you – particularly if all of the other students are trying the same date-getting approach. Finally, even if you were lucky enough to get one of the “ideal dates” to say yes, you may have a better homecoming experience had you gone with someone more your style.

The College Problem. 

Each year I see students fill their college lists with what some counselors used to refer to as “reach” or “long shot” schools. (Nothing against the schools or even having a couple of them on your college list.) The problem comes when these schools are the focus or are seen as the only desirable options.

We are NOT just talking about Ivy League here. The exact names of the schools may change depending on where you live and who you are, but one thing remains the same – the schools are going to be hard, if not impossible, to gain admission to.

Some people believe they are avoiding this problem by adding well-known schools that aren’t in the Ivy League or the top 10 on the US News annual ranking. Just because you’ve taken Stanford, MIT, and Duke off your list, doesn’t mean you’ve improved your odds of admission. It is still going to be extremely difficult to gain acceptance to Rice, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Cornell, Notre Dame, etc.

Sometimes these “highly selective” schools are in your own backyard. Here in Texas the University of Texas at Austin has become so difficult to get into that many students who fall outside the class rank for guaranteed admissions may be denied even if they are in the top 10-20% of their graduating classes.

A lot of students are intrigued by the prestige of these colleges and universities. They have heard and read so many good things, that they want to be a part of the schools. (All good things.) The downside comes when the schools become the primary focus of the college search process.

This is where I find many students chasing the hard-to-get-into school and focusing all of their time and effort on this “dream”. Suddenly everything is about trying to be good enough– improving standardized test scores, writing the perfect essays, making campus visits and trying to impress. I can’t count the number of times I have heard “we will do whatever we have to in order to get in” from families.

I don’t want to discourage dreaming or taking steps to achieve a goal. I know that many students get into the “impossible” schools each year. What I do want is to encourage realism, research, and balance.


Know what you are up against. A friend told me that her daughter is interested in Columbia. I pulled up the entering class profile from Columbia’s website and showed her that only 6.9% of applicants were admitted last year and more than 90% of them were in the top 10% of their graduating classes. My friend had no idea it was that hard to get into Columbia.

Yes, you should know the reality of admissions to each and every university on your list – the good, the bad, and the ugly of getting into each school. Understand that any university that admits fewer than 25% of its applicants will be very difficult to get into no matter who you are. These are the types of schools that turn down valedictorians every year. Also understand that simply by applying to more hard-to-get-into schools, you are not improving your average. (Applying to 20 schools each with an admit rate of 5% does not mean you will get in somewhere – statistics doesn’t work like that.)


Start by learning more about each of the schools already on your list. You can begin with statistics: admission rate, average test scores, student to teacher ratio, and percentage of admitted students in the top of their class. Then move onto learning the truly meaningful things about each school. What are classes like? What do students do for fun? Do professors teach most classes or are many undergraduate classes taught by TAs and adjuncts? Will you be able to take classes in your major freshman year? Is this the type of place where you can see yourself happy and successful?

The harder, but more meaningful, side of research is finding the schools you may not have heard of before. These may be seen as the equivalent of the ideal date who just isn’t known as “the popular one” at your high school. These “unknown” colleges and universities are everywhere. They are well regarded in academic circles and by employers. They have satisfied students and alumni who will brag about their experiences. They offer incredible teaching, research, internships, campus life, extracurriculars, and everything you would want in a college. Unfortunately for us, these incredible schools don’t have the same name recognition as Harvard and Duke.

I would encourage everyone to branch out beyond the schools you’ve heard of and learn a little bit more about 3 to 5 other schools. Getting beyond the household names may have the added bonus of helping you find greater scholarship opportunities.


Hopefully your realism and research will naturally lead you into a more balanced approach to your college search. You will have added schools that seem to be a great match socially and academically. You will have found some hidden gems to add to your list. And you will understand the sometimes brutal reality of admission to some of the highly selective schools. If you have done this, congratulations; you have achieved a successful balance and will likely see great success in the admissions process.

(Unfortunately, I have no tips on finding the perfect date for homecoming!)

Posted in College Admission, College Selection | Leave a comment

Practice SAT / ACT or Sales Tool? Why some practice tests give bad results.

Maze of test prep options

Today I’m exposing a dirty secret in the test prep industry. Those free or low cost practice tests you see advertised are not good practice; they are sales tools.

Last week I told you taking the SAT or ACT for practice isn’t always smart. There are bad tests and potential consequences from using the real exams for practice. (full article here) Good practice comes from taking full-length official tests from College Board (SAT) or ACT. These tests are free and can be found online or in your high school guidance counselor’s office.

So back to these bad tests…

The Facts

Every year I speak to concerned parents who think they are doing a good thing by signing their son or daughter up to take the practice test offered at school or by the big-box test prep chain. It sounds like a good deal. Students get to experience test-taking conditions, see the exam, and find out their scores. You may even get a detailed score report with suggestions for improvement and a free strategy session from the test prep company.

What you don’t know is that SAT or ACT wasn’t a real exam; it didn’t come from College Board or ACT. Likely you got a Kaplan, Princeton Review, or other corporate test.

This company-designed pre-test is skewed. It looks like a real test, like a fake Louis Vuitton handbag looks real to a casual observer, but these tests are worth less than that street corner knockoff.

The secret in the test prep industry is that pre-tests are often designed to give low scores—not dramatically lower, but just enough to scare parents into signing up for the prep class. On the other end of the process, the post-test is designed to show improvement even for the indolent kid who barely touched the homework. “See it worked,” parents will exclaim when comparing the pre and post-test results.

Instead of a useful practice test, you got a sophisticated sales pitch.

The Harm

So what’s the harm? Why is it bad to take these “practice tests” if you go in knowing the results are unreliable?

  1. It is a waste of time. High school students are busy. They don’t have a lot of time to waste. Spend the time on an official practice test instead.
  2. Students get wrong ideas about what they need to study. These company-generated tests aren’t the real deal. The wording of questions may be off. Some problems may present concepts or vocabulary that hasn’t been tested on the actual exam in recent years. Students leave the practice test thinking they need to improve on certain things that may not help on the real exam.
  3. Low scores are demoralizing. Saying you won’t put a lot of emphasis on the scores doesn’t make it so. I know too many high school students who obsess about the numbers. “Why did my scores go down from the PSAT?” “I’m never going to get into that college.” “I’m so stupid!” These are all things I’ve heard students say. Why risk more stress and anxiety on a test that is rigged to yield low scores?

So why is my school or public library promoting these tests?

The Complicit Partners

Most educators don’t know enough about the SAT or ACT (or the test prep industry) to effectively advocate for students. (It might be fun to ask when your school counselor last took a timed SAT or ACT!) They may not know there is a difference between official and knockoff tests. I’ve known a lot of teachers and counselors who thought these opportunities were good for students. They didn’t know it would be better to get the booklets from College Board or ACT and offer their own mock exam.

And the test prep industry isn’t all-bad either. If you think about it, a free or low cost practice test is a great sales tool. These companies have invested so much time and money into creating books filled with “close, but not exact” questions; they view it as another tool.

In America we have somehow managed to compartmentalize education outside of the rest of our free market economy. This belief perpetuates a lot of problems; a major one is the naïve belief that everything done at the school is in our children’s best interests. Too often we fail to ask critical questions— the type of questions we would ask if we were purchasing a home, a car, or new refrigerator.

Become an Educated Consumer

Now you know how important it is to use official tests when studying for the ACT and SAT, here are some questions to help you critically examine potential opportunities:

Who is sponsoring this practice test?

Years ago when I worked as a high school teacher, a school club could get Princeton Review to come in and administer a practice SAT. The club got to charge $5 or $10 per person (a great fund raiser) and Princeton Review got free use of the building to present to their target audience.

Find out who is behind the practice test. Does a group at school sponsor it? Is a test prep company giving the exam? Or is this one of the rare cases where your school is using the official practice booklets directly from ACT or College Board?

Will they be using official test materials?

If a test prep company is sponsoring the test, your answer is no. There are rare cases where schools will offer mock exams for students and the guidance-counseling department uses the official practice materials. If you can’t get a straight answer to this question, assume you are NOT getting official materials from the test writers.

You can create a good practice environment on your own. The simplest way is to get a practice test and administer it at your kitchen table. Mom or dad can serve as timekeeper (use the microwave timer or use an app like Proctor). If you want to get fancy, students can go to a local library. It might be helpful to find a quiet corner or use a private study room. Groups can coordinate their own practice; use a classroom at your community center or church.

But what about the score report? When you get an official practice test booklet, it comes with a bubble sheet, answers, and scoring instructions. Grading it yourself is actually better than receiving a printout. In fact, it is so much better that I have all the students in my SAT and ACT classes score their own tests.

Here’s what I’ve found:

  • If I did the scoring and printed a report, students focused on the number and not how or why they scored as they did.
  • Too many students don’t understand the grading scale for the SAT and ACT, but when they check their own work, they see what it takes (numerically) to improve.
  • When you check your own paper, wrong answers hurt. Students are more likely to change their approach as a result.
  • Students make connections between their results and the test taking strategies I teach. I can’t tell you how many “ah-ha” moments come when students are calculating their scores.

So be an informed consumer. Insist on official materials. And don’t be afraid to set up your own practice tests.

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