Students entering their junior year of high school will be taking tests that will largely determine where they will go to college and how much scholarship money they will receive. The PSAT is given in the fall, followed by the SAT or ACT, offered several times during the year. And the sooner students start preparing, the better, according to specialists who help them.
“Students benefit if they review using the study guides and practice tests on their own,” said Matilda Anhalt, Ph.D., a licensed clinical and school psychologist who worked for thirteen years on the guidance team at the Frisch Yeshiva High School and is now in private practice in Englewood, New Jersey. “If it is affordable, tutoring (whether in groups or privately) can make a difference. A skilled tutor not only reviews content, teaches test taking skills, and organizes a study plan but also should lower test taking anxiety and perhaps most appreciably relieves the pressure off parents to drive the process. It has become so common to have outside support that students feel at a disadvantage without a tutor.”
Dr. Anhalt said many students are daunted by the task and procrastinate or simply underestimate the need for proper preparation. They may appear unmotivated when in fact they are simply overwhelmed. To relieve test taking anxiety, Dr. Anhalt said students should become as familiar as possible with the test. “Break down the process into smaller pieces and organize your time so that it’s just part of your routine or homework. Mastery of the subject matter occurs little by little.” She also recommends that students should repeatedly practice review exams to know the rhythm, timing and feel of the test, and also advises students to review their practice exam answers. “It will reinforce the ones you answered correctly and the wrong ones will underscore where you need more practice.”
Jerry Silverstein, a former New York City teacher with BA and MS degrees in Education, tutors students in English for the SAT and ACT tests, and his partner, Irwin Dolgoff, a former administrator and math teacher in Englewood Cliffs, tutors in math. Their company, Academic Achievements, gives group classes and private tutoring sessions. Dolgoff said the College Board puts out a workbook each year that they use to teach students all the skills they need and then let them take practice tests. “The PSAT tells the kids, and parents, where they are and what they need to work on,” Silverstein said. “These are skills. If you play tennis, and want to have a good serve, you have to practice. Same with these tests.” Silverstein emphasized that you can’t cram for the SATs. “If you start when you’re a senior, you can’t catch up in a couple of weeks. You have to work up to your potential.”
Naomi Kenan, English tutor at the Huntington Learning Center who also has a private tutoring practice, said the SAT and ACT tests require students to think differently about passages they read; these are not the typical English class questions. Tutors help students not only understand the questions, but also the process to find the answer. Also different, she noted, are ACT English questions that require students to read like editors, choosing transitional sentences or determining sentence placement. “Students have to read the questions carefully, because they are quite specific in what they want, both on the ACT and the SAT,” she said. If they want the best grammatical answer, that means there are other good ones. Sometimes the brighter kids speed through these--missing a single word--then kick themselves for getting wrong answers.”
Kenan said that while she hopes students gain a deeper appreciation of the English language, students seek out tutors for one reason: to get the highest score they possibly can. That involves taking lots of practice tests and sometimes, knowing when NOT to answer a question. Since the SAT deducts a quarter point for each wrong answer, students need to decide quickly whether a question is too hard--and just move on. Tutors help students develop a quick system to help them decide when to skip a question. Also, Kenan said most students need refreshers on grammar; for the SAT, they also require an expanded vocabulary.
Many decline coaching in essay writing, to their disadvantage. “The essay is not creative writing; it’s persuasive writing using basic skills, grammar and logic. Colleges are not looking for poetry. They want to know that you can answer a complex question, and then present and back up your argument in a clear, logical manner. “I can’t teach someone to write fiction, but just about anyone can learn to craft a strong persuasive essay.”
Besides SAT prep, Kenan, a reporter and editor with national newspapers and magazines for twenty-five years, also helps with college application essays. “I work on back and forth with a student; I don’t write the essay for him,” she said. “I can point out if an idea isn’t working, and suggest ways to strengthen or change it.” She also works on style, missing transitions, and the classic student error: starting every other sentence with “I.” She said students should never hire someone to write their application essay. “Colleges can recognize a professional job,” she warned. “They want to hear the student’s voice.”
What should students write about? It doesn’t have to be a Florence Nightingale story about volunteering or working with the disadvantaged. It does have to ring true. Kenan said she asks a student first what has happened that affected him. “If you worked in a cancer center, and it really impacted you, fine. But maybe you really want to write about your first heartbreak.”
Kenan said she had one student who talked a lot about the first time she went to summer camp. They finally decided that’s what she should write about. And she was accepted at Washington University in Saint Louis, a top choice for many students. “The essay can be painful or funny. But what a college wants to see is that you are passionate enough about something to write eloquently,” Kenan said. “There’s a saying for writers: If it comes from the heart, it goes to the heart.”
Dr. Anhalt said she truly enjoys guiding students while they are formulating ideas for the college application essays. “It can actually be a surprisingly enjoyable process of self-discovery. As long as the essay is true to the student and is reflective of their interests and passions the written result often becomes a source of pride. I do advise students however, not write about a subject that could possibly push a reader’s buttons. Sadly, I advise students not to write about Israel.”
Students with learning and other disabilities should know that with the proper documentation, they can get extra time and/or other accommodations for their tests. “You have to show a record of accommodation from your school for a significant period of time. If you wake up in eleventh grade and realize you need extra time, it will be difficult to obtain.” Dr. Anhalt said that parents are often afraid of talking honestly to the school about learning issues and keep them under wraps. “If you have legitimate concerns, address them early. High schools are generally both accommodating and supportive of students’ emotional and academic challenges. The schools and the test are equipped to provide individualized accommodations. Needless to say addressing significant issues alleviates pressure of struggling students throughout the test taking process.”
Dr. Anhalt cautions parents not to push their children too hard about getting top scores and to notice warning signs that their child might be suffering from more than normal nervousness. “Be aware of possible changes in your child’s behavior. If you suspect they are suffering from anxiety and/or depression, stop and get help. Changes in eating or sleeping are sure signs that something is amiss. Look out for self- denigrating comments or statements like ‘Why am I doing this anyway, it doesn’t matter’.”
While all students are taking the same SAT or ACT tests, Dr. Anhalt says it is important for them not to identify themselves by their numbers. “High school is a difficult time for just about any student. They are juggling academic and social pressures while trying to add extracurricular activities. Just when they survive their junior year, the pressure of Senior year and the college application process begins. Keep in mind that don’t make decisions based on any one criterion.”
By Bracha Schwartz