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College Board Ends SAT Essay

This week, the College Board announced that they will be ending the use of the optional essay portion of the SAT, as well as the SAT Subject Tests.

Up until now, the essay was used by a number of schools to evaluate a student’s writing competency. The essay involved reading a news piece and then dissecting the author’s persuasive techniques. According to College Board, they are removing the essay from the test, at least in part, because of the difficulties students have had in securing test dates and locations during the COVID crisis in 2020. Streamlining the SAT’s format should make it easier for test locations to plan and make more room available for students.

The Subject Tests were used by universities, as well as departments within those schools, to evaluate readiness for specific disciplines. Students were able to take subject tests in math, U.S. history, world history, biology, physics, chemistry, literature, and foreign languages. Departments would use those scores to further differentiate applicants to their programs. The announcement this week explained that the Advanced Placement (AP) program, also run by College Board, fills the need for subject assessment.

As part of the announcement, College Board stated that they are still working toward an online version of the SAT. A trial run of online testing for AP exams last spring showed some problems with the online format. The streamlining of the SAT should allow College Board to focus on optimizing the digital form of the exam.

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SAT ACT Cancellations in the Age of COVID

At this point, no one can deny that the COVID-19 outbreak has changed our way of life forever. College admissions haven’t escaped this paradigm shift, with some schools even moving to a “test optional” admissions process. Still, the SAT and the ACT will continue to be important benchmarks for students to use to set themselves apart. The biggest issue in the short term has been ensuring that your testing center will actually give the test. SAT and ACT cancellations have been a huge issue in the age of COVID. Because the SAT and ACT use high schools and colleges as testing centers, and because many of these high schools and colleges remain closed to students due to COVID, we’ve seen many students have their test delayed or canceled. This has led to student and parent frustration and despair. Some wonder if they’ll even get the chance to take the test.

You’ve got plenty of chances!

First things first, if you’ve gotten that email from the ACT or from College Board that says your testing site has been canceled, don’t despair! The best next step is to sign up for the next available test. The SAT is giving tests every month from August to December, so there will definitely be a spot for you! Seniors have the added advantage of a school-administered test on October 14 (to replace the canceled April test). The ACT has added dates in both September and October to try to accommodate as many students as possible. As the curve continues to flatten, students will continue to return to in-school instruction. This will increase the likelihood that schools will administer the tests. So if you’ve been bumped from one of the test dates, you have a great chance of making that test up in the fall.

Stay on top of things!

If you’re already signed up to take the test in September or beyond, be vigilant! Be sure to check back on the website of either the SAT or ACT often. Look for announcements about testing centers being added or canceled. If you stay proactive, you’ll be better equipped to react when necessary. Some of our students have been able to change their testing centers when others canceled, preserving their opportunity to take the test on their chosen date. One things that’s proved true about this era of COVID is that things can change quickly. Stay on top of the latest information–it could mean the difference between taking the test when you want or being forced to wait weeks or months.

Stay positive!

As the best selling book in the universe advises, Don’t Panic! Even if your testing center is canceled and you’re pushed back a month or more, it’s not the end of the world. Keep working, keep taking practice tests, and keep your chin up! Nearly every college and university has altered its normal admission deadlines to reflect the difficulties of COVID and standardized tests. If you’re looking to apply for an early decision or early action, there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to get test scores submitted. Many schools are allowing students to submit their scores later than usual. So don’t despair! Keep working and stay positive! You’ve got this! You can navigate through the SAT or ACT cancellations in the age of COVID!

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Guessing on the SAT/ACT

No matter how skilled or how experienced the student, at some point on the SAT or ACT, they’ll find it necessary to take a guess. Or two. Or ten.

Guessing is part of any good test-taking strategy. Knowing the ins and outs of guessing on the SAT/ACT can make a big difference in the final outcome of a test.

Be sure to actually guess!

One of the biggest mistakes I see students make, especially early in their test prep journey, is leaving answers blank if they aren’t sure or if they run out of time. Unlike the SAT of days gone by, the current SAT and ACT do not penalize students for guessing. As a result, students should always put an answer down, even when they have no idea what it might be. Leaving answers blank is leaving points on the table!

Even on the SAT Math grid-ins!

Students tend to give a funny look when I encourage them to guess on the fill-in-the-blank math questions on the SAT.

Their look says, “It would be like… impossible to get those right, right?”

My response is that, at least if they guess something, they have a chance. Even if it’s a small chance, it’s still more than if they left it blank. Some chance is always better than no chance! And many of the grid-in answers on the non-calculator section tend to be single-digit integers (0-9). So that makes the chances a little better if you stick to something in that neighborhood.

Multiple choice straightlining

Another guessing strategy I pass along to test takers is to guess in a straight line. So if a student is running out of time, fill in the remaining answers with A, B, C, or D (or E, if on the ACT math section). In terms of probability, you always have a 1 out of 4 chance to hit the right answer. But because the test answers tend to hit every letter at some point, your chances of at least getting some correct tend to be higher if you guess in a straight line.

Especially on ACT Math

One of the quirky things I’ve noticed through teaching the ACT for years has been the tendencies of the end of the ACT math section. After doing some anecdotal research, I started coaching students to guess the outside lines (A/F or E/K)–or anything but the very middle line (C/H)–if they ran out of time at the end of the math section. When I looked through 20 or so ACTs, I found that the outside lines were good for roughly 1-2 more questions correct in that last 15 of the math test. One to two questions could make a point or two difference on the section.

Students are always curious as to why the answers tend to drift to the outsides. The answer is simple: psychology. What do most test takers guess on a multiple choice test? The old axiom is to guess C. Human nature compels us to stay away from extremes and guess toward the middle. It seems as though the makers of the ACT understand this and tend to push more answers to the outsides, making it less likely that students will guess well at the end.

Know the tendencies

Knowing the types of answers that the tests prioritize can be incredibly helpful if you need to do any guessing on the SAT/ACT. For example, in the English section of the ACT, clear and concise answers tend to be correct. When in doubt, go with the shortest selection. On the math section, CANNOT BE DETERMINED is a regular answer choice. However, this answer is very rarely correct, so it wouldn’t be wise to randomly guess it. Having some familiarity with the way the test operates can really be a game-changer, even when you have to guess.

Narrow down your options

Finally, one of the best strategies for guessing on the tests is to eliminate answers that can’t work. Does the answer have to be positive? Then eliminate the negatives. Are there verb forms that you know are incorrect? Get rid of those first. Then, if you’re left to make a guess, your odds are considerably higher. On most sections of the SAT and ACT, you have a 25% chance of guessing the correct answer. Eliminate one, and that percentage jumps to 33%. Eliminate two, and it soars to 50%. So the more you can eliminate, the better your chances.

Ideally, a student will know how to work through every question and problem on the test. But test taking isn’t often ideal, and even the best test takers will have to make a guess at some point during an exam. Using a little strategy for guessing on the SAT/ACT can make the difference between hitting a goal score and falling agonizingly short.

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Surveys and Polls on the SAT

2020 has been an interesting year, to say the least. COVID-19, earthquakes, murder hornets, and a rejuvenated civil rights movement have all hit the headlines in the first half of the year. As we enter the summer, however, the drama dial will be turned up to 11 as the next wave of chaos rolls in: the 2020 presidential election. And as part of that process, Americans will be inundated with surveys and polls. Even standardized test takers aren’t immune! Understanding surveys and polls on the SAT is an integral part of success on the math sections.

We’ll take a look at a couple of examples of polling and survey questions on the test and talk you through the strategy behind them.

Question 1: How to create a successful poll

A political scientist wants to predict how the residents of New Jersey will react to a new bill proposed in the state senate. Which of the following study designs is most likely to provide reliable results for the political scientist?

A) Mailing a questionnaire to each of 300 randomly selected residents of New Jersey

B) Surveying a group of 200 randomly selected New Jersey residents

C) Interviewing a group of students randomly selected from a large public university in New Jersey

D) Surveying a group of 1,500 randomly selected US residents

Any ideas? This is a fairly straightforward question that tests students on what makes a survey valid. Students can usually eliminate choices C) and D) because they don’t involve New Jersey residents directly.

But A) and B) can be a little more tricky. A) seems like the right choice at first glance because the survey involves more respondents–if it weren’t for the fact that the success of a questionnaire is dependent on a person returning it. Would all 300 residents return the survey? And, as I often ask my students, who returns a mailed questionnaire? A person who has a more pressing or direct interest in the issue! So while the political scientist may get some data from the questionnaire, a far more reliable method would be to directly survey a random group of state residents.

Question 2: What do the poll results mean?

A city with 120,000 residents is voting on a proposal that would eliminate overnight parking of vehicles on the city’s streets. An independent company randomly surveys 1,200 residents to see whether or not residents would support this proposal. The outcome of the survey shows that 60% of the residents surveyed approve of the proposal with a margin of error of 2%. Which of the following statements is a plausible conclusion from the outcome of the study?

A) Exactly 60% of city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

B) There are 72,000 city residents who approve eliminating overnight parking.

C) About 2% of the city residents do not approve eliminating overnight parking.

D) Between 58% and 62% of the city residents approve eliminating overnight parking.

In this question, the survey has already been completed and the results are in: 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking with a margin of error of 2%. This question is focused on just what that result means.

We can eliminate choice A) because of one word: exactly. While a well-done poll can give a predicted result that is very close to reality, it’s still just that–a prediction. Even under the best of conditions, it’s not an exact science. One only needs to look at predictions surrounding recent elections to see how unscientific polls can be.

B) is an attractive choice because it looks like it might require some math. Surely the SAT would want us to calculate something in a math question! And, in fact, 60% of 120,000 is 72,000. The problem, however, comes back to the exactness of that result. A poll is always a prediction. So to say that 72,000 people would approve is far too precise for any poll. If the answer had said, “Around 72,000 city residents will likely approve…”, it would be far closer to the truth.

That leaves us with C) or D), and the choice between the two comes down to an understanding of the term “margin of error.” Because polls are only predictors, polls are often presented with a bit of wiggle room. Our poll said that 60% of people approved eliminating overnight parking. That 2% margin of error is just that: a range in which the truth might actually lie. And choice D) reflects that idea. According to the poll results, the correct percentage that approves could be anywhere between 58% and 62%, given the margin of error.

Takeaways

The most important strategy to use with questions about surveys and polls on the SAT is an important strategy for every question on the test: read carefully. The test writers aren’t doing you any favors, and they’ll word things in convoluted ways just to make it tougher on you. If you’re working too quickly, it can be easy to overlook words like “exactly” or “likely,” and those types of words can be incredibly important. So take a breath and read that question carefully.

Practicing on actual SATs is also helpful. Poll and survey questions appear in the no-calculator and/or calculator sections of nearly every SAT, and the more of them you see and work through, the less likely that you’ll be duped by a trick. So putting in the time to practice is essential to be successful on these questions, as well as all the other types you’ll see on a typical SAT.

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Choosing the Right School

For most students across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupted the end of the academic year. Juniors and seniors saw the March, April, May, and June SATs canceled. Those students who would normally receive vital guidance from their school counselors as the year wrapped up were not able to get it. Because of this, it’s becoming increasingly important for students and parents to have good resources to help them choose the right school for their financial and academic needs. And choosing the right school can be easier if you know where to look.

Money.com

Money.com has one of the best ranking sites to help parents and students balance the financial cost of the college decision with the academic achievement and potential future earnings a particular school could provide. The initial web page has Money.com’s rankings based on over 19,000 data points. The rankings take into account such elements as potential student debt, standardized test scores, acceptance rate, and graduation rate.

Some of the schools that rank high on the Money.com list aren’t surprising: Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford. What is surprising is that the number one value in the country, according to the list, is the University of California-Irvine.

What makes the Money.com list even more valuable to college seekers is that feature that allows a user to rank the colleges based on numerous criteria. For example, if a student wanted to study marine biology at a mid-sized school in the western United States, s/he could enter in those parameters, and the website would show which schools fit the bill. Incidentally, the top school for our future marine biologist would be Sonoma State University.

BigFuture

College Board has their own detailed search for colleges, though it doesn’t have some of the more interesting financial features of the Money.com site. BigFuture is easy to use and can also be a great way of narrowing down school choices. One of the most helpful features of the site, as you might expect, is that it provides the desired SAT and ACT ranges for colleges.

The range of scores is presented with the lower score representing the 25th percentile–meaning 25% of incoming freshmen scored below that number–and the higher value representing the 75th percentile. Students applying to a particular school should be shooting for an SAT or ACT score in the middle or higher to have the best chance of being accepted.

BigFuture also allows students and parents to sort through schools by size, type, location, and other parameters to narrow their focus. And while the Money.com site focuses on the academic and financial aspects, BigFuture also allows students to refine their search by sports and activities, diversity, and other social factors.

Together, both sites can be invaluable resources when choosing the right school for you!