Monday, September 5, 2011

Online College Education

"Harvard and Ohio State are not going to disappear any time soon. But a host of new online enterprises are making earning a college degree cheaper, faster and flexible enough to take work experience into account."

This New York Times article explains how Web start-ups offering a mix of credits forwork-experience, peer-to-peer teaching, and online classes with transferable credits are making it easier to get a reputable degree -- or simply acquire valuable knowledge and skills -- at least partly online.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Montana State: Mountains and Minds

PictureCradled in the hills of Bozeman at an elevation of 4,800 feet, Montana State University is one of the state’s two flagship research institutions. 11,500 undergraduate students, 2,000 graduate students and a staff of nearly 3,000 means that people affiliated with the university make up nearly 50% of the city population. That’s apparent when you walk the bustling streets of downtown Bozeman, which sport a funky mix of boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and bars. The music scene is vibrant and the youthful energy is palpable. 

Why might a student from Oregon or Virginia choose MSU instead of a local state school? Since 40% of the student population is from out of state, there must be compelling reasons. Here are some that struck me:

  • High-achieving students who seek balance are drawn to MSU. This is a place where people work hard and play hard. The school's generous merit scholarships and excellent honors program attract a smart crowd. Undergrads can get a $1500 research stipend and approx 250 students across all majors do research and share it with the community each April. The school boasts an impressive list of graduate fellowship winners. Honors students usually take two honors courses each term. “Great Explorations” gives them an opportunity to study a country for an entire semester, and then go there for two weeks.
  • Amazing professors make a lifestyle choice to teach in Montana. These educators have the credentials and teaching skills to be at the most prestigious schools in America, but they love teaching undergrad students, raising their families in one of the most beautiful places in the country, and experiencing four seasons of outdoor recreation.
  • Strong programs in the arts and sciences are the hallmark of MSU.
  • Ever thought about a career as a snow scientist? Be prepared for lots of heavy-duty science courses and check out the sub-zero lab at Montana State University. Built a few years ago, it is one of three such labs in the world. (The others are in Switzerland and Japan and the three labs do some joint research.) Students are researching avalanches and better predictive methodology, studying Arctic and Antarctic core samples, permafrost, fish migration, and have come up with some interesting techniques for “manufacturing” snow.
  • Yellowstone University is sometimes the school’s nickname, since jaunts to the national park take less than two hours. The school is known for its Yellowstone research and there are even classes available that spend a high percentage of class time in the park (including overnights). Where else might you study the difference between the geothermal features geysers, fumaroles, hot springs and mud pots and then get to see all of them “in action”?
  • 2,300 students are engineering majors and the school offers a wide variety of engineering disciplines including chemical, electrical, industrial, civil and bioengineering, as well as both computer science and computer engineering. Engineering students are active participants in “The Grand Challenge”, a cross-university symposium where students use inter-disciplinary approaches to solve our most pressing global problems.
  • If you complete film school at MSU, you might join the “Montana Mafia”. This is a group of MSU grads working in the entertainment industry who go out of their way to network and help new grads find industry jobs. The film school is frequently ranked among the top 5 in the country. Montana PBS is on campus and many film students intern there. Like many of the arts programs at MSU, admission to the film school is “gated”. Students take a year of film classes to build a portfolio and then apply for admission into the major. There are spots for 48 per year.
  • The School of Architecture has a 4+1 program which means students earn both an undergraduate and master’s degree in five years. The first year is open enrollment. Interested students may take the pre-requisite courses and build a portfolio.  Students will need pre-calculus and college physics to pass through the “gate”. There are spots in the major for 91 students per year. Students get ten semesters of design studios and at least three semesters of hand & digital graphics studios. 50% of architecture students study abroad during their fourth year, with the popular destinations being Rome, Asia or South America. Students may also spend a summer participating with classmates at one of their design/build projects in Nepal or Kenya.
  • One of the research projects I liked was a collaboration between architecture students and music students. The architecture students had to design a building and then give the design to the music students who composed a piece using it as inspiration. The music students also each composed a piece that was given to the architecture students who then designed a building to “match the music”.
  • MSU philosophically believes that competitive programs should gate at the end of freshman year, because many high school students didn’t have exposure or opportunity to build a portfolio or resume. Other gated programs at MSU include photography, graphic design, and nursing.
  • As a land grant school, MSU has its roots in agriculture. Animal science, environmental sciences, plant science, sustainable food and bioenergy systems, natural resources and rangeland ecology, and agricultural business are very strong programs.
MSU is not a commuter campus. Most freshmen live on campus, and upper classmen tend to be circled within a close perimeter of school. The dorms are comfortable and there is a good range of residence options including doubles, suites and apartment-style living. Campus dining offers vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices. There is an emphasis on fresh, local foods and the dining services staff has been sourcing more foods closer to campus.

The MSU Bobcats play Division I sports and athletic events are a huge draw for the students and local community. Intramural sports are also popular. Outdoor recreation tops the list of student activities and students tend to be passionate about hiking, climbing, bouldering, mountain biking, fly fishing, whitewater rafting and kayaking, ice climbing, camping, skiing or snowboarding. Free bus service is available to Bridger Bowl, Big Sky and Moonlight Basin ski areas.

Everywhere I went in Montana the people were warm, friendly and genuinely caring. That was especially true of everyone we met at MSU and throughout Bozeman. From admissions director Ronda Russell (who has more pep than the Energizer Bunny) to physics professor Dr. Greg Francis (who believes the best way to engage students is to do a death-defying demonstration in every class) these folks love what they do. Their enthusiasm is really infectious, and MSU students seem thrilled with their choice of school. ( )

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The SAT, part 4: Writing

by Ilana W-B

The SAT is a three-part (math, critical reading, and writing) test required by many colleges in their admissions processes. I plan to write a post with suggestions for each section of the SAT. This is the last post in the series, and I will be focusing on the writing portion of the test.


Write a few timed practice essays. You can’t prepare for the prompt you’ll receive. What you can get used to is effectively budgeting your time. Use some old SAT essay prompts (available in preparation books and online) and write the essays, timing yourself. You can have someone score them for you and offer writing feedback as well.

Learn grammar. If you’re lucky, you’ve had a good middle-school or high-school English teacher who taught you all about subjects and objects, parallelism, dependent and independent clauses, proper punctuation, etc. If not, the multiple choice section will be tricky. (You don’t have to know the fancy terms for all of these things, but knowing the rules means you don’t have to rely on your instincts.) You can still teach yourself: Pick up an English grammar textbook and start following a grammar blog.

Read good writing. This can help you prepare for the critical reading section and the writing section all at once! However, for it to be useful for the writing section, it should be good but not too artsy. News articles are a great choice, as are relatively down-to-earth novels. Hold off on books like The Sound and the Fury or Orlando for now—the grammar is nontraditional.

Taking the Test

There are two pieces to the writing section of the SAT: the essay and the multiple choice questions. The essay counts for a smaller portion of your score than the multiple choice questions do, but both are important. Your essay is scored by two people on a 1–6 scale and their grades are added for a 2–12 score. The multiple choice section is scored 20–80. The two are combined (via a changing chart—there is no consistent formula) to produce your 200–800 overall writing score.

Essay tips:
  • Spend the first five minutes outlining, the next fifteen writing, and the last five editing
  • Make sure your handwriting is legible
  • Avoid slang
  • Stick to the standard five-paragraph model: an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion
  • Draw your three body paragraph examples from three different spheres. A typical choice would be a literary example, a historical or scientific example, and a personal anecdote
  •  Address the prompt! If it requires you to take sides on an issue (and most will), pick a clear stance and stick to it. You don’t have the time for a nuanced approach
  • Size matters. Don’t ramble just to take up space, but do try to come as close to filling the provided sheet as possible.

Multiple choice tips:
  • If it sounds right, it’s probably right
  • Parallelism questions are a favorite of the test writers. Make sure all the items in a list are consistently phrased (i.e., act as the same part of speech)
  • Dangling modifiers also appear frequently. Adjectival and adverbial phrases need to modify an explicit subject. “Recognizing the importance of great literature, I read every day for two hours” is an acceptable sentence. “Recognizing the importance of great literature, two books were read by me every day” is not. In the former, the adjectival phrase modifies the subject “I.” In the latter, it technically modifies “two books,” which is obviously wrong
  • Remember that the first word after a semicolon is not capitalized.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Great Return on Investment with Montana Tech

PictureIf you are a student interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and want an affordable and personalized education, Montana Tech might be the place for you. Peer schools are Colorado School of Mines, New Mexico Institute of Technology and South Dakota School of Mines. Located in Butte, America (that’s what the locals call it although I say Butte, Montana) this school of 2700 undergrads produces job-ready engineers that employers compete to hire. Montana Tech students like to say, “We don’t study science, we do science.” This hands-on approach with plenty of field work is ideal for kinesthetic learners. 

The rich mining history of Butte makes it a natural spot for stand-out programs in mining engineering, metallurgical and materials engineering, petroleum engineering, geological engineering, geophysical engineering and occupational safety & health. Also of note is a five year BS/MA in professional and technical communications that offers a concentration in rhetoric and science. Healthcare informatics is also an available major where job opportunities exceed the number of trained graduates. The traditional ethics of hard work and community are apparent in every aspect of campus life. This is a “work hard, play hard” school. 

Students get plenty of support if they are willing to make the effort, and it’s often needed because class work in calculus and chemistry is especially challenging. Professors report grades on the 30th day of the term and there are proactive interventions for students who are not doing well. Many Montana Tech students were STEM stars in their high schools, and are caught by surprise at the level of academic difficulty. Tutoring is free and readily available. Professors are caring and accessible – willing to help students succeed.

Butte is a town of surprising diversity. Folks from around the world came to town during the Montana gold rush, and at one point Butte was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. That diversity is still apparent in neighborhoods like Butte’s Chinatown or the Irish pubs. Montana Tech draws an usually large number of international students for its size, including many from Canada and Saudi Arabia who are drawn to the petroleum engineering undergrad or master’s program.

Butte was the largest copper producer in the world, and mining is still a significant factor in the economy. Environmental responsibility is a large focus of the resource-based programs, as professors encourage students to consider the environmental, social and political aspects of all resource-based work. While the school does offer a BS in environmental engineering, it likely to attract people thinking about how to safely dispose of mining tailings, or build better fish ladders. This is a science-heavy environmental engineering degree, rather than a more public-policy or people-focused degree in environmental studies.

Montana Tech students fit in time for fun. The athletic facilities are undergoing a significant renovation, and students will have some state-of-the-art space and equipment in which they can stay fit and blow off steam. Although the classroom atmosphere is collaborative, Tech students love to participate in competitions. The school has teams that compete with the likes of MIT, Cornell and Georgia Tech in designing and building concrete canoes, human-powered vehicles, bridge building, software engineering and math. For more traditional sports competitions like football, the big rival is Carroll College. It’s an easy walk to downtown Butte, which has over 2400 registered historical landmarks. We took an historical tour of downtown that included a restored turn-of-the- century hotel that has housed multiple US presidents. 

One night of our tour we were treated to an acoustic concert by Professor Chad Okrusch, who is head of the technical communications program, and also happens to be a world-renowned folk singer. He played us original compositions that displayed a great connection to place and an ironic humor which seemed common for Montana residents. Check out his CD “Wisdom Road” and sample my favorite song, which was a protest song about the local towns of Wisdom and Opportunity.

Montana Tech is a great value. Students from nearby western states are likely to receive WUE grants, and merit scholarships of $2500-$6000 are available to students scoring 20 or higher on the ACT. The non-profit Student Assistance Foundation focuses on financial literacy and every student who takes out a loan gets one-on-one counseling to ensure he/she understands the terms and conditions. The most common reason students cited for choosing Montana Tech was the ability to get a great job upon graduation (which explains why their student loan default rate is way lower than average).

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The SAT, part 3: Critical Reading

by Ilana W-B

The SAT is a three-part (math, critical reading, and writing) test required by many colleges in their admissions processes. I plan to write a post with suggestions for each section of the SAT. This is the third post in the series, and I will be focusing on the critical reading portion of the test.


The reading section of the SAT is perhaps the most difficult to prepare for in the short term. However, if you have months or years, you can do much to improve your chances of scoring well.

Read as much as possible. “SAT vocabulary novels” from several companies highlight and define the SAT vocabulary words in classic works of literature. However, you needn’t invest in these. Just reading will help. Even if you never look up a single word, context and constant exposure will add to your vocabulary. Try to stick to classics or heavy adult novels: light reading and young adult books are less likely to contain helpful words. 

Practice your vocabulary. Maybe you learn vocabulary in English class at school. If so, that’s an excellent start. But you can do more. If you’re inclined to be humanitarian, spend fifteen or twenty minutes every day on Their vocabulary game can help you become SAT-ready while simultaneously providing food for people in developing countries. Or your family can learn vocabulary together. Pick a new SAT vocab word at dinner every day and add it to a growing list. Each time someone in the family uses a vocab word correctly at the dinner table, add a quarter to a jar. Use the contents of the jar for a family treat.

Work on your reading comprehension. When reading, try stopping every few paragraphs to summarize the author’s point (in non-fiction) or the plot (in fiction) in your own words. Mentally draw comparisons to other pieces and ask yourself why the author phrases things the way s/he does. You can also use SAT practice tests (available online or in test prep books) to practice.

Taking the Test

Do read the italicized introductory text. This gives you context about the passages or explains how two passages you’ll have to compare relate. It can be very useful in answering the comprehension questions.

Don’t worry about remembering things as you read. You can always refer back to the passage when answering the questions. In fact, many questions tell you which lines to focus on. Your goal when reading should be to get a sense of the author’s main point and rhetorical tactics, not to memorize details of the passage.

Try sidelining. On one practice test, try skimming the questions, marking any lines in the passage referred to by the questions, and then reading the passage. This helps some test-takers concentrate on relevant material. Don’t do this for the first time on the actual test, though: for some, it is a distracting waste of time.

Read the whole question. Especially on fill-in-the-blank vocabulary questions with two blanks, several answer choices may seem correct based on the first word. Make sure both words fit both blanks. That said, you may not know both words. If that’s the case, eliminate answers where one of the words doesn’t fit and guess between the remaining choices.

Look at prefixes, suffixes, and roots. If you’re not sure of what a word means, try thinking of similar words. Many English words share Latin, Greek, or Germanic roots. But don’t forget to take negating prefixes into account: if it seems like another word but has an un-, an-, in-, non-, or similar beginning, it probably means the opposite.

Resources -- useful advice and an explanation of the various question types you will encounter -- tips and practice questions (for all three sections) from the makers of the SAT -- good explanations and tips, plus a helpful (though short and basic) list of useful vocabulary words -- Princeton Review’s set of 500 SAT vocabulary flashcards is a great place to begin building your vocabulary

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Carrolling We Will Go

PictureI must admit that I am predisposed to like any school whose colors include purple, so I was smiling when we were greeted by friendly Carroll College reps in purple polo shirts.

Embraced by the rolling hills of Helena, Montana, Carroll College  is an unabashedly Catholic college with just under 1500 undergraduate students. 65% of the student body is Catholic, and the majority of the non-Catholic students are Christian. Catholic ministry and principles are an integral part of the educational experience, and all students take at least two theology and two philosophy courses.

 Besides the beautiful surroundings, charming town of Helena and great personal attention students get from professors, the biggest draw for Carroll is the strength of its academics in the sciences. Pre-med is the most popular program and approx 85% of the students who apply to med school get in. It’s important to note that the attrition rate out of biology and other pre-med majors is high, and Carroll advisors do a good job of helping students who switch majors find a better fit niche.  Many opt for public health or non-profit management as an alternate major. The nursing program is very strong and priority into the major is given to Carroll students. Undergrads must complete the pre-req courses before applying to the nursing major, which has room for 40 students per year. The pre-reqs usually take one year, and those who are accepted can complete their nursing degree in three more years. The nursing labs are well-equipped and students are already doing clinical rotations by the second semester of the program. Carroll is well connected within the local community, and nursing grads do well in the job market.

Carroll takes a decidedly practical approach to education, in keeping with their motto (which roughly translates) “Not for school alone, but for life.”  Math majors learn applied mathematics and must choose a concentration such as biology, chemistry, engineering, computer science, or business. It’s interesting to note that for a small school, Carroll has consistently ranked in the top ten of the International Mathematics Modeling competition, against powerhouse schools like MIT, Harvey Mudd and Cornell. Engineering majors (and others) can participate in Engineers Without Borders. The school club partners with professional mentors and is doing water projects in both Mexico and Guatemala. Majors can earn a degree in Civil Engineering, or add a concentration in Civil Engineering and the Environment, or Civil Engineering and Public Health. A decided advantage for Carroll grads when they hit the job market is the campus-wide emphasis on verbal and written communications skills, including individual and group public speaking. All students participate in their freshman year in the Alpha seminar, which consists of 18 students and one professor who is the student advisor for the year. This discussion-based program includes a commonly read book (for fall 2011 it is “Let the Great World Spin”) and short readings that raise moral and philosophical questions to stretch student thinking.

A truly distinct major for which Carroll is a national leader is Anthrozoology (formerly known as Human/Animal Bond). This major includes aspects of psychology, science and hands-on work with either dogs or horses to train and use them in therapeutic applications with humans.  For example, a student might train a service dog to work with a diabetic patient and wake him in the night if his blood sugar gets dangerously low (possible because the smell of the patient’s sweat changes). Students working with horses can intern at the nearby Mount Eagle stables which helps autistic children through hippo (equine) therapy. Students graduate from the program and the animals they trained also get a graduation ceremony!

Internships are not required for all majors, however every student I met had done at least two. Carroll grads are very successful in the local community and these alumni give current Carroll students plenty of internship opportunities.  Since Helena is the state capitol, students have excellent access to the legislature and state agencies, and they definitely take advantage of internships related to government and public policy. One student, when asked how she found out about her internship, said, “My professor called me on my cell phone and gave me a name and number to call.” This did not appear to be an unusual circumstance as most students said their professors had referred them to their internship and “talked them up” with the company prior to the interview. That’s an example of networking at its finest.

Carroll is a residential college. Students live in campus freshman year in a common dorm (Guadalupe), and sophomore year in St. Charles (a dorm and academic building referred to on campus as the “Harry Potter Building” because of its resemblance to Hogwarts). Upperclassmen may choose to stay on campus, and many do because Trinity Hall offers apartment-style suites that are very appealing. Helena has a wide variety of housing, from the swank mansion district (definitely worth seeing if you come to visit the school) to reasonably priced homes for lease. The public bus system is free to students and those who do live off campus tend to stay within ten minutes of the school.  

Extra-curricular opportunities and school traditions help the student body bond and have plenty of fun in between study sessions. Unusual traditions include a slip ‘n slide down Guadalupe hill, and an annual etiquette dinner which ensures students will know what to do if taken to lunch or dinner on a job interview. Charlie’s Film Festival draws lots of entries of student made films. The biggest club on campus is CAMP (Carroll Adventure and Mountaineering Program) which is no surprise when you consider the all-season outdoor recreational opportunities inherent to Montana.

Carroll College competes in NAIA (athletics) and their football team has had great success. The campus stadium is gorgeous and games are a big community draw. Nearby Montana Tech is their arch rival. Although there is a lot of campus pride related to athletics, the president of the college was quick to point out that their most winning team is forensics (speech and debate) with 22 Championship titles.

If you are looking for a small Catholic college with high academic standards, studious peers, academic, emotional and spiritual support systems, and outdoor adventures, then Carroll should definitely be on your list of possibilities (

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Go Griz

The staff and students at the University of Montana in Missoula have hearts as big as the Big Sky country that frames this breathtaking campus. The genuine warmth of the people made it easy to fall in love with this school. We (the group of us on the Montana Counselors'  Tour) were treated with boundless hospitality, and even more boundless amounts of amazing local foods.

For those of you unfamiliar with the school, The University of Montana is nestled in the heart of the northern Rockies of Western Montana. It’s a mountain forest setting where five valleys converge, three major rivers flow and seven wilderness areas offer recreational and environmental research opportunities. The community has over 85,000 residents and an array of art galleries, restaurants and shopping options for those times when you feel the need for urban pleasures.

The school is the state’s flagship public university with 15,600 students, of which 13,000 are undergraduates. 37% are out-of-state or international students who are drawn to the academic and recreational opportunities. 76% of undergraduate classes have less than 30 students, and close relationships between students and professors seems to be the norm. Students described their professors as “amazing”, “inspirational”, “the coolest person on the planet” and “life changing”. The faculty is very invested in student success and there is ample support available to students to help them graduate within four years.
So much at this school was impressive that it’s hard to call it all out. Here are some of the highlights:
  • The Payne Family Native American Center, a LEED-certified building honoring the Montana tribes, built in the shape of a drum being played, decorated with native arts and symbols, and the home to a thriving Native American Studies program. We sat in the fire circle and heard modern tribal tales from Dr. George Price, who  traces family history to the Massachusetts tribe, Wampanoag, Choctaw, African, French and Scottish roots.
  • The School of Journalism with majors in print, photojournalism, broadcast journalism, multi-media and radio-television production. A focus on ethics and compelling storytelling has helped this program be nationally ranked for many years. Students consistently place in the top 10 in the Hearst competition (the Academy of Awards of collegiate journalism).
  • The College of Forestry and Conservation which offers majors in Wildlife Biology, Wildland Restoration, Forestry, Resource Conservation, Recreation Management and a concentration in Fire Management (wildfires).
  • Rigorous preparation for an advanced degree in medicine, physical therapy or pharmacy, with dedicated advising from the moment a student starts school, resulting in a strong acceptance rate to professional programs.
  • World-class performing arts facilities, including a flexible black box theatre space and  a proscenium theatre with tremendous fly space and the largest stage doors for loading in sets that I have ever seen. More than 42,000 people attend theatre, music, dance, art and media art performances, exhibitions and screenings on campus each year.
  • A creative writing program that attracts prize-winning authors as guest lecturers and artists-in-residence.
  • The Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) which combines academics with hands-on work at an organic farm. The farm produces tens of thousands of fruits and vegetables each year which are grown and harvested as part of a food security program for the food bank. We were treated to a fabulous al fresco lunch featuring salad greens and strawberries picked just prior to our arrival.
  • Athletes who are smart, and fans that show their spirit at a variety of sports including football, basketball, volleyball, soccer and track. Grizzlies have got moxie and athletics serve to bond students and the community.
  • The Davidson Honors College, with additional advising and exciting classes for high-achieving students. Honors students may choose to live in an honors dorm. In the spirit of open access, students who are not part of the honors program may take an honors class simply by requesting to do so.
  • Support services that assist students with learning differences to increase their likelihood of graduating.
  • The annual campus tradition of placing a pumpkin (grown at PEAS farm) in the spire above the clock tower. A student with climbing experience scales the building with ropes and harness, and freestyles the last section to reach the spire and crown it. The pumpkin stays until it rots – which means that some years it is up from October till February due to the preservative power of freezing weather.
If forced to choose the one thing that impressed me the most about the University of Montana it would be the happy and articulate students. Sure our student tour guides were amazing (thank-you Cesar and Max), but I expect selected and screened student representatives to be great. What was more impressive were the friendly students on campus for summer school, who were happy to take a sun-bathing break to share their reasons for choosing to be a Griz. The staff is deeply caring, the school exceeds students’ expectations, they are encouraged to balance their academics with other meaningful and fun activities, and many look for ways to stay in Missoula after graduation, because they don’t want to leave one of the most beautiful and friendly places in America. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The SAT, part 2: The Math Section

by Ilana W-B

The SAT is a three-part (math, critical reading, and writing) test required by manycolleges in their admissions processes. I plan to write a post with suggestions for each section of the SAT. This is the second post in the series, and I will be focusing on the math portion of the test.


The SAT math section covers concepts through Algebra II. However, the majority of questions will be drawn from material covered in Algebra and Geometry. Take the SAT right after Algebra II—wait any longer and you might forget the material!

The test will not require knowledge of trigonometry. However, you should know your special right triangles ( and the Pythagorean Theorem well. The Princeton Review also recommends reviewing sets, absolute value, radical equations, exponents, and functions.

Once you have learned the relevant material, the best way to prepare for the SAT math section is to practice. Work with a tutor or choose a book with explanations and ask a friend if the explanations don’t make sense. If you know the necessary concepts, the trickiest part of the test will be the questions that require clever reasoning. Practice in recognizing these questions and determining the best approach will help.

As always, you should practice with a time limit. Time can feel very tight on the math sections, especially if you get bogged down and spend too much time on a particularly tricky question. You have, on average, 78 seconds per question. Spend less than that on the easy ones and save time for those that require more thought and work. 

Taking the Test

You are allowed a calculator. Don’t waste time evaluating everything with it, but do use it when it will be of help, particularly if you are not confident in your arithmetic.

There are two types of math questions on the SAT. The majority (44 of the 54) are multiple-choice. For the other 10, you fill in your own answers (grid-in questions). Follow the guessing tips I outlined in my first SAT post for the multiple-choice questions. But always guess on the grid-in questions: You lose no points for doing so. I suggest picking a reasonable guessing number and sticking with it. 0 is probably your best option, though .333 and .667 also seem to turn up fairly often.

Negative numbers are not possible in the grid-in section. If you get a negative number, you did something wrong. Go back and re-evaluate the problem.

Also in the grid-in section, do not try to enter mixed numbers! This is one of the most common errors people make. If your answer is 3 and ½, you should enter 3.5 or 7/2. If you enter 31/2, it will be interpreted as thirty-one halves, which is incorrect.

If a diagram says it is not to scale, it is not. But if it says nothing, it is to scale. You can use that information to make an educated guess on geometry questions if you’re not sure how to evaluate them numerically.

The test booklet includes a list of formulas you might need. Hopefully, you know these and won’t have to waste time referring to them. However, if you have any doubts, check. You don’t want to get several questions wrong because you misremembered the formula for the area of a circle.

It is often very helpful to try plugging the answer choices into the problem to see whether they work. But this can be time-consuming. Do it only when you cannot quickly evaluate the problem directly. And do it smartly—start with the answer choice in the middle (numerically, not in terms of how they are listed). Your attempt should give you information about whether the correct value ought to be higher or lower, so you can save time by only trying those choices.

Don’t be fazed by the strange symbols the SAT uses to represent functions or series of functions. If the symbol distracts you, re-write the expression with whatever it stands for.

Sometimes the easiest way to determine the answer is to plug in a value. Pick one that will be easy to evaluate (though not too easy—zero generally doesn’t provide much helpful information). For percent questions, 100 is a good choice.

Finally, relax. It’s the best way to stay rational, which is important for those tricky problem-solving questions.

Resources -- a list of concepts covered and practice questions from the College Board, the makers of the SAT -- test-taking tips and practice questions -- a good description of the material covered by the SAT math section and a list of common question types with sample questions

A quick internet search will offer you dozens of other resources and free practice tests to help you prepare.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The SAT, part 1: General Suggestions

By Ilana W-B

The SAT is a three-part (math, critical reading, and writing) test required by many colleges in their admissions processes. (Most will accept the ACT as well, but the tests are similar in structure, so much of the same advice applies.) I plan to write a post with suggestions for preparing for and taking each section of the SAT. To begin, here are general tips.

Don’t wait. You can take the SAT multiple times and colleges will only see the scores you choose to send. You might as well take it early (freshman or sophomore year) to discover your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be concerned if your scores aren’t as good as you’d like them to be: Your scores will probably increase in the next couple years, even without focused preparation (because you’ll be learning new vocabulary and math and improving as a writer during your time in high school). You should also be sure to take the SAT early if you are advanced in mathematics—the SAT only tests math concepts through basic Algebra II. If you’re already beyond that, your scores are only likely to go down with time as you forget what you learned in Algebra and Geometry. Most schools will consider your best score on each section individually, so nail that good math score now and re-take the test later to improve your writing and critical reading scores.

Take at least one timed practice test. You may or may not believe in test-prep classes or tutoring—either way, you should practice once. You’ll get a feel for the types of questions on the test and the amount of time you have so that nothing takes you by surprise on test day.

Don’t read the directions for each section. If you’re like most test-takers, you feel like the time given for each section is not quite enough. Don’t waste some of it reading the directions. If you’ve taken a practice test, you know what to do for each type of question.

Don’t get stuck on a single question. If it’s difficult or you know it will be time-consuming, circle it and move on. If you have no clue how to do it, just skip it. You can come back to it later. All questions are worth the same amount, so get the easy questions right before losing time pondering the difficult ones. 

Guess if you can eliminate at least one answer choice. The scoring method is in your favor. On multiple-choice questions, you lose a quarter-point for a wrong answer and gain a point for a right answer, so if you can narrow it down to four or fewer answer choices, you ought to gain by guessing. (Note: on the ACT, always guess, as you do not lose points for wrong answers.)

Be careful when filling in the bubbles on the answer sheet! This is especially true if you’ve skipped some questions—it’s very easy to start entering answers in the wrong rows, and that will definitely hurt your results. Keep checking that you’re filling in the right bubble in the right section, corresponding to the right question.

Read the question carefully. It’s sometimes easy to miss words like “not” and “except,” which the writers of the SAT are very fond of throwing into questions. Those sorts of words change which answer you ought to pick.

Sleep the night before the test. It will do you a lot more good than last-minute studying.

The SAT might not be enough. Most colleges only require the SAT or ACT, but some will want SAT II Subject Tests. Engineering schools often require Math Level 2 and Physics or Chemistry, and some schools request two or three subject test scores of your choice. Be sure to schedule and take the tests you’ll need for your schools of choice.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Software Approaches to College Problems

By Ilana W-B

In the post-Facebook world, social networking seems to be the accepted solution to a vast array of problems. Your homework is no exception. The New York Times recently featured the start-up Piazza. This article explains that Piazza enables users to post questions, which are then answered by instructors or peers. The average question receives an answer in 14 minutes. Instructors can moderate the responses and highlight the best ones. One Princeton instructor who uses Piazza said she used students' records of providing helpful comments to others' questions to grade their participation for the semester.

Piazza may solve the problems on your problem set, but what about the greater challenges of college, like ensuring you'll graduate in a reasonable number of years? The software start-up MyEdu can help you there. Boasting a four-year graduation rate nearly double that of the national average, MyEdu helps you make a degree plan and plot the quickest path to graduation. You can read the New York Times article here.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Writing with Consistency

by Ilana W-B

Usually, my blogging will consist of instruction in proper grammar and punctuation. I promise to return to my grammar soapbox soon. But for the moment, I will bring to your attention a small issue that afflicts many otherwise-fine résumés and essays. To eliminate this evil in your own writing, you need not memorize any rules or consult any obscure references; you need merely pay attention to small details. The problem to which I refer is a lack of consistency.

In English, both grammar and formatting leave us lots of choices. However, within a single document, you always want to make the same choices. You may leave either one or two spaces between a period and the first letter of the next sentence, but your essay should never have some periods followed by a double space and others followed by a single one. If you use a colon before an independent clause (something that could stand alone as a sentence), it is up to you whether to capitalize the first word of the clause following the colon. But again, your choice should be consistent throughout your piece.

Here, in no particular order, are the inconsistencies I most commonly see:
  • Punctuation at the end of a bulleted list. You should end no points with a period, all points with a period, or only the last point with a period (if the list forms part of a larger sentence, as in this case)
  • Capitalization of list items. See how they’re all capitalized here? It would look pretty bad if some were and some weren't
  • Alignment of bullets. If you have multiple bulleted lists, the bullets should all line up, and there should always be the same amount of space between the bullet and the start of the list item. The same goes for numbered or lettered lists
  • Number of spaces between sentences. Choose one or two and stick to it
  • Capitalization after a colon (see the paragraph above for details)
  • Serial commas (the ones that come between the penultimate item of a list and the conjunction). I don’t have strong feelings about this particular piece of punctuation, but I make a point of always using it simply so that I know I will be consistent
  • Capitalization of titles of jobs, clubs, positions, etc. You may describe yourself as “Chairman of the Board” or as “the chairman of the board”, but make sure it’s the same for all the boards you’ve chaired
  • Placement of commas and periods with respect to quotation marks. This is a sticky issue right now, with various groups cheering for and ranting against the rise of “logical punctuation” (look it up). I think it’s fine if you want to put the punctuation outside the quotation marks if what’s within the marks isn’t what’s truly being punctuated (which isn’t how we traditionally do things on this side of the Atlantic, but which makes more logical sense), but don’t mix two styles in one composition
  • UK vs. US spelling. Choose your form of grey/gray, color/colour, honor/honour, realize/realise, theater/theatre, etc. and stick with it
  • Part of speech that begins each list item. Note how each of the items in this list begins with a noun and without an article. It would be inconsistent for me to begin some with nouns and some with other parts of speech (for instance, with a command to “begin lists consistently” or with a noun preceded by an article like “the capitalization”). This applies both to bulleted lists and to lists within sentences.
This is of course an incomplete list, but it offers a catalogue of some of the most common offenses. With a careful proofreading and attention to detail, you can easily avoid these and other inconsistencies.