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.