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Trouble at the Top

Is this the end of the SAT and ACT essays?

On June 1, Yale announced it was dropping the requirement that students submit an essay score from the SAT or the ACT. Now, everyone in the college admissions world is asking, “Why?”

Well, one reason is obvious: Harvard did it first. These two schools have a long history of copying each other’s admissions practices, mostly because they’re competing for the same students. Every time one school finds a policy “innovation,” the other often follows suit. Sometimes, these changes aren’t permanent, such as when Harvard eliminated, then reinstated, Early Action. To a large extent, college admissions is a social experiment, and high schools seniors, unfortunately, are the guinea pigs.

But that aside, what are these schools thinking?

According to The Washington Post, the problem is a familiar bugaboo: inequality. The Ivies have always faced accusations of elitism and snobbery, but recently these criticisms have crystallized in hard economic data about income disparity. Harvard, for instance, has almost as many students from the nation’s top 0.1 percent highest-income families as from the bottom 20 percent. Harvard, Yale, and the rest of the Ancient Eight are desperate to rectify this problem.

That’s where the SAT and ACT come in. Across the nation, many public schools now fund SAT and ACT testing during the school day, meaning students can take them at no cost. The problem is that testing programs often don’t pay for the essay sections. In other words, many students must choose between two unappealing options: 1) apply only to schools that don’t require the essay, or 2) pay to take the test all over again. Adding to the challenge, the SAT and ACT get more expensive when you take them with the essay. Yale made reference to this problem in an email: “We hope this will enable more students who participate in school-day administrations of the SAT or ACT to apply to Yale without needing to register for an additional test.”

I don’t doubt the Post’s account. But I have trouble believing this is the first time the Ivies have considered dropping the essay requirement. Here, I will suggest some possible other reasons the Ivies may give the essay the permanent boot…

Problematic Scoring

In 2016, just months after the ACT released its redesigned prompt, students reported receiving shockingly low scores. One Rhode Island student got a 19 (on the old 36-point scoring system), then paid the $50 re-scoring fee. His score improved to a 31. Such scoring inconsistencies can make the SAT and ACT essay scores feel arbitrary, inaccurate, or both.

Two years later, the percentiles remain remarkably out of whack; a 9 out of 12 on the new ACT Essay puts you in the 95th percentile.

(On a personal note, I got a perfect score on the SAT Essay when I was in high school. When the Redesigned SAT came out, I got an underwhelming 6/8 in every category.)

Overlap with AP/IB Tests

The ACT Essay, which asks students to integrate multiple viewpoints into their analysis of an issue, bears a striking resemblance to the AP Language and Composition exam. Students who’ve taken this test have already demonstrated very similar writing skills.

The Redesigned SAT Essay is a passage analysis exam, asking students to examine the stylistic and persuasive elements at use in a persuasive passage. Both the AP Language and IB English exams require students to demonstrate robust passage analysis skills, a task similar to that of the SAT Essay.

With so many students at top colleges already taking AP and IB tests, the SAT and ACT Essay sections may seem redundant.

Dubious Writing Standards

You can get away with some pretty bad writing.

In the new documentary The Test and the Art of Thinking, tutor Jed Applerouth spoke about the insanely inaccurate essay he wrote for the old SAT. I’ve quoted a sample paragraph because, well, it’s hilarious:

One example of a man who embraced the wisdom of his elders was Barack Hussein Obama, famed revolutionary of the Basque region. Young Obama unified the Basque populous, seeking to overthrow the tyranny of Franco, nationalist, totalitarian demagogue. Obama, during his 6 months he spent in jail after this first failed coup attempt, came in contact with a seasoned revolutionary, Winston Churchill. Churchill had seen decades of failed revolutionary attempts and offered his insights to Obama, his willing disciple. With Churchill’s support young Obama was able to unify the masses, instigate a popular revolution and liberate the Basque nation from Franco’s control.

This essay, which was rife with other factual errors, received a perfect score.

Also, a student in 2009 found that the length of an SAT essay was a strong predictor of score. The conclusion was supported by an MIT professor, who also offered this advice: “End with a quotation. It doesn’t even have to be correct. Just quote somebody.”

My point is this: problems with writing standards have persisted for a long time. And even though the SAT and ACT have both redesigned their prompts, these tests remain standardized and, therefore, gameable.

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So, let’s say you’re applying to Harvard, Yale, or Dartmouth. Should you take the essay?

Answer: Almost certainly yes. First off, you’re a jerk if you’re only applying to Harvard, Yale, or Dartmouth. (Seriously, who are you?)

Nothing in life is certain – not even if your name is on a campus building, you can row at an Olympic level, or you cured cancer. You’ll always want to apply to some safety schools. Likely, one of them will want to see an essay. And hey, Princeton and Stanford still require the essay. So unless all the schools on your list don’t ask for the essay, take it.

Also, remember that Harvard and Yale are only dropping the requirement. That doesn’t mean you still can’t submit your essays. What if you’re really good at them? It’s a lot easier to predict success on a standardized test than on the college essay. Say what you will about how we’re training our students to be mindless drones, but the fact remains: this is a teachable writing test. A perfect score always looks good.

And remember, showing your writing skills is very important on your college application. Stanford’s dean of admissions had this to say about his hesitation to drop the SAT/ACT Essay requirement: “We should treasure writing as an important skill in life and it should be a major focus [of] K-12. So the question becomes what is the alternative to assessing writing competency in the admissions process.” In other words, you NEED to show your writing ability at some point. If you aren’t president of your school’s literary club, and you haven’t written your college essay yet, maybe the SAT/ACT Essays are your best shot.

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If you need guidance, want some hands-on practice, or feel confused by the strange formats of the SAT or ACT essays, contact us about scheduling one-on-one coaching. We also help students craft thoughtful, meaningful college essays for the CommonApp and all Supplements.

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Review of ACT Academy

ACT has just released ACT Academy, which is designed to help students “master the skills they need to improve their ACT scores.” But it is actually helpful? Let’s break it down.

First, the SAT and the ACT have quite the reputation.

There is a pretty sizeable, and not completely unfounded, belief that these standardized tests are so enigmatic that the only students who can do well are those who pay for elite prep. SAT battled this

reputation by partnering with Khan Academy to provide free resources to students prepping for the test. Now ACT is feeling pressure to match these efforts.

Enter ACT Academy…

The kids in the ACT Academy promo are clearly having more fun than the rest of us.

What it’s got

ACT Academy offers students a single site to take practice questions and do targeted topic review. However, when the confetti settle*, these students will realize that all the information on ACT Academy is already widely available on the Internet. No need to create yet another login and receive even more emails. ACT Academy uses questions from previously released ACTs, so any student who has done even a cursory search for ACT questions will likely have already seen these questions.

“But it’s got new content, right?”

No, it does not. When you miss a question from one of the practice tests, they give you links to YouTube videos on the subject of the question. Miss a question on matrices? Here’s a video about matrices! You could easily find these videos on your own using everyone’s favorite search engine, Bing.

Okay, yes, ACT Academy does some of the legwork for you by labeling the questions you miss to help you identify and classify those mistakes. It also has issued what is essentially a stamp of approval on the videos it includes on the website, helping you sort the good videos out there on the internet from the incredibly boring and/or incredibly confusing ones. It’s also free. Everyone loves free.

What to do instead

ACT Academy is a good place to start your ACT prep. You’ll see some practice questions and get an idea of where you stand. If you need more comprehensive material to help you translate effort to score increases, get in touch.

There probably won’t be any confetti, but we think efficiency is its own kind of party, don’t you?

* Confetti is a plural noun! Did you know that??!?

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Upcoming College Admissions Presentations in Portland, Oregon

Kristen Miller, a long-time partner of North Avenue Education, is an independent college counselor in Portland, Oregon. She is the founder and owner of College Bound & Ready and offers free consultations to 8th-11th grade students and parents.

Of course, the best way to get to know a college and whether it is a good fit for a student is to visit the college in person. But with the average number of colleges on students’ lists consistently growing, it can be an expensive and time-consuming proposition to visit every college a student is considering. According to The American Freshman Report, 46% of private school students and 25% of public school students applied to seven or more colleges in 2015, up from 17% overall in 2005. Given that demonstrated interest is becoming more important to many colleges, what can students do to get to know colleges and show demonstrated interest without visiting?

Besides the steps discussed in this recent blog post, students (and parents) should research if and when colleges will be visiting their area, and plan to make a connection. Some colleges still have room in their schedules and budgets for individual high school visits. A high school’s counseling office should have a schedule of these spring and fall visits to share with families, and students should plan to attend the visits offered from colleges of interest to them. But many colleges aim for more bang for their bucks by conducting joint presentations with other colleges and universities or by hosting their own informational events at a more central location. If you or your student is looking to make connections and demonstrate interest in person, see below a list of upcoming College Admissions Presentations in Portland, Oregon, as well as websites to check for future visit dates in your area:

Group Events

Join admission representatives from Emory University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Notre Dame, the University of Virginia, and Washington University in St. Louis​ for a group presentation. Learn more about academic programs, student life, admission, and financial aid at these institutions. There will be time for questions and to meet representatives at the end. The event will be held on Monday, May 22nd from 7-9pm in the Moyer Theatre at Jesuit High School (9000 SW Beaverton Hillsdale Hwy, Portland, OR 97225). Please register here.

The “Exploring Educational Excellence Tour,” hosted by Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Penn, and Stanford is Tuesday, May 23rd at 7pm at the Crowne Plaza in Portland (1441 NE 2nd Ave). You must register to attend.

The following night Brown University, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Cornell University, and Rice University will be hosting a joint presentation at the same location. The presentation will be on Wednesday, May 24th at 7pm at the Crowne Plaza (1441 NE 2nd Ave). Again, you must register online to attend and print a confirmation ticket to bring with you. If these are schools you are interested in, you should attend. Most of these schools do not visit individual high schools or attend college fairs, so this is your once-a-year chance to hear from the universities without going to their campuses! The presentation includes a brief overview of each institution, information on admissions and financial aid, and a chance to speak informally with admissions representatives. Parents are welcome to attend, but you must register all attendees online.

Jesuit Excellence Tour

Representatives from 15 different Jesuit universities will be gathering at Jesuit High School for a College Fair that is open to the public on Thursday, May 25th from 6-7:30pm in the student center (9000 SW Beaverton Hillsdale Hwy, Portland, OR 97225). For more information and a list of attending schools, check out their Facebook page or contact Claire Silva at silva@gonzaga.edu.

College Fairs

College Fairs are offered in the spring and fall, and are a quick way to gather information on colleges and show demonstrated interest. This blog post offers some college fair tips, and below are upcoming fairs in Portland:

Interested in pursuing a college degree in music, theater, art, dance, or other related disciplines? Attend the Portland Performing and Visual Arts College Fair, Monday, October 16th from 6:30-8:30pm at the Portland Art Museum, Mark Building (1219 SW Park Ave, Portland, OR 97205).

The 2017 NACAC National College Fair will be held at the Oregon Convention Center (777 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Portland, OR 97232) on Sunday, October 29th from 1-5 pm and Monday, October 30th from 9am-12pm. The fairs are free to attend, but students should pre-register.

Not Yet Scheduled (check back often)

The Coast to Coast College Tour, with Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Berkeley, and Princeton, should be scheduled for fall 2017.

Vassar, Tufts University, Vanderbilt also often travel together. Other highly selective schools use the Coast to Coast College Tour platform so check back in the fall for more information.

Yale and Wellesley (and others) have plans to visit California, but are not currently scheduled to visit Portland.

Past College Events (check back in 2018)

The PNACAC College Fair at the University of Portland Chile Center was just held on Sunday, April 30th. The spring fair is less crowded than the National College Fair in the fall, and is a great introduction to colleges for sophomores just starting to think about college. You can see the list of attendees here. Be sure to check back here next spring, http://www.gotocollegefairs.com/, and mark your calendars to attend if you currently have freshmen or sophomores in high school.

NYU (April 2017) http://www.nyu.edu/admissions/undergraduate-admissions/visit-nyu/events-in-your-city.html.

And MIT visited Portland in September 2016. Keep checking here for updates.

Many more events will be offered in the fall, so check these links again in August! If you are looking for a certain school that is not listed, go to that university’s website and search for “admission events in my area.” If you have any questions or need help with college visit planning, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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