Northwestern is a not a safety school (and neither is Northeastern)

Northwestern is a not a safety school (and neither is Northeastern)

Every year around this time, posts inevitably appear on College Confidential that go something like this:

I applied to every Ivy, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Nebraska, and I got rejected everywhere except my safety school. I have a 4.5 GPA, 35 ACT, and good activities. wasn’t sure about HYPSM, but I thought I was totally set for Northwestern and Hopkins. What do I do???? Help!!!!

This year, there’s a whole long thread on the Parents Forum entitled “Why applicants overreach and are disappointed in April,” and I would strongly encourage anyone just beginning the college search to read through it, before the madness sets in and you fall in love (or your child falls in love) with a school that accepts only 5% of its applicants.

That is, 5% overall — the RD admission rate might in reality be closer to 2%.

As a lot of CC posters have pointed out, there really are no “match” schools for students in this category. The most selective schools have single-digit acceptance rates, making them a crapshoot for all but the most spectacular (or most effectively packaged) applicants, and the marginally less selective ones are sufficiently concerned about yield protection (i.e., “Tufts syndrome”) that they’re hardly a guarantee for high-stats applicants either — particularly ones who don’t attend feeder schools, apply early, or receive significant guidance about how to stand out.

So here’s a little reality check:

In the last few years, admissions have gotten really, really competitive, in ways that people who applied to college in the 1980s (or even the 1990s) not infrequently have trouble wrapping their heads around.

The fact that some schools are now rejecting upwards of 95% of their applicants does not mean that a school with a marginally higher acceptance rate can be considered a safety. A 16% acceptance rate might look high compared to a 5% one, but a school that accepts 16% of its applicants still rejects 84% of them, and you cannot assume you won’t be one of them.

In other words, Northwestern (8.4%) may have been a backup school in 1985, but it’s not anymore.

And Northeastern (27%) may have been a backup school in 1995, but it’s not anymore either.

Furthermore, just throwing in as many apps as possible to competitive schools won’t by itself raise your chances either. Applying to 10 schools with sub-15% admit rates does not necessarily mean that you’ll be accepted to one.

Yes, sometimes the essays or the recommendations are a little lackluster (high grades and scores are a baseline requirement, not a golden ticket); sometimes the extracurriculars aren’t nearly as spectacular as they could have been.

But sometimes there are just too many (thousands of) applicants and not enough places in the freshman class. Sometimes there just isn’t room.

Alas, this is what the online Common App hath wrought.

So when you make a college list, you need to make sure it’s balanced: a few well-chosen reaches with acceptance rates in the 5-25% range; a few matches in the 25-50% range; and a few safeties that accept 50+% of their applicants, that you can afford, and where your scores fall above the 75th percentile.

Ideally, you should have compelling reasons for applying to every single one of the schools on your list, and genuinely be willing to attend. If you can’t even explain to your parents or friends why you want to attend the University of X, you certainly won’t be able to explain it to an admissions committee. Provided you clear the basic hurdles, enthusiasm does count…usually, at least.

“The Critical Reader: AP English Language and Composition Edition” is now available on Amazon

The Critical Reader: AP® English Language and Composition Edition is now available for purchase on Amazon. The book is carefully aligned with the revised (post-2014) version of the AP Lang/Comp exam provides a comprehensive review of all the reading and writing skills tested.

Includes:

  • A complete chapter dedicated to each type of multiple-choice reading question and essay type.
  • Numerous multiple-choice practice questions covering literal comprehension, purpose, tone/attitude, rhetorical strategies, and footnotes.
  • Common essay pitfalls, with detailed examples of what to do and what not to do.
  • Sample student essays with in-depth scoring analyses.

I’ve also posted a preview so that you can see for yourself.

Now, a couple of notes:

First, I learned a LOT about how essay scoring works while writing this book. While the essays are scored holistically, I cannot overemphasize how helpful it is to understand the various criteria that get factored in and how they affect the overall score. I spent an enormous amount of time picking apart the sample essays and analyses provided on the AP Central site, and pinpointing the various features that corresponded to different score levels. (Christine Hyzinski, who teaches AP English at Montgomery High School in New Jersey, also helped me with some of the sample essay scoring, for which I am immensely grateful.) By the time I got done with the book, I was pretty sure I could do a bang-up job as a grader for ETS — not that I’d ever be allowed to, but still…

Second, to those of you who already have the main (SAT) Critical Reader, I realize you might be wondering whether this is basically the same book. The answer is no.

While the AP book, like the current SAT reading book, is adapted from the original (2013) edition of The Critical Reader, redesigned SAT reading and AP Lang/Comp reading are two entirely different animals. Although some of the same concepts are discussed by necessity, all of the practice passages and questions in the new book are different, and the books have very different emphases. In addition, there is nothing remotely comparable to the essay chapters in the SAT book.

So if you’re concerned about just getting a repeat of what you already have, rest assured that’s not the case.

 

 

Why Harvard is wrong to stop requiring the (terrible, horrible, no good, very bad) SAT essay

Why Harvard is wrong to stop requiring the (terrible, horrible, no good, very bad) SAT essay

Harvard University has announced that it will be dropping the SAT/ACT Essay requirement, beginning with the class of 2023. Along with Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, Harvard was one of the last holdouts to require that students submit this component.

I wrote a series of critiques of the redesigned essay when the new test was first rolled out, and I still believe that it is deeply problematic – I think colleges are justified in viewing it with suspicion. At the same time, however, I believe that there are very compelling reasons for schools to continue requiring some sort of writing sample completed under proctored conditions.

Although some of my initial concerns about the SAT essay were unfounded, the principal issue remains that it is fundamentally a nonsense assignment, one presented in muddled language that says one thing and means something else. It asks students to analyze how an author uses “evidence” to build an argument, but seeks to remove outside knowledge from the equation. In reality, this is an absurd proposition: any even slightly substantive analysis of “evidence” is impossible without actual knowledge of a topic. (more…)

10 Top GMAT Idioms

10 Top GMAT Idioms

If you look at many lists of GMAT® idioms, you’ll likely find dozens upon dozens of preposition-based constructions, e.g. insist oncharacteristic of, correlate with. Although the GMAT does sometimes test these types of idioms, it is important to understand that they are not the primary focus of the test. Because of an increase in the number of international students taking the exam, the GMAC has elected to shift the focus away from idiomatic American usage and toward more issues involving overall sentence logic.

That said, there are still a handful of fixed constructions that the GMAT does regularly test. Many, but not all, of these fall into the category of word pairs (aka correlative conjunctions). Particularly if you are not a native English speaker, you are best served by focusing on these constructions, which stand a high chance of appearing, as opposed to memorizing dozens of preposition-based idioms that have only a minuscule chance of being tested on any given exam. (more…)

New: GRE Word of the Day email program

New: GRE Word of the Day email program

If you’re studying for the GRE® and want to learn some words for which ETS has, shall we say, traditionally shown a strong predilection (i.e., a proclivity, penchant, propensity, bent), I’m starting a Word of the Day email program. One email with a top word, a GRE-level example sentence, and a list of must-know synonyms/antonyms, every day, direct to your inbox, plus periodic quizzes. (more…)

The exception to the “no verb after whom” rule

The exception to the “no verb after whom” rule

Note: this exception is addressed in the 4th edition of The Ultimate Guide to SAT® Grammar and the 3rd edition of The Complete Guide to ACT® English, but it is not covered in earlier versions.

 

Both SAT Writing and ACT English focus test two specific aspects of the who vs. whom rule.

 

1) Who, not whom, should be placed before a verb.

 

Incorrect: Alexander Fleming was the scientist whom discovered penicillin.

Correct: Alexander Fleming was the scientist who discovered penicillin. (more…)

What you need to know about “The Complete GMAT® Sentence Correction Guide”

What you need to know about “The Complete GMAT® Sentence Correction Guide”

I’m putting up this post because I’ve received a number of queries from people who are interested my The Complete GMAT® Sentence Correction Guide but who aren’t really sure what differentiates it from other guides on the market or whether it meets their needs. So instead of continuing to respond to people on a case-by-case, I thought I’d address some of the most common questions/concerns all in one place.

While the book does by necessity cover many of the same general concepts and strategies as the other books on the market, albeit with a different organization, there are a handful of key points that bear emphasizing.

First and most importantly: the book is designed as a “bridge” to the actual exam. All of the rules covered are derived exclusively from an in-depth study of GMAC-produced questions, and each chapter ends with a list of relevant questions from the Official Guide and Official Verbal guide. In addition, specific questions are periodically referenced during in-chapter discussions. Although there are categorized Official Guide question lists circulating online, there is no other published guide that includes this type of concept-by-concept breakdown. (more…)

GRE vocab and the limits of memorizing definitions

GRE vocab and the limits of memorizing definitions

Update to this post: I’ve now put a few sample exercises that approach GRE vocab prep from the ETS-based perspective outlined in this post. You can find them on the Quizzes page. More to come soon.

I’ve spent some time recently investigating the world of GRE® prep, and I’ve learned a few things that really surprised me. When I started reworking my old SAT® vocab material for prospective graduate students, I more or less assumed that the GRE prep world was similar to the SAT world: that is, there was a relatively cohesive network of independent tutors who shared tips, strategies, materials, etc., as well as established, well-trafficked online forums à la College Confidential where students applying to Masters and Ph.D. programs regularly congregated.

In poking around the web and talking to current/former GRE takers, however, I’ve gotten the impression that prep for this exam is a different story entirely. College seniors or recent graduates often take the exam before they know for sure whether they want to apply to grad school and, as a result, tend to have much less specific score goals. They know they should prep, and so they dutifully sign up for a class with one of the big companies but don’t end up learning much. (more…)

Putting deferrals in context

Putting deferrals in context

I’m beginning to think that high school students should be required to take a Statistics course just to be able to navigate the numeric thicket surrounding the college admissions process. As I’ve written about recently, the percentages that colleges throw around throughout the admissions process can’t necessarily be taken at face value.

Much like the overall acceptance rates that colleges release each spring, statistics involving Early Action and Early Decision deferrals require some interpreting as well. Depending on the college, a deferral can tell a lot about an applicant’s chances in the spring — or it can tell almost nothing at all. In some cases, a deferral can also act as a warning sign about the likely fate of someone’s applications at other schools of comparable selectivity; in others, it might do just the opposite. In either of those cases, an early deferral could spur you to make some last-minute alterations to your list. (more…)

GRE sentence equivalences: two strategies

GRE sentence equivalences: two strategies

 

One of the things that often gets overlooked in discussions about standardized testing is that scoring well is often a matter of having strategies, plural, rather than a single strategy.

Different items may call for different approaches, even when they are the same type of question, and nowhere is this fact illustrated more clearly than on GRE sentence equivalences.

In some cases, you may be able to identify the answer almost instantaneously using a “shortcut” approach, whereas in other cases you may need to work through the sentence very carefully, circling key words, playing positive/negative, and dodging trick answers left and right.

The key is to know which strategy to use when. (more…)

SAT vs. ACT: a quiz to help you decide

SAT vs. ACT: a quiz to help you decide

The SAT redesign eliminated a lot of the traditional differences between the SAT and the ACT, and choosing between the two exams has become more challenging as a result.

But while the differences have become subtler, there are still a handful of key factors that point in the direction of one test or the other. If you’re not sure which exam to take, this quiz is for you.

What is a clause?

What is a clause?

“Clause” is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot in discussion about grammar. It’s one of those words that students often hear but whose meaning they tend not to be 100% sure of.

It’s certainly possible to study for the SAT®/ACT®/GMAT® without knowing the exact definition of a clause, but understanding what clauses are and how they work can make things a whole lot easier. (more…)

Question of the Day is back!

Question of the Day is back!

For those of you who are looking for some bite-sized test daily practice, some good news: I’ve decided to revive my Question of the Day. Every morning, I’ll post a new verbal question along with an explanation.

For logistical reasons, I’m going to have to tilt toward the grammar side for now, but I will be posting reading as well as grammar questions. Most of the questions will SAT®/ACT®-style, but I will probably throw in some more advanced items (AP® English, GRE® or GMAT®) from time to time, just to keep people on their toes;)

Rest assured, however, that whatever test you’re taking, the material will be relevant in some form.

Eventually (soon, I hope!), I’m planning to add a subscription so that people can get the question delivered daily, but I still need to figure some things out from the tech side first.

If anyone has particular types of questions they’d like to see, please feel free to send a message with your suggestions.

Also: If any of you subscribers are wondering why you haven’t been getting new blog posts, it’s because I’m planning to send them newsletter-style, along with a few other articles related to test prep and the college/grad school admissions process, every week or two. For signup, just see the sidebar.

The biggest lie in college admissions

The biggest lie in college admissions

It took a while to happen, but college essays have begun to be placed under the kind of scrutiny traditionally reserved for the SAT. In just the past couple of weeks, articles have appeared in both the Washington Post and Inside Higher Ed discussing the college essay industry and highlighting the vast sums of money some families spend on assistance with this aspect of the application.

These articles raise some very important questions: exactly how much help is too much? And how should colleges evaluate an assignment that some applicants have spent thousands of dollars to complete? (more…)

To raise your ACT Reading score, answer fewer questions

To raise your ACT Reading score, answer fewer questions

Broadly speaking, time-based ACT Reading problems tend to fall into two categories.

The first category involves students who cannot even come close to finishing ACT Reading in time. At 35 minutes, they might still be only halfway through the third passage, and often their scores are stuck somewhere in the low 20s. Even if they’re solid readers, they need to radically change their approach in order to see significant improvement.

The second category typically involves students who are scoring in the mid-high 20s. Their overall comprehension is strong, and they could likely answer nearly all of the questions right given just 10 more minutes, but they can’t quite seem to get there in the allotted time.

If you fall into the second category, this post is for you. (more…)