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Insider’s Guide to Admissions: Standardized Tests

SAT, ACT, IELTS, TOEFL, APs, AHH! No that last one wasn’t an acronym but it was an attempt at capturing the frustration and confusion students experience as they go through the complicated and sometimes overwhelming process of applying abroad.

This Insider’s Guide to Admissions is here to give you guidance and direction. This particular article is covering Standardized Tests – what are they, how are they different and who needs them.

SAT: For applicants to the US, the SAT has become a bit of a household name. However, the SAT recently changed evolving into the New SAT. This New SAT has a few cosmetic changes (e.g. scored out of 1600 now instead of 2400, doesn’t have negative marking any more) and some content changes (e.g. no more Writing section). It basically consists of two sections – English and Mathematics. Internationally, the test is offered six times a year – January, May, June, October, November and December.

Pro Tip: While the essay is Optional, don’t skip it. A number of colleges require them including the University of California colleges (UCLA, UC Berkeley etc.)

ACT: An alternative to the SAT, the ACT has been gaining popularity in India of late. While SAT is out of 1600, ACT is graded out of 36. Unlike the SAT, the ACT covers three basic areas – English, Mathematics and Science. The science section in ACT is easy to master, unless you completely hate science. In that case, the New SAT is your savior! Anecdotally, English is easier on the ACT while Math is not really harder but faster. The test is offered six times a year – February, April, June, September, October and December.

Pro Tip: Whether it’s the ACT or SAT, plan to give your first attempt in Grade 11. Most people take 2 attempts to get their idealized score.

Choosing between the ACT and SAT: Let me make one thing very clear, SAT and ACT are equally accepted in universities abroad. If you want a competitive college application, you need high test scores. And if you want high test scores, you need to take the right test. Most importantly, you should focus all your efforts on taking one test. So, you really need to choose between SAT and ACT, and that too well in time because time is precious. Ideally, you should take a Diagnostic or Practice Exam in each one of the two exams. Compare the scores and then decide. Check out our blog post on this for more tips www.collegecore.in/blog

Pro Tip: SAT and ACT not for you? You’re not the only one. In fact, there are a number of universities that are going SAT-independent, eliminating the requirement to do the tests. Check out the list on FairTestPrep.org

TOEFL / IELTS: TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) as the names suggest, are tests to gauge your command over the English Language. These tests are Visa Requirements for the most part. TOEFL is more popular with U.S. and Canada while IELTS is what the U.K. colleges prefer. Requirements differ by colleges – some colleges specify that if you have over 650 in the SAT English section the requirement is waived, others waive it for U.S. Citizens living abroad while still others will require it no matter what. The test is offered fairly regularly. You should check the official websites for the dates.

Pro Tip: ETS, the TOEFL organizers have begun offering a free online course to study for the test. While on the other hand, the British Council, the IELTS organizers often hold in person workshops to train you for them.

While we’ve covered the major ones, a few other tests you to keep in mind:

PSAT & Pre-ACT: Say you’re in the Ninth or Tenth grade, and you have your sights set on the United States of America as your intended college destination. You have all the plans to get yourself ready for the mad rush of Grade 12 but why not start earlier? The PSAT or Preliminary SAT offers the opportunity to get a head start on the preparation for the standardized tests. Moreover, the most competitive summer schools often request the PSAT or the SAT as a part of the evaluation. The test is only offered in October each year.

The Pre-ACT is new, in fact it only was announced in 2016. Its function is similar to the PSAT and like the ACT is an alternative to the SAT, the Pre-ACT is an alternative to the PSAT. It’s yet to come to India though. Read more about it on the ACT website.

SAT Subject Tests: While the SAT and ACT focus primarily on English and Math, the SAT Subject Tests are subject specific. SAT Subject Tests are available in 20 subjects (12 are in various languages), and allow a student to be able to show their academic strength in specific subjects. Some universities require Subject Tests, others recommend them, while still others don’t want them at all. Sometimes, universities will require specific tests depending on the major you’re applying for. For example, Engineering majors are often required to give the Physics and Math Level II SAT Subject Test.

APs: APs or Advanced Placements are the ‘New Kid on the Block’ at least in the Indian Standardized Tests landscape. The exam takes place in May each year and is offered in a number of different subjects – 37 subjects as of 2016 – so you can show your interest in Psychology or Economics which is not offered as a Subject Test. It’s graded from 1 to 5, 5 being the highest. The results of these exams are widely accepted and since they are considered “college-level” are used by colleges for college credit AFTER a student has been admitted. However, for Indian students applying from a curriculum that doesn’t offer APs in school, the results are not considered for admissions. Check out more on specific pros and cons and whether you should take APs on our blog www.collegecore.in/blog

New Year Resolutions: Admissions Edition

Happy New Year! Its January 2018 already and wow time flies. As an Admissions Counselor I’ve been working with students for nearly 18 years now (that’s right, my admissions career is old enough to go to college!) and each January the whole CollegeCore team takes a giant sigh of relief, prays for successful results, and then, prepares themselves to do it all over again. But we also take this time to make our New Year’s Resolutions!

So we wanted to use our experience to lay out some Admissions Resolutions to go along with your goals of going to the gym twice a week or reading the newspaper every day.

Seniors / 12th Graders: I promise not to let senioritis set in!

Whether you were already accepted or if you were deferred from early applications, whether you are all in for college abroad or still in two minds about going abroad versus staying in India, don’t let Senioritis* ruin your efforts at this stage.

It’s difficult I know, you spent months on SAT / ACT prep, churned out essays and you just want a break already! Take a break. For a week. And then get back on the study horse.

For those who’ve been deferred or waitlisted, that strong academic performance is crucial to help you move your application into the accepted pile. And grades are important for those who’ve been accepted to college too! Colleges will see your final transcript, and they reserve the right to rescind an offer of admission or financial aid if they see a decline in a student’s grades. Each year we have to deal with frantic students who didn’t study and were in danger of getting their applications rescinding because of less than acceptable grades. They end up spending the weeks of summer, when they should be having fun, dealing with a lot of stress and sleepless nights, not knowing if they were going to college after all that work.

Work hard on your grades by making realistic and specific goals. Maybe you want a minimum of 38 on your IB exams or 92% in your CBSE Board exams. Be specific, make them attainable and put in the effort needed. When it’s time to hit the books, it is important to turn off the TV, sign out of Facebook, put your phone on silent, and really focus on work. Don’t get swept away by all the chatter from friends and strangers. Remember that someone else’s admissions decision is not a reflection on you. You need to put your head down and work.

*a phenomenon afflicting students in their final year of school or college, characterized by a decline in motivation or performance

Juniors / 11th Graders: I will realize that I need to start two months before I think I need to!

It’s here. IIt’stime. You will be sending applications this year and while 12 months feels like a long time, it isn’t!

Let’s take a quick look at what is coming down the pipeline. You need to take the SAT / ACT more than once, plus the Subject Tests. So make your schedule of when to take the tests, set score targets and get studying. Remember to have a backup plan and don’t leave testing for later because knowing your test scores is essential to creating your list of colleges and that is essential for the next steps like writing essays. As scores evolve, so do lists.

Great college applications take time. Each college will have 1-5 essays to write, plus you’ll find yourself iterating on your CommonApp essay or personal statement again and again. You may need the time to think, reflect, revise, and maybe even come back to it and edit again. All of which takes time.

Moreover, you need to give your recommenders time to work on the letters because all the teachers will be inundated at the same time. AND you need to complete applications themselves. You may also want to beef up your extracurriculars but that needs time too so that it doesn’t look superficial and clearly only for the applications. All this while going to school because remember, grades are vital!

Overwhelmed? Well not if you use ALL 12 months well. So start early. Maintain a calendar and a To Do list. Stay organized to stay sane and give your best.

Sophomores / 10th Graders: I will not wait to start my college journey next year 

Because a year from now, you will wish you would have started today. We have a two part resolution for you – Explore and Act.

Start exploring colleges. You may have heard of a few of them – UCLA, Harvard, Stanford – but there are thousands of colleges in the world. Start thinking and exploring. Put social media to good use by following the colleges on Facebook or Instagram. But also visit information sessions in the city, spend time on blogs and websites to start explore the range of countries and the different education systems out there. Going on a family vacation abroad, go visit a college! At the same time, keep track, in writing, of what you like or don’t like. This will be valuable as you make your college lists but also as you write your essays.

And then act by planning out your standardized testing. You’ve heard about the ACT and SAT. In fact I hope you’ve taken the PSAT already. But many students wait and wait to dive into test prep not realizing that sometimes you need to take a test more than once and you need time to prepare for each exam so you’re successful at them. Make a plan for it and don’t stress unduly over the result of that practice test you took – you still have more time, because you took charge early and gave yourself time.

Freshmen / 9th Graders: I will think about college and plan my time out now rather than waiting till I’m older

College feels impossibly far away. I mean you just got out of middle school! But in all honesty, College is a complicated admissions process. You need to figure out what you’re passionate about in the classroom and outside of it.

We also know that starting now doesn’t mean your 10-year plan is set in stone – over the next few years you will grow and evolve – but getting started early can mean you have plenty of runway to reach your goals.

This is the stage to lay a foundation of strong habits that will carry you through successfully.

– Get Involved: Extracurriculars are a big part of not just your application but also play a large role in figuring out what you are passionate about. Start exploring your passions, step out of your comfort zone, volunteer with the less fortunate or gain leadership in something you’ve been involved in for a while. Strengthen both your application and your personality.

– Start Reading: And not just on your phone. Pick up a book, actually pick up one new one every month and start to build a habit of reading. It will help you become a more expressive person, a stronger communicator and a better writer.

– Study Hard: Grades matter now. Colleges abroad need your grades across all 4 years of high school so put in the effort and study hard.

Parents: I will remember that my child’s college experience begins with this process, and will be supportive but will also let them take charge.

You thought we would only have 4 resolutions for students? No, this is also a stressful time for parents which is why we have a resolution for you too. Recognize that this process is difficult but is also a learning experience for your child. They learn to plan, to make mistakes and to grow from them, all skills that are essential to their success in college.

So, set up a time to chat about college but don’t plague them about it every day. Don’t take over the process for them because you feel they are overwhelmed because you end up sabotaging them in the process. You can help. In fact, you SHOULD help, you know your child best. You can get excited for them but when you drop them off at the college or at the airport, they will be the one making friends, taking classes, and growing up. Help them find the place where they can make the most of their opportunities.

Don’t compare your child to Mrs. Sharma’s son Rahul who went to Harvard and get caught up in an arm’s race. Each college is unique and just because you haven’t heard of it, doesn’t mean it isn’t good for your child. You brought up your children with different values than Mrs. Sharma, each decision you made is slightly different, so why not let the college also be different instead of copying someone else? Let your kid, be a kid while they are going through this difficult time. Help them relax so that they can focus when they need to. But more than anything, remember, it’s their college decision. Be your supportive self, but let them take charge.

So happy New Year to all our readers out there. And remember, if there are ever admissions-related questions, CollegeCore Education is here to help.

Should you give the PSAT?

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Say you’re in the Ninth or Tenth grade, and you have your sights set on the United States of America as your intended college destination. You have all the plans to get yourself ready for the mad rush of Grade 12.

The timeline has been set and you are working your way up, taking one step at a time ensuring that you have not nothing left when the time comes. Goal in sight, engines at the ready….BUT WAIT! What do you mean you won’t start till later?

Heard about a test called the PSAT?

“Now what is that?” you wonder. You thought the standardized tests were to start by Grade 11. There are so many tests you are worried about and you so wanted to keep the test-taking to the minimum. You already have enough stress and now this!

The PSAT is the Preliminary SAT. It is an exam that assesses problem-solving skills and subject matter learned in high school in two areas: English and Math.

It happens once a year in October and Grade 9 or 10 is the best time to take it. (Note, you can take it in Grade 11 as well but this counselor recommends using Grade 11 for the SAT / ACT attempts rather than PSAT) Conducted by the College Board, which administers the SAT, this exam is very useful for students in preparing then for SAT and other similar multiple-choice standardized tests for admission to foreign or Indian universities.

“But wait, will it only ‘help’ me prepare for the SATs? Then I don’t need it. I will anyway join some coaching institute in Grade 11 for this purpose”

Before you jump the gun and make a decision, let’s list down the benefits first:

1) The PSAT Score Report provides very detailed and meaningful feedback about a student’s strengths and weaknesses in the skills tested on the PSAT. So, even before you walk into your first SAT Prep class, you know what you need to focus on!

2) You can become familiar with the kinds of questions and the exact directions you will see on the SAT. This helps you perform better on standardized tests like the SAT / ACT since they aren’t part of the Indian Education system.

3) Students can see how they performed compared to other students who took the test. Which is an excellent Reality Check!

4) Get started with My College QuickStart and Student Search Surveys to create a SAT Study Plans and learn more about colleges. You know it, and we know it, it’s never too early to start.

5) Creates a competitive application to Summer Schools! While the Benefits of Summer Schools is a whole other post, however, it’s important to note that for the most competitive summer schools, PSAT or the SAT is often requested as part of the application!

There, you see, having access to such powerful tools at an early stage can help students plan for college more systematically. Most of all, taking the PSAT will definitely help to reduce SAT anxiety.

In fact, the success of the PSAT has encouraged the ACT to announce the Pre-ACT. Its function is similar to the PSAT and like the ACT is an alternative to the SAT, the Pre-ACT is an alternative to the PSAT.

Aren’t you glad you got to know about it well in time? And the proof that taking the PSAT pays off is already out there: the CollegeBoard found that the students who took the PSAT scored 145 points higher on the SAT than their peers who skipped the test. So go, get started!

5 Takeaways: Simplifying the Application Process Workshop

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Earlier this week, as it is tradition, we had panelists from our soon to be College Freshmen class give their words of wisdom to the class of students applying this year and starting college Fall of 2017.

And so, a HUGE Thank you to the Class of 2020 Panelists who came to give their Words of Wisdom to the Class of 2021 in our “Simplifying the Application Process” Workshop at the CollegeCore Office!

Our Panelists were:

– Aditri Bhagirath – Carnegie Mellon University

– Anahita Sehgal – UCLA

– Ananya Mittal – Princeton University

– Aryaman Sethi – University of Chicago

– Rishab Srivastava – UC Berkeley

– Shankar Salwan – Northwestern University

– Shivam Bajaj – University of Southern California

– Simran Arora – Brown University

ICYMI: We had pages and pages of notes but since we can’t share them all, so see below for 5 Key Takeaways from our students.

1) Make a Balanced University List:

Balanced2

Enthusiastic parents and ambitious students may say “Ivy League or nothing else” but be realistic about it.

Dreams are dreams for a reason. You may feel right now that you want to apply to all the Ivies even if you have no chance of getting in, but each rejection hurts a lot. You need targets and safeties to balance that.

And we mean targets too. Applying to 8 Ivies and 1 safety like Drexel isn’t good either. What if you only got into Drexel? Would you go there?

Plan out Early Action and Early Decision as well but understand where it gives you an edge versus where it may be better to apply Regular Decision.

2) SAT / ACT Tips

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The sooner you finish your SAT / ACT testing the better. Plus a reminder to Self-Study. No one can teach you to take the SAT, you have to put in the effort. The tutors have tips and tricks and ensure practice. Remember you are taking the test and not your tutor so the effort has to come from you in the test and before the test.

But don’t put too much pressure, the SAT / ACT isn’t the be all and end all. An excellent SAT score won’t save you if your school grades aren’t there. Remember, the SAT is a reflection of one day of exams and not of four years of prep like your grades. So balance your efforts.

3) Get cracking on your Essays

Start soon. You may write one CommonApp essay or you may write three. The most difficult part is starting. Remember you’re trying to stand out, so don’t make it generic, it needs to be about something important in your life. Don’t harp about your achievements, the rest of the CommonApp will cover that. Instead talk about challenges and motivations. Don’t be clichéd. If you are talking about a somewhat generic topic (like sports or community service), bring a new perspective like talking about your motivations why rather than narrating what happened. Don’t get too much feedback. Each perspective will confuse you and will be distracting. Do keep your focus narrow. This is a “Slice of Life” essay and a small experience and not story of your entire life. Follow us on Facebook because keep posting the latest essays available.

4) Take Charge of your Interviews

Unlike job interviews, these interviews are informal. They aren’t subject specific and can feel random at times. Prepare the questions but don’t rehearse them otherwise you will sound stiff. Balance. Guide your interviewer: You can guide the interview to discuss things you want to talk about. Suppose you want to discuss your dance and your interviewer chats about Bollywood. This is what you can do.

  • I’m a huge Bollywood dance fan!
  • But my favorite is Jazz which I’ve been learning for the last three years (showing your accomplishment)
  • In fact, I was really interested in the Jazz dance troupe at XYZ college (connecting to the college)

But don’t talk the entire time, let your interviewer talk to and let it evolve into a conversation. Remember to be prepared with questions at the end.

5) Don’t Overdo the Recommendations

There are school recommendation and external recommendations. Each University allows a different number of external though they all want 1 Counsellor recommendation and 2 Academic Teacher recommendations. But just because the college allows more, doesn’t mean you should send more. College Admissions says heavier the file, the faster it sinks. Only send them if they add value and aren’t repeating the same thing over and over.

Mantra of the Day: BALANCE

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Don’t spend all the time on school, or all the time on applications

Don’t overdo or underdo extracurriculars

Don’t make crazy unrealistic University lists

Balanced3

Make the most of your Summer – Edition 2 (Grade 11 / Rising Juniors)

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Continuing with the Game of Thrones references in our Summer Series (check out the last one here), 11th Graders and Rising Juniors, this second set of the Three Part Series on how to make the most of your summer is for YOU!!

College seems like next year’s problem, but now is the time to start! So get set, get ready, because summer time is here and we have tips for you on what you can do to be ready for college admissions.

1) University Visits

College Visits

You probably JUST got done with Grade 10 boards and for a treat, your parents are taking you to (_____INSERT COUNTRY HERE____) Whether US, UK, Europe or Canada, use this summer to go visit colleges so you can understand them better. Even if you aren’t travelling far, venture to Delhi University or NID in Ahmedabad or Ashoka in Sonipat or the tiny college near your aunt’s place in New Jersey. It’s important to start acquainting yourself with colleges now, whether in person by visiting or virtually by checking out their website and videos. For tips on how to make the most of your college visits, check out an earlier blog post here.

2) ACT / SAT diagnostic

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Once the college admissions process starts, you’ll realize that there are acronyms! Acronyms galore! But these two Acronyms – ACT and SAT – are super important standardized tests you need for the college admissions process. But before you just blindly follow what other people are doing (Sharma uncle’s son did the SAT….) take a diagnostic this summer. Figure out what you’re good at and then start studying for it. You should really plan to take your first attempt this fall (Oct / Nov / Dec for SAT and Sept / Oct / Dec for ACT). Need some help figuring out the tests, see this.

3) Summer Schools

Summer School

While the reaction to Summer Schools ranges from “Aww man” to “Yay!” there is definitely value in them. How much? That calls for another, longer post. In short – competitive summer schools, like SUMaC are a valuable indicator of a student’s capability but non-competitive ones don’t help in admissions. They do help in other ways including helping a student understand and prepare for the college-level curriculum, explore their interests (and show admissions what they do to follow them) and learn about universities first hand! But no need to head to the most expensive summer schools money can buy, colleges are coming to us! Whether its Ashoka‘s High School Program, UChicago or MIT, they are here, so make the most of them.

4) Internships

Internship

I see this reaction a lot. In fact, there are times when I think about high school students getting internships and I think of the scene in Dil Dhadakne Do when the Aunty Brigade is gossiping away and Priyanka Chopra ticks them off – “GET A JOB.” And her aunt looks up: “Paagal hogayi? Kya hamein kaun job dega? (Are you mad? Who would give us a job?)” But an internship is a great fit for a student who is looking for more specific insight into a particular industry or company, who wants to figure out what it means to be an Engineer or a do Genetics research. To get the experiences that will help guide your education and build a network of people you may want to work with some time in your life. There are a few places that will hire high school interns, however, your parents or school may be able to facilitate shadowings as well.

5) Start a Blog

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Whether it’s an interest in writing poems or commenting on the political world around you, or even cataloguing your fun chemistry experiments, a blog is a great way to share your thoughts with a larger audience. While grades and test scores are important, blogging allows you to document your experiences and demonstrate your interest in a particular field. But starting a blog in October of the year you’re going to apply is BAD. That signals that you just woke up and created an artificial interest for the sake of admissions. Instead, start NOW! Create your domain (WordPress and Blogger are great) and define your topic. Remember to stay regular. For tips and tricks on a good blog, stay tuned for an upcoming post.

6. Do Something different

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Frank Bruni’s NY Times Article saying that Stanford took 0% Applicants was the scariest April Fools Joke (because it could be true in a few years!), but he brought up a good point. The article says – “In the stack of applications that I reviewed, I didn’t see any gold medalists from the last Olympics — Summer or Winter Games — and while there was a 17-year-old who’d performed surgery, it wasn’t open-heart or a transplant or anything like that.” While we don’t want you to use your brother as a guinea pig for surgery, use the summer to step out of your comfort zones. Whether its learning acro-yoga or organic farming or even working in sanitation, do something different!

7. Study

Go Study

Grade 11 / Junior Year is NOT the time to slack off, especially if you’re applying abroad. While colleges in the US and Canada look at your grades across 9, 10, 11 and till your grade 12 midterms, Grade 11 is the last full academic year they get to see on your transcript and so it’s VERY IMPORTANT. Get ahead of class, or work hard on subjects that are tough for you. Pick up a book and study!