Best of the Blogs: Math II and You: What You Need to Know About the SAT Subject Test

Today we’ll be revisiting one of our most informative blog posts which dives into the minutae of the Math Level 1 and 2 exams. It was originally posted by James. Enjoy!

pythagorasIn light of the volume of questions we’ve received recently regarding the SAT II Math Subject tests, I’ve decided it’s time to sit down an churn out a blog article to answer a few common questions: Continue reading “Best of the Blogs: Math II and You: What You Need to Know About the SAT Subject Test” »

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Questions to Ask Your Interviewer

Today we'll tackle the hardest question you'll be asked: "Do you have any questions for me?"

Today we’ll tackle the hardest question you’ll be asked: “Do you have any questions for me?”

Many undergraduate institutions, especially competitive ones, offer optional interviews for admissions, and the most dreaded question that comes up is the one at the end: “Do you have any questions for me?” Today we’ll be discussing the purpose of this question and offer up some example questions you can ask if you have trouble coming up with one on the spot.

Why do Interviewers Ask This Question?

First and foremost, the reason interviewers ask “Do you have any questions for us” is so that you have an opportunity to clarify anything that may not have made sense during your campus tour or interview. Clear up anything that might’ve confused you (curriculum, extracurriculars, work-life balance, etc.), but try not to ask questions that could easily be found on the school’s website.

The second reason for this question is for the interviewer to determine how much interest  you have in the program/interviewer. Questions demonstrate interest and sincerity, so use this opportunity to show how in love you are with the program!

What Questions Should I Ask?

Take a look at some of the example questions below for ideas on what to ask your interviewer at the end!

  • “What do you like most about [School Name/Department]?”
  • “How did you choose to focus your research on [primary research topic]”
  • “Is there anything you wish you could change about [School/Department]”
  • “What challenges have you faced during your time as a professor?”
  • “What do you think the biggest change to this field will be?”
  • “What advice do you have for new students?”
  • “What do you think most new students should do, but don’t?”
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Common Interview Questions

Just like how you wouldn't go to an interview with formal wear, don't go in without reviewing these common questions!

Just like how you wouldn’t go to an interview with formal wear, don’t go in without reviewing these common questions!

Today we’ll be posting questions we commonly see on the interview trail. While most universities do not require interviews, many do offer optional ones, so take advantage of them if available! Take a look at these and make sure you have solid, complete answers to these questions. You don’t want to be blindsided by one of these during your interview, after all.

  • “Tell me about [extracurricular activity]”
  • “Tell me about a time when you had to overcome adversity”
  • “Tell me about a time when you had to work with a difficult group of people”
  • “What surprised you most about your time as an undergrad?”
  • “Why do you want to attend this university?”
  • “Tell me about yourself”
  • “How would your friends describe you?”
  • “What is your greatest strength?”
  • “Name some of your weaknesses”
  • “What did you enjoy most about your high school/hometown”
  • “What do you plan on doing with this major?”
  • “Tell me about a time you lead a group”
  • “Why should we choose you?”

This last question is perhaps the most important here. You want to make sure you have your “elevator pitch” down solid because you will almost certainly be asked this question. Be able to summarize your strengths and why a school should choose you in a concise manner. You want this pitch to convey your academic prowess as well as why you would be a good fit with the school.

Don’t forget that one of the best things you can do to impress your interviewers is achieve a really high score on the SAT or ACT!

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Does Undergrad Prestige Matter for Graduate School Admissions?

Not attending an Ivy League for undergra ddoesn't close the door on prestigious graduate programs!

Not attending an Ivy League for undergrad doesn’t close the door on prestigious graduate programs!

Today we’re featuring a post from our sister blog, It’s Not GRE-ek. As many of you are ramping up for undergraduate admissions, we wanted to put some perspective on how much “prestige” matters when going from an undergraduate degree to a graduate or professional degree.

We get this question fairly often: “I went to a relatively low-ranked school. Do I have a shot at attending an Ivy League graduate program?” The short answer to this is yes, you do have a shot! The full answer is a little bit more complicated than that, so read on for more information!

How Much Does Undergrad Prestige Actually Matter?

Graduating from a prestigious undergraduate institution will not in and of itself grant you admissions into an Ivy League or similarly top graduate institution. What it will do for you, however, is give you a leg up on similarly qualified applicants. If you graduate with a 3.9 GPA from Duke University, and your competitor graduated from Greendale Community College with a 3.9, you’re definitely going to have an advantage there. Admissions officers will view your application in its context; a somewhat lower (~0.2 points, roughly) GPA from a highly regarded institution will likely be viewed more favorably than a somewhat higher GPA from a less well-known institution. Similarly, a letter of recommendation from a well-known researcher in the field will hold more weight than a letter of recommendation from a researcher who hasn’t published as much.

Well, What Can I Do About This?

Plenty! Not graduating from a “top” undergrad school doesn’t mean you don’t have a shot! Plenty of students from relatively unknown schools matriculate in top graduate programs, but you really have to prove yourself to do so.

  • Publish, publish, publish: For STEM fields especially, publications are key to success in graduate programs. Even getting last author on a paper is impressive as an undergrad, as it shows that you’re capable of finding and completing research, which is essentially the entirety of academia nowadays
  • Find an advisor or professor who you can really get to know: You want a STRONG letter of recommendation going into your file, not a mediocre one. You want a professor who has known you for a while and who can speak to your strengths and character. This is usually only achieved through knowing an advisor for several years or by completing an intensive research project with him/her. Get working on that!
  • Maintain a high GPA: This is a no brainer, but you want to have as close to a 4.0 GPA as you can possibly manage. A 3.9 from an unknown school looks infinitely better than a 3.3 from a prestigious institution. You need to ensure that your GPA is high enough to hopefully counteract any bias the admissions council might have against your institution
  • Destroy the GRE: The GRE, as is all standardized tests, is the great equalizer in terms of admissions. It’s an objective standard by which all students are measured — no bias in terms of institution or curriculum here. Make sure to prepare well and absolutely dominate the exam so  you can show admissions officers how rigorous your curriculum was and how much you’ve learned!
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Best of the Blog: What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

This is the foliage of destiny.

In honor of the upcoming school year and as encouragement to do your best, we’re bringing back one of our favorite posts: What does it raelly take to get into an Ivy League school– Grades. This was originally posted by Calvin, and enjoy!

So, you want to go to an Ivy League college for undergrad? Great! The only problem is, so do lots of other kids. College admissions at the nation’s most elite schools are more competitive than ever. According to the respective colleges websites, for the class of 2015 Harvard had a 6.3% undergraduate acceptance rate, Yale 7.4%, Princeton 8.5%, Columbia 6.9%. So, if you’re an ivy hopeful, what do you need in order to make sure you’re in that top percent that gets selected? This new blog series, brought to you by College Compass and Test Masters, should be your definitive guide to getting that acceptance letter from your dream school. I myself navigated these treacherous waters successfully in 2007, when I was admitted to Columbia, so I should make an excellent Virgil to your wide-eyed Dante as we descend through the circles of…elite college admissions.

“Never fear, Dante. As long as your GPA is pure, they cannot harm you.”

This first post is dedicated to the number one item these colleges look at on your application: your grades. There’s no getting around it, grades are the most important determinant of college acceptance anywhere, but there are many caveats that universities’ admissions officers usually don’t tell you. When I was touring some of these Ivy League type universities during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, there would always be someone at the info session who asked, “Do I/does my child need straight As in order to get into this school?” and the admissions officer would invariably give some nebulous response like, “We strongly prefer straight A students.”

So, if you don’t have straight As, are you done for? Not necessarily. During my time in high school, I received Bs in both semesters of pre-AP chemistry my sophomore year and in my first semester of AP Physics I, and I still got in. So it is possible to get a few Bs here and there and still get accepted to the Ivy League; however, some Bs are better than others. Notice that these Bs were in pre-AP and AP classes, and that the B in Physics the first semester went up to an A the second semester, showing improvement (I also managed to pull off a 5 on the AP Physics B exam, which I imagine helped “make up for” the B in the eyes of the admissions officers).

In general, you need to take as many AP (Advanced Placement) and/or IB (International Baccalaureate) classes as you can, depending on what program is offered at your school (my school offered both, so I did both AP and IB). These classes not only help you stand out from other applicants, they also are the classes that will best prepare you for the work load you will face when you actually get to Harvard or Stanford (actually, the classes there will probably be harder). If you don’t want to take all AP/IB classes, you might ask if you really want to go to one of these elite colleges in the first place, since you will essentially be signing up for four years of classes that are even harder than your high school ones.

Another way grades play into college admissions is class rank. At these info sessions I attended, another common question was “Do I/does my child need to be valedictorian in order to get into this school?” Again, admissions officers would often be evasive. The real answer is that it depends on what high school you go to. I graduated 40th in my class, out of about 800 seniors, putting me just at the top 5% of my class; however, I went to a very competitive public high school that sent many students to top colleges every year, so many of these schools knew my high school’s reputation, and knew that at my school the difference between valedictorian and 40th was only a tiny fraction of a GPA point. If you go to a high school where the top 10% regularly gets into the Ivy League, then you need to be in the top 10%. If you go to a high school where only the valedictorian gets in, then you need to be the valedictorian. If you’re not sure, ask seniors who have already been accepted where they are going to college and what their class rank was. Chances are if they got into a prestigious school, they’ll be happy to tell you. Alternatively, you can try asking your high school counselor, or if you have one, your high school college admissions counselor.

This is how champions are made.

Why are grades so important to these colleges? Why can’t you slack off in class, then make great scores on your SAT exam or AP exams or whatever in order to prove that you’re just as smart as that straight A kid? Because Ivy League schools aren’t just interested in kids who are smart. They want kids who are smart AND hard working, kids who are willing to jump through hoops and bend over backwards in order to be successful. You have to remember that the goal of these schools is to turn out as many successful (read as: rich/famous/renowned in their field) alumni as possible, because the more U.S. Presidents, Oscar winners, Nobel laureates, and Fortune 500 CEOs they turn out, the more publicity they get, the more grant money they get, the more donations they get, the more kids in the future will apply to their school, the more selective they can be, and round and round it goes. Being able to successfully play the GPA game is to them an indicator that you might be able to play all the various games that can lead to fame, riches, and prestige. And to do that, it’s not enough to just be smart. You have to work hard every day, turn in all your homework, participate in class, and study for every test.

Harvard Admissions Statistics, Yale Admissions Statistics, Princeton Admissions Statistics, Columbia Admissions Statistics

This post is part of a series. Other posts in this series include:

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part I: Grades

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part II: PSAT, SAT, and ACT

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part III: AP, IB, and SAT II Exams

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IV: Extracurriculars

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part V: Essays

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VI: Recommendations

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VII: Application Strategy

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part VIII: Interviews

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part IX: Checklist

What does it really take to get into the Ivy League? Part X: Epilogue

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PSAT Semifinalists – How to Advance, What to Expect

PSAT Semifinalist cutoffs being announced soon, so we want to detail the path towards becoming a full-fledged National Merit Finalist, and what that means exactly. Let us know in the comments if you qualified as a Semifinalist!

How Many People Earn National Merit Semifinalist? How Many Will Become Finalists?

For the 16,000 of you who are now National Merit Semifinalists, congratulations!

For the 16,000 of you who are now National Merit Semifinalists, congratulations!

Across the country, a total of 16,000 students will qualify for National Merit Semifinalist status. As you likely know, students qualify on a per-state basis, with each individual state having its own cutoff score. Of the 16,000 students, 15,000 will ultimately become National Merit Finalists, so overall, your chances of becoming a Finalist are high!

Continue reading “PSAT Semifinalists – How to Advance, What to Expect” »

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What is Early Admissions? Does it Give Me an Advantage?

As the college admissions cycle is just about to fire up, we wanted to explain what exactly early admissions is and what it offers when compared to regular admissions.

What is Early Admissions?

Apply early, get a decision early!

Apply early, get a decision early!

Many schools, mostly private, offer an Early Admissions option where you can submit your application early and receive a notice of admissions early. This applies to private schools in particular because many public schools already begin releasing admissions decisions in late fall, while most private schools, especially Ivy League schools, release admissions decisions in the spring. By applying Early Admissions, you’ll usually submit your application by the beginning of November (check with your specific’s school’s deadlines), and you’ll usually receive a notification by early December, months before regular decision. This way you can be confident in where you’re attending and not have to stress all the way until April of the next year.

Continue reading “What is Early Admissions? Does it Give Me an Advantage?” »

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5 Goals for the New Semester

With a new school year fast approaching, we put together a list of 5 goals students, both high school and college alike, should aim to achieve this year:

  1. Get to know 1 teacher or professor really well: When it comes down to getting letters of recommendation, which are extremely important for both college applications, graduate school applications, and job applications, you do not want to have to scramble to think of which teacher to ask. By getting to know at least one teacher really well, you can keep your options open while also developing as an individual! Participate in class, crush your exams, and attend office hours whenever possible. You’ll likely develop a natural relationship with that professor. Don’t necessarily suck up or be fake– just try and do well in the class and show some enthusiasm and interest in the course!
  2. Explore and find an extracurricular you're truly passionate about!

    Explore and find an extracurricular you’re truly passionate about!

    Find an extracurricular you are really passionate about: If you haven’t already found your niche, go out and explore the options available to you! Many organizations hold Club Fairs and interest meetings at the beginning of the year, so take advantage of that and try and find something you really enjoy! Besides becoming a more well-rounded person, your application will really shine if you have something you can speak passionately about.

  3. Keep your grades going strong: The bottom line is GPA is king, so above all else make sure your academic performance is strong. No amount of extracurricular can make up for a bad GPA, so your #1 focus should always be to do as well as possible in your classes.
  4. Spend time developing a hobby: You don’t have to find something unique, but make sure you find a hobby that you can fall back on during times of stress. Whether it’s cooking, League, biking, reading, or drawing, – whatever makes you happy! – make sure you have something that you love to do that can help you relieve stress. If you can find a club or extracurricular that mirrors this, then great! But not everything has to have a resume-line. Do things that benefit you as a person!
  5. School is all about bettering yourself! Take every advantage of that!

    School is all about bettering yourself! Take every advantage of that!

    Explore the classes that interest you: Take a wide variety of courses, if possible, but if not, try and find something that you can really latch onto and capital-L Learn. Too often school is viewed as just another box to check off on an application, another thing to do because we’re expected to. While you won’t like every class you take, make sure you take something away from at least one class. There’s nothing worse than a senior who can’t name a thing they did in the last four years.

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Best of the Blogs: Improve Your College Application : Extracurriculars

Applying to CollegeAs the new semester is approaching, we’re revisiting one of our favorite posts on the extracurriculars needed to get into a top university. It was originally posted by Ridge, so enjoy!

Hey everybody! It’s Ridge with another post about the college admissions process. This time, I’ll be talking about extracurricular activities. I hope you enjoy it!

As high school droned on, I found it important to take on some activities just for fun or to “expand my horizons,” as the cliche goes. High school can be incredibly monotonous for a student oscillating between falling asleep in class and falling asleep while doing homework. Sometimes, I just need a pick-me-up, something I can do during the day that involves more than just looking at a whiteboard and taking notes. Enter extracurricular activities. These are hobbies that involve doing more than just sitting and listening. Extracurricular activities, or ECs as they are sometimes called, include three broad types of activity: sports, arts, and volunteer work.

Epic Violin Guy

I take it back, violins can be cool!

Sports weren’t for me, but I did find some things that were for me. I am still involved in the first EC I ever participated in: violin. I have been playing violin since the second grade, and, although it is not the coolest or most unique of instruments, the violin still entertains me with possibly the largest repertoire of solo and chamber music for any single instrument. Playing an instrument falls into the second broad category of ECs: arts. Many colleges value the creativity in the arts (particularly Ivy League schools), and many include an optional arts supplement for talented artists who want to show how important their art is to them. Generally, these supplements involve submitting samples of one’s work. Common arts include: dance, theater, drawing/painting, and musical performance. Again, you can benefit from doing one of these arts even if you aren’t exceptional or naturally talented.

The final group is volunteer work. This is probably the easiest to do as it does not require any particular skill. Volunteering is loosely defined as doing work for others without the expectation of compensation. It is a very popular activity, especially during the summer when there is plenty of time and very little to do. During the summer, many hospitals accept high school volunteers to help around, and many of my friends and I have been involved in such programs. Volunteering is measured in the amount of time you work, and while many universities will not “require” you to have a certain number of volunteer hours to be admitted, many will look very favorably upon such acts of charity. As a mark of good character, meaningful volunteer work reflects well on an applicant because colleges will see that you are involved in the community and are doing things for others as well as for yourself. Many schools also have service-oriented clubs, like National Honor Society, that offer volunteer opportunities throughout the school year. There are also awards for volunteering, such as the Presidential Service Award.

Presidential Service AwardColleges value extracurricular activities because of what those activities represent about the applicant. Successful athletes are dedicated and disciplined, and usually work well with others (which is important in a classroom environment); accomplished musicians or individuals with similar artistic outlets tend to excel in large part because of their creativity and imagination; service activities like volunteering show colleges you are committed to your community, and that you can bring that same commitment to serve to their community on campus.

While the personal benefits of ECs are evident in the friends you make and skills you learn through such participation, it is important to note that when you are applying to college you must be able to translate your experiences into something quantifiable. In other words, keep track of your accomplishments and be sure to brag about them when you apply to college!

By Ridge Liu

Ridge Liu went through the Test Masters SAT & PSAT course between his sophomore and junior years of high school. Ridge went on to obtain a Perfect Score on the SAT, and we expect him to be named a National Merit Semi- or Finalist this fall.

You can find Ridge’s last “Improve Your College Application” post here.

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The Great Global Conversation and You

"We Americans must fight for our right... to party."

“We Americans must fight for our right… to party.”

While the SAT is primarily used for admission into American institutions, the test is administered internationally. Therefore, one of the aims of redesigning the SAT was to make it more accessible for test takers regardless of their respective backgrounds. And what better way to do that than to add a passage to every test that aligns itself with American values and assert that it’s a universally valued text? A text that is part of not just “a global conversation” but rather “The Great Global Conversation.”

All kidding aside, the Great Global Conversation passage of the redesigned SAT Evidence-based Reading exam is very much in line with the college board’s overall goas of assessing a student’s college readiness. In earlier specifications for the redesigned exam, the College Board asserted that it is committed to “the idea that all students should be asked routinely to engage with texts worthy of close attention and careful analysis,” and that “nowhere is [this commitment] more evident than in the Reading Test’s inclusion of U.S. founding documents and texts from the Great Global Conversation.”

Give me liberty, or give me test prep!

Give me liberty, or give me test prep!

So what exactly is this passage from “the Great Global Conversation”? A primary source document such as a U.S. founding document (the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, etc.) or some other historical text that explores the concepts of freedom, liberty, and/or justice. Selections ostensibly span from said founding documents all the way to texts from the twenty-first century and represent authors of all different nationalities and backgrounds. In addition to providing a sample from Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s speech at the Nixon impeachment hearings in 1974, the College Board has also named Edmund Burke,  Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as possible passage sources. Your friends at College Compass have also been careful to note some passages that have recently shown up in experimental sections of the exam that fit the profile of “Great Global Conversation” passages (included at the end of this post).

As the College Board is careful to point out, however, while these passages may, in some cases, be more difficult to dissect than some of the more contemporary texts on the exam, the questions associated with these passages will still require students to choose an answer that’s supported by the text. In other words, no previous knowledge of any historical event associated with the passage is necessary to answer the questions. In fact, even if you are an expert on the subject, remember to answer the questions with evidence from the passage.

What it comes down to is this: this passage may seem more intimidating, but the College Board has generated the same types of questions and answering them will require all the same skills and strategies as answering the questions for any other passage. You may want to plan to take an extra minute or two on this passage to allow yourself a little bit more time to interpret the text, but otherwise, treat it as you’d treat any other passage.

Previous examples of Global Conversation passages include excerpts from:

  1. The Bill of Rights
  2. The Federalist Papers
  3. Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
  4. Susan B. Anthony
  5. Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address
  6. Fredrick Douglas *
  7. Alexander Hamilton on Slavery
  8. Alexis de Tocqueville
    *Passage was on October PSAT
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