College Visits 101 – Talking to Students

Nothing like a nice stroll through Harvard yard, right?
Nothing like a nice stroll through Harvard yard, right?

You can learn a lot about a college from its website, its guided tours, and its employees. However, there are some questions that can only be answered by a real, live college student. In fact, speaking with a university’s current students is one of the best ways to find out whether a college is right for you. There are many ways to interact with students when visiting a college campus, some more mediated than others. Current students (hand-picked and trained by the administration) will usually lead campus tours when you visit, and it might be possible to meet with students from a particular major by contacting the office of admissions. Simply call them up, tell them you are a prospective student who wants to major in X, and that you would like to talk to a current student who is majoring in X when you visit. They may be able to set something up for you.

For a less mediated experience (one in which you are not talking to current students selected by the admissions office) you have a number of different options. If you have been admitted already, you might receive an invitation from the university to spend the night on campus. Some universities allow you to do this even before you have been admitted (although it can still be restricted to high school seniors only). These overnight stays give you a good chance to see what residential life is really like at a university, and you can meet many different kinds of students in a relaxed, authentic setting (their natural habitat, as it were).

“Ah, yes! You can see the rare blue-footed pre-med in the brush there.”

If you would rather not spend the night, you can still meet students in other ways. For instance, many colleges allow prospective students to observe classes during their visits. Before or after the class it would be easy to introduce yourself to the students around you, explain that you are a prospective student, and ask them if they have a few minutes after class to talk to you. Another way you can try to meet current students is by visiting meetings of extracurricular groups on campus. This can be a great way to meet current college students, since these kinds of clubs and organizations already have a social atmosphere and if you pick clubs that you would be interested in participating in, you’re bound to have common interests with the students there.

Of course, when you meet college students, you should be prepared with good questions to ask so that you get the most out to your interactions. Don’t just badger them with a list of questions of course, but do make sure to steer the conversation toward topics that interest you. Good questions you could ask any college student might include:

  1. What is the best thing about going to this college? The worst?
  2. What are students here like?
  3. Which dorms are the best? Which are the worst?
  4. How is the food?
  5. What is the administration like?
  6. Does this college have any famous traditions?
  7. Is there Greek life on campus? Do you participate? What are the reputations of the various sororities and fraternities on campus?
  8. Are students here politically involved? Are most students more liberal or more conservative?
  9. Do you feel safe on campus? What kind of security protections exist on campus? How common is theft?
  10. What sorts of extracurricular activities/clubs/volunteer organizations exist on campus? Which ones are the most active?
  11. How easy is it to get a job on campus?
  12. How diverse is the campus? Do people of different races/classes/religions mix together socially? How do you believe minorities and women are viewed/treated on campus?
  13. After orientation, how easy is it to meet new people and make new friends? Are students friendly?
  14. How would you describe the campus culture? What kinds of activities are popular with students?
  15. Are you happy here?

You should also try to find students who are majoring in subjects you might want to major in and who are pursuing career paths you might want want to pursue: students who could be a future version of you. Have you ever wished that you could go back in time and give a younger you some good advice? Well, finding a “future you” is the next best thing. Ask these students specific questions about professors, departments, internships, and other opportunities. If you haven’t already run into students like this, try asking the admissions office (as mentioned above) or simply ask any students you meet if they have any friends who are majoring in whatever subject interests you. If you ask enough people, chances are someone will know someone who fits the bill. Good questions to ask students majoring in a subject that interests you might include:

  1. Which classes have you enjoyed the most? The least?
  2. Which professors should I seek out/avoid?
  3. Does the department take undergraduate education seriously?
  4. Have you gotten to know any of your professors? Do your professors seem to care about your future success?
  5. What kinds of internships/opportunities are there for students in this department?
  6. What are some common mistakes/pitfalls I should avoid?
  7. What do most majors in this department do after graduation?
  8. How heavy is the workload usually?
  9. How easy is it to do research/get published as an undergraduate?
  10. How is the pre-med/pre-law/pre-whatever program? Do you feel like you will be well prepared for graduate school when you graduate?
  11. If you could start over as a freshman, what would you do differently?

Remember, one student’s response does not necessarily reflect the feelings of the student body as a whole, so try to talk to as many different students as you can. Also remember that the fact that something about a college makes one student unhappy doesn’t mean that that same thing will also make you unhappy. Maybe the soccer coach is awful, but if you don’t play soccer, who cares? Likewise, even if something doesn’t bother one student, that doesn’t mean that that same thing won’t bother you.

If only we could time travel, deciding where to go to college would be so much easier.

Remember what I said about trying to find “a future version of you.” The most useful answers to these questions are going to come from students who have values, interests, and goals that are similar to yours. This won’t necessarily be just one person – there may be an extracurricular “future you” and an academic “future you,” and you might not even be sure what you want to major in, so be open to the advice and experiences of all different college students you meet.

Also remember that as with visiting professors, when visiting students you are there just as much to observe as to listen. Keep your eyes and ears open and take note of the environment around you. See if you can find any campus publications – newspapers, literary journals, satirical publications, etc. These are the sorts of institutions that will be around you if you go to this university. What do you think of them?

Most people only ever go to one college for an undergraduate degree, so it can be hard to know how your undergraduate experience compares with those of others. After all, if you only ever go to one college, how can you know if you would have been more or less happy at another college? Doing your research and making the most of your college visits can help you make the choice that’s best for you when it comes to deciding where to spend the next four years of your life. Hopefully, with the help of this guide, you’ll be well on your way to success at a college that’s going to give you just what you need to achieve your dreams. Best of luck, and keep up the good work!

This post is part of a series. Previous posts include:

College Visits 101: Info Sessions and Guided Tours

University of Houston – Accelerated MD Program

University of Houston
The University of Houston

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston has partnered with The University of Texas Medical branch at Galveston and the University of Houston to admit select UH undergraduate students to an accelerated BS/MD program designed to help students earn their Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) in seven years rather than eight. This represents an impressive and significant step forward for the University of Houston, who in addition to debuting this accelerated MD program was also recently named a Tier One research university by the Carnegie Foundation.

Starting Fall 2013, 10 talented undergraduate students were handpicked to enter this intensive premed program. These students will spend three years as undergraduates at the University of Houston while working towards their Bachelor of Science degree. The curriculum for this accelerated program will include a heavy emphasis on math and science, with most classes existing under the umbrella of the University of Houston Honors Program; this course will also feature “a two-semester capstone honors course called The Human Situation, which will provide an open conversation about the most important issues for human beings.” The inclusion of The Human Situation honors course into this accelerated BS/MD program reflects the growing importance medical schools have placed on applicants being capable of understanding the ethical and moral dilemmas that modern doctors must deal with in the workplace.

The University of Houston has made two other rather impressive strides over the past two years. UH has finally achieved recognition as a Tier One research university, becoming one of only three public universities in Texas (along with the University of Texas and Texas A&M University) to be recognized by the Carnegie Foundation, “a nationally recognized policy and research center that systematically evaluates and classifies colleges and universities based on empirical data,” for having a staff engaged in a high level of research activity. Perhaps even more significantly, along with this very special accommodation, the University of Houston raised more than $100 million through private donations in 2011-2012.

If you or someone you know might be interested in this accelerated MD program, we encourage you to contact the UH Honors College.

Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!

College Compass by Test Masters regularly reviews colleges and programs across the country; you can find a list of our College Profiles here.

If there is a college or program we have not yet reviewed, but that you are interested in, please feel free to leave your suggestion below or just Ask Test Masters.

So you want to be a Theatre Major?

theatre-maskWhat’s wrong with you?!

This is the question you will be asked the most if you’re planning on pursuing a Theatre Major. Other questions might include: “What, is a business degree too good for you?”, “Are you insane?” or “Do you hate money?”, and of course, the classic, “Do you hate me? Are you doing this because you’re mad at me? Whatever it is, I’m sorry.” This final question is asked by approximately 80% of mothers who have just learned that their child wants to pursue a Theatre Major. We call this the ONMCWBTM Syndrome (aka the “Oh No My Child Wants to Become a Theatre Major Syndrome). After your parents have gotten past the initial shock, you can calmly begin to explain your reasons for being a Theatre Major, which I will presently discuss. (I’m aware that both parents and students read this blog. To all you parents suffering from ONMCWBTM – don’t worry, there’s a 50% chance that your student will change their major within their first two years of college.) Let’s see if I can kill two birds with one stone here, and answer some questions both parents and students will have when it comes to being a Theatre Major.

First of all, it should be mentioned that the world of Theatre doesn’t just include Acting, Directing and Teaching. Theaters around the world have made it a priority to be more than a group of friends getting together to put on their favorite plays and musicals. These are major, thriving businesses, equipped with Facility Managers, Literary Associates, Publicity Coordinators, Marketing Directors, Grant Writers, and even Attorneys. This means that there are jobs, REAL jobs, for a market that has specified needs in order to function and survive. So, you still want to be a Theatre Major? Great! But what do you want to do SPECIFICALLY? Parents, these are the types of questions you might want to ask your student when you’re discussing their decision.

Now, if you’re mind is basically made up on pursuing the more artistic jobs, like being an actor, director, or even a dancer, then there is one thing to consider: money. First, realize that the chances of you making more than $40,000 a year are not only slim, but almost impossible. This includes your extra job on the side (Yes, every actor has one of these). And in case you’re wondering, this is a description of the average working actor in a city like New York or Chicago, where the opportunities for jobs in theatre are the highest. So, if you can find another job waiting tables, selling retail, or even teaching, your chances of survival as an actor go up. Also, keep in mind that the average fine arts school costs over $30,000/ year, and you’re probably going to stack up a few loans to pay for tuition. This means that theoretically you could potentially graduate college with $120,000 in debt, prepared for a profession that might pay up to $40,000 a year.

This brings me back to the different types of jobs that are available in theatre. Some theaters have salary options, which I realize don’t sound very appealing at age 18, but think about this: When you’re able to have a steady income to pay off your debt and living expenses, you don’t have to worry about making monthly payments on time. These jobs are hard to come by; the surest way to make yourself a successful professional in theatre is to be qualified twork in a variety of capacities (i. e. Set Building, Properties Manager, Light Board Operating, etc.). Most conservatories and B.F.A. programs don’t make their students take these types of classes; this means, if you do intend to pursue a degree in theatre, you can set yourself up for success, and separate yourself from future graduates (aka the competition), by taking classes that offer instruction in these different areas. Remember, most theaters are more concerned with getting their sets built than understanding the set’s artistic integrity (they usually have designers for that).

So, what this all boils down to is one question: Do you want to pursue Theatre, or something more specific in theatre? This is an important question when deciding whether you want to be a Theatre Major, so make sure you’re thinking about it when deciding on a career.

Hope this helps! If you have any questions, please feel free to post a comment, and I’ll be more than happy to answer it.


Ask Test Masters: Getting into Columbia

Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!

Reader Kayla asks,

“Hi, so I have been reading your articles and I was starting to panic. My freshmen year didn’t go that well and I have just started getting more involved with extracurricular activities this year, as a sophomore. I am on my school’s rowing team and I am in the orchestra. I was in my school’s musical last year and I plan to do that all four years of high school. I take orchestra during lunch so that I can have room for two other electives (French and theater). I am taking two honors classes (H) English and (H) Biology and I am planning on taking at least 2 AP classes next year. I also do community service inside and outside of school. Will this be enough? Columbia is my dream school and I really want to get in… What do I need to do to increase my chances of getting in?”

Dear Kayla,

As you probably know, Columbia has one of the lowest admission rates in the country (6.89% for the Class of 2017). Almost every student who applies to Columbia College is going to have fantastic credentials: straight A’s (with a challenging course load), amazing standardized test scores (middle 50% of admitted students score between a 2150 and 2320 on the SAT), and a very high class rank (over 90% of students admitted as members of the Class of 2017 were in the top 10% of their graduating high school class).

This means, first and foremost, if you are lacking in any of the areas mentioned above, you can most increase your chances of being accepted into Columbia by prioritizing them.  If you struggled your freshman year, then your priority should be to improve your cumulative GPA and to rise higher in your class rank.

To be clear, the credentials mentioned above are not prerequisites to being accepted into Columbia. Like many top tier universities, Columbia has adopted a holistic admissions process, which essentially means that every candidate is evaluated within the context of who that candidate is as a person (family history, education background, financial situation, etc.) and what kind of impact that candidate may have on campus.  That said, these “fantastic credentials” are strong indicators of a student’s likelihood to succeed at a school like Columbia.

Extracurricular activities also play a big role in the college admission process. The most important thing to remember is universities like Columbia value quality over quantity. Calvin puts it extremely well in this article, saying “With extracurriculars, less is actually more.” This means that when you participate in extracurriculars your goal should be to produce something tangible or quantifiable (which is more difficult to accomplish if your attention is split between a dozen different activities).  Basically…

  • You’re on the rowing team? That’s fantastic; take them to State!
  • Vous êtes dans le Club de Français? Très bien! Maintenant, écoutez-moi. Gagnez une trophée!
  • You’re in your high school musical? Great, but are you the lead in your high school musical?

Kayla, by taking an active interest in your education you have already taken the first step to getting into your dream school. It also seems like you have a pretty good idea of what you need to accomplish in order to be a viable candidate for a school like Columbia. The best advice we can give you is two-fold:

1) As mentioned above, prioritize your grades and class rank; without them no amount of extracurricular recognition will improve your chances of admission.

2) Commit to the extracurricular activities you’ve already joined. Stick to it and eventually you will be recognized and rewarded for your hard work.

Hope this helps! Let us know if you have any more questions by commenting, or you can always just Ask Test Masters again!


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

This is the foliage of destiny.

Over the past year I have read and responded to many questions from bright, eager high school students who want to know if they have what it takes to get in to their dream schools. Usually, their inquiries go something like this: “These are my grades, these are my test scores, these are my extracurricular activities, etc. Do I have what it takes to get in?” or “I’ve been doing really well, but I have this one problem. Can I still get in?” The answer of course is always some variation on “it depends.” I always give the most helpful, specific advice I can, but in the end, even if you do everything right, elite college admissions always involves an element of luck. Thousands of kids apply to these elite colleges every year, and even though 15 to 20% may have what it takes, in the end only 5 to 10% will be admitted. There are simply fewer spots than qualified applicants, so you could do everything right, and still not get in.

This inherent uncertainty seems to be behind the underlying anxiety expressed in many of the comments left on these blog posts, an anxiety that reflects what I believe has become an unhealthy obsession with getting into certain elite American colleges. Admittedly, in writing these articles, I have been exploiting those anxieties and in some ways I may even be contributing to our country’s fixation on the Ivy League. However, after a year of being able to respond to my readers and reflect on my own life experiences, I feel there are some things I should share with you that might help you calm down and relax a bit.

Sometimes applying to Ivy League schools can feel like playing the lottery.

The picture of the perfect Ivy League applicant that I provide here in this blog series is an ideal to strive for, and if you don’t quite fit it, that’s okay. Don’t get me wrong – it is possible. Thousands of kids manage to do everything I recommend every year, and I’m sure that if any of you start preparing early enough and work really hard, you can do just as well. But maybe you didn’t start taking high school seriously until junior year, or maybe you had a bunch of stuff going on in your life one semester and your grades suffered, or maybe your high school doesn’t send kids to Harvard and Yale every year, or maybe you just didn’t realize what it takes to get in until it was too late. What I want you to realize is that even if you’re not going to be able to check off every item in the checklist I gave you, the closer you come to this ideal picture, the more desirable you are to any college, not just Ivy League colleges.

first world problems

So if you have a few grades that aren’t up to snuff, or if you didn’t seriously pursue any extracurricular activities, you may not get into the Ivy League, but if you have everything else, then you will still be an extremely competitive applicant to just about every other school in the country. Furthermore, many of these schools can provide you with just as good an education as an Ivy League school can (and often at a fraction of the cost). Also, remember that not getting into your dream school straight out of high school doesn’t mean you’ll never get there. If you get stellar grades during your undergrad years, you can always go to the Ivy League for grad school – and if you go to grad school, no one is going to care where you went for undergrad anyway.

You might even be able to transfer to your dream school during undergrad. Let me tell you a story: in high school, I had a friend who was very bright, but she didn’t quite have the application she needed in order to get into the Ivy League. Instead, she applied to and got into NYU – an excellent but slightly less competitive school. She worked really hard her freshman year, made straight As, and applied to Columbia (my alma mater) as a transfer student. She was accepted, and when she graduated from Columbia, her diploma was exactly the same as mine.

Another thing you need to realize is that an Ivy League education may not even be necessary for you to achieve your goals. You can still go to med school, law school, business school, etc., even if you don’t go to an Ivy League college (in fact, it may be easier to stand out in terms of class rank if you don’t). If you want to work for a great company and make lots of money, you can also do that without an Ivy League education. A friend of mine from high school went to the honors college at the University of Houston and majored in Accounting. She worked really hard and got an internship at Deloitte (one of the top accounting firms in the country), and at the end of the internship she was offered a full time (and well remunerated) position.

You don’t have to go to Harvard to be a great intellectual. Just ask Diogenes!

If you don’t care about money and just want to live the life of the mind, well, you don’t have to go to an Ivy League school for that, either. As proof, just research where current Ivy League professors went to school for their undergraduate degrees (this information is usually listed on a university’s faculty webpages). Most of them did not start out at the Ivy League, even if now they’re running the show there. If you want to triple major and take five years to graduate, a non-Ivy League school might be a better choice for you as well, since Ivy League schools tend to be pretty strict about making sure all students graduate within four years (the expense might also be prohibitive).

I know what you’re thinking – “But if I go to a non-Ivy League school, my professors won’t be as good and my peers won’t be as smart.” Again, it ain’t necessarily so. There are good and bad professors at every school, even at Ivy League universities. I guarantee you that whatever school you go to, your multivariable calculus teacher will probably be a grad student who speaks broken English and doesn’t really care about undergrads.

As for your peers, let me tell you another story. When I was researching colleges in high school, I visited the University of Texas at Austin because I was interested in their Plan II Honors program. As part of the tour, we got to sit in on an undergraduate “Great Books” class. The professor was supposed to be leading his students in a discussion of the Oresteia, but, as it was a Monday morning, most of the students appeared to be either asleep, hung over, or both. There was one kid who was actually discussing the book with the professor. Needless to say, this wasn’t the collegiate learning environment I had imagined for myself. I thought to myself, “If I go to an Ivy League school, this won’t happen. All of my fellow students will be intellectually curious and engaged and passionate and excited to discuss the Great Thoughts of the past!” Well, at Columbia, guess what my Literature Humanities class looked like on Monday mornings? Pretty much exactly the same as the class at UT, except it was more than twice as expensive.

But Thucydides is so comfy!
Basically, Mondays look the same everywhere.

While it is true that just about all students who go to Ivy League schools get great grades and test scores in high school, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a love of learning. No matter how many essays they make you write, college admissions officers will never be able to tell who actually has these qualities and who doesn’t from what’s written down on paper. Some Ivy League students are simply raised from birth to do all the stuff on my checklist, and oftentimes these students have been so busy living up to their parents’ expectations that they haven’t had a chance to actually form their own opinions or figure out what they care about themselves.

While these kids may have huge advantages when it comes to getting into the Ivy League, it isn’t surprising that they sometimes lack the insatiable curiosity, passion, and independent thinking that many people assume our country’s best and brightest possess. Of course, there are many excellent professors and bright, passionate students at Ivy League schools, but it’s important to keep in mind that they exist elsewhere, too. Remember those kids who did everything right but didn’t get into Harvard? You can find them at schools ranked just below the Ivy League or in the honors programs at top public universities, and I promise they are just as smart as Ivy League students.

So, what is actually different about Ivy League schools? What’s all the hype about? In short, money. Ivy League schools are rolling in tons of money. The enormous wealth of these institutions allows them to buy glamour and prestige, and probably accounts for much of their “elite” status. Consider a few examples: at the end of my orientation week, Columbia rented out Ellis Island so the new freshman could have a party there; the students at Barnard, the all-female sister school of Columbia College, had Meryl Streep speak at their graduation, and the next year they had Barak Obama; my friend at Yale got to study medieval architecture in Paris one summer (and everything was included with tuition and his financial aid package); the list of extravagances goes on.

Celebrated theoretical physicist Brian Greene has been the host of two PBS series based on his popular physics books.

This money also allows Ivy League schools to hire faculties smattered with “rock star” professors and Nobel Prize winners who are some of the most celebrated names in their fields. For my international economics class, we had guest speakers that included Jeffrey Sachs (who, among other things, was an architect of Bolivia’s economic “shock therapy” policy in the 1980s and of Russia’s transition to capitalism in the 1990s) and Glen Hubbard (George W. Bush’s economics advisor).  This class was also taught by Sunil Gulati (besides being an economics professor, he is also the president of the United States Soccer Federation). Another star at Columbia was theoretical physicist Brian Greene, author of “The Elegant Universe” and host of the eponymous PBS series (and whom most undergrads never saw). Columbia also currently lists eight Nobel Prize winners as faculty members. However, these “rock star” professors may or may not be accessible to undergrads, and they may or may not be good teachers.

They might be entertaining to watch, but would you want one as a roommate?

Not only are the institutions themselves rich; these schools also tend to attract the wealthiest students as well. You know, the sorts of people you’ve read about in books and seen in movies, but never actually thought existed in real life (if you’ve seen the show Gossip Girl, yes, there are some kids just like that at Ivy League schools). And these affluent students aren’t just from the United States – they come from all over the world. A smattering of movie stars or their progeny is also usually to be expected. Not all students at Ivy League schools are rich, of course; I also knew lots of kids who paid a fraction of the sticker price or even nothing for their educations because they qualified for financial aid. But all this money sloshing around can make for a college experience that occasionally slips into the surreal.

What advantages do all these things actually give you? While going to a well-funded university definitely has some perks, unless you believe that money and glamour are the most important qualities in an undergraduate education, they probably won’t make much of a difference. While getting to work as a tech in cutting edge research labs can be a definite plus, at the undergraduate level, you are mostly just learning the basics of your field, and you quite frankly don’t need the fanciest new scientific instruments or rock star professors to teach you that stuff (if those professors even teach undergrads at all, which they often don’t). In terms of your future career, while alumni networks can potentially help you find internships and jobs (if you’re looking in the right field) and while having an Ivy League school on your resume is always a plus, what you choose to major in is probably more important: a Bachelors’ in Computer Science from the University of Houston is going to open up more employment opportunities than a B.A. in Music from Columbia (believe me).

Finance continues to be one of the most popular career choices for Ivy League graduates.

The only fields where an Ivy League education can give you a definite advantage would be finance (investment banks and hedge funds recruit like crazy from Ivy League schools – it’s still kind of a good old boys club), or possibly the public sector (if you dream of being a bureaucrat in the federal government, or even a politician, Ivy League credentials seem to carry some weight in Washington D.C.). If you plan to go to graduate school of some kind (and most good jobs these days require some grad school), then where you go for your undergraduate degree is less important than where you go for graduate school. An Ivy League degree can potentially help you get into a better graduate program, but only if you meet minimum GPA requirements, and in many cases you will probably be a more attractive candidate if you graduate at the top of your class from a less competitive school than from the bottom of your class at an Ivy League school.

The point is that while an Ivy League education definitely does have some advantages, they aren’t as big and important as you might think, and getting into one of these elite schools is not going to make the difference between success and failure in your life. With education, you generally get out of it what you put into it, so make sure you always do your very best. Even if your application isn’t perfect, don’t give up! Keep working hard, and push yourself to work harder than you ever have before. Wherever you go to school, know that you are the one who will determine what your future will be, and if you work hard and plan ahead, you can achieve your dreams. Keep up the good work, and best of luck!

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

The Other SAT Tests – SAT Biology Subject Test

Want to grow up to be a doctor (or perhaps a mad scientist)? You should think about taking the SAT Biology Subject Test.

The Biology SAT Subject Tests are hour-long tests administered by the College Board. SAT II Subject Tests demonstrate your comprehension of a particular subject in high school, and can enhance your college application tremendously. A student may choose to take the SAT Biology Subject Test in order to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of biological processes. These scores may help you get into a prestigious college (most top ranked universities require a minimum of two SAT subject tests just for admission) or a competitive major (such as biomedical, pre-med, veterinary medicine, pharmacy, and mad scientist/evil super-villain degrees).

The SAT II Subject tests are administered in October, November, December, January, May and June of each calendar year.

College Board, the corporation that administers the SAT, also administers the SAT II Subject Tests.

There are two types of Biology SAT subject tests, the Biology-E (Ecological) and Biology-M (molecular).

Of the 80 total questions, 60 questions are common to both the Biology-E and Biology-M and 20 are specialized questions for the subject that you select. You must decide on the test date which Biology SAT subject test you are going to take; College Board will not allow you to take both tests on the same test date. Due to differences in high school biology curriculum, it is very likely you may see questions concerning topics you have not learned about. Don’t Panic! It’s actually possible to get a perfect score on the SAT II Subject Tests without answering every question correctly. Also, calculators are not permitted. Any and all math problems can be solved in a timely manner (and you should be warned that all measurements on the exam are expressed in the metric system).

So how do you choose between the Biology-E and the Biology-M? Each test has questions that cover different concepts:

Remember the bulk of the questions (60 out of 80) will be the same for both; the ‘specialized’ portion of the exam is intended to help you demonstrate a talent for the particular program you are applying to. For example, if you are interested in pursuing an MD after undergrad, you should probably take Biology-M; if you are more interested in the natural sciences and environment, then you should probably take the Biology-E.

According to the College Board SAT-Biology website, the student is tested on three main skill sets within the Biology-E and Biology-M:

Check out the Test Masters SAT Biology Subject Test course sample video below:




Ask Test Masters: Early Graduation & International Studies

Ask Test Masters is a great, free service that allows you to ask the experts at Test Masters all of your test prep and college admissions questions. If you have a question, send it to us – chances are other people are wondering the same thing. Reader Partha asked:

“I will be graduating from school at the age of 16 as I am on the fast trek program of the school and I have done my grade 7 & 8  + 9 & 10 together. Will my young age be a problem in university admission? I checked with many university and they are of the opinion that we do not discriminate any one on age/sex/race religion etc. However, I need your opinion. I am Indian and studying with AP program school in Bangkok Thailand.

My next question is: is it better to do more AP subjects or better to do AP International diploma? My school is not offering AP English & French, which is required to get the AP diploma (the two languages I know), but my school is offering Biology/U.S History? government?Chemistry – I wish to take business subject as major – I already cleared AP World History and AP Micro Economics – currently I am in 11th grade and doing AP Calculus BC and Macro Economics. Please advise in my final year what I should do – 2 Languages or 2 Science us history – what is acceptable more in IVY and other high ranked colleges and universities?”

Dear Parth,

First of all, congratulations on completing your lower education curriculum so quickly!

The Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment provides that every person is entitled to equal protection under the law.

To answer your first question: in the United States it is illegal to discriminate against a qualified candidate based on race, age, gender, religion, etc. In the context of an admission decision, you will not suffer because you are younger than other applicants. In fact, most if not all the universities you apply to will be duly impressed with your academic achievements. That being said, there are a number of other factors you should consider before deciding where and when to pursue a higher education.

Though your age might be an advantage when it comes to admissions, it might be a disadvantage in a larger context. The most important obstacles you encounter at the university level occur in the classroom; however, you should understand that not all the challenges you face in college will be academic. This is especially true for an early graduate, and doubly so for an international student. Our main concern is that you would suffer due to your cultural and real-world inexperience.

There is a financial challenge to consider as well; again, this is especially true for international students. A full scholarship might not be entirely out of the question for a student of your caliber; however, there are areas of financial costs associated with a higher education beside just tuition. These include things like books and fees (the costs of college other than tuition), room and board (where will you stay?), living expenses (what will you eat?), as well as other more superfluous costs, like entertainment costs (will you be able to afford to go to the movies?).

Your involvement with AP programs is excellent! Earning as many college credits as possible is something we absolutely encourage! Our advice is you should continue to

College Board, the same company that administers the SAT, is also responsible for initiating the Advanced Placement program.

pursue college credit, either through online courses, which many American universities offer, or through additional AP classes. We feel this option could potentially answer most if not all of our concerns. Not only would this allow you to shorten your time spent at an undergraduate institution, which would greatly reduce the cost associated with attending it, but it would also give you time to mature, which might lead to an easier transition period when you do eventually start taking classes in the US. In addition to continuing to earn college credit, you could spend this time creating a nest egg for financial security. Also, if you wait until your 18th birthday it might be easier for you to not just find a job but to learn to juggle the dual responsibilities of simultaneously working and going to school should you need to.

Talk to your parents! They might actually be able to help!

If waiting is not an option and finances are not a problem, then our advice is simple: TALK TO YOUR PARENTS! Is there a chance either your mom or dad could travel and live overseas with you, at least for your first year? This would certainly ease the cultural transition of living in a new country; it would also give you a chance to “learn the ropes” of living alone before you actually have to. Either way, hopefully your parents can give you valuable insight and advice on what is best for you going forward. In a worst case scenario, you can always apply to your school of choice this year and (if accepted) defer attending for a year.

As for your second question: which AP courses should you take? The answer, of course, is it depends. If you are determined to apply to an Ivy League undergraduate business school, you should certainly prioritize AP Math and Language classes. These classes would demonstrate to admissions officers not just a capacity to succeed in the numbers-oriented world of business, but also an ability to communicate that success across any potential language boundaries. Unfortunately, it appears from your email that your school is not offering AP English or French, which are the two languages you would be most comfortable taking at the AP level. If this is the case, our advice is to NOT sign up for an advanced language class if you are not comfortable with the subject. Do NOT sacrifice your GPA and a high class ranking in an effort to impress a university admissions officer; signing up for an AP class you are not comfortable with could potentially backfire!

If AP Language is not an option and you have already taken the most advanced AP/BC Math class your school offers, then you will need to decide between taking a social science class (like History) or a physical science class (like Biology). Our advice is relatively straightforward: most Ivy League schools will require applicants take at least one, probably two SAT Subject Tests. You should take the AP class most closely associated with the SAT Subject Test you are planning on taking. If you are planning on taking a SAT Biology Subject Test, take AP Biology; if you are planning on taking the SAT History Subject Test, take AP History. However, you should remember: the greater range you demonstrate as an applicant, the more likely you are to be accepted. (Hint: why not take one Social Science and one Physical Science?)

There is one caveat you should be aware of when it comes to taking SAT Subject Tests: most Ivy League schools ask students whose first language is not English to take their SAT Subject Tests in a subject other than their native language. For example, the webpage listing the requirements for undergraduate applicants to Harvard University cautions, “Candidates whose first language is not English should ordinarily not use a Subject Test in their first language to meet the two Subject Tests requirement.” This means, for example, if you are a native French speaker you should NOT take the SAT French Subject Test.

Hope this helps!

If you need any more help with the SAT or SAT Subject Tests, the experts at Test Masters are available year-round for all your testing needs!

Transferring Colleges

The University of Texas at San Antonio, the first college I attended.

Transferring schools can be a complicated, multifaceted process. The decision to transfer to a new university is not made lightly, especially considering the effort it can take just to get accepted. But life is full of uncertainty and surprise, and sometimes a family or medical emergency, the longing to be closer to home, or just the desire to try another program can make transfers a necessary part of the college experience.

Though the transfer process is fraught with potential pitfalls, any student armed with a little bit of knowledge should be able to easily avoid those dangers and truly enjoy the adventures that come with a diverse college background. As a three time transfer student myself, I became very familiar with the transfer process and all the resulting headaches and benefits that can accompany it.

Regardless of the reason you are transferring, the most important thing to remember is that you are ultimately responsible for yourself. Most college advisers, especially at public universities like the ones I attended, are responsible for thousands of students. These brave and mostly helpful administrators are overworked and underpaid, and they simply do not have enough time to review every student’s every need. The best thing you could possibly do for yourself as a transfer student is become intimately familiar with your transcript at your current school and with the credit transfer process and degree and major requirements of your prospective new school. I’ve been told by advisers that though they wish they could do more, they generally put a student’s file away as soon as the student leaves the room. Remember, they are there to advise you, not to hold your hand; if you don’t take responsibility for your academic career, you could easily slip through the cracks in the system.

From UTSA, I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin.

If you are thinking about transferring and have not yet begun the application process, you might have a few questions about the various requirements necessary to be accepted by another university. From high school to college there are a number of factors that go into a university’s decision to admit. These same factors play a role at the university level as well, however, when transferring from college to college the most important requirements are GPA based. This is not to say that universities will not consider your resume, recommendations, achievements, and special circumstances when making an admission decision; but, if you are thinking about transferring, the best way to help yourself is to do your job as a student and keep your GPA up.

Transferring can also be an excellent strategy for recent high school graduates who feel they don’t have the grades to get into their university of choice. Many universities have automatic admission programs that allow for students to automatically be admitted into their university as a transfer student; again, most of these requirements are GPA based. Beware though, some universities’ automatic admissions programs depend on your grades and application status as an incoming freshman. For example, a program like the University of Texas’ Coordinated Admissions Program (CAP) requires a base GPA of 3.2 at a satellite school or other approved affiliate, among other conditions such as a particular SAT score and class rank, in order to automatically transfer the next year. Each university will have different requirements, and will require individual research.

If you feel that your high school academic career was less than stellar but you are ready to succeed at the next level, then a community college or junior college might be a great place to start. Local universities like community colleges and junior colleges allow students to accumulate college credit, experience, and learn how to deal with the various difficulties of college life. The most important aspect of taking this tack is to set goals you feel you can really achieve, and to have a plan in place that will allow you to meet those goals. For example, it’s important to understand a 4.0 GPA at your local community college probably won’t get you into Harvard, but it’s equally important to know it might get you into a premier state university, and an that additional year of excellent course work there could take you anywhere.

Finally, I ended up at the University of Houston.

There are also a number of smaller details any transfer student should pay attention to when arriving on a new campus. Though you may have a year or more experience as a student under your belt, it is important to acknowledge the fact that a new university means a new daily routine. After visiting your adviser, the next most important thing you can do is familiarize yourself with your new campus. You should know what buildings your classes are in and where those buildings are before the first day of a new school year. Likewise, it’s important to know where the other on-campus facilities are; knowing where the cafeteria, library, and even (especially!) bathrooms are can save you time, effort, and embarrassment. Spending a day or two walking around and getting to know your new campus can lead to a remarkably smoother transition than an ‘i-already-know-it-all’ attitude ever could.

My last and most important piece of advice to a recent transfer student is: DO NOT BE AFRAID! Approach your new circumstances with confidence. Yes, you may have left most or all your friends behind, and yes, a fresh start can be daunting; however, I encourage you to take advantage of the experience, not to shy away from it. Get involved on campus, join student organizations, and participate in events and activities you care about.  You will be amazed at how quickly you can make a new university ‘Your University.’ The fastest way to meet people is through university programs. Also, if you are living in a dormitory, both on or off campus, there should be any number of options available for you to participate in. One of the most lasting benefits of being a transfer student should be the social skills you gain from putting yourself through a diverse college experience. But you can only take advantage of these opportunities if you are not afraid to seek them out.

Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!
Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!

Want to learn more about the college admissions process? Learn more here! Need help with the PSAT/SAT or ACT? Go farther with Test Masters!

Choosing the right college for you: Part I – Money

Choose your alma mater wisely.

As you apply to colleges, there will undoubtedly be many questions weighing heavily on your brow. Two, in particular, are probably first and foremost in your over-stressed and overworked brain. Where do I apply? When I get in, what school do I choose?

Choosing where to go to college is probably the biggest decision you have been faced with thus far in your life. It will determine where you will live for most of the next four years and influence who you will meet, what friends you will make, what opportunities you will receive, and ultimately what you will end up doing with your life. So far, most of your life decisions have been made for you by your parents, teachers, and other authority figures. While those figures will still play a big role in this next step, you are now more than ever going to have to make decisions for yourself. This can be liberating, but it can also be scary, especially since college often carries a significant price tag. This first post in this new series on choosing the right college will thus focus on perhaps the most stressful part of choosing a college: money.

At least they don't throw people in debtor's prison anymore.

How much should you pay for a college degree? College is now more expensive than ever, and tuition fees just seem to keep going up. When choosing a college, always remember that college is an investment for your future, and you want to be able to get a good return on your investment. College can cost a lot of money, and when you get out, you want to be able to get a job that will allow you to make that money back and pay off any student loans you may have taken on in order to finance your education. With the current state of the economy, this becomes even more important, since getting a job straight out of college isn’t necessarily guaranteed. It’s not hard to find horror stories of people who have tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debts and can’t get jobs to pay them off. Remember, even if you have to declare bankruptcy, student loan debts are treated differently from other debts and are not automatically discharged. They can stay with you forever.

Do not despair, though, gentle reader. There are many fields that need qualified people and will even make you rich if you get the right degree, and universities grant you access to internships and other career related opportunities that greatly improve your chances of getting a good paying job after college. It’s also possible to get a great paying job without going to an expensive undergraduate school; a friend of mine got into the honors college of a local, public university, majored in accounting, and got an internship and later a job with Deloitte, one of the nation’s top accounting firms, straight out of college.

Also remember that many undergraduate degrees require graduate degrees in order to be useful for your career. You might think an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry sounds useful, but actually it’s not worth too much without more school. When choosing what school to attend, keep in mind that while an undergraduate degree from a prestigious school might help you get into a better graduate program, ultimately it’s where you go for graduate school that will determine your career prospects. And for graduate school admissions, it can sometimes be a better move to graduate at the top of your class from a less expensive school than in the middle of your class from a more expensive one.

The Poor Poet, by Carl Spitzweg

Since I know some of you are probably thinking about this, I just want to make it clear that I’m not knocking people who want to major in things like English Literature or Medieval Studies. I think those subjects are great and important to study, but you have to realize that the only way to turn your passion for Romantic Poetry into a career is by becoming a professor, which is going to require you to go to graduate school, get a PhD, write and publish books and scholarly articles regularly, and climb the greasy ladder of academia all the way to the ever rarer position of tenured professor. If you decide that’s not for you, don’t make your parents shell out a ton of money for a degree that you won’t actually use (note: there are some special circumstances where “useless” degrees can be useful for fields outside of academia if you go to a really prestigious school (then you can work on Wall Street no matter what you major in) or decide to go on to law school or even medical school (but that requires a lot of planning and taking pre-med or pre-law classes as well)). If you do decide the ivory tower is for you, remember that in these kinds of disciplines you can usually work as a TA and receive a stipend to cover your living expenses from the university you end up at for graduate school, so you aren’t going to have to worry too much about how you pay for graduate school (this is not true for medical school or law school).

Always remember this rarely spoken truth: college is never just about learning for the love of learning. Even at the highest level, and even in the least ‘practical’ majors, it’s about preparing you for a successful career. Ultimately, what you need to keep in mind when choosing a college is this: don’t pay a lot for a degree that isn’t going to make you a lot, especially if you’re taking on debt. Do research about potential careers you might be interested in, and find out what kinds of jobs recent graduates of each college you are considering have gotten. If you want to be a doctor, find a school that gets its seniors into medical school. If you want to be a journalist, find a school that gets its seniors jobs in journalism or spots in top journalism schools. If you want to be a fashion designer, find a school that gives its students opportunities to meet people in the industry and to get their clothes on the runway. Don’t be distracted by famous alumni – find out what the average senior ends up doing.

In Rembrandt's famous painting, the wealthy, worldly Aristotle enviously contemplates a bust of the poor but pure poet Homer. As children we were told we could have money, fame, and do whatever we wanted. In reality, you might have to start making some tough decisions and figure out what's really important to you.

I know you just want someone to tell you where you should go, but when you ask counselors and admissions officers, they always give you some wishy-washy answer like, “You have to decide what school is the best fit for you.” I hate to say it, but this time they are completely right. Different people want to get different things out of college, and certain types of college are more practical for achieving some goals than they are for others. No one can tell you what you want out of college but you, and this means you need to start asking yourself some hard questions about what you want to do with your life. Even if you aren’t sure yet (and most high school kids aren’t), asking these questions can help narrow down your college choices.

Next time in Choosing the right college for you, we will turn to a related issue: financial aid.

Pre-Law, What do I major in?

Law School

Law SchoolSo you convinced your parents to extend your curfew by devising a clever logical argument, you proudly wear the captain’s badge on the debate team, and you shout “I object, Your Honor” in your dreams.  If this sounds like you, then you’ve probably been planning on becoming a lawyer since you put on your first pair of batman pull-ups. Unfortunately, your undergraduate career is only the first step in actually getting into law school, and most universities don’t even offer “Pre-Law” degrees. So what the heck do you study?

The term “Pre-Law” is a little misleading in that it generally and generically refers to any course of study one takes prior to attending law school. The most popular majors for pre-law students include Criminal Justice,  English, History, Philosophy, Political Science, and Psychology. You will notice that these areas of study either tangentially relate to the field of law or in some way have to with thinking, writing, or communicating effectively.

Demonstrate Skills Necessary to Succeed in Law School

Much like the undergraduate admissions process, law schools prefer students who can demonstrate versatility as a candidate. These schools are looking for effective communicators who understand human behavior and have shown an interest in law and government. Classes and projects that encourage innovative thinking, strategic solutions, and an ability to think clearly and logically are recommended.

As you mold yourself into a competitive law school candidate, you might want to consider life after law school. Are you interested in Intellectual Property? Are you thinking about pursuing a career in Real Estate law? Or do you feel yourself drawn to a higher calling as a public defender?  This is an important question; use your time as an undergraduate to build a solid foundation on which a real professional expertise can be constructed.

Become Friendly With Professors

As with any professional degree, connecting with professors is an important networking step. By creating strong academic relationships with professors and advisers, you will have a great pool of potential recommendations and opportunities for resume-building teaching or research assistantships.

Contacts and professional associates do not necessarily have to be professors, what is important is that you begin to establish a network of like-minded individuals. You want to be a lawyer? Then it is time to start thinking like one! C

Look for Pre-Law Student Groups

Pre-law student organizations can be found on most college campuses. Rather than joining every group that offers you a free t-shirt, become involved in the groups that provide quality support and beneficial opportunities. Though you could build a new wardrobe from t-shirt freebies, it would be advantageous to focus on standing out from all the other law school applicants.

If you haven’t checked it out already, take a look at Part 1 and Part 2 to find out about “Pre-Med” tracks.

Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!
Have a question? Ask the experts at Test Masters!

Want to know more about making yourself a competitive applicant? Learn more here! Need help with the PSAT/SAT or ACT? Go farther with Test Masters!