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Quilts, Cows, Money and Meaning: College Essays That Stood Out

Elizabeth von Nardroff

An Applicant’s Perspective on the College Essay from the New York Times is an excellent starting point for those unsure of what to write or the style or tone the essay should take.

It’s always good to read successful College Application Essays. It helps get a better sense of different styles and topics others have utilised. To help, here are Five College Essays from the New York Times 11/5/19 .

Changes to the ACT Test for International Student -- Article published in The American

Elizabeth von Nardroff

As of September 2018, International students wanting to take the ACT will need to take a computer-based exam.

Those of you with teen children planning on going to US Colleges are probably already aware of the SAT/ACT tests. (If not, you can read about these Here – or in the January 2017 issue of The American). In short, these are the Entrance Tests required by most US Colleges.

You might recall that the SAT had a major overhaul a few years back. Now the ACT will be changing for International students, but not nearly in such a drastic way. But first, a little reminder of what these tests consist of.

Content-wise, the tests are pretty similar – both cover Math, Reading, Grammar and optional essay writing. They do differ, however, in a few ways.

First off, the ACT tends to be a more straightforward but fast test – if you find you can process information quickly, this could be the test for you. If not, the SAT might be better for you. The ACT also has a Science section, whose jargon and seemingly tricky material can be off-putting to some.

Another difference is calculator use – the SAT has a non-calculator section which means students need to use some basic maths skills such as adding fractions. A plus for some for the SAT is that it gives basic formulas while the ACT gives none.

The Reading Section of the ACT tends to be more straight-forward than the SAT, so it might be the test for those who dislike denser or older texts.

In short, while the ACT is more straightforward, it requires greater speed. While the SAT gives more time to work through problems, it tends to require greater in-depth reading capabilities.

So, how will the ACT be changing for International Test takers? Starting in September 2018, test-takers outside the US will no longer be taking a paper test. While there will be paper provided for calculations, all tests will be read off a computer screen and answers entered electronically.

While this may seem taxing to those accustomed to paper tests (particularly those who like to mark-up questions and readings), there are a couple of upshots to this change. The first should appeal to those who dislike early Saturday morning tests: instead of one time given per test date, students will now be able to choose from 4 time-slots – a morning and an afternoon option on both a Friday and Saturday for each set of test dates. Also, since scores are entered digitally, it means that test scores should arrive back to you much faster – possibly in as little as under two weeks!

Please note that content-wise, the actual ACT Test itself has not changed – the practice papers available are still appropriate to help prepare. It’s only that students will be reading the test off a computer screen and answering the questions online, and the selection of test dates that will be different.

Hopefully this information can help you decide which test might be right for you or your child.

Read more about it here:

The Importance of College Application Essays (NY Times article 13/05/17 -- link to article at the bottom)

Elizabeth von Nardroff

The innkeepers and the guests. The owners and the housekeepers. The urban and the rural. The studious and the watchers of cat videos. And finally (and memorably), Mac versus Dell.

This year’s crop of college application essays about money, work and social class come from teenage writers who toe the line, tap dance on either side and often stay suspended, for just a moment, in the space above and between.

Each year, we put out a nationwide call for these bits of transcribed financial choreography, and we do so with a couple of goals in mind. It’s healthy to talk about money — with friends, family and even strangers acting as gatekeepers to your future. The more of it that goes on, the better we’ll all be about reckoning with the complex emotions that having more or having less can inspire. At their best, these miniature life stories help us bring perspective to our own. (Read four standout essays here »)

Idalia Felipe, who lives in Los Angeles, invited readers into her daily homework routine, and we’ve posted her essay in The New York Times’s new Snapchat Discover.

Ms. Felipe, who plans to attend California State University, Fullerton, and wrote her essay for other colleges she applied to, described her crowded circus of a home. There is the “warm touch of a small palm” as a much younger sibling asks to play superheroes. Others challenge her to watch a funny video all the way through without laughing, while she tries to study phototransduction.

Her mother sings loudly, off key. “Somewhat sheepishly, she stops and asks me if doing my work in a quieter place would be better for me,” Ms. Felipe wrote. “I insist that it wouldn’t, that without all the noise from my siblings I would surely fall asleep.”

Most essays don’t sound like hers, and that, according to the college admissions directors who read many hundreds of them each year, ought to be the precise point of the exercise. Most essay prompts are open-ended enough that you can write about whatever you want, so a winning one speaks in a unique voice and tells a story that does not — cannot — appear in a high school transcript or a teacher’s recommendation letter.

How often does money, work and social class come up? Not often enough to feel overly familiar. “I don’t see a lot of them, that’s for sure,” said Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.

But this season, he saw an essay from Tillena Trebon of Flagstaff, Ariz. At her father’s house, Ms. Trebon hauls water. In her mother’s neighborhood, kids wage war with water guns.

“I live on the edge of an urban and rural existence,” she wrote. “On one side of me, nature is a hobby. On the other, it is a way of life.”

I detected a slight side-eyed glance at the Patagonia-wearing set here, and she added a subtle hint that her father drove a truck because he needed to. But she also seems to know the weekenders well and count herself among them, even.

“I belong at the place where opposites merge in a lumpy heap of beautiful contradictions,” she wrote.

Mr. Rawlins, who is also a musician, described her essay as a tone poem not unlike works by Romantic composers trying to evoke a particular mood. Indeed, I read it aloud over breakfast to my family, and even the toddler fell silent.

The Standout Essays


At Columbia University, the admissions staff also hopes for essays that beg to be read aloud, even though everyone around the table has the text. This time around, an essay by Zöe Sottile, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., made the cut.

She wrote about her laptop — the Dell that she got free from the school as a full-ride scholarship student, and the Mac she didn’t realize she wanted until she discovered that most of the full-paying students had one.

That Dell was a tell, giving her away as an outsider. But she hadn’t arrived at Andover with nothing, as her parents had gone to college and provided plenty of cultural capital. So when she finally did get a Mac during her senior year, it didn’t quite sit right, either.

“My hyperawareness of how my Dell hid my privilege and how my Mac hid my financial need pushed me to be aware of what complicated stories were hiding behind my classmates’ seemingly simple facades,” she wrote.

That almost aching self-awareness spoke to Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions at Columbia. “It really showed a window into the way I would think she would approach challenges and questions academically — with great consideration, depth and fairness,” she said.

Admissions officers aim to fill beds, but they’re also trying to craft a well-rounded class filled with individuals who will meet the faculty’s high standards. So a good essay will prove that the writer belongs around the seminar table, mixing it up on social class or whatever the big issue of the day is.

“There are people who might be 40 years old and wouldn’t be able to articulate this view,” Ms. Marinaccio said of the Mac vs. Dell essay. “It only underscores the tremendous promise of who she could become.”

Another student, Jonathan Ababiy, rose above the crowd in describing how far he has come already. The son of Moldovan refugees, he eloquently describes the intellectual artifacts in the professors’ house that his mother cleans. He tagged along to help quite often over the years, and the newspapers, magazines, books and photos in the house were a “celebrity-endorsed path to prosperity” that opened a window to new worlds.

“Work could be done with one’s hands and with one’s mind,” wrote Mr. Ababiy, who lives in Blaine, Minn., and plans to attend the University of Minnesota. “It impressed on me a sort of social capital that I knew could be used in America.”

At the Peppertrees Bed & Breakfast in Tucson, Caitlin McCormick has watched her own parents work hard, sometimes for an unappreciative audience of poor tippers, scammers and late-arriving guests who once made young Caitlin late for her own birthday party.

“For most of my life I believed my parents were intense masochists for devoting their existences to the least thankful business I know,” she wrote.

But as she turned her growing awareness of the imbalance of power in the service industry toward an appreciation of public service, she came to understand the nobility of all work, even when there is no one to say thank you.

“Slowly, my mother’s gingham apron began to look more like metal armor,” she wrote.

I stopped to consider that passage, as did Jennifer Fondiller, dean of enrollment management at Barnard College, where Ms. McCormick plans to matriculate.

“I wanted to have a conversation with her about it,” Ms. Fondiller said. “And I love leaving an essay like that, where you want to say, ‘Let’s keep talking.’”

ACT or new SAT -- which is better for you?

Elizabeth von Nardroff

From the January 2017 Edition of the London-based publication of 'The American' 

So you've decided to apply to American Colleges – great! Hopefully you've read The American's November/December Issue in which we discuss the overall application timeline. This month I'd like to discuss the two admissions  tests – the SAT and the ACT --  required by most schools and help you decide which might be better option for you or your student 

The first thing to note is that if the college you'd like to go to requires a test (and most – but not all – do), then it will accept EITHER the ACT or the SAT. Perhaps you've already heard about the SAT – traditionally, it was the test most non-US applicants would take. This is no longer the case! There is absolutely no preference for one over the other, so it is up to you to take the one best suited to your needs.  But then which should you take? Let's have a closer look. 

Content-wise, the test are pretty similar – both cover Math, Reading, Grammar and optional essay writing. They do differ, however, in a few ways. 

First off, the while the ACT tends to be a more straightforward test (math questions in particular are less wordy than on the SAT), the ACT is a fast test – if you find you can process information quickly, this could be the test for you.  If not,  the SAT might be better for you. 

Another thing to consider – the ACT has a Science section. While it does tend to consist mostly of analyzing charts and graphs (quickly), its jargon and seemingly tricky material can be off-putting to some.  

Another thing to weigh in is how calculator-dependant a student is – the SAT has a non-calculator section which means students need to use some basic maths skill they might not have used in a while, such as adding fractions. In addition, the SAT uses more advanced algebra and wordy math problems, something also to consider. A plus for some for the SAT is that it gives basic formulas (including trig) while the ACT gives none. 

The Reading Section of the ACT tends to be more straight-forward than the SAT, so it might be the test for those who dislike denser (or older) texts. For examplethe SAT likes to use passages from the 1800's, the styles and vocabulary of which some students may be less comfortable with.  

In short, while the ACT is more straightforward, it requires greater speed. While the SAT gives more time to work through problems, it is tends to require greater in-depth reading capabilities. Of course these are generalizations – the best way to see which is best for you is to try a full, timed practice test of each. Whichever you feel more confident or comfortable with – that's the test to work with.

Overall timetable for applying to US Colleges/Universities

Elizabeth von Nardroff

From my article in November edition of The American

Applying to the US from the United Kingdom can be a bit tricky. First off, it's not as straight forward as UK University applications where pretty much all that is required are academic records and a personal statement. Also as a student in the UK, it can be easy to lose track of when to do the various things necessary when applying to US Schools. Student counsellors here may not be very aware of the process so it is up to the student and/or the parents to be more proactive and make sure that all the boxes are ticked. To help with the process, it can be helpful to have an overview. Let's break this down step by step and year by year:

Year 11 to Lower 6th/Year 12:

Start to think about which schools to apply to: research should ideally start in Year 11-12 or Lower Sixth. Get to know what types of schools you'd be interested in, visit local College Fairs (such as Fulbright here in London!), talk to student reps. Get a better sense of which might be suitable for you – not everyone is Harvard material, nor should they be! With over 4,000 institutions, there are a great range of Colleges, so it's worth doing some homework to find the best-fit school. There are counsellors in the US whose full-time job is to do just that, so finding outside help might well be worth it.

Also, begin to think about your extracurricular activities – these are important to US Colleges, so if you aren't as active as you should be by Year 11 or Lower 6th, then it is time to look into activities and/or sports outside of school to engage in.

Begin to think about which teachers you might ask for teacher recommendations – remember – US schools expect a more thorough, detailed evaluation from your teacher about you – beyond just your academic performance. Request ones from teachers who know you well.

Start your ACT/SAT prep! These are standardised tests required by most schools in addition to your application. Get an idea from your research the scores their admitted students get. You should aim to take your first test in April/May of your year 12/Lower 6th. That way if you need to retake (and many students in the US take the test multiple times), you've got time to do so in June of that year and in Autumn of Year 13/Upper 6th. Schools also may require SAT Subjects Tests – again, make sure and schedule these is. Please check the next issue of The American for more information on the SAT and ACT Tests.

Upper Sixth/Year 13 – Get started on you applications and application essays. Most schools accept the Common Application, but may require additional essays. These are important so make sure they are a true reflection of yourself. Applications will be due October for Early Decision and Early Action, December/January for Regular Please see last month's issue of the American for discussion on the differences. Every school is different, so it's important to keep track of deadlines. Make sure you have your final tests taken in time for deadlines.

While it may seem like a lot to do, the it is definitely worth the effort. Getting into your best-fit American College will pay off for the rest of your life!

Early Decision, Early Action, Regular Decision -- from my Sept. 2016 article in The American magazine

Elizabeth von Nardroff

With autumn now upon us, students applying to US Colleges need to get cracking! There is a lot to get done: final SAT or ACT tests to take, applications to fill out, teacher recommendations to request, and essays to write. But did you know about the different types of admission -- Early Decision, Early Action or Regular Admission? It’s important to note the differences and consider the reasons which might be the best option for you.

Let’s first look at Early Decision. With this option, you apply to only one school, with the deadline much earlier than the rest -- typically in October. Early Decision applications are the ideal choice if you have thoroughly researched schools and found your ‘dream school,’ one that you would have no qualms about attending. If accepted, you find out in December (before Regular Decision applications are even due) and the offer is binding – i.e., you must accept it. The upshot is you have the freedom to relax, knowing that the application process is complete and your school place is secured. Another benefit of applying Early Decision is it enhances your chances of being accepted at your school of choice. The downside is the need to have all testing, essay writing and teacher recommendations requested done by October. Also, there is no guarantee you will be accepted and may need to apply to other schools as well.

Early Action is similar to Early Decision in that you can only apply to one school. Similarly, you find out if you’re accepted earlier that Regular Decision, but not as early as Early Decision – more typically in January or February. The difference is then if you are accepted, you need not decide straight away whether or not to accept the offer. If fact, you can still apply to other schools using Regular Admissions and await their acceptance or rejections before committing to the Early Action school. Again, the earlier deadline for applications can be off-putting if you aren’t ready or are unsure of which school you might like.

Then, of course, there is Regular Decision. If you are either uncertain of which school you’d like to attend, or are deferred or rejected by your Early Decision/Early Action school, you can still apply, usually by January, to any number of schools. The benefit of this is the added time for retaking tests and working on essays, as well as determining potential schools. The downside is the applicant pool against which you are competing will be that much greater, making it more difficult at some schools to gain a place. Offers are typically made late March/early April.

Please note that these are guidelines only – do check with individual schools for precise dates!

What I'll Miss from the old SAT

Elizabeth von Nardroff

I’ve had a number of students contacting me recently wanting to take the current SAT before its final run in January 2016. This has got me thinking about the current test and things I will miss about it.  I happen to be one of those people fortunate enough to love what they do and so, yes – I grow very fond of tests I tutor for, warts and all. So while I understand the need for the changes to the SAT (more on that in a future blog post), I’ll focus on what I will miss and not miss about the current SAT. So what are some things I’ll miss and why?

Vocabulary: Ok, I’ll admit, it’s one of the least popular parts of the current SAT. But if you prep for this part of the current SAT, you walk away with a hefty vocabulary that will benefit you for life. So while I don’t spend precious lesson time reviewing vocab, I do encourage students to increase their vocabularies, and provide different options depending on their learning styles – from daily reading passages ‘entrenched’ with a ‘plethora’ of vocab in context to flashcards to synonym trees.  I know is that I’ve got hundreds of students now in college (and beyond!) utilising their impressive vocabularies in both writing and speaking. So despite most people welcoming this change, I for one will miss it.

Math puzzles: Current SAT math questions are notoriously not anything like what you’d see on a high school math test. Rather, they are puzzle questions which you might need math to solve – some of which you need to roll up your sleeves before tackling.  I find them but intriguing to wrestle with and satisfying to when students figure them out. A few tips on these – if you can foil or factor a problem – do so! It will often lead you closer to the solution.  Also, check out my video here on testing values and looking for patterns. So while the new SAT test covers more math topics (hello Trig and Imaginary Numbers!), it will feature fewer of the ‘puzzle-y’ math questions.

What I won’t miss?

Current essay: This I’m glad to see the end of – no two ways about it. Besides the grammar -- which is important and like vocabulary,  will benefit students beyond test day -- I find the current essay not a good exercise in the type of writing students will be using in college. Its focus on persuasion over sustenance and critical thinking makes it less useful in determining a student’s writing abilities as will be required in college.  Indeed, the essay and the Writing score in general are often completely ignored by colleges. Even the book, ‘Fiske Guide to Colleges’ doesn’t include the Writing section in the scores required. Apparently, the best thing the essay is good for is to establish that a student’s application essays match the person taking the test.

So while I’m looking forward to the new SAT and the material it will be covering, these next few months will have me appreciating aspects of the old test and making sure my students get the best scores on it while they can. Sadly, my last SAT Online Course will be running in September –November 2015. To sign up or for more information, please click here. Also check the site for my ACT Courses and future new SAT Courses starting in November.

International Students taking the SAT and ACT

Elizabeth von Nardroff

International Students taking the Sat and ACT have their own particular set of difficulties.

First off, there aren’t as many resources available to them.  Often, they are one of the few, if not the lone student in their class taking the exam. Their school might not offer any practice for the test, or if they do, the teachers might not be up to date on what exactly is required to do well. (Quick aside --  Please note that the SAT and ACT are both changing. While the ACT test is only changing slightly (read about that here), the SAT is receiving a major overhaul which you can read about in my article in the July issue of The American here).

Also, material-wise there can be some difficulties. I’ve found that in the UK and other European countries, math concepts such as Absolute Value are not taught before students are 17 years old, so many have to learn it from scratch. Also, grammar isn’t focused on, so a good deal of review is necessary to do well on the Writing sections. Even students’ experience with essay writing is different as typically International Students tend to focus on a balanced point of view essay so the current SAT type persuasive style essay can be a bit strange at first.

Difficulties for International students can even be logistical as they often need to travel quite a distance to the nearest test centre. To date the farthest I’ve heard is a two hour journey, but it is not uncommon for students to have to stay in a hotel in order to get a decent night’s rest before the test. That’s not something you often hear an US student complaining about!

It’s not to say that International students have any less chance of getting into good US universities – many of my students find themselves going to their dream schools – Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, etc. It’s just that they have their own particular set of hurdles to get past.  

Have you experienced any difficulties taking or prepping for the SAT or ACT? Leave a comment below!

ACT Writing Section Changing in September

Elizabeth von Nardroff

With all the focus on the upcoming SAT changes, it’s easy to overlook the smaller changes to the ACT. The Science section has been slowly evolving with varying numbers of questions per section, for example. Perhaps the biggest change coming in September will be to the Essay Section.  Gone will be the prompt for a persuasive essay. In its place you will have a short introduction to a topic and 3 different perspectives on that topic presented. You’ll then have 40 minutes to ‘analyse and evaluate the perspectives given,’ develop your own position on the topic and explain how your position relates to the other perspectives. This will all need to be supported with solid reasoning and examples. I personally prefer this to the former ACT essay and will give students a better chance to show off their analytical skills and not just their persuasive skills. While this section of the test is optional and won’t alter your composite score, it is required by many schools. Good luck!

'Flipped' classroom and online learning

Elizabeth von Nardroff

Here are my thoughts on ‘flipped classrooms’ and how it enhances online class learning.

I started out as an ACT/SAT tutor. However, like many, my tutoring has turned more and more to online teaching and  to online SAT and ACT courses. Because of this, I’ve fully embraced the ‘flipped classroom’ technique.

For those who haven’t heard of the ‘flipped classroom,’ it’s a teaching method which turns the old style on its head. In the past, students were taught material in the classroom and then the work would be re-enforced by homework. The drawback of this was the limited time spent with students during their active time of learning. Indeed, the majority of time students spent with teachers was them passively taking in the information via lecture. In the ‘flipped’ classroom, teaching is done the other way around. Students learn the material prior to the lesson, which can be done either by reading the material or by video introductions. The classroom time is then spent practicing the material under the guidance of the teacher. Many argue that this guided re-enforcement is when the real, quality learning takes place and allows for more meaningful student-teacher interaction. Before I had even heard of this technique, I had found myself creating and uploading certain lessons for students to watch in their own time in order to ensure the time we spent together would be engaging.  I like being able to students as they mastered the material, not as it was introduced.

How has this played out in my online courses? It’s made all the difference! First off, students originally learn a concept by reading my workbook, or watching an interactive video lesson with quiz questions that need to be answered correctly before the next bit of video can be viewed. Once the student completes the lesson, there are online questions to answer. If a student has trouble with a question, there is a video solution available straight away for the answer. If then a student still feels uncertain, the question is flagged for review by me with our next meeting – either live or by Skype, email or recorded video response! This way, time spent with me is being used to cover only the most essential material. All the while I’m following my students’ progress – I see the work they are doing, I see which questions they are answering – correctly and incorrectly – as well as seeing which video solutions they are watching. Based on students work, quizzes are created and further lessons assigned. Despite the geographical distances that may be between us, I feel quite close to my students. In fact, I feel more engaged with them than I did under the older, pre-flipped learning environment as I see what they’re doing every step of the way.

ACT Science Section Tips

Elizabeth von Nardroff

The Science Section of the ACT may sound a bit off-putting, especially for those who are science adverse, but the ACT really doesn’t strictly test scientific knowledge. Really, it tests more of your graph reading and logical reasoning skills. Sure, there’s a lot of scientific jargon to get around, but with practice, you can manage to get past it and find that some of the questions can be remarkably simple. There are a few reading strategies that will help – first off, don’t read the passages! Seriously, it is a very fast test and doing so will guarantee you won’t be able to complete the section. Instead, quickly skim the passage, graphs and charts, noting what it’s about, what the general trends are and if possible – what the dependant and independent variables are (check my YouTube Channel American SAT & ACT Tuition  for video lessons on this). Then go straight to the questions. Each one will direct you generally to which graph you will need to refer to. You should spend only 4-5 minutes for each section. The one exception to the preceding advice is for the ‘Opposing Viewpoints’ section. This section will be recognisable by its longer texts and is usually sub-headed Scientist A and Scientist B. This section I recommend skipping and then doing last, as it requires closer reading and longer time to complete – save approximately 5-6 minutes for this section.

With practice, you should find the Science Section becomes easier and more doable.

About the SAT and ACT -- advice for 2015-2016

Elizabeth von Nardroff

The following Blog post is taken from an Article I've written for the London-based magazine, The American.

Do you or someone you know want to go to college in the US? If so, you know there’s a lot involved – applications to fill out, essays to write, teacher recommendations to request, and tests to take. The test can be the most intimidating part for students, especially those living outside the US. Perhaps you’ve heard of the SAT and ACT as they are required by the majority of US Colleges. But what exactly are they? How do you know which one to take? And perhaps you’ve heard something about them changing in the near future – how will this affect you?

What are the SAT and ACT?

The SAT and ACT are both entrance exams accepted at all colleges requesting such tests. While traditionally, the SAT was the one that the ‘elite’ or East and West Coast schools and Ivies accepted, the reality now is that schools all take either SAT or ACT and don’t discriminate between the two. In fact the ACT has become the more popular test in recent years.

Which Test Should I Take?

Unfortunately it’s a bit complicated for the time being. Beginning in March 2016 the SAT will be virtually unrecognisable to its current test, so you need to consider when you will be taking the test. If you are planning to take your test before May 2016 in the UK (or March in the US), then you’ll be taking either the current SAT or the ACT. Let’s look at both pre-and-post March/May 2016 test options.

If you’re taking the test before March 2016 – Current SAT and ACT – similarities and differences

If you are testing before March/May 2016, you will take either of the current exams. Both the current SAT and ACT tests cover roughly the same material in Reading, Writing (essay and grammar), and Math and both are mostly multiple-choice. The similarities end there. The ACT covers more material – for example, there’s trigonometry in the Math section, plus there’s a Science section requiring data interpretation -- but it’s more straightforward than the SAT. The SAT covers less material – no trigonometry or Science -- but it tends to be trickier to ascertain what is being asked for. The ACT is fast: English – 45 minutes for 75 questions;  Math – 60 minutes  for 60 questions; Reading and Science --  each 35 minutes for 40 questions. Meanwhile, the SAT is long: 3 ¾ hours, not including breaks. The ACT Essay is optional, while for the SAT the Essay is mandatory. ACT has no guessing penalty; on the SAT you lose a quarter of a point for every incorrect answer, so guessing is not usually recommended. The SAT has a greater emphasis on vocabulary – some might say ‘esoteric’ vocabulary while the ACT doesn’t directly test vocabulary, though it will be necessary to understand words in context.

Scoring of the current SAT and ACT:

The current SAT is comprised of three major Sections – Critical Reading, Math and Writing, which includes a 25 minute, non-optional Essay. These sections are broken down into shorter timed sections – Math and Critical Reading each have 3 sections – two 25 minute sections and one 20 minute section. Writing has one 25 minute Essay and a 25 minute and 10 minute grammar sections. Each area – Critical Reading, Math and Writing -- is scored on a 200-800 point level, plus the Essay Score of 0-12 which is factored into the total Writing Score. The combined possible score is 600-2400. Those students considering top schools really need a combined score of 2100 or higher.

The ACT has four main areas  – Writing (45 minutes), Math (60 minutes), Reading (35 minutes), and Science (35 minutes). There’s also an optional 30 minute Essay at the end. Each section is scored from 1-36, with the four scores then averaged to give a final, single score. The Essay is given a separate score of 0-12, which isn’t factored into the composite score.

Which to take – pre March/May 2016

So how to tell which test is right for you? The best way is to try one of each. Both the SAT and ACT offer a free, full-length test on their websites. Make time for a morning for each test, and take each under test conditions. This is essential because timing is important and can influence your score. If there is a big difference in comparative test score outcomes, the higher score obviously indicates which test you should take. If there is little difference between the scores, then choose the one you like better!

Taking the test after March 2016? The Redesigned SAT

If you will be testing after March 2016, then you will be taking either the ACT or the Redesigned SAT. While there will be minor changes to the ACT, the changes to the SAT will be drastic.

What we know: The new test will be administered from March 2016 onward. It will be 3 hours plus an additional 50 minutes for the optional writing portion. The composite score will be the average of two areas: Evidence-Based writing and Language, and Math. Scores range from 200-800 each for English and Math, or 400-1600 combined. The essay will not affect the composite score, but will be an additional score on a scale of 2-8 for each of 3 traits for the essay.

The Reading Section will now test a student’s understanding and analysis of passages taken from world history, social studies, science and careers. There will be no sentence completion and not as heavy a focus on obscure vocabulary. In Math, the focus will be on 3 areas: 'Problem Solving and Data Analysis,'  'The Heart of Algebra,' and 'Passport to Advanced Math'. Calculators will now only be allowed for part of this section. Unlike the current mandatory essay section, the essay will now be separate and optional. Students will be asked to read and analyse a 650-750 word source text, discussing its strengths/weaknesses and whether they agree/disagree. Finally, like the current ACT, there will no longer be any penalty for wrong answers.


Our advice (and the advice of many others including people at Forbes Magazine :

Most reputable tutors are advising students to take the ACT over the new SAT, at least for the year 2016. Why’s that? There are a few different reasons – first, the new test will have limited study materials as compared to the current ACT. As of June 2015, there are no full-length practice tests available. Secondly, the first administered tests will need extra time to be calibrated, delaying the release of the first scores. Finally, the new test (as introduced by CollegeBoard) will be very similar to the current ACT test. It makes more sense to go with a known entity than something which is still evolving. 

SAT and ACT Test Day Anxiety

Elizabeth von Nardroff

All students feel anxious about tests or school at some point – it’s a natural reaction and a part of what we call a ‘fight or flight’ response. Some fortunate students thrive on this – the extra adrenaline helps them hyper-focus on the material and pushes them to perform at the peak of their abilities -- in other words, they ‘fight’.

Others are less fortunate. When they encounter a problem not seen before, their minds’ freeze (‘flight’) and they panic, either by spending too long on a problem at the expense of other easier ones or – in the worst case scenario – they lose the ability to work at all. Thankfully few have such an extreme reaction, but many have enough anxiety to keep them from performing at their best.

The best overall remedy for this anxiety is preparation, the type of which is very important. First off, it is important not to cram. That’s a sure-fire way to increase stress levels! The ACT and SAT are long tests, and they cover a great scope of material – way too much to review in a few hours the day before the test. Mastery of material gives students the confidence to wriggle through even the trickiest of questions. It becomes more of a challenge to meet problems head on (‘fight’) if you haven’t got the proper ammunition. 

Still, even the most prepared student is bound to feel nervous come test day. A few tips:

The night before test day – no studying! If you've done all the preparation/revision laid out in other posts, you should be ready. Instead, do something quiet and relaxing that you enjoy. Watch a movie with friends or your family. Read a book. Whatever it is, make it an early night.

On test day, have two alarms set. That way you won’t have the extra worry of getting up on time (if you’re anything like me, you won’t then wake up too early, afraid of oversleeping). Don’t forget to eat a nourishing breakfast and to bring non-sugary snacks and drinks for breaks. Hunger is not your friend on test day.

Remember, some anxiety is normal – don’t be put off by it or make it the focus of your attention. Some meditative focused breathing might help. During the test, if you find yourself blanking out on a question, skip it straight away and come back to it later. Pausing for a few deep breaths can be enough to help settle the mind.

Do you have any methods that help you relax during tests? Leave a comment below!

ACT Reading: Could speed-reading help you?

Elizabeth von Nardroff

The ACT Reading Section can be difficult for slow readers. You’ve got only 35 minutes to read the passages and answer 40 questions. If you’re a naturally fast reader, this can seem doable – otherwise, it poses a challenge. Speed reading practice might be for you. While you don’t need to do so much to get up to a real ‘speed-reading proficiency’ (1000+ words per minute!), any increase in speed will be helpful. I recommend this free brochure from

It offers advice such as using your finger to keep a faster pace and trying not to ‘read out loud’ in your head, as well as others. With some daily practice, you should be reading more quickly and with better comprehension!