Category Archives: Entrance Exams

Notes on college entrance exams like the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement, and other topics related to college admissions.

The Global Achievement Gap – Review

Tony Wagner. The Global Achievement Gap. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Print.

I read this book shortly after I read Gatto’s An Underground History of American Education. The Global Achievement Gap makes some of the same critiques of the current American education system but also comes up with some proposals that have seemed to work to improve things in different schools. Wagner’s concern has been echoing for at least 59 years since the old Soviet Union launched its first Sputnik satellite: America is falling behind in technology, and the schools need to do something about it.

The author of Underground History spent his entire career as a classroom teacher. Wagner spent about a decade as one, but since then he has worked as a researcher and university professor. Wagner first identifies what he calls seven survival skills and then tries to present what seems to work and what does not in developing these skills.

Here are the skills: (1) Critical thinking and problem solving, (2) Collaboration and leading by influence, (3) Adaptability, (4) Initiative, (5) Effective oral and written communication, (6) Obtaining and analyzing information, and (7) Curiosity and imagination.

As a teacher, my reaction to each of these things varies. I understand the need for all these things for anyone just to enjoy everyday life. I do wonder, though, if schools are the always the places to develop these things. I know from experience that some of these things that could be developed in schools are often not developed, or if they are attempted, they are done in a superficial manner.

I note that Wagner is very critical of “teaching to the test” techniques. From my experience, he is absolutely correct. However, I would suggest that the problem is not usually the tests themselves. The College Board, for example, has lots of statistics to prove the efficacy of its tests. The problem is the practice of teaching to the tests.

When I was in high school, for example, the contents of the SAT were still a secret. In 1980 New York passed a law requiring the SAT and similar entrance and employment tests publish their questions. After unsuccessfully challenging the law in courts, the College Board began releasing its tests in 1984. That changed education more than the test itself. Now people could actually teach to the SAT.

When I was in high school (pre-1984), we knew that the SAT tested reading, reasoning, and math skills. If you were a good reader, a decent critical thinker, and did well in math through your sophomore year, you would do OK on the test. That same idea worked on other standardized tests as well: what we now call the SAT-II subject tests, the Advanced Placement exams, the Iowa Tests, the Stanford Achievement Tests, or whatever.

Now since we have a better idea of what the tests are like, there is more of a focus on acing the test. While Wagner perhaps has some reasonable criticisms of the contents of some of the tests, I believe a bigger problem is with the approach to the tests. Students often treat the standardized test as something to learn to take and, when it is over, to forget about. Any vocabulary or skill that the student might have learned is now irrelevant. If the student learns the skill, it will help him or her on the test, surely, but if he or she understands that the skill will help for other things in the future, it becomes more important.

I believe that any decent school or teacher is teaching numbers 1, 5, 6, and 7 from the above list. Students ought to learn logic and vocabulary in more than just geometry. I have found that students really like the logic lessons I teach. At least they like the concepts. Some do not like the exercises we do because they are not always easy, but, hopefully, they begin to understand the skills. It becomes more exciting as a teacher when I see them pick up on logic, logical fallacies, and propaganda techniques in things they are reading or studying.

As an English teacher, it is my duty to get kids to develop effective communication skills. Teachers of other subject areas need to do this as well. This is a lot of work, not just for the student but for the teacher. It means assigning a lot of writing and grading a lot of assignments. “Completion grades” are a joke, and students know it.

Obtaining and analyzing information is an outgrowth of effective communication. English teachers have a part in this, but so does every teacher in his or her area of expertise. A good writer can use impeccable organization, style, and logic and still produce garbage because the information is not any good. My biggest challenge nowadays, besides plagiarism, is to convince students that books and journals are generally more reliable than random stuff on the Internet. Why? It gets back to logic. How do you test the testimony?

Curiosity and imagination are harder for schools to specifically develop. We have all heard students say, “No one is going to point a gun at me and ask me…” I have been at the same school for over 30 years. Recently I was asked which classes were my favorites. I said that I liked the classes that were more creative, more risk takers. I wish I knew why some of those classes were different. I do not think I taught them differently, but they ran with what they were given. Perhaps they were less concerned about pleasing the teacher and motivated to think independently.

It is the same with curiosity and imagination. Those are things that cannot be taught. However, they can be encouraged and perhaps inspired with examples. Even grammar can be made interesting if you treat it more as a research project and use examples from real life to show what you mean.

So what about collaboration, adaptability, and initiative?

Collaboration has two sides. Students do work together on projects in classes. Some classes have group assignments. Obviously, extra-curriculars like sports and drama involve some form of teamwork. However, teachers also know that this can devolve into cheating, plagiarism, and letting one person do it all.

Adaptability also has two sides. Some schools, for example, require great adaptability for their teachers. They are always trying something new, many times untried things that may not work. I will be honest, adaptability gets harder as one gets older. Twenty years ago, I was ahead of all my students in technology. Now, especially when it comes to cell phones and tablet devices, they are ahead of me. I have no desire to learn “emoji” language. I am skeptical of new programs because over the years I have had experience with what works and what does not work. In many cases, the new program is simply a recycled old program. Sometimes I say, I have been doing the same kind of thing for years. Other times I say, a pig with lipstick is till a pig.

For students, I guess if we want them to be adaptable, we have to place them under some pressure. If things are too easy, they will lack adaptability when they are older and things become difficult. Much of this skill though depends on circumstances and situations outside the school.

Initiative is always tough in a school situation. Schools are bureaucracies and require a certain amount of conformity. That stifles initiative. Sad but true.

Wagner does try to emphasize that not everything works for everyone. He mentions some successful schools—mostly private schools. In many cases they are not answerable to state and federal bureaucracies the way government schools are. Even Gatto in Underground History credits his one year at a Catholic school with getting him to think independently.

One truly alternative school he names I am familiar with, the Sudbury Valley School. I grew up in Sudbury and the brother of a friend ended up going to Sudbury Valley. It was one of the best things that happened to him. He was given the freedom he needed to develop his thinking. However, others simply milked its lack of structure and had little to show for their time there.

All seven of these things do depend a little on the school and its culture, but they really depend on the individual teachers. Wagner and Gatto both identify some of the same problems. One they both point out has been major one for me. There is little opportunity for teacher collaboration. We are all so busy in our full schedules with our own classes that even informal discussions are hard to come by. New teachers often have a hard time because all the other teachers are so busy, the new teacher does not know who to ask or what to do.

A few years ago, we had a new English teacher at our school who had a lot of potential. He was a reader, a writer, and had a decent high school and college education. Fortunately, he was wise enough to soon perceive that all the other teachers were quite busy and he had enough initiative to ask questions. I am so glad that he did. He has been doing a great job.

Reading Underground History and The Global Achievement Gap at nearly the same time produced one great irony. An Underground History of American Education notes that a lot of the worst of the present system came out of the era of the robber barons and was based on social Darwinism and progressivism. It appears that there are “elite” schools, but if the non-elite schools fail, it is no big deal. Those students are meant to be peons anyhow.

Wagner says that he came up with his seven points and some of his solutions by getting input for today’s robber baron and elitist types. He mentions Microsoft, Silicon Valley, Apple, and so on. Are his “solutions” much different from what already exists? Is the need for technicians much different from the need for administrators promoted by the Fords, Carnegies, and Woodrow Wilsons?

While there is a certain amount of overlap between An Underground History of American Education and The Global Achievement Gap, it seems that Underground History relates a lot more to Throwing Stones at the Google Bus while The Global Achievement Gap is closer to Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. I suspect that there is still a trap—that Wagner’s approach still ends up treating a lot of smart kids as though they are stupid. Yes, we like those high-powered techies, but we still need baristas at Starbucks. Any way you cut it, the teacher makes the difference.

Reflections on the 2016 Advanced Placement English Literature Reading

I learned this year that students skip the poetry question more frequently than the other two. (One other essay is based on a prose selection, and the third is based on a work that the student selects.) It has nothing to do with the topic or time period. Students skip sixteenth century poems as frequently as those by poets who are still living. Apparently some students do not have much experience or comfort with poems, even those students taking the AP test.

From reading AP essays this year, I would give some advice to would-be AP test takers. First and foremost, have a thesis that answers the question.

Ask yourself, “So what?” Why is this topic significant or important? Make sure everything in the essay directs the reader toward the thesis.

Beware of lists of rhetorical devices or figures of speech in the essay. From the AP perspective, the main reason that you ought to learn common literary terms and figures of speech is for the multiple choice questions. We were told there are typically five to seven multiple-choice questions that have specific literary terms that students ought to know.

The purpose of the essay is to make a discovery or get the reader thinking. That fact that a passage has a simile in line 4, alliteration in line 15, and an overall ironic tone is probably already obvious to the reader. They are, after all, teachers and professors trained in the subject!

What you need to do is make a discovery. If you note those three things, for example, then ask how do that simile, alliteration, or irony help answer the question being asked. That is what is important. If the simile does not help you support your thesis, do not do anything with it. The reader is not going to be too impressed that you know what a simile is.

What will impress the reader is showing how the simile itself points to an ironic tone, the alliteration suggests a sound given by a two-faced person, and the irony is a clue to understanding the question asked and a life lesson the author is trying to get across!

Take a look at sample essays. AP Central posts some every year. We were told by the College Board that the average (mean) for each essay in last year’s English Literature AP test was around 4.1 or 4.2. Look at the sample 4 and 5 essays. If you are an AP student, you should be able to handle those and see how they are done.

Then check out some sample 6s and 7s. Again, you can get them from AP Central, from your teacher, or from AP review books. What do you need to do to raise or sustain your writing at that level? Look at the question, the thesis, and the way the examples support the thesis.

Then, when you have the courage, check out the 8s and 9s. If necessary, ask your teacher about them. What makes them superior? What theses do they have? How do they handle evidence? What discovery do they make?

Always remember this: The AP English Literature test is made for students who read. If you read a lot of good writing, you are going to be more likely to write well. Avoid the lists, and get to the heart of the matter. Be sure to include some poetry in your reading so you don’t feel obliged to skip the poetry questions.

Beware of telling us that the writer uses, utilizes, or employs something. That includes cognates like the nouns use, utilization, and employment. Remember, too, that usage means something that does not normally apply to writing unless you are noting something about the grammar! Hey, sometimes you have to use those words. I just did. But if you start off by saying something like “the author uses” and then follow it with your list of two or three things, you probably already have the reader saying to himself or herself, “This sounds like another three or four.”

Ask yourself, “So what?” And read, read, read.

Notes from our 2014 AP Reading Experience

Notes from our 2015 AP Reading Experience

Click here to get to the AP Central web page which has previous test questions, scoring guidelines, and sample scored essays posted

Click here for a set of essay scoring guidelines (from 2015)

A Reflection on the Asian SAT Scandal

If anyone has been following the news, in May of this year (2015) the College Board announced that it was not releasing any of the scores from recent SATs taken in East Asia, notably China and Korea and neighboring countries.

We do understand that there are some cultural things that may be hard or impossible to change. What some cultures see as cooperation, Western cultures see as cheating. At least one Asian writer has admitted that he took entrance exams for 500 clients before he was caught. However, those are enforcement problems which the College Board, ACT, Educational Testing Service, and others have to deal with.

There is one very poor test-taking strategy that is taught by some Asian test preparation books and classes that may have contributed to this problem with the Asian SATs. Asian schools, especially those in China, emphasize memorization. Western schools emphasize skills. Some Asian test preparation books and classes give students boilerplate essays to memorize (complete with some minor errors to make them look genuine). The plan is that if the student memorizes somewhere between twenty and fifty of these short essays, then at least one of the memorized essays should work for whatever kind of general question the SAT or ACT asks. The SAT only gives students 25 minutes, so most upper half essays have between 250 and 400 words—not too difficult of a task to memorize.

Can you see a problem with this? What if even two students use the same memorized essay? There is a possibility that the essay could be flagged. If hundreds use the same essay, it will certainly look like cheating occurred. It would appear as if someone either copied an essay or passed it on to someone else. At best the essay will be disqualified, at worst the whole test will. If your official test record says that you were suspected of cheating, no college will accept you!

Sample essays used in SAT review books and classes may give helpful examples. We try to do that at English Plus with our Verbal Vanquish program and e-book. But if you are tempted to memorize such an essay with the idea of possibly using it on an actual SAT or other entrance exam, do not do it! If others are doing the same thing, you could be accused of copying or cheating. Be yourself. Answer the essay question in your own words. It is better to find a school or a class that is at an appropriate level than to be using someone else’s work. Write your own essay. Your conscience will be spared and you will never have to endure the shame of being accused of cheating.

Reflections on the 2015 Advanced Placement Exams

Once again this year I spent a week this month reading Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature exams. Here are some thoughts from what I have observed this time. I have most frequently been assigned to read the poetry question. This year was no exception. I really have no preference; each of the three questions have their advantages and disadvantages in scoring them.

I tell the students in my high school from ninth grade on that there are two things that every essay must have: a thesis and evidence. You can call these by different names; William Perry in his essay “Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts” famously called them bull and cow, but they have to be there.

The thesis is why the AP question prompt always ask for some variation of “the significance” or “the meaning of the work as a whole.” AP teachers sometimes refer to the latter as the MOWAW, pronounced like “moo-wah.” This is where many of the AP essays fall short. There is no significance. There is no meaning. There is no purpose, other than to spend forty minutes trying to write an essay that might—but absolutely will not—give the writer a shot a some credit or higher standing in college.

One scorer said to me, “Were you stuck in the land of four?”

The English essays and similar lengthy exercises on other AP tests are scored on a scale of zero to nine. The scores five to nine are considered upper half scores. That is, there is to some degree a thesis and some kind of support for the thesis. The AP scoring guides call eights and nines “persuasive.” They are thorough, pointed, often original, and stylistically competent. Sixes and sevens are “reasonable”; fives are “plausible.”

The lower half scores have something lacking. Most commonly, it is a thesis, theme, or purpose for the essay. When readers finds themselves in the “land of four,” they are usually reading a list of features about the work but with no unifying thesis. The three to six points that the essay makes may be OK, but there is nothing significant about them. I tell my students from ninth grade on, ask yourself “So what?” I confess that occasionally a student gets offended by that question, but it is important. Most people most of the time do not say or write anything unless they have a reason to do so. That is certainly true of the poets, playwrights, and authors used in English Advanced Placement tests—both the traditional English Literature test or the English Language test.

Some essays will say something at the end of the essay that these three to six points reflect the “significance” or “meaning” of the work, but they do not say what the significance or meaning might be. Normally, that means a lower half essay, a score of four at the highest. In other words, be specific, or you will end up in “the land of four.”

I would also encourage student writers to go beyond formulae. The essays scored a five, while plausible, are often weak because, in the words of the scoring guide, they are “formulaic.” That is the word that the scoring guide uses. The five paragraph essay may be a useful model to start with. But it is a formula.

It is true that unless an essay butchers the language, a short essay with an introduction, three points or observations, and a conclusion that makes some attempt to bring the three points together and state a thesis would earn a five.

However, any writer who wants to write well has to go beyond the formula. How is that done?

There can be a number of ways. Discuss the significance of each point, do not merely list them like so-called bullet points. Be creative. Keep the writing focused on your main idea. Get outside your own life and into the life of the work you are reading.

This gets into the other two things that the craft of the essay values: continuity and unity. The paragraphs should follow one another in a way that makes sense. Most writing and composition texts will have a list of transition words and phrases. Those might be somewhat formulaic, but if they make sense, they are better than simply saying “first,” “second,” or “my next point.”

Another thing that can help is a clever or effective introduction. The 2014 poetry selection was one that the question makers thought most students could relate to. It was a sonnet from the sixteenth century, but the poet was explaining why he was avoiding a certain young lady. He had a crush on her, but she consistently turned him down. He was still attracted to her, so he knew he would get hurt if he saw her again. It was better to avoid her. The poem may have been over 400 years old, but the problem has not changed at all.

The best essays often related to this because the writers had had similar problems, or knew someone who had. There were many opportunities for a teen to really write something well, whether it is a rant against the opposite sex, a discussion of heartbreak or rejection, or perhaps a lighter touch looking at the “game of love.”

Even if the essay writer feels the need to write a more formulaic essay, he or she should make sure each paragraph does not just list a point, but analyzes it, shows its significance, and relates it to the main thesis.

The instructions to the reader usually say that an essay that shows especially poor control of the language should get no higher than a three (a two on the English Language test). This is rarely an issue because if the writer is having difficulty using the language, he or she is not communicating anyhow and probably would not get more than a two or a three for the content.

Having said that, sometimes the control of language, including grammar, paragraphing, and spelling may make a difference in a score. If readers are undecided between two scores, for example, they may ask themselves, “Is this a six or a seven? It has some qualities of either one.” If it is presented well and clearly, the reader will probably give it a seven. If it has a number of errors—not just a few typos of typical of anyone’s rough draft—then it will probably get the six. Not breaking the essay into paragraphs makes it harder to follow and almost guarantees a lower score.

Many lower half essays repeat or quote extensively from the work in front of them. It is important to refer to the work, to note word choices, and, yes, to quote the work, in order to present an argument; however, if you find that you are quoting several lines of the work at a time, you may want to ask yourself if you have a good reason to do this.

Many essays quote several lines and then paraphrase those lines. Such essays really display no analysis at all. They simply are proving that the writer understands the English language. Presumably anyone taking an AP English test is familiar with the language! Let the text speak for itself. Use it, of course, but remember, the goal is not to put the passage into your own words or summarize what it says. The goal is to answer the question.

Many times an effective or meaningful conclusion makes the difference in an essay as well. Readers will tell you that many times they are reading an essay, and from its introduction and its examples it is sounding a lot like the essays scored a certain number. The reader might be thinking, for example, this looks and sounds like a six. He or she is ready to call it a six when the conclusion brings things together and comes up with a really good observation or expresses something really well. That essay is no longer a six, it has just gone up to a seven.

Similarly a poor conclusion that says very little could bring an essay down.

Readers will sometimes give what is clearly the last essay in the exam book a slight break if it appears that the student ran out of time.

Practice good handwriting. I have no doubt that many essays are scored less than they deserve because the readers cannot decipher the handwriting. This is a problem for several reasons. One is simply that the reader is spending so much time deciphering that he or she has lost the overall argument the essay is trying to make. It is hard to see continuity when the writing is hard to read.

Remember, too, that the scoring guides always say that threes and fours “fail to offer adequate analysis.” Some readers say that if they handwriting is unreadable, the most the student will get is a four because they did not do an adequate job of communicating their ideas.

Please note that the key word is readable. Everyone likes to read neat, crisp, unambiguous handwriting. Some students have sloppy writing, but it is still readable and does not hinder comprehension.

All the AP readers are experienced college or high school teachers. Many of them have had experiences with students who could not read their own handwriting when the teacher asked students to read what they had written. Even if the essay is eventually decipherable, the reader may have become slightly angry, and that also could affect the score. Readers are trained to follow the scoring guide and for the most part can be detached, but they are people, too. Even the best baseball umpires can get ticked off at a player and give his opponent the breaks on close calls.

This may not be the best organized essay, but I hope it gives students who take the AP tests some things to consider. Most of this has to do with essay writing which is especially important in English, history, and government AP tests. The handwriting issue covers all of them, even the Calculus APs. Keep in mind thesis and evidence, continuity and unity. Do not summarize the work but answer the question that the prompt asks. And before starting to write, always ask, “So what?”

I should also add that this year there were about 402,000 English Literature and Composition AP test given. English Language and Composition is far and away the leader with about 600,000 tests given this year. Although I do not have any figures to confirm it, it looks like U.S. History is in third place with a little under 400,000 from what I can gather.

Nearly every year since I have been a reader, students ask me if I have ever come across essays written by students in my classes. With over 400,000 tests, the odds are very slim that that would ever happen, but I did run into a case this year. A reader friend told me that a woman at his table read essays from her class. She knew it was her students because, while the essays are anonymous, the essay booklets have the six-digit College Board school code on them. She recognized her school code. She told her table leader. Her table leader told her to read them and score them and then he would check her scores. He was satisfied with her scores, and that was it. My experience has been that the readers do have integrity when it comes to doing their job.

Remember, the purpose of scoring any entrance exam—be it the SAT, ACT, and AP—is to help the colleges make a good match. A badly inflated score is not going to help a student. He or she will be overwhelmed. It is better to make an honest match. That way, students learn without being bored or outclassed.

P.S. In last year’s AP Reflections essay, I spoke of “word inflation.” I noticed some of that this year. What was more puzzling this year were some words that just seemed to be the wrong word. The poem this year was about an experience the poet had when he was a boy. A number of the essays used the word whimsical to describe either the boy or the experience. There is nothing in the poem that indicates any of the three characters were acting on a whim, nor was the poem lighthearted or capricious.

Also a number of writers used the word blatant when they probably meant obvious or clear. Blatant always has a negative connotation and implies offensiveness. I really cannot imagine too many people would have been offended by the poem. The College Board is really pretty careful about that sort of thing. As has been said, you’ll never find a passage on abortion on the SAT.

Early Decision – Review

Lacy Crawford. Early Decision. New York: Morrow, 2014. Print.

Every parent of a high school student who is thinking of going to college should read Early Decision. Perhaps it is a bit of an antidote to What High Schools Don’t Tell You. I also would recommend it to high school guidance counselors and English teachers who are tasked with assigning or reading student college application essays.

Crawford worked as a college admission consultant who helped clients whose parents could afford her services get into the better colleges. The main character of Early Decision is a twenty-seven year old Princeton grad who is working in the same field. Her main task is helping the applicants polish the admission essays that the more competitive colleges require. The students, of course, are responsible themselves for their grades or their extracurriculars.

SAT or ACT tutoring is separate. Anne Arlington, our protagonist, does that on Saturdays to a group of students from an inferior Chicago public school.

The essays are a chance for students to reveal themselves and help them make a good match. Of course, with many of the more elitist parents, a good match means not what would be best for their child but what has the most prestige.

The book mostly traces the progress of five high school seniors Anne is helping. Four are her clients, two boys and two girls, and one is a girl from the inner city school who got a 34 on the ACT. (36 is a perfect score).

Alexis is an extremely bright and articulate girl whose parents, Anne suspects, may not have gone to college. The competitive college thing is new to them, but Alexis has everything going for her. She gets into every college she applies to. Like the majority in her situation, though she finds good things about all of them, she cannot turn down Harvard. She will excel there.

Sadie is a legacy. Her father is a trustee of Duke, and, frankly, she is a decent enough student that she is an automatic acceptance there. But both Anne and her parents want her to understand that she would be qualified without her father’s connection.

With Sadie, though, we see a difficulty that will be multiplied upon the boys. Her parents supervise her essay so that is sounds like what they think will sound good rather than what Sadie really wants to express.

At one point Sadie’s father offers Anne a job at his law firm as a paralegal. She is flattered. She would likely be making more money. But she also feels like the offer is more like a proposition than a proposal.

Some of the book’s humor comes from the character of Sadie’s mother. No, she does not have a sense of humor—hardly anyone does when it comes to getting their kids into college. Her mother is a motivational guru like Oprah or Tim Robbins. She thinks she understands everyone, especially other women, but it is clear that she has never attempted to understand her daughter.

Sadie’s essay acknowledges that she is privileged, and her parents do not like her saying that, even though it is obvious to the most casual observer. Still, Sadie manages to pull off an engaging and effective essay. Yes, she does go to daddy’s alma mater, but college is a place where she can become her own person.

It is much less straightforward for the boys in the novel.

College was four years to spend looking for something that was just right. It was a great idea and a fine time to live it. But such an opportunity presupposed imagination, and fathers had always been the gatekeepers of their sons’ dreams. (243)

William wants to go to Vassar, but his father still thinks of it as a girls’ school. William is able to compromise somewhat and go to Penn. His college choice does not change his overall career arc. Vassar and Penn are comparable in status and academics. Penn is not that much farther from New York City than Vassar. He still ends up in the City pursuing an acting career. Anne, nevertheless, is able to help his essay draw out what is important to him and give him some direction.

The saddest of her clients is Hunter. He loves the outdoors. His essay on the mustangs he observed one summer in Montana is a winner. But his father squelches the essay and most of Hunter’s desires. While he does take a year off before college to work out west as a Park Service intern, he ends up drifting through a couple of different colleges and gets a mergers and acquisitions job in a big city. That certainly is a symbol as well as a tragedy for this young man.

The wrap-up is a somewhat delicate observation that could easily become a rant about how parents project themselves on their kids. That is nothing new, but Anne’s (or Lacy’s) honesty and directness is refreshing. The sad thing is that most sons want to please their fathers, but their fathers also have to understand their sons.

The student essays scattered through Early Decision is a bonus. We see how the four students’ essays  progress from unstructured and vague (except for Alexis’s) to something pointed and even exciting. And in the case of Hunter, alas, back again. Yes, Crawford was an English major at Princeton, but she does demonstrate what a good essay can look like. That is why I would recommend this book for high school counselors and English teachers.

There are a couple of subplots through the story concerning Anne’s personal life. She has an ongoing conflict with a neighbor in her apartment building. The climax to this  conflict is a surprise—though, looking back, we can see how things fit together.

Anne also has an up and down relationship with her actor boyfriend of five years. Some of the details of that relationship make me reluctant to recommend it to high school students themselves. As the kids say, TMI, too much information. So students, give the book to your parents and guidance counselors. If they say it is OK for you to read, go ahead.

Besides the essay examples, there are many useful quotations about the college admissions process. I quoted one above. She seems to mostly agree with the recent article in New Republic that college has reverted to what it was a century ago, a fast track for the children of the elite. Anne’s hilarious but serious mental rating of the top colleges on pages 30 and 31 (paperback edition) stands out. Even if you do not read the whole book, read those pages.

There are also some little humorous tidbits for those who know things about some of the different colleges and for those who know about Chicago. For example, only a Princeton student or graduate would name a goldfish Old Nassau. I am sure a missed a few such things about the Windy City.

Early Decision also gives an honest if slightly cynical view of America’s elite. They themselves tend to be cynical. Some like Alexis and her parents are “good people.” Sadie is a sweetheart in spite of her high-powered parents. Still, when Anne witnesses one the partners of the law firm groping one of the paralegals, she observes:

What she’d seen wasn’t lust; it was avarice. It was entitled. (272)

Droit du seigneur.

Yes, I recall seeing the same attitude in a few college professors, a few actors in my brush with the theater, and most of us have remarked on it in politicians.

Plus ça change…

Hints on Storytelling Style

Dear Ms. B:

You wrote:

Hello.  I am writing a story and it’s been a while since I’ve had English classes.  In each paragraph, do I use the individual’s name, or should I refer to her as ‘she?’  When her name is used at the beginning of a paragraph, but I continue speaking of her, I have used she.  I just don’t want to over-use her name or she, either one.

Example:  Victoria is a wonderful individual.  She has many talents.  Then next paragraph:  Victoria spoke to her daughter.  Would this be the correct form? I look forward to your help, Thank you!

Two thoughts:

1. It is hard to overuse pronouns (except maybe “me” and “I” when boasting!). Pronouns are meant to take the place of nouns. As long as it is clear who “she” is, there should be no problem. There could be a problem in the second paragraph only because “she” could refer to either Victoria or her daughter if the writing is unclear.

2. You can always substitute a synonym for “Victoria” from time to time; for example, you might call her “the mother” in paragraph two.

I hope this helps.

What High Schools Don’t Tell You – Review

Elizabeth Wissner-Gross.  What High Schools Don’t Tell You (And Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know). New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

I have been a high school teacher since 1980, and this book was an eye-opener. It is not that I was ignorant of the book’s main point, but this book has the specifics to give high school students and their parents direction.

This is not for everyone. What High Schools Don’t Tell You directs its ideas to students who are doing very well academically or who have well-developed talents and interests. The college admission planning should begin in seventh or eighth grade to give directions so that the students will get the serious attention of the most competitive schools.

There are many opportunities out there, but they do require a certain amount of parental and student initiative. Wissner-Gross recommends that junior high students take the SAT to see if they are eligible for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth or Center for Academic Achievement.  Certain very high SAT scores, in the 700 range or higher, can make students at that age eligible for even more selective programs.

This is just one of hundreds of examples. Yes, these things “look good on you record,” but they also show a serious academic direction which colleges look for. Things have changed. I had a summer job from the time I was eleven. Nowadays laws make it so that most students cannot work until they are 15 or 16, and colleges are ambivalent about summer jobs unless they are related to academic work or if the student is contributing to family upkeep.

Half of What High Schools Don’t Tell You describes specific programs students should consider from eighth grade on depending on what their area of interest is. There are eight broad areas: Mathematics, Science, Engineering, Arts, Humanities, Media and Advocacy, Government, and Business. Each has many programs and possibilities for the motivated student to consider.

One caveat—it is not unusual for a student’s interests to change between eighth and eleventh grade. The book does make a few suggestions for this, but parents and students should be willing to make adjustments if this happens.

As detailed as What High Schools Don’t Tell You is, there are other programs and opportunities available that are not mentioned, but this gives a sense of direction.

It is my experience, for example, that a Boy Scout who gains the rank of Eagle or has a position like Junior Assistant Scoutmaster will be noted by colleges.  A student of mine who attended Yale was not only very bright, but also won a national award from the National Council of Teachers of English, one contest open to juniors that the book does not mention. That recognition not only got him hundreds of recruiting letters but even letters from members of Congress.

Many colleges offer summer school or summer programs for high schoolers. What High Schools Don’t Tell You gives ideas about what to look for in  these because not all such programs necessarily help a student in college admissions. Again and again this book enumerates helpful specifics.

There are a few recommendations workable for students whose SATs are closer to average. One noted by What High Schools Don’t Tell You is the U. S. Congressional Award Program. This requires a significant amount of community service and extracurricular activities but also does not require high academics, and though it looks great on a college application, “relatively few apply.” (69)

I teach at a small school that usually graduates 40 to 50 students. Not every class has “Ivy League material” in it, but I have noted without exception that the students who have gotten into the highest level schools (Ivies, M.I.T.) have had some exceptional things on their records besides just doing well in school, having SATs over 1400, and doing well on a number of Advanced Placement Tests.

I already mentioned the student who won the NCTE award. Another did original research on Pilgrim leader William Bradford on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Three had worked in serious, higher level computer programming jobs. One was a national Math Counts contestant (there are only two from a state). Two were very actively involved in mission work—one overseas, one in the inner city, and not just a short-term trip which has become common in many churches in recent years.

Now, this does not mean that all it lost if a student has not done these things and is overlooked by those colleges. One student who academically was equal to most of the students I mentioned in the last paragraph did not get into any of the competitive schools that he applied to. However, he did work on his resumé while he was in college.  He enrolled in the honors program at the state university, thanks to plenty of AP credit graduated in three years, worked on significant medical research as a lab assistant, and got a master’s degree in his fourth year. With these things and glowing recommendations from his supervisors in the lab, he was accepted to an Ivy League graduate school where he earned his Ph.D. He used his college years in a manner that Wissner-Gross would commend.

I realize that there are some Lake Wobegon parents (“all the children are above average”) and some helicopter parents, but if you know you are a good student or you know that your child is proving to be academically strong, check this book out. This is a good starting point to creatively give yourself or your student a good chance at getting into those challenging schools.

Reflections on the 2014 Advanced Placement Reading

Here are some reflections on the AP reading this year. Most of these are general and ought to be applied to anyone taking either of the Advanced Placement English exams, not to mention History or other cultural subjects. I read for the English Literature and Composition exam. Readers for the English Language and Composition test worked with us, and we often compared our experiences.

First, and this is most important. This even applies to the math AP test. Answer the question being asked. This does mean that you have to read the question. Nearly all the readers of the AP Language synthesis question complained that many students made no attempt to answer the question being asked. The question was simply “whether college is worth its cost.”

Many students wrote about going to college or how a college education would be helpful to them, but that was not what the question asked. The question was about the cost of college. That was what the students should have focused on.

As I have told my students but is worth repeating, on any open question such as the synthesis question or the argumentation question on the AP Language, develop your thesis first. Too many of the essays were simply a summary of what the works said. If you think about it, that is really insulting. It is as if the readers cannot understand the passages. Clearly, that is not what you are supposed to write about.

For example, on that college expense question, you probably had three approaches: (1) college is worth it, (2) college is not worth the expense, (3) position 1 or 2 with some qualifications.

The next thing to think about is to put the ideas into your own words. Instead of saying, “Yes, college education is worth the cost,” add some pizzazz. Say something like “College is a bargain” or “Compared to bottled water or designer handbags, a college education will pay for itself.”

Think about that kind of approach when you are answering the essays on the Literature exam, too. This year the poetry selection was a sonnet about a man who liked a girl who was not interested in him. How common is that?  Virtually any high school student could have done something really lively on the subject if he or she thought about it for a few minutes. Good essays sometimes included things expressing the writer’s own frustrations in relationships or complaining about some unwanted “stalker.” There is a lot of potential there in answering such questions.

Another thing I want to emphasize when reading a passage in either AP exam is to consider the context as best you can. That does two things: You can add your own knowledge to sound really intelligent, and you can keep yourself from sounding stupid.

The sonnet on the literature exam was published in 1573. The AP exams virtually always give the dates of the selections you have to read. A few students wrote about how this connected with items in American history, that is, the history of the United States! Didn’t those students ever hear of 1776? Two centuries is not trivial unless you are an astronomer.

Some things the readers are willing to forgive. A few students wrote about Shakespeare. Now, Shakespeare was alive in 1573, but he was only 8 or 9 years old, so it is unlikely Shakespeare would have influenced that poem. Still for most readers that was not a deal-breaker in and of itself because at least the student had the correct century. A few students mentioned Spenser, Sidney, or Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella as models. Those would have been on target.

Even more generally, bring in what you know. The 2013 prose selection from the AP Literature exam had a passage from Lawrence’s The Rainbow. It included very clear descriptions based on the four humors. It also contained obvious Biblical allusions. When asked to comment on the character, either one of those things would have added immensely to the interpretation. Most of the good essays included at least one of those things if not both.

Indeed, just as Joyce’s Ulysses is loosely based on The Odyssey, The Rainbow is loosely based on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, from Eden to the promise of the rainbow. No reader expected a student to know that about the book, but a sharp reader would have seen the references to the Garden of Eden in the passage chosen.

I recommend that anyone taking AP Literature learn about the humors and read at least the narrative and poetic parts of the Bible. When the United States Supreme Court banned the Bible from public schools in 1963, it pretty much guaranteed there would be a dumbing down of the student body. Lawrence and Joyce were neither Christian nor Jewish, but it is impossible to fully understand either writer without a knowledge of the Bible. That goes for just about anyone writing in English from the Seafarer poet to Edward P. Jones, author of the 2014 AP prose selection which was published in 2003.

Some of the most egregiously poor writing this year was done for that passage from Jones’ The Known World, a wonderful book reviewed in this blog. The reason was that the student writers did not understand the context. The passage tells us that the character in the story named Moses had worked fourteen hours that day. The passage also makes it clear several times that Moses is a slave. Readers were baffled by how many students either overlooked that important detail or had no idea what a slave was.

One reader who had that question was amazed at how many students said that Moses had a strong work ethic or words to that effect.  He said, “I’d work for fifteen hours if there was a gun to my head!”

The fact that Moses was a slave also gives us a clue as to when the story is set. It is clearly set before the end of the Civil War, probably earlier or the war would have been mentioned.

Some students pointed out that Moses is an important character in the Bible. Slaves were sometimes named Moses. Even today it is more common among African-Americans than among the general population of America. The name Moses could be suggestive of some things related to the life of a slave. The Biblical Moses, after all, led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the liberty of the Promised Land. However, even this passage suggests that Moses’ name may be ironic. The Biblical Moses was trained “in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” and “spoke face to face with God.” This Moses is confined to his little “world” of a few fields, a woods, and some cabins. He does have some folk wisdom, but he does not appear to be going anywhere. If he had a chance to lead some slave to freedom, would he even know where to go?

At any rate, learn to apply what you already know, whether about literature, history, or any other subject that may appear on the essays.

I also noticed a kind of “word inflation” among the essays. Usually these were not essays that were great, and one reason was that the students did not know how to use correctly the words they used.

Words that end in -ism, -ist, -istic, or some variation usually have a very specialized meaning. No one would use the word communist when they meant “common.” But many students used simplistic when they meant “simple.” There is a big difference between those two words! Calling my solution simple is a compliment. Calling my solution simplistic is an insult. Other word pairs students need to keep straight are parallel and parallelism and animal and animalistic. The poet used images from the animal world. Yes, one could say that he used animal images. But calling those images animalistic is saying something entirely different!

Another common complaint among readers is writing that did not keep the parts of speech straight. Feel is a verb. When used as a noun, at best it is slang or salacious. Use feeling or sensation instead. Reveal is also a verb. The noun form is revelation. Anyone taking an AP class should know the language well enough to distinguish parts of speech.

Usually ordinary readers do not get to hear too many statistics, other than the total number of tests taken for their subject. This year we learned that just under 400,000 students took the AP Literature test and that over 507,000 English Language and Composition tests were taken. From one source it sounds like 386,000 took the U.S. History exam, making the two English AP tests the two most popular this year.

I also learned that the average score for Question #1 on the Literature test was just under 4.2 at 4.17. The average score for Question #1 on the Language test was about 4.75. Both of those were a little higher than usual, but readers generally thought that this year’s topics were a little more accessible to students: Frustration in love and costs of college are some things that most high school juniors and seniors are at least aware of.


General Information on Aptitude Tests

Dear Mr. K B:

You wrote:
> I want to first thank you for your help involving my grammar question.
> I have now studied antecedents and have a better understanding for my
> exam. I do wish that you could help me with one more problem. The
> following is an example of a question on my exam. I would like to know
> what I should study to familiarize myself better with these questions:
> Directions: The following question is based upon a group of sentences.
> The sentences are presented out of sequence, but when they are correctly
> arranged they form a connected, well-organized paragraph> Read the
> sentences and then answer the question about what order to arrange them
> in:
> 1. Eventually, they piece all of this information together, and make
> a choice.
> 2. Before actually deciding upon a job, people usually think about
> several possibilities.
> 3. They imagine themselves in different situations, and in so doing,
> they probably think about their interests, goals, and abilities.
> 4. Choosing an occupation is an important decision to make.
> Which of the following is the best arrangement of these sentences?
> A. 2-3-1-4
> B. 2-3-4-1
> C. 4-2-1-3
> D. 4-2-3-1
> Answer: D
> I would also like to know if you could recommend and workbooks or
> textbooks that would help me in studying both antecedents and the ordering
> of sentences.
There are fewer grammar workbooks than there used to be. Prentice-Hall workbooks that go along with their Grammar and Composition textbooks have some of these questions. You might want to try a teacher supply store. That is usually where I go if I am looking for work sheets. Another publisher you might want to check is Arco.

The sentence ordering problems are, strictly speaking, not grammar problems but aptitude questions. These are the kind of questions often used in IQ tests. I am not that familiar with any books that have these kinds of questions. Perhaps a study guide for an aptitude test like the GED might have some questions like that. Most libraries have some GED study guides that might give you some direction. You may also want to check the publisher of Mensa materials as they work with IQ tests.

I realize this is probably not as specific as you like, but it should get you started.