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Do I Need to Write the Optional SAT Essay?

Sunday, June 09, 2019

The optional SAT essay, requiring an additional 50 minutes of test takers' time, focus and energy, is swiftly becoming an artifact.  

Like the vestigial human appendix, at one point in time this component of the standardized testing landscape had its purpose. More often than not, today the essay score is simply disregarded, serving no true function in evaluating applicants, so says the testing policy at the vast majority of colleges and universities.  Still, every year we grapple with the wisdom of signing up for the optional essay.  

Testing Requirements Run the Gamut

How should students approach the decision of whether or not to sit for the optional essay?  General wisdom has long suggested that the smart and safe move would be to write the essay because without it colleges that do require this component will regard the main two-part SAT score to be incomplete.

So what are the policies that colleges hold around the essay?  Schools such as Bates, NYU, Quinnipiac, Connecticut College, UConn neither require nor recommend the optional essay and will not consider its score at the time of application review.  But UMass-Amherst recommends the essay, as does Occidental.  As of last year, Duke stopped requiring it. None of the Ivies require the essay.  So who does?   

Look West

Primarily, the University of California system institutions (ex. UCLA; UC San Diego; etc.) and Stanford still ask for the essay.  A student applying to these schools will need to submit their essay score in order to complete their application. 

Future Tense

Another possible rationale behind writing the essay is as a back-up in the event a student later decides to transfer colleges, and the destination college is one that requires the SAT essay score for admission -- including transfer admission.  Without a complete score, the SAT two-part score may be regarded as insufficient.

International applicants whose language of instruction is not English may consider writing the essay to lend another perspective to their TOEFL or IELTS score.

In the present timeframe, if a student feel that they will likely have remaining mental focus to satisfactorily write the essay after completing the main SAT sections, then they might just pay the extra $15 fee and register for the essay.  And after once completing the essay and if satisfied with the two-part score, the student may not need to write the essay again in future testing scenarios.  In other words, when it comes to the essay more often than not it's "one and done."    

If a student wants to learn more about the essay section (highly-recommended prior to test day), click here to learn more about the approach to writing the essay and the skills assessed.

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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and NACAC and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com

What Is An "Adversity" Score?

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Since the College Board recently announced the gradual rollout of their new contextual index, dubbed the "adversity score," numerous parents have inquired about this latest quantitative measurement and how it might impact the perception of their student in the Admissions Office.  "Will my child be regarded more or less favorably?  Will living in a more highly-resourced community make my child look indulged -- or even 'spoiled'? If I move to a different neighborhood, how will it affect my high schooler and younger kids?" What influence will this numerical value have on admissions outcomes for the majority of students taking the SAT?

For most students the index, formally referred to as the Environmental Context Dashboard will, on its own, likely not have a major impact and, like all elements that go into a holistic reading of a college application, will be reviewed in broader context. 

The Stated Intention

In recent years the College Board, along with other major players in the sphere of higher education, has begun to publicly comment on the reality of how socio-economic advantage directly contributes to higher standardized test scores as well as a likelihood of admission to more selective institutions.  For the many students who either live and/or attend high school in less resourced or socially-challenged cities or neighborhoods, the "adversity score" aims to shed light on the environment many of our students have had to manage, thereby allowing greater insight to the context in which these peers live and learn.  

The index aims to quantify a student's neighborhood, family, and high school educational environment while excluding considerations of race.  The numerical value comes from an analysis of census data along with information the College Board collects.

Students do not see their dashboard score, adding to the opacity of this number and its impact on admissions.

Bottom Line

In my view the College Board, referencing their strength in student data collection, is attempting to repurpose the copious amounts of student data they collect via each test registration.  My sense is that this rollout is more about monetization of data on behalf of the College Board rather than a substantive element that will significantly impact how the vast majority of colleges will evaluate admissions files.  The College Board appears to be attempting an approach of quantifying students' living and learning environment.  But ask anyone how their living and learning experience could effectively be boiled down to a number?

Beyond quantifying elements too nuanced to be calculated, most important is that all students receive a fair and contextual evaluation of their applications and are reviewed in view their potential to succeed at any institution.  In sum, every individual, professional and institution dedicated to the mission of higher education should be vigilant that all students are awarded the opportunity to attain their potential to study, learn and engage.

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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and NACAC and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com

If You Have Time for Just Three Things...

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Are minutes in the day shrinking or is the calendar just moving faster?  Sometimes it feels like both are happening.  Seniors in the midst of finalizing early applications know this better than anyone -- while high school junior, sophomore and freshman parents are astonished at the fact that their students are moving up the high school ranks en route to their college futures.


In reality, the college process has sped up in many regards, with all students in my practice completing at least one early application.  For juniors, early fall is a great time to gain a head start on pieces of the college process and optimal for seeing schools when the weather is still good and academic obligations have yet to pile up.


Most seniors are done with application tasks by now -- but not all.  Some students are still making campus visits and re-visits as well as making one final attempt to boost SAT/ACT scores. For juniors ready to step into their college process, it's worth taking time during the next couple of months for the following:


1.  Register and prep for standardized testing
Chances are a student will be required to take either the SAT or the ACT as a condition of application to at least one intended college.  Some students align with and focus exclusively on one of these tests, while others try out both to see which one best fits their testing style.  At the very least, it's smart to visit the SAT or ACT websites to sample the style and types of questions one may encounter on these exams.  Most students will begin testing during the winter of junior year, if not earlier, espeically if their winter and spring schedules are full with extracurriculars.

2.  Schedule campus visits

It takes more than a little planning to organize student and parent calendars in order to make campus visits a priority.  With busy weekends full of homework, projects, athletic and family obligations, campus visits may easily slide onto the back burner.  Before you can say "summer’s here,” senior year has arrived with its own set of priorities that may tighten up schedules even more. Besides, it’s best to visit schools during the normal ebb and flow of the academic year rather than during summer break when there are typically few students in attendance. Prospective applicants need to view campus life in action, in part, to determine a good college fit.

3.  Don't ask teachers yet for college recommendations…

... but start to consider the fact that most schools require at least one academic teacher's evaluation.  Students should begin to think about connecting in some way with teachers and how to get to know them better in or out of the classroom -- or both.


The college process is made up of many more steps than mentioned here, but with these three items underway students and parents are off to a good start! ________________________________________________________________

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admission process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and NACAC.  Contact Marla via www.achievecoach.com  


ACT Soon to Become a Longer Test

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

With a new experimental section tucked in following its Science section, the ACT will require an additional 20 minutes of testing time starting this September.

It's not unusual for experimental questions to be included in standardized testing in order to try out new question types, gauging student performance and likelihood of correct or incorrect responses. This method of "testing" the test questions is designed to ensure statistical validation and reliability. The SAT too had long utilized experimental questions during test administration, currently providing their experimental section to students who forego the optional essay.

Testing Out the Test Questions

While responses to experimental questions do not count for or against a student's total score, test takers need to be aware of the extra time -- and additional stamina -- required to get though a 3-hour and 35-minute test, soon to be an additional 20 minutes longer.  While the ACT has displayed a modicum of courtesy in placing this section following the four main sections, including Reading, Math, English and Science, students who are signed up to take the essay portion need to save up additional energy and focus for this last piece at the very end.

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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and NACAC.  Contact Marla via www.achievecoach.com  

Another Shift in the SAT/ACT World

Monday, June 18, 2018

When registering for the SAT or ACT, students are asked to consider whether or not to sign up for the optional essay. Since the number of colleges actually requiring the essay has been steadily decreasing as of late, it has been something of a toss up as to whether or not to advise students to spend the extra time and money to complete the essay component of standardized testing.  

Since students typically sit for these tests well before settling on a final list of colleges, there was no telling early in the game which of their intended colleges would ultimately require the essay. Thus, the safe bet has been to just sign up for and write the essay in the event that an intended college does in fact require it.

Recent Trend

Increasingly, the trend of late has been for colleges to no longer opt in to review the essay score. Over just the last two months with Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth deciding to drop their essay requirement, there are now only 25 colleges that still require the score.  It is worth noting that nine of these -- over a third --are universities of the California system.

However, there are a few colleges that still recommend the essay portion specifically for placement purposes (ex. Manhattan College and the University of Miami), however seemingly ignoring the score when considering a candidate for admission. While there is a larger number of schools that have a policy of recommending the SAT/ACT essay, the intended purpose is, however, unclear.

As to the list of colleges requiring the essay score, the names are likely to change as schools continue to re-evaluate their policies.  

Image credit:  Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and NACAC.  Contact Marla via www.achievecoach.com  




What To Do If You've Been Deferred

Monday, March 05, 2018

What To Do If You've Been Deferred

The email or letter usually goes something like this:  "Thank you for submitting your application to X University.  We have taken the time to review your impressive credentials but, due to an especially large volume of applications in our early round, we have decided to take a second review your application later in the admissions cycle..."

Take heart -- your student's application is still in the running!  As the popularity of early applications continues to rise, it is becoming more common for students to find that the "early decision" they were hoping for may just take a little more time.  When students' applications have been moved along to the Regular Decision (RD) round, they may likely receive a decision by mid to late March and no later than April of the senior year.

In the Meantime

Students should be anything but passive as they wait to hear back.  Active waiting consists of being in touch (reasonably) with the college over the coming months. Colleges may appreciate knowing that they are a top or first choice for the student.  The schools value useful updates such as:
  • increased SAT/ACT/SAT Subject Test scores
  • complete semester grades and/or most recent quarter grades, especially if they've improved
  • an update on awards; accomplishments; or even a new job
  • maybe some impressions of a recent college visit or contact that reflects the student's sincere interest in the college or underscores their sense of fit
What schools don't want is to be besieged with loads of additional recommendation letters, especially if these don't add anything new.  If there is, however, something significant or indicative of character or accomplishment, then perhaps an extra letter may be supportive if the college invites it.

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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com

Second Semester Juniors: What’s the Game Plan?

Saturday, January 06, 2018

With nearly half of the school year in the rear view mirror, many juniors are thinking about what’s to come in the remaining months. If you’re blessed with a “glass half-full” perspective, high school juniors have a whole 5 - 6 months in front of them to make good progress on their college plans. Many students kick off 2018 with several excellent opportunities at their disposal, most of which require good planning and smart use of our most precious and fleeting resource: time. 

What to Focus On Now

With mid-year exams on the horizon, one of the best plans of action now is to gain an early start in prepping for these exams.  In my practice, I note that a large number of students find that the precious ground they’ve gained in a semester of classroom success is later dampened by a lesser midterm exam grade. Too many students pay too little attention to a significant exam that could push their semester grade up or down several quality points, potentially affecting the GPA.  Hindsight can’t override a C+ on a midterm exam that brings down a student's A- work somewhere into the B or B+ range.

KEY: Begin to gradually prepare for mid year exams. Don’t cram!


Standardized Testing

Spring can be the ideal time for students to sit for the SAT or the ACT. The 2018 testing calendar starts off with a Feb 10 ACT and a March 10 SAT.  Starting test prep now will allow approximately 5 weeks of prep for the ACT; 4 weeks beyond that for the SAT.

KEY: Prep for standardized testing doesn’t happen overnight. At the very least, students need time to understand the tests and how to approach them. Don’t go in cold!


Planning for Campus Visits

Winter/Spring breaks present an excellent opportunity to check out campuses for size; location; vibe; facilities; connecting with athletic coaches; student support services, as appropriate. Planning well now for these upcoming months will bring a huge return when it comes to narrowing lists later on, thereby reducing the last-minute crush of to-do’s at the beginning of senior year.

KEY: Visit campuses when students are present. 


And the Rest...

Then there’s more to the story for students to plan ahead and make the most of their summers through work; camp; internships; research opportunities; service; etc.  Early winter (now!) is a great time to set plans in motion for summer.   In the midst of winter, thoughts of June-July-August feel close to a dream, but before we know it the boots and gloves will slip off and our juniors transform into rising seniors.
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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com

Don't Go In Cold! The Value in Prepping for Standardized Testing

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The College Board, publisher of the SAT, has a vested interest in pointing to successful outcomes for students who take advantage of free online SAT preparation through their affiliate, Khan Academy.  The CB’s research points to increases in SAT scores relative to PSAT results in measure with how many hours a student has spent in focused prep. 

“On the new SAT, it’s easier than ever for students to show their best work. Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy is free and personalized, and we see students achieving substantial score gains,” said in a statement from College Board President David Coleman. ^

While it’s impossible to say with certainty that students who prepared with the free CB-sponsored online tools did not also utilize other means of tutoring, the takeaway is that focused preparation, regardless of the provider, is likely to enhance performance and result in higher scores. 

With so many choices available today for both SAT and ACT preparation — books; phone apps; sample test questions found online; private or group tutoring — I firmly recommend that students avoid walking in cold on a test day.   Even some small measure of review can make all the difference between a great testing day resulting in a score that the student is happy to submit — or a day when the exam could have gone better with a little advance understanding of what to expect.

One of the intangibles of advance preparation is increased confidence on test day, an important ingredient for success, in particular, for the student who may be anxious about testing.  However, students who engage in private tutoring should not be lulled into a false sense of security.  Potential for testing success is not necessarily a function of how many hours students spend in live tutoring sessions, but rather the time and focus devoted to practice beyond the tutoring hour. Simply put, the keys to testing success rest on preparedness; familiarity; confidence -- and solid sleep the night before!

^ Jaschik, Scott. "College Board Releases Data on Khan Tutoring." Inside Higher Ed. May 9, 2017. Accessed December 22, 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2017/05/09/college-board-releases-data-khan-tutoring.

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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com

5 Tips For Making the Most of August

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Once the calendar turns to August, gears begin to shift. Some students are just beginning to feel like they even have a summer, especially if they've been busy taking classes or involved in special projects.  Others have been traveling or chilling during June or July,  just now getting down to business in advancing their college process. And for those seniors (or super-ambitious juniors and recruited athletes) who are seeking another standardized testing opportunity before classes start anew, we now have the August SAT to think about.

One truth is for certain:  Everyone spends summer on their own schedule, and one size surely never fits all! Topping off the stretches of a perfect summer break is about that special mix of downtime and "gettin' stuff done." 

Looking for some productive ways to spend the next several weeks before classes begin?  Here are some ideal suggestions for juniors and seniors:

1.  Check out a few college websites.  Identify a minimum of three desirable features of a school and keep track of these as time grows close to beginning applications. 

2.  Visit some colleges. Even though the summer vibe on most campuses will be less than energetic, there are still facilities to check out and college towns to explore.  No doubt, campus visits make for the best approach to learn about a school. 

3.  Set goals for the school year to come.  It's a helpful way to smooth the transition back to the classroom when students really think about what they need in order to make the upcoming school year a successful one. 

4.  Plan to become more involved in activities that truly hold appeal.   Deepening involvement in a few activities vs. taking a shallow stab at many not only makes for a stronger story at the time of college application, but also works to grow the individual student. Follow what you love doing!

4.  Read something.  As students move through high school en route to higher education, the skill set that will work to their best advantage, no matter the area of study, includes improving and broadening their scope of reading.  Read a book.  Read a magazine.  Read online.  Read!

5.  Follow the money.  It's never too early for students and parents to think about financial aid and paying for college.  Students and their families can learn about the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as well as scholarship-based assistance through search sites such as FastWeb.

There are few times as fleeting as the precious weeks of summer. Take the time to both enjoy and make them count!

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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com


Summer = Downtime + Productivity

Thursday, July 06, 2017

It’s a scientific fact (well, not really — but yet I think you’ll still agree): Summer is the most fleeting season of the year.  That’s because even though summer has the same number of calendar days as its three fellow sun-cycles, we define this time of the year by its long-awaited respite and big dose of freedom from the everyday demands of school life.  For rising juniors and seniors, these months are well-earned and precious. 

When students comment, “I’m so busy this summer — I have no time to…” I take that as code for:  I need my downtime.  Absolutely.  You need downtime to refresh and recreate so you can get back in the saddle when school starts up again in the fall.   But remember that no matter how full summer days are with a job or team practice, they will not be as busy or structured as when senior or junior year start up in full form.

Depending where you are in the college process, whether a rising college explorer or soon-to-be-applicant, there are several things you need to be doing —and accomplishing — during summer break:

+  Work on college essays. Steadily.

+  Prep for SAT or ACT  — or at least take some diagnostic sample tests.

+  If expecting to test or re-test for subject tests in August, begin studying right away.

see prior blog post --  It’s Here:  The August SAT 

+  Accomplish AP summer prep work, as is necessary.

+  Begin to prepare your Common App — (and/or Coalition App; U of CA; or Apply Texas apps).

+  Get a good start on organizing a portfolio if applying to arts programs.

+  Be in touch with athletics coaches or admissions reps.

And there is one more to-do on the list:  Get out into the sunshine and fresh air  — or into the studio, lab, or workplace; plane; train or car.  Play, work, socialize, day dream and enjoy summer in whatever ways you crave to refresh and rejuvenate before the calendar flips to September!

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Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury, MA through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. Marla is a professional member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via www.achievecoach.com

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