Are your test scores good?

I’m on vacation this week, so I’m reposting one of my most popular blog posts from last year, about test scores. Remember that nobody is happy with their test scores, but people still want to know how to think about their test scores as it relates to college admissions.

While I’ve got you, let me also say that I have another year of Meet the Class beginning in September, so please keep coming back. Enjoy!

It’s a question I hear all the time: “I got _____ on the SAT. Is that good?” Everyone would like to know that their test scores are good. That they’re valuable, that they’re going to help a student get what she wants, like admission to a top-choice college or a scholarship. The problem, of course, is that none of us are quite sure what makes a test score “good.”

What I’d like to do today is go over all the ways I can think to answer that question, from the fairly objective to the completely dysfunctional. There are a lot of ways to think about your test scores.

The College Readiness Benchmark. Through years of surveying college students and comparing their college success to their SAT scores, the College Board has a pretty good idea of what a college-ready score is: 480 on Reading & Writing, 530 on Math. 1010 total. What do they mean by “college readiness”?

Students with an SAT Math section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing college courses in algebra, statistics, pre-calculus, or calculus.

Students with an SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) section score that meets or exceeds the benchmark have a 75 percent chance of earning at least a C in first-semester, credit-bearing college courses in history, literature, social sciences, or writing classes.

So this is the most basic answer to the question. If you get over 480/530, then you’re probably ready for college. And since it’s a test that really only gets used for that one thing, being college-ready is a good score. You can read all about the Benchmarks here on the College Board website. Many people find this definition of a “good score” completely unsatisfying. A 75% chance of getting a C is not necessarily their idea of “good.”

The minimum to be considered for the prize. Imagine one of the colleges you apply to has a Presidential Scholarship worth $25,000 per year. To be considered for the scholarship, you have to earn at least a 1250 combined SAT score, submit an essay, sit for an interview, and submit two letters of recommendation. The winner of that scholarship is going to based on the essay, interview, and letters. A student with a 1250 gets a shot at the scholarship just as much as a student with a 1550. Getting in the door is all that matters. 1250 is a good score, period, even if it’s right at the cut-off. This is the academic equivalent to the sports truism that “there’s no such thing as an ugly win.” If your score gets you considered for something you want, then it’s a good score.

Percentile. Probably the most intuitive way to understand your score is to look not at the score itself but at the percentile. The percentile means your score was better than ___% of students who took the same test at the same time. What constitutes “good” is completely subjective and up to each individual, but you probably already have an emotional sense of what you want. For some, it’s to be in the top half. (The SAT is designed for the average score to be right around 1000, so “top half” and “meets the college readiness benchmark” are kind of the same thing.) Some want to be in the top 25% or top 20%. Some, whether they achieve it or not, will not believe that their score is good unless it’s in the top 10% If you have PSAT, SAT, or ACT scores already, you can find the percentile and ask yourself how you feel. You’ll probably have a sense that you think your scores are good or not good. If you haven’t already got test scores, do some thinking and decide ahead of time what percentile will feel “good” to you.

What you get on your second try, after studying. You take the test once, and you get a score. It reflects how you did just giving it a try. Then, you take some time to really study and prepare. Maybe you work with a tutor or prep class. Maybe you use Khan Academy or some other online program. Maybe you just keep taking high school classes and gaining a better understanding. Then you take the test again, and this new score reflects your raw talent plus your careful preparation. Whatever that second score is, that’s good. Even if you’re disappointed in the number or percentile, you’ve got to be happy with your raw talent plus your careful preparation. That combination can get you far in life. Don’t knock it.

It depends on your grades. Almost everyone recognizes that some people just don’t have the same talent for standardized tests as some other people. Most selective colleges, even the ones that aren’t test-optional, place much more emphasis on grades and course rigor than they do on test scores. The higher your GPA, the more likely people are to overlook your test scores. What constitutes good test scores depends to some degree on how good your grades are. Beware, though, that there are different ways to interpret a large gap between test scores and GPA. A high GPA and low test scores may mean that you’re a really bright student who just isn’t great at multi-choice tests. Or it may mean that you’re not so bright but were able to game the system, especially if you come from a high school with plenty of grade inflation. High test scores with a low GPA may mean that you’re a brilliant student who was bored with school and needs a challenge, a real diamond in the rough. Or it may mean that you’re smart but lazy, hoping to skate by on your test scores without contributing much else. Disparities in your grades and test scores are open to interpretation, so you need to be aware of that.

It depends on where you’re applying. The SAT and ACT are college application tests. They won’t be used for anything else after that. So a good score depends on where you’re applying. Most schools will tell you what their test mid-range is. That’s the range of scores that half of their students scored within. To take one example out of thousands, Sarah Lawrence College has an SAT mid-range of 1240-1410. Half of their students scored within this range. 25% scored higher, and 25% scored lower. So if you’re hoping to go to Sarah Lawrence, a score over 1240 is good. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be accepted, just as a score below that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be denied. But if your score is within the range of 75% of their students, then you can stop worrying about test scores and focus on other parts of the application.

It doesn’t matter: what’s important are your GRE/LSAT/MCAT scores. This is basically an extension of the “minimum to be considered for the prize” idea. If you’re ambitious and want to go on to graduate study, then those tests—GRE for grad school, LSAT for law school, MCAT for med school—are the ones that you should feel pressure about. Don’t sweat the SAT/ACT as long as it gets you into college somewhere.

There are some common, but less objective and healthy ways, that plenty of people use to gauge whether a score is good. I don’t endorse these, but it really helps to be aware if your thinking falls into these traps. Self-knowledge is the best knowledge.

What your parents say is a good score. There are some students for whom the factor that matters the most is approval from their parents. A good score is whatever makes their parents take notice and be proud. If you get scores that do make your parents proud, that’s awesome. It’s a great bonus. But if you’ve got parents who aren’t going to be satisfied unless you get a perfect score, then that can be really rough and damaging. At the end of the day, though, it’s a college entrance exam, not a parental love exam, and you’ll be much better off looking for a more objective way to think about your scores.

Higher than your older sibling got. Closely related to parental approval is comparison to older siblings. It stinks to be compared unfavorably to an older sibling, and it feels good to score higher than they did. Ultimately, though, this says nothing about your success in college or beyond.

The round number higher than whatever you got. I had a client once who had a 1390 on his SAT. And he hated his score, because he wanted the round number of 1400. I have no doubt, though, that if he got a 1400 he’d be upset it wasn’t a 1450. Some people are like that. They’re the people who’d rather get an 86 on a test than an 89, because the “one point from an A” drives them nuts. They’ll probably grow into the type of adult who would hate to match 5 out of 6 numbers on a Lotto ticket, because they’d “only” win a million dollars and come so close to the big prize. If you’re one of those people, I’m not judging you. I’ve got love and compassion for you. But there’s probably not anything I can tell you that might make you happy about your test scores.

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track personal data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. You’re nothing but a reader to me, and that means everything to me.

Photo by Angela Elisabeth.

Apply with Sanity is a registered trademark of Apply with Sanity, LLC. All rights reserved.

It's time to set goals for the new school year

As the new school year looms closer, it's time to think about your goals for the upcoming year. One mistake many students make is waiting until later in the year, often when something is going wrong, to think about their goals and aspirations. Of course you think about your goals and aspirations, but I mean thinking in a deliberate and analytical way. To do this, you're going to need to write your goals down. Let's take three typical goals for smart, ambitious high school students: make good grades, get a leadership position, and have less stress.

I love verbs, especially for things like this. If there are things you want to do or achieve over the next school year, then you should be able to list them as verbs. For setting goals, try these three: I want, I will, I need.

First, list a small number of things that you want (keep it to just a few—no more than four). For our examples, it's a matter of writing down the goals as "I want" statements and seeing if they're really your goals. "I want to get straight A's this year". "I want to be elected an officer of my club". "I want to feel less stress". If these are truly things you want, then great! Move on to the next step. 

Too often we initially list things as goals that aren't really our goals--they're someone else's goals, or just things we think we should do. There are reasons you may decide to get straight A's even if you don't care if you get straight A's. Maybe it's to keep your parents from nagging you, or maybe it's because you want to live up to the standards set by an older sibling. Getting accepted to college probably has something to do with it, too. If you don't really care about getting good grades, don't write down that you do. If what you really want is to get more approval from your parents, write that down instead: "I want to have more approval from my family." You may decide that getting good grades is something you will do to achieve that goal, or you may decide there are other ways. But be clear with yourself about what you really want and why you're doing what you're doing. Similarly, make sure you want a leadership position because you genuinely want it, not just because you think you need it for college applications. If you're not interested in leading the group--or even being in the group--but you do it because you believe colleges want you to, then change your goal to "I want to get accepted to my top-choice college." Again, you may end up staying in the club and even running to be an officer, but you may decide there's a more productive path to getting that acceptance than just being a resume.

Once you've listed a few things that you want, then it's time to commit and write down what you're going to do in order to achieve the goal. If I want to get straight A's, then I will commit to homework and studying for a set amount of time each day. If I want to feel less stress, then I will commit to some stress-relieving strategy each day, like meditating or exercising. If I want a leadership position, then I will commit to being at every club meeting and being an active member who people will trust as a leader. 

Again, it's really important to connect what you want with what you will do. If you have an "I will" statement that doesn't align with your "I want" statements, then you've either got unacknowledged wants or extra things to do. Figure out what's going on. Likewise, if there's something you need to do in order to get what you want, but you're not willing or able to actually do it, then you may need to re-set your wants. This is the moment to be honest with yourself. If you write down that you will you do something that you know you're not actually going to do, then you're setting yourself up for failure. However, connecting the "I will" to the "I want" is often a great motivator to do things you wouldn't have done before.

Few people, if any, achieve their goals on their own. Beyond what you will do in order to get what you want, there are also external things you will need. It could be that you need to let go of something else you've been doing in order to spend more time doing what you say you will do to get what you want. It could be that you need extra help in the form of tutoring. It could be that you need some special equipment or training. It could be that you just need someone to check up on you and give you some encouragement. Whatever you need in order to do what it takes to get what you want, write that down. Once again, make sure that your needs align with your wills and your wants.

So, following our examples, let's show what a strong statement of goals might look like.

I want to get straight A's. I want to be elected a leader in my school club. I want to feel less stress.

I will spend one hour every day from 6-7pm studying and completing homework without distraction. I will participate in every club meeting and volunteer to organize an event. I will spend ten minutes of every lunch period practicing quiet meditation.

I need regular tutoring from my math teacher. I need advice from the current club president. I need my friends to understand why I'm leaving lunch ten minutes early every day.

It's entirely possible you want, will, and need to set goals for the year, but don't like my suggestions. No problem. Here are some other places to begin:

How to Make (and Keep) a New Year's Resolution, from the New York Times's Smarter Living section.

A Complete Guide to Getting What You Want, from Raptitude.

Instead of Goals or Resolutions, Try Creating Rules, from Zen Habits.

The Ultimate Guide to Goal Setting, from Life Hack. 

Whatever system you use to set goals and prepare yourself to achieve them, you also need to prepare yourself for failure. You’ve surely already experienced not achieving a goal in your past. You know what it’s like to not do the thing you told yourself you would do. No matter what the inspirational posters say, failure is always an option. So plan for it, just in case. Sometimes we all have to go to Plan B. Don’t wait until Plan A is a total wreck before figuring out what Plan B is.

What will you do if you don’t get all A’s? What will you do if you don’t get the leadership role? What will you do if you’re still feeling stress? If you look up and it’s October and you haven’t done half the things you said you would do, then where will you start? For an introduction to “implementation intentions” and how to strengthen your willpower by thinking about failure, read this article called “How Planning to Fail Can Help you Succeed.”

The other thing that you must do with your failures is learn from them. This is what my friend (and super-educator) Edward Burger calls “Effective Failure.” If you ask yourself “what went wrong?” and learn to not make the same misstep again, then you’re failing effectively and actually doing yourself a huge favor. If you refuse or forget to figure out where you made a mistake, then you’re failing ineffectively and doing yourself a huge disservice. Enough unfair and costly things will happen to you in your lifetime—don’t do them to yourself.

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track personal data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. You’re nothing but a reader to me, and that means everything to me.

Photo by Zoe Herring.

Apply with Sanity is a registered trademark of Apply with Sanity, LLC. All rights reserved.

College-bound students do their summer reading

I was an AP Lit teacher for nine years, so I have fond memories of summer reading. I always read everything I assigned to my students, every year. So I did the summer reading along with them (or at least a few of them. I'm not naive, most of them didn't do the summer reading). 

You've got, more or less, a month left of summer. If you haven't completed your assigned summer reading yet, now is the time. You must read your summer reading assignments. 

I understand: it's really easy to blow off your summer reading. You've got other things going on. There's probably only going to be a single test or assignment over the reading, and a quick conversation with a friend who read it or a quick perusal of a summary will usually be all you need for that test. You may have some philosophical argument against doing school work when school isn't in session, or you may find the reading boring. You may really intend to do the reading, some time, eventually, but procrastinate until you just don't get it done. You've probably blown off your summer reading before, and it probably wasn't too big a problem for you.

But here's the thing: no college-bound student should skip the summer reading.

The real reason to do your summer reading has little to do with the book, the class, or the test. It's simply that we only get good at things that we practice. Aristotle said "we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit" (Actually, Aristotle only sort-of said this). So when you blow off the summer reading and then have to cover your tracks, you're practicing the habits of procrastinating, lying, cheating, and doing things half-way. Those are not useful habits in college, and certainly not after college. 

Instead, doing your summer reading gives you an opportunity to practice some really useful skills. Reading and thinking are useful, for sure. And so is time management. And following through on commitments. And exploring new interests. And keeping your cool when the studying gets tough. If it helps, just imagine you're in a training montage getting ready for something grand. But do your summer reading!

What if you're one of the students who didn't get any summer reading assigned? I asked a group of smart people from different walks of life (i.e. my Facebook friends) to recommend a book written in the past three years. Here's what they gave me—it’s a long and varied list. I haven't read all of them (or even heard of all of them), so I can't personally vouch for the books. But I can vouch for my friends.

Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow.

Ng, Little Fires Everywhere.

Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing

Darnielle, Universal Harvester

Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky.

Lamster, Man in the Glass House.

Lange, The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.

Grossman, A Horse Walks Into a Bar.

Washington, Lot: Stories.

Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

Zumas, Red Clocks.

Hamid, Exit West.

Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves.

Coleman, Terra Nullius.

Sylvester, Everyone Knows You Go Home.

Mbue, Behold the Dreamers.

Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.

Pan, The Astonishing Color of After.

Westover, Educated: A Memoir.

Valley, Diaspora Boy.

Lazenby, Infinity to Dine.

Olivarez, Citizen Illegal.

Powers, The Overstory.

Mohr, Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Lukianoff and Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

Edugyan, Washington Black.

Bergner, Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family.

Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

Horn, Eternal Life.

Alderman, The Power.

Carreyou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track personal data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. You’re nothing but a reader to me, and that means everything to me.

Photo by Angela Elisabeth.

Apply with Sanity is a registered trademark of Apply with Sanity, LLC. All rights reserved.

Summer homework

Summer homework

A few years ago The Atlantic published this article by Joe Pinsker titled "Rich Kids Study English." It's a really fascinating piece that I hope you'll take the time to read, but here's the main idea: "the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward 'useful' majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts." Hence the title. Pinsker looks at several explanations and unanswered questions about this connection with having wealthier parents and choosing lower-paying career paths. "It’s speculative," he says, "but richer students might be going on to take lower-paying jobs because they have the knowledge that their parents’ money will arrive eventually."

While the premise makes sense--if your family has more money and support then you can afford not to worry about paychecks as much when choosing your college classes--it's not the full picture.

A reminder about social media

A reminder about social media

I don't think you need me to repeat the standard advice: un-tag yourself from photos you don't want colleges to see, make sure you have your school-friendly photos and résumé-building awards on public settings for the world to see, avoid anything that hints at academic imperfection.

The problem with this sort of advice, practical and accurate as it is, is that the overall message and tone of the advice is to consider yourself always watched and always performing. Never say or do anything that colleges don't like, as if all colleges "like" the same things. I advise against doing anything, no matter how productive or good on the surface, simply because colleges want to see you do it.

The college you're going to has what you want

The college you're going to has what you want

Everything may have gone exactly as you hoped, and you’re getting ready to go to your dream school. If so, congratulations! But there’s a really good chance it didn’t work that way, and you’re not going to a dream school. That's very normal; it has a lot more to do with the economics and logistics of admissions than you as a person. If you find an unhappy or unproductive adult and ask them what caused their problems, I guarantee they won’t say “I didn’t get into Stanford and my life has been miserable since that day. I only got a normal college degree, and my life is a waste.” It just doesn’t work that way. You’re going to be fine.

Still making a last-minute decision?

Still making a last-minute decision?

You may have already made that decision a while ago. If so, congratulations! But if you're still struggling to choose between two schools, or three schools, or seven schools or however many, then you may be looking for some help. 

At this point, I'm assuming that money probably isn't the issue. If you're stuck choosing between a school you can afford and a school you can’t afford, then you're not really struggling to're just procrastinating.  I'm also guessing that if you're still struggling to decide, then a simple "make a list of pros and cons for each school" is something you've already thought of and found unhelpful. Still, if you haven't checked a school's vital stats lately--graduation rate, rate of sophomore return, student-faculty ratio--then go back and look those over.

Don't pass up a full ride

Don't pass up a full ride

Let's be clear: getting a full scholarship is very rare. Fewer than one percent of college applicants end up getting to go for free. It takes more than just being a good student who wrote a good application essay. But still, one percent is still thousands of students a year, so you may want to do some thinking and planning, just in case.

Here's a simple rule to help you know how to think about full scholarships: you should not pass up a full ride. If you apply to a school and they offer you a full scholarship, go to that school.

Something to do over spring break

Something to do over spring break

Go on a practice college tour.

For many high school students, especially juniors, Spring Break is a popular time for college campus visits. I wouldn't necessarily call this "normal." Lots of students do it, yes. But lots of students don't do many--or any--visits until they're seniors and visit only schools they've already been admitted to. And plenty of students don't visit a college at all until they show up in the fall of their first year as students. What's "normal" is up to you and what you think is really best for you. While I don't recommend skipping college visits altogether, neither do I recommend going on big multi-campus trips just for the heck of it. 

Asking for more financial aid

Asking for more financial aid

Now is the season when acceptance letters begin to arrive for a lot of seniors, and with acceptances come financial aid packages. (Remember: you never know how much a university is going to cost you until you apply and get accepted.)

The bad news is that very few students receive "full ride" scholarship or aid packages that cover everything. The most-quoted number I could find was about 20,000 per year, or 0.3% of applicants, though that number is possibly outdated. The NCAA says about 2% of high school athletes get college scholarships.

The good news is that around 88% of students do get some sort of discount. If you get an aid offer that isn’t a full ride, you probably want more. You may need more, but needing and wanting can be different. How do you ask for more money?

What to do when you get waitlisted

What to do when you get waitlisted

As regular admission decisions begin to go out, it’s time to think about what to do if the answer you get isn’t Yes or No, but Maybe.

First, let me say I’m sorry. Getting waitlisted sucks. In some ways a Maybe is worse than a No, because it keeps the suspense going and also starts to make logistical problems for you. Take a little time to be frustrated or angry or completely freaked out, but no more than a day or two. You’ve got to figure out what to do next.

Now it's time to give thanks

Now it's time to give thanks

For most seniors, the active part of school applications is winding down. You’ve sent out most, if not all, of your applications. Now you wait. While you wait to hear from schools and think about how to choose from your acceptances, take some time to write thank you notes. Write one to everyone who has done something for you along the way: teachers who wrote recommendation letters, counselors who sent off transcripts, college admissions personnel who answered questions, people who took time to interview you. Everybody. They gave some of their time to help you, and you should thank them if you haven't already.

Yes, you can write about that

Yes, you can write about that

One of the most common questions I got from students working on their college application essays when I was a high school teacher was "Is it okay to write about...?"

Is it okay to write about my depression? Is it okay to write about coming out as homosexual? Is it okay to write about how I used to be a really bad student? Is it okay to write about being an abuse survivor? Is it okay to talk about being bullied? Is it okay to talk about the time I was a bully?

Yes, it is okay.

Making a useful college mission statement

Making a useful college mission statement

Last weekend I went to see Ocean's 8 with my wife. We're fans of the story: I've seen the 1960 original with Frank Sinatra and the "Rat Pack," the 2001 re-make with George Clooney and Julia Roberts, the not-so-great sequels Ocean's 12 and Ocean's 13, and now this new one. Except Ocean's 8, I've seen them all multiple times. They're well-executed, elegant cinematography to look at, and they're clever. The movies are just smart enough that you don't feel like you're watching mind-numbing entertainment, but don't actually require a whole lot of thinking. 

And while I was watching Ocean's 8, I was thinking a lot about college admissions. Partly because thinking about college admissions is just what I do, even on the weekend, but also because I've used the "bank heist movie" analogy for college applications before.

Asking for more money

Asking for more money

Now is the season when acceptance letters begin to arrive for a lot of seniors, and with those come financial aid packages. The bad news is that very few students receive "full ride" scholarship or aid packages that cover everything....When you get your aid offer, you're very likely to want it to be more. You're also pretty likely to need it to be more, though wanting and needing are different. How do you ask for more money?

Two approaches to getting waitlisted

Two approaches to getting waitlisted

You finally heard back from the school you really want to attend, and they put you on the waitlist. First, let me acknowledge that getting waitlisted sucks. In some ways a straight-up No would feel better than a Maybe, because then you could just start accepting the No and move on. But a Maybe? It both gives you hope that there might be a Yes, but also makes you act as though it's a No. It stinks.

Run (again) before the bell

Run (again) before the bell

It’s wonderful that you’re willing to make dramatic efforts toward something: staying up all night to study for a test; starting an extreme fitness routine before a sports team try-out; concocting an elaborate Promposal; doing extra credit work to boost your grade. But run before the bell and do those things at a time when they’ll be more beneficial: stay up a little late five nights before the test instead of a self-destructive all-nighter; start exercising months before the try-out; ask that person out now in a non-theatrical way instead of waiting until Prom season; keep your grades up so you don’t have to beg for extra credit. It’s not as dramatic, but it costs you a lot less.