SSAT and ISEE: What makes these tests so darn hard?!?

Admissions tests (while this post is focused on the SSAT and ISEE, it’s also applicable to the SAT and ACT) are notoriously difficult for students and confusing to parents, especially when otherwise high-performing students get “low” scores. While there are many possible reasons for a student to under-perform on a test, we’ll tackle some of the most common. Hopefully this will give you some insight into how to help your child succeed on a standardized admission tests. Here are a few reasons students struggle with admissions tests:

Starting Prep Early: SAT Vocabulary Strategies

Earlier this year we joined SAT aficionados and college counselors on Twitter for the bi-weekly #CampusChat. The topic was SAT vocabulary and it sparked a zany hour of interesting words being used in fun context. By our estimation the prize for most interesting use of SAT vocab was taken by Suzanne Schaeffer (mostly because of her fun digs at Bell Curves founder @akilbello). If you’re interested you can see the full twitter transcript here.

This chat got the juices flowing over in BC central and sparked us to ask our teachers for recommendations for short-term (less than 6 months) and longer term vocab acquisition tools and tricks. In this blog we’ll address some of the long term vocabulary strategies that parents can use to help their children develop college-ready vocabularies.

Test Prep Tip: Loving the Wrong Answer

No matter what test you take (SSAT, ISEE, SHSAT, PSAT, PLAN, SAT, ACT, etc) when you are preparing, your best friend is the wrong answer, if you use it as an opportunity to learn. This is the first in a series of tips on using fallacious answers to help you in your studies and on test day.

To properly take advantage of the wrong answers, you have to first understand that there are different types of wrong answers. The Loving the Wrong Answer series will discuss the major types of wrong answers, and how to use them to help you become a better test-taker.

ISEE Prep: Bromances, Frenemies, Stanines, and squishy terms.

Sporting a manpurse

When I first heard “stanine” I thought: “Oh, that poor lady. Did they name her after some guy named Stan?” It turns out it’s not a person, but a system for standardizing test scores. This makes more sense and is less upsetting than thinking some woman has gone through life saying “No, not Janine, Stanine.”

But turns out it’s actually pronounced “Stay-Nine” since it squishes the original title of the process called Standard Nine into one word (like romance and brother make bromance, murse = man + purse, friend and enemy make frenemy, giant + enormous = ginormous). Stanine is a way to explain test scores using just a single number from 1 to 9. The important part to keep in mind is that this isn’t the actual score, as in how many questions you got right or wrong, but instead it’s a way to see how your test score compares with everyone else who took the test.

Test prep tips: How parents, counselors, and mentors can help

One of the biggest challenges for parents and mentors is how to support a student as she transitions to high school and later to college.  The older the student is, the more she studies content that the parent or mentor no longer remembers, or has to navigate a system that is new or different from what parents and mentors experienced (we all know college admissions looks very different than it did 20 years ago).

Overwhelmed parents often mistakenly leave the preparation for SAT, ACT, and college admissions to schools or tutors. Many parents will be shelling out money to provide children access to test preparation tools and educational support, but we can’t let that be the end of our involvement. These tips will help you support your child’s test preparation (and college readiness) efforts even when you don’t fully understand the content or know the system. Here are two tips for helping your child even when you don’t quite get it:

Be the Planner

One of the best roles for parents as students approach high school and college should be as the “keeper of the calendar.” A parent should help the child make a plan and stick to that plan. This plan should be jointly created by you and your child (and maybe even an admissions counselor) and be revised periodically. You should include registration deadlines, filing deadlines, recommended test dates, summer enrichment activities, sports, etc so that both of you will have target dates readily available. There are lots of online college planners available online to give you a starting point. One such site to check out is .  In general, all planning for transition from one level of school to the next should start at least 18 months before you expect to start. So to go from junior high to high school, parents need to have the calendar planned out by the spring of 7th grade. Here are a few things the parent or mentor can help schedule and plan for:

Academic record: Make sure the right classes are taken and excelled in.

Enrichment activities: Help find enrichment activities for the summers and weekends that will help students prepare for school and life (internships, academic summer programs, creative outlets, etc).

Extracurricular activities: Guide students to explore their areas of interest via programs and clubs that will allow them to participate for the long term and gain leadership experience.

Interviewing skills: Practice for the types of questions asked will put the child at ease.

Applications: Be the monitor and proofreader and make sure applications are filled out properly and submitted before deadlines.

Test scores: Make sure they reflect the student’s abilities by preparing in advance and taking the exam more than once if necessary and applicable.

Be the Student

One of the best ways parents and mentors can help a student prepare for admissions tests (and concurrently make sure that the student is doing their work) is by having the student teach them. We often learn more and better when we are forced to explain to others. You can help your child lock in classroom lessons by not simply asking him if he did his homework, but instead by asking him to teach a problem to you. This way you can participate actively in his learning, support him by letting him see you struggle, encourage him by letting him see you figure it out with his guidance, and reinforce the work by helping him “study” by teaching. Since you know your child best, you’ll know best how to motivate him. You can make this competitive (by challenging him to get more of the questions right than you), you can make it supportive (by showing him that you struggle with the test as well), or you can make it a bonding experience (by sharing the challenge of figuring out problems). The key is to work with them and allow them to show you what they are learning from their prep book, prep class, or prep tutor.

Blog connections:

An awesome example of a parent helping their child with testing can be found by checking out our friend Debbie’s blog. To help and support her son she took every SAT offered in 2011 and blogged about the process.

We cross-posted this blog by Lawrence Watkins, who traced his success, summer program by summer program.


For more advice about college admissions, testing, and supporting your students, check out our free events, courses, and tutoring options.

Study Tips: Test yourself!

In this edition of our ongoing study tips, we introduce you to the testing effect, another handy (and scientifically proven, read about a study here) method for improving your study habits and information retention.

Vocabulary for Internet Procrastinators

Vocabulary is one of the most essential tools for college students, prospective college students, and graduates. You’ll need vocabulary words for the SAT or GRE, for your reading assignments, and to make a good impression upon those you speak to. And, while you do need to increase your vocabulary, sometimes it’s just too much of a bother to walk away from the computer or couch and grab a dictionary. Well, if you want an easy way to increase your lexicon while you’re surfing the web, try this add-on:

Don’t Believe the Hype: Tests aren’t designed to trick you

Public Enemy - Dont Believe The HypeOver and over I read blogs and hear comments about how evil standardized tests are and how they are designed to “trick,” “fool,” and “trap” test-takers. I say that’s hogwash and poppycock!

It’s the invention of the test prep industry so they can sell you their “miracle cures.” This isn’t to say that all test preparation companies take this line. A few companies, Bell Curves among them, pride themselves on providing test prep that speaks to the knowledge, insights, and strategies needed to conquer the test, rather than play into the notion that these tests are designed to trick test-takers. My gripe with the other, more popular position is that it seems designed to make the test out to be a big scary mysterious unknowable boogie man designed to jump out of the dark and bop the unwary, and thus force test-takers to get help from someone else to defeat the unknown and unknowable. However, if the test is just a test, a test of content, a test of information, a test of factoids presented in a very particular way, then you might be able to prepare on your own. It’s got to be easier to sell a course or tutor if “only SAT experts” have the key to this very special lock.

Don’t believe the hype!

Accessing the Pipeline: How Summer Enrichment Programs Changed My Life

The following post is from Lawrence Watkins’ blog. It’s very insightful.

Last week, CNN aired a special entitled “Black in America – Part 2″ profiling the lives of different African-Americans all around the nation. I watched with anticipation as the CNN crew was profiling an organization in which I am affiliated, Management Leadership for Tomorrow. MLT is a program that helps aspiring minority business school applicants attain their dream of attending a top notch business school. Out of all the underrepresented minorities at Cornell’s business school, well over half went through the rigorous MLT program.

Preparing for the SAT: done right and for free

Preparing for the SAT when done correctly and most effectively is a task that can only be accomplished by a parent, educational system, and child working in tandem for the same distant goal over the course of about 17 years. This educational triumvirate is the key to the intellectual development of the child and is the key to true achievement on the SAT and its ilk (PSAT, SAT Subject Tests, ACT, GMAT, GRE, LSAT, etc). This tripod of invested individuals sets the foundation for the ways the child interacts in educational settings and manages the challenges presented by testing. This foundation will do more to determine whether the child scores a 300 or an 800 than any prep course or high-priced tutor.

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