Thursday, January 20, 2011

Getting Ready for the SAT and ACT

Afraid of the big, bad tests? There are ways to declaw them. And don't worry about a poor result the first time around—soon you'll be able to hide any score you don't want colleges to see. More and more schools are making tests optional, but chances are you'll want to prepare anyway. So let's get started.

SAT or ACT? While more high schoolers still take the SAT than the ACT (1.5 million versus 1.3 million), virtually every college will accept either. The SAT is a logic and reasoning test; the ACT hews more closely to the high school curriculum. The ACT, considered the more straightforward test, has four sections, including science, and forgives gamblers (SAT takers, by contrast, are docked a quarter point for each incorrect answer). But the ACT has its challenges: The math goes up to trigonometry and precalculus (SAT math stops at Algebra II), and some find it a struggle to finish on time. Ned Johnson of PrepMatters Inc., a test-preparatory and educational counseling firm in Bethesda, Md., recommends you figure out which test you score better on and then focus on that. "Take the ACT early on, and then compare it to the PSAT," he suggests. "If you're dividing your energy between tests, it's likely to leave you divided and conquered."

Should I opt for the ACT writing section? Yes—because on the SAT, the writing section is required. "A lot of schools consider the ACT comparable to the SAT, but the only way they can accept it as a replacement is if students take the ACT with writing," explains Kortney Tambara, a counselor at Oxford Academy in Cypress, Calif. Last year, 41 percent of high schoolers who took the ACT opted for the writing section. It allows you to apply to a wider array of schools and is particularly useful if you're aiming high. The University of California system, for example, requires it.

Are prep classes worth it? Max Bochman, a senior at Taunton High School in Taunton, Mass., says classes helped him "feel more confident, like I had a good understanding of what was going to be on the test." Can't afford them? Many schools offer free or low-cost programs after class, so talk to your counselor. Check out, a free test-prep site that adapts to your ability level. Or go the old-fashioned route and buy a book (for a humorous read, try the latest edition of Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT). Most important: Take a simulated test repeatedly, challenging yourself to do better each time. "Prep classes are only as good as the effort a student is willing to put into them," says Judith Koch-Jones, college and career center coordinator at University High School in Irvine, Calif.

What works best? Prep starts on the first day of high school, says Richard Bavaria, a senior vice president with Sylvan Learning. "Go to class every day, take notes, work with a study buddy, and get help early when you need it—don't wait!" he says. Want to make it entertaining? Lauren Pinheiro, a junior at Presentation High School in San Jose, Calif., crafted silly pickup lines using unusual words and shared them in a Facebook group. Examples: "Please don't reject me; I'm not that resilient"; "Girl, being that hot just ain't equitable." Cramming is less effective. It puts your grades in peril, throws your schedule out of whack, and makes you bad company.

Should I retake it? The ACT has long let students choose which scores to send to colleges and which to hide. Starting in March, students taking the SAT will be able to do the same thing—so there's much to gain and little to lose from retaking the test. For those taking the SAT, students gain an average of 40 points on the first retest (it goes down after that). The ACT says more than 55 percent increase their composite score upon retesting. Of course, there's a point where you should call it quits. "Hopefully, young people have better things to do with their Saturday mornings than take standardized tests," says Johnson.

Written by Lucia Graves for U.S. News and World Report
Posted by Lindy Kahn, M.A., CEP for Kahn Educational Group, LLC

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Best Values in Public Colleges 2011

Despite shrinking budgets, these 100 schools deliver a stellar education at an affordable price.

As colleges and universities across the U.S. struggle with shrinking budgets and increased enrollment, here’s the takeaway for soon-to-matriculate students: Look for schools that deliver an outstanding, affordable education in good times and bad. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ranked Kiplinger’s number-one best value for public colleges and universities for a remarkable ten times running, is a prime example. Carolina’s admission rate remains among the lowest on our annual list; its students are among the most competitive; and its in-state cost, at $17,000, is not much higher than the average price ($16,140) for all public universities. For students who qualify for need-based aid, the total price for this top-tier university drops to an average of $7,020.
Carolina’s performance is all the more exceptional considering the current climate for public higher education. Over the past few years, states have cut funding for colleges and universities by tens of millions of dollars. Enrollment and the demand for financial aid have surged. Federal stimulus funding, which provided crucial support, will soon run out, and Medicaid continues to deplete state coffers. “Everywhere you look, there is less money,” says Shirley Ort, director of the office of scholarships and student aid at Chapel Hill. Unlike past shortfalls, this one will likely affect higher education in “significant and probably permanent ways,” says Charles Lenth, of the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

In Kiplinger's annual assessment of best value, they identify the public schools that, like Carolina, deliver the best BA for the buck. They start with academic quality, including the school's student-faculty ratio, its admission rate and its four-year graduation rate. They then factor in affordability, such as the total cost of attendance with or without financial aid.

Binghamton University (SUNY), ranked sixth overall, takes the number-one spot for out-of-state value for the third time in a row. It's an honor the school's president, C. Peter Magrath, might prefer to forgo. He complains that tuition is too low for a university whose admission rate, at 33%, rivals top schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill. Out-of-state students pay a total of $27,535 to attend Binghamton, less than the national average of $28,130. The state legislature recently rejected a proposal to transfer control over tuition -- and increases -- to the SUNY schools but will probably revisit the issue, says Magrath. Memo to non-New Yorkers: Grab this deal now.

Perennial stars in our rankings include the University of Florida (number two) and the New College of Florida (number 11), both of which offer strong academics at a sticker price below $15,000. New College, a tiny honors school with a spectacular view of Sarasota Bay, drops the price to less than half that amount for in-staters who qualify for need-based aid. For a rock-bottom $4,545, students get the view, the company of other highly competitive students and a 10-1 student-faculty ratio. The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (number 48) earns top honors in the student-faculty category, with a ratio of 8-1.

Two Virginia schools deserve special Kiplinger kudos for consistently maintaining their position among our top five since our first rankings, in 1998. The University of Virginia (number three) and the College of William and Mary (number four) each draw high-scoring incoming freshmen and post the highest four-year graduation rates on our list, delivering degrees to more than 80% of their students in four years and more than 90% in six. UVA also brings its cost after aid to students with need to less than $6,000.

Virtually all of the schools we list raised their price in 2010-11, but the University of Maryland, which maintained a tuition freeze for four straight years, kept this year's total cost increase to less than $600. The first-class flagship continues its march up our rankings, moving from number eight last year to number five in 2010-11. As for the lowest sticker price, that distinction belongs to the University of North Carolina at Asheville (number 58). In-state students pay only $12,762. Appalachian State (number 35), in Boone, N.C., runs just a few dollars more, at $12,775.

Faced with a state budget crisis of epic proportions, University of California schools were forced to bump up costs by as much as $3,500 a year for in-state students and more than $4,000 for out-of-state students, pushing several UC schools past the $50,000 mark. Despite the price hikes, UC schools stand out for their relatively low average debt and impressively high six-year graduation rates. Out-of-staters who can afford to pay UC's private-school prices will find opportunity in California's crisis: UC schools have opened the doors wide to nonresidents, the better to collect that out-of-state tuition premium.

Be it perspicacity or plain luck, Carolina finished a major capital campaign at the end of 2007, just before the recession. Still, the current austerity has meant raising tuition by almost $1,000 this year and pruning operating costs to the tune of $36 million annually, mostly by streamlining administrative expenses. "Efficiency enhances our ability to meet our academic goals," says Chancellor Holden Thorp. The university recently hired 120 junior faculty members, expanded its honors program and introduced an enrichment program for top freshmen. "Decisions were made with an eye to providing students not just with a low-cost education but also with a great one," says Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions.

Carolina is willing to pony up to ensure affordability. "One of the things that have helped us remain a good value is the commitment the university has to funding need-based aid," says UNC's Ort. Carolina continues to meet the full need of students who qualify despite a 35% increase over the past two years in the number of students who qualify for financial aid. Financial aid offsets the tuition increase for students with need.

Such policies allow UNC to attract the best students that North Carolina (and the country) has to offer -- and Thorp intends to keep it that way. He aims to prevent in-state students from straying to elite competitors, such as Harvard or UVA, and has been known to call prospective students to make his case. "It's great to say to a parent, 'Your daughter is a great student. Please put her on the phone.'"

Jerry Bowens, a sophomore from Charlotte, N.C., found his way to Chapel Hill not by a phone call but through the Carolina College Advising Corps, which helps North Carolina high school students get through the college admissions process. At Bowens's high school, "a lot of people felt lost and didn't go to college," he says. With the adviser's help, Bowens not only was admitted to UNC-Chapel Hill but also scored a full ride through the Carolina Covenant, which provides no-loan financial aid to students in the program. Says Bowens, who participates in a student hip-hop group, plays a main role in General College (the campus soap opera) and plans to study abroad, "Being here, finding a niche, things that cater to my interests -- it's a perfect fit for me."

Written by Jane Bennett Clark for Kiplinger
Posted by Lindy Kahn, M.A., CEP for Kahn Educational Group, LLC


I am an educational consultant in private practice advising families on day/boarding schools, college admissions, schools for teens and young adults who have emotional/behavioral problems, learning issues, neurological and psychiatric problems.

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