What the new SAT changes REALLY mean for Singaporeans

Our Program Manager, Khalid Barnwell, was asked by a Straits Times reporter what he believed the upcoming changes to the SAT would mean for Singaporean test takers.  Today's Straits Times feature stated the following:

"Mr. Khalid Barnwell, an instructor from Testtakers Singapore, added that doing away with negative marking -deducting points for wrong answers - will encourage students to take more risks in attempting questions instead of leaving them blank."

The overall slant of the article was that the new changes to the test will benefit Singaporean students.

But!  Khalid's actual comments that were sent to the reporter said a little bit more, and it didn't paint as rosy a picture for Singaporeans:

On the elimination of points deduction for wrong answers:

In a way it's nice that points will not be deducted for wrong answers.  In general, based on my experience, students in Singapore are risk adverse, and tend to leave questions unanswered if they do not absolutely know the correct answer, as opposed to those who actually benefit overall from aggressively, yet intelligently guessing.  Since test takers in fact do suffer a penalty for not answering questions due to the Raw Score calculation of the SAT (unanswered questions reduce one's maximum possible score), the fear of having points deducted will go down and as a result lead to students taking more of a chance and in general attaining higher raw scores.  Note, however, that the Scaled Score algorithm will adapt to reflect this effect and will reduce the score boost effect for all."

On the essay:

"The essay will be optional, and that at first glance will be a boon to Singaporean students, who generally struggle with the persuasive essay style that now features on the test.  However it could be the case that certain universities will still ask for the essay, for it serves other purposes than gauging writing ability (it also serves as a way to determine whether admissions application essays submitted are actually the student's essay, or the work of hired application essay writers).  In general, universities in the US (especially the most selective ones) like to have as much information about the applicant as possible, so I wouldn't be surprised if a significant number of schools will still ask for the essay as part of their admissions requirements.  So the gain to Singaporean test takers will increase, but only for those who apply to less selective schools that tend to require less. But for those who are applying to a range of schools in the US with varying selectivity in order to increase their chances of getting into at least one school, they will probably have to do the essay anyway just in case at least one of those schools require it.

Since the essay apparently will focus on building an essay based on provided passages and information sources, students will have an easier time formulating valid arguments and analyses, for they will not have to think of their own examples and references to back up their claims.  This will benefit Singaporean testers who usually struggle in this regard."

On grammar:

"It remains to be seen how much grammar will feature in the test, but if the grammar-oriented questions are eliminated, that will definitely benefit Singaporean testers, who struggle with some of the issues particular to American English and to "SAT English" - concepts that the test likes to include that technically is correct but is not commonly used, even to Americans."

On vocabulary and reading:

"The higher-level vocabulary usage is only minor and won't affect the test that much, for they feature in relatively few situations on the test.  There are many lower and medium-level words that occur frequently on the test and they will probably continue to appear.  The problem for Singaporeans is that many of these words are not used often here and have multiple meanings based on context.  I wouldn't be surprised if vocabulary-in-context questions become more prevalent in the new edition of the SAT, which is bad news for Singaporean testers.

The Reading passages will feature more passages from US History, so those who are not particularly familiar with such passages and their historical relevance will suffer a disadvantage.  This is therefore a potentially significant problem for Singaporeans, who know little to nothing about such subject matter."

On the Math:

"Singaporeans typically perform relatively well on the Math section, and since the scope of the test will narrow in the future, I expect performance levels to increase for Singaporean testers.  Reducing calculator use will have little effect on performance for Singaporeans, for technically Singaporeans don't really need the calculator for the current SAT.  Note that in general the Singaporean students who take the SAT are among the highest performing students academically in the country (as opposed to the population in the US who take the test, which includes a greater cross-section of all students)."

Final thoughts:

"Overall, the SAT has undergone numerous tweaks over the years, yet the need to navigate through the pitfalls and traps that the SAT creators love to include will remain in some sort of fashion.  There are many concepts covered in the test that are and will remain American in nature and usage, and the need for Singaporeans to familiarize themselves with such differences in grammar usage, vocabulary, writing style and, now, cultural relevance will endure.   Those who are familiar with these differences will possess a competitive advantage at the end of the day."

From Study in America: University Admissions Timeline – 2014 Edition

Note that this timeline serves as a general guide for Grade 11 students with June IB exams, Grade 12 students with November IB exams or for students beginning JC2. Circumstances vary, so always consult your university advisor first and foremost if questions and issues arise, especially about when you should take the SAT:

Admissions Timeline

Admissions Timeline

American Admissions Myths Debunked – Part Five

As the rush to submit university applications intensifies, we start to hear more rumors and whispers about the process that in some cases are misleading, and in other cases simply not true.  Here we debunk several of things that we have been hearing of late…..

Myth: “My advisor said that he/she knew the admissions representative at university XXX and said he/she could put in a good word and get me in.”

Fact: No one can pick up the phone or write an email and ensure that a student will be accepted into one of the more competitive universities.  The application process is hard to understand, but all efforts are taken to ensure that students are considered on their own merit in an objective fashion.

Myth: “The university will only accept my most recent SAT score.”

Fact: Universities receive all of your SAT scores and in general will consider the highest combination or set of scores on record.  Most students take the SATs a few times and it is perfectly OK to take the test again.

Myth: “I want my child to go to an ‘Ivy League’ school like Stanford, UC Berkeley, or MIT.”

Fact: None of those schools are in the Ivy League!  The Ivy League is nothing more than an athletic conference of eight schools that play sports against each other.  All the schools are on the East Coast and have been around for a long time.  As such, they are blessed with strong financial resources and are academically excellent.  However, being a member of this club really just means that they play baseball, basketball, soccer and other sports primarily against other teams in the conference.  For the record, the eight Ivy League schools are: Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, Cornell, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and University of Pennsylvania. 

Myth: “Only the Ivy League schools are good.”

Fact: No no no no!  Sure the Ivys are all good, but for engineering you may be better off at the schools that specialize in engineering.  Moreover, the Ivys are mainly large research institutions and smaller liberal arts colleges often offer a more personal undergraduate educational experience.

Myth: “I need a minimum score of XXXX on the SAT to get into that school.”

Fact: No, you don’t.  The SAT is one of many things that are considered in the application process and no school that we have heard of has a “minimum” score.  Now, you do need to score well on the SAT to get into a competitive school but a perfect score of 2,400 wouldn’t guarantee you entrance to any of them if you aren’t strong in other areas as well.  A good rule of thumb is to look at the median 50% SAT score range for the admitted students and compare that with your score.

Myth: “That school only accepts X students from Singapore per year.”

Fact: Schools can’t accept 200 students from Singapore in a given year; however, we have not heard of any formal quota system.  One problem students here face is that many excellent students apply to the same small batch of schools – effectively making it that much harder to get in.  Simply put: applying to the same schools that all your friends and classmates are applying to isn’t the best idea.

Myth: “Universities are better than Colleges.”

Fact: Colleges in America generally only award Bachelor degrees while universities generally offer post graduate degrees all the way up to a Doctorate.  Many colleges are excellent choices as the focus is on undergraduates.  Williams College was good enough for Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, after all…

American Admissions: Assumptions and Gaffes

We field many questions from anxious students and parents regarding the American university admissions system and the SAT.  We noticed that many questions asked and decisions made were founded on assumptions that are not only wrong but also may severely worsen one’s chances of getting into a quality school.  Here are some examples, with many more to come:

I’m a shoo-in for the Ivy League:

Columbia last year admitted only 9% of all applicants, and only 6% of those applying from Singapore.  Almost all of these applicants are talented, have strong test scores and good grades and are active in their respective communities.  Given the hyper-competition for places in top schools, no one applicant is a shoo-in for any top school.

I’m applying to MIT, Cornell, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Michigan…

…and so is everyone else in Singapore.  Since nearly every selective school want to ensure diversity among their student body, they will admit only a certain number of students from Singapore or any other specific location regardless of the quality of the applicant pool.  You will have a better chance of admission if you apply to schools that are not on the traditional and popular Singaporean destination list.

No backup:

See above.  If you are determined to study in America, but apply only to the most competitive schools, there is a good chance you will not get in anywhere.  Do an honest assessment and, as a backup, apply to two or more schools that offer quality yet don’t get 150 applicants from Singapore.

I can’t apply until I get my A/O level results:

Most good American universities are aware of the Singaporean education system and know that students do not get their final exam results until well after the university admissions deadlines.  Therefore, they will accept prelims and will admit students provided their final results are not significantly worse.  Don’t slack off after applying though as schools have been known to rescind admissions offers to students who get sloppy!

Good SAT, bad A’ levels? No problem!

Actually, there could be a problem.  The SAT is not the equivalent of the A’ levels in America; it is one of several admissions criteria that universities consider.   There are many students that do well on the SAT and the A’ levels and, all things being equal, they will have a better chance of admission than those with good SATs and bad A’ levels.

I need a 2250 on the SAT in order to get into Stanford:

SAT scores posted on school websites serve only to indicate what the average admitted student scored on the test.  It does not serve as a minimum accepted score.  Admissions officers look at the SAT score in addition to all the other components required in the application.  That being said, since the SAT is not the only thing schools look at when deciding to admit a student, we have seen cases in which students with an SAT score below the median or average - but with excellent qualities in other areas - get into top schools, while some students with perfect SAT scores and straight A’s get rejected because they were not active in other activities and interviewed poorly.

I wrote 800 words for my 500-word university application essay:

Word limits exist for a reason: to help the extremely busy admissions officer assess applicants in a timely manner.  Most essays are at most 500 words so that it can fit on one page and be read easily.  If the admissions officer comes across and essay that significantly exceeds the asked-for length, your application will be viewed negatively.  In fact, they may discard your application and move on to the next applicant.

Answer the freakin’ question!

If you are writing an essay in response to a question asked, be it in the SAT Writing section or in a university application, make sure you follow the prompts, understand the details completely and respond directly to any questions asked.  You may have in the past written a kick-butt essay about your championship win in a televised science competition, and want to use it as one of your essays, but don’t make the mistake of making only a few superficial changes and attempting to use it as your admissions essay response to a question about the importance of diversity in a university environment.  If the essay question asks you whether or not tragedy can serve as a motivator, make sure you do not refer to the time your maid went on vacation and you had to cook and clean on your own (we’ve seen this!).

If you are guilty of any of these, you are in need of guidance.  Be sure to contact the United States Education Information Center (USEIC) who will put you on track to achieving admissions success.