Summer Test Prep is a Waste of Time and Money

My name is Jeremy Craig and I’ve been teaching test preparation since 1993. I know altogether more about the test than nearly anyone I know and I can stay silent on this point no longer. Simply put: Summer test preparation programs are largely a waste of time and money. All of our competitors in Singapore run formal test prep programs over the summer months, but we don’t. We know the test well, and we won’t take your money for something that isn’t optimally effective. We are an ethical business.

The tests are not factually based, they are reasoning tests. The best way to prepare for the tests is to understand how the test is put together and then master the best techniques for approaching each type of question. Therefore, the best (and usually only) time to prepare for a test is in the immediate lead-up to a test date. This is why all of our programs lead to a test date. Preparing in June and July is akin to preparing for a 10 km race 8 weeks in advance and then sitting around for 6 weeks after you have achieved peak fitness. In my 25 years of SAT preparation experience, nearly every student I’ve worked with in the summer has come back to me in September in a panic, having forgotten most of the techniques.

Of course, some students may actually do a practice test per week in August and September and review their course notes with a religious fervor. Good for them. Their time would have been better spent doing other things to make them a more complete applicant.

Everyone has a peak SAT score and very few can hope to challenge for a full 1600/36; it just doesn’t work that way. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the planet thanks to his natural ability and an awful lot of hard work on training and honing his technique. Any young runner could hope to improve his or her time with training and hard work but could any of them challenge for an Olympic gold medal? Similarly, at Testtakers we help students achieve their full potential on the one or the other test. Any time spent on test preparation after that is reached runs into the law of diminishing returns and should be better spent elsewhere.

So this begs the question: What should my child do over the summer months? The short answer is nearly anything other than test preparation.

Admissions directors from elite schools have personally told me that they wished more kids would learn about the “real” world by taking up a summer job or internship (Playing computer games all summer, not so great; see the other post for additional suggestions). It is important for students to gain some real world experience and perspective which should hopefully be reflected in their college essays. Imagine the collective groans around an admissions committee table when they see an essay entitled: “My Summer of test preparation and IB/AP Study.”

We know that kids in school now are very busy with their school work and myriad other activities and many claim this as a rationale for doing SAT prep over the relatively calm summer months. We don’t buy this. The SAT is available 6 times per year and with proper planning there should be a window when a once or twice weekly SAT preparation program can be fit into the 6 or 8 weeks leading to a test date.

Here is a little secret which we have been divulging for years now: SAT scores alone will not get you into an elite university. In fact, as admissions have grown more competitive a great SAT score and near perfect GPA or IB result will also not get you automatically into your dream school. Investing hundreds of hours for another 50 points on the SAT is foolish as that time would be better spent working on artwork, training to make the varsity football team, playing an instrument, community work, etc. Anything to set the applicant a bit apart from all the other high- scoring kids applying from Asia.

We do some tutoring for students over the summer months who are back from prep school in the States and who may not have access to a top test preparation program like Testtakers at their school. These students aside, we spend our summer recharging and planning for the new season ahead, and turning away potential revenue every day. Desperate for something to do? Register for one of our programs early and you can start working on our Study Buddy flashcard box. Don’t do a stack of practice tests as this will only reinforce bad habits and make it harder for you to really master the test in the end. Read a book or magazine instead.

Have a great summer! Enjoy yourself!✪

The University Admissions Interview

The admissions interview is an extremely important part of the application process to American universities.  Besides the application essay, the interview is probably the only way to get the university admission office to get a sense of your character, personality, passions and concerns.  Most elite universities make an enormous effort to interview every undergraduate applicant to their school regardless of where the applicant lives.  In Singapore, as in almost every country, applicant interviews to American universities are facilitated through school visits, education fairs and alumni volunteers.  Since competition for top university places is, in general, more fierce in Singapore than in the U.S., applicants located outside the U.S. must place a high importance on making the best impression possible in order to separate themselves positively from their peers.  Here, we highlight a few of many suggestions to make that winning impression and get the most out of your interview.

Know the school:

A university interviewer is aware that applicants apply to many other schools.  However, he or she wants to see that the applicant is particularly interested in attending the university, and for the “right” reasons.  Stating that a school is prestigious is NOT a good enough reason.  Explain why: research the website and hardcopy brochures.  Know the types of majors and courses offered and what departments (faculties) and professors are famous for their research and teaching.  Find out what qualities of the school sets it apart from others.  Even more important, through questions and comments, you should make it clear that you have done the research.

Know thyself:

Hopefully you did a written self-assessment before you even started the application process.  With your self-assessment, researching schools becomes more tailored and less exhaustive.  Do you know which teaching style, academic and extracurricular activities interest you.  Have you thrived in small sized classes?  Enjoyed doing volunteer work? If so, what kind of work?  Do you thrive in situations when surrounded by students with similar or differing backgrounds and perspectives?  See whether the school website and brochures (or third-party analysis of the school) answers these questions.  If not, be sure to raise them during the interview.

Set an agenda:

You should have a list of questions that you want answered, but are not easily found on the school website. All interviewers are closely involved with the school, either as an employee of the school, or as an alumnus or alumna, or both.  They serve as a rich resource of information about the school and can often answer the not-frequently-asked questions you compiled while doing your research.  Most importantly, market yourself as best as you can.  Have a list of core aspects about you that you want the interviewer to know before the interview ends.  Prove to the university that you and your interests are a fit for the school and it’s environment while showing your academic and non-academic uniqueness.  These attributes contribute to the diversity that is sought for and cherished by American universities.  Diversity, a somewhat misunderstood concept, does not refer solely to racial and ethnic identity, but to what you, as a student, can uniquely contribute to the school community.

Be professional:

The interview is casual, but the interaction with the interviewer before and after the interview should not be.  Play it safe and treat the admissions interview process similar to that of a job interview (that means you should groom yourself and dress business casual). Emails written in all lowercase lettering with SMS-style language leave a poor impression.  Any emails to the interviewer should be written with the principles of standard written English.  Check for grammar and spelling mistakes (especially the interviewer’s name!) before sending your message.  Defer to the interviewer as to the place and time of the interview, unless you have a compelling reason. Sending a follow-up message thanking the interviewer after the meeting sets you apart from the others.

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.

Early Decision, Early Action and Rolling Admissions


As we roll around to another admissions “season” there is again the same confusion regarding the sometimes-bewildering array of different application options available to students looking to study at American universities.  Further complicating matters is the fact that the universities seem to change policies from year to year and the overall system is very much in a state of flux right now.  We will first give basic definitions of what schemes are on offer:

Early Decision:

“ED” allows students who are sure that they want to go to a specific school to apply early to a single university.  The ED deadlines vary, anywhere from November 1st to January 1st, depending on when the standard admissions deadline is.  About 6 weeks after the ED deadline, the school will inform you if you are accepted, deferred (your application put into the normal admissions pool), or rejected. If you are accepted, then the understanding is that you will withdraw any other applications that you have submitted and commit to attend the school that accepted you.  You can only apply to one school ED, not more than one!  These schools do trade names of applicants and will find out if you have applied to more than one school ED and your name will be blacklisted!  Don’t do it!  Most of the top schools, with several notable exceptions, have an ED program.  Check the school admissions websites for specifics as dates and procedure will vary.

Early Action:

“EA” is a variant of ED and works basically the same way except that it is non-binding.  That is, if you are accepted to a school that you apply to under an EA scheme then you do not have to commit to attend that school.  This means that an applicant is able to apply to multiple schools with EA plans – but of course none of those can be ED as that is binding.

Rolling Admissions:

Many schools, particularly the large public universities offer rolling admissions.  This means that they will accept applications up to a specific date and let the students know if they are accepted a few weeks after the application is received.  Rolling admissions helps to spread the work of the admissions officers over a longer time frame instead of everything happening on a specific date.

Why they do it:

ED programs have been widely expanded and many elite universities typically accept up to 40% of their students this way.  There are several reasons for this: the universities will tell you that ED helps them choose students who are really certain that they want to attend the school.  This is true, however, another key reason is that by accepting students under an ED scheme the “yield percentage” in greatly increased.  The “yield” measures what percentage of accepted students actually opt to attend that school so accepting kids under binding ED programs moves that number up a fair amount.  The yield percentage is also a core component in various university ranking tables such as the US News and World Report and a high yield can move a school up a notch or two.

When to apply:

What this basically means is that if you are really sure that you want to attend a specific school, your chances of getting in are slightly higher if you apply early (either ED or EA).  If you are not positive that you want to attend a specific school then keep your options open and apply EA (but not ED) to schools and then get ready to apply in the normal round of admissions as well.


The world of EA/ED was rocked slightly just a few weeks ago when a university in Boston named Harvard decided to drop all of its early action programs next year and just have one deadline (January 1st) for admissions.  The argument – a quite valid one in our view – is that the early programs puts affluent students at an advantage as they are better able to get an application in early, as well as sitting the SAT earlier, preparing for  it, etc.  Whether or not other elite universities follow Harvard’s lead is unclear and we will continue to monitor the situation and faithfully report on the issue in subsequent editions of Study in America.

Do I need to take the SAT: Reasoning Test, SAT: Subject Test and TOEFL?

The SAT: Reasoning Test is required for admission into nearly every school in the United States as well as some of the universities in Singapore.  If a school says that they do not require the SAT: Reasoning Test then you should investigate further – does the school not require the test because of valid reservations about its efficacy or because they will accept just anyone?

The SAT: Reasoning Test should be taken a couple times at the least and the universities receive a report with all of your scores, with most taking the highest Math and highest Verbal scores, even if these were achieved on different test dates.  It is not irregular for American students to take the SAT: Reasoning Test three or four times.  Singaporean students should take the test at least twice by the time they sit their ‘A’ levels.  Obviously, it is best to avoid taking the SAT when you are burdened with a major load of other academic commitments.

The SAT: Subject Tests are one-hour long tests on individual subjects.  While the SAT: Reasoning Test is broad-based, the SAT: Subject Test are specialized.  Most of the top schools in the United States require students to have up to three SAT: Subject test results in addition to the SAT: Reasoning Test.  These tests can be taken on the same dates as the SAT: Reasoning Test and up to three subject tests can be taken on one sitting.  However, you cannot take both on the same test date so be sure to plan accordingly.

Top schools ask applicants to take the Math 1C or 2C and one to two of any of the other tests – which normally would include at least one of the sciences (Biology, Chemistry or Physics).  The science tests are easier than ‘O’ levels, so fear not.

Some students are tempted to take both the Math 1C and Math 2C tests.  The Math 2C test is harder than the Math 1C and you should just take one or the other depending on your strength in Math.

Others are tempted to take the Mandarin SAT Subject test as they have studied it as a mother tongue.  Don’t do this!  It will have the undesired effect of making you look lazy.

Testtakers Singapore runs preparation programs for the SAT: Reasoning Test and conducts individual tutoring for the English Literature and Math tests.

The TOEFL shouldn’t be required for Singaporean students as English is the medium of instruction.  However, it isn’t a bad idea to take it just to get it out of the way (some schools are ignorant of the Singaporean education system).  The TOEFL is intended for non-native English speakers and should be a simple test for most people.  The TOEFL can be taken year-around as it is a computer-based test.