January 27, 2009

Reading for the SAT and Life

Now is the time when many parents of tenth and eleventh graders- and sometimes, even the tenth and eleventh graders, themselves- are beginning to wonder if their student is "test-strong". With the PSAT scores coming back to most students either right before the new year or after returning from winter break, the shock of being in the middle 50% or, as some have found themselves, the bottom 25%, in an area as crucial to learning as "Critical Reading", the panic sets in. This is a time of the year when I, inevitably, get phone calls. The question always seems to be the same: "How can my son/daughter raise his/her score on the test?" My answer sometimes frustrates parents, especially if we are discussing an eleventh grader on the dawn of college applications: "There is no quick fix. It sounds to me like your student needs to be reading on a very regular basis".
You see, it's not that the SAT can't be taught or that there aren't strategies which can enhance the score a few percentage points, the simple fact is that the test is there to gauge where a student's long-term learning has placed him/her. For someone who has never even completed a book for school or otherwise, there are no shortcuts. Too many people are looking to be let off the hook. And this, in all honesty, is the one redeeming characteristic of the standardized exams: The fact that they do not let laziness off the hook. If you don't read well and don't read consistently, your score will reflect that. If you have never been asked to paraphrase an article or summarize an author's perspective, let alone formulate your own ideas and articulate them in a coherent way, you will probably not be too satisfied with the Critical Reading score you earn.
It takes hard work to compensate for those lost years when you should have been reading a few pages each night. I recently recommended to a student's mom that she subscribe to three monthly magazines for her son: National Geographic (he likes photography and intense images-- think Stanley Kubrick films); Men's Health (he's a teenage boy who goes to the gym and worries about his image); and one more. If I had my druthers (and I told her as much) it would be the magazine that attracts the attention of most teenage boys (and has for several decades), with some of the greatest articles and writers contributing to the outstanding -and often overlooked- literary aspect of this empire (I hope that you get my subtlety). Why? Because he'll pick it up! He had never read as much as a newspaper article until I began working with him last Fall. He needs reading to be something that he wants to do. Eventually, he will learn to find joy in the learning and discovery processes of literature. Until then, if he's drawn to pictures and reading ends up being a byproduct . . . so be it!

January 12, 2009

10 Reasons to Not Panic

As the time draws near and the decisions of whether you will or will not get into x, y, or z school are imminent, I think it best to give all high school seniors good reason to settle down, take a breath and start thinking about other, more important things (that's right, I said MORE important things).


1. In the scheme of life, there is, ultimately, nothing that can be done now that your applications are in, but wait. Waiting is patience. Patience is a virtue. Virtues are something you will learn much about in college (especially if you take a philosophy course). Get a head-start. It will be like you're already in college, but you're not . . . yet!

2. If you did your best on the college applications, good job. You have now learned what it takes to complete a task that will be judged by someone who really does not know you. This, my young friends, is a life skill.

3. If you did poorly on your applications and saved everything until the last minute, maybe this will be a good wake-up call as to why approaching things with maturity and preparedness is not just a trait of an adult, but a trait of a successful adult.

4. Everybody has waited this process out before you. It's just like the SAT's, you're still around to tell about it, right? Your anxiety is not unique and, therefore, not really necessary.

5. At the end of the day you will be blazing the trail that you- and you, alone- created for yourself. Many a'student have gone off to their top choice school and been unhappy and then transferred. You, too, will find that no college is omnibenevolent and upon your arrival to whichever school you end up enrolling, you will be both extremely pleased in many regards and extremely disappointed in some regards.

6. Remember the old adage that most of the things we worry about never end up coming to fruition?

7. Don't panic because although this is a stressful process, you must learn NOW how to deal with such stress. Say you don't end up getting into any of your schools and you end up going to a junior college? Well, many, many successful people in the world today went to a community college first. Do you think they looked at this or any other instance in their lives, for that matter, as a setback? Or perhaps as a springboard?!

8. Take the time to write some friendly admission officer(s) at the school of your choice an email (or a phone call). Introduce yourself. Wish him/her a happy new year. Tell them how you're doing in your classes this semester (if you're doing well, only)! You know, interact . . . be a human.

9. Instead of using this period of waiting as a time for panic, utilize it as a time to reflect and be a bit introspective. Set a new year's resolution for how you will deal with the inevitable situation of rejection (maybe not for colleges, but at some point in life, right?). Try to think about your own personal reactions and responses when things do not go your way and how you treat those around you. Contemplate the idea of personal responsibility and being accountable to the process. Did you do everything that you could have to prepare yourself for success? Think about that. Seriously.

10. And, if for no other reason, you should try to not panic because you know all those other kids at your school who ARE panicking and you know that they really get on your nerves and seem to only be feeding their own anxieties, making it worse and worse by day. And this, to any person who has ever had to wait for something good as opposed to instant gratification, is the most frustrating behaviour to witness from a teenager. Bottom line: panic is NOT cool.