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Tutor Q&A: Is 5 years old too young to prepare for College and Career? SAT or ACT? What is an “Edu-preneur?”

September 2012, 1st Edition

See the answers to these questions and more from one of our top college counseling and test prep tutors, Jacqueline Hicks Grazette.

Q: I see you are primarily listed as a test preparation and college counseling tutor. Why did you decide to focus on this area?

As a former teacher, I saw college prep and college counseling as areas of weakness that are prevalent in both public and private schools. Many students are not receiving the support they need through their institutions, due to the high students-to-counselor ratio in these schools. For example, most public school counselors are assigned about 300 students to individually counsel. That is far too many for a counselor to give any one student much individualized attention. Also, few teachers understand the nature and content of standardized tests such as the SAT, ACTs and AP exams. Students are not being prepared for the type of information that shows up on the SAT, ACT and AP exams; the best way to prepare students is to teach the content of these exams and then test the content in the modalities that these tests are given. This is rarely the case in the classroom.

Q: Why don’t schools put more effort behind preparing students specifically for these tests?

Schools feel pressure to administer and focus on the state-mandated assessment tests, but the reality is that these scores are not counted in the college application process. Also, many teachers have not been certified in this material; they do not know the content themselves. This is often the case with AP exams.

Q: What else is getting left behind in the classroom?

The problems are mainly with reading and writing. Kids aren’t reading enough- not enough novels, short stories and classics. There are not nearly as many writing assignments to practice analytical writing, essays and argumentation. Schools don’t have the time or the resources available to guide each student through the re-write process required to produce high quality writing. That is why the summer offers a tremendous opportunity for enrichment and to engage with material in a different, more creative way. Math is also an issue in that the quality of math instruction varies greatly from school to school.

Q: In general, how do you feel about standardized tests playing a large role in college acceptance decisions?

I have mixed emotions about this. I can see the justifications from an admission officer’s point of view: grade inflation is rampant, particularly among private schools. An “A” doesn’t mean true “A” level work across the board. These tests level the playing field and take the fluff out. Standardized tests can serve as a means to measure the meaningfulness of the grades on the transcripts and serve as a basic barometer of achievement. However, I don’t like when schools focus solely on the testing as a means to measure performance. One test is not always a good judge of a student’s ability. Testing scores are not something to obsess over. I tell students to adequately prepare, take the test, and move on.

Q: What is the age range for your college prep students?

I will give you the ideal age as well as the reality. Ideally students would begin college counseling around 13, when they have completed 8th grade. 9th grade is when the actual college prep begins whether a student is aware of it or not. All actions beginning in 9th grade will contribute to the college application. This is the time to start thinking carefully about course selection and summer experiences; the earlier a student prepares, the more likely the student will utilize the academic school years and summers in a way that will make a favorable impression on the college application. So, I would like parents to contact me the summer after 8th grade. The reality is we see a lot of students coming to seek help in their junior year during the second semester. Independent counselors can still help; it just makes it more challenging. Worse case, even if I see a person for the first time by fall semester senior year, the outcome is usually better than if the student had not received any assistance at all.

Q: You have plenty of experience working with both parents and schools. What are your thoughts on who should be in charge of a student’s college preparation? How do you see parents fitting in to the equation?

The college application process is a family endeavor, but the student should take primary responsibility in researching schools, being timely with application materials and choosing a good fit. Parents will need to be involved in certain aspects especially when talking about costs, distance from home and safety concerns, but the student needs to identify a potential good fit in order to do well. The needs of the parents should be met, but not at the expense of respecting the student’s voice in the process. Sometimes you can see a disconnect between parents and students during these discussions. With help, this process tends to bring families together and open the lines of communication; in this regard, college counseling can turn into a form of family mediation around the process. Because the college application and financial planning process is a family enterprise in most cases, I require my initial meeting with a new student to involve the entire family.

Q: The ACT, Inc. has created an assessment tool at the request of states who are concerned that their students are not prepared for college and subsequent careers. It will be administered are early as elementary school. Hoping to start spring 2014, the exams are online and are meant to target weaknesses for improvement. Do you think this sort of monitoring and assessment could positively affect a student’s college and career success?

It depends upon the age at which this assessment is given. I do not support this for students who are not in high school. I think this is too much testing and kids are already being tested enough as it is. Developing tests of this nature could make people cynical about the purpose of these tests and the companies that distribute them. Are we just perpetuating a cottage testing industry? Elementary school is not the age for testing career interest or college ability, and I do not see this test being an effective measurement of a student’s future when administered to young students. There is too much natural growth, development and dynamic learning that happens after that age. There are other ways to discover interests without it being forced upon students so early.

Q: Is the ACT gaining popularity over the SAT?

Of the two, I would say that students typically prefer the ACT, mostly due to the pacing of the ACT and the fact that the layout is straightforward: reading at the beginning, math, and then science. The SAT bounces back and forth from section to section and students say that it can break the rhythm. Additionally, the questions themselves seem to be more straightforward. Some students also like that science is offered on the ACT while it is not included on the SAT

Q: What is an appropriate way to prepare students for college and career?

We don’t have enough summer internships and institutions that really prepare students for what college and careers will be like. Not nearly enough to reach the demand of parents and students. There is a need for more study abroad programs, enrichment programs and premier educational institutions offering summer college preparation. Summer programs at highly selective colleges, such as Brown University, are currently among the many colleges doing things like this, but there’s not nearly enough. For example, I attended a summer program at a New England boarding school prior to my application to colleges. It strengthened my academic performance and exposed me to several highly selective colleges during the program. Ultimately, I was admitted to each of those Ivy League schools to which I applied. I credit my time at that school to helping me understand more about the level of work required in college and what it would be like to live away from home. Counselors can help parents find these types of opportunities; we can play a role in separating the summer “camp” type experiences from those that offer real academic rigor and college exposure.

Q: At what point do students typically identify a career path? What is a healthy age to do so?

My career counseling is done mainly with graduate students. Most of my pre-college students don’t know where they want to end up. Some kids know that they want to pursue specific professions such as medicine, law and engineering right off the bat, but these are not your typical students applying for undergrad. Usually, college is the time and place where students identify what they want to do. I hope that kids get exposed to different options in college; they should select schools that offer career advising and a range of options.

Q: Has the economic situation changed the way kids go through the college prep process?

I would say that families and kids are more cost-conscious. They are asking more about the financial aid that is available to them and looking at different financing options when deciding on a school. There is increased interest in merit aid and in schools that offer co-ops where you get real-world work experience as part of the academic program, such as Drexel.

Q: During our interview, you called yourself an “edu-preneur.” What is an “edu-preneur?”

It is an innovator within the academic field, using alternative funding and other external resources. We are former teachers, college professors and other educators who have stepped out of the silo of traditionally structured schools, but want to find ways to link the traditional institutions with the demands of the 21st century. We still keep the students’ best interests and educational needs at the center, but think outside the traditional box in terms of how those needs are met. I see the potential to link seemingly disparate institutions---colleges, businesses, government agencies, technology and private funding resources -- to foster creative learning which goes beyond the traditional concepts of classroom learning and assessment testing. We have a deeper interest in connecting students with civic engagement, global learning and whole-brain thinking. Many educators are growing frustrated at fighting the status quo within the school systems, so we have stepped out to pioneer these new approaches by creating new business models for K-12 education. Within 10 years, we believe our educational system will look very different from the traditional structures that dominate the marketplace today; we are part of the pioneers that are leading that change.

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