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Delaware Today College Guide 2012: Don’t Stress! It’s Only College


Bright lights, sweaty palms and No. 2 pencils are all part of the collective nightmare that is the college application process for high school juniors and seniors. And while testing is an inevitable part of the deal, apprehension doesn’t have to be.

Matthew Joseph is intimately familiar with the pressure and tension surrounding the SAT and ACT. It’s what inspired him to establish the Bryn Mawr-based MJ Test Prep to help students and parents alike breathe a little easier come test time. While he and his team of tutors provide services like vocabulary building, essay writing and early-start summer camps to nearly 500 Main Line students per year, the highest demand is for SAT and ACT prep courses. It would be easy enough to pick up a so-called comprehensive tome from a local bookstore, but the person-to-person instruction is what the books—and unprepared students—lack. “I don’t think those books have quite deconstructed the SAT and other tests the way we have,” says Joseph. “We’re really familiar with the nuances of the test, and a good teacher will be able to understand how a student learns.”

Joseph uses a concept developed by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, in which the student and teacher work together to establish a “zone of proximal development”—the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. “My job is to give you as little information as I can so you understand a concept and respond to it,” says Joseph.

That allows students to connect to a problem and find a solution without “showing them everything.”

One thing all high school juniors and seniors should take comfort in knowing is that standardized tests—namely the SAT—aren’t as sophisticated as some may think. Rather than analyzing the psychology of each question, test-prep tutors encourage students to focus their energy on understanding what the question is asking of them, which often requires coaching. Math questions looking for the average of three items may be worded unconventionally; vocabulary identification may have similar
options for answers; and the reading sections will require a thorough analysis in a timed setting—all of which can feel very overwhelming without proper coaching on identifying question styles. “We went back over the past 50 years of tests and culled all these different varieties of questions, about 40 total. When a student says they don’t know how to do a certain type of question, I can put it right in front of them,” says Joseph.

And then there’s the essay. A safety net to some but frightful to most, the essay is a source of ambig-uity among students who aren’t quite sure what to do without a Scantron sheet. “I’ve spoken with SAT essay graders, and what they want is a well-written, thesis-driven five paragraph paper with a strong introduction, supporting paragraphs and a concrete conclusion. It’s a microcosm of a formal essay, and it’s an exercise in rhetoric: Can you make a convincing argument?” says Joseph.

The question typically focuses on the human condition, and the team at MJ Test Prep has students brush up on their literature, not only for enrichment purposes but also as a springboard for creative thought and comparison material.

And if things don’t go according to plan the first time around, there are plenty of opportunities for redemption. With test prep, scores can increase drastically, as do the chances of getting into a
first-choice school. A study of 19 seniors from a local high school utilizing MJ Test Prep documented an increase of 485 points in baseline PSAT and SAT scores—results Joseph contends are not necessarily out of the ordinary. “I did think we would see a jump somewhere around there,” he says. “But the students did an exceptional amount of work to prepare, and there is a correlation between deconstructing and attacking the test and seeing higher scores. If you’re willing to do the work to prepare, the correlation is significant.”

Ultimately, though, what students may not realize is that a stellar GPA doesn’t always translate into similarly stellar SAT or ACT scores. “Certainly, there’s a lot of comprehension on these exams, and students who are often diligent in school don’t necessarily do well on these types of tests because they don’t have the luxury of spending the same amount of time on these tests as they would for a school project,” says Christina Lavelle, director of Huntington Learning Center in Newark, Del. “For school assignments, they have much more time to prepare and reread material, compared to the 25 minutes they get on the test.”

For students who look good on paper but may need help in the standardized department, Lavelle and other test specialists can diagnose broad test-taking issues simply by looking at current lifestyle habits.

“Students who aren’t avid readers will notice a huge weakness when it comes to vocabulary,” she says. “That can translate into difficulty deciphering questions, if they don’t know what’s being asked of them.”

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