Prep Talk Blog > July 2009

Truth: Many colleges, even the elite ones, aren’t always interested in your intellectual development. Instead of emphasizing personal instruction and relationship-building between faculty and students, large research institutions and Ivy League schools often pressure their professors to conduct time-consuming research projects and to publish their findings in academic journals. The incentive is twofold. First, the university receives recognition for the quality of research produced, but second, it also receives financial rewards in the form of grants from government and non-profit foundations, which often award professors stipends for future projects on the basis of articles they've had printed in peer-reviewed publications.

So what can you do, before you apply to a college, to ensure that your education won't come second to the school's other priorities?

Here are some tips on finding a college that values undergraduate academics.

1. Less is more.
When a professor has a small number of students, he/she is able to spend more time interacting individually with each student. With small class sizes professors/instructors are able to tailor their programs to the needs within the classroom. They often don’t have to teach in generalities because the group is over 200 people and might not grasp the concept. Some universities tout low student-faculty ratios, but keep in mind that at places like Harvard, they may be counting graduate students and part-time instructors as "faculty". That means that small classes aren't being taught by professors but by people in their third or fourth years of Ph.D programs. Look not to the advertised student-faculty ratios but to overall campus enrollment. Here’s a blog post on the benefits of going to a small liberal arts college.

2. Consider how (and what) you learn best.
Many colleges offer hands-on training where students are able to work in the field of their choice before graduating. Other schools are textbook-based and offer little on-the–job training. While this kind of school may also be dictated by the major you choose, doing research into what kind of learning environment you thrive in before you apply is a good idea.

Here are a few articles that talk about different ways many colleges approach learning:

See how UCLA encourages students to study.
Discover what kind of learner you are by answering just seven questions.
Read about how some colleges are using meditation to teach college students effective concentration skills.
Students learn concepts in many different ways. If you find yourself struggling to grasp concepts in high school, it might be worth your time to note those struggles and do research as to what kind of instruction works best for you.

3. Ignore the rankings.
Many of the schools that make it to the top of the rankings are prestigious in part because of the research produced by their faculty. Thus, these insitutions often enforce stringent criteria for obtaining tenure (which essentially means a contract for a job for life). This pressures professors to publish articles and do research in hopes of promotion. If you're considering a large research university (such as UCLA or MIT), ask their admissions representatives questions about the quality of teaching and the availability of professors. Less research-oriented schools, like smaller colleges without graduate programs, may offer their students more attention.

4. It's not too early to think about post-grad resources.
Schools are financially motivated to produce successful graduates. The better off their alumni, the more they can expect in donations. Colleges that especially prioritize their students' success not only provide support for seniors to land jobs upon graduation, but offer resources like career counseling to their alumni for life. Check out how Carleton College promotes its seniors seeking jobs.

If you’re curious how the colleges on your list stack up, do your research and ask questions. Make sure the education you are looking for is actually what you receive.

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If you'd like to get in some extra exam practice before sharpening your No. 2 pencil for the real deal, check out the resources at The website, which is partners with Barrons Education, features full-length practice exams for both the SAT and the ACT. If you're not interested in completing a full exam, you can customize the test by selecting the sections you wish to include. also offers free tutorials on SAT-related areas, such as diction and speed reading.

Plan on taking an Advanced Placement test? Brush up on the essentials with's practice versions of the biology, chemistry, and U.S. history AP tests. Considering graduate school? Choose from LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, or GRE practice tests. You can even study for your PSAT or your GED. Check out the website for the full library of tests and let us know in the comments about other free online resources you've come across!

For more test prep resources, check out the entire Exam Cram archive.

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The SAT and ACT have long been criticized as weak indicators of a student’s potential performance on the college level. Furthermore, many colleges and universities believe that the SAT is downright discriminatory against certain students, including minorities and those who come from low-income families. In order to attract a more diverse community of scholars, more and more schools are waiving the test requirement in favor of a more holistic application review.

Like other standardized tests, the SAT and ACT were designed to be quantifiable ways for students to prove their mettle for college. However, many students would agree that the only thing these tests do is cause a sense of dread that starts long before they pick up their #2 pencils and remains until the scores are released. Test prep programs can certainly help mitigate anxiety, but what happens if you can’t afford to pay for one? As a result, the daunting SAT and ACT has turned away many students who have poor preparation for the test or who simply do not test well—and many schools have suffered from a lack of diversity on their campuses.

It’s not surprising, then, that schools adopting the test-free policy have enjoyed an increase in application pools. Research has shown that the level of academic performance of incoming classes has increased at public schools that do not require the SAT or ACT. However, this might not happen at some elite private colleges that use high scores as benchmarks for narrowing down the application pool. 

Proponents of the no-test policy, including the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, say that it pushes schools to look more closely at the student’s GPA, school activities, and recommendation letters, which are better assessments of academic prowess. Critics of the no-test policy say that between grade inflation and different curriculum standards, it is impossible to use grades as the only quantifiable aspect of a student’s application.

An interesting note is that the schools enforcing the no-test policy are finding that many of their applicants are still submitting test scores with their applications. This could be because students have to take the test for other schools, and so they just submit another score report. It could also be that students are not ready to back down from the SAT and ACT, which are both steeped in the tradition of being a major part of a competitive application process. Only time will tell how much longer the SAT and ACT will cast a shadow over college-bound students.  

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Truth: Many students and their families are discovering that test prep courses aren’t able to stand up to the high level results they claim. According to a recent report put out by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, expensive test prep firms boosted average SAT test scores by only 30 points combined on the verbal and math sections (out of 1600 possible) and only one point on the ACT (out of 36 points possible). 
According to The Wall Street Journal, several test prep firms also inflate how effective their training can be. What’s more, some prep courses use mock tests that are actually harder than the real test to make it look like a student’s score is getting higher because of the training. Learn more about a similar case where a student took such a test. 
The promise of a higher SAT/ACT test score is very tempting, so before you show a college test prep firm the money: 
Ask test prep firms for references. You want to be able to personally talk to someone on the phone.  
Check their standing within the community. Business watch groups like The Better Business Bureau offer detailed information about how their customers feel about the product or service they offer. This is a solid way to make sure the firm you’re looking into is in good standing. 
Make sure your money is refundable. Inquire about money back guarantees. If the company you research refuses to refund your money if you don’t experience the results they claim, you should look for a firm that does. 
Begin with Free or Small Fee Prep Courses. Believe it or not, there are a number of ways you can prep for your SAT/ACT without breaking the bank. Here are a few ideas to get your studying started:  
Check with your local library. 
Area libraries have numerous test-prep books that you can check out. Among the most popular are the Kaplan and Princeton Review guides.  In addition, many libraries offer test prep seminars and workshops that cost much less than hiring a test prep firm.  
Try small fee college books, audio books and mock tests. 
Additional resources are out there that are very cost-effective. College Board’s $20 study guide is just one good example of prepping for the test without spending a lot of money. 

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If you aspire to fame a la American Idol, here's your chance to show off your talent and win scholarship money while you're at it. Education Connection is sponsoring an online video competition with awesome prizes (from free tuition money and cold, hard cash to an Amazon Kindle). To be eligible, you must be 18 or over and a legal U.S. citizen. 

The contest gives students the chance to be creative, whether that means "shoot[ing] a documentary about why a college degree is important" or "do[ing] a funny take on Education Connection jingles". (Personally, we think the latter sounds way more entertaining!) Just keep the video under a minute and don't use copyrighted content. Ambitious contest entrants can even rewrite the jingle lyrics and rerecord with their own. If you've been belting it out in the shower, this is a great opportunity to display your singing chops. 
But the contest isn't just about video editing expertise and on-screen charisma! The winner is ultimately decided by both a panel of judges and public voting, just like American Idol. That means you need to mobilize your friends and family to vote for you everyday. You can use social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace to drum up support and keep up the momentum. To check out the competition, here are some of the entries submitted thus far. 
The deadline is July 31st so time is quickly running out. Enter now and show Education Connection that you can hold your own next to even the greatest music video talent. 

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Don Munce