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Common Application: Does “Optional” Truly Mean Optional?

You’ve finished the core components of your Common Application – your main essay, your activities, and any required supplements for the schools on your list – and are ready to submit. Then you pause.

Should I self-report my scores? Do I need to respond to the COVID question? Will colleges read the four extra letters from my other recommenders?

Need some last-minute advice? Read on!


Standardized testing these last few months has been an exercise in frustration for seniors. You’ve registered and prepared, only to see test centers shuttered and exams canceled – sometimes with no warning. Maybe you were able to sit for the SAT or ACT once but ended up with a lower score than you had hoped.

For students applying to colleges that are newly test optional, including the majority of the most selective colleges in the country, a good rule of thumb is that if your SAT or ACT scores are well within the middle 50th percentile range, then go ahead and submit these scores. Remember that for many top colleges, the switch to test-optional this year leaves admissions officers without some of the customary guideposts they used to help decisions. If everything else about your application is strong— your GPA, rigor of course load, and rank (if your school calculates one)—then including scores confirms to admissions officers that you are the kind of student they seek to admit.

What if your SAT or ACT scores are below the school’s typical admit ranges? If you are from a high school that typically sends lots of high-scoring applicants their way, admissions officers will likely assume that you are unhappy with your scores and chose not to send them. Remember that they have data from prior years’ applicant pools so they have some sense of what to expect from your school. Students from low-income schools and communities, those in historically underrepresented groups, will likely be given more benefit of the doubt than students from well-resourced families and schools.

We also anticipate that newly test-optional colleges this year will be flooded with applicants from around the country and around the world who, in previous years, may have been discouraged from applying because of lower scores. If applicant pools balloon, guess how admissions officers will sort through applications? They’ll use data – scores and GPA – especially in the first read, to figure out who seem to be the strongest students in their pool. A word about AP scores. If you’ve got a bunch of AP courses on your transcript from junior year, admissions officers will check to see if you self-reported your results. If not, they’ll assume the results were poor. So, if you have scores of 3 or higher, report them! In the absence of an SAT or ACT or subject tests, strong AP scores will also help show your strength.

Common Application COVID Question


The Common App’s new, optional question opens the door for students to share more about the impact of COVID on their “health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable and quiet study spaces.” Should you respond?

First, ask yourself a question. We’ve all had our lives turned upside down these last 9-10 months. Virtual schooling, zoom fatigue, quarantine blues, canceled testing, disrupted activities – these are common to all high school students. If the story you tell pretty much recounts what every high school student has had to contend with, then you are better off not responding to this optional prompt. You risk coming off as tone-deaf or privileged, two things that will form a bad impression in the minds of your application readers. 

Do answer this question if you and your family experienced significant hardship because of COVID – serious illness or death of a loved one, parent’s loss of employment, additional home responsibilities caring and teaching for your siblings, lack of access to technology and other online resources. In addition to sharing your struggles, be sure to show admissions officers how you overcame these unexpected challenges.


Back in the day when students applied to college using pen and paper (seniors, ask your parents about those days), admissions officers had a saying: “the thicker the file, the thicker the kid.” Essentially, students who loaded up their application with tons of extra letters of recommendation were essentially compensating for weaker credentials and basically throwing the kitchen sink at the admissions office.

So, once you’ve assigned the one or two required teachers, be judicious in using any of the optional or “other” recommenders. If you truly believe that a potential recommender can offer a perspective on your candidacy that no other recommender can, then go ahead and tap that person to be your “other” recommender. But, loading up on extra recommendations – even if the college allows – can overload your application with extraneous materials, making admissions officers a little grumpy as they wade through these extra letters. Good luck with your applications and we are here to help if you want last minute essay help or an entire application review before hitting SEND.

ACT coronavirus COVID-19 Standardized Testing

Big Changes Coming for ACT

Post by TTA tutors: Steven and Amy

As we all struggle to find some stability in a chaotic world created by the Coronavirus, it seems that the only constant is change. In many cases, the change is welcome, even necessary.  Such is the case, we believe, with the proposed three major changes coming to the ACT beginning with the September 2020 test date.


  1. The ACT will be available as an online test at select locations in September, 2020. Of course, this is slightly questionable as shelter in place orders continue to extend.

The sections, question types, timing, and scoring will remain the same. The online test may be more comfortable for some students. For others, it might prove more stressful or distracting. Colleges will not know whether you take the online or the paper test — it is strictly a matter of personal preference. The scores for online tests will be available as quickly as two days later. This is significantly faster than the paper test and may be helpful for students who are up against application deadlines.

The online test will be given at specified locations on ACT computers. It will not be available for home testing, or on your own laptop, even at a testing center. Scratch paper will be available, and the testing software will include highlighting tools. You will be able to go back and change answers if there is time remaining in the section.

Some students prefer the comfortable environment of working on a computer screen. Others prefer to have the ability to mark on the page with their pencils as they work through the material. We advise you to try both environments before making your decision. The Official Beginner’s Guide for ACT (a publication of ACT, Inc.) includes access to an online practice test so that you can see for yourself which option is best for you.

  1. ACT will report a “superscore” for those who take more than one ACT.

About one third of all institutions currently allow superscoring. The change is that, now, ACT will automatically report the best score on each of your English, Math, Reading, and Science sections across all of the ACTs you take, and calculate your hypothetical composite score as though each of your best section scores were on the same full ACT. Colleges and universities will still each decide how to handle this information. Some will not consider the superscore in making admission decisions. Be sure to check with the schools and programs you are applying to for more information.

  1. If you have taken one complete, or “full-battery,” ACT at any time since 2016, you may choose to retake individual sections.

You may retake one, two, or three sections as an online test at select locations on any of the seven annual national test dates beginning with September 2020. You may NOT take individual sections as paper-and-pencil exams. In our opinion, this is the most exciting change. It means that, with proper planning, you could take your “full-panel” ACT on one day, and then do the writing section as a stand-alone test at a later date without the fatigue that is a major factor for many students. Some students will benefit from the reduced fatigue and stress when retaking only one, two, or three sections rather than an entire ACT exam.


As always, talk with your tutor to determine whether to take advantage of the new ACT testing format.  Preparedness is still critical, so be sure to work out a plan well in advance of your test date.

The situation with COVID-19 remains a fluid and fast-changing one wreaking havoc on all scheduled testing. Be sure to regularly check testing websites to stay on top of the most recent developments regarding closures or travel restrictions. For more information read our prior post about COVID-19 and admissions.

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Admissions in the Time of COVID-19


“As a service to students and families, NACAC is providing this online tool as a central resource for information about changes in college admission events, deposit dates, and more as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.” –NACAC


As we all adjust to the new realities of our day-to-day lives and follow the guidance of our public health officials regarding Coronavirus, we’ve pulled together some helpful tips and suggestions for students regarding college admissions in the time of COVID-19. Whether you’re a high school senior waiting for admissions decisions, a junior whose SAT was just canceled, a college student back at home, or any student now home and starting virtual schooling, our tips below will have helpful suggestions for you.



March is always a busy month, with colleges releasing their admissions decisions to thousands of students across the country and around the world. At this time, we anticipate that admissions decisions will be released as planned, but April programs for admitted students have been canceled at most schools.

At this critical time, colleges will use all social media tools in their arsenal to connect with accepted students. Plans for virtual events for admitted students are being developed as rapidly as possible. Seniors, check your email and other social media platforms regularly for updates from the schools on your list.

Some schools have already announced that they will push back the May 1 Common Reply Date to give seniors more time to review their options and finalize their matriculation decision. Check in with each of the schools to which you have been accepted to see their policy on this.


The college cancelations came as many of you were planning spring break visits to campuses across the country. There are still plenty of ways to connect with the colleges on your list—and those schools will definitely want to connect with you (as soon as they finish the admissions decisions for the current seniors).

Now’s a great time to sign up to be on the mailing list for every school you’re considering (go to their websites). This will not only show your demonstrated interest, but will also give you access to any unique ways schools are showing off their benefits remotely. Share your email address (if you haven’t done so already) and you’ll get updates on virtual admissions information sessions, campus tours, and other programming targeted to juniors (and younger students). Many colleges are giving prospective students access to their online classes, since they aren’t able to visit and sit in on a class. Check with all the schools on your list.

March and May SATs cancelled. In response to the rapidly evolving situation around the coronavirus (COVID-19), the College Board is canceling the May 2, 2020, SAT administration. Makeup exams for the March 14 administration (scheduled March 28) are also canceled. Registered students will receive refunds.

The College Board will provide future additional SAT testing opportunities for students as soon as feasible in place of canceled administrations. We’ll be as flexible as possible to give students the best chance to show their skills and stay on the path to college. We have not yet canceled the June 6, 2020, SAT administration and will continue to assess its status with the health and safety of students and educators as our top priority.

Follow the College Board’s announcements here.

The College Board is finalizing options to allow students to do AP Exams at home. More details to follow by March 20. Follow the College Board’s updates on the AP Exam here.

ACT canceling April tests. ACT has rescheduled its April 4 national test date to June 13 across the U.S. in response to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). All students registered for the April 4 test date will receive an email from ACT in the next few days informing them of the postponement and instructions for free rescheduling to June 13 or a future national test date.

Use the extra time to continue your test preparation. We know you worked hard to prepare for the spring tests, but like a competitive athlete or dancer, stay in shape by keeping up with your prep (especially since you will have extra time on your hands). Our tutors are here to help you, and they have always worked virtually so no germs and plenty of brains!


For the graduating Class of 2020 and current college students, this is a very unique spring. Not only are on-campus graduation ceremonies in question, but access to staff, faculty and on-campus academic and extracurricular resources have gone out the window for thousands of students. We are here to help and our College Enrichment Program (for current high school seniors and any college students) can help you ensure a scholarly college experience. High school graduates need to plan to hit the ground running this August and college students who have recently lost access to key academic, research and grad school/career advising from their universities need to maintain their strides, but now on a virtual setup. Help your senior or college student stay on track this spring and summer in terms of academic advising, research foundation guidance, and post-degree planning, including grad school. A Personalized College Enrichment Action Plan from us plus one on one video consulting, included with this program, will propel your spring and summer 2020 forward.


A global health crisis can also be a great learning opportunity. We’re watching a public health emergency and global responses play out in real-time. In mid-February, the Imperial College London launched a free class on the Coursera platform: Science Matters: Let’s Talk About COVID-19. Are you fascinated by the mathematical modeling that predicts the progression of the virus and how social distancing and other efforts “flatten the curve”? You can take UNC’s online course, Epidemiology: The Basic Science of Public Health, or Johns Hopkin’s online course, Data and Health Indicators in Public Health Practice. Both are also available free of charge on the Coursera platform.

With schools across the country closing for a period of weeks, high schools are moving to virtual or remote learning. Since the traditional school day has been disrupted, we encourage students to take advantage of the time to deepen your learning and find ways to help those in your community who may be struggling.

Some ways to leverage your time:

  • Take advantage of online courses on platforms like Coursera, EdX, MIT’s Opencourseware, Yale’s Open Courses and check out this link to 450 online courses you can take at Ivy League schools for no cost. Deepen your interest easily through these free online opportunities.
  • Use this free time to boost your writing abilities so that you can return to school on a stronger footing! Our writing counselors, like our SAT and ACT tutors, work with students virtually, so you can use this time to get safe, effective help with your work!
  • How about entering your work in writing, history, computer science, math modeling, and art contests? Since these can all be done remotely, this would be a great time to stretch yourself and submit your work. We have compiled a Contest Guide for our students, but you can research and find so many on your own.
  • Start a virtual art and literary “magazine” for your classmates or younger kids or senior citizens in your community. Encourage them to post stories, poems, artwork, and music all composed in this time of social distancing.
  • Can you create and post instructional or “how to” videos on YouTube for younger kids? Create a virtual homework club and offer it to a local library. Offer to help homebound younger students with their lessons.
  • Launch a virtual PE class with your friends. Challenge yourselves with competitions you can do at home – pushups, sit ups, jumping jacks, etc. Organize a virtual dance party. Get creative!


Most importantly, look for ways to help those in need in your community. Check in regularly – via Facetime or phone – with your grandparents and older relatives, as well as older neighbors and others in your community. Is your community seeking volunteers to help keep food banks stocked? Can you volunteer to pack meal kits? If your older college-aged siblings are home, can you work together to deliver meals and supplies to those who are homebound?

During a pandemic in 1665, Isaac Newton had some time on his hands after the University of Cambridge sent students home. He called the year he spent away from school his “year of wonder.” It was during that year that he famously saw an apple fall from the tree in his garden and came up with the ideas around gravity.

The bottom line: as you practice social distancing and good hygiene, you can continue to stretch yourself academically and make a positive impact in your community. Who knows? You may discover new passions and hidden talents!

College Board Subject Tests Top Tips

The SAT Math II Subject Test

Subject Test GuideThe Math II Subject Test from the College Board is a 50 question test with a 60-minute time allotment. The score range is from 200 to 800 points. Each correct answer earns 1 point while ¼ of a point is subtracted for each incorrect answer. All of the questions are multiple choice with 5 options. A graphing calculator is necessary to accurately solve many of the questions. Questions about Algebra and Functions and Plane and Coordinate Geometry make up a large percentage of the test followed by Trigonometry and Data Analysis (statistics and probability). While calculus may be helpful in answering a few questions, the test does not require knowledge of calculus topics. The test is generally offered 6 times a year (January, May, June, October, November, and December). Be sure to check with the College Board as some locations do not offer the test on every date.

Scaled Score

Your raw score is converted to a scaled score. The scale differs from test to test. In light of the scale, you do not necessarily need to answer every question correctly to score an 800. A raw score in the mid-40 range can be a reported score of 800.


Math II formulas

A reference page is provided which lists a few formulas such as the volume of a right circular cone and the surface area of a sphere. It is vital that you know the more general formulas that would have been provided on the SAT such as the Pythagorean Theorem, relationships of sides and angles of a 30-60-90 and 45-45-90 triangle, etc.  You should know the rules for exponents and logarithms, the law of sines and cosines, and an assortment of standard trigonometry identities. Often it is helpful to have some more complicated formulas programmed in your calculator (e.g., the law of cosines).

Practice Tests

The College Board has published four Math II Subject Tests. While some questions in the Barron’s Subject Test book are more difficult than you may find on the actual test and some, possibly, not within the scope of the actual test, their material ranks high on the list of practice questions. Other publishers (Kaplan, The Princeton Review, McGraw-Hill, Ivy Global) are worth considering as well. The key: practice, practice, practice!

Take a full-length practice test before you begin preparing. Take the test under real test conditions (sitting, timed). This test will help you understand your weakest area and where you need to focus your efforts. How much preparation time and how many practice tests you should take depends on your math and test-taking skills.

Math II Subject Test tips

A Few Tips & Important Considerations: Math II Subject Test

  1. Asymptotes:

Ex. 1:           Ex. 2:           Ex. 3: 

Finding the vertical asymptote(s) is very easy. Set the denominator equal to 0.

Therefore, in Ex. 1 above, if – 4 = 0; = 4; x= ±2. In Ex. 2 above, there are no vertical asymptotes because  is not a real number. In Ex. 3 above, the vertical is x = 1.

Finding the horizontal asymptote(s) is (almost) horrible because there are conditions that apply.

(a) If the numerator’s degree is < than that of the denominator, there is a horizontal asymptote at y=0 (i.e., the x-axis).

(b) If the numerator’s degree is > than that of the denominator, there is NO horizontal asymptote (that doesn’t rule out a slant asymptote).

(c) If the numerator and denominator have the same degree, the horizontal asymptote is ratio of the leading coefficients.

In Ex. 1 above, since the larger degree is in the denominator, the horizontal is at y = 0.

In Ex. 2 above, since the degrees are the same (2), the horizontal is y = 4/1 = 4.

In Ex. 3 above, since the degree of the numerator (2) is larger than the degree of the denominator (1), there isn’t a horizontal asymptote (but there is a slant asymptote).

  1. Logarithms:

What is the equivalent to: Log(a²– b²) ?

Keep in mind that factoring never leaves youregardless of the math course. Consequently, this question can be rewritten as log[(a+b)(a-b)]. Since logs are exponents, they follow the exponent rules. Therefore, the product of like bases with exponents is the sum of the exponents. That means the equivalent expression is:  log(a + b) log(a – b).

  1. Equation of a Sphere:

Given:  x²+ y²+ z²+ 2x – 4y – 10 = 0

Problems like this extend the notion of the equation of a circle to 3-dimensions. You could be asked for the coordinates of the center and/or the radius of the sphere. The solution requires grouping and completing the square.

First, move the constant to the right side: x²+ y²+ z²+ 2x – 4y = 10

Second, group the like terms:  (x²+ 2x) + (y²– 4y) + z²= 10

Third, complete the square for the x- and y-terms:  (x²+ 2x + 1) + (y²– 4y + 4) + z²= 10+1+4

*Don’t forget to add the two values to the right side after completing the square!

Now, (x+1)²+ (y-2)²+ z²= 15.

Therefore, the center is (-1, 2, 0) and the radius is 

  1. Law of Sines/Cosines:

In ΔABC, if = 1, = 4, and ∠C = 30°, find the length of c.

For many, it’s helpful to quickly sketch the figure:

Math II Subject Test formula

Artistic skill doesn’t count, but be as accurate as you can.

Deciding between the two laws necessitates knowing that the Law of Cosines applies to problems when you have two sides and the included angle as is this case.

Therefore, c²= a²+ b²– 2ab∙cos(30°) →c²= 1+16-8∙0.866  (if you need your calculator, remember to change the MODE to degrees; otherwise, it’s helpful to remember the fundamental functions). The cos(30°) =  .  Then, c²≈ 10.07, so the answer is ≈ 3.17. A “trap” answer option would be 10.07 if you forgot to take the square root!

  1. Probability:

If you were to randomly form a committee of 5 people when you have a choice of 6 men and 9 women, what is the probability that the committee consists of 3 men and 2 women?

Remember that probability is: . The number of total ways is the combination of selecting 5 people out of 15.  That is 15C5= . To be successful, you would have to select 3 men from 6 and 2 women from 9:  6C3  and 9C2.  The probabilities in an and condition are multiplied together (in an or condition they are added together).

6C3 and 9C2  = 20∙36 = 720.  Then, 720/3003 = 240/1001 [combinations and permutations can also be found on your TI calculator under MATH →PRB.

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A Guide to Deciphering Super Scoring

There are so many “terms” to learn when you’re applying to college that it can feel like an entirely different language. Super scoring, ACT, SAT, Subject Tests, Common App, reach, target, early action single choice, early decision II, score choice, word count, and the list goes on.


For this post, we’ll focus on super scoring. Super scoring is a way of viewing and organizing your test scores that some schools offer as a courtesy in an effort to help you put your best foot forward in the application review process. Super scoring is essentially taking your highest scores from each test that you sat for and compiling them for colleges to review.

When you take the SAT, ACT, or even SAT Subject Tests, you’ll likely take them more than once in order to get the highest scores possible. You sit, receive your scores, study harder, and then sit again. If you take it twice, let’s say, you may think that you have two composite scores to choose from. With super scoring, every section matters.


Below is an example of how super scoring would work for the ACT.

Let’s say you took the ACT in September and then again in December and received the below scores in September:

English: 31
Reading: 30
Science: 34
Math: 35
Writing: 7

After receiving these scores, you naturally take it again in an attempt to improve your English, Reading, and Writing scores. Your December scores are:

English: 34
Reading: 33
Science: 33
Math: 34
Writing: 9

With super scoring, you are evaluated as if the below are your scores for your ACT:

English: 34
Reading: 33
Science: 34
Math: 35
Writing: 9


super scoring ACT SAT


Now, as you can see, your highest scores in each section, regardless of the date that you took the exam, make up your new composite score. You are evaluated based on your best performance on each section, not based on your test date overall. It’s a super score.

In order for colleges to consider all of your exam sittings and compile your super score, you have to send in all of your testing results from each sitting to each school. Colleges oftentimes ask that you submit all of your exam official reports and then they commit to consider only your highest scores in each section. You yourself would not super score your results, but rather report all of your test scores and then they would isolate the highest scores.

super scoring FAQ


Is the SAT included in this practice?

Yes, the SAT is also included in super score practices at colleges. However, you cannot super score both the ACT and the SAT—you have to commit to one. This is best practice for test-taking regardless of whether the schools you are applying to will super score your testing results. In other words: you cannot mix and match, even if you got an 800 on the math section of the SAT that you sat for before you switched to the ACT, where you got 35s in English and Reading.

What if I sat three times but only want colleges to super score two of the three?

This all depends on the college’s test reporting policy, as schools have different policies for reporting. Some are alright with self-reporting scores, some are alright with you sending in some but not all of your test scores, but some colleges require that you send in all of your testing (even if you’re not happy with it), and then they can commit to super scoring for you. Make sure that you are diligent in checking a college’s website on this topic, because it would be an unfortunate technicality to overlook. This is also where score choice can come in, which leads us to…

What is score choice? Is it the same as super scoring?

As you might have guessed, the answer is no. Score choice is a policy that some colleges have that places the power of reporting in the student’s hands. In other words, you can choose which scores and exams to report from the ones you sat for. This doesn’t mean that you can super score yourself, as discussed above, but rather, if you sat three times for the ACT and you only want to report your composite for two of those three and leave that first fluke completely out of your application, that is allowed. There are typically one of three policies that schools adopt when it comes to reporting, so make sure that you know which camps your colleges fall into:

  1. “Require all scores”: self-explanatory. You are required to send in all scores.
  2. “Recommend all scores”: You aren’t required to send in all scores, but oftentimes schools that use this wording will exercise super scoring, which means that it works to your benefit to send in all of your scores so that you can be evaluated on your highest sections across all test dates.
  3. “Accept score choice”: Colleges will accept the scores that you choose to submit. Traditional score choice.

Can I choose to send just one of my SAT Subject Test scores from a day when I took two SAT Subject Tests?

Unfortunately, when you send test scores from a test date, it’s all or nothing. This is why it makes sense to get your testing done early so that you have time to isolate and re-take a certain SAT Subject Test, ACT, or SAT test if you need to, as well as review your scores before you send to your colleges.

How do I optimize for super scoring?

The best way that you can optimize your studying and test taking for super scoring is to be intentional about your studying. With super scoring, you can focus your attention on one particular section going into an exam. For both super scoring and score choice, it’s in your best interest to take the exam more than once in order to improve your scores as much as you possibly can.

Should I ever not use score choice?

You should really only use score choice if you absolutely bombed or aced on one particular test day. If your scores are varying, as they often are, it’s best practice to send in all scores, even if you have to reveal that you didn’t do as well as you had wanted to on one particular test day.

What schools offer super scoring?

Good question. We’ve compiled a list of schools that offer super scoring for their applicants. Please note that this is not a complete list and that even if it is listed here, you should read your college’s testing policy directly on their website in order to understand it thoroughly!

American University Northeastern University
Amherst College Occidental University
Bard College Pomona College
Bates College Purdue University
Boston College Sarah Lawrence College
Bowdoin College Stanford University
California Institute of Technology St. Lawrence University
Claremont McKenna College Swarthmore College
Colby College Syracuse University
Colgate University University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Colorado College Trinity College
Connecticut College Trinity University
Cornell University Tufts University
Davidson College University of Chicago
Dickinson College University of Colorado, Boulder
Duke University University of Connecticut
Emerson College University of Maryland, College Park
George Washington University University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Georgia Institute of Technology University of Pennsylvania
Grinnell College University of Rochester
Hamilton College University of Vermont
Harvey Mudd College University of Virginia
Haverford College Vassar College
Johns Hopkins University Villanova University
Kenyon College Virginia Tech
Lafayette College Wake Forest University
Lehigh University Washington University, St. Louis
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Wellesley College
Middlebury College Wesleyan University
New York University Williams College


Our ace ACT/SAT tutor Amy says, “As long as students are clear that they should ALWAYS check the admissions policies of the schools to which they are applying and NEVER assume anything about scores, etc., they should be good to go!”

As always, let us know if you have any remaining questions or feel like you need a bit more guidance on your testing schedule.