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Expert Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) Tips

(This is a guest blog by Lisa Speransky, the founder of Ivy Tutors Network, a mission-driven private education company and proud vendor to department of education schools. For over 20 years, IVY has empowered students to succeed through personalized education and mentorship – because the right team makes all the difference!) 

Each year, approximately 30,000 students take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) seeking admission to one of the prestigious specialized high schools, the crown jewels of the NYC public school system. These 8 schools, among them Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech, are known for their excellent academics and high-quality teachers, and are also completely free to attend. Sounds great, right?

The bad news is that out of the ~30,000 NYC students who take the SHSAT every year, ONLY about 6,000 receive an offer from a specialized high school. With an 18% percent acceptance rate, this makes the SHSAT one of the most competitive entrance exams your child will likely take in their lifetime. And it must be noted that this test is the sole criterion for entry – grades, attendance, past test scores, and your school district have no bearing on the admissions process.

The good news is that preparing for the test can hugely improve your choices. However, not everyone will have the means to hire an experienced SHSAT Tutor, so we are writing this article to make sure every child and family is equipped with the knowledge they need to do well on the SHSAT and have a chance to attend one of the specialized high schools. 

Start Early

We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to start studying for the SHSAT sooner rather than later. Students take the SHSAT in the fall of 8th grade, but many students begin studying about a year ahead of their exam date. Preparation ahead of time has always been necessary for the SHSAT because of the high stakes, but it’s even more important now in the wake of pandemic learning loss. Although children have learned a lot less in the past 2+ years, the SHSAT has not gotten any easier. This means that your child could be a straight-A student in school, but still not perform well on the exam because they haven’t caught up to grade level math and English skills yet. 

Our recommendation is that students take a diagnostic and begin studying in the second semester of 7th grade. If you include some studying in the summer, this should give sufficient time for students to fill in content gaps, learn test-taking strategies (educated guessing, time-management, etc.), and then spend sufficient time practicing those newly-learned skills. 

Take Full-Length Mock Tests

As for all test prep, students should start by taking a diagnostic exam to get a sense of where they stand. This initial diagnostic will alert a student to the gaps in their content knowledge and provide a road map for future study. One issue with the SHSAT is that there is a shortage of official released practice tests, but in the months leading up to the exam, students should try to sit a full-length timed mock exam every 2-3 weeks, ideally in a proctored setting. This is truly the best way to practice, since the experience of waking up early and showing up at your school (if you’re in a public middle school) or another test center is very different from taking a mock test at the kitchen table while mom is making waffles. Students can only take the SHSAT once, so it’s very important that they are primed and ready to perform well on test day. 

Read, Read, Read! 

The reading section of the SHSAT is notoriously tricky, but in truth, the entire exam is a reading test. Even the math problems require fine-tuned reading comprehension skills. Our advice: as soon as you finish this article, drop everything and get your child reading! Newspaper articles, short stories, novels, video-game magazines, whatever! The best way to improve reading comprehension, build vocabulary, and just get better at standardized tests in general, is to read. Period! 

Here are our top 3 tips for how students can practice for and do well on the SHSAT reading section:

  1. Independent Reading Exercises. To help hone their reading comprehension skills students can do the following exercise with any article or short story:
    • Read the article or story once, trying to get a clear idea of the main ideas or events. Underline any words you don’t know.
    • Write a few sentences summarizing the main idea of the passage. For non-fiction: What’s the topic, and what does the passage have to say about the topic? For fiction: Who are the main characters? What events take place in the passage?
    • Now for each paragraph within the passage, write a few sentences summarizing the main idea/events. 
    • Look up the words you underlined and write their definitions in a notebook. Return to this list frequently so that you don’t forget the words you’ve learned. 

By performing this simple exercise regularly, students will train themselves to read any text for comprehension and strengthen their vocabulary along the way. 

  1. Poetry Practice. The SHSAT is unique in that it includes a poem as one of the passages on the reading comprehension section. To practice poetry analysis, students can visit and read the poem of the day. After a few read-throughs, students jot down a few lines summarizing the literal meaning of what the speaker is saying and the overall main ideas. Then on a third read, they should note any and all figurative language (metaphors, unusual word choice, rhyme, repetition etc.), and reflect on how these elements contribute to the poem’s main ideas. Voila! They’ve just analyzed a poem! 
  2. Read the question carefully… very carefully. The way SHSAT questions are constructed is intentionally difficult for students, so the test requires close reading of the questions as well as the passage. There is something almost legalistic about the way they are presented. For example, some answer choices will make accurate statements about the passage, but because they don’t answer the question exactly as phrased, they are actually trap answers. Students should be mindful to choose the answer choice that responds to the question as it is presented, even if another answer seems “more right.” Simply being aware that these trap answers exist can help students avoid them. 

Understand Strategy

The SHSAT has certain particularities that require students to develop an intelligent test-taking strategy. Most standardized tests have multiple sections with a set time limit for each section. The SHSAT, on the other hand, simply gives students a 3-hour block of time for both the math and ELA sections. This means that students are left to their own devices when it comes to how much time they spend on each section, though it is suggested to spend 1 hour 30 minutes each.  Students must practice their pacing lest they spend too much time on one section (or question!), resulting in them not being able to finish the exam. Every student is different, so there is not one timing technique we can recommend for everyone. However, here are two common approaches that students can experiment with to see if one works best for them:

  1. Evenly distribute time: using a non-smart watch, students can budget the amount of time they spend on each section, passage, and question. The advantage of this approach is that it allows students to at least attempt to answer every question, rather than getting stuck on a particularly hard passage, only to realize too late that the test is almost over. 
  1. Easier passage or sections first: having gained familiarity with the test, it may be beneficial for some students to start on the section or passages that they know they will do well on. This will allow them to maximize the amount of questions they answer correctly, and guess on the ones that are too hard or will take too much time. Since the SHSAT is scored based on the number of correct answers and has no guessing penalty, this strategy can work well for some students. 

The SHSAT is also unique in that it rewards students who do especially well on one section, either ELA or math. If a student can get close to all of the math questions correct, for example, that actually gives them an advantage over a student who gets 70% right on both sections. Once students have learned the content for both sections and understand the basic strategies on the test, we sometimes advise them to work really hard to master their best section, rather than giving equal attention to both.

 Again, mock testing in a timed setting is the best way for students to practice their test-taking strategy and find out what works best for them. 

We hope these tips are useful and will help guide you through the process of studying for the SHSAT. While the specialized high schools are amazing, they are not the be-all or end. After all, NYC has over 400 high schools to choose from! So, while we do recommend that most students consider taking the SHSAT, we never recommend putting too much pressure on yourself or your child. Stress is NOT conducive to doing well on standardized tests. That being said, If you start early and have a solid test prep plan, you will greatly reduce anxiety by ensuring that your child is as prepared as possible to perform well on test day! 

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