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What this top SAT reading & writing expert says about college admissions may surprise you

Tell the Livlyhood community a bit about you and your background.

After graduating from college with a degree in French and working in administrative roles at two Ivy League universities, I spent nearly a decade as a private tutor (French, English, test-prep) and college advisor, helping students navigate all aspects of the admissions process. I’m also the author of a popular series of reading/writing guides for the SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT, as well as both the AP English Language and AP English Literature exams.

Do you think it's important to choose your college based on your long term goals?

On one hand, absolutely, yes: if you’re determined to pursue a particular career path, you should have a clear idea of how a particular college or university will help you achieve your goals. For example, if your dream is to become a doctor, it’s important to consider factors such as the quality of pre-med advising, medical school acceptance rates, and the level of support available for “weed-out" intro science classes. At the same time, however, I think it’s important to leave yourself the flexibility to shift paths if your plans change. One of the best things about college is that it does give you the opportunity to explore new interests. Case in point: one of my students was initially set on becoming an architect and drew up her college list based on schools that offered that major. She even wrote her essay about how her interest in that field had developed. After a few months of basically living in the design studio, however, she decided she wanted to pursue other interests and ultimately ended up studying economics and history. Luckily, she was in a place where that option was easily available.

If you do intend to pursue a professional graduate degree, keep in mind that as long as you fulfill the necessary prerequisites, you can generally major in a fairly wide range of fields: you don’t need to major in pre-law to go to law school, or biology to go to medical school, or economics/business to get an MBA. In fact, majoring in something more unusual might actually help you stand out when it comes time to apply to grad school.

It’s also really important to consider the financial aspect. If you’re planning on getting a professional graduate degree for which little financial aid is available, you should be wary of taking on too much debt for your bachelor's. To return to the medical-school example, that’s a very expensive degree: if you get offered a free ride or close to it for your undergrad degree, you should seriously consider taking it—even if you’re also admitted to more prestigious schools—and save the money for your MD. Likewise, if you plan to go into a service-oriented profession such as social work or the non-profit sector, you do not want to end up with tens of thousands of dollars in undergraduate debt on a $35K/year salary.

What do you wish high schoolers knew about the application process?

While a handful of the most selective colleges routinely dominate the headlines, these schools are not the norm. Most colleges, including many excellent schools, admit more than 50% of applicants. In addition, admissions officers are generally looking for reasons to admit you, not reject you—they want students who are enthusiastic about their schools and likely to attend (and graduate).

Also, the stakes aren’t nearly as high as they’re often imagined to be. People change, priorities and interests change, and if things don’t work out, you can always transfer.

If you are looking at highly selective schools, it’s important to understand that admissions is driven by colleges’ needs, and that they are under intense pressure to satisfy many different constituencies. Although it may seem so from the outside, admission is not random—if you’re an “average excellent” student (straight-As in hard classes, 1400-ish SATs, strong but not standout extracurriculars) without a clear hook, it’s not a good idea to throw in a just-for-the-heck-of-it-application to an ultra-selective school just because everyone’s heard of it. On the flip side, if you have a really specific reason for wanting to apply to a particular top school, e.g., program, professor, extracurricular, then by all means go for it—even if if you attend a high school that doesn’t send a lot of graduates to top schools. As long as you can make it clear to an admissions committee why you belong, the numbers shouldn’t deter you. I had one super-accomplished student get rejected from a very top school where he'd done high-level research for several summers because he clearly wasn’t a good match, yet be admitted to other, equally selective schools he had no prior connection to because they were a better fit.

What surprises people about the college application process now?

Probably how complex it has become. There are multiple types of early applications—Early Action, multiple rounds of Early Decision, binding, non-binding, different deadlines for different programs… It can be a lot to keep track of. In addition, the lack of clarity around real cost: at some institutions, few students pay sticker price, but determining what a given school will actually cost may be tricky to predict, even with financial aid calculators. Also on the financial aid side, something many people don’t realize is that colleges will reduce scholarship aid in proportion to outside grants. So say someone is offered $25,000 by a university. If they receive an external scholarship for $5,000, the school will reduce its grant by that amount.

Another thing that tends to surprise a lot of families whose children who play sports at a high level is the difficulty of qualifying for an athletic scholarship. Recruitment is a long-term, labor-intensive process, and there are fewer scholarships available than many people imagine. Unless you’re seriously invested in the process and know exactly what’s involved, you shouldn’t assume that sports will be an applicant’s ticket to higher education. Most families will be better served by focusing on schools that provide substantial need-based or merit aid.

How has the test-optional movement affected the college application process? Do kids still need to take the SAT or ACT?

The broad shift to test-optional admissions has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s removed some of the stress surrounding testing because there’s no longer pressure to submit scores that fall below a school’s average. On the other hand, some schools have seen dramatic increases in the number of applications they receive. For example, UCLA received about 35,000 more applications in 2023 than in 2019 (almost 146,000 total). As a result, the overall admissions process has become infused with more uncertainty, particularly for applicants who choose not to submit test scores—colleges may or may not release statistics on the proportion of students accepted without scores, and there is virtually no way to know what other factors may have influenced their admission (e.g., the NCAA no longer requires test scores from recruited athletes, a group that is accepted at much higher rates than other applicants). In addition, schools may still require test scores for merit scholarships and/or admission into certain programs. The bottom line is that unless you have a very compelling reason not to do so, you should take the SAT or the ACT.

How can we support the high school kids in our life as they go through this process?

I think it’s important to treat the application process as a stepping-stone to independence while also recognizing that teenagers have not yet had the experience of managing a project of that magnitude. Encourage them to view the process as an opportunity to figure out what really interests them while remaining practical about majors, finances, etc. It’s a good lesson in balance.

Remember that high-schoolers do not necessarily know things that many adults take for granted. Many of the kids I worked with had no idea how to navigate a university website or research programs in their area of interest (which is important for writing “Why this college?” essays). I strongly suggest sitting down and clicking through a few sites, showing them how to find information about programs, housing options, clubs, etc.

Stress “fit” over selectivity—help them figure out which factors matter most to them, and work on finding schools at a range of selectivity levels that meet their criteria. And try not to let them get overly fixated on a particular “perfect” school. Excess pressure tends to backfire; if you push a particular school too hard, a kid may be less willing to consider it. Also, if a kid does a “drive-by no” and absolutely refuses to consider a school on sight, don’t insist! Gut reactions are very important.

On the practical side, I would strongly recommend helping kids make a master spreadsheet with all schools, deadlines, supplements, etc. so that all the important information is in one place. That also makes it possible to see whether a particular supplemental essay can be used for multiple schools, which can save huge amounts of time and stress.

How did you turn this passion of yours into a career?

It’s really something I fell into. I started tutoring (French) in college as my work-study job, and I quickly discovered that I was both good at and enjoyed it, so I kept doing it casually after I graduated. I was working with a lot of high school juniors, doing SAT II and AP prep for French, and at a certain point I realized that adding English to my repertoire would open up a lot more jobs. This was not too long after the Writing section was added onto the SAT, and a lot of companies were looking for people to write practice questions—I literally got a bunch of jobs on Craigslist! That allowed me to understand the test from the inside out, which was invaluable when I started tutoring it. One day, I went to the bookstore looking for extra practice material for a student and realized that most non-official material was incredibly poor quality—too easy, too hard, included concepts not covered on the test, omitted concepts that were tested, or just generally “off”—and I thought, “I can do so much better than this.” It took me two-and-a-half years to write my first book, The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, but I tested it out on my students as I wrote it, and so by the time I published it, I knew it was effective. It did well on Amazon, so I wrote a book for the Reading section, and things pretty much took off from there.

More about Erica and The Critical Reader

Erica Meltzer is on a mission to level up the reading and writing skills of high school students everywhere, and the SAT tutor-turned-author of the Critical Reader series of test-prep guides has every chance of success: her books are incredibly popular, having sold over 400,000 copies worldwide to date. With these books in their hands, students will be fully equipped to master the test in 2024, when the 100-year-old SAT is finally going digital. Until she turned to writing full-time in 2015, four years after the publication of her first guide, Erica spent nearly a decade working with students from some of New York City’s most prestigious high schools. Inspired largely by concerns about equity, her books are now essentially the equivalent of several months’ work—and thousands of dollars—with one of Manhattan’s top tutors. Going far beyond the standard “tips ’n tricks” approach, they have a proven track record of getting kids from scoring okay-ish to scoring fantastically well—and simultaneously building a foundation of knowledge that will serve them during their entire college career and eventual professional life. Most importantly, kids who’ve studied them will be fully prepared on test day and know exactly what to expect on the test. So the night before test day, they can go to bed feeling confident, relaxed and ready to tackle the biggest hurdle facing college applicants today, and then sail away to the college or university of their dreams.

The Digital SAT

High-school seniors who want to attend college this fall will have three opportunities to take the Digital SAT: on March 9, May 4, and June 1.  

Seniors who want to retake the test, or juniors who want to take the test early, will have four additional test-date options: August 24, October 5, November 2, and December 7.

The four most current Critical Reader books are available on Amazon as well as on They should ideally be purchased as a set and here is the order Erica suggests they should be studied:

1. The Critical Reader: Complete Guide to SAT Reading (Fifth Edition)

2. The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar (Sixth Edition)

3. SAT Vocabulary: A New Approach (Second Edition; co-written with Larry Krieger)

4. Reading & Writing Test Book: Digital SAT

Erica recommends kids spend a minimum of 10-15 hours on the reading, grammar, and vocabulary guides over a 2-3 month period (preferably with help from their parents going over practice sets). For those who pick up the books today, there will be ample time to prepare for the May 4 and June 1 tests, but even for those kids who tend to cram last minute there's still a good month left to learn the material to get ready for the first test day on March 10–provided they've registered by February 23. Registration dates for the later dates have not yet been finalized.

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