August 13, 2009


ACT or SAT? Choosing the Right Exam for You. By Josh Bornstein with Rebecca Lessem and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Random House. $15.99.

Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School. By Barbara Park. Random House. $12.99.

     No doubt about it: college testing is serious business, even though more and more colleges are saying it is not necessary for applicants to take the SAT or ACT. Not necessary, perhaps – but still highly desirable for most colleges and most high-school students. Even when the tests are not make-or-break elements of an application, they have extraordinary value for students themselves, showing their strengths and weaknesses in the sort of thinking that will be expected of them in college. They can help point students toward appropriate schools and even toward appropriate majors. The tests themselves may be standardized, but the ways students can use them are not. And different students will do better with different tests – which is where ACT or SAT? comes in. There are plenty of books and many tutoring facilities (including The Princeton Review, a prominent test-preparation service) that purport to tell students how to do better on these standardized tests, but this book’s focus is on which one to take. There are considerable similarities between the SAT (the older test, given since 1926) and the ACT (given since 1959), but there are also some significant and not-so-significant differences between them. The ACT has more questions but takes less time to do; the SAT deducts points for wrong answers, but the ACT does not, so it makes more sense to guess when taking the ACT; the ACT is often thought to be an easier test, but in fact some students find it harder than the SAT. To help students decide which test to take, ACT or SAT? gives mostly short true-or-false answers to common questions about each test, then presents sample questions from each test and analyzes what the questions are asking and how to think about answering them. Boxes called “Advice from a Princeton Review Instructor” are sprinkled throughout the book, sometimes giving valuable advice but often in effect simply saying of which test to choose, “It depends.” A section of the book called “What Is Your Test-Taking Personality?” is particularly interesting and potentially useful. It includes 15 questions with “A” or “B” answers; the scoring indicates which test you are likely to favor. For example, “You’d rather write an essay about: A) a book I’ve read or a historical event; B) my opinion on a controversial issue.” This is a clever way to help students decide how their preferences will steer them to the ACT or the SAT, although it is of course not foolproof. An even better guide takes up the second half of the book – more than half of it, in fact. This is the PRA, Princeton Review’s own assessment test, which includes material culled from both the SAT and the ACT – and has full explanations of answers afterwards. Because the PRA is essentially a “combination assessment,” it will be a tremendous help to students trying to figure out how their own learning and test-taking styles will likely lead them to do better on one of the standardized tests or the other. Gluttons for punishment will also want to read the book’s final section, “Paying for College 101,” which may be scarier than anything on either the ACT or the SAT.

     The scare factor is very different for much younger schoolchildren – say, first graders such as Barbara Park’s ever-popular Junie B. Jones. Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School, Park’s first new Junie B. book in two years, is an informational work rather than a school adventure, but it bubbles over with typical Junie B. enthusiasm: “I have learned a jillion helpful hints that will help you SURVIVE at school. …I am going to pass this information on to Y-O-U!!! (Right in this EXACT BOOK, I mean!) I am a GEM for doing this.” Imagine the quotation in multiple colors, with capitals and small letters all mixed up, and with appropriate illustrations (“GEM” appears within a shining diamond), and you will get the full Junie B. flavor. But you won’t really get it without seeing the book itself. It is a spiral-bound, lie-flat book with nifty plastic front and back covers and plenty of appropriate chapter titles. Section 3, for example, is “Getting Bossed Around (Some of the bossy bosses who will boss you.)” Included are not only the principal but also the janitor (“boss of keys”), the nurse (“boss of sick kids”), teachers, and even “the boss of cookies.” Section 4 is “Getting in Trouble,” a subject in which Junie B. is an expert; but she is also pretty good at this section’s subtitle: “Plus how to stay out of it!” Here you will find “Names you should not call people – probably” and “Dumb school rules” and “More rules I didn’t know about until I actually got notes sent home,” one of which is, “Do NOT grit your teeth and make a GRR sound at your neighbor.” Junie B.’s personality comes through clearly on every page of this offbeat book, and Park manages to use her character’s unending enthusiasm to communicate some important school-related advice (“Do NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT peek at your neighbor’s test paper”) in part by juxtaposing it with silliness (“Do NOT eat a ham sandwich during science. [This one seems unreasonable to me.]”). Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School may not be absolutely essential, but for all Junie B. fans, it will be a must-have – and it is so much fun both to read and to look at that it just might bring Park’s character a batch of new fans, too.

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