Student Bound for Ivy League Says Test-Prep Class Helped Her Ace Entrance Exam

By Margaret King

When Melanie Halko encountered a tough problem while taking the ACT college entrance exam, she would stop and ask herself, “What would my test-prep teacher say to do here?” 

The strategy paid off. Melanie, a senior at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, scored an impressive 33 out of 36 on the exam, ranking her in the 98th percentile nationally. She gives part of the credit for her strong performance to an ACT prep course she took through UC San Diego Extension.

“I found myself using all the techniques I had learned,” she said. “That helped me finish the test under the time constraints. The class was very crucial to getting that score.”

While colleges across the country have suspended the SAT or ACT requirement because of the pandemic, many students are still opting to take the exams. An SAT or ACT score is still required to apply for some scholarships, and a high score may give a student an edge in getting into certain selective colleges. UCSD Extension is offering several online SAT and ACT course sections in the coming months.

Melanie ultimately got into her top-choice school without relying on her ACT score. She received early admission to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and she will start there in the fall studying environmental science. The Ivy League school was among those that dropped the ACT or SAT requirement during the pandemic. 

Yet Melanie still thinks it was worthwhile to sharpen her test-taking skills. “I recommended the class to a few of my friends, and they seemed to really like it, too,” she said.

Benny Bing, who taught the ACT class, said Melanie was an attentive and motivated student. “Students can get to the next level if they practice these new methods they have learned,” he said. “Melanie was that type of student. She even asked for additional practice problems, which I provided.”

Useful tips and tricks 
The ACT class was actually Melanie’s second Extension test-prep course. A couple of summers ago, she took an SAT course taught by Bing. She later took an ACT practice test and decided it was a better match for her strengths than the SAT. “I liked the format better because there are different question formats and a science section, and I really like science,” she explained.

“I knew that for the ACT, I wanted to take another course with Mr. Bing,” she added. “I like how he teaches different strategies for solving the same problem, especially in math, and tells you to use whichever one works best. He gives a lot of useful tips and tricks.”

Melanie enrolled in a six-week Extension ACT course taught by Bing in February of 2020 – the last in-person section before the pandemic forced classes to go online. After finishing the class, she signed up to take the ACT in April. The test was rescheduled several times during the early days of the lockdown before she could finally take it.

As she went through the exam, Melanie applied the strategies she had learned in different ways on different sections.

“Math is the hardest for me, especially on the ACT, because there’s less time,” she said. “You have to do a problem per minute. I needed help shortening how much time I took on each problem because the problems gradually get harder. Mr. Bing taught us how to allocate time for the harder problems and how to use time-saving techniques.”

On the reading section, Melanie said, “there was one passage I had trouble understanding when I first read it, so I skipped it and moved on. And then when I came back to it, I was able to understand it and answer the questions much more easily.”

She had a relatively easy time with the essay section, but even there, she made use of what she had learned. “For the essay, Mr. Bing gave us some tips for how to improve our score by just a few points,” she said. 

Caring for the environment
Melanie is looking forward to heading to New York to start at Cornell in the fall. “That was the very first school I applied to,” she said. “I really like its location – it’s in nature, and it’s much different from California. I wanted a change of scenery.

“I also really like the academics there – specifically within my major, environmental sustainability; they have a great program with good professors and good classes.”

Focusing on environmental science was an easy decision for Melanie. “I’ve always loved animals and nature and gardening,” she said. She got deeper into the subject when she took an environmental science class in her junior year. 

She has balanced her studies with a busy schedule of extracurricular activities. Before the pandemic, she started a tutoring club for students at a local middle school. She is also active in clubs at her high school for students with special needs. And she has completed two internships focusing on sustainability, including one at Chula Vista’s Living Coast Discovery Center. 

Melanie is still exploring career options. “I would like to have a career where I can do research and fieldwork,” she said. “I am interested in Earth science and also conservation of animals.”

One thing she’s sure of is that she wants to play a role in ensuring the health of our planet. “After learning about climate change and all the other problems with our environment, I want to help solve them,” she said. “I want to make an impact to protect the Earth.”


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