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During the school year, many of the students I work with have jam-packed schedules replete with extracurriculars, sports, and demanding classes. Adding test prep into the mix can complicate schedules even further. So why not take advantage of the time students have off during the summer to get ahead, so that when school resumes they won't have a heavy additional workload to worry about?    There are many reasons why summer classes benefit students. One of the most obvious relates to what is known as the "summer slide." Most students lose about two months of grade-level mathematical proficiency over the summer. In fact, in a meta-analysis of 39 studies that examined the effect of summer vacation on academic achievement, researchers found that summer break was detrimental for both math and reading skills, and that the amount of deterioration increased with grade-level.    Many times I work with sophomores and juniors in high school... read more

When I worked for Kaplan, they required all private tutoring lessons to be two hours. That surprised me because I thought of lessons as one-hour affairs. However, I soon discovered that we could get through a lot more in one two-hour lesson than we could in two one-hour lessons. Why? For starters, each lesson always starts with a few pleasantries and takes a couple of minutes to get going. Furthermore, it usually takes 15 minutes or so for students' minds to warm up and perform at their best. So by the time we are at our best flow, if the lesson is only one hour together, we have often used a quarter to a third of our lesson time. In my experience, I've found that 90 minutes works well for most students (exceptions: young students, and students who begin tutoring very close to their test date). With 90 minutes, we can go through the warm up period and spend more than an hour at our most productive level. And 90 minutes isn't so long that it strains students' attention... read more

Sometimes I work with students who perform well during our lessons, but who struggle when it comes to actually taking the test. It turns out the reason for this might be genetic.    When we experience stress, our prefrontal cortex is flooded with dopamine. Some of us are coded with a gene that slowly removes the dopamine, while others have a variant that rapidly removes it. The prefrontal cortex is critical for planning and decision-making, and it performs best when an optimal level of dopamine is maintained. Normally, on many cognitive tests, people with the slow variant of the gene perform better. But in stressful, high-stakes situations the opposite happens: those with the fast variant do better. Thus people with the slow variant have been dubbed Worriers, and those with the fast variant, Warriors.    However, being a Worrier does not mean you will inevitably be a victim of chronic underperformance in stressful situations. In one of the studies... read more

The Economist recently published an article with some surprising research findings about stress. Contrary to popular belief, stress is not always bad, nor is it the amount of stress that matters. Rather, the key determinant of its impact on performance and health is largely psychological.    In one study, researchers divided a set of GRE test takers into two groups. Saliva samples were taken to establish baseline stress levels for all participants. Then one group was told that stress during practice exams is natural and can improve performance, while the other group just took the test. Saliva samples were taken at the end of the exam, and the results from both groups indicated similar levels of stress. BUT, the group that had learned stress can be helpful scored higher on the practice test (and, several months later, on the actual GRE) than those who just took the test.    Even more impressively, in 2012 a group of researchers scoured through... read more

I can't speak for every tutor, but I know that if you work with me I have certain expectations of you in order to ensure that you will see the greatest possible improvement in your score. Luckily, they are really quite simple, and adhering to them makes a huge difference. I've attached a PDF version to summarize my Top 5 Test Prep Essentials that you can download, but I will review each of them below too.    For starters, I may be stating the obvious, but you absolutely must complete all homework assignments. All my assignments are tailored to your current performance and designed to help you achieve your goal score. Many students aspire to achieve dramatic improvements, and I fully believe such improvements are possible. BUT, in order to achieve such goals, it is imperative that you complete every homework assignment. If there is a notable gap between your current score and your goal score, that is perfectly ok, but it makes the homework that much more important... read more

Ellen's Rules for Effective Time Management, Part 2 3. Know when it’s time to take breaks. Spending a good chunk of time on one subject is good; it helps you settle into a rhythm and lets your brain get into the correct frame of reference for the subject. But there exists a horizon beyond which no progress can or will be made. It’s the point at which your brain has become over-saturated with the current material, and if you continue on you’ll just end up working yourself into circles of frustration. In paper writing, it’s the point at which anything you wrote would make sense to you regardless because you’ve been reading the same few paragraphs to yourself for hours. In math, it’s the point at which you will just end up confusing yourself more and more as you try desperately to work it out. When that moment arrives, you know it’s time to take your break. 4. TAKE BREAKS. I don’t care how much work you have, there’s always enough time for a fifteen-minute break... read more

Way back in 2010, one of my first blog post series on this site took the form of a five-part series on rules for effective time management.  For the next few Ellen's Choices, I've decided to go back through these rules and apply them to the world of preparing for the SAT (or any standardized test). So let's begin with Part 1: All-Nighters Are Evil Ellen’s Rules for Effective Time Management 1. Never pull an all-nighter. 2. NEVER pull an all-nighter! Seriously! I mean it. All-nighters are downright useless. Besides the fact that this concept breaks almost all of my other rules for effective time management in one go, all-nighters cause fatigue, stress you out, and just end up producing sub-par work. You can’t write well when you’re tired, and staying up all night studying just means you’ll be yawning all the way through the test the next day. If you haven’t learned the information on the test by the night before, you’re not going to learn... read more

     Most learning follows a curve; not a bell-shaped curve, but a sudden, steep ascent, followed by a plateau. Think about what it was like to learn how to drive a car. You had to consciously remember where the brake and the accelerator were, until it became second nature. That's the pattern for new learning. What has already been learned is usually habitual, so that it becomes unconscious. When learning new, you have to explicitly pay attention to things that later will become second nature. Then the learning is deeply ingrained; so deeply that you don't even have to think about it.       With regard to exam preparation, this steep curve is a reflection of the fact that you learn the preliminary skill set of exam prep strategies relatively quickly, because there are a finite number of things to learn. The ACT in particular is an open book exam in the sense that all the answers are either in the test or in the questions. It's more a... read more

     Most learning follows a curve; not a bell-shaped curve, but a sudden, steep ascent, followed by a plateau. Think about what it was like to learn how to drive a car. You had to consciously remember where the brake and the accelerator were, until it became second nature. That's the pattern for new learning. What has already been learned is usually habitual, so that it becomes unconscious. When learning new, you have to explicitly pay attention to things that later will become second nature. Then the learning is deeply ingrained; so deeply that you don't even have to think about it.       With regard to exam preparation, this steep curve is a reflection of the fact that you learn the preliminary skill set of exam prep strategies relatively quickly, because there are a finite number of things to learn. The ACT in particular is an open book exam in the sense that all the answers are either in the test or in the questions. It's more a... read more

     Most learning follows a curve; not a bell-shaped curve, but a sudden, steep ascent, followed by a plateau. Think about what it was like to learn how to drive a car. You had to consciously remember where the brake and the accelerator were, until it became second nature. That's the pattern for new learning. What has already been learned is usually habitual, so that it becomes unconscious. When learning new, you have to explicitly pay attention to things that later will become second nature. Then the learning is deeply ingrained; so deeply that you don't even have to think about it.       With regard to exam preparation, this steep curve is a reflection of the fact that you learn the preliminary skill set of exam prep strategies relatively quickly, because there are a finite number of things to learn. The ACT in particular is an open book exam in the sense that all the answers are either in the test or in the questions. It's more a... read more

Between ACT and SAT preparation, strategies may differ in some specific ways, yet the overall objective is the same:  build confidence, reduce time, improve accuracy.   Confidence ... why?  Does confidence matter?   Yes!  Here's why --   1 - Neurochemically. Confidence lets us give the thinking brain its proper attention.  When we feel anxious or otherwise flooded with emotion, the stress / alert chemicals actually interfere with cognition.   2 - Cognitively.  Confidence lets us assess competing options more effectively, in order to identify and take calculated risks while avoiding impulsivity.   3 - Intuitively.  Confidence provides feedback to let us know when we are appropriately prepared.  When we feel a lack of confidence, the feeling, itself, indicates that we have overlooked something important.  When we have fully prepared and are sure we have done so, the feeling of confidence... read more

Recently, I have been tutoring students who are planning on taking standardized exams and I wanted to share the tips and tricks I have been exploring to increase student confidence and outcome on the exam. A detailed post will be posted within the week.   Tutor AVM

When I first took the SAT, I sat in a classroom with desks that were connected to chairs. One problem: these desks were less than the size of a piece of paper. Whenever I tried to flip pages, my materials fell on the floor, my pencil rolled off my desk, and I had to spend the time flipping each individual page rather than keeping my booklet open. This wasted a lot of time, and I'm sure I could have done better if the desk hadn't been stressing me out so much. Even though most people don't think about it, it's important to know where you are taking the SAT or ACT. Is it at a high school? Or a college where desks might be much smaller? If you can't go check out the testing site in person, try to talk to people in your area to see what they thought of the site. They might have some productive advice: "There's no AC in the building" or "the chairs were very comfortable". You'll never know until you ask. The other thing I recommend is to take the test... read more

When I first took the SAT, I sat in a classroom with desks that were connected to chairs. One problem: these desks were less than the size of a piece of paper. Whenever I tried to flip pages, my materials fell on the floor, my pencil rolled off my desk, and I had to spend the time flipping each individual page rather than keeping my booklet open. This wasted a lot of time, and I'm sure I could have done better if the desk hadn't been stressing me out so much.   Even though most people don't think about it, it's important to know where you are taking the SAT or ACT. Is it at a high school? Or a college where desks might be much smaller? If you can't go check out the testing site in person, try to talk to people in your area to see what they thought of the site. They might have some productive advice: "There's no AC in the building" or "the chairs were very comfortable". You'll never know until you ask.   The other thing I recommend is to... read more

When I first took the SAT, I sat in a classroom with desks that were connected to chairs. One problem: these desks were less than the size of a piece of paper. Whenever I tried to flip pages, my materials fell on the floor, my pencil rolled off my desk, and I had to spend the time flipping each individual page rather than keeping my booklet open. This wasted a lot of time, and I'm sure I could have done better if the desk hadn't been stressing me out so much.   Even though most people don't think about it, it's important to know where you are taking the SAT or ACT. Is it at a high school? Or a college where desks might be much smaller? If you can't go check out the testing site in person, try to talk to people in your area to see what they thought of the site. They might have some productive advice: "There's no AC in the building" or "the chairs were very comfortable". You'll never know until you ask.   The other thing I recommend is to... read more

    The SAT or ACT is the dreaded standardized test that students begin taking typically in 11th grade. From my personal experience, the SAT was nothing but a nuisance; you have to wake up at the crack-of-dawn on a Saturday morning and sit in a testing room for approximately three hours. As I advise high school students and parents about the SAT and ACT, I get the question "How many times did you take the exam?" very frequently. I took the SAT three times and two SAT Subject Tests twice with plenty of study and review time in between.      I recommend taking the exam at least twice. The first time is the worst, you are nervous, sweaty, and not accustomed to the SAT unless you have been doing serious prep. After you receive your score and the breakdown in each area, you should work towards improving (if needed) and sign up to take the exam again in at least 3 months.       As far as the SAT Subject Tests, I recommend for... read more

Almost every college or university requires students to submit an ACT or SAT score.  This score affects not only your admission application but also scholarship opportunities and which classes you will be able to enroll in.  The vast majority of students do little to no preparation work before taking these exams.  They may feel that all their hard work in high school should have prepared them already.  Although this is partially true, it is actually quite easy to raise your score a significant amount by just putting in a little bit more work.  Students can see composite ACT scores raise 5 or more points and SAT scores raise 300 or more points.  Why is this?   1)  Both the ACT and SAT test many of the same concepts repeatedly and by learning these core concepts, you will easily get a higher score.     2)  You will get more familiar with the format of the test and start to see patterns in how they ask questions.  Once... read more

Standardized test math doesn't behave like normal math. On a normal math test, your knowledge of the concepts and material is being tested, using (hopefully) fair test questions. On a standardized test, though, they're looking for you to think outside the box, to apply math concepts and algorithms to unusual situations, and to really understand what they're looking for and find the quickest way to go about it. Let's take a question from a recent GRE student's lesson: If 4x – 5y = 10 and 6y – 3x = 22, then what is x + y? Now, this is a set of two equations with two variables each, so it looks to me like a perfect candidate for solving as a system. If I were solving this one on a regular math test, I'd start off trying the substitution method, since I'm more comfortable with that one. So let's explore that one first: I'll start by solving the first equation for y: 4x – 5y = 10 - 5y = 10 – 4x y = (-10/5) – (4/-5)x y = -2 + (4/5)x Then... read more

Quickly after beginning work as a tutor, I came to realize that parents are the black belts of scheduling. They not only have to keep up with a number of annoying adult responsibilities, but they also have to keep up with their children's calendars. Parents' organizational skills (and possibly their sanity) are put to a very difficult test daily. So, to all my expertly organized parents out there, in this post I hope to let you in on a scheduling detail that often slips through the cracks but can make a big difference in a student's SAT or ACT scores.   One of the biggest obstacles I face when preparing a student for the SAT or ACT is the student's test schedule. Far too often, my student is signed up for two tests that are only a month apart. For example, a couple of my past students have been signed up for an SAT in May and then another in June. This short turnaround gives me very little time to receive the student's scores and prep the student in the areas he or... read more

I generally start by examining the kinds of questions a student missed on the PSAT, and we make a plan based on the SAT or PSAT score report. I usually need to teach lessons on the most common grammatical concepts covered by the test: subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, misplaced and dangling modifiers, parallel structure, and pronoun case. These five skills probably account for half of the most-missed writing questions. We practice and drill - the only way to get better at something is to keep doing it! For the critical reading questions, I like to have older students do passages from the Advanced Placement exams; they are similar in format to the SAT passages and have slightly more challenging questions. Questions on the SAT are categorized as easy, medium, or difficult, and students generally don't have trouble with the easy ones! Practicing with difficult questions makes them feel more confident on test day. We’ll also examine... read more

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