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Getting Started I took the exam at Irvine Valley College. Unlike most schools, whose administrators post classroom assignments on a billboard, IVC showed up around 8:15, had students stand in the quad, and verbally had students split into separate groups like cattle. Then students ended up having to walk down a confusing pathway to a classroom, where we had to have our IDs checked one-by-one. You can tell which schools have the check-in process down, and which schools need to work on it. IVC is definitely a school that can stand to be more efficient. Once in the room, the proctor had difficulty with the test set-up process. She was unaware of the fact that there were now three components that come with the exam. It used to be that there was just a test booklet and an answer sheet. Now, with the revised exam, there is an essay booklet as well. I don’t think that she was supposed to hand out the essay booklet at the beginning of the administration, especially because... read more

Marshaling the cognitive resources and committing the amount of time required to earn good grades and high test scores takes effort. The rewards from these achievements are often delayed, while the rewards from having fun with your friends, playing video games, interacting on social media, watching tv, etc. are more immediate. What strategies can you use to help overcome this mismatch? In the framework explored in this paper, the authors propose that the decision to delay gratification is mediated by two systems: a "cool" cognitive system, and a "hot" emotional system. The more the hot system dominates, the more likely you are to succumb to temptation. Thankfully, as we get older, the cool system matures and thus makes it easier for many of us to delay gratification. We are most vulnerable to the hot system when we are young. You’ve probably seen the marshmallow experiment in which young children are placed in front of a table with a marshmallow... read more

When you're studying before a test, the question of how to allocate your study time inevitably arises. What should you study first? Where should you spend the most time? Janet Metcalfe and Nate Kornell designed three clever experiments to find out. In the first experiment, participants were allowed to choose how to allocate their study time. They were tasked with learning English-Spanish word pairs of varying difficulty (easy, medium, and difficult), under three different timing conditions (5s, 15s, or 60s). In each trial, one pair from each category appeared and participants could choose where to spend their study time. The most important takeaway from this experiment was that, under tight timing conditions, allocating study time to the easiest items was the most effective strategy. However, Metcalfe suspected that advantage would shift to medium items if participants were forced to spend the bulk of their study time on them. So, in Experiment 2, participants... read more

We all know we do better when we're well-rested than when we're not. Modern sleep research has started to uncover exactly why that's the case. In terms of memory, there are at least two important reasons to make sure you're getting enough sleep. First, we better remember what we learned the day before. This is because sleep plays an essential role in the conversion of short-term memory to long-term memory. Short-term memory relies heavily on a brain region known as the hippocampus (named after the Greek word for seahorse, given its shape), while long-term memory relies on a broad network of cortical association areas. When we learn new information, the hippocampus is very active, and when we sleep, it turns out that the activity of our hippocampus predicts how well we will remember what we learned when we wake up. Researchers have even found interesting ways to manipulate and improve this process. For example, in one study, experimenters paired the scent of a rose with a spatial... read more

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

Over the years, I have noticed that many students do not like to take their practice test scores at face value. When students get scores below their goal, the temptation to rationalize is strong.   "On Test Day, I will take it much more seriously, so I'm sure my result will be higher."  "I was distracted during XYZ sections, so my score on those isn't as accurate as it could be." "I only really focused on the Math sections, that's why I didn't do as well on the others."  "I made a lot of careless mistakes."   I'm not saying these are excuses - it's possible that they are accurate explanations - but even still, thinking this way will not serve you well.    For starters, if you're not taking your practice tests as seriously as you would the actual test, that's a problem. The whole point of practice tests is to prepare you for the real thing, so you should treat them as if they... read more

Our understanding of the relationship between memory and learning continues to improve. Why not benefit from the latest research by incorporating some of these findings into your own study habits? I help my students come up with creative ways to do this all the time, and wanted to share one of the more helpful summaries I've come across about what works and what doesn't.    Here are a few highlights: Link new information to things you already know Actively participate in your own learning Create both a visual and a verbal memory for the same information Whenever possible, study in an environment that is similar to the testing environment Spread studying out over several days, rather than cramming Avoid multitasking when learning difficult or dense material Review information you're trying to memorize right before you go to sleep Quiz yourself frequently to practice retrieving these memories, making them stronger in the process   You... 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

Scheduling A regular schedule is the most successful structure for tutoring, and I offer discounts for sessions scheduled on a regular basis (see Session Fees).  I also tutor individuals who want single sessions, have irregular schedules, need immediate help, or simply are not sure.   I try to be as flexible as possible, and am usually able to stay longer than scheduled if needed. I will not charge for up to 15 minutes extra if it was not previously arranged. I offer online tutoring as well as in-person, so please let me know if you are interested in occasional online sessions to supplement regular.  If you are a regular student, please feel free to contact me outside of sessions for questions or help, at no charge if less than 20 minutes.    Session Fees All of my fees are negotiable! If you have a request please contact me before the session is scheduled.  Individual student rates for standard subjects:... 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 take the test... 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

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

During the school year, my students balance classes, sports, social lives, and sleep. Their schedules are hectic. During tutoring lessons, students often only have time to focus on the immediate assignments at hand in their classes. We usually have little time for test prep unless the student and parent has specifically requested that we focus solely on the SAT or ACT. So, when is the best time to study for the SAT or ACT? You guessed it. Summer vacation.    Many of my students have a summer schedule that gives their school year calendar a run for it's money. However, their busy summers do not contain nearly as many academic activities as their school year schedules. Most have summer sports, camp, or jobs. This is the perfect time to balance those physical and social activities with test prep. In addition, students can learn the ropes of the SAT or ACT better when they are not juggling other classes and tests. Every kind of standardized test is unique and it takes... read more

Overview: Current SAT vs. Redesigned SAT Details of the new SAT have been a mystery since the new format was announced last year. We have been doing our best over the past several months to keep our students up-to-date by scouring the internet for reliable information. Collegeboard.com recently published the key differences between the old test and the new test. Since this information comes directly from the source, we have decided to disply the key differences between the old and new tests here: OLD TEST TIMING: 3 hours and 45 minutes NEW TEST TIMING: 3 hours (plus 50 minutes for the Essay [optional]) OLD TEST COMPONENTS Critical Reading Writing Mathematics Essay NEW TEST COMPONENTS Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Reading Test Writing and Language Test Math Essay (optional) OLD TEST EMPHASIS Emphasis on general reasoning skills Emphasis on vocabulary, often in limited contexts Complex... read more

There are many great texts, blog posts and other resources to help students prepare for the SAT, ACT and similar examinations. For my own part, when working with a student who is trying to prepare for a test of this nature, we approach the battle from two fronts; test-taking strategy and subject skill.   The first thing to do -- and this should be done at least a year in advance -- is to visit the website of whichever test one is taking and learn about the test, itself. The testing organization sites contain important information about the test content, sample questions, as well as general advice for successful testing. Many either contain or at least link to complete (and free) practice tests.   When preparing for a test of nearly any kind, the preparation should mimic -- and, if possible, exceed the difficulty of -- the anticipated test. Time yourself strictly, working through sample tests with realistic questions. That is, do the practice sessions as if... read more

When beginning to tutor a student preparing for the SAT, there are a couple steps that will lead to greater student success than just working through practice problems.   1. Explain what types of questions will be asked on the exam The SAT is an exam that works by using the same certain types of questions. For example, in the Reading section there will be types of questions that focus on the main idea of a passage or others that ask the reader to compare and contrast two shorter paragraphs. Getting your student familiar with the types of questions that will be used on the exam is a very effective way to practice and avoid any test-day surprises.   2. Identify which questions your student struggles with the most Once you cover what types of common questions are on the exam, you can determine which your student finds the easiest and which need some work. It isn’t helpful to study questions that aren’t difficult for your student, so find the types of... read more

Schedule for SAT Crash Course: Lesson 1: Test Basics, Sentence Completions (singles and doubles), Short Paragraphs Lesson 2: Long Passages (Narrative, Expository, Persuasive) Lesson 3: Double Passages, Difficult Passages, Essay Lesson 4: Grammar Basics (Voice, Parallelism, Continuity, Conciseness) Lesson 5: Verb and Pronoun Errors Lesson 6: Modifier, Comparative, Idiom, Confused Word Errors SAT English Basics Reading Section: (70 minutes) Sentence Completions 19 Questions Worth 30% Reading Passages 48 Questions Worth 70% Writing Section: (60 minutes)  Grammar: Worth 70% Identifying Sentence Errors 18 Questions Improving Sentences 25 Questions  Improving Paragraphs 6 Questions   Essay (25 minutes) Graded from 2-12 Worth 30% 1 point given for each question answered correctly. -¼ point for each question answered incorrectly. No points for unanswered questions. Tips... read more

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