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Six Reading Tips for Online

Some time ago an article suggested that yes, indeed, the Internet had not just changed the way we read, but the way we remember.  As someone who never saw anything wrong with the “old ways” of reading, I hope to offer some correctives to unfortunate trends in our society, to the benefit of students both young and old.

1.              Read all sorts of things.  Just as it’s important to have a varied diet for our health, it’s important to have varied reading to give you insights into how different parts of our society think.  You’ll have your morning internet articles, but hopefully too your work/school reading, recreational reading, and hobby reading.

2.              Don’t listen to music when doing your serious reading.  Study after study has shown that the brain cannot really pay attention to both the intensive act of reading and the reflective act of music.  The separate exercises are using separate parts of the brain, but there is enough overlap to ensure that you will not really enjoy the music or comprehend the reading.  Pick one.  You’ll enjoy whatever you choose more.

3.              Turn off your inner reader.  We find that part of the reason our students struggle with reading comprehension when they first come to us is their practice of “reading to themselves.”  What I mean by this is that they simply read aloud “in their head.”  What this fails to recognize is the brain moves many times faster than your mouth and if you can turn off that “inner reader” and allow yourself to slide into the slipstream of “brain reading” you will read not just faster, but more deeply.

4.              Keep a dictionary and notebook nearby.  Now, I still happen to be quite analog in my practices so you will see a literal notebook around me 90% of the time.  However, what are acceptable replacements are a dictionary app and a note-taking app.  The dictionary/dictionary app should be obvious: the best readers aren’t content to figure out a word using context but go deeper into a definition of the word with etymological references.  The notebook is less obvious: sometimes we get ideas from reading – sometimes directly related to the text – sometimes not related at all.  We have to be patient enough to write down our ideas, thoughts, and questions. When engaged in this practice we don’t see the notebook as an interruption of our reading but as a continuous part of it.

5.              Always have something to read.  For our parents or our students this is a good practice.  We know well that you have reading you have to do for work or for school.   But take back reading as something you choose to do on your own.  Smartphones and tablets enable us to never be far from a book, and often, you don’t have to even pay for a digital book.  Many classics and some new works are free so even if you have forgotten to bring an “old-fashioned” dead tree book, the wonders of the printed word should never be far from you in the guise of a smartphone reading app.

6.              Keep your reading speeds appropriate.   If you’re reading something and find it interesting but realize it’s going to take you more than a few minutes to read, either copy the link or leave it open in a separate tab where you can come back to it at more leisure.  I usually let those die at the end of a couple days if I haven’t gotten to them so they don’t pile up, but better to not read a good long-form piece at all than to read it quickly and poorly.  Take back your time, on your terms.

Contact us if you have further questions!


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Un-learning Our Learning Process

One of the trickiest parts of working with the ACT and SAT is not only helping students improve, but also helping their families deconstruct their preconceptions about the exams.  These exams have become ubiquitous with college admissions – yet all too often, we are not approaching them in the most collegiate way!

The tests – at face value – appear to be a metric to measure what a student has learned in high school, in preparation for college.  Unfortunately, that isn’t exactly what they are!  The ACT and SAT both test material learned at one point or another during the middle school or high school curriculum, but they test it in a way that may not be familiar.  This is where a student must take their first steps toward thinking more like a college student.  They must discover for themselves the distinct differences between the two tests and the tests as compared to their school work.

As mentioned before, for most students there will not be any totally new content on the exams – yet for many students, information recall is not enough to do well on these standardized tests.  As both exams are different versions of psychometric exams, the manner in which a question is asked is often more important than the content associated.  A student therefore must be willing to “play the test maker’s game,” learning new methods to properly take the exam.  The test makers are notorious for asking questions with the words “least,” “not,” and “except” in them.  Before we even get to the content piece, we must realize the question is more about a “logic game” than anything else.

It is easy to get stuck in our learning rut, and for the most part it is beneficial in our schooling systems.  But in order to succeed on these exams we must realign our method of thinking to that of the test makers.  This alteration will lead us toward our ultimate goals: achieving a higher score in order to earn admission to the school of our choice and to become eligible for additional scholarship money to help fund our education

Caleb Pierce is a Tutor and President at Get Smarter Prep.

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Make the Most of Your High School Summers: 4.5 Tips

We are in that magical final month of the school year.  APs start next week, Finals not long after.  And then, some rest.  Or not.  Summer is something so many families and students get wrong and we want to help our readers get it right.  Here are 4.5 guidelines to help you make the most of your summer.

1.  Get A Job

We all know that SAT/ACT scores and GPA are massively important as part of your college application.  But did you know that jobs matter too?  Jobs indicate to colleges that you have taken on an additional level of responsibility and that you have had some experience in the working world before plunging into university-level studies.

For you, the rewards are significant: a chance to earn some money (never a bad thing to start saving for college), an opportunity to make new friends, a chance to learn a new skill, and finally, a look into what real-life-work is like.

Would it be nice if your job had some relationship to what you want to study in college or do with your life?  Sure!  But if not, any job is still a good experience (even if you don’t like it, you still learn about what you don’t like!).

Our recommendation –  20 hours per week

2.  Take a Class

There are lots of reasons to take at least one class during the summer.  The two most important are the opportunity to skip ahead in high school and the option of knocking a college class out of the way now.

Let’s say you want to take Calculus in the Fall but you were in Algebra II this last year.  That means you need Pre-calculus.  What if you took it during the summer?  Most community colleges will offer a class that covers the material.  Make sure that your school allows you to skip ahead, however.  Some schools have policies in place that prevent students from using this strategy. Better to check with your high school counselor and learn the requirements before you pay for the class.

Another situation: let’s say you’ve just taken Biology and you’re due up for Chemistry.  Maybe you want to take Chemistry over the summer and go right into Physics.  Or maybe you want to take AP Chem and want to have your first year of Chem done before taking that class (a must, really).  Either way, if your school approves, you can take a community college class, not a high school class.  For the simple reason that, as long as the college you take the class at is accredited, many colleges will take the credits you earn – if not as part of your core requirements, at least as an elective.  You’re going to save money, save time, and open up more options for yourself for your high school (and college) course load.

Also, remember that if you are in “school mode” just by taking one class over the summer, getting back into the groove in the Fall semester will be easier.

Our recommendation – 1 class maximum.  Remember that summer classes cover an entire semester in either a 4 or 8 week period, so each class session os longer and there is more material to learn in a shorter time span.

3.  Do Something Different

This is really up to you.  You could volunteer or go away on some adventure for the entire summer.  And remember, you have 4 summers in high school so you don’t have to do the same thing every year, but realize that if you pick an out-of-town option you necessarily have to rule out numbers 1 and 2 on our list.  And believe me, adventures are worth the sacrifice.  By the same token, if you were to go on adventures every summer and were to neglect work or class opportunities that would be shortsighted.

4.  Schedule Some Downtime

This is the most neglected item on this list.  Parents and students try to pack summer schedules and forget that recovery time – in athletics, in school, and in life – is the only way to make the “regular time” more productive.  For every 4 weeks in the summer, make sure that you have at least 4-5 days where you can relax.  No homework, no special things.  Just time off.

Our recommendation – Take at least one real day off every week.  We mean it!

4.5  Don’t Sweat Your Summer Reading

So I bring my personal experience with stacks of AP assigned reading when I was a high schooler (back before the dinosaurs had gone extinct) as well as observance of my very best students over the last decade to this point.  I don’t think you should worry about this until 10 days before school starts.  Now, this isn’t going to endear me to all the high school teachers who tell you “not to put this off.”  I just find that after a full year of pushing hard at school that there is ZERO appetite or desire – even among my best students – to pretend like the school year doesn’t end over the summer and “dig into” summer reading even a month after school ends. So rather than be unrealistic, I choose to be pragmatic.

Our recommendation – Start your summer reading – seriously and earnestly – no later than 10 days before school starts.

We hope these tips help and we hope it presents the right balance of work, study, and fun for your well-deserved block of time off!


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What is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program?

The International Baccalaureate program has its advocates and its critics.  Some see it as a “more global” version of the Advanced Placement (AP) program.  Some see it as “too global,” thereby undermining a unique American flavor to education in this country.  Beyond these considerations, of course, is the actual IB program itself and whether it may be right for your child.  Since families often ask about this program, we wanted to give a deeper explanation of the answers we give parents when they call or write us.

IB was founded in 1968 in Switzerland to serve as a base of educational curricula for those attending international schools.  If your parents were expats you might not be attending a “local” school but rather an “international” one, and as such, would not necessarily study Swiss history or literature, even though you lived in Switzerland, for example.  IB emphasizes critical and creative thinking and encourages students to choose their own topics and projects while requiring a lot of writing behind those topics and projects.  It also has a community service requirement.  At its core is an ideological agnosticism driven by its alignment with UN’s UNESCO requirements for education: that equal weight and value must be given to each form of government, cultural practice, or social construct.

There are middle school and elementary IB programs, but what we are most concerned with are the high school programs.  Depending on how your school has the program set up, students may be allowed to take a single IB class or may take a full course load of IB classes with an eye to earning the IB diploma.   While IB has no barrier set up to prevent any student from enrolling, sometimes these classes are scheduled in opposition to AP or Honors equivalents so that students have to choose.  Some schools see AP as the past and IB as the future.  Other schools see IB as an upstart whereas AP is the “old reliable.”  What is certain is that passing an AP exam with a score of 4 and above (and 3 in many other cases) will still earn you some level of college credit at many universities, whereas there is often no college credit for an IB.

At this point you may (reasonably) be asking, “So, let me see, colleges don’t give IB any more weight than AP as far as admissions goes, and IB actually carries less weight as far as college credit goes.  So, conversation over, right?”  Yes and no.  As we always try to do at Get Smarter Prep – we want to make sure you have the proper context for the answer.

I’ve taught over 2000 students in the more than 10 years I’ve been in the test prep industry.  More than a few have been in IB classes.  Those students have told me that they enjoyed the different course structure and the challenge.  They were all willing to admit that IB deprived them of a regular social life and even cut back their participation in outside activities, like work, sports, and clubs.   Yet, that overarching unified curriculum and drive for a diploma also creates a sub-group of students within each school who not only can work on things together, but can also commiserate about the tremendous work load.

But my students also lived with the fear that after two hard years invested across multiple subjects that they may not earn the coveted IB diploma.  Any good student loves a challenge – and IB – with its comprehensive curriculum – offers that to them.

Ultimately, the answer to “should my child do IB?” is quite similar to “should my child take the SAT or the ACT?”  That answer is: “It depends, and it’s different from child to child.” For the SAT and ACT, we recommend that your student come in and take practice tests for both, and then we will sit down with you, at no charge, to talk about which one makes more sense for you.  Unfortunately, there’s no “test” for whether you should take IB, but you can use the tried-and-true parent grapevine.  Take parents (and students!) who have been involved in IB out to coffee or dinner.  Ask them difficult questions.  Try to find people on both sides of the argument.  Using that information, you and your student can make an informed decision.

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ACT vs. SAT – Is one more accepted?

ACT vs. SAT – Is one more accepted?

For many years, I had to assure parents that the school their child was considering actually did accept the ACT.  The parents were working from experience bias. The ACT was almost unknown when they attended college and many colleges didn’t even require an entrance examination.  If one did, it was surely the SAT, which had over a decade’s head start into the blue ocean marketplace of college admissions exams.  I had to send parents to admissions websites where the clear black letters explained that “either ACT or SAT scores are acceptable” and even then, these same parents were cowed by the received wisdom of other parents, who heard from someone’s grandpa’s uncle’s sister who 5 years ago worked in admissions at Dartmouth, you know, that they preferred the SAT.  How much things have changed.

Now some students are hearing from the student grapevine that the ACT is not just a better test, but the preferred one.  Again, we have to step in to intervene.

We understand why there may have been this swing.  ACT has worked hard for years to overtake the SAT, and in 2012, they did.  How did they do it?  The way any smart company does.  Strategic appointments to their Board of Directors.  Legislation which caused the ACT to be required in certain states for the high school graduation process.  Aggressive expansion of their PLAN testing – an early-stages test which is a mini-ACT.  Awareness of the ACT test has crested, and now there isn’t just an acceptance of its equivalency for admissions, but the consumer – parent and student – perceives the ACT as more “fair” as it has 4 subjects tested (English, Math, Reading, and Science) instead of the SAT’s Reading, Math, and Writing.

However,  despite your perception there is still no change.  These tests have fundamental problems, yet, they are still accepted as part of the admissions process.  Our job is to help you beat them, and honestly, we’re very successful in that job.  A lot of our students get into schools they wanted to go to because of their prep here.  Many get into schools or get scholarships they would have never dreamed of before working with us.  Whichever test you end up working on (our advice is to take both free practice tests to see whether the ACT or SAT is better for you), be assured that colleges in America accept both the ACT and SAT as equivalent tests, without preference or prejudice.

On a final note, remember that just as the colleges don’t care which one you take, neither should you.  Don’t just say, “Well all my siblings have taken the SAT, so that means I should too.”  Maybe the SAT was the right test for them.  Maybe they didn’t need prep.  Maybe they didn’t work with experts who advised them to take both as practice tests so that they could get a subjective (how did I feel during the test?) and an objective (what was the score?) measure of this decision.

Unfortunately, although the colleges may have outsourced part of their decision-making process to these exams, it doesn’t mean you should outsource your decision on which one to take.  Your starting point should be taking a practice version of both.

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Boomer Jenkins

Fun Facts about Boomer Jenkins

1.  I was a very accomplished handbell (weird musical instrument that Lutherans play in church mostly) player in high school and was offered a scholarship to play in the best collegiate choir.

2.  I had a tremendous hairstyle through high school and part of college.  It is immortalized on my ID.

3.  My first car was a 1992 Lincoln Town Car.  It was an awful salmon pink color.  I loved it.

4.  I spent 10 days hiking in the mountains of New Mexico and did not shower the entire time.

5.  I have a strange talent for leisure games like pool, shuffleboard, and darts, and I use this talent to my advantage.

6.  I cannot turn off a game show, especially if it is trivia-based like Jeopardy.

7.  My music choices run the gamut.  You might hear 2 Chainz and Thelonious Monk back to back.  

8.  Horror movies and being scared are two things I avoid like the plague.

9.  When I was little, I told people that I was going to grow up and be a sports mascot.  This changed when I met Sluggerrrr (Royals mascot) and he scared poor little me.

10.  I’m an only child so I learned to improvise.  This meant using chess pieces to run football plays and attempting to throw sock balls into cardboard boxes.

Boomer Jenkins is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

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The Willingness-Strategy-Increase Correlate

The Willingness-Strategy-Increase Correlate – It happens quite frequently – parents ask me how students can improve their test scores.  Well, from my observations of thousands of students, there tends to be an integral combination of student effort and the mastery of the methods, as well as the structure, of the tests that provide the best results.  It’s the value of both that will help a student achieve their ACT or SAT goals!  It’s not a matter of one or the other – it’s the two in cooperation that leads to the largest score increases!

We recently helped a student that worked harder than any student I have ever seen!  She was honestly more self-motivated than anyone I’ve ever met.  The trouble was, while she worked very diligently and was dedicated to doing something – she didn’t choose to take the time to learn the right way to approach the ACT. She had taken 6 actual ACTs and probably 20 different Practice ACTs on her own before coming to Get Smarter Prep – yet she wasn’t seeing the result she expected.  The old adage, “perfect practice makes perfect” was not something she had ever adopted.  When she took the time to learn the right strategies, her time spent practicing was much more fruitful.

Conversely, I’ve seen numerous students who are provided with an abundance of opportunities to learn the strategies necessary to do their best, but who are not willing to do the “heavy-lifting” of practicing and committing to them.  Many of the strategies will stretch a student in a way they’ve never experienced – and if they aren’t willing to commit themselves to the strategies, there will be little room for growth.  Because some of the strategies feel uncomfortable for a student at first, they choose to rely on their “school methods,” which are often times counter-productive on these unique tests.

ACT and SAT prep is always the most productive when students are able to commit to the two aforementioned things: adaptation to the strategies that are right for the test and spending time practicing the new concepts.  If students are able to marry these two concepts, they will be well positioned to realize the goal score they set for themselves.

Caleb Pierce is a Tutor and the Owner of Get Smarter Prep

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Get Smarter Prep Teacher Training

No one who has ever made test prep a big part of his/her life “went to college” for it.  There is no “test prep” major.  Test prep is the art and science of understanding a test inside and out and being able to successfully communicate those ins and outs to students of every level.

The first place we reach out to recruit the best tutors for our company is among our existing tutors.  We’ve found that our teachers (unsurprisingly) know other great people like themselves and refer them to us.  Of course a referral bonus doesn’t hurt!

We also reach out via social media – Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and also via Craigslist, from which we found our first hire in Kansas City, Gina Claypool.

We then have an initial interview.  Part of it is perfectly conventional; part of it is more unique. First, we sit down with each candidate and discuss GSP and answer questions. Next, we have an audition in which the candidates are required to teach us something in which they consider themselves to be experts.  Over the years we’ve been taught how to be a true Wisconsin Cheesehead, how to put up a fence, how to dress for success, and many other varied topics! We do this because we love to have fun but also because we want to see how the candidates teach something in an interesting and engaging way.

After this initial screening, applicants are tested in both the ACT and the SAT. Each of our tutors works on both tests with students at all score levels, so we have high score expectations! We make some allowance for skill lost through lack of practice (we doubt you have used the formula for volume of a right cylinder at work recently), but we do expect a minimum score to start training and a higher score to successfully complete training.

After these and other screening requirements, our teachers complete over 25 hours of training for the ACT, followed by over 15 hours of training for the SAT.  We strongly believe that our teachers must be excellent in every subject and extremely competent in both tests.  No matter what our tutors professions are in “real” life (and we have and have had lawyers, engineers, biophysicists, MBAs, professional teachers, and many more) we only want the best and most talented in teaching these exams in front of our students.  Previous success in other areas is no guarantee for success in test prep, and throughout the training process we use various methods to make sure that we are hiring the best test prep tutors.

During training the candidates are taught all of our methods and are asked to “teach back” in small segments what they have been taught by our tutors.  We normally see some attrition during this stage of training, either through self-selection or through culling based on trainers’ judgments.  We have all of our tutors help with training not just to spread out the work, but also to allow the trainees to see different styles, methods, and indeed, jokes.

After final Teachbacks, in which the candidates are asked to teach back long segments, they are tested again on the SAT and ACT.  Despite near perfect scores in the initial screening, scores often increase on the final test, further driving home the belief in these trainees that our methods work.

Finally, the management team, in consultation with the trainers, makes offers to candidates to start as a Classroom Instructor. These teachers start out teaching classroom courses. As soon as that instructor is requested by name for private tutoring, he/she gets promoted to Standard Tutor.  Standard Tutors continue to teach courses but also teach private tutoring. Promotions to Master Tutor and Premier Tutor come with consistently high score increases and consistent requests from parents.  Our Premier Tutors have made test prep an important part of their lives and quite rightfully are the very best in the city at what they do.

Now you know more about the GSP Teacher Training process and what makes our teachers the best at what they do! If you are interested in applying to work for us, please visit our Jobs page.


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Benefits of Test Prep

You’ve spent countless years in school studying for tests and exams, writing papers, and doing group projects. You may be with aplomb that your grades can secure you that spot in your dream university and that you have just enough extracurricular activities on your resume, however there still is that dreaded test standing in your way. Whether you will take the SAT or ACT, the classes you took in school most likely weren’t designed to prepare you for your entrance exam.

Just as you prepared for your work in high school, it’s important to prepare for these exams because we want you to be able to select your undergraduate education, rather than allowing a college or university to select you. SAT and ACT scores are important for securing that acceptance letter, but if you need more detailed reasoning, here are our top benefits of preparing for your entrance exam with test prep courses.

Benefit #1: Test Prep Courses Teach the Exam Format

Test preparation courses teach you about the test and the various sections that are included. Understanding the format of the exam ahead of time will allow you to move quickly through the exam as you better understand what is expected of you. If you don’t need to spend time reading the introduction to each section, you’ll be able to jump right in and have more time to answer those tricky questions!

Benefit #2: Test Prep Courses Provide You with Timed Practice Exams and Evaluate Performance

Practice exams can help you discover your strengths and weaknesses, so you know what areas you need to focus your preparation. You’ll develop time management skills for the test as each section is strictly timed and rushing through questions can hurt your score.

After your practice test is scored, you’ll be able to examine what questions you guessed incorrectly or weren’t able to answer. Reviewing your work will allow you and your course coach to find a trend in the types of questions that gave you trouble, so you can focus on those areas as you prepare. If you nailed the math section, focus your efforts on writing and critical reading!

Timing is extremely important for these exams. If you discover you rushed through everything and finished early, but answered some of the easy questions wrong, take your time and read questions more thoroughly next time. If you didn’t finish in time, the course coaches will be able to provide proven test-taking tips and study guides to help you answer efficiently and accurately.

Benefit #3: Test Prep Courses Provide you with the Tools to Improve Your Score!

The points above prepared you for this outcome! Test prep courses can help you improve your score as you learn proven techniques for succeeding on the test. You’ll learn the format of the test and ways to manage your time while answering the questions correctly. You’ll learn how to craft responses that include each of the required sections and review some of those difficult Latin roots. By discovering your weaknesses, tutors are able to tailor their lessons to help you improve your score by tens or hundreds of points!

If you rocked your standardized exam, congratulations! If you need some more help preparing for your entrance exam, we’re always here to help and can provide you with a solution that works for your schedule. We want you to prepare effectively to overcome this hurdle!

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Caleb Pierce

Fun Facts about Caleb Pierce

Fun Facts about Caleb Pierce

1. In fifth grade, I was the lead in A Christmas Carol.  Apparently, as a ten year old, I made a pretty good old man!

2. I have been on two “Baseball Trips” with my brothers and dad.  Including those trips – I’ve been to 19 of the 30 Major League ball parks.  My favorite is definitely Fenway, although I could be a little biased!

3. On January 11th, 2006, I shattered all the bones on the right side of my face playing basketball.  Just one surgery later… humpty dumpty was put together again!

4. While I enjoy exploring new cities and cultures, I definitely prefer beach vacations!  I love the opportunity to escape and deny the real world for a span!

5. As a sophomore in high school, I performed for the Summit of the Eight as a part of the Denver Citywide Marching Band.  Dignitaries included: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Boris Yeltsen, Jacques Chirac – as well as others.  Also performing that evening were artists such as Michael Bolton (whom I briefly said hello to), Amy Grant (who I swear winked at me), and Aretha Franklin.

6. I rang in 2006 on Times Square in New York City.  Definitely a lot of fun to do once, but an adventure I don’t plan on ever doing again!

7. I’ve been in a fantasy baseball league since 2005.  I’ve been in this particular league longer than I’ve ever lived in one place (not just house… but city). 

8. I have one of the most “unique” degrees out there… a Master’s in Enrollment Management. 

9. I love sweet potatoes!  Conversely, I hate zucchini & cucumbers.

10. While I don’t know much about the culture… yet… I would love to visit Malta someday.

 Caleb Pierce is the President and a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep. Thanks for taking the time to read about Fun Facts about Caleb Pierce. 

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