Get Smarter Prep Logo

Rankings vs. Fit Part I

Rankings vs. Fit Part I

In this series, Audrey dissects a recent debate over the merits of Ivy League Universities which has opened up a much broader and more important conversation – one about choosing colleges and the importance of looking beyond selectivity and rankings when choosing a school. This is Part One of the series.

William Deresiewicz’s New Republic piece, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” has generated heated debate at the New Republic and elsewhere. In the original piece, excerpted from Deresiewicz’s new book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, the author argues that education at Ivy League institutions is fundamentally mismanaged and that our most elite institutions are producing graduates incapable of living the kinds of lives that Deresiewicz seems to think they should.

In the ensuing flurry of responses, a few critical questions emerge: What is college for? How should one choose a college?

Deresiweicz, and the authors who have joined the debate, are using “The Ivy League” as shorthand for a group of schools none of them define clearly, muddling the conversation significantly. The Ivies are, of course, a group of eight elite colleges: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. The combined undergraduate enrollment of these schools is just shy of 100,000 students, or about one half of one percent of the total undergraduate enrollment in the country. Deresiwiecz’s ostensible clarification that he refers to “our entire system of elite education,” including private and some public high schools, tutors, test prep, graduate school, and hiring practices, is problematic in its lack of precision. If his concern is, as it seems to be, with the entire system by which we educate and hire young people (not with the Ivy League specifically), why invoke the Ivies in the title?

Here the Ivy League is employed as a symbol of elitism, and of success – pointing to a much larger issue with the way we choose colleges. He comes closest to salient criticism of our current system when he writes: “Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth—“success.””

Prestige. Selectivity. Rankings. These are the criteria college lists are made of, right? Most prestigious is synonymous with “best,” which is somehow synonymous with “best for me.” In the hierarchical system of evaluating schools, the Ivy League colleges live at the top of the mountain with all other options somehow less shiny and promising.

Deresiwiecz hints at this disconnect but fails to make the next logical step: the ideal school for me may not be the ideal school for you, the most prestigious school that will accept a student may not be the one at which he or she will get the best education. If we can’t simply choose a college based on its rankings, how should we choose?

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Read More
Get Smarter Prep Logo

Baylor University

Name: Baylor University
College: College of Arts and Sciences
Major: University Scholars Program

1. What first drew you to Baylor University?

What first drew me to Baylor was that they offered me a full tuition scholarship, otherwise I never would have visited campus.  However, I’m glad I did because Baylor is an amazing school with tons of incredible opportunities!

2. What other colleges were you considering?

I was basically down to schools that were going to give me substantial scholarships, so Nebraska, University of Oklahoma, and Texas A&M were also in the mix.

3. How was the adjustment from high school to college?

The adjustment from high school to college isn’t as daunting as people make it out to be.  A lot of college level coursework is much more interesting than high school, so class is a lot more fun.

4. What was your favorite class? Why?

My favorite class was “Alexander and the Diadecoi” because I love history and this class relied solely on primary sources and rigorous application of classical historical study methods.

5. What clubs or groups were you involved in?

I was involved in Student Government, Model UN, the Baylor Marksman’s Association, and Brooks College.

6. Anything else you want to tell us?

I’m really glad that I chose Baylor because Baylor emphasizes a traditional liberal arts education, and that’s actually pretty rare these days.

7. In one sentence, what do you love about your school?

I love Baylor because it was the perfect place for me.


Read More
Get Smarter Prep Logo

Fun Facts about Audrey Hazzard

1) I’ve visited 42 states and 23 U.S. National Parks. I love road trips!

2) I love to write, and I try to participate in National Novel Writing Month every year. My first year, after finishing a (very) rough draft during the month of November, I printed it out and carried it around with me for weeks. It was so exciting to exciting to have this tangible stack of pages that I had produced! (Unfortunately, I hate editing, so I haven’t done much else with it yet. Feel free to remind me that I’ve got revisions to do!)

3) I love Audrey Hepburn, and I’ve probably seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s 100 times.

4) I am gradually teaching myself to sew my own clothes. So far I’ve mostly made special occasion dresses for themed parties. I have almost no patience for patterns so I usually just draw my own.

5) I came very close to attending Arizona State University. I was enrolled in the architecture program – had signed up for classes and everything – before I was able to visit. When I finally did visit, I found that I was desperately allergic to ASU’s campus and had to change my mind at the last minute! (I ended up attending Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA.)

6) I have an inordinate attachment to Happy Bunny. I have, at various times, owned Happy Bunny socks, bags, a wallet, posters, and bath mat.

7) In between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I participated the History at Sea program put on by the National Maritime Historical Society. We sailed a tall ship (with watch shifts and everything!) and attended history lectures. The ship, the H.M.S. Rose, was later sold to MGM for use in the movie Master and Commander.

8) I believe there is a Gilmore Girls quote for every situation, but I’ve learned it’s usually best to keep them to myself.

9) Cooking is one of my favorite creative outlets and methods of stress relief. The farmer’s market is one of my happy places, and I’m always looking for ways to increase the DIY factor of my food projects. This summer, I am pickling anything I can get my hands on.

10) I attended a Montessori school from kindergarten through sixth grade, and then was home-schooled for one year before high school. I enjoyed both of those alternative educational options, but starting Catholic high school (uniforms! so many rules!) was a bit of a shock.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Read More

Randolph College

Name: Audrey Hazzard
College: Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College)
Major: Economics/International Studies


1. What first drew you to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College?

My mom attended RMWC, and I grew up hearing stories of her adventures and the traditions unique to the school (Ring Week, Stomps, Pumpkin Parade). While I considered a *very* long list of schools, ultimately RMWC felt like a place I belonged.

2. What other colleges were you considering?

My final decision was between Arizona State University and RMWC – one of the largest schools in the country and one of the smallest! (They also both offered me full scholarships.) I also considered Knox College, Saint Louis University, Grinnell College, Reed College, Cooper Union, and Simmons College. (Yeah, I was kind of all over the place.)

3. How was the adjustment from high school to college?

In some ways it was easier than I expected – I made close friends almost immediately, and I am still close with some of them today. At the same time, it’s a very demanding school – small, competitive, and intense. I was already burned out from a demanding Senior year, and probably shouldn’t have started college with a sleep deficit. A bit of advice for students: make time for sleep now! It definitely doesn’t get easier. =)

4. What was your favorite class? Why?

One of the reasons I picked RMWC instead of ASU was that I’d have more time for electives in a liberal arts environment (versus the architecture program I’d picked at ASU). I took a lot of special topics and interdisciplinary classes, but my favorite was an American Culture seminar. I was one of two students in the class, and we had two professors. We met twice a week to discuss books, essays, and current events. I read and wrote more that semester than before or since, but it was an amazing experience.

5. What clubs or groups were you involved in?

Amnesty International, The Sundial (newspaper), Bridges (GSA), Spanish Club, Environmental Club, and a valiant effort at starting a Caving Club that never quite made it to official status.

6. Anything else you want to tell us?

Dorms and food are both fantastic. I’d be lying if I said those weren’t serious considerations when I made my final decision. We a Sunday brunch, often with live music, that residents of the community would attend. Kind of awkward wandering down to brunch in your PJ’s to find a bunch of local residents in church clothes, but the food was that good!

7. In one sentence, what do you love about your school?

I loved the traditions, sense of community, and accessibility of faculty and staff.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Read More
Get Smarter Prep Logo

Extracurricular Activities and College Application

Extracurricular Activities and College Application

It is general knowledge that college admissions officers first look at test scores, grades, and the rigor of courses students take in high school. However, what are also important in the admissions process are a student’s extracurricular activities. Students are a representative of the college they attend, and it goes without saying colleges care about the character of the people they admit to their school.

Extracurricular activities are a good indicator of what a student does during his time spent outside of school. In other words, what a student is doing over summer vacation and on the weekends, gives admission officers a good idea of what kind of individual they are considering admitting to their college.

No doubt about it, volunteerism is very important, however admissions officers are looking for real hands-on involvement. There is a difference between the student that volunteers once to collect money for a charity and the student who spends every Saturday helping clean up city parks. The student that dedicates more time is the one that is most likely to receive his or her admission letter.

Most colleges aren’t terribly picky about how you spend your time outside of the classroom as long as it is apparent you are doing something meaningful. While they won’t be able to notice that you spend four hours a day on your smartphone, they will notice if there is a lack of activities on your application.


As long as you can make evident to the admission officers that you have accomplished something meaningful, that you are committed, have initiative, and leadership skills, you are on the right track. When admissions officers evaluate extracurricular activities, evidence of leadership and dedication are taken into consideration during the admissions process.

Evidence of leadership is a phrase that comes up frequently during the admissions processes and it very well might be what separates a student granted admission from those that end up waitlisted. Leadership can take many forms. The more selective a university or college is the more judiciously a student’s leadership role is assessed.

When to Start

Your freshman year of high school is the perfect time to explore multiple activities as you continue to discover what you are good at and what motivates you. By sophomore year your list of activities should be trimmed down and your focus should be on the three to four projects that you are generally interested in and enjoy. By the time your junior year rolls around, you should have established the activities you feel the most passionate about and should attempt to become an officer, leader, or president.

During your senior year visiting various colleges and the college application process will begin to take up a lot of free time, so now more than ever it is important to be certain that your extracurricular activities are ones that are meaningful and fulfilling. Students should try and stay involved in their extracurricular during their summer vacations. Colleges are always interested to see any indication that students have done something more than play video games during their break from school.

Interests and Talents

When choosing activities your talents, skills, and academic interests can come together to make sense of whom you are and who you want to be. Try to participate in activities that are related to and support your future major.

You may not know what you want to do with your life when you are 17, but if you have a good idea of what you want to focus on when you eventually attend college, begin pursuing these fields sooner rather than later both inside and outside of the classroom. Whatever your interest, find an activity that supports it. 

But before you decide to sign up for all of the activities your school and community offers, remember that quality outweighs quantity every time. Dedication to your chosen extracurricular activities shows the value of your involvement. While Student A may attend nearly every club her school has to offer, Student B only joins two but is more involved, organizing outings for the environmental club and being the vice president of the school’s drama club.

The level of involvement is more important to the admissions office than breadth. Use the time spent on extracurricular activities wisely by trying things that interest you and then choosing the ones that are the most meaningful to focus on. Extracurricular activities are one key way students can exhibit their individuality and showcase their passions, and perhaps most importantly, in the admissions process appear more interesting and potentially superior to the other applicants.

If you need help with the college application process, contact Get Smarter Prep and we will gladly help you every step of the way. 

Read More
Get Smarter Prep Logo

Classes or Private Tutoring?

Not only do we help students decide whether they should take the ACT or SAT, we also help them decide the best tutoring option for them. Should a student be in a private tutorial or a class? After the question about which test to take, which is by far the most important question to answer, this is a crucial one.

The first consideration is price.  We work within your framework.  After that discussion, we use two major determinants to guide your decision: score desired and time available.

Score Desired

How much of an increase do you need?  If it’s simply a matter of a point or two, private tutoring might be the best bet.  It will allow your instructor to be surgical and purposeful and work only on the areas you need.

Our classes follow a set curriculum, covering each subject equally, but there is still time for some individualized discussion. First, we have a maximum teacher-to-student ratio of 1:6.  Very often our classes only have 3-4 students in each section because we group our students based on their Pretest scores.

Secondly, after each exam (we take a Midterm and a Final) we meet with each student privately to talk about the takeaways from that test and to adjust strategies and goals for the next test.  

Time Available

We believe that generally, the more time you have to work on test prep and the more prep you do, within reason, the more your score will increase.  But not all our students have that time (they’ve built extremely scheduled lives!) or come to us with a lot of time (sometimes we don’t see students until Fall of their Senior year with one test on the calendar that will make their application deadline).  For those students, if their scores fall within certain ranges, the Course for either the SAT or ACT makes a lot of sense.

Answer: None of the Above?

You might say at this point that you want to be in a class, but your schedule is simply too unpredictable or unusual or strange for our standard schedules.  We have a hybrid model for you: our Semi-Private Tutoring.  Sometimes we are able to match students who have very similar score profiles and who want a custom course.  Other times a group of 2 or more friends who play the same sport or who have a similar schedule come to us.

Now it’s important to note that with the Semi-Private Tutoring, as with all our tutorials and courses at GSP, we let the score do the talking.  If it turns out that two students who came to us dead-set on working in a course together shouldn’t even be taking the same test (one student may show really well as an SAT tester and the other may show more potential for the ACT), we’re going to tell them.  We’re always going to focus on a student’s goals and the best environment for each student.

Whatever path you decide to take, we are confident that you will join thousands of satisfied GSP alums and families in getting the score you need for the school you want.  We hope to see you soon.

Read More
Get Smarter Prep Logo

A Short History of Get Smarter Prep

With a strong reputation among our local schools and having helped thousands of families in the greater Kansas City area achieve the scores they needed for the schools they wanted, one might think Get Smarter has been around for ages.  This month we put another academic year behind us and next month we celebrate our ninth year in Kansas City (not quite ages, yet), and we hope to be around many more years.  As we reflect on nine years of score improvements, educating families about college, and answering numerous questions about this process, we thought we would share a short history of how we got here in the first place.

The story starts in 2004.  Stephen Heiner, the founder of Get Smarter Prep, was in Southern California.  He taught test prep part-time but loved it so much he wanted to do it full-time.  He tossed around ideas, recruited from among the best he knew, and then took a weekend retreat with several other colleagues and talked about aspects they liked from the big-box companies and things they didn’t like, and came up with a small-group focused firm.  The goal was to teach fewer students per class, because more personal attention meant higher score increases, period.

It was successful for two years, building up a strong practice within Orange County, California.  Stephen wanted to leave the area to move to a part of the country with a little less stress, a lot less traffic, and a more reasonable housing market, among other reasons.  He had family near Kansas City and had always liked KC when he had previously visited.  He did research on the area, looking at demographics and the schools, and decided to leave the sunny climes of California to move to Kansas City. In July 2006, Get Smarter Prep (GSP) opened its doors in Overland Park, just a few doors down from where our current offices are today.  (As an aside, for those of you who have ever spent time in Southern California you can appreciate what a sacrifice it was, even for half a year, to take on Kansas City weather.)

There were a couple things that the founder didn’t know going in: 1) how much the market had to be educated about these tests and how coachable the tests really are (people thought you either did well or you didn’t, but there wasn’t a real consensus city-wide that there were reliable methods to beat the test and improve scores); 2) how long it would take to get the first paying client (it happened in December 2006).

From January 2007 until the present day, GSP has grown our practice. We’ve even been privileged enough to have a teacher who was part of the first training class still be with us: Gina Claypool.  We’ve learned that the best way to get new clients now is the way we got clients in the first place: word of mouth.  Nothing creates belief in a company like someone you know directly benefiting from a company’s services and then telling people they know about it.  This isn’t to say we don’t do other things.  We advertise in selected print pieces.  We manage our social media and search engine presence.  We sponsor school teams and/or calendars.  We also sponsor or have booths at college fairs and other similar events.  We give talks at schools to calm parents down about college or about the PSAT or about any of these standardized tests that only scare because people don’t know the truth.

As we move into our 9th year the spirit of the founder is still strong at GSP. We still focus on small group classes and private tutoring.  We still stay on the phone with parents until we’ve answered every question they have.  We still have the highest standards for the teachers we recruit and we make sure that they have quarterly continuing education to maintain our standards.  And we still remain dedicated to our raison d’etre: “The score you need for the school you want.”  We hope to be able to serve you sometime soon.


Read More
Get Smarter Prep Logo

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!


Read More
Get Smarter Prep Logo

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.

Read More
Get Smarter Prep Logo

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!


Read More