Top 10 Test Prep Traps, Part II

Top 10 Test Prep Traps Part II

At GSP, we understand that the amount of information floating around in the world about how to prepare to take your test(s), which test(s) to prepare for, etc., can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, some of it is also terrible advice! Here are some of the most common test prep traps we see students and parents fall into. From wasting time and money to actually making your college applications less effective, these missteps can be easy to make. Fortunately, we’re here to answer your questions and point out some potential pitfalls!

In Part 1 of this post, we discussed when and how many times to take the test. Next, we’ll review some important considerations in choosing which test (ACT? SAT?) and setting a good goal score. Here are some common mistakes:

5. Not Having a Clear Goal Score

“I want a good score.”

“I just want to do better.”

“I want it to be as high as possible.”

If you don’t have a clear goal in mind, setting up a study plan, either by yourself or with a tutor, is nearly impossible. There’s a lot of strategy involved in determining what components of a score can be improved, and by how much, and in how much time, for each student. Your practice test score, the amount of time you have, and the colleges you’re considering can all help you (and us) come up with a clear target for your preparation efforts. Having that target really shapes what your preparation process will look like.

What to do instead: Do your research, take a practice test, research the score ranges for the colleges you’re considering.

6. Not Having a Realistic Goal Score

Setting a goal is important, but setting a realistic goal is also critical. A lot of students know (of) someone who got a 35 or a 36 (2350-2400 for the SAT folks) and think, “If they can do it, so can I!”

They think if they just work hard enough they can turn an 18 in to a 36. No problem! Right?

How many students from the class of 2013 got a 36? 0.06%.

So you think, OK, I don’t need a 36. How about a 32? Only 2% of students get a 32 or above.

It’s important to realize that most people don’t break 30 on the ACT. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t work hard, or that they’re not intelligent, or that they won’t get into a great college, or do well once they get to college.

The ACT is intended to be difficult. Studying, practicing, and working with a great tutor can all boost your score, but it’s also important to weigh that studying and practicing against all of the other things that will help you get into college and just generally have a decent life.

You know, like homework. And activities. And sleep.

What to do instead: Look at the colleges on your list, your practice test scores, and talk with a tutor or someone else who can help you come up with a good plan. The amount your score can increase depends a lot on your starting point, which aspects of the test are easier or harder for you, and the amount of time and energy you’re willing or able to dedicate to preparing.

7. Dividing Your Energy

Let’s pretend Jane has decided to focus on the SAT. She’s working towards a specific test date, and everything is on track. Look out, though! Here comes an ACT test date right in the middle of her weeks-long SAT prep schedule. Maybe, think Jane and her parents, it might be a good idea to take some time out of the SAT prep schedule and do some ACT work?


The ACT and SAT are actually pretty different tests, and colleges accept either one. With very rare exception, there’s nothing to be gained from switching midstream from one test to the other. If anything, Jane will end up more confused and using the wrong strategy on the wrong test – hurting either or both of her scores.

What to do instead: Take a practice version of each test (SAT and ACT) at the beginning of the preparation process so that you can make an educated choice about which test works better for you, then make a study plan and stick with it!

8. Committing to One Test too Soon

Here’s another scenario: Jane hasn’t taken any practice tests, but she knows she wants to focus on the ACT because she heard the SAT is really hard and has too many sections. Also her older brother John took the SAT and didn’t do very well.

Jane begins preparing for the ACT, but struggles with a couple of the sections. On a whim, finally, she takes a practice SAT, and although she’s been practicing the ACT for months, her SAT score is considerably higher.

What to do instead: Take a practice version of each test at the beginning of the preparation process! Many students will have comparable scores on the two tests, but feel more comfortable with one or the other. Other students will do somewhat better on one or the other right away, so it makes sense to stick with the one that is working! Either way, by taking both practice tests, you don’t have to wonder what you’re missing.

Watch for Part 3 of this post, where we talk about Super-Scoring and scholarships!

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Top 10 Test Prep Traps Part I

Top 10 Test Prep Traps – Part 1 of 3

At GSP, we understand that the amount of information floating around in the world about how to prepare to take your test(s), which test(s) to prepare for, etc., can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, some of it is also terrible advice! Here are some of the most common test prep traps we see students and parents fall into. From wasting time and money to actually making your college applications less effective, these missteps can be easy to make. Fortunately, we’re here to answer your questions and point out some potential pitfalls!

1. Taking the Test Too Early

Both the SAT and the ACT are designed to be taken in your junior or senior year. Taking a test – even a practice test – too soon can add unnecessary anxiety to a process that is, for many students and parents, already a stress-fest. We suggest taking your first practice test no sooner than May or June of your sophomore year. Before that point, you probably won’t have completed the course work that the SAT or ACT test, so your scores won’t really tell you much that’s useful.

What to do instead: Take challenging classes, read a lot, and pursue activities that interest you. You’ll be more prepared when it is time to take the test, and you’ll have more to put on your applications than just test scores.

2. Taking the “Real” Test Before You’ve Taken a Practice Test

No, the PLAN and/or PSAT don’t count. You should have taken *at least* one full-length practice test before you sign up for the official test. Yes, there’s a chance that you’ll take it once, get a score that makes you happy, and move on with your life – but wouldn’t that chance be increased if you took a practice test and spent some time preparing before the official test? It’s more likely that you’ll get a score that you feel needs improving, and the only thing you gain from taking (and paying for) that first test is the realization that you need to study. Guess what else could have told you that – for free? A practice test.

What to do instead: Take a practice test. Preferably, one of each – an SAT and an ACT – to see which one suits you best.

3. Taking the “Real” Test When You Know You’re Not Ready

Let’s pretend I’m signed up for the ACT this Saturday. And I bought some prep books a few months ago and I meant to study but my sports/work/whatever schedule has been, you know, and I haven’t even opened them. And I’m getting over the flu, and I have a lock-in the night before, so I know I won’t sleep, and also I may have sprained my thumb so I can’t really hold a pencil. What do I do?

Spoiler alert: Skip it. Please please please skip it.

“I just want to have an official score!” Why? Is this your absolute last chance before your applications are due? If not, what’s the point of having a score if it’s not one that will help you?

“But I can always take it again!” That’s mostly true. But why take it now, when you know you’re not prepared? Also, just because you can take it again, that doesn’t mean you should. (See #5)

What to do instead: Take a nap. Seriously, it sounds like you could use it. Then make a study plan for the next test date, and stick to it.

4. Taking the “Real” Test Over, and Over, and Over Again

So you’ve got a study plan and/or a tutor and you’re working hard towards a test date a several weeks or months in the future. But there’s a test before then! Shouldn’t you just take it anyway, just to see?

Um, no.

Taking the ACT/SAT is not actually that fun. There is, actually, a maximum number of times you can take the test, but most students hit their own personal limit before they reach that maximum. Students have a lot of competing priorities to juggle, and spending a Saturday taking one more ACT just to see if something magical happens is probably not the best use of your time.

Also, while different colleges have different policies, some schools do ask that you supply all of your scores to them. Additionally, even if the school doesn’t require all of your scores, sometimes the scores are sent anyway. It’s a pretty common error. We at GSP suggest that you assume your colleges will see all of your scores.

What to do instead: You’ve got a plan! Stick with your plan! Or, if you don’t have a plan, you know, make a plan. Take the test again only if you’re ready and pretty confident it’s a good use of time.

If you really want to practice, take a practice test.

Watch for Part 2 of this post, where we discuss the importance of setting clear, realistic goals, and picking the right test for you!

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Rankings vs. Fit, Part IV

Rankings vs. Fit Part IV

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 Four of the series. Here are the other posts: Part I, Part II, Part III.

At the end of Part Three, I suggested there were four “corners,” or major sets of considerations, to assist in narrowing your college list from “all of the schools in the known universe” to “6 or 8 or 10 or however many applications one person can actually complete.” Those corners are Geography, Academics, Extracurriculars, and Amenities.


You may have been told that you can find your niche anywhere, and to some extent, that’s true. But it will be easier to find opportunities to go cross-country skiing in Minnesota than Louisiana. Do you have strong feelings about trees? Snow? Squirrels? Ragweed? Elevation?

Here are some geography questions to ask yourself: How far from home do you want to be? Do you want to be able to dash home on a weekend with a car full of laundry, or are you happy with Christmas and summer?

What kind of weather do you want to live with for the next four years? Do you really hate cold? Or heat? Or rain?

Do you want to be near the mountains? The ocean? Would you prefer an an urban campus integrated into a large city, or a peaceful retreat with tree lined walks and mossy brick and people playing frisbee on the quad?


What do you want to be when you grow up?

Do you have a ready answer, or are you now caught in a wave of panic? Either way, you can narrow your list! If you know what you want to do, you have a passion and a focus, it’s important to find a school that has that field. Meet with some professors, or at least send some e-mails. Talk to them about your interests.

If you have no idea what you want to study, you probably want to avoid schools that have a very limited focus or ask that you pick a major immediately. You may want to look for schools that encourage you to explore a few different subjects your first year or two. And even if you have no idea what your future looks like, you should be able to find a major, or two, or three, on the list of the college in question, and think to yourself, “Hm. Maybe.”

How about class size? Picture yourself in a lecture hall with 50 or 100 other students. Then picture yourself in a room with ten students and one professor who knows your name and expects you to have something interesting to say. One of those might sound horrible. Most schools will have some of each the distribution varies pretty widely.

Do you think you might want to go to graduate school? Some schools send a lot more students on to get PhDs than others. What about opportunities for undergraduate research or study abroad programs?


What keeps you sane? What keeps you centered? What has been your refuge throughout high school when things were a little overwhelming? Your ideal college should offer some opportunity to do that, whether it’s basketball or saxaphone or religious services of your denomination, either on campus or near by. If art is your hobby, but you don’t want to major in it, would you be able to enroll in studio classes, or are they restricted to studio art majors?

In addition to the hobbies and activities you know are important, what new things do you hope your college will have? Take a look at the list of clubs and activities at a few different colleges and universities – what kinds of clubs are (and aren’t) offered can provide a lot of insight into the culture.

How important is Greek life (or avoiding Greek life) to you? What about sports? The idea of a whole campus decorated in school colors and excited about the next game might seem a necessary part of your college experience, or something you’d rather avoid entirely.


It’s not enough to say, “nice dorms.” I loved my dorms. They were historic, with beautiful wood floors and high ceilings and old radiators that knocked and clanked all night in the winter. They had no air conditioners or elevators, but huge closets and plenty of windows. Old buildings are pretty, but they do come with some limitations.

What is “nice” to you? Also, beyond the building itself, think about policies. How do you feel about gender divisions in housing? Is it important to you that you be in a quiet or substance free dorm? What about restrictions on visiting hours, or even curfews?

“Good food” is not obvious, either. Having a choice between eighteen fast food options might sound amazing to you, or it might sound like torture. Do you have dietary restrictions for religious or health reasons? What are the vegetarian options like?

How about the athletic facilities? Art museum? Library? Weird little underground student-run pub?

Some of these things will seem very important to you. Others will seem silly and not worth considering. But by coming up with your own list of must-haves, you can rank colleges for yourself, and (hopefully) end up with a list of schools that fit you, not some obscure list of criteria made up by someone you’ve never met. And since you’re the one actually going to the college in question, it seems like that might be more important.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Why I Work at Get Smarter Prep

Why I Work at Get Smarter Prep

When I came to Get Smarter Prep (GSP) three years ago, I was a few months out of grad school. I had luckily landed a position as an adjunct professor at a local community college, but “adjunct” is a fancy word for “part-time.” I needed a flexible job that would allow me to continue with my adjunct position and supplement my income. An old friend was working at GSP at the time and encouraged me to apply. I ended up going through training and came out the other end as a GSP employee. I’ve been an employee now for three years, and there are a lot of reasons why I’ve stayed:

1) Flexible hours

At GSP, you can determine your own availability. I was able to say when I wanted and didn’t want to teach. I’m available most weekday afternoons and evenings. Sunday, however, is my day to decompress, ride bikes, knit, pet kittens, etc. Other tutors prefer to do more tutoring on the weekend. You get to choose!

2) Helping stressed out students

I may have just celebrated my ten-year reunion, but I still remember vividly how stressful high school was: class all day long, honors classes, pressure to get the best grades possible, college apps, and extracurricular activities. When did we ever sleep?! Students still go through that today, but you can be a beacon of hope! The ACT and SAT are just other stressors in students’ lives, but you can help ease their worries. When your student gets the score that helps him or her get into the dream college, it’s a rewarding feeling.

3) Amazing co-workers

I’ve had a lot of part-time jobs since high school, and I can honestly say that I’ve had the BEST co-workers at GSP. They’re smart, funny, caring, and always helpful. There’s never an awkward company meeting or party because I’m always elated to spend time with these people. We come from a variety of backgrounds and professions, so there’s always something neat to talk about. The front office staff deserves their own full-page description of how wonderful they are, but I will summarize and say that they make your life as a tutor easy. If you’re having issues or need something, just shoot them an email, and they will respond promptly. They’re responsive, empathetic, and just amazing.

4) A job you can feel proud of

Since graduating, I’ve run into a lot of old classmates at jobs that they’re clearly embarrassed to be seen at (They shouldn’t be because we all know college loans don’t pay themselves!). Being a tutor at GSP has always been a job that I take great pride in. Even though we follow set material, I’m constantly using my problem-solving skills. Every student’s brain processes information differently, and I have to figure out how to make everything click. At GSP, my expertise and my time are well compensated. I know I’m a valued member of the team.

I will unfortunately be saying goodbye to GSP this year as I embark on a new adventure: motherhood. Leaving will be truly bittersweet because I’ve absolutely loved this job and the people. Just reading through the reasons I’ve listed above makes me want to strap on a baby carrier and continue tutoring (but that might be distracting to the students). I hope future tutors will have as memorable time as I have had!

If you are interested in learning more about working at GSP, here’s a link to our Jobs page!

Madison Huber-Smith is a former GSP Tutor.

Rankings vs. Fit Part III

Rankings vs. Fit Part III

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 Three of the series. Here are Part I and Part II.

So, rankings may not be that important after all. They may give us some ideas, but they are not definitive – which schools are included and how those schools are ranked vary quite a bit from one rankings system to another, and the criteria may not include the factors that are most important to an individual student.

So what is important?

This is what was important to me: I wanted my campus to be pretty. I wanted people to be nice. I wanted to be able to get to know my professors a little bit, because I learn best when I’m face to face with someone. I wanted the food to be good.

That doesn’t narrow it down much, does it? I didn’t mind a religious affiliation, but I didn’t want mandatory theology classes, because I felt I’d had enough of that in my Catholic high school, so that meant Georgetown was out. I wanted to be able to take some electives, not just courses in my major (bye-bye, Cooper Union). I was pretty committed to the idea of seasons (there goes Arizona State) and putting a few hundred miles between me and my hometown (sorry, Washington University).

Some students will visit an older sibling or cousin who ended up at Ohio State and fall in love with the school, without looking at too many other places or asking very many questions. And those students might well have an amazing experience at Ohio State. Many of the things that determine the flavor of your particular college experience may not show up in a brochure or even an overnight visit: a particular class you stumble upon because the one you intended to take was full and you really need something Monday and Wednesday at 3:00, or the person who lives across the hall from you during your first semester, or the little all night diner across town that no one else seems to know about. Ohio State is just as likely to deliver these serendipitous intangibles as any other school. The list of factors I’m suggesting below is not for those students, nor is it for the ones who have always wanted to attend the same school as a parent or uncle and are certain they will be accepted to that school (although I’d point out that having backups is still wise).

This list is for students who are certain their perfect school is out there, somewhere, and are tempted to turn to rankings guides to find it. This list is for students who wanted to attend the most selective school that would accept them before they read that the most selective school that accepts you might not actually be the best fit. This list is for students who are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of schools – even in an abbreviated list like Princeton Review’s – and have no idea where to start.

Choosing a college that works for you is like folding a giant, unwieldy blanket. Which corner you start with matters less than the fact that you need to start with a corner. Once you’ve got a handle on that, you can move to the next corner, and the next, until what was a giant, uncoordinated mess is something manageable and organized. “Corners,” for the purposes of my metaphor, are geography, academics, extracurriculars, and amenities. So pick a corner, and start narrowing that list.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Rankings vs. Fit Part II

Rankings vs. Fit Part II

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 Two of the series.

In Part One, we introduced an important idea: college rankings may not be the most important factor in choosing a school. This may sound simple, but the very purpose of rankings is to present a list of schools from most to least desirable, based upon a series of criteria which vary from one ranking system to the next. U.S. News calculates its rankings based upon “undergraduate academic reputation” (assessed by college administrators and high school guidance counselors), student retention, “faculty resources” (professor salary is the largest component of this section, while student to faculty ratio is the smallest), selectivity (most of this category is determined by SAT and ACT scores,) financial resources, graduation rate, and alumni giving rate.

The Princeton Review’s rankings are composed a bit differently; schools are ranked in 62 different categories, based on student surveys. Topics are diverse, and include information on dorms, dining, health services, and the prevalence of alcohol on campus. As a student I may care quite a bit more about the quality of the food than the salary of my professors, so the Princeton Review ranking system may seem to have more to offer me than the U.S. News version.

However, the number of colleges ranked by The Princeton Review is less than 400 – just over 13% of the total number Title IV institutions granting 4-year degrees in the country. Robert Franek, who authors the guide, says: “Every college in our book offers outstanding academics.” Is the implication that the colleges and universities not included in their rankings don’t offer quality educations?

Unfortunately, the Princeton Review is less than specific in revealing the methodology used to select the schools they review, noting only that “[w]e selected these colleges primarily based on our high opinion of their academics.” U.S. News, by contrast, collects data on approximately 1600 colleges and universities, about 56% of the total schools in the country. While the U.S. News system still appears less than comprehensive, it includes far more schools than The Princeton Review.

One could certainly argue that the number of schools reviewed by any given outlet provides students with an overwhelming array of choices, and that tracking down more colleges and universities to investigate, beyond the several hundred provided, is, well, a bit silly. But understanding the underlying logic of ratings systems can be invaluable in choosing the best colleges for an individual student.

Forbes provides perhaps the most surprising ranking system. One might expect such a magazine to provide mostly financial information. And, in a way, it does. “We’re not all that interested in what gets a student into college, like our peers who focus heavily on selectivity metrics such as high school class rank, SAT scores and the like. Our sights are set directly on ROI: What are students getting out of college?” Forbes’ ranking includes ten percent weight given to RateMyProfessor scores, as well as several metrics measuring student success after graduation: graduate salaries as well as the number of students winning certain awards (Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, for example). Forbes ranks 650 schools, falling between the relatively small number ranked by The Princeton Review and the more comprehensive U.S. News list.

Other ranking systems exist – focusing on everything from public service (Washington Monthly) to earnings after graduation (Money). Which rankings, if any, to consider in the college search should be compatible with a student’s goals and priorities. Because rankings systems disagree regarding which criteria are important for evaluating schools, and even which schools ought to be evaluated, rankings can’t generally be accepted without research into methodologies and some consideration of which factors are most important to an individual student. We’ll discuss what some of those factors might be in the next part of the series.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

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.

Apps to Help You Test Prep

Do you have apps on your smartphone?  We suspect that most of them are probably fun ones.  Perhaps you like to nerd it up with Words with Friends or take over kingdoms in Clash of Clans.  Or you like sending the picture of the moment on Instagram.  The top of your app-favorite list probably isn’t…a study app. But, as you know, we are always trying to help you improve and get better for these tests so today we wanted to review the official mobile applications for both SAT and ACT, as well as throw out a couple free apps to help you study when you’re not in class with us, doing homework for us, or studying on your own.  We aren’t trying to take up all your time with test prep – just use some of the unused current bandwidth you possess.


SAT Question of the Day App

Unfortunately, dear readers, this is only available on for iOS devices.  However, the price is right: free.  Question of the Day is a gambit that has been around for a while.  You get an authentic SAT question – you try and answer it, and you are given detailed explanations as to why an answer may be correct or incorrect.  This is a snapshot of the close-in work we do with our students, and it’s an excellent way to prepare.  We don’t believe in “question answering” in which you just answer a bunch of questions and get told solely whether they are correct or wrong. You have to know why you got a problem wrong.  Your teacher needs to identify your patterns of weakness so you can address them together.

This app includes the question as well as the most recent 7 questions.  They aren’t exactly giving away the farm but it’s not bad, either.  It’s simple, clean, and well done.  Now if only the SAT was like that!


ACT Student App

ACT, which prides itself on being the “big tent” test, definitely has more questions for you, but like College Board, only services iOS (I have a sneaking suspicion given how much money these organizations spend on research that they found out their target demographic overwhelmingly uses iOS devices).

The ACT’s app is generous in that it also allows you online access to your account, where you can see previous test scores.  It also gives you access to a bank of questions.  Now – I didn’t find out exactly how many.  In prepping to write this article I tried 20 questions in each category – English, Math, Reading, and Science – and I didn’t get any repeats.  I guess the point is – you’ll have more than 7!  And remember these questions should be supplements to the work you are already doing.  Have a few minutes in between class and are in “school/nerd” mode – do a question.  It won’t hurt, I promise!


Vocabulary Apps

For as long as I’ve been doing test prep (this is my 10th year) I’ve warned students about the dangers of traditional flash cards: word on the front, definition on the back.  I know that many of us have used traditional flash cards to much success.  But it’s short-term success.  It’s a study method that places these items into our short-term memory, and then those memories fade with lack of use.  I propose a stickier method: write a definitional sentence on the back of the card.  For example, if you use the word, “holistic,” write a sentence like, “The teacher promised to grade the tests in a holistic manner, taking not just style and grammar, but content, into account.”  Now, the sentence doesn’t need to be as nerdy as that – it just needs to convey its idea.  For example, “gregarious” means lively and outgoing.  What if you have an “Uncle Greg” who is gregarious?  That sentence would be a perfect fit for you as a memory device.  Be creative – the more you invest in creating the right type of sentence, the more likely you are to remember the word!

That being said – if you have a tried and true study method that works for you, that’s great! I continue to speak about these apps as supplements to what you are already doing, so if you are creating flashcards in the method that I recommend, you can use some apps to acquire new words which you can then jot down and create your own flashcards for.

One of them is, unsurprisingly called, SAT Flashcards.  Nothing flash-y about this app (couldn’t help myself!) but it’s quite effective.  You can go through the whole deck, starring ones you don’t know well.  When you’re ready to step up your game SAT Up has more flashcards as well as a “synonyms game” with over 1000 words. Of course, another wonderful option is Get Smarter Prep’s Twitter (@getsmarterprep) which Tweets a Vocabulary Word of the Day, as well as additional study tips and information!

Stephen Heiner is a former Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

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. A student with an 18 on the ACT, for example, would not be in the same class as a student with a 23 or a student with a 28. So, your student will not get “lost” in our classes.  

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. Finally, Standard and Custom Courses have Office Hours.  This benefit, not offered by many of our competitors, is an extra hour each week outside of class in which your student might come in for extra work.  It’s an open format, so multiple students can be there working with the instructor, but only our most motivated students utilize this great included benefit and often they have the instructor to themselves.

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 Express Course for either the SAT or ACT makes a lot of sense.

If you have more time and you have some predictable space in your weekly schedule, our classic Standard Courses offer 22 hours of focused classroom preparation and come with the Office Hours mentioned above.

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 Custom Courses.  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 Custom Course, 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.

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

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.

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.