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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 President at Get Smarter Prep

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.  I still remember my first interview at a firm over a decade ago now.  One of my colleagues presented “how to talk like a valley girl” complete with etymology and phonetic guides.  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.

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

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!

The New SAT

On Wednesday March 5, 2014, the College Board made announcements that will change the SAT test for those students in your family who will the test in 2016 and beyond which will, among other things, change the scoring back to what it was before March 2005.  It was not that long ago that we mentioned a few thoughts in reaction to a study pronouncing the SAT as “not correlated to college success.”  We had a lot to say by way of agreement, and today we will try to address those points again in the storm of discussion – and in some quarters, panic – about these changes.

Let’s repeat our fundamental beliefs here at Get Smarter, which are backed by numerous high school teachers and counselors as well as college admissions professionals and officials: GPA is the single best indicator of how you will perform in college.  It measures multiple things – not just your ability to do well on a given test, but also your ability to complete projects, do homework, and participate in class, among other things.  A single 3-hour test on a number of different subjects can only measure how well you do against metrics determined by a particular authority.  In this case – College Board (and the ACT) for that matter, have neither a government mandate nor any form of regulation.  They are allegedly nonprofits but they act as free market businesses that have lobbyists and VERY well paid board members.  They, not we, for decades have determined “what matters” on these tests.  Some major shortcomings?  Let’s talk about three areas of the current SAT (let’s leave the ACT aside for now, perhaps for a day when they too announce changes).

Reading

Prior to March 2005, the SAT was all about “difficult” vocabulary and easy to medium difficulty reading passages.  People may whine that these words were “irrelevant” but for any serious student, these words were from a “known” list and could be studied and learned.  As for the reading comprehension – students had been doing that for most of their lives, so not too difficult there.

“Today, when we say that someone has used an SAT word, it often means a word you have not heard before and are not likely to soon hear again. The redesigned SAT will instead focus on words students will use over and over again, that open up worlds to them.”

                        -David Coleman, President of the College Board

This is somewhat puzzling.  Part of the challenge of question design in this section of the test is having a sentence that clearly indicates context and then having a number of challenging words in position.  Part of learning any language is not just using words over and over again, but using new words as bridges to expression.  We’ll see more of what they mean in one month when they release some practice questions.

Math

Prior to March 2005, the SAT was not particularly challenging mathematically.  While there was an element of trickery in the questions, the questions themselves were not terribly difficult.  As for the new test, the College Board says it will be based around “problem solving and data analysis; the heart of algebra; and passport to advanced math.”  Yet, this still repeats the same problem we saw on the old test and the current test: many students who will excel in college are LONG past algebra in their junior year of high school.  In all likelihood they are in Calculus, a math level that is actually used in college, unlike Algebra.

Writing

It is unclear whether the grammar part of the writing section will remain, as the traditional scoring has left 800 points for Math, 800 points for Reading, and over the last 9 years, 800 points for Writing, of which the essay is a little over ⅓ of the weight.  As it stands the grammar portion is the “least bad” portion of the test, as it tests frequent mistakes in grammar that manifest themselves in the emails of Fortune 500 companies on a daily basis, to take just one comparison.  The essay seems to be a new, discursive type of essay, and it is now “optional.”

As we said, we’ll have more to say on this issue in the months and weeks ahead.  As always, as long as there is an unfair testing regime in place in academia, we are going to be here to help our students overcome that regime.

Whatever College Board or pundits tell you, there is no way to “level the playing field” for a standardized test, even if it is a good one (e.g. the AP Exam) or a poor one (the SAT or ACT).  You will always have students who bring more motivation, more study skills, more intelligence, or more prep.  The future will always belong to those who deal with a challenging situation, as our students here at Get Smarter Prep always have.

Stephen Heiner is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

FairTest vs College Board: Why Neither is Totally Right

I’ve been teaching students how to beat standardized tests like the SAT and ACT for over a decade now. Invariably, I start tutoring with those students by pointing out what should be obvious: these exams measure how well you take exams, not your aptitude or your ability to do college work.  In some cases there may be a direct correspondence: students who have excellent grades have correspondingly excellent scores.  And yet, there is a not-insignificant group of students with outstanding grades and poor scores.  Does this mean standardized testing is unreliable?  Or that it fails to consistently predict student success?  Not exactly, and yes, respectively.

Let’s back up for a moment and talk about the single best input for determining college success: the high school GPA.  Time and time again a high correlation has been shown between success and engagement in academics in high school (as represented by an unweighted GPA) and performance in college.  That’s because the GPA is a many-faceted thing.  It samples various different types of classes according to how often you took them.  Classes that meet every day are weighted more than classes that meet once a week, and yet should you take French 5 times a week and Physics 5 times a week, the GPA agnostically weights them equally.  The grades for these classes themselves are multi-faceted.  Those grades represent tests, homework, class participation, quizzes, and possibly group work and projects.  Hardly one-dimensional, the GPA is an accurate and balanced reflection of a student’s aptitude and work ethic.

A three-hour test on a given Saturday morning, on the other hand, is very much a one-dimensional thing.  Neither the SAT nor the ACT tests math levels above Trigonometry, meaning that juniors in Precalculus and beyond will need to pull out old notes to prep for the Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra 2 which are heavily featured in the math section of both of these tests.

There’s also the alleged “Science” section on the ACT, which is nothing but a glorified “interpreting charts and graphs” section which features tricky questions and purposely distorted graphics much more than legitimate science questions.

There are some useful sections to these tests.  Reading comprehension is a lifelong skill – and a skill in even greater refinement in our age of information overload.  Most students take comfort in the familiarity of the question type, even if they are cowed or bewildered by the wording of the questions or the time constraints (students are typically not given adequate time to answer the questions).

I could go on, but at this point you might (rightly) ask how I can in good conscience uphold such flawed testing by doing test prep?  Fair enough.

These exams are accepted by the overwhelming majority of universities, for better or worse, as an additional – sometimes coequal – criteria for admission.  My mission has always been to help my students get into the school they want to get into.  If the hurdle is this or that specific test, I want to help them beat that test.  I have no power to change a system deep within the bowels of an institution (academia) which is defined by inertia.  So I do what’s possible: help my students beat the obstacles in place.  For those who can’t afford test prep or who simply struggle with testing, FairTest has compiled a list of schools that don’t use testing as a deciding factor in admissions.

In the challenging world of college admissions, FairTest can rightly claim that standardized testing isn’t holistic, while College Board (the writer of the SAT) can claim that while not holistic, standardized testing still has correlations with college success, while we at Get Smarter Prep can claim that we are among your best options to improve on these tests, should you choose to apply to a school that uses them.  We hope you take this article as an encouragement to be proactive instead of letting this overwhelming process “happen” to you.  As always, we are here to help anytime.

Standardized Tests: A Conversation Between Two Tutors

Zach: So, standardized tests.  Scary stuff, right?

Joe: They’re always a scary proposition, walking into some random classroom, sitting for 4 to 5 hours as you stare at a test booklet, and trying to solve problem after problem. On the math section especially, it always seems like there are so many intense problems that you have no idea how to even begin.

Zach: But Joe… that’s what they want you to think.  That’s how they’re designed.  And yes, I know that you’re playing along with my prompt for this blog post, but this is one thing about the ACT and SAT that really bugs me.  Students get so wound up on these problems that they psyche themselves out before they even take a shot on the problem.

Joe: That’s the truth. Students skip over a problem because it looks like a wall of words or a really difficult-looking equation attached to it. Test takers assume that this means it must be way over their head, they won’t be able to solve it, and they miss out on those points. So what’s a student to do?

Zach: Joe, I’m so darn glad you asked that question.  So darn glad.  Have you ever heard the quote, “You miss all of the shots that you don’t take?”

Joe: I’m familiar with that one.

Zach: Fantastic.  I have no idea who said that, nor do I have inclination to find out, but I do think that it’s an especially pertinent adage in this case.  Why just give up so easily?  I tell students that if they’re ever staring at one of those dinosaurs of a question, just try the first thing you see to do.  Oh, you see a square root sign?  Square that bad boy.  You see two x plus something terms in parentheses?  Foil that sucker.

Joe: It could even be as simple as flipping the equation, distributing a number, or factoring out a number. Then, all of a sudden, inspiration strikes! You get a flash of brilliance, and you know how to solve the problem!

Zach: A good time to test this strategy is on a free practice test! We offer them every Saturday at 8:45 at our office.

Joe: Good idea! I’ll look at my Saturday schedule. Once you have a baseline score, you can decide which tutoring option is best for you!

 
Zach Buckner and Joe Roh are Tutors at Get Smarter Prep.

Springtime for Sophomores

Seniors have heard back from their schools and are finalizing their college choice in preparation for the May 1 deadline. Juniors are taking the ACT or SAT, SAT subject tests, and AP exams. Those two grades have clearly defined paths to college, but what about Sophomores? While spring of sophomore year seems far away from applying to college, there are three things you can do to strengthen your future college applications.

1. Take an ACT and SAT practice test and determine which test is a better test for you.

We recommend that the students take both an ACT and an SAT practice test near the end or just after their sophomore year. That way, you go into fall of junior year with a plan. Are you in range to be a National Merit scholar? If so, you can sign up for one of our summer classes in preparation for the PSAT. Do you play a winter sport and a spring sport? Another great reason to prepare in the summer and take one of the fall tests! Every student is different. Taking a practice test at the beginning of the summer ensures your student has time to decide which test and test date is best!

2. Finish the year with your highest possible grades.

Yes, this seems like an obvious one, but it really is important! If you have a bad test day, you can retake your SAT or ACT or driver’s license test, but once sophomore year is over, you are locked into those grades. Grades are a key piece of college admissions puzzle, so it is crucial to do your best.

3. Take advantage of the summer.

While it is tempting to spend the summer relaxing before the stress of junior year, you post-sophomore year summer is a great time to get a jump start on college. You are interested in botany but your high school doesn’t offer it? Take a course at a local college or community college. Not only will it look great on your resume, but it will be really interesting! Want to start saving money for college? Get a job! Jobs look great on your resume and give you a great opportunity to make business connections. An anecdotal example: my grandfather worked as a delivery runner for a law firm one summer; after graduating law school, he was hired by that same law firm! Too busy to have the set schedule of a job or class? You can always volunteer, write a paper to submit to your favorite magazine, research colleges, or take test prep!

Most sophomores have no idea where they might want to attend college, and that is perfectly okay! Following these three steps will ensure that when they do choose where to apply, they will have the highest amount of possibilities.

Linden Schult is a Master Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

College Entrance Exams: How colleges know what you scored

If I were to ask 10 different families about the submission process of their student’s ACT or SAT results, I would almost certainly get an equal number of different answers.  How do you know what will be seen by admission professionals and what won’t!?  My philosophy, always assume the college(s) will receive your official scores!  Here are a few key points in which all other assumptions can be effectively null:

  1. Transcripts – For the 89% of students that attend Public schools, expect your high school to submit your scores to colleges on your official transcripts.  There are even a few Private schools that include this info on your transcripts.  In fact, some colleges even accept these as official test scores – as they’re coming from an official source, ie.  not the student, nor the family.
  2. Application – You’ll quickly find out that when submitting College Applications – whether the Common App or to a particular school – it will ask about the student’s academic background and test scores.  At the end of almost every application, the student signs it, declaring the information provided was complete and accurate.  I have known students to have their acceptances remitted because a school found out the information from the application painted a different picture than what truly exists.
  3. Collected – Often times, when students attempt to only send the highest scores, all of their scores are disclosed to a college – again because the college expects a complete and accurate portrayal of the student’s achievements and scores.
  4. Purchased Lists – It seems to be a little known fact, but one of the primary ways in which colleges get a student’s information is from the ACT, SAT, PSAT, and EXPLORE.  Colleges often times purchase student’s information based upon a score range – so even if they don’t know your actual score – they will most likely know a narrow score range in which you fall within.

 

So, how should a student go about sending their scores?  First off – I would recommend taking a FREE Practice Test for both the ACT and SAT – so you can determine a baseline and develop a strategy that is right for the student.  These scores are not recorded in the student record, but provide an accurate measure of the student’s ability with these particular tests. 

Secondly, I would never recommend that a student take an official test unless they felt prepared and confident in their ability.  While an abnormally low score won’t necessarily affect admission at most universities – why provide any university with a reason to doubt their admission decision?

Author:
CALEB PIERCE

4 Myths about the ACT and SAT

Periodically we hear myths circulating around the Kansas City area, some related to us by parents, others related to us by our students. We’ve collected a few of them here – some to roast, some to verify as truth, but mostly to inform about disinformation. We hope it is helpful!

1. Isn’t the SAT for East and West Coast schools only?

Ah, one of the most popular and longest-lasting myths. Absolutely not.

One of the first items of research for us was actual verification of the fact that not one of the schools in the top 100 of US News and World Report had a preference for a particular test. My staff has personally called every single one of their admissions offices and the answer remains the same: We have no preference.

2. Don’t they take my best scores from various tests and create a “best score” for me?

Depends on the test and depends on the school. For example:

University of Southern California – takes your best per section on the SAT. So, for example, if I got a 610 Writing, 660 Reading, and 540 Math on one test, and a 550 Writing, 660 Reading, and 700 Math on another, USC would pick your 610 Writing, 660 Reading, and 700 Math to give you a score of 1970. A mythical score based on two different tests, but hey, we’ll take it!

University of California, Los Angeles – only takes your best composite. So, here score choice works well because you can send them your best score after you’re done testing for the last time.

3. Shouldn’t I just take the test over and over and keep trying to do better? I’ve got nothing to lose.

These tests are torture. I can’t begin to imagine the stress of taking them 2-3-4-5 times in the hopes of getting higher scores. Our philosophy is and remains, prep using us or some other prep program, take it once, maybe one more if you want AND need a higher score. Maybe a third time if we are one point away from a scholarship or an athletic spot.

It’s not like students have a bunch of time to study for these tests over and over, or a surfeit of Saturday mornings to spend in a classroom for 3.5 hours testing. Three or fewer. That’s our general rule.

Sign up for a free practice test to find out where you stand!

4. Shouldn’t I just take this at the end of my junior year so I don’t stress about it? Junior year is supposed to be the most important year academically, and I don’t want to get distracted.

Right motivation, wrong strategy. Absolutely junior year is the year. It’s the toughest, most grueling, most relevant for college admissions. Oh, and yes, you have to take an ACT or SAT.

The answer to this question is not cookie cutter. I can rephrase it to read: “When should we take the test for the first time?”

I would answer that by asking: “When are you most available to prep?”

Some people play sports year round and so summer is a great time for them to prep leading into a September or October test date.

Others prefer to prep in Fall or Spring. The answer depends on your child’s time resources to dedicate to prep. And, if you’re like some of my students, there is never any extra time, so the sooner we start, the better.

As far as prep goes, my only recommendation is to prep towards a given test date. It makes sense to go to summer clinics for sports because you might be competing in tournaments throughout the summer or because you want to keep your skills up for when the season restarts. But to do a test prep class and then not take the real test for months? What can be retained for all those months without constant practice? That’s why we never have classes at Get Smarter Prep without a test date that we are working towards.

I hope these “mythbusters” have been helpful for you. Remember, if you ever have any questions about anything regarding standardized testing, feel free to call us at 913-322-3400!

Author Stephen Heiner is a Premier Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

The Super Bowl and Test Prep

The Huffington Post Blog had an interesting post by Nancy Berk, Ph. D., titled “College Admission Tips to Learn From the Super Bowl.” It is a terrific, and timely, read, and we hope everyone gets a chance to check it out.  While all ten of her lessons apply to college admissions, a two of them apply to test prep as well.

Lesson 4: Have a strategic game plan.

Should you take the ACT or the SAT? The GRE or the GMAT? Is a standardized test required for entrance at the school(s) you are interested in? We strongly recommend you take a practice test before starting so that you can see which test fits your strengths. We offer free ACT and SAT practice tests every Saturday at our office – sign up here! For other testing, give us a call!

Lesson 2: Know the rules of the game. Do your research. Ask questions. Talk to those who’ve been there including college students, their parents, teachers and coaches.

Is there a guessing penalty on your test? How much time do you have for each section? Familiarizing yourself with the structure, timing, and scoring of your standardized test will help you feel more comfortable and confident.

Do your research, take a practice test, and learn the rules of the game!

One more important lesson: don’t wait until the last minute!

Author Linden Schult is a Master Level Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.