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“I wanted to drop you a note to thank you for all your work with our son during the recent months in preparation for the ISEE. He felt good about the test—there were certainly some difficult patches, but he weathered it all and he said he completed all of the sections in time (a fact that alone suggests that he made some good progress over recent months) and he thought he did pretty well. There is little doubt in our mind that your work with him was of great assistance to him both in terms of fundamentals—as you know, he has not yet studied at school much of the mathematics that was on the test, so your work with him gave him a fighting chance on a lot of that material—and in terms of boosting his personal confidence. Hopefully, he does well—but we of course shall see. Thanks very much for all your help.”
Adam S. Executive Functioning Coach and Study Skills Tutor of Prepped & Polished, LLC in South Natick, Massachusetts teaches you how to avoid procrastination and work methodically toward your goal by planning backwards.
1. Start at the end
2. Break down the final product into its component pieces.
3. Break up the work of each component over a two-week period.
4. Once you’ve plugged it all into your schedule, all you have to do is follow the steps that you’ve laid for yourself.
For more EF building blocks, check out our video about Creating a Weekly Schedule
Full Word-for-Word Transcription
Hi guys, Adam S. here, Prepped and Polished., South Natick, Massachusetts.
Today we’re going to talk about another important building block in
executive functioning backward planning.
So what is backwards planning? Well, for example, if I asked you to draw an
image of a dog it would be pretty easy. Working backwards from the image in
your head you would do your best to reproduce that image of a dog on a
piece of paper.
But what if I asked you to draw a picture of an ibis? Not so easy, right?
What the heck is an ibis? You wouldn’t even know where to begin. So when
you don’t have a finished product or a picture in mind, the task can seems
pretty overwhelming. An ibis is a kind of bird, by the way. It’s a cross
between a turkey and a vulture.
The same principles can apply to academic work. When you’re first assigned
a big paper or a project, sometimes you can’t see the finish line. And the
task can feel pretty overwhelming. In fact, it can feel so overwhelming
that we never even start it. We just keep putting it off and putting it off
and putting it off until finally it’s due tomorrow. And we scramble around
frantically the night before with usually a lot of help from mom and dad.
You go through all this anxiety and frustration that’s completely
avoidable. It’s not a great way to go through school, and what’s worse is
you’re building associative memories. So next time you are assigned a big
project or a big paper all you’re going to think about is all of that
anxiety and frustration and the frantic scramble you went through last
What if I told you there’s a better way? What if instead of starting at the
beginning we decided to start at the end. Let’s go over to the white board,
and I’ll show you what I’m talking about. Say you were given an assignment
where you have to give a presentation on a leader that you admire. There’s
a speech, a paper, maybe a PowerPoint. Sounds like a lot of work, right?
It’s a pretty big project.
So where do we begin? Well, let’s start at the end. What did the end look
like? So what do we have? We have a paper. We have maybe some index cards
for your speech. There’s a PowerPoint going on in the background and
[inaudible 2:01]. Not so overwhelming, right? The question is how do we get
So that’s still a pretty big project. So let’s break it down into some
component pieces, right? So we have a paper. There’s a speech, and there’s
a PowerPoint, right? Three things. So how do we break these three things
Well, the next part is going to involve some really simple math. First, you
have to figure out how much time between now and the due date? Say it’s six
weeks, right? Six weeks between now and when this presentation is due, and
how many things do we have? Three, right? One, two, three. Six divided by
three equals two.
That means we can assign about two weeks to each one of these tasks. So
let’s go back to the schedule we talked about the last time. Now what
you’re going to want to do is take each of these guys and plug them into
spots in your schedule.
Now I know this is still pretty complicated. Don’t worry; we’re going to
have another video. I thought I’d break these guys down a little more so
you know how to write a great paper. Something that I really like to do is
to put your daily task items on sticky notes.
Say what I am going to do is research on Monday, write a rough draft on
Tuesday. That way if you get home Monday night and you really don’t feel
like doing research, that’s okay. You’re going to have to move it to
Tuesday. Now there are two things to do on Tuesday. What if you don’t feel
like doing any work on Tuesday? Well, now you have to move it all back to
Wednesday, and you can see how the work really starts to pile up.
It’s a great visual to kind of show you the cost of procrastination which I
think is great. So once you’ve plugged these guys into your schedule all
you have to do is follow the day by day stats that you’ve laid out for
yourself. Watch out for the procrastination, and you’ll reach that finish
line, no problem. You will avoid all the anxiety, stress, frustration you
may have experienced in the past.
So those are the basics of backward planning. Start at the end. Which does
the finished product look like and once you see what it looks like, ask
yourself how many pieces does it have? Then figure out how much time do you
have between now and when the project is due. Divide that time by the
number of pieces. That’s how much time to assign to each piece.
Then all you have to do is follow the schedule that you lay out for
yourself. Remember procrastination has its price. If you do these things
and reach that finish line, no problem, and pretty soon big projects will
be no big deal.
All right, guys. See you next time.
How do you currently plan for projects and papers? Which of Adam’s tips did you find most useful?
Post your tips/comments below.
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By Rosie Colosi, Essay Expert, Prepped & Polished, LLC
You brush past the curtain as you walk onstage, the floorboards creaking as your nervous feet propel you forward. You feel the heat of the spotlight as it hits your face. Your throat dries and your palms sweat as you prepare to sing. You open your mouth and…and…
If you are applying to a theater program, this scenario probably strikes excitement instead of fear in your heart. You yearn for a life upon the wicked stage and desperately hope to gain admission to a top-notch program that will equip you for a successful career in NY or LA.
But before you see your name in lights, you need to see your name on an acceptance letter.
You must go through the regular college application process, score well on your tests, and complete a performance audition. And of course, you must write an essay convincing the admissions committee that you are the next Kristin Chenoweth or Norbert Leo Butz.
Hate writing? No problem! Here’s the pot of gold at the end of Finian’s rainbow: The audition skills you have acquired on your theatrical journey will help you in your essay writing process. Read on…
1. Pick the right song
If you’re an alto, you wouldn’t sing “My White Knight” from Music Man for an audition. If you’re a tall leading man, you wouldn’t sing “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain. You would choose a song that suits your voice, personality, and appearance. Do the same thing with your essay. Pick a topic that is important to you, that means something, that tells the reader who you are. You know how voice coaches are always telling you to “sing what you love”? Well, write what you love. It’s that simple.
2. Practice, practice, practice
You would never audition for a lead in the play after listening to your audition song once, right? You’d listen to the song, find the sheet music, sing it in your room, and maybe even rehearse in front of a coach or friend. Incorporate those good habits into your writing process. Don’t submit an essay you typed in a hurry one afternoon. Allow ample time to write, revise, edit, adjust…then share with a writing coach, a trusted friend, or a supportive teacher. Outside perspectives will help perfect your ideas.
3. Hit all the right notes
It’s every performer’s worst nightmare: prepping to sing a glorious, operatic high note…but a clunker comes out of your mouth instead. To prevent that, we aim to sing right in the center of the note, we set specific breathing patterns, count note values—and all of that’s even before we add emotion. Similarly, the mechanics of grammar, spelling, and sentence structure must be on point in your essay. Misspelling a word in your first sentence can be as detrimental as singing that clunker, so do your homework on your writing mechanics—don’t just rely on spell check.
4. Be confident
You might shout to the rooftops that you’re best singer that ever lived. Or you might downplay your talent to strangers. Find some middle ground between these two extremes. Your essay should tell your dream college that you’re pretty awesome, but bragging will rub the panel the wrong way. It’s a fine, fine line between Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut (I’m not being crude; it’s an Avenue Q reference!), so balance confidence with humility.
5. Keep breathing
You can’t sing unless you breathe. And you certainly can’t write unless you breathe. The college application process can get hugely stressful and overwhelming, but hyperventilating never helped anyone. A little dose of butterflies in your stomach can be a good thing for performers, and you may get similarly excited and scared about college, but channel that energy into your work. Do a few breathing exercises from your voice lessons before you sit down to write. Seriously. Some extra lip trills never hurt anyone…and they might even help you write your way into Carnegie Mellon.
Rosie Colosi, college essay expert and creator of Write With Rosie, earned an M.A. in English Lit from Boston College and a B.A. in English Lit from SUNY Geneseo. She has written 12 nonfiction books for Scholastic Inc., and she has performed on stages from Alaska to Athens. Most recently, she played Mrs. Claus in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular Starring the Rockettes in New York City.
Are you applying to theater schools? How is your theater program essay coming along?
By Meagan Phelan, Writing Tutoring Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC
Imagine you’ve made your college football team. Years of practice in high school and grueling summer training paid off, and you get the chance to play—even to start. When you step out onto the field though, you listen halfheartedly to the quarterback’s calls, sprint just enough to avoid breaking a sweat, and steer clear of tackles.
This may sound absurd. Who would work so hard to make a team, and then disengage, once on it?
But the truth is, getting accepted to college is much like making a team and it is not uncommon for students to apply the same unenergetic approach to learning, once in the classroom. Perhaps this is because the opposite approach—an intentional, intellectually curious one—also takes hard work and practice.
When you get to college, be it this fall or in a few years, you’ll have a chance to take as much from your experience as your discipline will allow—and to stand out from among your peers in the process.
One of the best ways to achieve this is to think actively about what you’re reading when you’re doing work for a particular class. Read it aloud, if that helps, or break up the reading by tackling half a chapter and then asking yourself, “Why should I care about what I just learned?” Or, “How does this information advance what I knew about the topic?”
Chances are, if you can articulate the importance or novelty of the topic you’re studying, you are grasping the bigger picture. And if you are grasping the bigger picture, all the little details—the anecdotes in the chapters you’re reading, or the ones your professor will bring up in the classroom—will “stick.” You’ll be able to recall them later because they support an idea that’s familiar to you.
This kind of engaged participation is particularly key in the classroom; while your classmates may be tempted to snooze after a late night in the library, or text, if you can be disciplined enough to focus on the professor’s lecture, you’ll make your life much easier—and stand out. (I’ve personally had professors approach me and acknowledge that my attentiveness was noticed and appreciated.)
The more engaged you are in the classroom, the less you’ll have to fret about studying. That’s because staying engaged is a sure way to know what material the professor’s most excited about, including some of the deeper, more nuanced points that are likely to be incorporated on a test.
While your college classmates try to answer questions with filler material when in a pinch, you will be positioned to answer test questions directly, and again, to incorporate the subtleties that attention to the lecture revealed.
It takes effort to sit up straight, to hang onto a professor’s (most) every word, and to avoid distractions, but the benefits are a better relationship with that professor, a better grasp of the material, and more efficient studying. Though it could take time, you will also achieve recognition by your classmates as a leader.
Being engaged doesn’t apply merely to homework, reading, classroom presence and test taking. Students who stand apart also pay special attention to the notes and feedback professors take the time to write on their papers and projects. It might seem like extra effort to keep those materials and to take the time—amid all else you have on the go during college—to “study” those pieces, but adding them to your study repertoire will help you identify your weak spots, to avoid them going forward. In this way, you can make progress without the professor having had to call you out on your repeat errors, a process which can be discouraging.
As you go through all this, remember the instruction that ties it all together, the glue in the engaged student’s skeleton: Ask questions when you don’t understand. Whether it’s a professor or a teaching assistant, or even an older student pursuing the same major, find someone you can sit with and pepper with questions. And stand ready to do the same for the younger students who will follow you. Not only is this process important for an engaged collegiate experience; it’s one you’ll see over and over again in every aspect—investing, home maintenance, parenthood—of life.
Meagan Phelan holds an M.A. in Science Writing from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and a B.A. in Biology from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. She has freelanced as a science writer and is a Fulbright Scholar. Meagan is the Science Press Package Director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
What other ways can you engage in college? Any other tips you’d like to share?
By Steve R., AP US History and SAT Subject Test Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC
The AP United States History exam is a challenging one, and it can be intimidating to study for. Here are five tips to help you figure out where to start, and to help you put things in perspective as you try to tackle this test.
The exam consists of 80 multiple choice questions (for which you have 55 minutes to complete) and a free-response section. This section consists of two essays (about 70 minutes to complete both) and a Document-Based Question, or DBQ (about 60 minutes to complete).
1. Focus on the 19th and 20th centuries
Over 80% of the multiple choice questions are likely to be on the period of 1790-1980. Only a few questions will deal with American history post-1980, and a chunk will deal with 1789 and before. If you’re prioritizing your study time, don’t expend too much energy on the colonial period.
2. Practice DBQs
The Document-Based Question will ask you to interpret 10-15 documents and answer a question based on your prior knowledge and those documents. Be sure to practice interpreting documents before you take the AP exam. Be sure that you’re an expert at determining the APPARTS of an historical document (APPARTS stands for Author, Place and time, Prior knowledge, Audience, Reason, The main idea, and Significance). Doing well on the DBQ will really bump up your score.
3. Don’t stress out about getting every multiple choice question right
Although doing very well on the multiple choice section will really benefit your score, having outstanding free response and DBQ essays will ensure an excellent score. The essays are graded on a scale from 1-9. These essays, especially the DBQ, are weighted heavily in your score. For instance, consider this: if you average a 7 on your essay questions, you can still receive a 5 on the AP exam if you answer only half of the multiple choice questions correctly (averaging a 7 is tough but doable). Do plenty of practice essays in preparing for the AP exam, and always think about how you would put what you’re studying into an essay.
4. Best prep books: Kaplan and Barron’s
As I mentioned in my post called Five SAT US History Insider Tips, the best test prep books for AP United States History are Kaplan and Barron’s. Just like for the SAT Subject Test in U.S. History, Kaplan’s study guide is comprehensive, and Barron’s is very readable. Both will be great for making PERSIA charts, which I explained in the previous post as well.
5. Answer every multiple choice question, even if you have no idea
Unlike on the SAT Subject Test in U.S. History, there is no penalty for wrong answers on the AP U.S. History exam. Even if you have absolutely no idea, mark an answer to each and every multiple choice question. There’s no down side to doing so, and who knows, you might guess right!
Steve R. holds a B.A. from Brandeis University, where he majored in History, African and Afro-American Studies, and Politics. He earned departmental honors in History, and his senior thesis, Black Jesus in the Twentieth Century, was published in 2011. He currently works at Brandeis University in Development and Alumni Relations, where he helps to run many of the University’s Annual Giving programs. Steve has experience tutoring AP, SAT, ACT, United States history, and writing, and he has helped students with their college admissions essays. –
Are you taking the AP US History Subject Test? Any questions or additional tips you’d like to share?
By Terri K., SSAT Essay Writing Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC
The SSAT includes a writing section which may be administered either before or after the multiple-choice sections of the test. Students are presented with a choice of two prompts (one essay, one creative) from which the student will choose one. You will have 25 minutes to plan and complete your writing sample which can be up to two pages.
Your essay is not scored by SSAT. Instead, a copy is sent to each of the schools that receive your score report. However, do not underestimate the power of your writing sample. Schools use your writing sample as an indication of how well you can write under controlled conditions, so approach the writing piece with this in mind. Schools use your scores to estimate your academic capability to perform in an independent school setting, to compare your performance with other applicants for admission, or with your current academic record. So, bottom line, the essay is often used as the final judgment.
Here are 10 tips to help you to be more successful on the writing portion of the SSAT:
Each essay question consists of a topic (short phrase, proverb, or question) and an assignment (usually to agree or disagree with the position taken). There is no right or wrong answer.
1) Stick to the topic: So many students go off on tangents instead of discussing the topic. Rephrase the question in your own words to make sure you understand what it is asking you. You may be creative in your approach, but you need to take a clear position and support that position with specific examples from your own experience, the experience of others, current events, literature, or history. Although you do not know the topic ahead of time, you can be prepared. Prior to the SSAT, think about meaningful personal experiences and observations, favorite literature, as well as current and historical events that interest you. Read some editorials – a great way to learn how good writers give opinions and provide examples. You will be relieved if you can apply some of this information on test day.
2) Have a plan for your essay: 25 minutes is not much time, so you need to budget your time in order to complete your essay. You will need to write more than a short paragraph. A great essay lacking a conclusion will not be viewed favorably. Contrary to what many students think, planning your essay makes the writing process easier, faster, and more organized. Allow 3-5 minutes to decide on your stance, brainstorm two to three examples that support your thesis, and make a brief outline for 3-5 paragraphs. You probably will not have time to write a 5-paragraph essay. Allow 15 minutes to write your essay as neatly and legibly as you can. Allow approximately 5 minutes to revise and proofread your essay.
3) Show – don’t tell: Rather than explaining why you believe a statement is true or not, use relevant examples that illustrate the point that you want to make. Preferably, use examples other than from your personal life. Reading the newspaper on a regular basis will give you material for good supporting examples for your essay while improving your vocabulary.
4) Grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure: When you proofread, check for two of the most common errors: sentence fragments and run-on sentences.
Complete sentences have a subject and verb and make sense when standing alone. Example: On that morning I sat in my usual spot. On the old wooden stool in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen (fragment-lacks subject and verb). Correct: On that morning I sat in my usual spot, on the old wooden stool in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen.
When two independent clauses appear in one sentence (run-on), they must be joined with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet), with a semicolon, or made into two sentences separated by a period. Avoid monotony by varying the rhythm and length of your sentences.
5) Word choice: Check for the overused words – “things” and “stuff”. Replace words that do not add quality to your essay with more detailed, advanced academic vocabulary. Use exciting verbs to empower your writing. Also, check for pronouns (him, her, they, it) that have no antecedent. This error makes an essay very confusing.
6) Legibility: Remember that people who are not familiar with your handwriting will read what you write. Try to write or print so that your writing is legible to those readers. Admissions officers read many essays, and if your writing is difficult to decipher, it may not be received as favorably. Edit carefully, just putting one line through a word or phrase that you revise.
1) Pre-write your essay: The creative essay prompt is open-ended. For example, the prompt “And then she came in the door…” could be the beginning of an essay about almost anything you choose. Your essay could be about a friend, sibling, teacher, mother, detective, etc. Other examples of creative prompts are:
– “He couldn’t believe they wanted his help…”
– “The silence was deafening…”
– “He was hanging on by a thread…”
Again, the possibilities are endless. Try writing a creative essay in advance that could be adaptable to a variety of prompts. Do some research on a favorite subject or think about an accomplishment that you would like an admissions officer to learn about you. Hopefully, you can adapt this idea to a creative prompt on test day.
2) Writing a story: If you use the creative prompt to write a story, start with some tension and immediacy (the unusual, the unexpected, an action or conflict) to grab the reader’s attention. A good story has a conflict, a climax (when the rising action of the story reaches its peak) and a resolution (conflict is resolved). In 25 minutes, it is difficult to provide a complete resolution, so you want to reveal that the characters are beginning to change or are starting to see things differently.
3) Words/Imagery: Your goal should be clear, lively writing that employs imagery and well-chosen vocabulary that shows rather than tells. For example, instead of writing that Linda was scared, you could write that her hands were clammy or that her body was quivering like a bowl of jello. Instead of writing that John asked the question nervously, you could write – “Where are you going?” John stammered, staring at his sneakers. Make it riveting! Avoid he said, she said. Reveal a character’s tone; for example, “….she snorted in amusement…” or “…he asked contemptuously…”
4) READ, READ, READ: The best way to improve writing skills for either prompt (essay, creative) is to consistently read a wide selection of materials: newspapers (especially editorials), all types of literature, magazines, etc. Reading increases your vocabulary so that you can use the right word just when you need it. Reading books by your favorite authors empowers you to improve your own writing by developing the language you need.
Is your student taking the SSAT? What was your favorite SSAT essay tip?
Terri graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Connecticut, with a dual degree in Education and English. She has 15 years of teaching and tutoring experience as a licensed teacher (Grades 5-12). Terri works with students from elementary school through college, and serves as an incredible resource when it comes to preparing for standardized tests (SAT, ACT, SSAT, ISEE, MCAS). em>
By Steve R., US History SAT Subject Test Instructor, Prepped & Polished, LLC
Preparing for the SAT Subject Test in United States history can be a bit daunting. There are so many details, dates, people, laws, and trends in American history that it’s almost impossible to know where to start.
There are 90 multiple choice questions on the Subject Test, and you have 60 minutes to answer them. Here are five tips to help you prioritize your preparation and master the Subject Test format so that you’ll be sure to maximize your score.
Here are five US History SAT Subject Test Tips:
1. Focus on American history since the Constitution
Though the subject matter covered by the United States History SAT Subject Test can go back as far as the Pre-Columbian period, about 80% of the questions will deal with American history since 1790. Specifically, 40% of the questions will come from the period of 1790-1899, and another 40% will come from 1899-present. Though you should thoroughly review pre-1790 material, set it as a low priority in your review.
2. Best prep books: Kaplan and Barron’s
The Kaplan test prep book for the U.S. History Subject Test is very detailed and comprehensive, and is great if you’re being exposed to the material for the first time. The Barron’s prep guide is a bit less comprehensive, but it’s much easier to read and flows very nicely. It’s perfect for someone who has already taken an AP United States history course and is looking to review.
3. PERSIA Charts help a lot with review
As you go through your review book, you should make a PERSIA chart for each unit. PERSIA stands for Politics, Economics, Religion, Society, Intellectual, and Artistic. As you read each chapter, place key terms into the appropriate section of the PERSIA chart. That way, you have a handy tool to review each chapter and concept, and everything is already in context of era and topic. Also, political and social history typically make up 55%-65% of the questions on the test, so focus on those areas of your PERSIA charts.
4. Don’t wait until the last minute to start test prep
Even if you’ve taken a rigorous AP U.S. History class, give yourself at least two months to prepare. The SAT Subject Test in U.S. History is very detail-oriented, and details you covered in class in October may not stick in your brain until May. Give yourself plenty of time to review each chapter and era carefully, make PERSIA charts, and review those a few times. Take plenty of practice tests to get your pacing techniques down. As a reminder, there are 90 multiple choice questions and you have 60 minutes to answer them. The best way to get faster is to practice, so make practice tests a big part of your preparation!
5. Only take educated guesses
If you’ve taken the SAT, you know that there is a penalty for wrong answers. The same applies to SAT Subject Tests. There are 5 answer choices for each question, and generally speaking, if you can eliminate 1 of them, you should take a guess. If you can eliminate 2 or 3, then definitely take a guess. If you have taken U.S. History in school, and you have prepared rigorously for the Subject Test, then you have at least been exposed to everything that is going to be on the test. You know more than you think you know, so don’t be afraid to take educated guesses!
Steve R. holds a B.A. from Brandeis University, where he majored in History, African and Afro-American Studies, and Politics. He earned departmental honors in History, and his senior thesis, Black Jesus in the Twentieth Century, was published in 2011. He currently works at Brandeis University in Development and Alumni Relations, where he helps to run many of the University’s Annual Giving programs. Steve has experience tutoring SAT, ACT, United States history, and writing, and he has helped students with their college admissions essays.
Have questions about the SAT US History Subject Test? Any other tips you’d like to share?