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19 Nov 2020

Update on At-Home SAT / ACT Testing

Since the spring, there has been much speculation surrounding the launch of online versions of the SAT and ACT. With last-minute test center closings and the public health risks associated with in-person testing, at-home SAT / ACT alternatives would be a welcome relief to many. Many graduate school entrance exams, including the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, successfully transitioned to an online, at-home format back in March. This transition did not come without its challenges. Proctoring, in particular, poses a unique challenge and has sparked significant public debate about the ethics and efficacy of automated proctoring services that are garnering more and more users during the pandemic. While many argue that web-based proctoring services are invasive and stress-inducing for test-takers, the College Board and ACT grapple with how to create accessible, cheat-proof, and glitch-free versions of their respective exams. 

As things stand now, ACT has indicated that students in the US can expect the release of an online ACT in late 2020 (any day now!) or early 2021. (The release seems unlikely before 2021). This version of the ACT is expected to look like the computer-based ACT that is currently offered to international students. The College Board, on the other hand, has not released any concrete information about when an online SAT might be available to the masses. They have cited internet access concerns as a central reason for the delayed rollout. For both exams, the technology requirements remain unknown. Unequal access to the technology required to take an online exam at home compounds the myriad of obstacles in making at-home SAT and ACT testing an equitable reality. 

As we all await official updates from the College Board and ACT, we’ve outlined a couple possibilities that have been raised:

Live proctoring – ACT and College Board both acknowledge that at-home testing will require proctoring on an unprecedented scale. ACT has been transparent about looking at several options, including the possibility of live proctoring for each full-length exam. This would require a webcam on each student for the duration of the exam. The College Board has not provided further details on how they plan to proctor at-home exams. 

Provisional score reports – The ACT has come forth with another option that would require students to take both an unproctored full-length exam and a shorter, live-proctored exam. With this option, students would receive a “provisional score report” for the full-length exam. In order to verify their provisional score, they would then take the short, proctored exam and the scores from each exam would be compared in order to eliminate or identify incongruencies in exam performance. It’s possible that this approach would inadvertently increase testing anxiety without providing a reliable means of verifying students’ skills. 

Perhaps, as at-home COVID testing becomes a more widespread reality, so too will at-home SAT and ACT testing. As always, we will stay up-to-date on the latest testing news as the pandemic progresses. Please stay tuned and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’re seeking additional support. We are always happy to help; we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!

11 Nov 2020

Qualifying for National Merit Without the PSAT

Unfortunately, many high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors have been unable to take the PSAT this fall due to COVID-19-related cancellations. Some school systems have rescheduled the PSAT for January, but the trajectory of the pandemic remains uncertain, as does whether or not virus levels will be low enough to administer the PSAT in schools this winter. If you missed our post on why the PSAT matters and why you should prep for it, you can check it out here. Most importantly, the PSAT is not only an opportunity to prepare for the SAT, it also gives 11th graders the chance to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship. The PSAT/NMSQT (“National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test”) — the PSAT for 11th graders — is the first step in the National Merit Scholarship Competition, in which millions of students across the country compete for 8,800 prestigious scholarships. As one might imagine, being a National Merit semifinalist, finalist, or recipient looks excellent on a college application. 

So, for juniors who are concerned about missing out on their opportunity to qualify for one of these coveted scholarships, not to worry! The National Merit Scholarship Competition has devised an alternate entry route. We will break it down for you. 

NOTE: The alternate entry route was not created in response to COVID-19. For several years now, students who can’t take the PSAT for a number of reasons including family emergencies, illness, or inclement weather have had the option of using official SAT scores for the competition. 

How do I use the alternate entry route? 

While juniors who take the PSAT are automatically entered into the National Merit Scholarship Competition, you must complete a separate, short application if you’re planning to use the alternate entry route. You can complete the application here, on the National Merit Scholarship Corporation’s website. If you choose to submit SAT scores instead of PSAT scores, you must have all your testing done by April 1st, 2021. 

That being said, some schools have postponed their PSAT date, with hopes of a winter or spring administration. If you decide to apply using SAT scores, but end up having the opportunity to take the PSAT after all, the National Merit Scholarship Foundation will automatically use your PSAT score instead of any SAT scores you may have submitted already. 

How does scoring work if I submit SAT scores?

Eligibility for a National Merit Scholarship is typically determined by the PSAT NMSC selection index score, which is calculated by doubling the sum of the Reading, Writing and Language, and Math section scores. Every state has a certain number of semifinalist slots to fill with students with the highest index scores. Those students can then choose to compete for finalist status. 

If you decide to submit SAT scores instead, your selection index will be calculated the same way using your Reading, Writing and Language, and Math SAT scores. The SAT and PSAT are, of course, slightly different. So, if you take both exams, your indexes for each are bound to vary. Given that the PSAT is shorter and considered less challenging than the SAT, it is in every junior’s best interest to take the PSAT if at all possible. 

We recognize that many students are encountering unforeseen challenges right now, between remote learning, testing disruptions, and overarching public health concerns. We want to help support you or your child this academic year. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. At Sentia, we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!

03 Nov 2020

Getting Involved From a Distance

Though many students may want to give back to their communities in this time of tremendous need, finding volunteer opportunities while remaining socially distant is not always easy. With many community service organizations on pause or switching gears in response to the pandemic, some students may be struggling to remain engaged in volunteer efforts while also staying safe. If you’ve been previously involved with an organization with a mission that you’re passionate about, we suggest reaching out to them to see if there are any remote volunteer positions available. Many groups have created new remote or socially distanced opportunities for involvement, so definitely tap into those pre-existing relationships. Who knows? They might need help with a weekly newsletter or content creation for their website. If you’re looking for new ways to get involved, we have plenty of ideas — read on! 

Become a Tutor

If you’re a student experiencing remote learning, you probably understand this reality all too well: Online school is challenging. There are plenty of kids out there who are looking for support in making the most of their remote learning. For those of you who enjoy working with children, virtual tutoring can be an excellent way to support young students and share your knowledge. There are many platforms out there for remote tutoring. Generally, virtual tutors are paired with a student or group of students who they meet with weekly to work on a specific subject. If you’re interested in learning more, check out these organizations as a jumping-off point: TeensGive, UPchieve, and GO Project.

Pen Pal Opportunities

Social isolation is pervasive among the elderly even in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. If you’re looking to make a difference in the lives of others while flexing your written language skills, you might enjoy getting matched with a pen pal. There are several programs that match volunteers with seniors citizens for letter exchanges and updates. Here are a few good places to start your pen pal search: Adopt a Senior, Friends for Life, Pandemic Pen Pals. Or, if you’re interested in connecting with seniors in your local community, consider reaching out to a local nursing home to see if they’re open to pairing you with a pen pal. This could be a meaningful opportunity to forge a relationship with someone with very different life experiences than your own. Oftentimes, those are the most interesting and fruitful friendships! 

Use Your Language Skills 

If you speak a foreign language, there are many virtual options for volunteering your language skills. Bilingual students may want to consider tutoring virtually, as discussed above. In the world of translation, there are plenty of opportunities for students with sufficient fluency in another language. Translators Without Borders recruits volunteers who want to translate texts into different languages for various NGOs and nonprofits. This organization recognizes that the dissemination of reliable COVID-19 information (in as many different languages as is necessary) is absolutely essential to slowing the spread of COVID-19. TED translators is another great opportunity. These translators volunteer to subtitle global TED Talks, enabling their ideas to reach a broader audience by transcending language barriers. 

Check Out VolunteerMatch

Back in May, we proposed several ideas for how to have a productive summer in 2020. Of course, volunteering was high on our list. If you haven’t already checked out VolunteerMatch, now might be a great time to do so. Here, you can search for local volunteer opportunities. Plus, they even have a COVID-19 Resource Hub, where you can explore a directory of COVID-related and remote volunteer opportunities. 

We hope you find some inspiration in these suggestions and we encourage you to seek out involvement in whatever areas are most exciting to you! Despite the unprecedented circumstances, we want to make sure you feel supported and engaged in whatever you are doing during these challenging times. We’d be happy to help brainstorm more personalized suggestions. Please don’t hesitate to reach out. At Sentia, we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!

28 Oct 2020

Understanding Your SAT / ACT Scores

If you’ve recently taken the SAT or ACT, more likely than not you are anxiously awaiting your score report. Your score report will provide a lot of useful information about your exam performance, but interpreting SAT or ACT scores is not as easy as one might think. For those of you just embarking on your test prep journey, understanding how the scoring works for your exam of choice is essential to planning your test prep most effectively. 

It’s important to understand that scaled scores take into account the difficulty level of the specific exam that you took, recognizing that difficulty level may vary slightly from one version of the test to the next. ACT and College Board start by calculating your raw score for each section, which is simply the number of questions you answered correctly. The raw score is then converted into a scaled score. Both College Board and ACT utilize a process they refer to as “equating” when converting raw scores to scaled scores. College Board explains, “Equating makes sure that a score for a test taken on one date is equivalent to a score from another date… it’s important that the score a student receives on the SAT means the same regardless of when the student took the test. This ensures that there’s no advantage to taking the SAT during one administration versus another.” 

Contrary to popular belief, the SAT and ACT are not “graded on a curve” in the traditional sense. The process of equating ensures that a student’s score is based only on how they performed on test day and is never affected by another test-taker’s performance, according to College Board and ACT.

Scaled Scores on the ACT 

For the ACT, scaled scores are reported as a number out of 36. You will get a scaled score out of 36 for each of the four multiple-choice sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science. Your composite score is the average of those four scaled scores. In other words, ACT adds up all four scaled scores and then divides that value by four. 

Scaled Scores on the SAT

College Board calculates verbal section scores differently than the math sections. You will receive scaled scores out of 40 for the reading and writing sections of the SAT. Your reading and writing scaled scores are then added together and multiplied by 10 to give you a scaled verbal score out of 800. 

Your raw scores for the two math sections (No Calculator and Calculator) are added together, giving your final math raw score. This combined raw math score is converted directly to a scaled score out of 800. 

Your scaled verbal and math scores are then added together to give you a total score out of 1600.

ACT Percentiles

Your percentile rank, distinct from your scaled scores, represents the percentage of students whose score is equal to or lower than yours. If you are in the 80th percentile, for example, this means that 80% of test-takers earned scores that were equivalent to or below your score. 

On the ACT, you’ll receive two separate percentiles: a US Rank and a State Rank. Simply put, these ranks represent the percentages of recent high school graduates in the US and recent graduates in your state who took the ACT and earned scores equal to or lower than yours.

For more information on scoring, you can check out the ACT website

SAT Percentiles

Two percentiles will show up on your SAT score report. The Nationally Representative Sample Percentile indicates where you stand compared to all 11th and 12th grade students in the US, including those who did not even take the SAT. The SAT User Percentile indicates how you scored compared to students in the past three graduating classes who took the current SAT during high school. 

College Board provides a detailed breakdown of the SAT Score Report. You can check it out here.

As you can see, there is no “passing” or “failing” when it comes to the SAT or ACT. However, it is essential to understand how you will be scored on these tests in order to make an informed decision about which exam will play to your strengths and how to construct a test prep plan that addresses your weaknesses. If you are seeking guidance in this process, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. At Sentia, we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!

23 Oct 2020

Life Beyond COVID: ISEE vs. SSAT

Though COVID has put our lives on hold in many ways, for families and students who are interested in the private school application process, it may be time to think about standardized testing. Most private, independent, and boarding schools require either the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE) or the Secondary School Admissions Exam (SSAT). While these two exams are similar in many ways, there are a few key differences that students and their families should keep in mind when deciding which one to take. 

What testing levels are available for the ISEE and SSAT?

For both exams, there are several levels available that correspond with the age and grade level of the test-taker. The ISEE offers four categories: 

– Primary Level (for students applying to grades 2-4)

– Lower Level (for students applying to grades 5-6)

– Middle Level (for students applying to grades 7-8)

– Upper Level (for students applying to grades 9-12)

The SSAT, on the other hand, offers three categories:

– Elementary Level (for students applying to grades 4-5) 

– Middle Level (for students applying to grades 6-8) 

– Upper Level (for students applying to grades 9-12)

What is the format of each exam? 

Both exams are composed of five sections that assess students’ verbal, reading, quantitative, and writing skills. The ISEE includes 4 section scores: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, mathematics, and reading comprehension. 

The SSAT consists of just three scores: verbal, reading, and quantitative. Both exams also include an unscored writing sample, which is sent to schools along with the score report and considered as part of each student’s application. 

How are the ISEE and SSAT scored? 

One important difference to note is that the Middle and Upper Level SSAT have a quarter point penalty for each incorrect answer. In contrast, The ISEE does not have a guessing penalty. Additionally, the SSAT score is converted to (and reported as) a percentile score, while the ISEE is scored on a standard nine-point scale (1 being the lowest and 9 being the highest score). 

How are these exams administered? 

Both the ISEE and SSAT can be administered on a computer or as a paper-based exam. The digital version of both exams — a more attractive option in the pandemic landscape — can be taken at home or at a testing center. The paper-based version may be taken at school or at a testing center. 

The ISEE may be taken up to three times, once during the fall, winter, and spring/summer testing seasons. The SSAT, on the other hand, can be taken a maximum of eight times and the SSAT can be taken at home no more than 5 times. 

So, should I take the ISEE or SSAT? 

Answering this question requires research into the admissions requirements of the school(s) that you or your child are most interested in attending. Some schools prefer one exam over the other, while some accept both. In which case, taking a practice exam for both tests and comparing your scores would be a good way to assess which exam best caters to your strengths as a student. 

We understand that applying to private and independent schools can be an overwhelming process even in the best of times — let alone during a pandemic, when all aspects of in-person and remote learning are in flux. We are always happy to provide support, from exam selection to test prep to ongoing academic support. At Sentia, we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!

16 Oct 2020

The State of ACT / SAT Testing Amidst COVID

As COVID cases spike once again in the US, the ACT and College Board continue to adapt to the ever-evolving situation. This means more test cancellations and general unrest surrounding SAT and ACT administrations. Back in late September, of the 334,000 students registered to take the SAT, about 183,000 of those students were unable to test. Of the 363,000 registered to take the SAT or SAT Subject Tests in early October, 154,000 were unable to do so due to test center cancellations. We expect the gap between the number of test registrations and tests successfully taken to continue to widen as we move into late October. 

If you are planning to test in the near future, it is more important than ever to stay up to date on cancellations in your area and we want to help you do that. Read on for a few ways to stay up to date on cancellations for the SAT and ACT. 

SAT Cancellations

As we noted in a blog post back in August, the College Board continues to reiterate that individual test centers decide whether or not to administer the SAT, pending local public health guidelines, which could mean unexpected test cancellations right up until test day. 

College Board suggests that students frequently check their email as well as the test center closure page before and on test day to confirm their center is in fact open. College Board notes, “Test centers may have closed or rescheduled to a makeup date at the last minute even if there is still an active admission ticket. If this happens, students will be notified that they shouldn’t report to their test center, and they’ll receive a follow up notification after the test day to confirm whether a makeup is available or if they will receive a refund.”

ACT Cancellations

Similarly, the ACT acknowledges “continued limitations in test center capacity and inevitable cancellations” throughout the remainder of 2020-2021 test dates. Decisions to close test centers are made on a site-by-site basis by test center staff following CDC and local public health guidelines. 

If you are registered for an ACT test date, you can expect regular email updates from ACT Monday through Friday by 6pm CT regarding your registration. In addition to checking your email, be sure to check this list of cancelled test centers frequently. Scroll to the bottom of this list to find information regarding Rescheduled October National ACT Test Centers.

In short, test cancellations are skyrocketing as COVID cases continue to climb. We understand how unsettling this must be for those of you preparing to take the SAT / ACT and want to support you in your test preparation, even (and especially) amidst growing uncertainty. As always, we are here to help. At Sentia, we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!

09 Oct 2020

Self-Reporting SAT / ACT Scores: Why and How?

After months of studying for the SAT or ACT, carefully piecing together a strong college application, and crafting your college list, it’s important to ensure that your dream schools get a complete picture of who you are as an applicant. Your test scores are, of course, an important piece of the puzzle. But, did you know that not all schools require official score reports? In fact, there is a growing trend of schools allowing applicants to self-report their scores, only requiring an official score report if they choose to enroll. Let’s break down why self-reporting is an attractive option for many applicants and exactly how it works.

Why the trend towards self-reporting scores?

Between application fees, test registration fees, and official score report fees, the college application process is expensive and inaccessible to many. For students who take the SAT and/or ACT and apply to a dozen or more colleges, sending official score reports alone can cost hundreds of dollars. Self-reporting test scores, on the other hand, drastically reduces the cost associated with the application process. 

Self-reporting scores also eliminates any lag time between submitting your application and schools receiving your test scores. This means you can rest assured that schools will have access to your scores as soon as they receive your application. This is a plus for admissions officers as well because they can find all of your information — personal info, test scores, essays, etc. — in one convenient place.

Though some may be skeptical of self-reporting, there’s no way to inflate your test scores because if you are accepted and decide to enroll in a school, you will have to send an official score report to verify your scores prior to enrollment. If there’s a discrepancy between your self-reported scores and your official scores, your application will most likely be disqualified. 

How can I self-report my scores? 

It’s easy! In the Common Application, many schools have a question under the “Testing” tab asking if you’d like to self-report your scores. If so, you can manually type in your scores. Other colleges might ask you to self-report through their application system or by taking a screenshot of your online score report and sending that image in with your application. Whatever the protocol may be, these unofficial scores will be used for admissions purposes only. Upon acceptance and enrollment, you will be prompted to send in an official score report.

As self-reporting has become more popular over the past few years, so have test optional policies — especially in response to limited testing opportunities amidst the pandemic. Check out our past blog post for more information on the growing number of colleges with test optional policies. 

Regardless of how they get reported, solid test scores are an important part of an impressive college application. No matter what phase of test prep you’re in, we are always happy to help.  As always, at Sentia we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!

18 Sep 2020

ACT Math: Is It Getting More Difficult?

Since 2016, the ACT Math section has undergone some changes that, indeed, have made the section a bit more difficult. The ACT has introduced a wider variety of advanced math topics since 2016, though it has not increased the emphasis placed on difficult questions. Rather, the ACT rotates these topics among the most challenging math questions that typically show up at the conclusion of the section. The bulk of the content remains the same, but you may run into some questions towards the end of the math section that feel more challenging.

ACT vs. SAT Math 

While the redesigned SAT has narrowed its focus in the math section and tends to include more algebra (accounting for more than 60% of the math sections!), the ACT has moved in the opposite direction by expanding its scope to include a broader variety of advanced topics. For example, over the past several years the ACT has begun including topics like matrix multiplication, conic sections, asymptotes, terminal sides and coterminal angles — the list goes on. 

The range of topics covered by the ACT is looking more and more like that of the SAT Math II Subject Test. The key distinction here, however, is that the ACT is not placing the same degree of emphasis on the hardest math concepts — chances are the advanced topics will show up in small numbers towards the end of the section. 

By pushing the upper limits of math content difficulty, the ACT requires students to achieve a higher level of mastery in advanced math concepts in order to attain top scores. This may be part of a larger scheme to more effectively populate the full score range, with more of a tangible distinction between scores in the 30-36 range. Fewer students with perfect scores allows for a broader range of scaled and raw scores. 

How Useful Is My Calculator? 

Additionally, the ACT writers seem to be crafting problems that render your calculator less useful. By asking more conceptual questions or asking for answers in terms of variables rather than numerical values, the ACT pushes test-takers to more deeply understand the content. The ACT is also directly assessing math vocabulary by asking for the computational definition of independent events in a probability question, for example. Without explicit knowledge of these terms, a student will be less likely to select the correct answer and a calculator will be of no use to you in these cases.

All this is to say: Yes, the ACT is including more difficult concepts in the math section, but not to worry! Every test-taker is experiencing the same increase in difficulty level and scores will be scaled accordingly. For top score hopefuls, mastering the advanced math concepts will be key to working towards that 34, 35, or 36. If math is your strong suit, this may be an opportunity to make your ACT score stand out. If you’re struggling with ACT math content, trying to figure out how to structure your study regimen, looking to take your test scores to the next level, or anything in between, we would be happy to help. Don’t hesitate to reach out! At Sentia, we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!

08 Sep 2020

SAT Section 5: What is it?

There is much speculation surrounding the mysterious Section 5 of the SAT. Some students end up taking this fifth 20-minute section while others do not. Additionally, the content covered in this wildcard of a section can vary widely from test to test. Let’s demystify Section 5 by understanding its function, whether you can expect to see a Section 5 on your exam, and how the additional section will (or, more likely, will not) affect your score. 

What is the function of this section? 

Section 5 of the SAT is widely believed to be an experimental section, created as an opportunity for the College Board to pretest content, answer choices, and test question philosophies on a captive audience under test conditions. College Board has been persistently vague about this section, noting in the SAT Advising and Admission Handbook, “To allow for pretesting, some students taking the SAT with no Essay will take a fifth, 20-minute section. Any section of the SAT may contain both operational and pretest items.” 

Operational items are questions that count towards your score. Pretest items, on the other hand, are not scored and do not contribute to your score. College Board has been uncharacteristically opaque about whether or not this section counts towards students’ final scores. 

Will this section affect my score? 

Though the College Board has made it impossible to say with absolute certainty that the experimental Section 5 will not count towards your score, never in the history of the redesigned SAT has a question from anyone’s 5th section appeared in the scored Question-and-Answer Service sections that are sent back to students. All signs indicate that this section is unscored and exists primarily to test out future material. It is likely that the College Board is being vague on this point to ensure that students take the section seriously, in order to obtain the most accurate data possible. If students were certain that the section would not contribute to their scores, they may not give it their all (or skip it completely). 

Will I have to take the additional section? 

A close reading of the Spring and Summer 2019 The SAT and SAT Subject Tests Supervisor Manual reveals, “At some centers, certain administrations will include an additional 20-minute section to be completed by all SAT test takers, including students taking the SAT with Essay.” 

So, while it used to be the case that only students taking the SAT without the Essay could expect to see a Section 5, now those taking the SAT with Essay should not be surprised to encounter the experimental section either. Test takers with extended time, however, will not see a Section 5 on their exams. 

How will this experimental section affect my test prep? 

Showing up on Test Day knowing exactly what to expect is the best way to feel confident going into the SAT (or any exam for that matter). So, expecting to encounter a 20-minute section in Math, Reading, or Writing after the Math with Calculator section or the Essay is a good way to mentally prepare yourself and avoid unwelcome surprises. 

Though it seems unlikely that Section 5 will affect your score, it is not outside the realm of possibility. By continuing with your diligent test prep and taking every single question on your exam seriously, you will be set up for success on the SAT. 

We are always happy to answer questions and provide support for all aspects of the test preparation process. Especially during uncertain times such as these, we are here to help and ensure that your test prep goes as smoothly as possible. At Sentia, we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!

28 Aug 2020

SAT Test Center Closings

If you are planning to take the SAT in the near future, be sure to keep an eye on the SAT Test Center Closings page on the College Board website. It is important to note that individual test centers decide whether or not to administer the SAT, pending health and safety. College Board notes, “All weekend test centers must adhere to local public health guidelines and follow College Board requirements.” In the rapidly changing landscape of a pandemic, this could mean unexpected test cancellations (even at the very last minute). 

This page will be updated with new information every three hours. We recommend checking the College Board website, your email, as well as your individual test center’s website the night before and morning of your scheduled exam. There is also the possibility of test centers reducing their capacity, in which case test-takers will be notified by email. It is essential that College Board has your correct contact info in the event of a last minute change. You can confirm your contact details here.  

If your test center makes the decision to close, expect to be contacted directly by email or text for more details on the cancellation, reduced capacity, a refund, or a possible location change and makeup date. 

If your test center is closed, you can register for a future test date. 


We understand that the possibility of a last minute change must feel jarring, especially for those who have been preparing diligently for your exams. As we all navigate this unprecedented and unpredictable time, we are here to help. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns. At Sentia, we don’t just tutor, we’ll be with you every step of the way™!