Monthly Archives: June 2012

28 Jun 2012

How to Achieve Your Goals, Part 2: Getting into a Good Routine

When I was in high school, I hated the idea of routine. It sounded so stiff, fixed, and boring. I wanted to be passionate! Friends, teachers, and parents should see me as spontaneous and creative, I thought.

As I have gotten older, however, I’ve come to realize that routines and goals are like yin and yang—they are interdependent and bring one another to fruition. Routines allow us to take control of our lives. Instead of flaking out, procrastinating, or becoming overwhelmed by banal tasks, routine followers calmly navigate their daily duties and make steady progress toward long-term goals.

On Tuesday, I explained that long-term goals must be broken down into a series of small steps. Since achieving long-term goals means prioritizing such steps, we must work them into our daily routines. In this blog entry, I will therefore outline a good daily routine for high school students that emphasizes daily progress toward long-term goals.

A Good Daily Routine for High School Students:

Before Bed:

1.) A few hours before bed, identify twomain goals for the next day. These can be large and time consuming, like writing an essay, or as simple as signing up for SAT prep. Your two main goals are the most important tasks you have for the day. Even if you get nothing else done, completing your two main goals will mean you’ve had a productive day.

2.) After you’ve identified your 2 main goals, write a longer list of things to do if you have time.

3.) Prepare for the next day by laying out your clothes, packing your lunch, and making sure everything you need for school is already in your backpack.

4.) Relax a little by reading a book before bed. Not only is this an enjoyable activity, but independent reading will also help you prepare for the SAT/ACT!

5.) Go to bed early enough to guarantee you’ll feel rested in the morning.


In the Morning:

1.) Wake up in plenty of time to get ready for school. Nothing throws off a productive day like rushing out of the house unclean, unkempt, and unprepared.

2.) Eat breakfast!

3.) Do a little reading or a crossword puzzle over breakfast or on your way to school. This light mental workout will have you sharp and focused just in time for school.

After School and Extracurricular Activities:

1.) Take a break, but do not let this break turn into procrastination. Taking a break is a productive activity; it refreshes your mind so you can continue attacking important tasks. A productive break lasts about 30 minutes–1 hour.

2.) Get to work on the 2 main goals you identified the night before. As these are your most important tasks for the day, you should complete them before working on anything else. Remember, procrastinating by doing less important (though still productive) tasks is still procrastinating! Starting work on these projects right away will also ensure you have enough time to do them well.

3.) Finish your homework and/or household chores. If one of your main goals was a homework assignment, you have one less thing to worry about!

4.) Take 30 minutes–1 hour every day to work on tasks you dread and tend to put off. For some students, this will turn into SAT/ACT study time. Dedicating a specific (short!) amount of time each day to working on dreaded tasks not only ensures steady progress, but it will also make these tasks feel less daunting.

5.) At some point, you’ll obviously need to eat dinner. Eat something nutritious! 


Before Bed (We’ve come full circle, eh?)

1.) Reflect for a bit on the day that has just passed. Did you manage your daily responsibilities and accomplish your main goals? If not, why? Did you procrastinate? Forget to do something? Or were your main goals too ambitious to complete in one day? Now is the time to think about what went wrong so you can make adjustments for tomorrow.

2.) Repeat the process. You know the drill.


These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

Fruition: completion; accomplishment; maturity
Banal: commonplace; everyday; mundane
Abide by: to follow

26 Jun 2012

How to Achieve Your Goals, Part 1: Planning for Long-Term Success

One day, Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, was asked by a young student, “How do you get to Mount Olympus?” Aristotle replied, “By simply ensuring that each step you take is toward Mount Olympus.”

Aristotle’s response is surprising. Usually when someone asks me for directions, I lay out a comprehensive plan. Walk straight for 5 blocks, I might say. Turn right at the church and you’ll see the mountain on your left. Instead of specifying a plan or worrying about the future, however, Aristotle instructs his student to simply concentrate on the present step. Only when this step is complete should the student concern himself with the next.

Back in February, Marcus (an awesome tutor here at Sentia) argued for the importance of setting goals when studying for admissions tests. In this blog entry, I will give some suggestions for how to make these goals actually happen. To do this, we don’t need to create a comprehensive final plan. We merely must identify and complete a series of next steps.

 How to Achieve Your Long-Term Goals:

 1.) Define your goals.

To achieve your goals, you must first figure out what they are. Since you have stumbled across the Sentia Education blog, I’m going to assume you’re a student aiming for a college or graduate degree. A lofty goal indeed!

Once you’ve identified your ultimate, long-term goal (COLLEGE! GRAD SCHOOL!), you must make a list of sub-goals. Sub-goals are all the projects you’ll need to complete before attaining your ultimate goal. For example, most colleges require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. Thus, if you’re a high school student applying to college, taking the SAT or ACT is an important sub-goal.

As you move forward with the method I describe below, you will continue to break your goals down into smaller and smaller pieces.

 2.) Force yourself to Just Get Started!

Beginning work on a big project can be daunting—especially if you’re not sure where to start or how much work you’ll need to do. In the germinal stage of any endeavor, it’s generally best to suspend such worries and focus on getting something—anything—done. This is the first step. Once you have taken the first step, you will find it easier to identify the next.

Setting a precise, limited work-time will make it easier to start work on your goal. To begin, challenge yourself to work for 30 minutes today. Stop working after 30 minutes, no matter how paltry your progress. You have made admirable headway just by forcing yourself to sit down, “break the ice,” and attack your goal. (Keep working, of course, if you’re being productive and don’t want to stop!)

When you are finished for today, schedule your next short work session. And so forth.

3.) Break your goal into a series of small tasks.

 The first step here is figuring out exactly how long you have to complete your goal. Then, you will make a list of things you know you need to do to complete this goal.

For instance, if you’re studying for the SAT, one of your first actions will be to register for the exam. Perhaps you will take it this October?

There are 15 weeks between now and the October 6 SAT. What do you need to do before then? A diligent student might write: I need to take & review practice sections; learn grammar concepts; and memorize 300 vocab words.

Continue to break down this list until you have a series of mini-goals to complete at specific times in the immediate future. Once again, our diligent student might here resolve to: learn 20 vocab words each week to memorize 300 in 15 weeks; take and review 3 practice sections each week; study grammar concepts for 1 hour each week.

 And there we have it! We have defined our next steps.

4.) Make a schedule of times to complete your mini-goals.

Once you’ve established a series of mini-goals, you will want to create a regular work-schedule to get them done. Creating a schedule for completing your mini-goals will not only cause the overall project to feel less overwhelming, but it will also force you to make this work a priority.

Treat each one of your scheduled work-sessions as a commitment you cannot break. I cannot emphasize this enough. Unless there is a serious (and I mean serious) emergency, you must honor and abide by the schedule you make.

Tip: Establishing a regular place (or—better yet—a few places) to go to work on your goal will help these sessions feel more like actual appointments. In addition, your brain will begin to associate such special spots with working on your goal, so you can get focused faster.

5.) Monitor your progress every step of the way.

 Let’s say you’re studying for the SAT. You have made a schedule whereby you take 3 practice exam sections each week. On Monday, you take a Math section, grade it, and learn you got all but 4 questions wrong. Ouch!

Sounds like it’s time to re-evaluate your work schedule and set some new mini-goals!

At this moment in time, you might set a mini-goal of getting a Sentia tutor to help you with math. You might also set a goal of re-learning concepts covered in the questions you got wrong. In either case, you are rethinking your plan to counter unexpected challenges. In other words, you less concerned with sticking to a pre-formed plan than with identifying and taking the appropriate next steps.

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

 Lofty: exalted in rank, dignity, or character; noble
Germinal: being in the earliest stage of development
Paltry: ridiculously small

19 Jun 2012

Why do tests matter, anyway?

On Wednesday, the New York Post reported that parents are pulling their kids out of the young, progressive and $32,000 per-year Blue School at tremendous rates because their kids are “barely learning to read.”

Originally founded in 2006 as a playgroup by members of the Blue Man Group and their wives, the Blue School places a premium on curiosity, collaboration, and creative exploration. Students and teachers work in teams to establish and construct curriculum. There are no required books or set arrival times. Grade levels currently range from prekindergarten to third grade, although a fourth grade is being added next year.

Instead of tests, Blue School teachers use “observations, field notes, photographs, portfolios, and other appropriate forms of documentation” to evaluate student progress—a system that allows teachers to assess development holistically and without comparing students to one another. Students are encouraged to learn through play, projects and reflection on their environment. Curriculum is emergent, which means that material is taught as it becomes relevant to students’ explorations and interests. Sounds like a dream!

…Until you realize second graders at the Blue School still can’t read.

Before the backdrop of recent outcry against the growing importance of standardized tests, the Blue School’s radical methods appear to represent desperate moves to get away from the mania—attempts to refocus education on the process of learning, rather than on its end results. Emphasis on standardized testing is at an all-time high; such tests determine not only the fate of NYC teachers and schools, but also whether students are permitted to advance to the next grade level. Success on standardized tests is also a prerequisite for admission to elite NYC high schools and universities nationwide.

Criticism of standardized tests seems to flow in two, interrelated directions. On one hand, parents are frustrated that measurement of their children’s achievement and potential has boiled down to a single score. Such feelings were manifest in the media’s treatment of the “talking pineapple question”, a nonsense story paired with nonsensical questions that recently appeared on New York State 8th grade ELA exams. Parents, teachers, and students alike were outraged that such a screaming error could appear on high-stakes exams. In response, the state eventually decided not to count the question when calculating scores.

Critics are also concerned about the effects of standardized tests on teaching. Under overwhelming pressure to get students to perform, some teachers are now prioritizing the pedagogy of “teaching to the test.” In other words, rather than exploring subjects in depth to instill comprehensive understanding, many teachers are relying on “drill and kill” methods that may improve scores, but foster only superficial comprehension of a given topic.

These are serious problems that must be addressed, but eliminating tests altogether is not the answer. Working in the admissions test-prep industry, I have come to see standardized tests like the SAT as useful teaching tools. Tests function to direct and structure curriculum; they focus teacher and student attention on developing and improving skills that are necessary for success in school and beyond. Furthermore, standardized tests like the SAT ask students to apply skills they have learned in new ways to solve tricky questions. Studying for such tests can actually train students to approach problems from diverse angles and find creative solutions.

The high stakes of tests are important here too—many highschoolers commit to independent reading only after they experience the brutality of Critical Reading on the SAT. In other words, the tangible goals and rewards associated with tests can nurture student motivation. Also and perhaps most importantly, studying for tests like the SAT teaches students to proceed with confidence, diligence, and determination despite not initially being the best at something.

It remains to be seen whether the Blue School’s alternative teaching methods can eventually instill core academic skills like literacy and math. For now, it seems the school is facing a harsh reality that validating free and independent exploration cannot come at the expense of giving students structure, direction, and discipline. Both elements must combine for children to grow into capable, responsible, and curious learners.


07 Jun 2012

Help! My Proctor Made a Mistake: What to do in case of SAT test irregularity

Anyone working in the test-prep industry knows that SAT proctors make mistakes—occasionally with devastating consequences. The worst stories involve proctors wrongfully forbidding the use of calculators, accidentally under-timing sections, and refusing to let students turn back to the reference table during a math section.

Such stories aren’t meant to scare you—hopefully your next SAT will go smoothly and without any problems. Still, it’s important to be aware that testing irregularities can happen. In this blog entry, I will list some important test-procedure rules proctors are required to follow. Following this, I will discuss things students can do to minimize the penalty resulting from a proctor who violates these rules.

When administering the SAT, proctors are required to follow these rules, as detailed in The SAT Standard Testing Room Manual:

— Testing rooms must have a visible clock. If there is no visible clock, proctors are required to announce the remaining time of each section at regular intervals (i.e., every five minutes). If a proctor announces the remaining time sporadically or fails to announce at all, he/she is breaking an official rule.
— Proctors must make an announcement when 5 minutes remain before the end of the test or test section.
— Proctors are required to write the start and stop time of each section on the board.
— Over-timing of a section is NOT to affect the time allowed for any other section. If a proctor tries to make up for giving too much time on section 2 by taking time away from section 3, he/she is breaking an official rule.
— Proctors must allow students to make up for under-timing on a section “before concluding the section, allowing a break or dismissing students.” Proctors are to allow full testing time for unaffected sections.
— Proctors MUST give 5 minute breaks after sections 2, 4, and 6. Students may leave the test room (but not the building) during these breaks. Students are also permitted to eat and drink during these breaks.
— Students are allowed to take unscheduled breaks (i.e., bathroom breaks). However, only one student at a time may take an unscheduled break. Students will not be given extra time for taking unscheduled breaks.
— Desks must be at least 12” x 15”.
— Latecomers may be admitted to the test before proctors begin reading the test directions. In addition, proctors must give latecomers time to read the directions on the back cover of the test. Latecomers may complete the identification portion of the answer sheet at the end of the test administration.
— Proctors must allow students to ask questions about test procedure before the test begins.
— Students MAY use calculators while working on a math section. Furthermore, different students will be using calculators at different times during the test, as sections are arranged differently in each test form.
— Students MAY work on any page of the section being administered. However, students are NOT allowed to return to previous sections, or begin working on future sections early.
— Proctors are NOT supposed to talk on the phone, grade papers, or engage in other distracting activities during the test. If your proctor is doing a noisy activity while overseeing the SAT, he/she is breaking an official rule and should be asked to stop.

What you can do to minimize the impact of testing irregularity:

— Don’t be afraid to speak up! You absolutely have a right to speak up if your proctor breaks any of the official rules listed above. If your proctor does not believe they have broken an official rule, refer him/her to The SAT Standard Testing Room Manual.
— Ask to speak to a test-center supervisor if you speak up and your proctor still won’t abide by an official rule. Keep in mind that this is an extreme move—I would recommend this only if there has been a very serious violation that the suggestions below do not address.
— Bring a watch so you can keep track of the remaining time for each section in case your proctor forgets to make announcements.
— Remind the proctor to announce and record the start time of each section. If your proctor accidentally under-times a section, you can correct and prove this by referring your proctor to the start-time he/she wrote down.
— Do NOT wait to test until the last administration before college applications are due. If your score suffers due to testing irregularity, the most the College Board can do is offer a free retest. In case of disaster, it helps to know you have time to test again.
— If all else fails, cancel your scores– Unfair as it is, sometimes the only thing you can do in response to testing irregularity is to cancel your score. There are two ways to cancel scores:

1.) After the SAT but before leaving the test center, ask the test supervisor for a Request to Cancel Test Scores form. Complete, sign, and return the form to the test supervisor before leaving the test center.

2.) To cancel your test score after leaving the center, your written request must be received by 11:59 pm on the Wednesday following the test to cancel your score. You cannot cancel your test score by email or telephone.To cancel your test score after leaving the center, download and print the Request to Cancel Test Scores form. Once you have filled out this form, fax it to (610) 290-8978 or use USPS Express Mail overnight delivery (U.S. Only) to send it to:

Sat Score Cancellation
P.O. Box 6228
Princeton, NJ 08541-6228

Please see the Cancel Test Scores section of the College Board’s website for more information and for how to cancel international scores.


Finally, you can help prevent future errors by reporting testing irregularities to E.T.S. If several students from a test center complain of unfairness or irregularity, E.T.S. will conduct an investigation of the testing procedures followed at that site. To report a testing irregularity, contact the E.T.S. Office of Testing Integrity by phone (800-353-8570), fax (609-406-9709), or e-mail (  Students and parents may also contact SAT customer service at (866) 756-7346 or

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

Sporadic: stopping and starting; irregular

05 Jun 2012

How to read actively and score more points!

Love it or hate it, SAT Critical Reading is important. Not only do college admissions officials pay great attention to SAT Critical Reading scores, but studying for SAT Critical Reading can actually help you learn to process & comprehend college-level texts—important skills for success in college and beyond. In this blog entry, I will describe how to use active reading strategies to help you become a better reader. If you practice these strategies regularly, I guarantee your reading level will advance and you will score more points on the SAT.

What is active reading?

Active reading means using strategies to increase one’s comprehension and retention of a text.

Active readers probe the limits of a text. They habitually “read between the lines,” which means they make inferences and uncover meanings buried beneath the literal wording of a text. Active readers ask questions, make connections, and examine an author’s use of language to work through what they don’t immediately understand.

SAT passage-based reading questions require students to make inferences and identify the implied meanings of challenging texts; therefore, becoming an active reader is crucial for SAT success.

How to become an active reader:

1) Define a set of goals for reading.

Defining a set of goals not only helps us stay focused as we read, but it also prepares us to monitor our comprehension. If you know precisely what you aim to get from reading, it will be easier for you to supervise your understanding of a text.

Lucky for you, the SAT hands you a prepackaged set of goals, articulated in the questions asked about each passage. As an active SAT passage reader, your goals are to understand:

— The subject of the passage – What is the author writing about?
— The argument of the passage – What position does the author take on the subject? What is the passage trying to show or describe?
— The structure of the passage – What supporting points does the author use to back up the argument?  How do different parts of the passage relate to each other and contribute to the meaning as a whole?
— The tone of the passage – How does the author feel about the subject he/she is writing about?

Fiction passages, which make up 10% of the passages on each SAT, present a slightly different challenge. In addition to the above-mentioned goals, active readers seek to understand:

— The relationships between characters – What do the different characters think of each other? Do the character’s feelings toward each other change during the story? What devices are used to convey this relationship?
— The use of figurative language in the passage – Why does the author describe things the way he/she does? What impressions do these descriptions create? How do these descriptions reinforce and/or add to the overall meaning of the passage?

2) Take notes as you read

Everyone has fleeting impressions, questions, and thoughts about what they read. Forcing yourself to take notes is a great way to slow down your reading process and give yourself time to fully think through each question or thought. In addition, highlighting, underlining, and annotating texts helps you stay focused as you read. Finally, taking notes is a great way to mark information you may need to look at again in the future.

Good notes concern:

Questions about the text – Mark sections that are confusing, surprising, or that you may want to reflect on later. Also think about and write down a short response to these questions—even if you’re unsure.
— New vocabulary words – It’s a great idea to underline new vocabulary and write definitions in the margins.
— Anything that pertains to your goals for reading –If you’re reading a fiction SAT passage, for instance, you’ll want to mark and reflect on the purpose of figurative language.
— Important points – Always mark sections that state the main idea of a reading.
— Predictions about what will happen next – How do you think the text will end, and what is causing you to think this?
— Connections between the text and things from your daily life – Does a story’s plot remind you of a movie? Does the main character remind you of your mom? Use things from your everyday life to put the text into terms you understand.
— Anything that makes you think! — Any thought, question or idea you have is likely important and worth reflection.

3) Reflect after reading

It is super important to properly digest everything you read. Here are some strategies to help you make sense of texts once you have read them.

— Keep a reading journal – Writing about your impressions will help you think more deeply about what you have read. To begin, just write whatever comes into your head without stopping or thinking about it. Once you’ve arrived at a thought or question you wish to pursue, try to write 2-pages arguing a claim or exploring this question.
— Relate the text to your personal life – Ask yourself: Do the characters in the text remind you of anyone you know? Have you ever been in a situation similar to one described in the book? What does the language of the text reveal about our culture/society, and do you agree with the author’s point of view?
— Discuss texts with teachers, parents, or friends – Discussing books and articles with others allows us to consider points and ideas we wouldn’t have thought of alone. Also, having to defend ideas in a debate/disagreement is a great way to get yourself thinking deeply.

4) Read challenging material, but don’t read too much.

Have you ever sat down to read a challenging text, filled with arcane words and excruciatingly complex sentence structures?  If so, you probably had to work extremely hard to get the basic gist of the text and had little energy left over to think about its themes, implications, and layers of meaning.

Although reading difficult material is necessary to advancing as a reader, you must make sure to read this material actively. Thoroughly reading just one paragraph of an extremely difficult text is more beneficial than reading 100 pages you only superficially understand. To get the most from reading, set goals that take into account the energy required to read actively. In addition, allow yourself to take breaks if you get tired while reading and start to lose focus.

And, to sum it all up…

Getting into the habit of reading actively is super important, but takes practice. If you regularly use the strategies listed above to read difficult texts, I guarantee your comprehension skills and reading level will improve. In turn, you will find it easy to attack the Passage-Based Reading questions on the SAT.

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

Arcane: Obscure information known by a few people