Study Better – Part 1 – Remove the Barriers

One of the biggest advantages teenagers have today over teenagers of the past is their widespread access to information. Gone are the days of painstaking research using Dewey Decimal systems or Microfiche, and in their place are days of quality internet searches, high quality video, and easier collaboration.

Unfortunately, with a high amount of information comes also the problems of overwhelm and bad information. One of the most inspiring qualities we’ve noticed increase in our students over the years is their dedication to their studies: more and more students are willing to put in extra work to improve their grades and their ACT or SAT scores. However, one of the most depressing aspects we’ve also seen is a huge increase in the amount of poor study habits: habits that not only take away from their goals but also increase their time spent studying.

My goal in this series is to help students and families cut through some of the misinformation out there and bring everyone back to basics (that work). Today’s focus is going to be not on your actual study time, but on the setup of your study time: removing the barriers so that you continue to study!

1. Removing the Decision 

I first came across this idea on a fitness blog. The idea was if you set out your clothes the night before in your gym bag, along with your protein bar, water, and workout clothes, you were much more likely to wake up to  your alarm and actually go to the gym. The decision was removed, everything was set up for you to go to the gym. It sounded silly to me until I considered the alternative: waking to an alarm with nothing set out, looking around at the 6 small tasks I had to do, every one of which was an opportunity to talk myself out of going to the gym. It borders on tricking yourself, but it was hands-down the easiest trick I’ve ever implemented to get myself to consistently do something.

The same holds for your studying – if you have a designated time and study place on specific days, with all pencils sharpened, a calculator ready, highlighters on hand, a lamp on the desk, etc., you are so much more likely to actually do it. Nudge yourself towards success and find small psychological cues to remove the decision to study.

2. Remove the Distraction(s)

First, move your phone, tablet, Switch, etc. out of sight and touch. Don’t put it on your desk, don’t put it in your pocket – completely detach it from yourself. Researchers at the University of Texas (news release here) have found the mere presence of your phone makes you less intelligent!

What if you’re a student at Cathedral and you’re required to use your iPad to complete your homework? Good question! At the very least, put your iPad on Airplane mode, but you also may choose to invest in the hard-copy version of your books (and spend time investigating beforehand what overlaps question-wise and what doesn’t).

Second, turn your attention to your study space itself. If your designated study space is your own room, have your desk face away from any distractions. These can take the form of a window, your bed, pictures of your friends, your closet, etc. – whatever it is that you find personally distracting.

If your designated study space is your family dining room table, choose a time to study in which the family is naturally quiet, whether this is before your parents get home from work, or before everyone goes to bed. If no such time exists, consider asking your parents for a “quiet hour” a few times a week. It also may be wise to look elsewhere – check your local library or coffee shop and experiment on times to see what time of day has the optimal traffic flow for you. Research from the University of Illinois suggests there is a proper range of ambient noise for creative thought (article available here from NY Times).

In Short

Removing barriers to studying success can have a huge impact on your ability without a large amount of effort. Make sure to remove both the decision to study and the distractions from studying to give yourself the best possible opportunities! Stay tuned for further aspects of study tips around the actual studying you do, how to keep your success going, and favorite resources. And as always, please let us know if you have any questions or insights to add!


Don’t forget to SAS/QAS!

If you are registered to take the SAT, you have the option to pay an additional fee to receive the SAS or QAS.

What is the SAS/QAS? 

The QAS (price currently $18) provides you with a copy of the test, the answer key, and your letter choice responses (A/B/C/D). A copy of the test may continue to be released publicly, but the only way to see what you answered is to order the QAS.

The SAS (price currently $13.50) provides you only with your response accuracy (Right/Wrong/Omit), question type, and level of difficulty. While it is certainly a lot less information than the QAS, it can still be invaluable in determining if there were large gaps in strategy, either from a question level standpoint or from a section management standpoint.

Which test date gives me the QAS? 

The QAS is only offered on the October, March, and May tests. The SAS is offered for all other SAT test dates (August, November, December, and June).

How do I order it if I’ve already registered?

If you have already registered for a test, you can add on the QAS or SAS through the online portal. However, if you prefer pen and paper, you can print out the form and order here: SAT Answer Verification Service Order Form.

When do I get the QAS/SAS?

Approximately 8-10 weeks after your results are released. This means for the December 2 test with a last release date of Dec 21, we’re looking at receiving the SAS sometime between Feb 9th and March 1st in the worst case scenario. Official release dates for SAT scores are available here: Getting SAT Results.


How to Use Your Breaks Wisely

A question many of you probably have on the brain is “How can I (or my son/daughter) best use my Thanksgiving or Winter Break to get an edge on my tests?”

Here are some ideas as we head into the fall and winter holidays:

  1. 1. Download and use free apps, including these grammar apps, or the SAT Question of the Day.
  2. 2. Take a practice test (if you are ready).
  3. 3. Work out of The Complete Guide to ACT English, by Erika MeltzerUltimate Guide to the Math ACT, or The College Panda’s ACT Math Workbook: More Advanced Practice By Topic.
  4. 4. Create a “missed math questions” notebook and start reworking the problems you have difficulty with.
  5. 5. Make or study your flashcards using the Leitner System.
  6. 6. And finally, perhaps the best use of your time: actually take a break! Rest, relax, and spend time with your family! It may do you more good than anything else to take the time to reset, both mentally and physically.

ACT SAT Score Release Oct and Nov 2017

This week marked the release of most of the ACT scores. In a departure from recent tests, ACT took longer to release the scores this October, waiting 17 days instead of the usual 10.

Last October (2016) had very high scores, so it’s possible that ACT spent the additional 7 days calibrating the curve to ensure the same thing didn’t repeat this year. It’s also possible that ACT used the additional 7 days to honor our Veterans over the holiday and/or attend to other pressing organization matters.

On the other side, SAT has been moving up their turnaround rate for test score release windows, with the first scores from the Nov 7th test becoming available Nov 17th (10 days – coincidence?) and all scores available by Nov 23rd.

Traditionally, SAT has taken longer to release scores and has released them all in one batch, but with the ACT dominating the market and releasing some in 10 days (prior to this most recent test, of course), the SAT probably felt pressure to perform similarly.

You may be asking – what does this all mean? For now, probably not much other than extending or shortening the anxious waiting time between test taking and test scoring. However, it does signal on a large scale how much these two testing companies are responding to each others’ moves and competing for your testing dollars. We also may see some big shifts on score reporting, percentiles, or scores in the coming months or years, but only time will tell.


Thoughts on the October ACT

I, too, took the October ACT, in order to refamiliarize myself with the experience and to learn more about the trends of the ACT for one of the non-released dates. I’ve also spent some time with the released tests of June, April, and December of last year, so we can get a pretty good idea of where the test is or may be heading.

One of the most noticeable impacts was in the Math section. In September’s test, the Math section contained a high number of word problems, causing many students to run out of time much more so than they normally do. October’s Math section was definitely still challenging, but because it contained far fewer word problems, most students reported completing more of the section overall. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a slight bump in scores compared to the September test.

Another noticeable impact is the Reading section – also easier than September’s test. The passages contained fairly easy vocabulary and rather straight-forward questions, with many more students finishing on time than previous tests, so hopefully this is a trend towards slightly nicer reading sections.

The remaining sections (English and Science) had less noticeable changes. The English section has held steady with the more recent trend in the last 6 months: more hard questions than before. The October test included challenging vocabulary and an increase in redundancy questions, and big variations in rhetorical questions. That said, the curve has made up for this increase in difficulty so far – sometimes allowing students to miss 4 questions and still earn a 35.

The Science section continues to remain a challenge. The last two passages on the October test were especially tough, with the Differing Viewpoints passage coming right at the end, so students who didn’t budget their time throughout the section may have failed to complete these last passages.

And one of the most interesting aspects of the trends is the later release date of scores, coming out this week instead of last. We’ll see soon whether this brings an additional score adjustment based on the difficulty of the test, or if it’s in line with the same scales as always. Either way, keep preparing and keep taking care of your health leading up to the test, and you are sure to keep improving your score!


Apps to Help with the English/Writing Section

Some of our students (especially our non-native speakers) have difficulty with the phrases and small words on the ACT and SAT grammar portions (the English and Writing sections, respectively).

I’ve found some apps that may be of use that are available (for free!) on both iPhones and Androids:

Johnny Grammar’s Word Challenge (by the British Council) features quizzes on Grammar, Words, and Spelling. The Grammar portion is the one you’ll find the most useful and has a high amount of overlap with some of the question types on the ACT/SAT. It’s basically a series of quizzes that has a leaderboard function so it has a nice competition portion of it. You can connect it to an account or you can play as a guest (both for free).


Preposition Master, a slick app with various levels that quizzes you on sentences and phrases to fill in the correct preposition. There is a free version that you can download to see if it would help you! I like playing a sentence or two at a time in the small waiting spaces of my day. You won’t need to go all the way to the Proverb level (the highest level), but it may be fun to challenge yourself if the other ones get too easy.


Any others? Let me know! I’ll be happy to add them.


How Much Do You Know About the SAT/ACT?

A little True/False quiz to see what you know about the SAT, the ACT, the PSAT, and prep in general:

1.  T/F      The SAT is accepted by every college in the US.
2.  T/F       The ACT is not accepted by every college in the US.
3.  T/F       More students take the SAT nationwide than the ACT.
4.  T/F      As a student, I am most likely to score equally well on both tests.
5.  T/F       Prep towards one test will most likely increase my score on the other test.
6.  T/F       Prep may help me in my classes at school.
7.  T/F       Homework and test prep will take up more than 3 hours a week if I want to improve.
8.  T/F       Feeling prepared on test day will likely result in a higher score.
9.  T/F       An increase in my score will most likely impact which colleges I get into.
10. T/F      An increase in my score may impact how much aid I receive from colleges.
11. T/F       Taking the PSAT will help me feel more prepared regardless of if I end up taking the official ACT or official SAT.
12. T/F      Through the PSAT, colleges can identify me as someone they would like to apply to college.
1. T
2. F – Harvey Mudd College was the last school to accept the ACT in 2007.
3. F – More students take the ACT nationwide.
4. T – although some students score significantly different on one test compared to the other.
5. T – Not a guarantee, but there is enough of an overlap that students usually do improve on both even if they only prepare for one.
6. T – The most common comments we hear in this regard are helping on multiple choice tests, and in literature and history classes, but sometimes we hear reports of math classes feeling easier too.
7. F – 15 minutes a day can be a huge boost to your score if those 15 minutes are used well.
8. T – As is true for all performances,  like sports, public speaking, acting, etc.
9. T
10. T – Again for some students more so than others.
11. T
12. T

Should I Take the Test Again?

As all of the SAT scores and most of the ACT scores of the first tests of the school year have been reported, many of you are now contemplating taking it again. We’ve been hearing some good reasons and some not-so-good reasons for retakes, so I thought it would be useful to shed some insight from our perspective.

Please consider everything we say with a grain of salt and make the right decision for you! In hindsight, it is impossible to know what made or break an application, especially with all of the unknowns (like teacher recommendations) inherent in the process. And every admissions officer in the country will tell you that it doesn’t just come down to one thing (like a score) – except when it does (e.g. a 20 when the medians for the school’s applicants are 28-31). More likely you are stuck debating between a point or two, which may or may not make the difference.

Common reasons to NOT want to take the test again:

  1. “I really don’t want to! I am so over it.”
  2. “I don’t think it will make a big difference to my application.”
  3. “I don’t think I will score much higher if I try again.”
  4. “It will take away from the other things that are important in my life.”
  5. “I feel like I’ve taken it too many times already.”


All of these reasons depend heavily on you and your situation. The litmus test I recommend is as follows:

1. Can you make a real concerted effort (10-15 hours spread out over 5-6 weeks between sessions and homework)?

2. Are you right on the cusp of a median for your dream school or a percentile rank (e.g. the difference between 33 -> 34 or 29 -> 30)?

3. Do you feel like there’s just a little bit more left in you to score higher? As in, does it feel like there are a few questions you could get in every section if you pushed yourself a little more, or do you feel like you had a great sitting last time and pretty much got to everything that was possible with your current brain?

If the answer to any of these is no, you may not want to take the test again. It will likely result in frustration and take away from other more enjoyable and/or worthwhile activities. There is always the possibility that you will have a nice sitting and perform well regardless of making a final push, too. The deadline to register for the October ACT without the late fee is today, but you also have a few more weeks if you are willing to pay the additional fee. For the SAT, you still have time to register for the November SAT, which will release Nov 17-23, which should be plenty of time for the majority of your applications. Please call or text us (or leave comments below) if you have any further questions about your particular situation, and good luck with whatever you decide!


How to Start Off Your Calc AB Class

It’s officially the beginning of the school year, and for many of you, AP Calculus AB might be the first college-level math course you have ever taken! For some of you, your AP Calculus class is also one of the most rigorous classes you’ve ever taken. Whether you have a challenging AP Calc class or not, we all have the same goal: get that 5 on the AP test in May. In order to do this, you will want to start the year off right with good study habits and efficient math strategies to help you succeed throughout the course.

First, make sure you follow class notes thoroughly in class. Write more than just filling in the blanks and answering the warm-up and practice problems. Draw diagrams and pictures to help you remember certain concepts. Write down more than one way to solve the problem. All of these methods can help you study for the test at the end of the chapter. Learning occurs when you really grapple with a subject and the lightbulb in your brain lights up. Writing extra notes and drawing figures on the side will help you remember those lightbulb moments during your studying, and will likely decrease the amount of studying you have to do in the long run.

Second, do the homework on time! Whether your teacher collects homework assignments every day, once a week, or even once a month, making sure you complete the assignment after each class is essential whenever your brain receives new material. Doing homework allows your brain to go through and check for understanding on the new material you’ve just learned.

Third, go through your class notes one more time after you’ve finished your homework assignment. Completing the homework assignment does not always mean that you understand the material thoroughly. By going through the class notes one more time and remembering those lightbulb moments, you are double checking with your brain on the concept of those problems. You may also give yourself a small quiz by stating the definition of a vocabulary term or a theorem without looking at your notes. Ask yourself this question: “Do I really understand these materials?” If not, you may need to go through your textbook, ask a parent/teacher/friend/tutor, or even just do more problems in the textbook.

Going into the class the next day understanding all the materials that were taught before is extremely important. Because AP Calculus is a college-level course, there is little or no chance that the teacher will review what was taught before the new lesson every single class. And each class gives you a little more new material every time. Without understanding the old material, you’re most certainly going to have a harder time understanding the new material. Most importantly, be honest with yourself: if you don’t understand something, are uncertain of something, or even just don’t know why something is the way it is, ASK!!!


PSAT Dates 2017

For most students, the importance of the PSAT lies in the opportunity  to take it – the PSAT is a low cost venture (both financially and time-wise, as it usually occurs during the school day and at the students’ school) that very much mimics the real thing.

It is also a great way to get on particular schools’ radars, as schools use these scores to target students they would like to apply. In my personal experience, the PSAT school search was how I heard about the school I ended up attending!

For some students, the PSAT is also an opportunity to impress and receive recognition from the National Merit Scholarship. This bar is set very high for California, as the results are calculated on a state-by-state basis, but many students can still be recognized nationally with a slightly lower score.

The PSAT is offered only once per school, but that date depends on your school. It will be one of the following dates:

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017,

Saturday, October 14th, 2017.

Wednesday October 25th, 2017.

If you have not already signed up for the PSAT at your high school, we highly recommend you do so. There is almost nothing at stake, as schools will not consider your PSAT score in your application process, and much to gain in the way of opportunity and practice comfort level.