Mentally Preparing for Your Test-Prep Summer

Mentally Preparing for Your Test Prep Summer

Whether you’re enthusiastic or despondent that you’re about to spend a summer preparing for the SAT/ACT, it’s important that you go into the process with a plan of attack. Your teachers and administrators will, of course, guide you through the process, but genuine learning always begins with a degree of self-guidance. Here are some tips to get you in the right mindset for a summer of test prep:

Don’t Fixate on Scores Early in the Summer

If you’re enrolled at Elite, you’ve signed up to spend the summer learning. Standardized test scores encourage students to become overly goal-oriented. But preparing for standardized tests is a marathon, not a race (an idea I discussed in a previous post on why cramming does not work). If you put in the work this summer, you will see significant improvement over time. But you’re not likely to see much of an improvement right away—don’t expect a week of test prep to revolutionize your SAT score.

For those enrolled at Elite, you will take a test each week, and this regular practice will make your chosen standardized test feel very, very familiar in due time. But what you gain in practice you will likely sacrifice in gratification—your test scores will improve gradually, though not right away (your score might even regress from one week to the next, a normal sequence of events for students taking so many tests in such a short period of time).

Don’t worry too much about your early test scores. To truly thrive this summer, you’ll need to adjust where you get your academic satisfaction. Most students are in love with grades and scores. You need to fall in love, instead, with the process of learning—only then will your scores get where you want them to be.

Learn Each Lesson, One at a Time

Most Elite students are test-centric: they want to spend the majority of class time reviewing each practice test so that they can learn why their incorrect answers are wrong and how they can get similar questions correct on the next test. Test review is a very important part of your curriculum this summer, but it is not the most important.

Test review points students in many directions at once. On the Writing & Language section, a test review section will have you thinking about subject-verb agreement one minute, verb tense the next, and logical progression of ideas the minute after that. Test-review class sessions cover many principles in a short timeframe. There are advantages and disadvantages to this method. You’ll gain exposure to a wide range of issues covered on the SAT/ACT, but you will not be able to sufficiently concentrate on any one issue.

The most important part of your summer curriculum is your weekly lessons. Each lesson provides in-depth coverage of a single concept. If you come to each of these lessons ready to absorb new information, you will learn the skills needed to transform your standardized test scores.

Give these lessons at least as much attention and care as you give your weekly practice tests.

Trust the process

Take each practice test seriously. Enter each class ready to learn and participate. Be rigorous with your test corrections. Take your time completing each lesson so that you can absorb new information slowly. In other words, put your head down and work through the process. If you do, not only will you improve your chances of getting into your school of choice, but you’ll develop the habits necessary to be a star student once you get there.

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.

Posted on June 20, 2017 and filed under Test Prep, Study Tips.

Why You Should Start Your College Admission Essays this Summer

Why you should start your college admission essays this summer

Procrastination is a disease endemic to teenagers and writers of all ages. It’s also hard-wired into the brain itself: when the human brain encounters an undesirable activity—like doing homework or chores—the limbic system (“the unconscious zone that includes the pleasure center”) and the prefrontal cortex (“the internal ‘planner’”) vie for supremacy.

You can probably guess which part of the brain usually wins out.

Chances are you procrastinate more than you should because you haven’t trained your prefrontal cortex enough to combat the automatic power of the limbic system. And that makes good sense. Why purposefully engage in stressful activities when you could waste time online?

The answer, of course, is that you pay for such decisions later.

A 2013 study conducted by New York University psychologist Hal Hershfield examined brain activity in subjects who described their current selves, future selves, and strangers. The study found that we often imagine our future selves much the same way we imagine those we don’t know at all. When we leave something for tomorrow, it’s as if we’re leaving the task for a stranger.

During the school year, this “present bias,” as it’s called, can mean being forced to pull an all-nighter to study for a test or finish homework. Or it could mean detention for not completing an assignment or a failing score on an exam.

But if you’re a rising senior, procrastinating on writing your college admissions essays could cost you far more—namely, it could prevent you from getting into the college of your choice, a loss that could alter the trajectory of your entire life.

If that doesn’t motivate your prefrontal cortex, I don’t know what will.

Even if you insist that you “work better under pressure,” you probably don’t.

According to psychologist Tim Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, "The idea that people perform better under pressure is a myth.” In fact, studies suggest just the opposite is true. Temporal pressure—the kind that stares you down in the minutes you cram before a test—has been linked to errors of omission (from forgetting to complete a requirement to leaving out a word in a sentence) and commission (completing the task at hand, but poorly). As I’ve discussed in a previous blog post, cramming really does not work the way you might think it does.

There is more to consider here than the stress you’ll deal with later.

Starting early will give you time, the single most important ingredient in producing quality work. An early start will also allow you to apply for early decision if you have your heart set on a particular school. Early decision increases your chances of gaining admission to your dream school, but these applications usually come with October or November deadlines.

Most importantly, starting your college admissions essays early will allow you to receive meaningful feedback from teachers and tutors. Feedback is crucial to any piece of writing, even from the minds of the most brilliant writers. The best writing is always the result of a long dialogue; no one mind is capable of producing an optimal piece of writing in isolation. And if you want quality feedback from those who professionally read and critique student writing, you’ll have to get your essays in early, long before teachers are overwhelmed with grading and preparation for their classes and providing feedback for dozens of procrastinating students. As Kat Cohen notes in the Huffington Post, “By getting a head start on the feedback process, students will beat the essay edit rush, and counselors will have more time to spend reviewing individual essays and providing helpful feedback.”

So, follow the University of California’s first writing tip regarding its Personal Insight Questions: “Start early.” If you’re planning to apply to UC schools, make sure to read the UC PIQs as soon as possible—you can never get too early of a jump on brainstorming potential answers.

If you’re applying to schools that use the Common Application, you can already see the 2017-18 essay prompts here. Schools that don’t use the Common Application often post their own essay questions in July or August, though some may be available as early as June.

To get started this summer, check out Jon G.’s post on “Learning to Love the Personal Statement” and his guide to the UC Personal Insight Questions, as well as my posts on “Writing about a Real-Life Event in Your College Essay,” and “How to Pick Your UC Personal Insight Questions.”

Even better, contact your local Elite Prep branch about summer College Application Workshops and get one-on-one help with your college essays. Happy writing!

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.

Posted on May 30, 2017 and filed under College Admissions, College Application.

How to Tackle Vocabulary in Context Questions on the SAT & ACT

How to tackle vocabulary in context questions on the SAT

In my last article, How to Improve Your Vocabulary for the SAT & ACT, I wrote about improving your vocabulary. In this article, I want to dive more deeply into how vocabulary is tested on the SAT Reading test and explore techniques to solving the types of questions you can expect to appear.

On the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT, there is a subscore for questions that fall into the category known as “Words in Context.” These questions test your ability to detect both the meanings and the functions of common words and phrases in various circumstances. There’s a fairly even distribution of Words in Context questions throughout the test (about two per Reading and Writing passage), and approximately 20% of your total Reading and Writing score will come from these types of questions. There is specifically one type of question that tends to frustrate students endlessly: Vocabulary in Context.

I often hear my students argue that you could make a case for each of the answer choices on vocabulary in context questions. Sometimes, students present sound reasoning for why they thought an answer choice could have been correct; other times, students present the “it sounded right” argument.

So how do you actually decide between the four answer choices? You put on your analytical thinking cap! Since these questions require you to be sensitive to a word’s connotations and pay attention to the way a word is used in the moment, it is important to understand the way language is connected. To see what I mean, let’s explore a couple of examples.

1. The first and more commonly seen type of vocabulary in context question deals with using context clues to determine the meaning of a word or phrase in a particular instance (vocabulary in context).

         “See!” he said, after a moment, “isn’t that
25     mist or something, over there to the right
         —away in a line with that great piece of rock?”
         And he indicated with his hand.

         As used in line 26, “great” most nearly means
         A) wonderful.
         B) powerful.
         C) extensive.
         D) large.

The word in question is “great,” a frequently occurring word with multiple meanings. All four answer choices are definitions of the word “great.” To determine the answer here, reread the context (generally the sentence in question and the sentences above and below it) and try to fill in the word in question with your own word. You should also examine these sentences for any clues that may point you in the right direction. In this instance, the speaker is referring to a “great piece of rock” and indicating a direction with his hand. The description of the rock is being used in a physical context, so we want an answer that has something to do with size. If I were to replace “great” with my own word, I’d choose something along the lines of “huge.” Now let’s look at the answer choices.

Choice A doesn’t work because the word “wonderful” is subjective. What may be wonderful to you may not be so for me.

Choice B is incorrect because “powerful” doesn’t exactly describe a rock and has nothing to do with size.

Choice C does deal with the physical aspect, but it’s not a precise fit to describe a rock.

Choice D is the correct answer. If someone were pointing out a “great piece of rock,” you would likely look in the direction of the biggest rock around.

Occasionally, you will come across an answer choice that is not synonymous with the word in question. You should delete such a choice immediately because it is not answering the question (even if it “sounds good” when plugged into the passage). For example, if the word “sphere” (a circular object) is in question and one of the answer choices is “box” (often rectangular), you can safely bet it will not be a correct response.

2. The second type of vocabulary in context question deals more with how the author’s use of words affects the passage’s meaning or tone (purpose of vocabulary in context)

This event was caused by the merger of two black holes, one with a mass estimated at 36 times the mass of the Sun and the other with an estimated mass 29 times the Sun’s. The result was a single black hole of about 62 solar masses. On December 26, 2015, gravitational waves from a second event were observed, once again from the merger of two black holes, though this time the black holes were smaller. Both events occurred approximately 1.3 billion years ago.

How do the words “estimated,” “about,” and “approximately” help establish the tone of the paragraph?
A) They create a skeptical tone that makes clear the team does not believe that the data are accurate.
B) They create a hopeful tone that makes clear the team anticipates that more gravitational waves will soon be found.
C) They create a tentative tone that suggests that the team cannot determine certain values with precision.
D) They create a defiant tone that makes clear the team is aware that its results contradict widely held views.

On these types of questions, again revisit the context and look for a connection. The paragraph includes the phrases “mass estimated at 36 times,” “with an estimated mass 29 times,” “black hole of about 62 solar masses,” and “approximately 1.3 billion years ago.” Do you notice a trend? Each of these words has to deal with a prediction about measurements of mass or time; none of the claims are made with 100% certainty. Now let’s look at the answer choices.

A) “Skeptical” means doubtful, which could potentially work when making a prediction, but there is no clear evidence pointing to the data as inaccurate, so this choice is contradictory.

B) Within the context of the paragraph, there isn’t much in the way of hope being expressed, so this answer choice goes further than what is directly stated in the paragraph.

C) “Tentative” means uncertain, which matches the trend of the words in question. Also, “cannot determine certain values with precision” fits well with the numbers (36, 29, 62, 1.3 billion) next to each of the words in question. Choice C is the correct response.

D) “Defiant” means disregardful, which is much too strong given the context. Nowhere in the paragraph is there any justification for such a charged answer choice.

You may have noticed that each of the answer choices contains an adjective (skeptical, hopeful, tentative, defiant) followed by reasoning. It’s important to read the entirety of the answer choice to make sure both halves work.

These two examples demonstrate the types of vocabulary in context questions you can expect to see on the SAT Reading test. Practicing these questions can be difficult in the absence of a test, so here’s my recommendation: add “Professor Word” to your online bookmark bar and it will identify SAT/ACT vocabulary words on any website that you visit. When you come across a “tier-two” word (a high-frequency word that has multiple meanings), see if you can replace it with a word of your own then check whether your prediction is correct by plugging the original word into a thesaurus. If you get into the habit of practicing this technique, your ability to tackle vocabulary in context questions will become second nature.

As with anything that deals with the reading test, mastering vocabulary in context questions is a marathon not a sprint. If you follow the methods outlined in this article, you can expect your success rate on these questions to increase. Eventually, you may even reach a point where you can predict the answers to all vocabulary in context questions before even looking at the choices! Let that be your guiding goal.

Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."

Posted on May 30, 2017 and filed under SAT, ACT, Test Prep.

What Is a Run-On Sentence?

What Is a Run-On Sentence?
Clause (n): a unit of grammatical organization next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate.
— New Oxford American Dictionary

Search the internet for “run-on sentences” and you’ll likely find examples of long lines (some run-ons, some not) by William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and other authors famous for their verbosity. Some sites (which will go unnamed) tell you that one of the iconic lines of twentieth-century American literature—the first line of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951)—is a run-on sentence.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

This is, indeed, a long sentence—63 words and six commas, to be exact—but it is not a run-on. On the other hand, this sentence is:

Julia likes cats, however, she prefers dogs.

Just seven words and two commas, but a run-on. (By the way, that last line is a fragment, a sentence lacking even one independent clause.)

How is the second sample sentence a run-on if the first is not?

The answer hinges on the definition of a run-on sentence. Contrary to popular belief, run-on sentences are not defined by length or complexity; a 1,000-word sentence could be grammatically correct and a four-word sentence could be a run-on.

A run-on sentence is something far more precise. It’s a sentence that contains two or more independent (aka main) clauses not properly separated. Generally speaking, independent clauses can be separated by a period, a semicolon, a colon, a comma and a conjunction, or a dash (though not all of these solutions work for all sentences).

We might fix the run-on above to read:

Julia likes cats. However, she prefers dogs.

or, more commonly:

Julia likes cats; however, she prefers dogs.

or even better:

Julia likes cats, but she prefers dogs.

The reason why the original “Julia” sentence is a run-on is fairly arcane: a conjunctive adverb like “however” cannot separate two independent clauses. Students preparing for the SAT and ACT should learn how to identify independent clauses, dependent clauses, relative clauses, relative pronouns, conjunctions, subordinators (words that make clauses dependent), and conjunctive adverbs—all terms and ideas that need to be understood in order to master the art of avoiding and fixing run-ons and fragments. This is likely the most important cluster of grammatical issues to master for both tests.

But my purpose here is not to unpack the nuances of these issues (you’ll need to take a class for that). It is simply to note that preparing for the SAT and ACT requires that students begin to see conventional English sentences as things constructed along pretty exacting guidelines. Sentences, like machines, are objects made out of properly connected parts.

Like an automobile, a sentence is made of interlocking units. Just as there are many correct and incorrect ways to build a car, there are countless ways for the parts of a sentence to interlock correctly or not. And just as a good auto-mechanic sees a car for its parts and knows exactly what to do under the hood to fix a mechanical problem, SAT and ACT test-takers need to be able to see sentences as constructed things made of clauses, which need to be connected with the right tools and in the right ways.

This is precisely the kind of thinking at work in Salinger’s opening sentence in The Catcher in the Rye. The sentence is something of a master class in English grammar.

If you really want to hear about it, | the first thing | you’ll probably want to know | is | where I was born, | and what my lousy childhood was like, | and how my parents were occupied and all | before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, | but I don’t feel like going into it, | if you want to know the truth.

This sentence contains nine clauses total, 7 dependent and 2 independent, all properly separated. A clause consists of, at minimum, a subject and a predicate. I have highlighted only those terms necessary to complete each subject and predicate and italicized all conjunctions used to connect clauses. Things get tricky at the beginning of the second clause, whose subject is “thing” and whose verb is “is,” followed by an entire dependent clause (“where I was born”) that acts as the object of the verb “is.” In this sentence, “you’ll probably want to know” acts as a dependent clause since it is contained within a larger independent clause.

As a whole, a good SAT or ACT grammarian should see this sentence like this:

Dependent clause 1, Independent clause 1 Dependent clause 2 Independent Clause 1 continued Dependent clause 3, and Dependent clause 4,  and Dependent clause 5, Dependent clause 6, but Independent clause 2, Dependent clause 7.

We could dig into this complex sentence further by looking at, say, how Salinger subordinates those seven dependent clauses, or by considering how to identify when a clause begins and ends. But, again, the point here is not to explore all these complexities (though that’s an important task for those preparing for the SAT and ACT).

My point is at once much simpler and more challenging: it is to show you that sentences are made of smaller units called clauses, and that there are rules for connecting and separating these units from each other. This is all to say that improving one’s grammar isn’t about memorizing countless rules or running your eyes over countless pages of writing.

It’s first and foremost about changing the way you see sentences—as constructed machines made of individual parts rather than as finished wholes.

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.


Posted on May 19, 2017 and filed under Grammar, Test Prep, SAT, ACT.

6 Ways to Stay Engaged in Class

6 Ways to Stay Engaged in Class

Have you heard that (partly thanks to smartphones) humans have a shorter average attention span than goldfish?

Goldfish: nine seconds.
Humans: eight!

This sounds a little unsettling considering that, as humans, our futures largely depend on having to pay attention in class for hours on end. However, we have something the goldfish don’t: a prefrontal cortex, a.k.a. the part of our brain that allows for planning and willpower. As the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” So given all of our abilities, it is our duty to bring our own vitality to the classroom—every day, in every subject.

For the good of our edification, our future, and our sanity, let’s look at some strategies for staying engaged—for longer than eight seconds. Let's show those goldfish what we’re capable of.

1. First, get your mind right.

Much of how we perform any task starts with how we set up our mentality. Before your next class, instead of thinking, “I’m tired” or “This class is going to be so boring,” try thinking “How interesting, I get to learn something today that I’ve never heard of!” or “Today I’m going to stay alert by pretending I’m taking notes for someone who’s absent.” Come up with whatever thought helps you establish a mindset that works for you and not against you.

2. Minimize distractions.

Choosing to sit in the front of the class will help in a few ways. First, it will prevent you from looking at all the people and eye-catching things going on between you and the front of the classroom. Second, sitting right in front of the teacher will remind you to keep your phone out of sight. Phones apparently want all the attention; don’t give in! Instead, get distracted by everything the teacher is saying. Also, being in front is just more engaging. People pay big money for front row seats at concerts, sporting events, and plays. Front row seats in class are free!

3. Optimize your note-taking skills.

Rather than trying to write everything down, listen as if the teacher is speaking just to you and jot down the key concepts. To make note-taking even more effective, experiment with formats, abbreviations, and pen colors. Mark any parts you don’t understand so you can ask questions. Involving yourself in this active note-taking process will keep your brain on task. Moreover, according to psychologist Stanislas Dehaene, “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated” and “learning is made easier.” And the more you learn in class, the less you will have to study before an exam.

4. Be active.

Other than taking notes, find ways to be active. The most beneficial way is probably to use your voice. Asking questions, answering questions, and contributing to class discussions not only helps you better understand the material, but also helps you stay alert and feel part of the class. Even just good posture, making eye contact, and nodding to affirm you’re listening can help make class lectures feel less like a monologue and more like a dialogue between you and your teacher.

5. Talk to your teachers.

Be open to developing a relationship with even your most intimidating teachers. By interacting with them before, during, or after class, you’ll start to know them a little better. Once you feel more connected to them, you’ll likely feel more personally invested in their purpose and thus the class. This will further reduce your chances of being bored and increase your chances of getting good grades. As a bonus, if you ever need a letter of recommendation or some help, there’s a better chance your teacher will go the extra mile for you.

6. Be prepared.

When you are not understanding what has happened in class so far, it’s like coming into a conversation late: you’re confused, bored, and can’t contribute much. Consequently, staying engaged becomes a struggle and learning becomes nearly impossible. To avert such a dreadful situation, before going to class, look over the main points covered last time and ask classmates or teachers any questions you have. You’ll then be able to take interest and participate in class. Plus, less stress about being lost or falling behind will also contribute to a more fun experience. And you’ll always perform better, no matter what you’re doing, when you’re having fun.

Kiley A. teaches SAT/ACT Writing and leads College Application Workshops at Elite Prep Rowland Heights. As the Elite Community Scholars Coordinator, he also works to spread this college preparation guidance to low-income, first-generation students who may not otherwise have access to such support. Above all, he wants his students to know the far-reaching power of their own self-assurance. 


Posted on May 12, 2017 and filed under Study Tips, Test Prep.

The Road to Success: A College Admissions Strategy Seminar

The Road to Success: A College Admissions Strategy Seminar


This admission strategy seminar will cover the following topics:

  • Breaking through the "glass ceiling" at Ivy League and other top colleges.
  • The new SAT: what it is and how it is affecting college admissions decisions.
  • The academic factor that is the deciding factor for most students — and why it is usually overlooked.
  • The hidden 10% that keeps A+ students out of top schools.
  • How activities will make or break your college admission chances. Work smart, not hard. 
  • Short-term fixes for rising seniors and long-term strategies for underclassmen.
  • How the Common Application for private schools is changing and how to create a successful 
  • college admission strategy.
  • Your student's 1-month and 3-month plan from the admissions insider.


Speaker: Stephen Lee

Yale Admissions Interviewer

Yale College Fair Rep

UC Berkeley Admissions Office Staff

These free seminars are open to the public, but space is limited


SATURDAY, MAY 13 • 10:00-11:30 AM
The Center at Founders Village | 17967 Bushard St. | Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Contact Elite Prep Fountain Valley to register: (714) 962-7287 |



SATURDAY, MAY 13, 2017 • 2:00–3:30 PM
Elite Prep Irvine-Newport Beach | 19732 MacArthur Blvd. #140 | Irvine, CA 92612
Contact Elite Prep Irvine-Newport Beach to register: (949) 252-9124 |



SATURDAY, MAY 20, 2017 • 1:00–3:00 PM
Camden Community Center | 3369 Union Ave. | San Jose, CA 95124
Contact Elite Prep San Jose to register: (408) 266-3838 |


Posted on May 10, 2017 .

How to Improve Your Vocabulary for the SAT and ACT

How to Improve Your Vocabulary for the SAT & ACT

There once was a time when vocabulary knowledge was explicitly tested on standardized tests, so a broad understanding of obscure vocabulary helped students master those questions. Here’s a quick example:


As you can see, this is essentially a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary question, so knowing the definitions of many different words could be useful in this situation.

Not so much anymore.

Now, when it comes to vocabulary on the ACT and SAT, the name of the game is context. Understanding a word from context is a subtle technique, but the ability to do so reflects the reality of how most vocabulary appears in text and conversations. It’s commonly understood that a strong command of language will always yield the best results for the Reading, Writing & Language/English, and Essay sections of the ACT and SAT. But lately, many students have asked me, “What’s the best approach to improving my vocabulary?”

There’s no easy answer to this question, but let me provide you with some helpful tips to put you on the right path. First and foremost...

Read, read, read

And then read some more. I know you’ve heard this before and while reading every day is much easier said than done, it is one of the best ways to improve your vocabulary. As you read, you will gain exposure to new words, which you should log in a vocabulary journal. You will instinctively understand the meanings of some words from context, but you’ll often need a dictionary to look up definitions. Speaking of dictionaries...

Have a dictionary at your immediate disposal

I know the idea of lugging around a dictionary sounds outdated, but the students who I’ve seen improve the most usually have a dictionary in their backpack. Plus, walking around with a heavy backpack — known as “rucking” in the military (bonus vocab alert!) — gives you get the added benefit of burning extra calories and building your back muscles. 😉 Of course, there tons of dictionaries accessible online, but my main point here is that you must develop the habit of looking up unfamiliar words and logging their definitions.

Understand words in context

Increasing the amount of reading you do will also improve the most important skill you need to solve vocabulary questions on the ACT and SAT: understanding words in context. This ability will prove useful on the reading sections of both tests. The vocabulary words tested on standardized tests are known as “tier-two” words: high-frequency words that often have multiple meanings. Consider the words consistent, emerge, admit, perform, require and maintain; each one can be used in a variety of contexts (I have to admit, I was shocked when I was admitted to all of the colleges I applied to). With these words, it is important to know not only their literal definitions but also their connotations, or secondary meanings. Having a thesaurus handy is key.

On the ACT and SAT, vocabulary-in-context questions will directly test whether you can determine meaning from context, but the passages themselves will indirectly test your ability to do so as well. You will encounter unfamiliar words when reading ACT/SAT passages, most of which won’t be tested. Some students allow these words to trip them up and interfere with their progress, but it’s important to remember that specialized or technical vocabulary will usually be defined within the passage itself. You just need to concern yourself with those “tier-two” words.

So, here are my suggestions:

Find material you WANT to read

Whether you love music, politics, art, cars, fashion, sports, science, or any other topic, there is a ton of material available to read. Ideally, you’ll find college-level books or articles and spend at least thirty minutes reading each day.

Log new words in your vocab journal

As you read, log any new words you encounter (along with their definitions) in your vocabulary journal. As your list grows, divide your vocabulary words into three categories: words you know, words you somewhat know, and words you don’t know. Revisit your list each week, and devote the necessary time to familiarize yourself with the words you don’t know and words you somewhat know. Creating flashcards is always a reliable technique to learning new vocabulary, but mix up your approach! Come up with funny sentences or draw pictures that you can associate with your words. Do whatever it takes to commit the vocabulary to memory. It is an ongoing process, but it will pay off. Once you improve your vocabulary, your reading score will increase, but more importantly, you will have tools that will serve you thoughout high school, college, and beyond.

Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."

Posted on May 8, 2017 and filed under SAT, ACT, Test Prep.

Sleep and Nutrition: What Your Brain Needs to Ace the SAT and ACT

It’s a familiar routine for teenagers the world over: stay up late to study or finish homework. Sleep until the last minute to steal some much-needed rest. Skip breakfast. Dash off to school.

For many students, this haphazard itinerary is the norm.

If you’re one of those students on the low-sleep, no-breakfast diet, it’s time to create some new habits heading into test day.

Succeeding in school, on standardized tests, or in work is not simply a matter of working hard. It’s also about preparing yourself—a human body with certain biological demands—to succeed.


In a previous post, The Science of Cramming, I discussed why cramming doesn’t work, but I didn’t get into its most damaging byproduct: sleep deprivation.

According to Dr. Philip Alapat, Medical Director of the Harris Health Sleep Disorders Center in Houston, Texas, a good-night’s sleep is far more valuable than any eleventh-hour review of trigonometry or subject-verb agreement. “Memory recall and ability to maintain concentration are much improved when an individual is rested,” Dr. Alapat explains. “By preparing early and being able to better recall what you have studied, your ability to perform well on exams is increased.” Studies suggest that students who sleep for at least seven hours a night perform, on average, 10% better than their sleep-deprived classmates. This is because memory neurons that convert short-term memories into long-term ones work best during sleep.

In short, if you want to remember what you’ve learned, you need to get a solid eight hours of sleep most nights, and especially the night before the test.

This wisdom applies to test preparation, too. “Sleep is as important to learning as exercise is to physical stamina,” explains Dr. Robert Oexman, Director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Joplin, Missouri. The brain needs regular sleep in order to process and retain new information just as your muscles need regular exercise in order to grow strong. As Dr. Oexman notes, studies have proven that eight hours of sleep are far more beneficial to students than even four or five hours of studying deep into the wee hours of the morning.


Just as important as sleep is nutrition. According to Dr. Alex Richardson, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Intervention at the University of Oxford, research has demonstrated that eating breakfast helps students perform well on exams. “For the best breakfast,” Dr. Richardson explains:

include slow-release carbohydrates, such as whole rolled porridge oats, whole grain bread or low-sugar muesli, as they provide slow-release energy. Add a protein food, such as milk, yoghurt or eggs, to keep you feeling full for longer. On exam day aim to include a portion of a food rich in long-chain Omega-3 fats, such as smoked mackerel, as they are believed to have brain-boosting properties.

Visit the BBC’s guide for 5 exam-day breakfasts that will maximize your brain’s performance on test day.

In addition to food, it’s vital that you stay hydrated before and during the test. (While you can’t consume food or snacks while taking the SAT or ACT, you can bring food and snacks with you to have during breaks.)

As Dr. Richardson writes, “One of the best ways to maximise your focus is to stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches, reduced alertness and diminished concentration.” On the morning of the exam, start the day with a large glass of water or fruit tea. Avoid sodas or other sugary drinks, which can lead to peaks and valleys in alertness. Note that staying hydrated doesn’t start the morning of the exam. According to the Institute for Medicine, women on average need about 9 cups (2.2 liters) of water per day, while men need 13 cups (3 liters).

Test preparation doesn’t just mean stuffing information into your brain—it also means giving that vital organ the ingredients it needs to function properly.

Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.


Posted on May 1, 2017 and filed under Test Prep.

What’s a Good SAT Score?

I am asked this question often, and I have never come up with a good answer. That’s because the real answer amounts to little more than a vague “it depends.” The truth is, students curious about what makes a “good SAT score” need to find out for themselves. Here’s how:

First, let’s think about what kind of question this is. It’s a question asking for an evaluation—something like, “Is that a good movie?” But there is something qualitatively different about the movie question. When students ask me about their SAT scores, they expect an objective answer: 1200, 1300, or 1400, something numerical and certain.

But when you ask a friend about a movie, you know going in that you’re getting an opinion. If you know your friend well, you know what kind of things she looks for in a film. Your friend might care mostly about special effects, or about the quality of the acting, or the cinematography, or the plot, or some balance of these or other factors. When you ask a friend whether a movie is good or not, you’re asking that friend to explain if the movie met the particular standards that she has laid out for that movie in particular or for movies in general. In other words, you’re asking your friend whether the movie in question did what she wanted it to do.

This gets us back to the SAT question. What do you want your SAT score to do? Do you want it to prove that you’ve mastered the subtleties of critical reading, the rigors of English grammar, and the complexities of trigonometry? Do you want it to impress your parents and your siblings? Do you want it to match the numbers of your birth month, day, and year?

No! Of course not! You want your SAT score to get you into college. Yes, the SAT does test on a number of essential skills, which you’d be keen to study and master in preparation for the exam. There is, in fact, more to gain from test preparation than college admission. But your SAT score is first and foremost a means to an end. It’s one important ingredient to get you into the school or schools of your choice.

So, what’s a good SAT score? A score that helps you get into a college or university that you want to attend.

Before students ask the SAT question, they need to ask themselves the college question: Where do you want to go to school?

Let’s say you want to go to Harvard. Great choice! If you want to get into Harvard, though, you’re probably going to need a minimum SAT score of 1480. (Of course you’ll also need a stellar GPA, an impressive record of extracurriculars, and an overall knockout of an application.)

According to Harvard’s website, the school’s 25th to 75th percentile of SAT scores (often referred to as a school’s “middle 50%”) for admitted students range from 1400 to about 1560.* That means a score of 1400 would put you in the bottom 25 percent of admitted students at Harvard—and likely would not be good enough to gain you admission. A nearly perfect score of 1560 would only place you in the top 75 percent. Those are some very competitive and very intimidating statistics. But they’re important to know as you prepare for the test. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that most students will need at least a 3.90 unweighted GPA to go along with a 1460+ SAT to have a puncher’s chance (not to mention a pretty stellar record of extracurricular activities).

Perhaps Harvard is a bit out of reach, though, as it is for the vast majority of students. Let’s look at NYU, also an excellent school. To get into NYU, you’ll likely need a minimum SAT score of 1280. Keep in mind that this score places you in the bottom 25 percent of applicants, though, so you’ll want to aim for a higher score—something in the 1400-1500 range. Of course, your SAT score is just one piece of the college application puzzle, so you’ll need a strong GPA and record of extracurriculars, too.

Let’s look at one more school: Skidmore, an excellent liberal arts school located in Saratoga Springs, NY. So many students fixate on the Harvards, Princetons and Yales of the world that they miss truly outstanding schools like Skidmore College. Don’t be one of those students.

I would include Skidmore as one of the schools students are likely to get an education just as strong as, if not better than, those offered at Ivy League universities, an idea I’ve explored in two previous articles: When it Comes to Colleges, the Biggest Name Doesn't Always Mean the Best Fit and How (Not) to Choose a College.

And take a look at the numbers: the median SAT score for students admitted to Skidmore lies around 1300 to 1320. That means that students with an SAT score in the mid to high-1200s and a strong overall application would gain serious consideration. Those numbers are much more reasonable than the numbers listed for Harvard or even NYU. There’s a terrific education and college experience awaiting those willing to consider outstanding but less-recognized liberal arts schools such as Skidmore, Oberlin (with an SAT middle 50% range of 1260-1450), Emerson (about 1150-1350), and many others.

For those setting their sights on the University of California, be sure to check out those score ranges, too. The tops is UC Berkeley, with a range of about 1310-1550. UCLA ranks second with a range of 1260-1530.

Remember, when you pick a few schools that you’re interested in, don’t just settle for the minimum score—aim to be at least in the middle of these ranges, and strive for the very top if you can. And when you pick the schools you’ll apply to, be sure to look beyond the names atop the annual Princeton Review rankings. There’s a world of ideas, experiences, relationships, and successes teeming beneath that shiny surface.

*These and most of the numbers that follow are estimates that adjust for the new SAT’s 1600-point scale, as Harvard and most other schools do not yet have data on their 2017 admissions.


Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.

Posted on April 24, 2017 and filed under SAT, College Admissions.

Dealing with College Decisions: Why Rejection Isn't the End of the World, but More Like the Opposite

You put in so much work to apply to the college of your dreams. You showed admissions what you’ve accomplished, what you want, who you are, why you belong at their school…

And their response to all that was a quick and definitive “...we regret to inform you...”?

Of course you feel disappointed. Maybe you feel like you’re not good enough and not wanted. Or maybe you feel frustrated, thinking they must have made a mistake to turn down such a qualified applicant. You may even feel angry or depressed. Whatever your reaction, go easy on yourself as you move through your thoughts and emotions.

When you are ready, know that you ARE good enough. Know that admissions decisions do not determine your worth as a unique, incredible individual. Not even a little bit.  

As you contemplate your future, here are a few thoughts to help you feel more secure:

Colleges are not rejecting you as a person.

Competitive colleges and universities receive way more perfectly qualified applications than they can accept. For all you know, yours is one of them. With limited space however, the schools need to make sure they build a balanced, fully-functioning student body--perhaps this year they simply needed more theater majors, or lacrosse players.

There’s a chance you wouldn’t have wanted to go to that school anyway.

Your qualifications aside, without being a student at a given school, you simply cannot know if you’d thrive in its campus environment, culture, programs, etc. Think of the admissions decisions process as all of the colleges you applied to working together to help you figure out the best school to attend. They are kindly letting you know, with their insider’s perspective, that you and their school really aren’t quite the right match at this time.

There’s also a chance you’ll love the college you go to more than you thought. You may have been so invested in your top-choice school(s) that you overlooked some fantastic aspects of other schools. Find out what makes you truly excited to go to a school you were admitted to. And when you get there, you’ll likely be delighted to encounter unexpected life-changing opportunities and people you otherwise wouldn’t have. You never know, your future best friend or spouse might be waiting for you there too.

You, not your undergraduate college, are in charge of your life.

You’ve gotten yourself to a great place so far, and, regardless of where you go, your future success is entirely up to you. You have control over your mindset. You have control over your actions. A National Bureau of Economic Research study agrees: “Evidently, students' motivation, ambition, and desire to learn have a much stronger effect on their subsequent success than the average academic ability of their classmates.”

How about a case in point: Steven Spielberg was rejected from UCLA film school and USC School of Cinema Arts--twice. He ended up going to Cal State Long Beach, and then he won over 100 awards, including three academy awards, and is now a multi-billionaire.

Also, if you plan to go on to graduate school, keep this tidbit from university professor David W. Breneman in mind:

Performing at a high level in a good quality but not highly prestigious college may give a student a better chance of getting into graduate or professional school than being lost in the middle of the pack in a highly selective institution.The quality of graduate or professional school will matter more in the long run to a student’s success in life than the ranking of the undergraduate college.

You’re not stuck. There are always options.

If, after attending another school for a bit, you still strongly prefer to be somewhere else, you can always apply as a transfer student. Of course, you’ll want to build the strongest profile you possibly can to maximize your chances.

Added bonus! You are getting good at handling bumps in the road.

Every person in this world experiences ups and downs. It’s a requirement of life. Remember that within the negatives are always positives. Learn from the negatives; look for the positives. And keep taking risks, expanding, learning, living, regardless of (or even because of) the unexpected roadblocks. No need to push so hard against a blockade when you can find a better path around it.

Above all, trust yourself to succeed. Now go follow that inner drive and unleash your talents on the world!

Kiley A. teaches SAT/ACT Writing and leads College Application Workshops at Elite Prep Rowland Heights. As the Elite Community Scholars Coordinator, he also works to spread this college preparation guidance to low-income, first-generation students who may not otherwise have access to such support. Above all, he wants his students to know the far-reaching power of their own self-assurance. 

Posted on April 14, 2017 and filed under College Admissions.