The Road to Success: A College Admissions Strategy Seminar


This admission strategy seminar will cover the following topics:

How can I break through the "glass ceiling" at Ivy League and other top colleges?

How do Ivy League colleges, UC schools, and other top universities evaluate students?

How, when, and where can I find the best activities to improve my chances for admission?

I got a very good score on the fall SAT? Now what?

I'm not satisfied with my fall SAT score, but I'm busy with school. What should I do?

What specific things can I do in the next two months to prepare for the admissions process?


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


The Center at Founders Village | 17967 Bushard St. | Fountain Valley, CA 92708



SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 4, 2017 • 2:00 PM
Elite Prep Torrance | 23326 Hawthorne Blvd. #130 | Torrance, CA 90505



SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2017 • 10:00 AM
Elite Prep Irvine-Newport Beach | 19732 MacArthur Blvd. #140 | Irvine, CA 92612

Posted on October 19, 2017 .

Understanding Arguments: On Counterarguments, Concessions and Rebuttals

Understanding Arguments: On Counterarguments, Concessions and Rebuttals

What makes for a strong argument? The SAT essay assignment—to explain how an author “builds an argument to persuade” his or her audience—asks you to locate and analyze the building blocks of an argumentative essay.

Just what makes an argument persuasive, though, can seem unclear, especially if students have a limited concept of what it means to make a “strong” argument, too often taken as a synonym for a merely assertive or loud argument.

As a case in point, consider one of the “strongest” rhetorical excerpts in U.S. history.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” asked Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852, less than nine years before the beginning of the American Civil War. “I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Douglass continues by calling Americans’ “shouts of liberty and equality” nothing more than “a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Douglass’s speech remains one of the most famous in U.S. history—and one of the most explosive.

Though many high school and college students know of this speech, they are often directed to only its most inflammatory passages, especially the paragraph beginning with Douglass’s famous rhetorical question.

But this paragraph takes up just 210 words in a speech that exceeds 10,000. One of the most important elements that gets lost in the fire of Douglass’s oft-quoted paragraph is the careful rhetorical maneuvering that precedes it.

“The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men,” Douglass declares early on in the speech. He continues:

They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. . . . They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

The first third of Douglass’s speech is filled with lines praising the Founding Fathers of the U.S. for their bravery, sacrifice, and love of freedom. Such moments of praise might seem completely contradictory. In fact, if I were to excerpt only the first third of Douglass’s speech, you might think it was written by a flag-waving, Independence-Day loving, U.S. patriot.

So, does Douglass’s praise of the Founding Fathers undermine his claim that U.S. history consists of “gross injustice and cruelty”?

To the contrary, the power of Douglass’s impassioned criticism of the U.S. is almost completely lost without the first third of his speech. That first third is, I think, the most rhetorically essential part of the speech, even though it does not seem to directly feed into his central argument.


Counterarguments introduce other points of view. Concessions admit those perspectives have some merit. And rebuttals demonstrate how one’s argument holds up despite valid objections.


What does it do instead? It concedes, in nearly 3,000 words, that the people of the U.S. have good reason to take pride in their country, that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were “men of honesty,” “spirit,” and “rare virtue,” who set “a glorious example” for future generations.

What’s the point of this concession? Though Douglass’s concession is exceptional for its length and detail, it sheds insight on what concessions do in general.

Concessions establish common ground with skeptics and demonstrate that the speaker not only has imagined possible objections but has come to understand the reasoning behind those objections. Concessions establish their speakers as reasonable, thoughtful, and educated, as individuals invested in understanding multiple perspectives rather than narrowly arguing their own. To this end, they establish their authors’ credibility as truth-seekers.

Of course, Douglass doesn’t rest at the end of his long concession. He goes on to articulate an impassioned rebuttal. For Douglass, a former slave, the celebrations of U.S. liberty remain compromised by American slavery, an institution that consists of “the mournful wail of millions.”

On the way to arguing that “[t]he existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie,” Douglass employs a set of related rhetorical strategies.

First, he anticipates a counterargument—namely, that Douglass and his fellow abolitionists are too critical of their country:

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed.

Here, Douglass introduces a counterargument in order to anticipate possible objections to his speech (in this case, that abolitionists “fail to make a favorable impression” by being so harsh with their rhetoric). One of the great orators in U.S. history, Douglass knew that convincing skeptics meant taking on their objections rather than ignoring them.

Writers often introduce a counterargument before conceding that said argument has some validity. But not here. Douglass goes right from a counterargument to a rebuttal: “But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue?” In other words, there is no point in arguing over the validity of slavery, an institution that cannot be reasonably defended.

One might assume that all this maneuvering between counterarguments, concessions, and rebuttals dilutes Douglass’s argument, but just the opposite is true. Douglass uses these strategies to sharpen his devastating criticism of the U.S. His use of counterarguments, concessions, and rebuttals not only presents him as reasonable and enlightened but also helps focus his most pointed and powerful criticisms.

Counterarguments introduce other points of view. Concessions admit those perspectives have some merit. And rebuttals demonstrate how one’s argument holds up despite valid objections. These are three rhetorical cornerstones you should be able to identify and analyze for the SAT essay.

They’re also key tools for those interested in sounding both reasonable and confident in their own ideas. If used expertly, they might just help you transform how we think about freedom or justice—or at least help you win an argument with your parents.

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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 October 10, 2017 and filed under SAT.

What to Do the Night Before the SAT or ACT

What to Do the Night Before the SAT or ACT

“Twas the night before the SAT/ACT, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a computer mouse.”


The night before the SAT or ACT can be an incredibly stressful time. The inevitable is upon you, and the pressure of the moment starts to feel too real. That’s when we step in. This article is designed to give you tips and pointers on how to best approach the night before and wake up ready to tackle the test.

What to do the Night Before the SAT or ACT

The first thing you should do is relax. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it will help you concentrate on the things within your control. One of the simplest relaxation techniques is through breathing. A controlled inhale and exhale can calm your mind and bring your awareness to the present. Try Dr. Andrew Weil's 4-7-8 breathing technique for relaxation. You could also put on some relaxing music to set the tone for your evening.

Once you’re calm and focused, take care of all the logistics.

1. Pack everything you’ll need for test day:

  • Test ticket 🎫

  • Photo ID 🆔

  • Sharpened #2 pencils – bring as many as possible ✏️

  • A calculator with extra batteries – no surprises! 🔋

  • Water bottle – stay hydrated 💧

  • Snacks – stay fueled 🍎🍌🍊

  • A wristwatch – keep track of time right at your desk ⌚

2. Choose comfortable clothes, and make sure to bring layers in case your testing room is too hot or cold.

3. Prepare material to read during breakfast (newspaper, magazine, novel, online article), so you can warm up your brain for the Reading section.

4. Set multiple alarms to wake up in the morning. ⏰

5. Make sure you know exactly where the testing center is and how to get there.

Once you’ve covered all the logistics, it’s time to eat! Your pre-test dinner should be balanced, nutritious and filling. Try to include leafy greens, complex carbs and healthy proteins and fats in your meal.

A healthy dinner can help your brain function more efficiently.

After dinner, find an activity to keep your mind off of the test. Watch a movie, read a book, listen to music or find whatever it is that puts you in a positive state of mind. Don’t try to squeeze in any last-minute cramming; doing so will only add to your test anxiety. Trust that the test preparation you have done up to this point is sufficient, and give your brain a break. You’ll need to channel all that brainpower into the test.

Winding down and resting your brain earlier than usual can help on the night before a big test.

About an hour before your usual bedtime, you should wind down and make your way to bed. Trust me, you’ll want the extra time to fall asleep. Turn off all screens (computer, phone, TV), and make sure your room is as dark and quiet as possible. Wear earplugs and a sleep mask if necessary. If you're having trouble falling asleep, try taking a shower or drinking a cup of chamomile tea or warm milk. Also, don’t forget to breathe into a state of relaxation. I’d advise against taking any medications or pills to fall asleep, unless they are part of your normal sleep routine. You don’t want to put anything in your body that you don’t know how you’ll respond to.

With everything in place on the night before a big tes, you'll be able to relax and sleep like a baby.

Each of these tips is within your control. If you follow them carefully, you should sleep like a baby and wake up refreshed and ready to go the next morning.

At this point, you’ve done all that you can. Trust yourself, and tackle the test with the confidence of someone who knows he or she is in control of the situation. Hakuna matata!


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 October 3, 2017 and filed under SAT, ACT, Study Tips, Test Prep.

What’s the Deal with Dashes?

What's the Deal with Dashes?

About every other Writing and Language class I teach, students ask me how to use the em dash ( — ), so named because it is the length of a capital M in traditional typesetting (Mac users hold down Shift Option and press the minus key, and PC users hold down the Alt key and type 0151 on the numeric keypad). Besides the semicolon ( ; ), the em dash is the least understood and most frequently abused piece of punctuation in the English language.  

If mastered, the em dash can be a versatile tool for adding emphasis and flair to an otherwise pedestrian sentence. For the purposes of the SAT, you don’t need to practice incorporating the em dash into your own writing—though you might want to—as much as you need to be able to spot correct and incorrect usages in Writing and Language passages (see what I did there?).

Em Dashes as Parentheses or Commas (Most Common)

The above sentence is an example of the most common use of the em dash on the SAT. There, two em dashes stand on either side of the parenthetical subordinate clause “though you might want to.” The em dashes set this clause aside as something of an afterthought, not essential to the meaning or grammar of the clauses surrounding it.

When a pair of em dashes is used to set off a parenthetical phrase or clause, they are interchangeable with commas and parentheses.

So, you might see that sentence written like this:

. . . you don’t need to practice how to incorporate the em dash into your own writing, though you might want to, as much as you need to be able to spot correct and incorrect usages . . .

Or like this:

. . . you don’t need to practice how to incorporate the em dash into your own writing (though you might want to) as much as you need to be able to spot correct and incorrect usages . . .

Grammatically, these sentences are identical. The only difference is emphasis (the em dashes emphasize the parenthetical clause most and the parentheses emphasize it least).

Em Dash as Semicolon

Most of my advanced students know that two dashes together set off a parenthetical, but many fall into a common trap: they think that when there is one em dash in a sentence, there always needs to be another.

They’re right that the sentence below would be wrong with only one em dash:

. . . you don’t need to practice how to incorporate the em dash into your own writing—though you might want to as much as you need to be able to spot correct and incorrect usages in Writing and Language passages. . .

That missing em dash creates a mess in the second half of the sentence. For a sentence like the one above, you also can’t mix and match punctuation—you can’t begin with an em dash and follow it up with a comma or a parenthesis, for example.

But in a sentence like the one immediately above, you only need one em dash. There, the em dash functions like a semicolon; that is, it introduces a main clause that is closely related to the preceding clause.

So, you might see that sentence read:

. . . you also can’t mix and match punctuation; you can’t begin with an em dash and follow it up with a comma or a parenthesis, for example.

Both the semicolon and the em dash are acceptable.

Em Dash as Comma

 Unlike a semicolon, an em dash can also be placed between a main clause and a subordinate clause. For example, this sentence is ungrammatical:

A Lannister always pays his debts; as he should.

The semicolon here should act like a period, but the words after the semicolon do not make a complete sentence, so the semicolon above creates a fragment.

But this sentence is perfectly grammatical:

A Lannister always pays his debts—as he should.

This sentence could also read this way:

A Lannister always pays his debts, as he should.

Grammatically, the em dash and the comma have the same function here: they separate a main clause (“A Lannister always pays his debts”) and a subordinate clause (“as he should”). Again, the only difference is emphasis (the em dash adds a bit of drama to the subordinate clause).

Em Dash as Colon

Colons are used after main clauses to introduce definitions, lists, or elaborations. An em dash can be used for the same purposes. For example:

In 1886, cytologist Richard Altman used a dye technique in identifying what he then called “bioblasts,” which would later come to be known as mitochondria: the powerhouse of the cell.

Here the colon introduces a definition of the term “mitochondria.” You might see an em dash here, too:

. . . known as mitochondria—the powerhouse of the cell.

Again, the grammar of these sentences is identical: a noun phrase follows the punctuation. The difference, again, is emphasis, the em dash providing a bit more flair than the colon.

What about the Hyphen and the En Dash?

The em dash has cousins.

The hyphen ( - ) is very common. We can’t get too deep into its uses here (and anyway, its uses are not tested on the SAT, at least not yet). But you should know that hyphens link compound modifiers before nouns, such as “well-known album,” “nineteenth-century literature,” and “never-ending journey.” An exception to this rule is when the first term in the compound modifier is an –ly adverb, such as “greatly exaggerated claim” or “patiently waiting student.”

The en dash ( ­– ) is less common (for Mac users, hold down the option key and press the minus key). Its most common use is as a substitute for the word “to” between numbers. For example:

Read chapters 12–15 for homework.

The event will take place August 13–18.

The 2017–18 NBA season will kick off October 17.


To get into the habit of mastering dashes, keep an eye out for them when you read, and ask yourself what kind of dash you’re seeing and how it’s operating. For em dashes, you should ask: parentheses, semicolon, comma, or colon? The em dash can seem unwieldy and difficult at first, but reading and writing with them can liven up a piece of writing—and create emphasis when needed.


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 September 25, 2017 and filed under Grammar.

4 Great Techniques for Handling Test-Day Stress

4 Great Techniques for Handling Test-Day Stress

The obvious part: The SAT/ACT is likely more important than any other test you’ve taken so far. The stakes—and the anxiety—can feel pretty high.

The not-as-obvious part: The score you will get can seem like a numerical representation of your self-worth—a number that labels you as intelligent and good enough, or not.


Higher stakes, and, understandably, higher anxiety. With so much pressure, it’s natural to start ruminating about the what-ifs.

What if I can’t concentrate?

What if I don’t remember what I studied??

What if my score is awful???

Wait a second. STOP. If we’re going to come up with hypotheticals about an imaginary future, we can certainly do better than that.

What if you concentrate better than usual?

What if you know all the answers??

What if your score is...really high???

The point is, anxiety exists only in your mind, which you have control over. Try some of these techniques to use that control to your advantage:

Technique #1

Along with the “what-ifs,” you have access to an infinite number of uplifting, empowering thoughts. For example, “I so got this,” “I prepared, and I know what I’m doing,” or  “I’m always more capable than I think.” Try a few out, notice how you feel, and pick your favorite. Then say it as often as you like.

Technique #2

Sometimes when the stress is high, it’s not enough to just say a mantra. Take the edge off by taking a few slow, deep breaths: breathe in to a count of four, hold for two, and breathe out to a count of six.

Technique #3

Then, acknowledge your anxiety. The more you fight it, the more it fights back by growing deeper and more intense. So instead of resisting, or trying to force calmness, just reinterpret how you’re feeling as excitement. Anxiety and excitement are both sympathetic nervous system reactions that don’t feel all that different from each other, so the shift is minor. Besides, aren’t you excited you get to go demonstrate your knowledge, and then be done!?

Technique #4

Visualization, or creating mental images of what you desire, is another powerful stress-relieving technique. Imagine walking out of that test room Saturday early afternoon, and feel the excitement—the relieving, proud, freeing feeling. Imagine seeing your test score for the first time and being shocked at how well you did. Yes!

Really, you can imagine anything at all that makes you feel good. Imagine being somewhere peaceful (the beach, the forest, outer space!) and notice the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations.

Your imagination is limitless; try to bring it into your whole body. Think of a person, real or fictional, who inspires you, and embody their energy. Be this person as you navigate the day of your test.

Basically, be Elle Woods from Legally Blonde:

You got into Harvard Law? What, like it's hard?

Be an all-knowing teacher who’s answering all the questions effortlessly:

Screen Shot 2017-09-13 at 10.27.19 AM.png

Or just be you, exceeding your score goal. Sometimes, you just need to be (or pretend to be) confident, and the rest will follow.

The truth is, you do know a lot, you are prepared, and there are only four choices per question: A, B, C, and D. So go pick the right answer. What, like it’s hard?

A few other considerations to keep stress away.

  • Forgive yourself along the way.
    We tend to be so hard on ourselves for every little thing we think we could have done better. Maybe you couldn’t sleep as much as you wanted, maybe you spaced out momentarily during the test, or maybe you didn't manage stress the way you hoped. It’s OK.

  • Get to the test center early.
    Leave earlier than you think you have in order to leave time for traffic, getting lost, and taking deep breaths. Remember, getting there two hours early is better than getting there two minutes late.

  • Put the test into perspective.
    Worst case scenario, you don’t get the score you were hoping for. If there’s time, you can retake the test. In any case, wherever you go to college, you will get a good education, have a blast, and find out (if you haven’t already) that this one score does not represent your level of intelligence—or your self-worth.


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 September 13, 2017 and filed under SAT, Study Tips, Test Prep, ACT.

Fall Test Prep and College Consulting at Elite

Fall test prep and college consulting at Elite

The school year is underway, and Elite's Fall Session classes are here! Give your students the academic edge they need with one of our many autumn offerings.

Contact your local Elite branch today to schedule a free diagnostic test and consultation to find which programs are right for you.* 

Fall Session classes include:

SAT Prep

Elite’s SAT Test Prep Program consists of a weekly practice test and three lecture classes covering Reading, Math, and Writing & Language. In the lecture classes, students review the practice test with experienced instructors and continue their learning through a series of lessons containing exercises designed to develop their reading, math, grammar, and writing skills.


The Elite PSAT Program is designed for students in 9th and 10th grade who want to get a head start on preparing for the PSAT and SAT. PSAT Boot Camp offers a set of three interlocking classes (Critical Reading, Writing and a Math class previewing Algebra II) taught at a pace more suited to younger students.

SAT Subject Test Prep

Elite provides comprehensive preparation for many of the SAT Subject Tests consisting of weekly practice test sessions and review classes with instructors who not only are knowledgeable about their subjects but also understand how to help students prepare effectively for the SAT Subject Tests.Click here to learn more about SAT Subject Tests.

Elite Jr. Power Reading and Writing & Power Math

Aimed at students in grades 5-9, Elite Jr. Power Reading and Writing courses focus on developing studies’ critical reading and thinking skills through an interconnected course of study involving reading comprehension, vocabulary and grammar studies, persuasive writing, and test skill development. Power Math helps to ensure excellent grades in the upcoming school year and allows students to grasp even the most difficult concepts in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and precalculus.

College Consulting

College admissions are more competitive than ever, and a finely-crafted essay can be the part of your application that distinguishes you from the crowd. In Elite's College Application Workshop, students learn how to write unique, memorable, and powerful application essays. Teachers meet with students individually to proofread, critique, and revise multiple drafts, helping students create polished and compelling personal statements. In addition, teachers can provide step-by-step guidance in listing extra-curricular activities and completing college application forms.

*Classes and schedules vary by branch. Check your branch's fall schedule for details.

For class schedules and registration info, contact your local Elite branch today!

Posted on August 23, 2017 and filed under Classes, Test Prep.

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.