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Paul King

How to grow as a student

I recently finished reading a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You, written by Cal Newport, a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown. The book is aimed at those already in the workforce, giving interesting anecdotes to illustrate what it takes to create a fulfilling, satisfying career. The title of the book comes from a line by famed comedian Steve Martin, who, when asked in an interview with Charlie Rose how one can become successful in comedy, replied:

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear. What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’…but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.‘ “

Newport uses this quote to espouse a hard-headed pragmatism that, if not revolutionary, is nonetheless refreshing to hear in today’s culture of quick fixes and easy solutions. The way to get really good at something, Newport argues, is to work really, really hard at it. Well gee whiz—who knew?

Comedian Steve Martin, who said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”


If this was all there was to Newport’s book, it wouldn’t be worth the read. Luckily, he offers good, concrete advice and examples for how to stretch ourselves and grow. While the book is targeted at working professionals, everything Newport has to say applies equally well for students, or anyone working to hone a skill, whether it’s playing a sport or a musical instrument. (Newport has also written various other books specifically for students, and his blog, Study Hacks, is full of useful information to help students study more effectively and efficiently.)

So how do we grow our ability? According to Newport, we need to use deliberate practice, a term coined by Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson. Ericsson describes deliberate practice as an “activity designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.” According to Newport, “Deliberate practice requires you to stretch past where you are comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance. In the context of career construction, most knowledge workers avoid this style of skill development because, quite frankly, it’s uncomfortable.” To this it could be added that it’s not just knowledge workers. Students, too, avoid deliberate practice because of the discomfort it causes—a fact that, to my mind, is a pretty good explanation for why we all procrastinate.

Most striking to me are the phrases I’ve highlighted in bold above, as they seem to hit on something fundamental regarding what happens in a one-on-one tutoring session. Tutoring is a dynamic call-and-response between the tutor and student, with the tutor assigning targeted tasks and problems that are all slightly beyond the student’s current ability level. In assigning such problems, the goal is to stretch the student’s ability by pushing her beyond her previous limits. The best analogy here is to a personal trainer—the trainer selects weights that are heavy but not unbearable, assigns an exercise, and pushes the client to execute that exercise until mistakes or failure inevitably occurs. In the process, muscles are stretched beyond capacity, only to grow back stronger in subsequent days and weeks.

The same occurs with students who, upon inevitably making errors and mistakes, are stretched beyond their previous abilities. An academic coach, just like a personal trainer, also provides the immediate “ruthless feedback” that refocuses the student when she goes off course, and pushes her back in the right direction. Thus, the student knows immediately how she is performing, and is constantly made aware of her progress. I think this analogy to physical training is particularly apt, and it’s one reason I refer to myself as an “academic coach.” During tutoring sessions, I often have the sense that I’m actively conditioning a student’s mind and critical thinking abilities, which is an ever-rewarding task.

Whether you’re a teacher, a student, or just someone trying to work at something on your own, are there ways that you can incorporate some deliberate practice into your routine, to stretch your abilities and more effectively work towards your goals? For me lately, that means devoting some time each day towards my fiction writing, which is something I find difficult and strenuous, but nevertheless something I want to become highly skilled at. What would deliberate practice look like for you and your goals, or the goals of your student? In what ways could a tutor or coach help push you to achieve them?

Keep on working, and until next time, thanks for reading!


A new SAT for the “right-brained”?

According to Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and other bestselling books on business and human behavior, we are living in what he calls the “SAT-ocracy.” As someone who started tutoring for the SAT and other tests as a way to earn income on the side, only to have it grow into a full-time business, I’m well aware of the demand for test preparation. According to a 2014 article on Bloomberg, the number of tutoring centers in the U.S. doubled to more than 11,000 from 1998 to 2012; by 2009, the entire business had grown in value to more than $4 billion annually.

There is a good reason for all the demand. Despite the College Board’s claims that the SAT measures “inalterable aptitude” and that the test cannot be prepared for, studies have shown that even run-of-the-mill test prep can help improve a student’s score by twenty or thirty points, and in my own experience, personalized, one-on-one tutoring has led countless students of mine to increase their scores substantially higher than this. (Feel free to contact me for more details.) Ultimately, it is revealing that the College Board, despite its claims the test cannot be prepared for, still sells proprietary test materials that are marketed for students to “be ready for the SAT with strategies…straight from the exam makers” [bold mine].

Indeed, as long as colleges continue to use the SAT as a key barometer for undergraduate admission (as well as the GRE for graduate programs, or the GMAT for MBA programs, or the MCAT for medical school, etc), test preparation is here to stay. But despite the dominance of the SAT-ocracy, there are some undeniable flaws in the system. While the SAT was originally developed to measure a prospective student’s ability to succeed in university (indeed, “SAT” itself stands for “Scholastic Aptitude Test”), a 20-year study conducted by William Hiss of Bates University found little to no link between SAT scores and student GPA in college. (The greatest predictor of student success in college, it turned out, was high school GPA.) Other critics of the SAT contend that it only tests “left-brain” abilities, such as logic and analytical reasoning, and neglects creative and practical skills necessary for success in life and business; still others argue, quite fairly, that the test favors students whose families can afford tutoring and extra help, thus contributing to an SAT inequity. With all of these concerns, is it possible that the future may one day hold some interesting alternatives to the SAT?

The answer is most likely a yes. In an effort to develop a test that can better predict student success not only in college but throughout one’s adult life, Robert Sternberg, a professor of psychology at Yale, has developed the Rainbow Project—a kind of “right-brained” alternative to the SAT. On one section of the test, students are faced with five cartoons from the New Yorker with the captions removed—and are asked to supply their own. Scorers then grade the student responses on a 1-to-5 scale, based on appropriateness, originality, and humor. Another test section includes a series of story titles, and students are then prompted to write the story.

Could such a test ever replace the SAT? As someone who believes in the efficacy of the SAT to measure real skills (while readily acknowledging the imperfection of the test as a barometer for success, as mentioned earlier), I certainly don’t think so. But it’s possible that such a test might one day be taken in addition to our current battery of analytical tests. In fact, this seems even likelier when you consider who funded Sternberg’s Rainbow Project. Can you guess? In true SAT fashion (hint, hint), it was one of the following:

A) the U.S. Department of Education

B) Yale University

C) the NFL

D) the College Board

Nice job if you selected D. It appears the makers of the SAT themselves are invested in developing alternative aptitude tests.

What do you think? Is the SAT a good indicator for college admissions, or do we need alternatives? Feel free to comment below.

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Are you intrinsically or extrinsically motivated?

Conventional wisdom holds that most of us are extrinsically motivated—offer us some extra credit, a bigger bonus, or a heftier piece of cake, and we’ll work harder and achieve better results. We also tend to believe that the reverse is true: if we punish poor behavior, a bad grade, or low performance, we’ll see less of that behavior in the future. This is known as the “carrots and sticks” model of motivation, and we see it everywhere, from the parenting of children, all the way up to complex diplomatic relations between nations. If you’re a parent, and you’ve ever offered your student a desirable reward for a good grade, while threatening to take away iPhone privileges for a failing one, then you’re more than familiar with carrots and sticks. The question we should all be asking ourselves, however, is: Do carrots and sticks actually work?

Despite the fact that the reward/punishment model is so deeply rooted in how we think about influencing behavior, psychological studies have shown that carrots and sticks really only work well when the task at hand is algorithmic—that is, when it involves repeating the same mundane sequence over and over again. If you offer someone a cash bonus to stuff a certain number of envelopes in an hour, that person’s going to work faster, and you’re going to get better results. Stuffing envelopes is a simple, left-brain task that everyone already knows how to do; to do it more quickly doesn’t require activating the complex, creative thinking of the right half of the brain.

However, reward/punishment is actually detrimental when it comes to problems such as the following:



\text{What is the value of }x-y\text{?}

The above is a classic SAT problem: you can actually solve it without ever finding the values of x or y alone. However, because students are taught algorithms in school to solve for x, they typically try to do just that, and then run into all kinds of problems with questions like this one. Essentially, most students try to approach this problem with the left half of their brains, in envelope-stuffing fashion. But this problem cannot be stuffed like an envelope; it requires “outside-the-box,” right brain thinking. Oftentimes, this is where students hit a wall—a wall that no reward or punishment is going to motivate them to get over. So how do we get these students to persevere, to try the problem, to fail at it, then to try again in a different way, and if necessary, to ask a teacher, a parent, an older sibling, or a tutor for help, and then, after that whole process, to finally go back, to discover the error, and then re-attempt the problem and finally get it right?

The only way students will bother with any of this is if they are intrinsically motivated, or rather, if they see the task as its own reward. At first glance, this might seem laughable. Except for a handful of math geeks, who would ever see a math puzzle as its own reward? As it turns out, however, we are actually psychologically hardwired to enjoy puzzles; for those students who claim to dislike math, my bet would be that it has far more to do with an embarrassing or traumatic experience they had with math at a young age than with any built-in animosity towards numbers. I also know from my own tutoring experience that “I’m just not good at math” is largely a self-limiting belief that can be unlearned. As we now know, intelligence is not a fixed quantity like your height, but much more like a muscle, which can be strengthened through training and exercise.

So how do we intrinsically motivate our students or, for that matter, ourselves? I encourage you to try the following the next time you want to get your son or daughter to sit down and study (or to get yourself to do something you’ve been procrastinating):

On a scale of 1 to 10, how interested are you in [studying, going to the gym, writing your novel, etc.] right now?

Typically, you’ll get a response of 3 or maybe 4—big surprise. Now ask the following:

Why didn’t you say a lower number?

No one expects this follow-up question, and it takes us off guard. In answering the question, we spontaneously begin to list all the reasons we actually do want to do the thing we’ve been procrastinating—“Well, I do actually want to get a good grade, and it would be great to get this out of the way before the weekend…” In listing all the reasons we actually do want to tackle the task at hand, we unknowingly increase our intrinsic motivation, which is what actually gets us to move.

* * *

Do you need help motivating your teen to excel in school? Contact me today for a free consultation!

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Are you ready for SAT II Subject Tests?

What are SAT II Subject Tests?

Unlike the regular SAT, which tests general math and verbal ability, the SAT II Subject Tests are your chance to show off your best subject areas. The subjects offered include History (U.S. and World), English Literature, Math I and Math II (Math II covers more advanced topics than Math I, typically up through a high school pre-calculus course), as well as Sciences (Chemistry, Physics, Biology) and various foreign languages. These tests are only one hour in length, and you can take up to three in one test setting. Colleges typically recommended that you take tests across various subject areas (i.e., one History, one Math, one Science). For a complete list of all the SAT II Subject Tests, including their various test dates, click here to view the College Board’s official information.

Do colleges require SAT II Subject Tests scores?

It varies by school. Some colleges require seeing at least two to three SAT II Subject Test scores, while others simply recommend submitting the scores, as strong scores can strengthen your college application. This is especially true if you’re applying, say, as an engineering major, and you submit strong SAT II scores in Math and Science. For this reason, most schools will consider your SAT II scores if you submit them along with your application, even if they aren’t required, as they help to give a more well-rounded picture of you, your interests, and your strengths. Lastly, some schools will even accept SAT II Subject Test scores in place of a regular SAT or ACT score, although this is less common. For a complete list of colleges and their SAT II Subject Test requirements/recommendations, click here.

When should I take the SAT II Subject Tests?

While the tests are offered throughout the year on the same dates as the regular SAT, I always recommend that my students take the tests in early June, after they have completed at least one full year of the subject being tested. For example, if you plan to take the SAT II Chemistry exam, it’s best to take it after you’ve covered the bulk of the course content, as the SAT II is comprehensive. I wouldn’t recommend waiting until the fall after you’ve completed the course to take the test–we all know how much we tend to forget over the summer vacation!

Which subject tests should I take?

Pick the subjects where you feel strongest in school this year. For example, if you’ve had a great year in Biology, taking the SAT II Biology test could be a good choice. Next year, when you take precalculus (just for an example), you might consider taking the SAT II Math II exam. While you can take up to three tests in a single sitting, you certainly don’t have to, and plenty of students space these tests out over the first three years of high school. By the end of junior year though, having 2-3 Subject Test scores under your belt will help strengthen your college application.

One last note: If you’re currently enrolled in an AP course that coincides with an SAT Subject Test, you should definitely consider taking that SAT II. For example, if you’re currently taking AP U.S. History, and you’re planning on taking the AP test in May, then by all means take the SAT II U.S. History test. The reason for this is that the SAT II is generally slightly easier than the AP test, and if you’re already working hard to prepare for the AP test in May, then you’ll be in great shape to take the less rigorous SAT II in June.

How should I prepare for the SAT II Subject Tests?

The College Board offers a prep book that contains one previously administered test for every SAT II Subject Test that they offer. While one test doesn’t offer a ton of practice, it still will give you a good sense of what the test is like and what to expect.

Need help preparing for an SAT II Subject Test? I can definitely help you! Contact me today for a free consultation.

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Why the best test-takers are slower than you

In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel Prize-winning economist outlines our “two selves”—our fast, intuitive brain that leaps to quick judgments (what he calls System 1), and our slow, methodical brain that we need to perform a calculation such as 243 x 849 (what he calls System 2). System 2 is inherently lazier than System 1, and it would prefer not to do work if it doesn’t have to—a fact you may have noticed if you saw 243 x 849, and groaned audibly.

After reading this fascinating book, I’ve come to believe that standardized tests are not just a math test or just a verbal test. They’re also a test of how well a student can “slow down” or ignore her System 1—that part of her brain that leaps to quick, intuitive (and often wrong) judgments—and how well she can engage the slower, more methodical (and more lethargic) System 2, which is necessary to actually solve the problems on the test. In fact, the test-makers know this, and they’re brilliant at creating trap answers that are craftily designed to exploit your System 1 intuition, which is so often incorrect. What do I mean by this? To illustrate, try this example, care of Kahneman:

A bat and a ball together cost $1.10.
The bat costs a dollar more than the ball.
How much is the ball?

Spoiler alert: The answer isn’t ten cents. But if you thought ten cents, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company: many MIT and Princeton undergraduates still said ten cents. In all likelihood, “ten cents” flashes across the mind of anyone who is asked this question—even the respondents who get the question right. No one is immune to the false intuitions of our fast-moving, System 1 brain. However, what differentiates the correct respondents is that they remain skeptical of their intuition, and they force themselves to slow down and examine the question with the rigor of their more careful, calculating System 2 brain. The thought process might go something like this:

Okay, so the ball costs $0.10. Wait. If the question were that easy, why would this smartypants even bother asking me? Let’s slow down and really look at this. If the ball is really $0.10, and the bat is a dollar more, that would make the bat $1.10. But of course that can’t be right, since together they would cost $1.20—and that’s too high. So my intuition was wrong. However, it wasn’t entirely useless—because $1.20 is too high, I now know the ball has to cost less than $0.10. In fact, it must cost $0.05, because that would make the bat cost $1.05. Together, they cost $1.10. Solved!

My bet would be that a thought process along these lines occurs inside the brain of anyone who gets the problem right. I bring it up here to hopefully dispel one of the most common and pernicious misconceptions many of us have around standardized tests—namely, that the smartest students are simply gifted with some superhuman intuition that is capable of knowing the right answer instantly, as if they possessed a kind of flawless System 1. Luckily for us mere mortals, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the best test-takers aren’t superhuman at all. In truth, they’re just better at slowing down.

Tests or exams coming up? I can definitely help. Contact me today for a free consultation!

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