Tag Archives: writing

After over 25 years of trying to explain what complex standardized instruments like the SAT or ACT are meant to test, I still find the general explanation of “math, verbal, and test taking skills” woefully inadequate. Just as frustrating is the disconnect between the way these skills are tests in school as opposed to the exams themselves. Why is SAT math, for example, so different from school math, even though the discrete subject matter overlaps entirely? A recent comment from deep thinker Shane Parrish of Farnam Street helped me wrap my head around why the conventional view of what is tested fails to describe how multifarious and sophisticated those skills are: We tend to think of meta skills as the skill. For example, we default to thinking that reading is a skill. But there is really no skill called reading. Reading is the meta-skill that results when you alloy other…

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Test anxiety is truly an unruly beast, eager to sabotage us during our most important moments. Fortunately, all kinds of strategies work well at taming this beast. If you’ve ever struggled with maintaining peak performance in the face of stress, consider adding expressive writing to your arsenal. Expressive writing?! Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock, researchers from the University of Chicago, unraveled an interesting knot of interactions: – Worries lead to poor test performance. – Expressive writing helps regulate worries. – Expressive writing should lead to better test performance. These researchers devised a series of tests to test their hypothesis that expressive writing benefits high-stakes test performance, especially for students who tend to worry in testing situations, by reducing rumination. They created a high-stakes math testing environment in their lab and amped up the pressure among subjects. Then, subjects spent 10 min either sitting quietly (control group) or writing as…

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If today’s high school students are tomorrow’s leaders, our future looks very bright, at least in most respects. Where teens excel intellectually, emotionally, and technologically, however, they fall astonishingly short grammatically. If you don’t believe me, ask the nearest high schooler at hand what a preposition is. That dazed, deer-in-headlights look will tell you everything you need to know. Identifying a preposition should be simplicity itself, considering we use them in nearly every single sentence (including this one!) These basic, everyday words like of, to, in, on, for, and with are essential to communication. Yet, they pass unnoticed. Most teens–probably most people–can barely recognize let alone define a preposition. Actually, even the experts struggle to express exactly what a preposition is in easily understandable terms. Dictionary.com defines a preposition as “any member of a class of words found in many languages that are used before nouns, pronouns, or other substantives…

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Poll a random sample of college admissions officers, high school students, and test prep professionals on just about any issue, and you’ll likely encounter a lot of divergent ideas. On one issue, however, we all tend to agree: The SAT and ACT essays are a waste. These essays are a waste of time, adding nearly an hour to each official test and many more hours to any comprehensive test preparation. These essays are a waste of money, anywhere from $14 to $16.50 per test plus the extra cost of prep. These essays are a waste of effort, as fewer and fewer colleges require or recommend essay scores. To my knowledge, even the ones that want the scores don’t use them in any real capacity, as I’ve yet to hear about a student denied admission because of a low essay score. Harvard clearly agrees, as that estimable institution recently dropped its…

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In a world where most communication occurs through spoken word and snippets of text, the rules governing effective written communication begin to fade, becoming first esoteric and then inscrutable. Punctuation appears most mysterious to the average English speakers, particularly those marks that appear in the middle of sentences. Punctuation marks in general serve to add structure and logic to written communication. Often, this role requires making the right connections between independent clauses (those that stand on their own) and dependent clauses (those that cannot stand on their own). While commas, colons, and dashes may be used to connect clauses, none of these operate as easily and simply as the semicolon. In a world of complexity, semicolon rules are beautifully basic: use a semicolon to connect related independent clauses. That is all. We generally use terminal punctuation marks like periods and question marks to connect independent clauses by making them sentences.…

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Most influential standardized exams assess comprehensive reading and reasoning skills. Even the MCAT, the entrance exam for medical school, evaluates Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills along with the expected biology, chemistry, and physics. The excerpts of text most exams use to evaluate reading, grammar, and even science reasoning skills are typically called passages. Yet, after decades of helping students master these tests, I’ve never seen a good explanation of what a passage actually is. Technically, a passage is simply a portion or section of a written work, either fiction or non-fiction. Some hold that a passage can be as short as a sentence, but most consist of at least one paragraph and usually several. One iteration of SAT Passage-based Reading included both Short Passages of 1-2 paragraphs and Long Passages of 4-9 paragraphs. These days, most test passages, at least at the high school level, come in at what is…

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