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I received a perfect score on the ACT in December 2016.

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July 23, 2021

Improved Sleep is Associated with 212-point SAT Score Gains

Here are some excerpts to take note of from the book Why We Sleep:

In Edina, Minnesota, school start times for teenagers were shifted from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. More striking than the forty-three minutes of extra sleep that these teens reported getting was the change in academic performance, indexed using a standardized measure called the Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT. In the year before this time change, the average verbal SAT scores of the top-performing students was a very respectable 605. The following year, after switching to an 8:30 a.m. start time, that score rose to an average 761 for the same top-tier bracket of students. Math SAT scores also improved, increasing from an average of 683 in the year prior to the time change to 739 in the year after. Add this all up, and you see that investing in delaying school start times—allowing students more sleep and better alignment with their unchangeable biological rhythms—returned a net SAT profit of 212 points....

Numerous counties in several US states have shifted the start of schools to a later hour and their students experienced significantly higher grade point averages. Unsurprisingly, performance improvements were observed regardless of time of day; however, the most dramatic surges occurred in morning classes. It is clear that a tired, under-slept brain is little more than a leaky memory sieve, in no state to receive, absorb, or efficiently retain an education....

Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to be taken to school in a car, in part because their parents often have jobs in the service industry demanding work start times at or before six a.m. Such children therefore rely on school buses for transit, and must wake up earlier than those taken to school by their parents. As a result, those already disadvantaged children become even more so because they routinely obtain less sleep than children from more affluent families....

Delayed school start times wonderfully increases class attendance, reduces behavioral and psychological problems, and decreases substance and alcohol use. In addition, later start times beneficially mean a later finish time. This protects many teens from the well-researched “danger window” between three and six p.m., when schools finish but before parents return home. This unsupervised, vulnerable time period is a recognized cause of involvement in crime and alcohol and substance abuse....

School bus schedules and bus unions are a major roadblock thwarting appropriately later school start times, as is the established routine of getting the kids out the door early in the morning so that parents can start work early....

ADHD symptoms are strongly overlap with those caused by a lack of sleep.... Adderall is amphetamine with certain salts mixed in, and Ritalin is a similar stimulant, called methylphenidate. Amphetamine and methylphenidate are two of the most powerful drugs we know of to prevent sleep and keep the brain of an adult (or a child, in this case) wide awake. That is the very last thing that such a child needs.... We estimate that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleep disorder. (pp. 311-315)

 


Individuals who sleep fewer than seven hours a night on average cause a staggering fiscal cost to their country compared to employees who sleep more than eight hours each night. Inadequate sleep costs America and Japan $411 billion and $138 billion each year, respectively. The UK, Canada, and Germany follow. (p. 297)

July 1, 2021

Five Things to Do the Week Before the ACT

It's the week before the ACT. You don't know what to do, you say?

1. Re-take a practice test.

With only a week before the test, any studying needs to build confidence and reinforce what you've already learned. Don't spend time learning new material: cramming isn't very effective, and it'll just stress you out.

Choose a practice test you've done before, preferably a long time ago, and take it again under timed conditions. If you've been studying, you should see a large score increase over your first attempt. Review your answers and spend a little bit of time brushing up on any concepts you still need to practice.

Review stuff you already know.

2. Drive by your test center.

Knowing your exact driving route will build confidence and avoid stress on the morning of your actual test. If you do your practice drive on a Saturday morning, you'll get a good idea of what kind of traffic you'll run into and where to pick up food in case you can't eat at home.

3. Pack your bag.

The day before your test, pack a clear Ziploc bag with everything you'll need and put the bag in your car.

Your admission ticket is really important, as you won't be allowed to enter the test center without it. I usually print three copies of my ticket and leave one in the car, one in my Ziploc bag, and one in my pocket. If you leave the room during the break and forget to bring your admission ticket and photo ID, the proctors won't let you back in!

You can print your admission ticket online by signing into your ACT account.

Here's a complete list of stuff to pack:

  • Multiple copies of your admission ticket
  • Lots of No. 2 pencils with good erasers (bringing too many is better than having too few)
  • A small handheld pencil sharpener to use during breaks
  • A wristwatch with a disabled speaker
  • An ACT-approved calculator
  • A backup calculator
  • Snacks to last through the morning (fruit and nuts are good; starchy or sugary snacks that will spike your blood sugar are bad)
  • Bottled water (avoid any drink that contains sugar)

Leave these in the car:

  • Books and study materials
  • Highlighters
  • Electronic devices other than your calculator
  • Your cell phone (unless it's completely switched off)

4. Get tired.

The day before the test, don't spend too much time studying or doing homework. A good night's sleep is going to help a lot more than a few hours of studying.

Try to make yourself so tired that you can't stay up all night worrying about the test. An afternoon of aerobic exercise is good:
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Dancing
  • Yard work

5. Set your alarm.

You'll want to fall asleep without having to worry about whether you'll get up again. The day will come when you never wake from slumber, but that hopefully won't be due to the ACT!

Dress in layers on the morning of the test. You'll be able to remove layers as the room gets warmer without having to get anything from your backpack.

Plan to leave early enough that you get to the test center ten minutes before the doors open. You can entertain yourself with your phone while you're waiting as long as you remember to turn it completely off before the test starts.

Bonus

If you're serious about achieving consistent performance in stressful situations, check out the two podcasts episodes below:

How To! with Charles Duhigg
In this special episode of Happiness Lab, we feature an episode of the podcast How To! with Charles Duhigg. Mike’s dream job of playing bass in a Chicago orchestra is within reach — if only he can conquer his nerves and master the audition. Duhigg brings in Dr. Don Greene, a peak performance psychologist who’s worked with Wall Street traders and Olympic athletes, to see if he can help Mike perform his best under the spotlight. The secret? Jumping jacks, extra sleep, and watching reruns of The Office.

How to Perform Your Best Under Pressure
After serving as an Army Ranger and Green Beret, and getting his PhD in sports psychology, Don has spent decades coaching Olympic divers, professional athletes, race car drivers, opera singers, classical musicians, and Wall Street traders in how not to choke under pressure. He shares the principles he uses as a stress coach in Fight Your Fear and Win: Seven Skills for Performing Your Best Under Pressure. Today we talk about those skills, beginning with why people choke in the first place, and what’s going on in your mind when that happens. We then talk about the fundamentals of managing performance anxiety and staying in right brain flow, including making adrenaline work for instead of against you, getting your mind centered, ignoring distractions, and becoming mentally tough. We also discuss how to thwart negative self-talk through a practice Don calls “thought monitoring,” and his 5-step strategy for recovering when you do make a mistake. 


Do you have other tips for the week before the ACT? Comment below and share them with us!

June 4, 2021

Take a Practice Test and Get Your First Session for Free!

Students tend to improve on the ACT more quickly than they do on the SAT, as it's easier to improve speed than reading comprehension. Because California is an SAT-centric state, I'm offering students a free session as an incentive to try the "other" test.

Please contact me about tutoring and include your SAT scores. I'll send you an ACT practice test for you to take at home.

Once you have your practice ACT score, e-mail me again and mention the words "ACT Offer" in order to get your first 90-minute session for free!

During the first session, I'll convert your ACT score to an equivalent SAT score so we can decide which test to focus on.

This offer expires on June 31, 2021.

May 21, 2021

May SAT scores are now available!

If you took the SAT in May, your can view your scores online on May 21.

Here's the score I got in March 2019:


May 12, 2021

How to Raise Your SAT Score by Reading Biographies

Update: I've added Bruchko to the reading list.

The easiest way to raise your SAT Reading score is to read. The skills the SAT tests - knowing vocabulary, literal and careful reading, expressing complex ideas in subtle and clever ways - will naturally become part of you.

Reading is the cheapest and most enjoyable way to expand your knowledge. It's less annoying that paying a professor to force you through a curriculum. It's the way you're expected to train yourself if you go for a graduate degree or run your own business. It's arguably the only way to become the best in your field: you have to read to know what's going on and what projects to pursue.

There's no way for the SAT to test all that directly, so it measures the byproducts: skills like vocabulary, faithfulness to an author's intention, and the ability to restate complex ideas. Ironically, most test prep companies teach you to game the SAT by drilling the byproduct skills while missing the the original point: reading as a life-long learning tool.

You get more of what you measure. 

It's okay to teach to the test and study to the test if you want a 1400. Test prep companies guarantee that you can reach a 1400 because they know that most people can achieve it by learning simple techniques and guessing strategies. The biggest companies train newly recruited tutors to 1400+ and release them into the wild.

If, however, you want to be in the coveted 1520-1600 range, it's better to start early and learn the valuable core skills that the SAT tests only indirectly. It's one thing to fudge a 700 on SAT Math by plugging answer choices back into problems; it's quite another to solve math problems just by looking at them. Similarly, skimming strategies and answer choice elimination can get you a good Critical Reading score (35/40) but probably not a perfect one.

The challenge is to find books that are interesting to you as an individual without simply rehashing what you already know.

To that end, I've begun recommending biographies. These ubiquitous library items combine interesting narrative (resembling fiction), background knowledge (history and social science), and deep knowledge of a subject (natural science, sports, music, or whatever else the biography is about).

Biographies, especially autobiographies, are ideal if you like reading fiction. You can choose ones that focus on your hobbies or challenge yourself by studying subjects that are similar to the ones you struggle with the most on practice tests.

Don't torture yourself with boring books. Books become interesting as you gain background knowledge, so don't force yourself too early. If you struggle with science passages, go to the science shelves at the library, flip through the biographies you find there, and take the most interesting ones home with you. As you learn more science through fun books, the harder ones will become more relevant.

A book is at the right reading level for you if there's about one word per page that you have to look up. If you're still not sure, err on the side of fun rather than hard.

In case you want suggestions, I've compiled a list of biographies I've read, sorted by topic, below. Story-like books that aren't strictly biographies are marked with *stars.

TEST PREP (of course)

The Perfect Score Project by Debbie Stier


NATURAL SCIENCE




SOCIAL SCIENCE

*Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

*Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner


*Next: The Future Just Happened by Michael Lewis


HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY

The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth



*Wealth, War, and Wisdom by Barton Biggs


FINANCE



Mr. China: A Memoir by Tim Clissold




*The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

*Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

*The Quants by Scott Patterson

*Hedgehogging by Barton Biggs



PERSONAL GROWTH


April 24, 2021

Five Things to Do the Week Before the SAT

It's the week before the SAT. You don't know what to do, you say?

1. Re-take a practice test.

With only a week before the test, any studying needs to build confidence and reinforce what you've already learned. Don't spend time learning new material: cramming isn't very effective, and it'll just stress you out.

Choose a practice test you've done before, preferably a long time ago, and take it again under timed conditions. If you've been studying, you should see a large score increase over your first attempt. Review your answers and spend a little bit of time brushing up on any concepts you still need to practice.
Don't be this kid. Seriously.


2. Drive by your test center.

Knowing your exact driving route will build confidence and avoid stress on the morning of your actual test. If you do your practice drive on a Saturday morning, you'll get a good idea of what kind of traffic you'll run into and where to pick up food in case you can't eat at home.

3. Pack your bag.

The day before your test, pack a clear Ziploc bag with everything you'll need and put the bag in your car.

Your admission ticket is really important, as you won't be allowed to enter the test center without it. I usually print three copies of my ticket and leave one in the car, one in my Ziploc bag, and one in my pocket. If you leave the room during the break and forget to bring your admission ticket and photo ID, the proctors won't let you back in!

You can print your admission ticket online by signing into your SAT account.

Here's a complete list of stuff to pack:

  • Multiple copies of your admission ticket
  • Lots of No. 2 pencils with good erasers (bringing too many is better than having too few)
  • A small handheld pencil sharpener to use during breaks
  • A wristwatch with a disabled speaker
  • An SAT-approved calculator
  • A backup calculator
  • Snacks to last through the morning (fruit and nuts are good; starchy or sugary snacks that will spike your blood sugar are bad)
  • Bottled water (avoid any drink that contains sugar)

Leave these in the car:

  • Books and study materials
  • Highlighters
  • Electronic devices other than your calculator
  • Your cell phone (unless it's completely switched off)

4. Get tired.

The day before the test, don't spend too much time studying or doing homework. A good night's sleep is going to help a lot more than a few hours of studying.

Try to make yourself so tired that you can't stay up all night worrying about the test. An afternoon of aerobic exercise is good:
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Dancing
  • Yard work

5. Set your alarm.

You'll want to fall asleep without having to worry about whether you'll get up again. The day will come when you never wake from slumber, but that hopefully won't be due to the SAT!

Dress in layers on the morning of the test. You'll be able to remove layers as the room gets warmer without having to get anything from your backpack.

Plan to leave early enough that you get to the test center ten minutes before the doors open. You can entertain yourself with your phone while you're waiting as long as you remember to turn it completely off before the test starts.

Bonus

If you're serious about achieving consistent performance in stressful situations, check out the two podcasts episodes below:

How To! with Charles Duhigg
In this special episode of Happiness Lab, we feature an episode of the podcast How To! with Charles Duhigg. Mike’s dream job of playing bass in a Chicago orchestra is within reach — if only he can conquer his nerves and master the audition. Duhigg brings in Dr. Don Greene, a peak performance psychologist who’s worked with Wall Street traders and Olympic athletes, to see if he can help Mike perform his best under the spotlight. The secret? Jumping jacks, extra sleep, and watching reruns of The Office.

How to Perform Your Best Under Pressure
After serving as an Army Ranger and Green Beret, and getting his PhD in sports psychology, Don has spent decades coaching Olympic divers, professional athletes, race car drivers, opera singers, classical musicians, and Wall Street traders in how not to choke under pressure. He shares the principles he uses as a stress coach in Fight Your Fear and Win: Seven Skills for Performing Your Best Under Pressure. Today we talk about those skills, beginning with why people choke in the first place, and what’s going on in your mind when that happens. We then talk about the fundamentals of managing performance anxiety and staying in right brain flow, including making adrenaline work for instead of against you, getting your mind centered, ignoring distractions, and becoming mentally tough. We also discuss how to thwart negative self-talk through a practice Don calls “thought monitoring,” and his 5-step strategy for recovering when you do make a mistake. 


Do you have other tips for the week before the SAT? Comment below and share them with us!

Seven Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary

Update: I've added several books to the reading list.

Whether you're preparing for the ACT or SAT, working toward an A in AP English, or writing your college application essays, a stronger vocabulary will make you a better reader and writer. Here are seven ways to work on your vocabulary:

1. Use the dictionary, but AVOID FLASH CARDS.

A truly nuanced vocabulary isn't something you can create by pure memorization. Good writers like to play with words, so you have to be familiar with how each word is used in a variety of contexts.

Watch the video below and then answer the vocabulary question that follows:



When Mrs. Bennett tells Mary to "find some useful employment," the word employment most nearly means
(a) paid work
(b) trade
(c) profession
(d) task

To answer this question, stick each of the choices into Mrs. Bennett's sentence to see which one works:

"Mary, put that away at once. Find some useful _________."

The first three choices don't work because in the context of the story, Mrs. Bennett is trying to get the house ready for some unexpected guests, and she needs Mary to help tidy up. She's not offering any money, so choice A isn't an option. She's not asking Mary to find a useful career, either, so choices B and C are out. The word task fits: it's consistent with Mrs. Bennett's implied request to clean the house up right away.

Choices A, B, and C are the three definitions that Google's dictionary provides for the word employment. Choice D isn't one of Google's definitions, but it's the correct answer!

ACT and SAT vocab questions look a lot like the one we just did. The most obvious answer is almost always wrong; it's there to trap people who memorize definitions using flash cards. The tests' writers are trying to see if you really understand what you read.

The dictionary can help, since there is some overlap between the meanings of the words employment and task. Just make sure you pay attention to the author's meaning as opposed to your own preconceived notions!

2. Enjoy what you read.

I can't emphasize this enough. Your brain has to draw connections between what you're learning and what you already know, and it's not going to do that very effectively if you're bored.

What you read doesn't matter very much as long as you really enjoy it. Just make sure that, on average, there's at least one vocabulary word you can learn on each page.

I keep a stash of Post-It notes inside the cover of whatever book I'm currently reading. If I run across a word I can't figure out in context, I put a Post-It under the word and use Google to look it up when I have time.

I went to the library last week and flipped through copies of some of the books in the list below. I've put them roughly in order from easiest to hardest. At the hardest level, there are words that even I don't know. You can always find something interesting to learn no matter what your current reading level is.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Mildred Taylor)
Hatchet (Gary Paulsen)
The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan)
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains (Annie Cheney)
Bitcoin Billionaires: A True Story of Genius, Betrayal, and Redemption (Ben Mezrich)
The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)
The Perfect Score Project: One Mother's Journey to Discover the Secrets of the SAT (Debbie Stier)
White Fang (Jack London)
Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut)
The Art of Non-Conformity (Chris Guillebeau)
Underwater: How Our American Dream of Homeownership Became a Nightmare (Ryan Dezember)
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (Michael Lewis)
Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
33 Questions about American History You're Not Supposed to Ask (Thomas Woods)
Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (Jostein Gaardner)
Church Refugees (Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope)
Animals in Translation (Temple Grandin)
When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management (Roger Lowenstein)
The Great Depression: A Diary (Benjamin Roth)
Wealth, War, and Wisdom (Barton Biggs)
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyrou)
The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution (Gregory Zuckerman)
The Undoing Project (Michael Lewis)
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott. Fitzgerald)
The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)
The Great Depression: A Diary (Benjamin Roth)
Cheaper by the Dozen (Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth)
The Hobbit (J.R. Tolkien)
Superforecasting (Philip Tetlock)
Anticancer: A New Way of Life (David Servan-Schreiber)
Lifespan: Why We Age―and Why We Don't Have To (David Sinclair and Matthew LaPlante)
The Construction of Modern Science (Richard Westfall)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) This edition of the book includes definitions of the vocabulary words.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn)

You can use magazines and blogs, too, as long as there's at least one vocabulary word you can learn on each page.

Newsweek
The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal - This is my personal favorite!
The Economist
Scientific journals: If you're interested in these, find a science blog on a topic you like and download the articles it recommends.

3. Use Professor Word.

Professor Word is a tool that automatically pulls up SAT and ACT words as you're reading on the Internet. If you click on a word, the tool will offer several definitions for it.

You'll be able to literally see how good writing relies on interesting, offbeat definitions of otherwise "easy" words.

4. Listen to audiobooks in the car.

Audiobooks aren't quite as effective as the printed page, but they still offer a way to turn otherwise wasted driving time into something useful.

The app Podcast Republic searches for podcasts and plays them on your Android phone. It also works with audiobooks you've saved on your phone's memory card. (Overcast is a great podcast app for the iPhone.)

Here are a few podcasts I've enjoyed. (I didn't go to Stanford intending to become interested in combining science, technology, and business, but it looks like the school had a good influence on me.)

The Science of Success Podcast
This podcast focuses on using science to help you become successful in life. Its evidence-based focus sets it apart from typical business success and pop psychology shows.

Vaya's podcast focuses on recent research about business and psychology.

Advanced Worldview Analysis (Dr. Ronald Nash)
Dr. Ronald Nash provides one particular point of view on how the Bible interacts with the world's philosophies.

History of Philosophy and Christian Thought (Dr. Ronald Nash)
Dr. Nash teaches the history of philosophy from a Christian point of view.

Seth Godin's Startup School
This is a series of excerpts from Godin's seminars on developing a creative business.

The Meb Faber Show
This is an excellent research-based podcast about what works in investing and what doesn't.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History Podcast
If you find the SAT's American History passages to be challenging, this is the podcast to listen to. It covers the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil War, and abolitionism. The only major topic on the SAT this podcast doesn't cover is early feminism. The author, Thomas Woods, is a senior fellow in history at the libertarian Mises Institute, so he tilts overtly toward individual and state rights rather than toward a large federal government.

The American Military History Podcast
This podcast takes the interesting approach of telling American history through the eyes of people who served in the military. Its focus on engagements keeps the episodes interesting.

It's History Podcast
This started out as a series of episodes covering the history of the Cold War and has since expanded to a variety of topics.

Pride and Prejudice (written by Jane Austen and read by Elizabeth Klett)
This is the most beautiful rendition of Austen's work that I've ever heard.

MIT courses on various topics
These courses are for advanced students who want to "sit in" on college classes.

5. Watch TV with the subtitles turned on.

Some shows are better than others. Generally speaking, shows that describe a unfamiliar world use advanced vocabulary to tell the viewer what's going on. Science fiction, fantasy, documentaries, and movie adaptations of classic books are all in this category. Music videos also work if the songs are very sophisticated.

If possible, watch with the subtitles on! Reading and writing happen with actual words.

Science Fiction


Fantasy


Documentaries


Classics


Sophisticated Music

6. Become friends with the "smart kids."

Peer pressure works. I usually consider mob psychology to be a bad thing, but you can sometimes harness it to push yourself to do something amazing.

If you go to a good college, you'll make friends with intelligent, ambitious people. They'll prod you to learn faster, work harder, and accomplish more than you would have on your own. Your vocabulary will improve as a result. Why not start that process today?

7. Find a tutor with good grammar and an excellent vocabulary.

Every section of the ACT requires you to be a good reader. ACT Math has word problems, and the Science section is one huge word problem. Recent changes to the SAT have made it even more reading-dependent than the ACT.

A good tutor is the ultimate "smart kid." You'll pick up strong reading and writing skills that will carry you through classes, standardized tests, and college application essays. In the process, you might even become an independent thinker and an effective communicator.

The best way to get into top schools is, after all, to be what they're looking for.