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

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Test Prep Tutoring

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Letter from the CEO of ACT

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April 4, 2020

ACT: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've added an Errata section to my review of For the Love of ACT Science.

The Official ACT Prep Guide, 2019-2020 Edition

This is a much-needed update addressing the weaknesses of the 2018 and 2016-17 editions. The ACT essay changed in fall 2015 and again (slightly) in fall 2016, so all of the practice essay questions in the older editions were out-of-date.

The ACT has gradually been getting harder over time, and the 2019-2020 edition addresses that by making its own practice tests pretty tough and then making the scoring curves pretty generous to compensate. The first three tests are identical to the ones in the 2018 edition. The fourth one appears to be ACT Form 74C, which was administered June 2017. The fifth test is ACT Form A10 (December 2017).

This is one of the best and most convenient sources of practice material you'll find. The book is heavy and unwieldy, but you can tear out the practice tests and bubble sheets and take them on a flat surface.

The scoring instructions are hard to find. You'll find answer explanations immediately after each practice test, but the actual answer keys, scoring instructions, and score conversion tables are at the back of the book. It's important to use the correct score conversion table for each practice test you take, as harder tests also have more generous curves. You can miss some questions and still get 36 if you get a difficult section; this tends to happen most often for Math and English.

ACT Prep Black Book, Second Edition (Mike Barrett)

If your score goal is 30-33 and you don't have a tutor, this is the book to start with. Barrett's answer explanations are very detailed, about five to ten paragraphs per question, and he uses only official ACT practice tests.

This new second edition addresses the weaknesses of the first edition: it uses the updated (2018 and 2019-2020) Official ACT Prep guide as its companion, it explains every question on every practice test instead of skipping questions, and it presents solutions in a much more organized way.

You have to get either the Official ACT Prep Guide or the Official ACT Prep Pack, since Barrett's book has answer explanations for that edition but doesn't include the questions themselves.

A top tutor can explain any officially released ACT question to you in as much detail as you want. Barrett's answer explanations are almost as good. At $28, it's a lot more affordable than hiring a real tutor.

His book really shines in its strategy suggestions for the Reading and Science sections, where the right approach to the test is more important than reviewing content. If you apply Barrett's advice with enough practice tests, you can eventually reach a Reading score of 36 and a Science score of 34.

His treatment of ACT Math focuses on strategic guessing. It's faster to cross off three or four answer choices and choose from what's left than it is to solve problems traditionally. Unless you're very good, you'll need to use strategic guessing for the first forty questions in order to garner enough time for questions 41-60, which tend to be much harder.

The Math content review is limited. If you're shooting for a perfect score on the Math section, you really need to know guessing strategies and the "correct" methods in order to decide which approach is the fastest. Unless your math skills are already very strong, you might have trouble breaking above 32 without additional content review.

Barrett's English grammar strategies are very easy to learn: for example, he uses the term comma sandwich instead of the more common but technical term non-essential clause. This is a strength if you want to learn the material quickly but a drawback if you want a deeper understanding of the ACT's grammar rules.

Since Barrett chooses to use only official ACT practice questions, he doesn't include any practice questions in the content review chapters. You have to read the entire book and then take an official practice test. For this reason, I suggest treating your first test as un-timed practice.

Cracking the ACT with 8 Practice Tests

This is a good all-around study guide with content review, basic test-taking strategies, and six practice tests. It's a good choice if your final target score is 30 or lower.

For unofficial practice questions, these are pretty good. My students almost always buy this book and do some of the practice tests before deciding to hire me to review the material with them. I haven't seen the kinds of confusing, badly written questions and answer key errors that plague other unofficial study books.

The strategies in this book are basic and easy to apply.

The Princeton Review is all about giving you what you need and not one iota more. The ACT is a difficult test that requires students to think critically and pay attention to detail, and the basic strategies in this book may not be enough to reliably raise your ACT score above 30.

Its advice for ACT Reading, to skip directly to the questions without reading passages first, makes it hard for some students to grasp each passage's main point.

1,511 ACT Practice Questions

This is the best bank of unofficial practice questions I've seen. It's useful if your can't get access to official ACT practice tests.

For unofficial practice questions, these are pretty good. I haven't seen the kinds of confusing, badly written questions and answer key errors that plague other unofficial study books.

It's not a full prep guide. It has answer explanations but doesn't contain content review or organized strategy suggestions.

The Complete Guide to ACT English, Fourth Edition (Erica Meltzer)

This book is a winner: it has grammar rules, practice questions, and answer explanations. It's a great choice if you're shooting for a 30-36 in ACT English.

The new Fourth Edition adds a Parts of Speech Preliminary Exercise (p. 14), includes answer explanations for the practice problems (p. 247), and fixes some typos, including a major problem with the practice tests (incorrectly labeled problems).

If you understand every grammar rule Erica teaches, ACT English questions become objective, and you can tackle them like math questions. This doesn't mean they're easy, but it does mean that you can figure out why the wrong choices are actually wrong.

Erica also has some grammar quizzes on her Web site.

Erica's strategies are great for all of the question types except those that involve adding and deleting sentences. For those, read the Relevance and Purpose article on the College Panda's blog.

Her book is like a textbook (long and possibly boring). Decide now that you're going to be dedicated enough to read the whole thing, including the answer explanations at the end of the book.

Minor annoyances include
  • the way that practice questions are numbered (passage number, followed by question number)
  • the fact that you have to remember to flip to page 247 to grade the practice problems
  • the lack of any guidance regarding the use of the score conversion chart (p. 304).

The Complete Guide to ACT Reading (Erica Meltzer)

Another winner from Erica, this book has great strategies for managing time, skimming, taking notes, and answering tricky questions. It's a good choice if you want a 30-36 in ACT Reading.

Erica includes a lot of practice questions, including two full practice tests with answer explanations. Her book is more convenient than the ACT Prep Black Book, which requires you to buy an out-of-date edition of the Real ACT Prep guide.

Erica's Web site also offers several reading quizzes.

Erica's practice questions are good, but they're not as good as real ACT questions. You should supplement her book with real ACT practice tests or consider getting the ACT Prep Black Book instead, which has excellent answer explanations for official ACT Reading questions.

This unusual book addresses vocabulary skills that can help with multiple sections of the SAT and ACT.

Instead of drilling vocab words using flash cards, Erica groups words by their function in the English language and provides practice questions for those functions. This is a practical approach that will pay dividends in college later: words like hypothesis, tentative, and analogous often occur in science-related passages, so it makes sense to group them together.

Because Erica's focus is on practical reading, her book is equally helpful for ACT English and Reading passages. The section on passage-based vocabulary for science passages (pages 31-35) will even help you on the ACT's Science section.

Erica's Web site has a complete list of grammar rules and and reading/grammar quizzes.

If you already score higher than 700 on SAT Verbal and 30 on ACT English/Reading/Science, this book might be too easy. You'd benefit more from taking practice tests and reading 10th-to-12th grade level books to build an advanced vocabulary.

Ultimate Guide to ACT Math (Richard Corn)

This is the closest thing to an ACT Math textbook I've seen. It organizes content review and practice drills by topic. If you don't feel comfortable with high school math, start your prep with this book.

Students who get A's in school math often struggle with the ACT. A school test focuses on one chapter of your book at a time, and a good teacher tells you exactly what's going to be on that test. The ACT, on the other hand, tests knowledge that ranges from 7th grade to precalculus and includes Common Core material that not all students have seen yet.

Richard Corn's book is enough like a textbook to get you comfortable with the topics that are tested on the ACT, but it's not long enough to be truly intimidating.

The main strength of Corn's book, its textbook-style organization, is also its weakness. The real ACT won't tell you whether a particular problem is testing the standard-form equation of a circle, the area of a circle, or right triangles within the unit circle. It could potentially test all three topics at the same time!

To truly be ready for the ACT, you have to learn how to think on your feet. Corn's book is great if you need content review as a primer, but you'll want to graduate quickly to more advanced practice materials.

28 ACT Math Lessons to Improve Your Score in One Month: ADVANCED Course (Steve Warner)

28 ACT Math Lessons to Improve Your Score in One Month: INTERMEDIATE Course (Steve Warner)

28 ACT Math Lessons to Improve Your Score in One Month: BEGINNER Course (Steve Warner)

320 ACT Math Problems arranged by Topic and Difficulty Level (Steve Warner)

These excellent practice books can get your ACT Math score into the 30-36 range. They're banks of practice problems with detailed answer explanations.

The practice material is very similar to real ACT Math tests.

The problems are arranged by topic and difficulty level, so students who don't need any content review can jump straight to the chapters that contain what they want to work on.

The answer explanations provide more than one way to do each problem, and the fastest method is marked with a star.

Content review is minimal. Dr. Warner does define terms like range and domain in his answer explanations, but his book doesn't have an index. You'll need to label important pages with Post-It notes.

If you need content review, start with Richard Corn's Ultimate Guide to ACT Math and come back to Warner's book later.

If you feel rushed on ACT Math practice tests - a common problem - you need to make answer choice elimination and guessing your primary strategy on the easiest 80% of the test. If you correctly eliminate four choices, the fifth one has to be right, even if you haven't solved the problem traditionally. Eliminating answer choices is usually fast and less error-prone than traditional solutions, but (unfortunately) isn't taught directly in Richard Corn's and Steve Warner's books.

#1 on page 86 of the Advanced book has three possible correct answers: A, D, and E.

#4 on page 121 of the Advanced book is unsolvable unless you assume that the marbles need to be close to evenly distributed between the boxes.

#9 on page 205 of the Advanced book has a confusing answer explanation. The answer key is correct, though.

#2 on page 242 of the Advanced book is unsolvable unless you assume that shape at the upper left of the picture is a semicircle. (You should not make assumptions unless they're explicitly stated on the ACT, so the book shouldn't expect you to, either.)

#8 on page 244 of the Advanced book is unsolvable unless you assume that the two triangles shown are right triangles. (Again, you should not be expected to make assumptions that are not explicitly stated in the problem.)

#11 on page 328 of the Advanced book should state that the pyramid has five isosceles triangular faces (not four) and needs to point out that the pyramid is a right pyramid (in which the height is perpendicular to the base).

For the Love of ACT Science (Michael Cerro)

Cerro's book is an excellent strategy guide that can get your ACT Science score into the 30-34 range. He goes over each question type in detail and provides drills, practice tests, and answer explanations.

It's hard to write good practice questions for ACT Science. I suspect this is because most teachers don't know how to read scientific literature. You have to read journals regularly to understand concepts like correlation and causation, experiment design, and hypothesis evaluation, and even then, most scientific articles read like alien writing.

Given the difficulties involved, Cerro does a great job putting realistic-looking questions together. If you want a dedicated book for ACT Science that's written by a tutor and not a big test prep company, Cerro's book is the only option.

Mike Barrett's ACT Prep Black Book also has excellent strategies for ACT Science, but it requires you to buy The Official ACT Prep Guide.

The pro is also a con: Cerro's attempt at the impossible, writing accurate ACT Science questions, results in a book that's very good but has some weaknesses. You might feel that a few of his questions and answer explanations are written in a confusing way. If that bothers you, get Barrett's book instead and stick to official ACT questions.

If you want a 34-36 in ACT Science but struggle with finishing the test on time, Cerro's book probably won't be enough. You'll need to work on using your background knowledge to identify the answer that's probably correct before looking at the passage and then use the passage to verify that answer you chose. I'm not aware of any book that teaches this strategy, but I use it in my own tutoring.

#34 of the Chapter 5 Test (page 89): There is not enough information to answer the question. Based on background knowledge, the answer should be G (methane), which is the answer in the book's answer key, but Student 3 (whom we are being asked about) might argue differently.

The Master Key to ACT Science (Hugh Hung Q. Vo)

There is a noticeable lack of advanced prep guides for ACT Science on the market. My own preference is that students work on building their background knowledge so that they can reduce their reliance on reading the (often long and confusing) passages.

I don't know of any prep book that will teach you how to do this, so if you can't sign up for tutoring, the next best thing is probably this Hugh Hung Q. Vo's book.

It's very dense and will require a lot of self-discipline to get through, as the author's purpose is to help you look at science passages and break down experiments as an actual scientist would. There's also less of an emphasis on background knowledge than I would prefer.

The table of contents clearly lists the types of questions that students struggle with. If you've taken and reviewed your own practice tests and know exactly what you need help with, this book can be a useful reference manual.

There's a lot of information packed into this book's pages, and you could easily get cross-eyed trying to figure out what's going on. Unless you're a very serious student, it's probably better to go with Michael Cerro's book.

ACT Essay Sample Responses

Because the ACT essay has changed over the past few years, old editions (pre-2019) of the Official ACT Prep Guide have the wrong essay instructions. If you have one of those older editions, you'll have to go to the ACT's essay page to see the most recent version. That page also has sample essays written by students along with comments on how the essays were graded. There are a total of six sample essays; click on the links in the horizontal, purple Sample Essays bar in order to see all six.

Here's a copy of the updated instructions as of June 2018. Note that instead of having to write about all three perspectives, you can pick only one, giving you the ability to write with more clarity and focus.

The test describes an issue and provides three different perspectives on the issue. You are asked to read and consider the issue and perspectives, state your own perspective on the issue, and analyze the relationship between your perspective and at least one other perspective on the issue. Your score will not be affected by the perspective you take on the issue.

Books to Avoid

Kaplan's series of ACT prep books generally focuses on material that's too easy. The initial diagnostic practice test may give you an inflated score that is unlikely to repeat itself in a real ACT sitting.

Working with Official Practice Tests

If you find unofficial questions to be inaccurate or confusing, you can still prep for the ACT using only official practice tests.
  1. Take a practice test under timed conditions.
  2. Score your test and clearly mark the questions you missed. Use a different symbol to mark the questions that you got right by guessing.
  3. Review the questions you missed or had to guesss on. Spend at least ten minutes on each one. You have to prove to yourself that each question objectively has one right answer and three incorrect ones.
  4. Make a list of the questions you're not able to figure out on your own. Use Mike Barrett's answer explanations, the Internet, or a tutor's help to get to the point where you can clearly identify one correct answer and three incorrect ones for every single question. Your job isn't done until you can do this.
  5. Repeat the process using a new practice test. Keep the cycle going until you're happy with your scores.
This method can work really well if you have a tutor. Do a practice test and hire a tutor to go over some of the answers with you, then spend time at home going over the remaining answers on your own. In your next session, you can go over any questions that are still confusing. When you and your tutor are satisfied that you fully understand the first practice test, repeat the process with a new test.

Going for a Perfect Score

Since the ACT is an established test, you have plenty of resources to draw on if you want to practice for a perfect score.

If you get two 35's and two 36's, the four scores will round to a composite of 36. In addition, difficult test sections give you free points, so you might potentially miss one or even two questions on a section and still get a 36 on it.

Take an official test to get a baseline score and then go through all the books in the list above. After you're done, do as many official practice tests as you can. Since the ACT gives you some leeway to get questions wrong, you should work on improving your speed and accuracy on official tests rather than on unofficial books with questions that are intentionally harder than the real thing.

Most of all, go easy on yourself if you don't make it. Colleges want students who will bring them glory, and the difference between a 34 and a 36 doesn't say much about that potential in the long run.

September 9, 2019

Do You Want to Go to Stanford? Take Risks.

It's as true in college as it is anywhere else: If you want big rewards, you have to take risks.

The typical high schooler just wants an A in AP Calculus and maybe a job as a manager someday. Those are small rewards, and they come only after you do exactly what you're told to. If you take that path, people will tell you what to do for the rest of your life.

At Stanford, the expectations are totally different. Look at what's published on its Web site:

Study shows Stanford alumni create nearly $3 trillion in economic impact each year
Stanford University has long been known as one of the world's leading centers for innovation and a breeding ground for the entrepreneurs who created – and continue to shape – Silicon Valley. Now, for the first time, a study puts into perspective the sheer scale of the university's economic impact, not just in Silicon Valley and California but across the globe.
The word innovation appears 10 times in that article. Entrepreneur shows up 14 times. Founded is seen five times (companies founded twice, organizations once, firms once, and legendary founders once).

Stanford rewards risk-taking. It wants students who will enhance its reputation as a leading center for innovation and add to its $3 trillion in economic impact each year.

Stanford has entrepreneurship classes. That's the sort of thing that should make you salivate. Keep a hanky on you just in case.
High schools don't make innovation opportunities part of their normal curriculum. You have to seek them out. That's what makes you an entrepreneur.

Check out Paul Graham, the startup founder with a degree from Cornell and two from Harvard. He's written some insightful articles, including one titled Inequality and Risk:
Why not just have the government, or some large almost-government organization like Fannie Mae, do the venture investing instead of private funds? 
I'll tell you why that wouldn't work. Because then you're asking government or almost-government employees to do the one thing they are least able to do: take risks
As anyone who has worked for the government knows, the important thing is not to make the right choices, but to make choices that can be justified later if they fail. If there is a safe option, that's the one a bureaucrat will choose. But that is exactly the wrong way to do venture investing. The nature of the business means that you want to make terribly risky choices, if the upside looks good enough.
If you're studying for a history test, yes, you should worry about failure. That's a low-risk, low-reward activity. If you decide to goof off, you'd better be able to justify your decision later.

You can't treat your Stanford application like a school test. An exception might apply if you're a star athlete or math competition champion, someone who's already taken risks and proven herself on the battlefield.

My rooommate at Stanford was a risk-taker. He programmed and hosted Stanford's first social media network — two years before Mark Zuckerberg founded the precursor to Facebook. I watched him do it from his 120 square foot bedroom. (Since then, Stanford may have become even more entrepreneurial.)

Don't worry too much about success. Put my roommate's accomplishments next to Zuckerberg's and ask yourself whether the former's seeming failure makes the idea any less remarkable.

The first attempt to innovate is usually underwhelming. Look at Brownian motion, the random movement of dust and pollen grains, which a biologist first observed in 1785. (Dust particles move without being pushed, but they're not alive?!) The research was set aside until 1880, when someone was able describe the observations mathematically. Scientists started to apply the equations in diverse ways, ranging from evidence for the existence of atoms to a pricing theory for stocks and options. An observation about dust (!) that failed to generate results for 95 years eventually led to Nobel Prizes in both physics and economics.

Apple's 1993 attempt at a hand-held computer failed, only to set the groundwork for the launch of the PalmPilot four years later and, eventually, the iPhone.

Failure is normal. Don't punish yourself. It creates great learning experiences that you can write about in your application essays.

To succeed, you have to fail. To fail, you have to start.

Pick one or two extracurricular interests and drill down deep. Get noticed. Blog about your progress every week. Have opinions. Disagree with your teachers (the ones who are okay with it).

Let people see you catching fire!

September 6, 2019

SAT/ACT Tutoring in Exchange for Multi-Factor Strategy

Update: I've added a link to Adaptive Asset Allocation and added an additional note for those selling insurance products.

Open Offer

I'll provide $10,000 of free SAT/ACT tutoring to the first East Bay financial adviser who offers as an investible option a strategy that has historically done better than the multi-factor one described in AQR's recent paper Buffett's Alpha (supporting documentation required).

Buffett's Alpha
This chart is from Buffett's Alpha, one of the papers covered in my Quant Finance course.

To be clear, such strategies exist, but they're not normally offered to retail investors like us. I'd like to know whom I can direct people to who will do a good job.

Since most managers don't have a history going back to 1976, funds with a transparent investing methodology that can be backtested back to 1976 or earlier would suffice. Funds with semi-transparent strategies, such as AQR's funds, may qualify if their Portfolio Visualizer factor loadings are large and consistent with the funds' stated goals. A reasonable case can be made for a fund if its factor loadings are greater than Berkshire Hathaway's.

There are publicly traded ETFs and mutual funds that qualify. The adviser would need to provide evidence, such as a Web link, that those funds are offered to clients on a regular basis.

If you sell insurance products that are intended to provide downside protection (floors), you're welcome to use the Sortino ratio, which should make your products look more favorable. (Managers should be using the Sortino ratio anyway as their default metric.)

Strategy Example

Here's another strategy that's historically worked and is relatively simple: Adaptive Asset Allocation. After trading costs and fees, it has a Sharpe ratio of 0.82, higher than Warren Buffett's 0.79. The historical annualized return has been 7.7% percent with 9.4% volatility (a smoother ride than the stock market itself), is positive in 84% of all years, and handled the 2000 and 2008 recessions very well.

Meb Faber tests a similar strategy back to 1973 in his mini-paper A Quantitative Approach to Tactical Asset Allocation. AQR has also done an extensive out-of-sample test of a related concept, trend following, in the paper Trends Everywhere and finds that it works in "normal" assets classes (U.S. and international stocks) as well as alternatives like VIX futures and long/short factors.

Needless to say, if you implement something like this for your clients, you qualify.

This chart is from Adaptive Asset Allocation, one of the papers covered in my Quant Finance course.
The offer is transferable to the relative of your choice. I have perfect scores, so it's not a run-of-the-mill offer. Please contact me if you're interested. Thanks!

(This page has been active since June 11, 2019. I've sent it to every financial adviser who has contacted me as well as those who have advertised their services on NextDoor. So far, no one has attempted to claim the prize. It's still available!)

August 26, 2019

Summer Science Programs (Bay Area)

Update: I've added a link to my Quantitative Finance course.

Check out these summer science programs for high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Quantitative Finance course
This curriculum starts at a fairly basic level (introduction to diversification, trend following, and relative momentum) and culminates with advanced reading in academic papers. 
  • A deep-seated interest in how financial markets work
  • An A grade in either precalculus or high school statistics (AP Calculus AB or AP Statistics preferred)
  • Ability to commit a minimum of six hours per week to finance homework

John Muir Summer Internship Program
The John Muir Health (JMH) Summer Internship is an eight week, full time, paid internship for high school students entering their junior or senior year, with an interest in pursuing a health care career. Students are hired as temporary JMH employees, are placed in a single department for the eight weeks and perform clerical work (no patient care) in that department. At the end of the internship, interns receive a performance appraisal, just like all JMH employees. Students completing the summer internship with a passing grade will receive high school elective credits.

Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program
The Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer Research Program (SIMR) is an eight-week program in which high school students from diverse backgrounds are invited to perform basic research with Stanford faculty, postdoctoral fellows, students and researchers on a medically-oriented project. The goals of the program include increasing interest in biological sciences and medicine in high school students, helping students to understand how scientific research is performed, and increasing diversity of students and researchers in the sciences.

Stanford Medical Youth Science Program
Stanford Medical Youth Science Program is a five-week residential enrichment program focused on science and medicine that is open to low-income and underrepresented minority high school sophomores and juniors who live in Northern and Central California.

Santa Clara University's Summer Engineering Seminar 
The School of Engineering at Santa Clara University is pleased to announce its 28th annual Summer Engineering Seminar (SES) program. This special summer experience is for current high school sophomores and juniors who are interested in exploring the field of engineering. The program is designed to acquaint participants with the engineering profession, the academic expectations of college, and the nature of life at a university. 
NASA Education Associates Program 
The NASA Education Associates Program (EAP) offers students, post-docs and faculty paid internships that allow students the opportunity to work with scientists and engineers on NASA projects. The NASA EAP is a unique workforce development program that provides hands-on experience for participants in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and other academic disciplines. The NASA EAP is a year-round program and has a variety of time frames available. 
NASA Internships
NASA Internships are educational hands-on opportunities that provide unique NASA-related research and operational experiences for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students as well as educators. These internships integrate participants with career professionals emphasizing mentor-directed, degree-related, real-time world task completion. During the internship participants engage in scientific or engineering research, development, and operations activities. In addition, there are non-technical internship opportunities to engage in professional activities which support NASA business and administrative processes. Through these internships, participants leverage NASA's unique mission activities and mentorship to enhance and increase their professional capabilities and clarify their long-term career goals.

Metropolitan Transportation Commission High School Internship Program
Bay Area
MTC provides approximately 30 High School summer internships.  These positions are located throughout the nine counties of the SF Bay Area:  Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma. Each internship is for a maximum of 250 hours and is between the months of June thru August. 

Sonoma State University: Summer High School STEM Internship Program
Rohnert Park, CA
Since 2008, this program has matched top Sonoma County high school juniors with faculty mentors at SSU to collaborate on research projects in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In addition to $1,000 stipends, students are given opportunities to work on challenging research projects in state-of-the-art facilities and interact with faculty and SSU students in the university environment. These students then act as ambassadors to relay the highlights of their work to their classmates, friends, counselors, teachers, and principals during their senior years.

Summer Youth Intensive Program (SYIP)
Berkeley, CA
SYIP is intended for the most accomplished high school students who are passionate about learning and doing scientific research in chemistry, biochemical chemistry, material science, or related fields and who are focused on maximizing their future success in college.
Selected students are paired with an assigned mentor in a faculty research group. The mentor provides 9 months of remote coaching. Students learn about the mentor’s current research, strategies, and aims in preparation for a 4-week on-site internship in the assigned mentor’s research laboratory.

Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology
Berkeley, CA
The Introductory College Level Experience in Microbiology (iCLEM) is an eight-week paid summer science intensive for economically disadvantaged high school sophomores and juniors. The program seeks to broaden students’ understanding of biotechnology, microbiology, and biofuels. In addition to completing a research project, the program also exposes students to career exploration and preparation for the college application process.

Berkeley Lab: K-12 Programs (article)

Summer Research Program at Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute
The CHORI Summer Research Program is designed to provide an unsurpassed opportunity for students to immerse themselves in the world of basic and/or clinical research for three months during the summer. The program pairs students with one or two CHORI principal investigators who serve as mentors, guiding the students through the design and testing of their own hypotheses and methodology development. At the end of the summer, students present their research to their peers just as any professional researcher would do.

UC Davis Young Scholars Program
The UC Davis Young Scholars Program is a summer residential research program designed to expose approximately 40 high achieving high school students to the world of original research in the natural sciences with emphases on the biological, environmental and agricultural sciences. To be eligible for the summer of 2017, students must be currently enrolled as sophomores or juniors in high school. UC Davis Young Scholars Program participation is not limited to California students. Participants in the 2017 UC Davis Young Scholars Program will work one-on-one with research faculty and research groups in state of the art laboratories for six weeks. Each student will work on an individual project and prepare a journal quality paper and symposium presentation about their work. In addition to scientific research, the UC Davis Young Scholars Program strives to introduce participants to the climate and culture of living and working on a university campus. Staff make every effort to model the experiences that participants will have during their first years of college.

August 23, 2019

Q&A: How much do college admissions consultants charge?

Update: I've added a link to the $10,000 open offer.

Admissions consultants typically charge $100 to $500 an hour. That sounds high but has to be placed in context with other professionals' fees.

For example, a Merrill Lynch financial adviser typically charges about 2% per year of your $300,000 brokerage account, which amounts to $3000/hour if you meet with him two hours per year. You're likely to just be placed in funds that track with index funds anyway, so there's probably not much value added from security selection. (By the way, if you put your clients into strategies that will add value, please contact me. I have a $10,000 open offer than you can claim.)

Plumbers, electricians, and even lawyers are cheap by comparison.

If an admissions consultant can help you secure scholarships or schools with programs you didn't otherwise know about, I think it's worth the money.

Take the time to interview a couple of counselors and then decide whether you'd prefer to hire someone rather than do the job yourself. Start here:

Audrey Slaughter (A Road Map for College)

Kristen Fang (Admissions coaching and preparation for investment banking careers)

August 17, 2019

SAT Literature Subject Test: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've added material to the Background Knowledge section of this post.

The SAT Literature Subject Test, like SAT Critical Reading, is very difficult to write practice questions for. Each question has to be properly tricky while still having one objectively correct answer and four others that are unambiguously wrong. The College Board's tests do this far better than third-party practice tests do.

You'll need a hybrid study plan: College Board tests combined with content review from a third-party company. Here's a list of the best prep books.

The Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests

This book has the only officially released SAT Literature practice test available.

If you're going to take several Subject Tests, you need this book anyway.

The answer explanations only cover the answer choice that's correct for each question and ignores the incorrect choices. If you want to prep effectively, you have to be able to explain to yourself why each of those choices is objectively wrong.

College Board Online Practice for SAT Literature

You need all the official practice you can get for this test.

These are official questions, and they're free!

There aren't enough online questions to form a full practice test, and they're easier than the questions you'll see on the real exam.

Ivy Global Online SAT Literature Practice Test and Answer Explanations
Ivy Global, which has published fairly accurate SAT practice tests, has a downloadable SAT Literature practice test.

The test itself is realistic, but it has answer key errors. (The online explanations contradict the key at the back of the test.)
#26 is D, not A
#27 is A, not D
#43 is B, not D

Here are my own answer explanations for two questions for which I thought Ivy Global's explanations were not very clear:

For #4, the poem describes a train rushing through the city's great gaunt gut, which literally means a large, thin intestine.
(A) doesn't match the idea of an intestine,
(B) points to criminals that aren't in the poem, and
(C) is problematic because there's no support for the word efficient or for whatever the subway is supposed to be digesting.
The word viscera in (E) works, but the words bloated and distended don't, as they suggest a swollen stomach and not a gaunt one.
(D) is the answer, as "sprawling" matches the idea of a long intestine, while "cheerless" matches the words weary, sick, heavy, swallowed, and moans.

#8 is tough because of the vocabulary words in the answer choices:
(A) doesn't work because the word bucolic refers to the pleasant aspect of countryside life, and most of the imagery in the second half of the poem is ocean-related.
(B) is wrong because there's so suggestion that the wind will end up escaping the subway in the future. Just because it "wants" to doesn't mean that anything will happen.
(C) contrasts concrete (actual) realities with surreal (bizarre, unrealistic, dreamlike) fantasies. Unfortunately, the metaphor of a subway as a human intestine (a strange description of reality) is more bizarre than the picture of wind gently blowing palm trees and ships (a fantasy grounded in reality).
(D) is wrong because the poem is talking about the wind desiring to be somewhere else, not about some imagined war between humanity and nature.
(E) is correct: everything the wind touches in the first half of the poem is either human or human-made, while everything in the second half of the poem describes the setting the wind would like to be in.

Kaplan SAT Subject Test Literature

This is the only prep book I've seen with well-written content review practice questions. The 2017 edition is identical to the 2015-16 edition I'm reviewing.

Considering how inaccurate and confusing unofficial questions tend to be, the ones in chapters 1-7 are actually pretty good. The only poorly written question is problem 2 in chapter 4.

This book will overprep you slightly: you probably don't need to know the term anastrophe, for example, although it's helpful to be familiar with the idea that poetry can change a sentence's word order to make it fit a poem's rhyme scheme and meter. You don't need to know a sonnet's exact rhyme scheme, although it can be helpful to be able to identify a sonnet and to recognize that its main point is always contained in the last two lines.

The practice questions in chapters 1-7 are well-written, but the answer explanations are unhelpfully short.

Avoid the diagnostic test and the practice tests. which have poorly written questions that will make you legitimately confused about which answer choices are correct.

Ivy Global's SAT Subject Test in Literature: Study Guide & 6 Practice Tests

Ivy Global's content review chapters aren't as good as Kaplan's, but the Ivy Global practice tests are better.

I worked through all of the content review as well as the first three practice tests and didn't run into any issues except for two questions on test #2 - pretty impressive for a subject that's hard to write practice questions for.

The tests' answer explanations are thorough and accurate.

This is a big one: the practice questions in the content review don't have answer explanations. Good luck trying to review your work on your own!

If you need explanations, go through the content review in the Kaplan book before taking Ivy Global's practice tests.

On the second practice test, watch out for #16 (nostalgia requires positive feelings about the past that aren't present in the passage) and #33 (it seems to me that both self-interest and pride are valid answers, as self-interest isn't strictly incompatible with consideration for others' feelings; you just have to consider your own feelings before those of others).

The Official SAT Study Guide, 2018 Edition

The Critical Reader: The Complete Guide to SAT Reading (Erica Meltzer)

Yes, I'm recommending regular SAT books. The new SAT's Critical Reading section is tricky enough to help you train for the SAT Literature and AP English tests. Here are the differences:

New SAT Critical Reading SAT Literature AP English Literature multiple choice
Passage Difficulty Medium Hard Hard
Question Difficulty Hard Hard Very Hard
Time per Question 75 seconds 57 seconds 65 seconds
Curve Brutal Hard Forgiving

Neither SAT Literature nor the AP test has the SAT's tricky Supporting Evidence questions ("Which choice provides the best evidence for...").

The more forgiving the curve, the easier it is to overprep and get a perfect score. On practice tests, I usually get 52/52 correct on Critical Reading (a 400/400), 59/61 correct on SAT Literature (an 800), and 51/55 correct on AP English Literature (a 5).

You can download SAT practice tests for free online or read my reviews of SAT prep books.

AP English Literature Released Exams

If you want to challenge yourself, take the multiple choice sections of official College Board AP English Literature tests. The passages are similar to those in SAT Literature, but the questions are much harder, and they don't have any answer explanations.

You'll find a few complete released exams along with a wide selection of free-response questions at the AP English Literature Web site. Here are direct links to the complete exams:

2012 AP English Literature exam

1999 AP English Literature exam (As of 3/23/19, this link is broken. I'll keep the link on this page for now in case the College Board decides the make the test available again.)

1987 AP English Literature exam

You can also find sample multiple-choice questions starting at page 12 (PDF page 16) of the AP English Literature Course Description booklet.

If you're really serious, you can purchase more released exams from the College Board's catalog or from Amazon.

Background Knowledge

Understanding how Western thought has developed from medieval times to the 20th century is critical to finishing the SAT Literature test on time with a score of 700+. Here's a reading list designed to help you get that knowledge as quickly as possible.

I've already mentioned Kaplan SAT Subject Test Literature as a useful way to review the test's content and question types.

Sophie’s World is an engaging, readable introduction to the history of western philosophy. If you can identify how a difficult passage interacts with a major viewpoint like Christianity, Romanticism, or post-modernism, you'll be able to read much faster.

Read as many of Shakespeare's sonnets as you can. (My favorite is #130.) Get familiar with the way sonnets use meter, rhyme, and couplets as organizational tools. If you struggle with sonnets, read the couplet at the end (the last two lines) in order to figure out each sonnet's main point and return to the beginning with that information in mind. Sonnets tend to be about love or death - and sometimes both.

If you prefer to listen to a podcast, subscribe to The History of Philosophy and Christian Thought (taught by the late Dr. Ronald Nash, a professor at a Christian seminary). Listen to episodes 16- 19 (on Augustine) for an overview of medieval thought and episodes 24-27 to learn about Renaissance and Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism.

Books to Avoid

Unlike the Princeton Review's normal offerings, Cracking the SAT Literature Subject Test has confusing, poorly written questions throughout the entire book.

Barron's SAT Subject Test Literature will overprep you with a plethora of literary terms you don't need to know. The Level 1 vocab list at the beginning of chapter 5 is pretty good, but the Level 2 and Level 3 lists are a mixed bag. Why are sarcasm, imagery, and conflict in the Level 3 list, with ballad, sprung rhythm, and antiheroine in Level 2?

Going for a Perfect Score

To get a perfect score on the publicly released SAT Literature practice test, you need to get 59/61 questions right. That's like getting a 97% on a comprehensive 12th-grade English final.

This article contains everything you need to get an awesome score, but if you'd like personalized help, you can sign up for in-home or online tutoring.

August 13, 2019

SAT Chemistry Subject Test: The Best Prep Books

Update: I've added an Errata section to my review of For the Love of SAT Chemistry.

As a credentialed teacher with an M.S. in chemistry, I've noticed that some SAT Chemistry study guides are great, some are so-so, and some must be taken deep into Mordor and cast back into the fiery chasm from whence they came.

Let's start with the great ones:

The Official SAT Subject Test in Chemistry Study Guide

If you can only afford one book, get this one. It has two official practice tests and answer explanations.

Neither of these tests is a copy of the one in The Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests, so you should get both books if you can.

Official material is a true confidence builder. Every question you get wrong contains skills you need to practice.

Most prep books have poorly written questions, answer key errors, and questions that are unrealistically easy, difficult, or off-topic. If you get questions wrong or run out of time on unofficial tests, you'll have trouble figuring out whether the fault lies with you or with the book you're using.

Based on the raw-to-scaled score conversion tables in the book, raw scores of 80/85 and 76/85 will get you perfect 800's on the first and second practice tests,

There's no Kindle edition, so you'll have to plan ahead and order a physical copy from Amazon.

The Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests

This book has an official chemistry practice test that isn't the same as the two in the dedicated chemistry guide (above).

If you're going to take several Subject Tests, you need this book anyway.

The test questions in this book are easier than the ones in the dedicated chemistry guide, and the curve reflects that difference: to get a perfect 800, you need a relatively high raw score of 82/85.

Strategy for True/False/CE Questions
  1. If either the first part or second part of the question is false, don't bubble in CE. For example, neither "All elephants have four legs BECAUSE elephants use their legs to eat peanuts" nor "All elephants have five legs BECAUSE elephants use their legs to walk" deserves the CE mark.
  2. Mark "CE" if the second part of the sentence is a good reason to believe that the first part is true. For example, "The back side of the moon never faces the Earth BECAUSE scientists have never observed the back side from the Earth's surface" should be marked CE. Strictly speaking, this is not the correct way to use the word because, but it will get you the right answer on SAT Chemistry tests.

Cracking the SAT Chemistry Subject Test

This is a good all-around study guide. It contains content review, useful strategies, and decent practice tests.

The first two practice tests are very similar to real College Board tests, and there are no answer key errors. The third one, however, contains a few poorly written questions (#104, 37, 38, 56, and 62). You may want to use that one for untimed practice.

The book's helpful content review chapters can keep you from feeling lost. The Chemistry Subject Test covers a broader range of topics than you're likely to learn in your high school class, so content review is a must.

You'll need a calculator to do some of the practice questions in the content review chapters. You're not allowed a calculator on the actual Subject Test, though, and the full practice tests included in the book are very doable using mental math.

The Princeton Review is all about giving you what you need and not one iota more. Since this book is meant for the Subject Test, you'll need to get an additional study guide if you're planning on taking the AP test, which goes into greater depth and has some additional topics you need to know, such as laboratory chemistry and reaction kinetics.

For the Love of SAT Chemistry (Chris Reddick and Michael Cerro)

This book is geared at about the same level as The Princeton Review's, but it focuses less on textbook-type content review and more on practice problems and answer explanations.

It's an excellent place to start if you like inductive learning. If you prefer to review content in an organized way before starting practice questions, go with The Princeton Review's book.

The material, including the four practice tests at the back of the book, closely mimics the content and feel of real College Board questions. The answer key is mostly accurate.

After grading each practice test, you'll be left with a raw score (out of 85 total points) without any way to convert that into a scaled score (out of 800). The scoring instructions and conversion table are waaaaaay back on pages 9-10. Follow the directions carefully: you need to remember to deduct 1/4 of a point for each answer that's incorrect!

Errata from Practice Test 2
#107 is written in an unclear way; don't penalize yourself if your answer doesn't match the book's.
#64 doesn't provide enough information for you to solve the problem, so don't worry if you get this one wrong.

Errata from Practice Test 4
#112's answer should be "T, F, no CE."
#39's answer is correct (C), but since a solution of copper(II) nitrate is blue, not colorless, choice (B) is unnecessarily confusing.
#40's answer is not (C): an ion can't take on a visible color by reflecting ultraviolet wavelengths, which are invisible to the human eye. (D) is a better choice because absorbing more light at some wavelengths than others also suggests that some wavelengths are reflected more than others.

SAT Chemistry Subject Test Problems (Christopher Bozza and Dr. Steve Warner)

This bank of practice questions has the best answer explanations I've seen in any chemistry book. The questions target exactly what's on the Subject Test, and the answer explanations are about two pages long per question.

This book has the same format as Dr. Warner's SAT and ACT Math books. You can jump right in and start working without having to wade through preliminary reading.

The practice material is very similar to real SAT Chemistry Subject Tests.

The problems in this book are arranged by topic and difficulty level, so students who don't need any content review can jump straight to the chapters that contain what they want to work on.

Most of the content review is in the answer explanations, so you can't treat this book like a textbook. You really have to engage with the material to receive the maximum benefit.

#56 on page 81 is worded in an unclear way (and therefore not answerable).

The answer to #110 on page 153 is (B), not (A). The book's answer key is mistaken!

#151 on page 205 is unrealistically difficult. Although you'll need to know how to do unit conversions for SAT Chemistry, you won't have to convert between amperes, coulombs, and moles.

#39 on page 225 has two correct answers: (C) and (E).

#68 on page 233 expects students to (1) figure out that lanthanum has a larger radius than potassium, and (2) go against their intuition that potassium should actually be more reactive, since it's an akali metal that reacts violently with water. Those expectations go against students' experience with metals' reactivities and would not show up on a real test. #71 (below) has a similar problem.

The answer to #71 on page 234 is (B), not (E). Potassium is more metallic than barium based on its Mohs hardness and its reactivity with water.

#83 on page 238 is unrealistically difficult: vapor pressure is related to boiling point, since a liquid boils when its vapor pressure becomes equal to atmospheric pressure. Students shouldn't be expected to know which of the liquids in the list has the highest boiling point (and therefore the lowest vapor pressure). The book's answer is wrong anyway: bromine, octane, and nitrogen trichloride all have boiling points that are higher than 100°C and therefore have lower vapor pressures than water does.

#88 on page 240 is also unrealistically hard. The correct answer should be (C), not (D), since Mg(OH)2 is not a strong base due to its poor solubility in water (0.00064 g/100 mL at room temperature).

#94 on page 241 has two correct answers: (A) and (C).

#125 on page 250 is problematic because the nitrogen atoms in the NH2 groups have lone pairs that can be delocalized into the benzene-like rings through resonance. Those nitrogen atoms are likely to be either sp2-hybridized or somwhere between sp2 and sp3. For this reason, (B) is a better answer than (D).

The second sentence of #130 on page 251 should read "saturated hydrocarbon," not "unsaturated hydrocarbon."

The answer to #136 on page 253 is (B), not (D).

#145 on page 255 has two correct answers, (A) and (B). RbCl and RbF are both soluble in water, while PbO and PbS are insoluble. The soluble salts will produce equal numbers of ions, causing the light bulb to glow with equal intensity, while the insoluble salts will produce negligible concentrations of ions, making the light bulb very dim.

#149 on page 256 is slightly questionable: HI is larger molecule but should also be less polar than HCl, so strictly speaking, students would have to look up the boiling points of both compounds to know the answer. HCl does have a lower boiling point, so it has a higher vapor pressure. (Recall that something boils when its vapor pressure becomes equal to atmospheric pressure, so high-vapor-pressure compounds boil first.)

#159 on page 260 should say, "Absorption of a photon CAN [but doesn't have to] cause electrons to become excited to a higher energy level." Photon absorption can also result in a change in electron spin (radio waves), molecular vibrational states (infrared), or molecular rotational states (microwaves), so the problem needs to be clear that photon absorption can lead to consequences other than just electrons becoming excited (visible and ultraviolet radiation).

Sterling Test Prep SAT Chemistry Practice Questions: High Yield SAT Chemistry Questions with Detailed Explanations 

This is a huge bank of practice questions. It's useful if you're already scoring 800 and want to challenge yourself some more.

Sterling highlights the trickiest topics on SAT Chemistry, including amphoteric compounds, flame test colors, solubility rules, and unusual Lewis structures. If you like hard questions, this is the book to get.

Despite the claim on the book's cover, most of the questions don't have answer explanations.

Since the questions are organized by topic, you have to work on one chapter at a time. There aren't any timed practice tests.

The book covers some topics that are so hard I doubt they'd ever show up on the Subject Test. For example, it expects you to know the exact role of each of the four quantum numbers. You also have to calculate a dipole moment given the size and distance of two separated charges. (!)

Don't use Sterling until your foundation is very solid. Be willing to Google the explanations for topics you don't understand.

Books to Avoid

I'm not sure how Kaplan's SAT Chemistry (2013-14 edition) got its four-star Amazon reviews. The practice questions in the content review chapters are very calculator-based, and the content review includes some difficult AP-only topics, such as zero, first, and second order reaction kinetics and complicated redox reaction balancing involving H+, OH-, and H2O.

The diagnostic test isn't any better. Out of 85 total questions, two are AP-level rate law questions (#107 and #37), one is an AP-level diffusion rate question (#44), and seven are written in a way that could legitimately make you think there's something wrong with the answer choices (#9, 30, 31, 58-60, and 64). In addition, some of the diagnostic questions are hard to do without a calculator. #69, for example, makes you do a proportion involving the ratio 2/7. (2/7 is about 0.29, in case you're wondering.) Official tests stick to easy fractions like 5/2 or 88/44.

Barron's SAT Chemistry (2009 edition) is even worse: out of 85 questions, the diagnostic test has ten unrealistically tricky questions (#4, 9, 113, 34, 38, 45, 49, 57, 67, and 70) and eight unclearly worded questions (#14, 17, 106, 107, 43, 46, 52, and 56). The 2016 edition fixes questions 4, 17, 113, 45, 52, 56, and 67, but questions 9, 14, 106, 107, 34, 38, 43, 46, 49, 57, and 70 remain problematic.

If you're planning to take the AP test, know that McGraw-Hilll's 5 Steps to a 5 on AP Chemistry (2017 edition) is also really bad. There were so many incorrectly drawn diagrams and poorly written questions on Practice Test #1 alone that I had to quit before I got to the free-response section. I know this book has a four-star Amazon review average, but pay close attention to the negative reviews!

Suggested Study Schedule

Unlike Math Level 2, SAT Chemistry doesn't have many quality prep books. I suggest following the study schedule below.
  1. Take the first Princeton Review practice test and read the answer explanations.
  2. Go through all of the content review in the Princeton Review's Cracking the SAT: Chemistry. Alternatively, you can go through the first thirteen chapters of For the Love of SAT Chemistry.
  3. Read the articles on my Web site about flame test colorssolubility rules, saturation/unsaturation, and avoiding small calculation mistakes.
  4. Take the second Princeton Review practice test and read the answer explanations.
  5. Go through Dr. Warner's SAT Chemistry practice book. Read the answer explanations carefully.
  6. Borrow an AP Chemistry textbook and review your weakest topics. Keep reviewing and re-taking the original two practice tests until your score is 800.
  7. Take the official practice test in the Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests. Go over the test with a fine-toothed comb. Make sure you understand every question so well that you could stand up and teach it in a classroom.
  8. Do the same for the two official practice tests in The Official SAT Subject Test in Chemistry Study Guide. At this point, you should be scoring solid 800's.
  9. If you need more practice tests, use the four at the back of For the Love of SAT Chemistry.
  10. The week before the real test, re-take one practice test a day. Your goal at this point is to increase confidence, not to learn new material. You should receive an 800 on each of the five re-takes. If you don't, you have a good idea of what to review.

Going for a Perfect Score

A raw score of 80/85 will usually get you a perfect scaled 800 on SAT Chemistry. Even after the test deducts a quarter of a point for every question you get wrong, you can afford to miss four of the eighty-five problems. That's like getting a 95% on a comprehensive high school chemistry final.

The books above contain everything you need to get an awesome score, but if you'd like personalized help, you can sign up for in-home or online tutoring.