The Standardized Test Essay: An Exercise in Efficiency

When it comes to standardized tests, there is a core set of strategies that can be applied to any Verbal or Math section, regardless of the actual test. Whether they are called “Critical Reading” (SAT) or “Reading Comprehension” (SSAT), “Quantitative Reasoning” (ISEE) or “Math” (all), the multiple-choice sections of any standardized test can generally be approached with the same box of tools. Process of Elimination, for example, is a fundamental strategy that every 4th grader through graduate-school applicant needs to know: If you can’t find the correct answer, then look at the choices. Usually two of them will be wildly off base. Eliminate those and then, if you have to guess, your odds of getting it right just improved from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3. That is a much better position from which to work.

The Essay section, however, does not avail itself to such a strategy, because it is abstract – there is nothing to eliminate, back-solve or break down. There is only a prompt – a quote or a description of a situation – and an assignment: evaluate and write. That’s it. That, and a ticking clock. As I asked my GMAT student recently, “when was the last time you wrote an analytical essay, in 30 minutes, on spec?” Imagine being a Junior in high school, or an 8th grader applying to private school, under those conditions. For many, the essay can be the most confounding part of any standardized test.

So what will help? I have my own tools that I share with my clients, some that can be found in any “How To” book (but I explain them better!), some that are my own creations. First and foremost, are these: Write What You Know, and remember, you are writing a First Draft.

I once tutored a student whose practice test essay prompt was “What comes up must come down.” The student reported that when he read the quote, he had no idea what to write about. Gravity? The ups and downs of life? The latest Yankees season? Once he made a decision, he was stumped about what examples to use in support of his “argument.” By the time he actually put pencil to paper, 7 minutes were gone. Perfectionist that this student was, he then wrote so much and so quickly that he skipped words and had to erase entire sentences that made no sense. He then changed his mind altogether and started over. Time ran out. His essay was incomplete – for which a lot of points were deducted – and it was not proof-read, so it had some grammatical and spelling errors that the student would have caught if he’d looked over the work in its entirety. (Personally, if I got that prompt on a test that determined my scholastic future, I would write “This test will now go up and out the window and then come down onto the streets of New York…”)

This student was caught in two common traps: he had no idea what to write and he thought he had to write the best essay ever. The former is easily addressed and prepared for; the latter is an idea that must be overcome.

Write What You Know. This is the mantra of professional writers everywhere, and it is just as true here. Because it is always harder to write about something if you have no idea, or feeling for it. If you think “What comes up must come down” applies to the vicissitudes of life, then don’t write about gravity – even if you think it will make you seem smarter. It won’t. If you can’t remember who discovered it (“some guy with an apple?”) or the Physics formula for it, then you’ll just be at a loss for words. Whereas if you write about something you know, or better yet, are passionate about, then the words will flow.

I advise all my students to make what I call a Passion List: a list of books, movies, subjects they are studying (and enjoying!) in school, current events, significant personal experiences, etc. that they have a strong connection to and know well enough to write about. Essay prompts are so general that at least one of those favorites will fit into the theme. Gravity, Harry Potter, Hamlet, the history of empires, all fall under the umbrella of “What comes up must come down.” The choice of which to write about depends on the student.

Of course no one can bring their list into the testing area, but they can review it right before they go in, so the ideas will be fresh. On the SAT, the essay is the first section on the test, so that last minute review will be put to immediate use. Other tests place the essays at the end – but there are breaks in a testing period. Students can review their lists then. The point is, “I didn’t know what to write” is easily remedied by simply reviewing what “I like to write about…”

You are only writing a First Draft. In school, students are taught to be thorough when preparing an essay or research paper. Teachers (rightly) encourage them to take the time to write a first, maybe a second, draft before handing in the final version. On a standardized test that is simply not possible. The best you can do is write a great first draft.

After evaluating the prompt and deciding on two “passions” that could lend themselves nicely to the subject, you should write without editing along the way. Obviously if you catch a major error, or think of a great way to re-phrase your Thesis statement, then by all means do it. The time for small corrections, however, is after the essay is complete. The last 5 minutes of any essay should absolutely be reserved for proof reading. That’s when you can look for spelling and/or grammar mistakes, as well as how the essay flows and any small changes that might improve it. Nonetheless, in 25 to 30 minutes, the best you can do is a first draft. Pushing – or editing – yourself to do more is counterproductive – and it will show.

Any standardized test essay is about making an abstract idea into a concrete argument in a limited period of time. To do so, you need to have strong examples at your fingertips and a solid idea of what you can and cannot do. Then the only way to go is up!

Posted in Standardized Tests
Comments Off on The Standardized Test Essay: An Exercise in Efficiency

Evil Twins

It has been 2½ months since my last new blog post – and that is too long. As I say in my tutoring practice, however, find the positive first, so…it was a very busy season for me, with clients in both middle and high school, working on academics as well as applications to new schools or college, and all the standardized tests those entail. It was wonderful and gratifying and I send a huge CONGRATULATIONS to them all: to my lower and middle schoolers who now know where they are going next year – a special shout out to Adin who will be attending my alma mater, Friends Seminary – and to the high school seniors who are finally finished with their college applications, some of whom applied early and were all accepted! Yay team! You worked so hard and you deserve the benefits of that effort.

As for me, it was a whirlwind of tutoring, which I loved, but I could have found time to write. I started my next blog post after the holidays, but I didn’t like it, so I erased the whole thing. I re-wrote it, still didn’t like it, so I stopped writing altogether. I turned my attention to other things, all the while knowing I needed to post something, keep in touch with my readers, and update my website; but as time passed it got harder and harder to begin. Now there was  so much more work to do, I was starting over from scratch, any momentum I had was gone and no one really cared what I had to contribute anyway.

Does that sound at all familiar?

I sometimes suffer from procrastination, and its partner in crime, perfectionism. The combination can be debilitating to students, and heartbreaking to parents. In my case I had to train myself to ignore the “big picture,” and instead focus on the “pixels,” if you will. I only look at the next few steps, or in some cases, just one baby step, in order to work my way out of a “P&P” funk. It’s what I help clients who are caught under the same double-edged sword do as well.

If you have an overwhelming amount of homework to do (whether or not you’ve been putting it off), then the mountain of books and papers facing you can look like Mt.Olympus. Instead of taking in the whole, take out one assignment. Is it due tomorrow? OK, that goes in one pile. Not until the following day? That’s a different pile. Next week, but requires preparation? Again, another pile. Notice as you sort and separate you have created much more manageable groups of work to do, each with their own priority and timeline. Let’s say you have a geometry test or a pop quiz coming up (that you shouldn’t know about but do), and you are terrified because you haven’t studied? Then by all means start studying! – but don’t think of the entire cram session; focus on one subject at a time – special right triangles, or circles, etc. Find a study partner – someone who will study with you, not distract you – and you will be all the more productive.

For the SATs, ACTs, or any other standardized test, you will need to learn vocabulary, re-learn some math and practice, practice, practice. As I say to every single one of my students, vocab is the easiest thing to learn and the last thing anyone does. Why? Because there are so many darn words! It’s overwhelming. So break them up. One word a day. Five. During a commercial break of you favorite TV show. Make it a competition between you and your friends. Whoever learns the most words every week gets an iTunes gift card.

Please note: the last two paragraphs are about what you can do. The words “can’t,” “should,” and “should have” have no place here. Ever.

About perfectionism: having to do it exactly right, or not at all. It is a hideous trap, and it is also a lie. Nothing we do will ever be perfect, and unfortunately for some of us, we end up feeling like nothing will even be good enough. Eventually we give up altogether. In my own life experience, I have come to the conclusion that “perfection” is actually the domain of the divine, so there is no need for me to set such an impossible standard for myself. I still strive for it, but I will never reach it – and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean I stop working.

Also, to say “it’s not perfect so I won’t try” is a complete cop out. It’s an excuse because I am scared, or overwhelmed, or I just want to go to bed…to procrastinate some more. See how those two Ps work together? Evil twins, they are.

The fact is, the “P&P” trap doesn’t make the work go away, it just makes us feel worse. “Do you know how much I have to do now?” is a common refrain. “Yes, the same amount you will have to do tomorrow, but there will be more of it.” So take some baby steps, give yourself a break (but don’t take a break!), and do your best. “Perfect” is useless. That pile of work still looks like Olympus, but none of us are gods, so we can just do the work, one…human…step…at…a…time.

Posted in General, Random Thoughts
1 Comment

We All Need A Little Help Sometimes

In trying to stay abreast of all that goes on in the world of education, I read many articles and reports about the state of schools in New York City, the never-ending debate regarding standardized tests, and the intellectual and financial value of tutoring. Recently, however, two articles that have nothing to do with private tutors reminded me how everybody needs help sometimes, and that we tutors, and all students, are in good company.

Fill in the blank: “________ are not teachers but they teach. They’re not your boss…but they can be bossy…[they] speak with credibility, make a personal connection and focus little on themselves.”

While anyone reading this will (hopefully) think of good tutors – and I know my students will recognize the bossy part! – this quote is actually from an article in the New Yorker about coaches: athletic coaches, artistic coaches, and in the author’s case, medical coaches. The writer, Dr. Atul Gawande, is an established surgeon who went in search of help to improve his technique, and in so doing investigated many different forms of coaching. He writes that while professionals like doctors and lawyers are expected to go to school, practice a lot, reach a level of expertise and then they’re done, athletes and artists know that “the teaching model [is] naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are…few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”

Any professional sports team has a roster of coaches, assistants and aides to keep the players in peak condition. Admire the latest Oscar-worthy acting performance? I guarantee that the actor had a coach during the production to help him or her delve deep for the role. Prima ballerinas and Metropolitan Opera singers still take classes or work with an individual coach, who lends an eye or an ear to their ever-evolving work. Even some classroom teachers are agreeing to let coaches observe how they conduct a lesson in order to find out what they can improve in order the help their students more. As the surgeon writes: “Modern society increasingly depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for doing extraordinary things: operating inside people’s bodies, teaching eighth graders algebraic concepts that Euclid would have struggled with…In the absence of guidance, how many people can do such complex tasks at the level we require?”

If all these adults need help, what about their children? I could easily re-write the quote above as follows:  “Society increasingly demands that students take responsibility for learning more and at a faster pace in order to keep up in the modern world: science and technology, algebraic concepts that Euclid would have struggled with, languages written in a different alphabet…and they have to take tests which are based on a completely different thought process (see The Language of Math) in order prove that they have ‘passed.’ In the absence of guidance, how many students can juggle so many complex tasks at the level we require?”

The answer is: not many. Which brings me to the second article, in which a coach says that for every “I can’t” statement, a person “will need 10 positive experiences to counteract that one negative thought…The general operating principle at most programs is ‘seeing is believing.’ I’m going to have some success. Then I’m going to start to believe it…[our] overall philosophy is the opposite. Believing is seeing. Once you believe it, you’re going to see it.” This person, named Trevor Moawad, is an independent consultant and coach who works with the University of Alabama’s football team, commonly known as the Crimson Tide. He is not, however, an athletic coach. According to the article in Sports Illustrated, Moawad is in charge of the team’s mental fitness. He also works with various units of the military and his business parter is in charge of mental conditioning for the New York Yankees. These men know, as any student who has worked with me does, that preparation and performance are inextricably tied to what’s going on in your head.

The skill set for a mentally grounded athlete is the same for a successful test-taker – or an actor. Most trained actors will tell you that looking at and listening to their stage-partner are key ingredients to a successful scene; no one player can play football without their eyes and ears wide open. I know my greatest challenge on stage was staying in the present moment: not “thinking” about the performance I was giving, or the audience, or the butterflies in my stomach, etc.  No test taker can focus on the details of a passage or the traps in a standardized test if they are also thinking about what they “could/should have done and oh god oh god oh god…” It wasn’t surprising to read that the exercises used for the Crimson Tide are similar to ones that I learned in training to be an actor, some of which I use with my students today. They help the participants learn – and maintain – status, focus, trust and most of all, how to “get out of your head.”

Those who suffer from “performance anxiety” are unfocused, feel inferior and therefore undermine themselves before they even put pen to paper. The good news is that overcoming that stress can be learned. We aren’t born walking or talking. None of us reach our personal best in a vacuum. That’s what coaches are for: to teach, to guide, to show the way. That’s what a tutor is for too.

(If you want to read the full articles, here they are: New Yorker; Sports Illustrated)

Posted in General, Random Thoughts
Comments Off on We All Need A Little Help Sometimes

The Language of Math

In the past I have written a great deal about the variety of the English language (see Hate SAT Vocab? Blame Shakespeare!) but, believe it or not, there are also many “dialects” of Math.

On the surface, Math is a very simple language. 1+1= 2. Anything multiplied by 0 will become 0. Most computer codes are built on binary codes of 1s and 0s. Of course this simplicity is deceptive – ask any computer scientist or quantum physicist, or ask me about computer programming or quarks and I will give you a blank stare. I can tell you, however, that whatever the answers to mathematical problems, how they are discovered can depend on what language you are speaking.

Disclaimer: I am not a math teacher. I tutor math for academics and for standardized tests; while the math is the same (Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry) the approach to each is very different. In the classroom, students are taught the fundamentals of Math, and to practice the principles directly as they advance, looking for the correct answer. On standardized tests, however, there is no need for understanding, only deduction, and students must learn to take the indirect route, and sometimes to look for the incorrect answers first.

For instance: “2x + 3 = x. What is x?”
Straightforward, easily decoded, right out of a pop quiz in school.
Now consider this: “x + y = 5. What are x and y?”
Without any other information, there is a multitude of answers. The key is knowing how numbers behave – or speak, if you will. If x is 2, then y has to be 3. But what if x is -2? What if y is ½ ? Or 3.14? The possibilities are endless. On standardized tests, some parameters will be given (x and y have to be positive integers), but the point is the language has changed. 1 + 1 = 2 is not the same as x + y = 2. In the latter, students need to know all the possibilities so they can make an informed choice.

Because on the SAT, ACT, ISEE, SHSAT, (or any NYC school entrance exam), the question will look more like this:
“If 2x + 2y = 10, what is x +y?    A) 3    B) 5    C) -5    D) 2.5    E) 20”

Some will see the answer immediately; some will not. For the latter group, the first strategy I teach is to look for the obviously wrong answers. It is highly doubtful that x+y is bigger than 2x + 2y, so E) 20 is out; and if x+y were negative, so too would 2x +2y be, so C) -5 can go too.  Some students might think they have to solve for x and y individually, like they were taught in Algebra class, but is that really necessary? The question is “What is x+y?” There is no need to solve for each variable. Instead 2x +2y needs to be reduced to x+y. How? Let’s see…Hopefully by this point the students see that by dividing the entire equation by 2, the result is the answer: x + y = 5.

The closest the SAT comes to a school test is the grid-in section, where the student has to answer 10 questions with no multiple choices to pick from. There is, however, a major stumbling block: the English. Because on SAT math, the wording can be so confusing that it seems impossible to understand what to do with any actual numbers!

This came from a real SAT given a couple of years ago:

“A store charges $28 for a certain type of sweater. This price is 40 percent more than the amount it costs the store to buy one of these sweaters. At an end-of-season sale, store employees can purchase any remaining sweaters at 30 percent off the store’s cost. How much would it cost an employee to purchase a sweater of this type at this sale?
A) $8.40   B) $14.00   C) $19.60   D) $20.00   E) $25.20

Huh? Next strategy: translate the English into Math. Find the relevant pieces of information: numbers, relationships (functions), the final question – so you know what you’re looking for – and ignore the rest. If you don’t understand the question, how are you supposed to find the answer? The irony is that the math on the SAT, like math in general, can be deceptively simple: it usually reduces to Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Division. It’s just a matter of knowing which “dialect” you are speaking – and translating any convoluted English as well.

Pesky languages…

Posted in General, Standardized Tests
Comments Off on The Language of Math


Now that Labor Day is upon us, so too is a new school year and for incoming Juniors and Seniors, standardized test season. Ah yes, I can hear the collective groan now…

The PSAT will be on Wednesday, October 12 or Saturday, October 15; the next ACT is on September 10 (yes, that is September), then on October 22; and the next SAT is on Saturday, October 1. For students trying to decide whether to take the SAT or the ACT, the question always arise: what is the difference?

First, the ACT is scored differently than the SAT, with a high score of 36 instead of 2400.
Second, it is structured differently, with four sections: English (aka Grammar), Math, Reading (Comprehension), and Science.* There is also an Essay, but is optional.
Third, and most importantly, the ACT does NOT deduct points for wrong answers. So students should guess on every single question. On the SAT, a wrong answer incurs a -.25 point deduction, so only “educated” guessing is suggested.
* Also, the “Science” section on ACT is not about science, per se. A science experiment is presented, with evidence given. Then questions are asked about said experiment.  So it is basically Reading Comprehension / Data Interpretation and Analysis. No periodic tables in sight.

For a detailed breakdown, see my chart below.

Keep in mind, not all colleges give people a choice. If an application package requires the SAT, that’s it. However, if there is a choice, students should take diagnostic tests for both the ACT and SAT to find out if they are better suited to one or the other. Most students will do equally well on both, but it is always good to be familiar with them.

# SECTIONS / TIME 7 sections @ 25min each
– 1Essay
– 1Grammar
– 2Math
– 2Critical Reading
– 1Experimental
2 sections @ 20min each
– 1Math
– 1Critical Reading
1 sections @ 10 minutes
– 1Grammar
TOTAL TIME = 3h 45m
4 sections, all longer
– 1 English @ 45min– 1 Math @ 60min

– 1 Reading @ 35min

– 1 Science @ 35min

– 1 Essay (Optional) @ 30min

TOTAL TIME = 3h 25m

CONTENT Critical Reading=
Sentence Completions (Vocabulary)
Reading Comprehension (Passages)
Reading Comprehension ONLY -NO Sentence Completions
Grammar (NO punctuation)
English =
Grammar (YES punctuation)
Essay OPTIONAL (but advisable)
Math =
Arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry, Coordinate & Solid Geometry, Data Analysis, Odds and Ends
Math =
Arithmetic, Algebra 1 & II, Geometry, Coordinate & Solid Geometry, Data Analysis, Trigonometry, Logarithms
Science =
Actually NOT Science;
more like Data Analysis/ Interpretation/ Reading Comprehension
SCORING .25 deducted for Wrong Answer
Nothing deducted for Wrong Answer
TOTAL SCORE 3 Scales of 800 (Writing, Critical Reading and Math) for total of 2400 4 Scales of 36 (English, Math, Reading and Science) averaged up to 36
Posted in Standardized Tests, Uncategorized
Comments Off on SAT or ACT?

Hate SAT Vocab? Blame Shakespeare!

Beware the ides of…July? Okay, so he didn’t write that, but it’s my only excuse for being late with this blog. The subject matter fascinates me and I can never get over – or enough of – the 1,700 words and phrases that did not exist until William Shakepspeare wrote them down. He did this by changing the spelling or adding to previously existing words, combining them, changing their part of speech or creating them anew.

Do any of these sound familiar?
addiction, bandit, birthplace, epileptic, excitement, eyeball, fashionable, leapfrog, lonely, mimic, negotiate, skim milk, worthless, zany.
That’s just the start.

How bout these phrases?
“be all and end all,” “catch a cold,” “foregone conclusion,” “heart of gold,” “mind’s eye,” “to thine own self be true,” and – sorry Sherlock fans – “the game is afoot.”

And for those studying almost any “Most Popular Vocabulary on the SAT” list, you can blame Willie for these gems, among others:

Auspicious (adj.)
Besmirch (v.)
Castigate (v.)
Circumstantial (adj.)
Discontent (n.)
Equivocal (adj.)
Impartial (adj.)
Obsequiously (adv.)
Panders (v.)
Pedant (n.)
Pious (adj.)
Sanctimonious (adj.)

Neologism, thy name is William Shakespeare…



Posted in General, Standardized Tests
Comments Off on Hate SAT Vocab? Blame Shakespeare!

Take the Credit!

Last week the results of the June SAT came back, and most of my students had the same reaction that my May SAT students had: mild excitement. This, despite the fact that they ALL scored the same or higher than they had on any practice test for Math, Critical Reading and Writing.  This, despite the fact that in most cases, they were taking the SAT for the very first time. This, despite the fact that a few already surpassed their final goals. I was happier than they were! I understood their underwhelmed response, though, and I knew that while it had many sources, there was one underlying root.

In some cases, it was disappointment because the students wanted to ace the test and never have to deal with it again. To them I said that this is an unrealistic goal for most and, necessary evil that the SAT is, to go in just wanting it to be over is probably why some details were missed and points were lost. Nonetheless, they did just as well if not better than they had in the past and that is nothing to dismiss. They now have a strong score in their “back pocket” and can build from there.

In other cases, the students had been so encouraged by their progress that they thought they would jump by leaps and bounds on the actual test. The problem with that expectation is, no matter how many practice tests they take, there is no replicating the actual test-taking experience, and the environment and nerves accompanying it. The fact that even the first-timers did so well was wonderful.

For the few who already hit their final goals, they wanted to do even better. To them I said, OK great – let’s go!

Regardless of the particulars, the root of the matter was something deeper; something I certainly have experienced and in speaking to colleagues, friends and family, seems ubiquitous to all: these kids didn’t want to take the credit. They could not let themselves feel good about doing well.

So to all my students, I said – and say again: Stop. Look at those scores, and look at the numbers on your PSAT, or your first practice test. Do that math. Now, before you start thinking about next October, think about last year, about how far you’ve come and how much work you’ve done.  Whatever you want to do, wherever you want to go from here, fine. But just for a moment, give yourself a huge dose of  praise for a job well done. Take the win. Take the credit.

You deserve it.

Posted in General, Standardized Tests
Comments Off on Take the Credit!

Back to Basics, Part 2

In my last blog, I wrote about the academic “Back to Basics” I experience working as a substitute teacher at an elementary charter school. Just as important are the lessons the children are absorbing outside of the classroom, which also resonate in my own personal and professional life as a private tutor.

First of all, these are 6 to 9 year-olds I am writing about: they will laugh, cry, stomp their feet, and squeal in delight, all in 15 minutes, then forget about it. They are innocent, they are sweet, they are absolutely amazing. They are also cunning. They can – and do – lie (“What candy?” “She did it!” “No I didn’t!”), and they are capable of more subtle deceits, like asking the substitute teacher for something they know their regular teacher would refuse. (Who knew saying yes to “Can I use the pencil sharpener?” would result in a stampede?) When confronted and asked “Why” they said or did something, almost all these young ones respond, “I don’t know.” They may not be conscious of their motives but these children certainly know right from wrong.  The word “Choice” is heard a great deal throughout the school. When students choose to misbehave the teacher will call them on it immediately because they knew exactly what they were doing, and need to learn that there are consequences .  In the same vein, when a student makes a good choice, that too is pointed out as something to emulate.  One vocabulary word all these children know is “Responsibility.”

In my tutoring practice, I try to convey the same lesson, of responsibility and the consequences of choice. I am not a schoolteacher or a parent, so there is no threat of a bad grade or lost privileges; I can only tell a student that I can tutor him or her every day, heck I can move in, but if he or she doesn’t do the homework, there is only so much I can do. Didn’t study vocabulary? Then the SAT Critical Reading score may not go up as much as it could have. Haven’t done the homework? Okay, we’ll do it now in session, and be a week behind. Didn’t apply the strategies I taught on how to approach hard ACT math problems, or calming techniques when experiencing Test-Taking Stress? Then of course there was a moment of terror when a trigonometry appeared – the techniques were never practiced! These students know what’s at stake, and they’re making choices, just like the 1st graders in school, just like all of us.

Back to basics, back to basics, back to basics.

QUESTION: What can you do this summer, to either take better care of yourself or better prepare for school/upcoming standardized tests in the fall?

Alexandra Zabriskie has worked as a private tutor on standardized tests and academics for over a decade. An Ivy League graduate and New York City native, she knows what it takes to succeed, covering everything a student needs from A to Z.

To learn more, go to



Posted in General, Summer To-Do List
Comments Off on Back to Basics, Part 2

Back to Basics, Part 1

I substitute teach at several charter schools around the city, mostly for grade levels K-3, and yesterday I returned to one I work for frequently. As I walked up five flights of stairs still cursing my very early alarm, I heard “Miss Z!” and two 1st graders ran to me for a hug. All my grumbling disappeared.  To be remembered – fondly – by children whose brains are already absorbing so much information just makes my day. Of course these little angels have on occasion been troublemakers, and children know as well as adults how to turn on the charm, but I digress.  Actually, no, that’s part of the point: children learn early, from inside and outside the classroom, and those lessons last.

I was assigned to the 3rd grade (in charter schools, there are always two teachers for 28 students) and the lead teacher focused lessons on place values in numbers, reading comprehension and types of non-fiction. As I watched and participated, my mind kept going back to my private tutoring practice and the phrase that kept repeating in my head was “Back to Basics.”

In Math, the class reviewed which places in any given number denote the ones, tens, hundreds and thousands values, as well as how to write them out numerically or in English. Pretty simple, but very important. As they move on to more complicated concepts – like decimals (they’ve covered basic fractions), and how to  add / subtract / multiply / divide them – if these students don’t remember what number goes where,  everything else is moot.  It is interesting to observe that almost all Math, certainly on standardized tests, is rooted here: Where do the numbers go? What does that placement mean?  How does that make the numbers behave? In addition, one of the class exercises was to write the number “two hundred fifty four thousand six hundred and thirty seven.” One of my tenets for mathematical word problems is, when faced with a lot of words, “translate the English into Math.” Exact same principle, different audience. Back to Basics.

We also did a lot of reading – independently and aloud – in order to work on absorbing information from a story and then answering questions based on what was read, not what might have happened or what the students already knew about the topic. Any Reading Comprehension section, from the Lower Level ISEE to the SAT, ACT and beyond, is based on the same lesson. If the students found any words hard to pronounce or define, like “routine” and “endeavor,” those words were posted as Vocabulary for the Day.  Synonyms, Analogies, Sentence Completions, all these sections found on a variety of standardized tests are based solely on Vocabulary – which I am still trying to get some of my soon-to-be high school seniors to focus on.  Back to Basics.

I love substitute teaching  – the children teach me so much!

TIP: this summer, take 20 minutes every day to learn three or four new vocabulary words and by Labor Day you will know 225-300 new words. It’s the easiest thing to do to get a higher score on any Critical Reading section, and it will also serve your essay writing and communication skills. I am going to start posting a Word of the Day on Twitter for those of you who are interested – just click here.


Alexandra Zabriskie has worked as a private tutor on standardized tests and academics for over a decade. An Ivy League graduate and New York City native, she knows what it takes to succeed, covering everything a student needs from A to Z.

To learn more, go to




Posted in General, Standardized Tests, Summer To-Do List
Comments Off on Back to Basics, Part 1

Walking down the street today…

…I found myself following a group of young men, wearing loosened versions of their school uniforms, as they talked loudly and teased each other. Then I saw another group of young men coming from the opposite direction carrying garment bags. The two groups slowed down but did not stop as they high-fived or fist bumped each other. I noticed another couple of boys further ahead, also is pseudo-uniform, emerging from a men’s clothing store holding garment bags aloft. Their swagger contrasted with how delicately they folded the bags over their arms, so as not to wrinkle the obviously important contents. As they greeted the exiting boys, the group walking in front of me, so nonchalant seconds ago, straightened their postures as they walked towards the same men’s store. Aha! I thought. Graduation robes, or suits. These young men, like thousands of young men and women across the city, are preparing to graduate high school this week. Despite all the stress of academics, college applications, standardized tests and final exams, they’d made it. I reflected on the younger students in my tutoring practice who have just started to realize the world of standardized tests and multiple applications (whether for middle school, high school or college), all to be done on top of academics, extracurriculars and, hopefully, playtime. It can be an arduous process; one that I help with as much as I possibly can. Because there is a reason those boys walked into the men’s store with an air of pride and accomplishment: they earned those suits and those robes, as will all the students coming after them. Congratulations!

Posted in General
Comments Off on Walking down the street today…