Tag Archives: exams

Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT


PSAT/NMSQT stands for “Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It is the precursor to the SAT and, most importantly, it’s used to qualify for those coveted National Merit Scholarships you hear so much about.

Colleges pay attention to National Merit Scholars; that means they will come looking for you, instead of you having to try to get admitted! Even better; they will often actually pay for you to go to their school! As a National Merit Scholar you may be awarded additional scholarships to cover tuition, room and board, and even extra pocket money so you don’t have to work at all during college. In short, landing that National Merit Scholarship can make you tens of thousands of dollars AND make you look really good!

What is it? Continue reading Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT

Get a Head Start On Problem-Solving Courses This Semester


Taking chemistry, biochem, physics, calculus, or their ilk? These courses are light on information to be memorized and heavy on problems to be solved and concepts to be grasped.

That takes time, effort, and repetition, just like learning to play the violin or to draw realistically. Here are some steps to make these sorts of courses much more manageable.

  1. Don’t wait to get started. You can’t cram for these courses, so start studying on day one of the class.
  2. Study regularly with frequent breaks. Your brain needs time between each study session to process new concepts, so study a little in the morning, a little in the afternoon, and do it each day. Research shows that marathon study sessions tend to be less effective.
  3. Don’t substitute learning-about for learning. It’s very tempting to just read through your class notes or the textbook repeatedly. You feel like you are studying, but you really won’t get any better at solving the problems. To get better at the violin, you play the violin; you don’t read about playing the violin. Do practice problems, starting with easier ones and working to harder ones. Of course, your initial introduction to the concepts will usually come from a teacher and/or a text
  4. Get help. When you get stuck, go get help! Possible sources include; friends, teaching assistants, professors, the text book (useful now to help you get over a hurdle), other texts, the internet, and professional tutors.
  5. Don’t wait around to get help either, since the concepts often build on one another. You can’t just skip a difficult concept and hope it doesn’t matter. Before you know it, you’ll have missed three more concepts because they depend on your grasping that first concept.
  6. Set study goals for every class, rather than for every test. Again, since mastery is cumulative, you must learn each concept as it is presented. After each class your goal is to completely master the new concepts before your next class NOT before your next test. The good news is that, if you just keep up, you will have little to do before the tests. Artists don’t need to go back and practice stick figures after they’ve mastered life drawing. You won’t need to go back and practice the basics you learned at the beginning of the semester.
© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

Flash Cards


Flash cards are a powerful tool to help you memorize things such as vocabulary, mathematical formulas, history facts, and spelling. Here are some strategies to help you get the most from your flash cards.

Use flashcards in several different colors. Use each color as a cue to help recall something about the fact on that flash card. For example, if you are using the flash cards to memorize vocabulary words, use a different color for words that have different connotations. Positive words–such as benign, sagacious, and staunch–could go on green or blue 3×5 cards. Negative words–such as mendacious ,stultify, and malevolent–might go on red or yellow 3×5 cards. Neutral words–like rebuttal, soporific, and nominal–could go on white or tan cards. The particular colors you use don’t really matter as long as you are consistent.

Illustrate and embellish the cards. Use different color markers. Draw pictures on the card or even cut them out of a magazine and paste them on the card. The more you work at making the card distinctive, the easier it will be to recall.

Carry the cards around with you and review them whenever you have a chance; at the stoplight, before class, in the line at the grocery store or the bank, on long trips, or walking across campus. Make reviewing the cards a daily habit just like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.

Don’t put too much on any one card. The biggest mistake people make is putting too much information on a single flash card. One card equals one fact.

Put the word to be learned on one side of the card and a short two or three word definition on the other side. On a history fact card, for example, you might have “George Washington” on the first side of the card and “first U.S. president” on the other side. You should NOT have “George Washington,” on one side of the card and “first U.S. president, from Virginia, general in revolutionary war,” on the second side of the card.

Change the order of the cards frequently. If the cards always come in the same order, you will start to memorize the order of the answers. It will be much more difficult later to try and recall the facts in a different order.

Flip the cards over from time to time. If you always review the flash card by seeing “Austin” on one side and recalling “Capitol of Texas,” on the other side, then that’s how you will recall it.  When asked, “What’s the capitol of Texas?” you won’t be able to recall it as well, because that isn’t how you studied it.

Make the flash cards as you learn.  Carry around a stack of blank 3×5 cards. As you come across a piece of information you want to memorize, make a flash card and add it to your daily stack. Caution: don’t try and take notes from a class lecture on flash cards, since the connections between ideas are often just as important as any one fact. Take notes and then–immediately after class–decide what key facts should be committed to memory. Put each of those facts on a flash card.

Don’t mix your subjects, since you tend to recall things in context. If you mix up your math flash cards with your history flash cards, it will be much more difficult to recall the history by itself (on a history test, for example), because you learned the two subjects together.

Flash Card Stacks

Separate your cards into stacks that get reviewed at different intervals. You should have an initial stack that gets your attention several times a day. Each time you instantly and correctly recall a card, make a small check mark on it. When the card has two check marks, move it to the next stack.

The next stack is only reviewed every three days; Wednesdays and Saturdays, for example. When cards in that stack can be perfectly recalled, move them to a stack you only review once per week, say every Sunday.

After that, move cards to a once-every-three-weeks stack, which you will probably need to schedule on your calendar. You can then add a nine-week stack, a six-month stack, a one-year stack, etc.

Everyone’s brain is different, so you’ll have to find the intervals that work best for you. Your goal is to review each card as little as possible while still getting excellent recall.

Let’s say you are looking over that once-a-week stack on Sunday and there are two cards that you’ve spent five minutes on, trying to remember them, but it just isn’t coming to you. Move those two cards back to the stack you carry around with you, and send it through the system again. Don’t move a card to the next stack until your recall is instantaneous and perfect; for example, you see the Spanish word, la vaca on one side, and you immediately think cow.

Hint: If you can’t immediately recall the word, don’t cheat and look at the other side!  Struggle with it and rack your brain to recall it, even if it takes four or five minutes.  When you finally do recall it, the memory will be much stronger!


© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

How to Become a Math Expert


You aren’t going to like the answer, I’m afraid. They way to become an expert is to really work at it. I’m not being glib. Malcolm Gladwell explains (brilliantly, as usual) in his new book, Outliers, which I highly recommend.

Gladwell builds a very convincing argument that math skill is much more closely related to persistence and hard work than any innate ability. Bottomline: The more you do math, the better you get at math.

Most convincing study: Every four years, elementary and junior high students around the world take the TIMSS test of math and science. The test begins with a long, boring series of 120 questions designed to get the students’ background–parents level of education, home life, views on science, etc.

Continue reading How to Become a Math Expert

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

Avoid Cramming by Scheduling Your Semester Now


You could just take those syllabi professors are passing out like popcorn this time of year and shove them deep into the bowels of your backpack, forgetting about them until necessity forces you to resurrect them from their linty tomb. But that’s a surefire recipe for cramming, all-nighters, and mediocre grades.

Instead, go over each syllabus with an eye towards due dates. Add major events to your semester calendar and then break each assignment/project/major-exam-prep into hour-sized chunks. Now schedule the chunks on that same calendar.

You’ll quickly see which weeks turn it to eye-popping, caffeine-fueled, study-thons. Sweeeet. So easy now to reschedule and lighten the load. You’ll be panic-free and well rested come finals time.

[hidepost]But don’t stop there. Add any other major events to your calendar. Parties, mud-football clobber fests, major shopping extravaganzas, protest marches, Mom’s birthday–you can even put down something on the calendar the week BEFORE Mummie’s Bday–so you’ll have time to actually buy her something special and get it to her by her birthday. CAUTION: Not advisable if your mum has a pre-existing heart condition. The shock might be too much!

Every day, pull out the old semester calendar and update it. Are there new events to add? Do you need to reschedule something?

Quickly scribble tomorrow’s events on a piece of paper and schedule them. For example…

Research “Porcine Alopecia” in Library – 1:30 to 2:30p
Take notes on Chapter 7 of Otoliths and You – 4:20 to 5:00p

Giving each task a time will provide structure and prevent putting-it-off-itis. Fold piece of paper in two and place in pocket. Reference throughout the day.

Now just stick to the plan day-by-day and wait gleefully for finals. The week before finals, gloat and hit the sack early whilst your cronies desperately guzzle double espressos in a bid to get-it-all-done.[/hidepost]

Free SAT and GRE Help and Practice


I often post links to free online practice for the GRE and SAT, but there is much more available at your local library. Check out the prep books and work through them. Even if they are a few years out of date, chances are the majority of the information–especially the actual practice problems and tests–are exactly the same this year as they have been for the last two or three.

I go through many of the new SAT and GRE books every year just to make sure my SAT and GRE prep courses are staying on top of the latest techniques. Guess what? There are almost never any new techniques! The prep companies tend to just fix errors (and introduce new errors they’ll be fixing next year) and rearrange the basic layout a bit.

CAUTION: Make sure you visit the GRE and SAT official websites to look over their latest news and updates, when things do change significantly, that’s a great place to find out about it. I will also send out an email update to my list to keep them on top of things. You can sign up for my list here.

Here’s a link to a previous post that will help you make the most of those prep books. Although some of the post is for premium members only, there is plenty of useful stuff freely available (especially the link at the bottom about “my personal picks” for which GRE and SAT prep books to use).

Another CAUTION: One study found that buying a prep book had no effect on SAT scores–zero. Of course, “buying” a prep book is not the same as diligently working through the prep book. The highest increases in scores came from taking a prep course; the more personalized, the better (ie. high school sponsored prep courses were somewhat helpful, private SAT prep classes were more effective, and one-on-one tutoring was most effective).

If working through a difficult prep book by yourself is not best for you (and it’s not for most students), feel free to contact me about live, one-on-one tutoring via internet (blair [at] studyprof [dot] com). If you are in the Bryan/College Station, Texas, area, check out my live classes at http://studentsuccess.tamu.edu.

How Important Is Your GPA?


[hidepost]Most employers and graduate schools use a 3.0 GPA as a cut-off point for applicants. Once it’s above that, the exact number usually becomes less important. If your GPA is below the 3.0 threshold, you may wonder about the negative effects your GPA can have on your career or graduate school applications. However, there are ways to overcome a low GPA and minimize its possible damage to your future employment prospects or graduate education opportunities.

Do I Have to Tell Employers My GPA?

Yes, and you should be honest with them. If you don’t put your GPA on your resume, particularly for your first job after graduation, you can expect to be asked about it during the interview.

The trick is where you put the emphasis. If your GPA within your major is higher than your overall GPA, tell them: 2.9/4.0 major GPA, 2.2/4.0 overall GPA. Likewise, if your GPA has improved you can emphasize that: 3.3/4.0 since fall 2008, 2.5/4.0 overall. Finally, if you had to work while studying, employers may take that into account, so it’s worth mentioning: 2.5/4.0 GPA, worked 20 hours per week throughout school year.

How Low Can My GPA Go?

While many employers may 3.0 as their cut-off point, some may be more flexible than others depending on your skill set.

Yet, when asked to rate the qualities employers find most important in a candidate, in the 2007 Job Outlook Survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), GPA was ranked number 17 of the top 20. This means a low GPA isn’t necessarily insurmountable–you have 16 other qualities you can enhance to overcome it.

The top 5 most important skills to employers are, in order:

1. Communication skills 2. Honesty/integrity 3. Interpersonal skills (relates well to others) 4. Motivation/initiative 5. Strong work ethic

Best Way to Overcome a Low GPA

Written and verbal communication skills have consistently been ranked as the number one quality employers seek since 1999. However, they have trouble finding candidates with those skills, as they also ranked good communication the hardest quality to find in job applicants.

Graduates who can express themselves clearly, both orally and on paper, may have a significant advantage over the competition. You can prove your communication abilities both on your resume and in the interview, giving you two chances to shine.

GPA and Graduate School

Graduate schools do put significant weight on your undergraduate GPA, but again it’s not the only factor they consider. First of all, not all graduate schools look at your overall GPA. Many only look at your GPA from your junior and senior years, while others only look at your GPA in your major.

The weight each graduate school puts on your GPA also depends on several variables, including:

* The competitiveness of the graduate school * Whether the school places greater value on work experience, internships, or a portfolio of work * The undergraduate school’s reputation: a student with a lower GPA from a highly ranked university may get accepted over a student with a high GPA from a lower quality school * Strong test scores. * Excellent letters of recommendation

The bottom line is that while employers and graduate schools traditionally look at your grades, mitigating circumstances and strong skills in other areas can certainly help you overcome a low GPA. So put your energy into the other areas they find important.

Author’s URL: http://www.Edu411.org
Edu411.org is a career education directory for finding colleges and universities, training schools, and technical institutes. For more information about careers, online and campus based career programs, please visit us at http://www.edu411.org.

Memory is Like a Barrel of Monkeys

The More Links - The Easier to Recall

Memory is more like a barrel of monkeys than a barrel of bricks.  With a barrel of bricks, the more bricks there are, the heavier and more unwieldy it becomes. With the barrel of monkeys (and I’m referring to the children’s toy here), more monkeys means more connections, and that means it’s easier to lift the mass.

Memory works like that.  More details actually makes the memory more memorable.  Often, people protest that making up mnemonic stories to recall things like vocabulary or formulas just adds much more to memorize.  It’s counter-intuitive, but the detailed stories actually make it easier to recall what you are attempting to memorize.

Think about it this way; who do you remember best from your fifth grade class; the quiet, uninteresting kid who always sat in the back or the stinky kid with the bright red hair who always got in trouble?

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

The SAT: An Overview


The SAT Reasoning Test (note: NOT the subject specific SAT tests) is used widely by colleges and universities as one of their admissions criteria.  It is also often used as a criterion in awarding scholarships. It is claimed to test students’ abilities in subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics; subjects that are supposed to predict those students’ college success. It does not, however, do a very good job at this task, even by the admission of the College Board, the company that makes the SAT.

Normally taken by high school juniors and seniors, it’s become a dreaded rite of passage for many high school students around the world.  Let’s take a look at the basic layout of the test.

Given seven times a year in the U.S., and six times a year overseas. the SAT tests three different areas; reading, writing, and math.  Each of these are scored on a 200 to 800 point scale, and people usually talk about a combined score, adding the scores from each section together.  A mid-level score might be 1500, while a perfect score would be 2400.

SAT Sections

The SAT has several different question types including a short essay, five-choice multiple-choice questions, and grid-ins, where the student enters their answer on a number grid.

The Writing Section

The SAT Writing section takes a total of sixty minutes; thirty-five minutes test grammar and word usage in the form of multiple-choice questions.  Students will also be asked to spend twenty-five minutes writing an essay.

More details about this section, including exact question types and examples can be found here.  The writing section is relatively new and many colleges and universities do not even consider it in their admissions.  To find out how your schools of choice handle it, you will have to ask their admission’s counselors directly.

The Reading Section

The critical reading sections of the SAT include two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section.  Question types include sentences with a blank or two blanks in which you must pick the best word or words to go in the blanks.  This mainly tests vocabulary.  There are also short reading passages over which students must answer a series of questions about passage details, structure, main idea, author’s intentions, etc.  These questions mainly test reading comprehension and are the single, hardest section in which to increase your score, mainly because reading comprehension takes months or years to improve significantly.

See more details and examples of these question types here.

The Math Section

The math section of the SAT is also divided between two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section.  While the majority of the questions are five-choice multiple choice questions, there are also grid-in questions (the College Board calls these “student-produced response” questions), where students must fill in their answers.  The math section tests algebra, geometry, graphing, functions, basic statistics, and data-analysis.  American students can expect to have learned everything they might see on the SAT by tenth grade.

Students are allowed to use a calculator, although every question can be answered without one.  To see the specific question types and examples as well as more details on calculator usage look here.

The Unscored Section

Students will also have an additional twenty-five minute section in either critical reading, mathematics, or writing multiple-choice.  This section is used by College Board to try out new questions, and it does not count towards your score.  However, it will not be identified as an experimental section, and you shouldn’t try and guess which section is the unscored section.  Just do your best on all the sections.

College Board claims that this section is used to make sure tests and question types are comparable from test to test and to “insure fairness.”  It also enables them to do some research at your expense.

Test Format

The SAT has a total of 10 sections. The 25-minute essay always comes first, and the final section will always be a 10-minute long, multiple-choice, writing section. Sections two through seven are always 25-minutes each and will alternate between reading, math, and writing in relatively random order. Sections eight and nine are 20-minutes each. In a single SAT administration you and the test-takers next to you may all have different versions of the test with section types (math, reading, writing) in different orders.  There are also two, ten-minute breaks; one after the third test section, and one following the sixth section.


It is very important to prepare for the SAT, not only to make it easier for you to get into the college of your choice, but also to put yourself in the best position to get scholarships and fellowships.  Plan on taking it two or even three times.  You can take a free SAT test here.  I’ve also written about my preferred test prep books here, and I’ve written about the advisability of taking a prep course here (although the article is specifically about the GRE test–similar to the SAT but used for graduate school admissions–the principles are much the same.  I’ve also written on the best schedule to prepare for a test such as this (again, it’s written specifically for the GRE, but the principles are identical.)