The Flow State: A Means to Excel at Anything

The wind smashes against your face and the salt stings your eyes. As you move your arms through the water, carrying the weight your board and yourself with you, the sun slams its light onto your back. Your attention is unwavering, directed instead on the glistening mountains of blue in front of you. The right wave seems to be approaching from beyond, humming a low tune as it picks up speed. You time it just right, pivoting to the left and paddling to catch it. As you lift yourself onto the board, the wave pushes you forward with resilience. There’s no bailing now. Cool droplets of water race past your skin, and your gaze is stuck on the curling tunnel you’re about to conquer. You can barely make out the cries of gulls above, or the gazes of friends on the beach. You forget that you’ve been doing this for 4 hours straight, or that your knees have been torn from run-ins with coral. You just know that you’re floating on the tide again.

That feeling is called "Flow," and it doesn’t just apply to surfing.

It is a state of peak physical and mental performance in which a person is fully immersed in an activity. Colloquially, it is known as being in the zone.

So how is this at all applicable to you, or to learning math for that matter? How can surfing, writing, playing soccer, or meditating have anything to do with you studying for a test?

The common thread, and the key to optimizing your results, is Flow. The reason it applies to you is that you’ve probably felt it at some point in your life. Even if you’re young, you can probably remember those moments when you were so engaged in something that time just melted away. You felt absorbed and at your best. You were in Flow, but maybe just didn’t know it at the time.

But you should know about it now, because it’s something that you can learn to harness to improve your skill-sets and perhaps draw more out of life. And yes, it could improve your SAT score too.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a researcher at the University of Chicago, popularized the term "Flow" after publishing his seminal worked in 1990 called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Though research on the topic had been done before, he conducted extensive research after surveying many of the world’s top masters in a variety of fields. He described it as: being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.

Curious to learn more? Let’s dive into the background behind Flow, and how you may be able to implement it to improve your test-taking and overall experiences.

Background of Flow

Though the term was made famous by Csikszentmihalyi, Flow had not been scientifically analyzed to the degree it is now. Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, both interested in researching the topic, founded the Flow Genome Project to map the “sequencing” of Flow in the brain. Kotler has even written a book entitled The Rise of Superman that discusses the neurobiology of this state of optimal performance.

One of primary theories of Flow is that a part of the brain has to shut down, not light up, to make it possible. The scientific term for this is Transient Hypofrontality, which means that for a short time (transient), reduced activity (hypo-) occurs in the prefrontal cortex in the brain (-frontality). This part of the brain dictates a person’s sense of self and acts as like a CEO to process decisions. However, it can act as a filter during demanding activities and prevent a person from truly losing themselves. This is a huge barrier to overcome, because when a person is in Flow, he or she shouldn’t be second-guessing themselves. They should just perform, almost as if possessed.

According to Kotler, Flow causes the release of 5 hormones that improve output:

  1. Dopamine, which increases momentary pleasure.
  2. Norepinephrine, which gives you energy by increasing heart-rate and breathing.
  3. Anandamide, which reduces stress.
  4. Endorphins, which reduce physical pain.
  5. Serotonin, which increases the feeling of reward and keeps you wanting more.

In the process of his research on Flow, Kotler has cited some fascinating studies that add evidence to his claims. During a 10-year McKinsey study, high-level executives said that they performed 5 times better when in Flow.

DARPA scientists artificially induced Flow through transcranial stimulation to find that snipers improved their skills by 230%. Australian researchers used the same method to discover that 40% of participants could complete a brain-teasing puzzle when in Flow, whereas none of them could do so before.

As scientific attention on Flow increases, we may see even more compelling evidence and implications for this state of mind. For now though, let’s discuss how you can access this superpower yourself.

How to get into Flow

As you’ve seen in the research, one way to achieve flow is with transcranial magnetic stimulation. I don’t recommend this. Not only is it used more for medical purposes, but you’re not going bring an expensive machine with you when skiing down a mountain slope or sitting for an exam. Plus, you probably want to know how to induce the state naturally, so you can sustain it long-term.

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The following are some basic criteria to achieving Flow on your own, taken from summaries of Kotler and Csikszentmihalyi’s works:

  1. Choose the right challenges for your skill level. As you can see in the figure above, you want to hit a sweet-spot in the battle between challenges and your skill-level. With math, this could mean doing more advanced algebraic equations once you’ve mastered the basics, or solving progressively harder word problems after getting a few down.
  2. Focus your entire self on the task at hand. This point has been well-established by your parents and teachers. If there’s no other reason to listen to them, at least trust that it will help you achieve this mystical Flow state.
  3. Give yourself enough time. Stay with a task for at least 15 to 20 minutes or longer before you can expect peak performance. It takes a while to get your mind in the right place. Long-term, this means sticking with a skill until it virtually becomes muscle-memory, then doing step 1 again.
  4. Take some deep breaths before you begin a task, or during the activity. This will help relax you and is a common practice in meditation, which is famous for inducing Flow.

As you can tell, getting into Flow is more a matter of calming yourself down than it is building your energy up. And it doesn’t have to just be with math. Take what you find in some of your most engaging activities and apply that to others. Certain tasks that you thought were boring might appear deeply engaging after some practice (maybe even Calculus).

As a piece of general advice, Flow is not only a state for maximal performance in a single activity, but possibly the best way to spend your time. Even your leisure hobbies can be turned into methods of self-improvement instead of repetitiveness or boredom. It will help you see work as an end in itself, rather than a means to one. As Csikszentmihalyi said:

...It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”

 


Should You Go To College? The Pros and Cons

Going to college is viewed as a natural step for most aspiring young adults. It has almost become a cultural norm for the middle and upper classes, shielded from harsh questioning by its promise of better career opportunities, higher salaries, and more respect.

Yet with access to rapidly increasing resources for online learning and discussion, a lot of high-schoolers may be skeptical of the true value of attending college. This is definitely warranted, given the investment of time and money required for an undergraduate degree. And if anything, the questioning should be encouraged by parents, friends, and teachers. Four years of a young person’s life should not be approached lightly.

In this article, I hope to spark more thought regarding college attendance, present the advantages and disadvantages of attendance, and offer advice on how to approach the decision. It is directed to an audience of students approaching the college-decision process, but contains valuable information for younger students, current college-goers, teachers, and parents.

Whether you decide to attend college or not, you will have to make decisions about your future that will feel forced at such a young age. Just don’t let it cloud your judgment. This process will be one of many that mature you.

And even if you can’t map a confident course for your future career (whether that entails college or not), you should at least decide what skill-sets to explore and their viability in the long-term. By strengthening your instinct with research, you’ll soon develop a rudimentary plan for the next few years of your life. Just keep in mind that a bad plan is better than no plan, because having no plan can is a recipe for stagnation. 

Why You Might Not Want To Go

This section is in place to verbalize what you are likely thinking when you doubt the value of a college education. It may help clarify your own opinions as well as set the stage for topics we’ll explore later in the article.

One reason dominates the conversation: saving money. The total tuition cost can range from $30-200k or more after four years. And the average college graduate in 2017 has $37,172 in debt, which increases each year. No matter how much you may value a college degree, those costs speak for themselves. You might be able to find ways around the cost, such as financial aid, scholarships, or attending an in-state school, but it can be a difficult barrier to overcome.

You might have another reason: you already know what you’re going to do, and it doesn’t require a degree. This is rare, but can be the case for surefooted prospective entrepreneurs, particular laborers, artists, software developers with extensive coding experience, or folks inheriting a family business. If you fall into one of these categories and aren’t currently making money in that endeavor, try to ascertain an idea of your projected income and weigh that opportunity cost against tuition and the knowledge you'll gain while at university.

Finally, you might be in the camp that doesn’t know exactly what you want to do, but just feel that college isn’t the right move. This is a more dangerous opinion than the last one, because it can lead to an irrational or hasty decision, but it is still an understandable one.

In all these cases and ones I may have missed, you should research, think, and discuss with others as much as possible in order to make a good decision. You’re doing that now by stumbling upon this article, and you should form that level of analysis into a habit. This process of meticulous decision-making will serve you well for any future crossroads.

Possible Advantages of Not Attending College

An advantage of abstaining from college that’s often overlooked is that many high-paying jobs don’t require a college degree. This can include transportation-related jobs, supervisor positions, mechanics, and even nuclear-power-reactor operators. Business Insider has a useful ranking of these positions here. The median annual income for these jobs hovers between $50k-80k, which is pretty solid in comparison to the median U.S. household income of close to $56k in 2016.

The downside to these positions is that they have a higher potential of career-stagnation, meaning that there’s not much room for you to advance. This is because upper-level management positions tend to recruit from a pool of college-educated candidates, sometimes outside of the company itself. Moreover, a lot of these roles require non-transferable skills, or ones that may soon become obsolete (which is a topic discussed later). These positions may also require college degrees in the near future, simply because of the trend towards degrees as a new minimum standard for employment.

Another option to learn and grow for folks deciding to either pass on college or simply delay the journey is to live at home while self-educating. Self-education is something worth engaging in even while in college, but it can also be a route to bypass school entirely. Resources such as Udemy, Coursera, Udacity, and Khan Academy can help you gain useful skills or knowledge in your spare time that are directly related to building a business or launching a new career path.

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Contrary to popular belief, it is definitely possible for people to develop general intelligence independently so long as you possess the requisite motivation and work ethic. It can be difficult at a young age to push yourself individually, but certain personalities might benefit from such an approach. The following quote offers great perspective on universities and how students spend a great deal of time while in school: 

Arum, whose book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective. Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called "higher order" thinking skills. Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

This leads to the last advantage, which is that a portfolio of projects can be more valuable in attaining a job than just a degree. In the fields of graphic design, web design, and art, a portfolio is the most important, and arguably the only tangible thing you need, to get hired. I’ll refer you to two articles (here and here) that better explain the relationship between portfolios and jobs.

The beauty of developing a portfolio early-on, whether you attend college or not, is that you’ll gain valuable skills in that field and learn if you want to explore it further. Even if you make an art portfolio, but decide instead to go into art related consulting, then at the very least you will develop a creative acumen and impress employers with your initiative. 

Possible Disadvantages of Not Attending College

I already hinted towards one disadvantage, which is that your options for career paths may be limited. This might be harder to understand in the present, especially if you haven’t worked in the industry yet, but can make sense when observing future job-availability projections. For example, a study done by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute showed that by 2020, 65% of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, and 35% of the job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree. The lack of a degree may not be as concrete a barrier as people make it out to be, but could be restrictive. In fields such as medicine and law especially, it’s almost impossible to attain a position without one.

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Another study done by the Pew Research Center concluded the following: among 25- to 32-year-olds with a college degree, the jobless rate as of March 2013 was 3.8 percent. At 8.1 percent, the rate was more than twice as high for those with a two-year degree or some college, and it was more than three times as high for those with only a high school diploma at 12.2 percent.

This does not mean that you will be unemployed without a degree, but again hints toward the general benefits of having a degree for the population at large.

And as mentioned, even you get a stable position at a company without a degree, you might find it difficult to shift to another industry or move up in the company without a degree. Just keep in mind that college could be an investment you’ll make for a return that’s four years or more down the road, even if you would otherwise be fine without it now.

Another disadvantage is that you may miss out on the exploration and growth that’s possible in college. Certain experiences are definitely available without attending college, but there are several unknown variables to consider. For example, colleges can provide access to other intelligent people in your class, contact with alumni, school prestige, new courses of study you would otherwise not have pursued, clubs, team projects, a certain type of social life, a good transition to living on your own, job fairs, and potential mentors.

Finally, and perhaps the most fascinating potential disadvantage of skipping college, is the supposed health difference between college grads and non-college grads. The National Bureau of Economic Research had the following to say about it: The magnitude of the relationship between education and health varies across conditions, but is generally large...Four more years of schooling lowers the probability of reporting oneself in fair or poor health by 6 percentage points and reduces lost days of work to sickness by 2.3 each year. Although the effects of gender and race are not shown, the magnitude of four years of schooling is roughly comparable in size to being female or being African American. These are not trivial effects.

Correlation does not necessarily imply causation in any of the cases mentioned, but the data presented is worth thinking about and investigating further.

What you should do now

So what happens if you’ve thought hard about your decision and know that you want to attend college? You should prepare yourself by choosing the right school, then committing completely to the program. It may sound contradictory, but if you set that aim in your mind and later decide that college isn’t right for you, then at least you’ll have made the most of your experiences up to that point.

And what happens if you’ve decided not to go? Just continue to do what you’ve been doing and research your current options. Just be confident in your choice, because you will likely have to begin making an income or figuring out a specific path sooner than college-bound peers.

After having read this article, you may still feel confused about your decision (or maybe more confused than you were before). That’s okay, because there was and will continue to be a lot of information on this topic. There is no single yes/no answer I can give you. However, a good framework to follow is that you should aim to gain marketable skills in an area that peaks your interest. Even if you attend college, you’ll find that developing yourself outside of school is essential, as is having a vision for how to apply that education. The following website may provide some help, as it has well-researched information on various career paths and their impacts on the world.

Also, be mindful of the automation of jobs, and which ones will be eliminated in a 5 to 10-year time frame. Technological development accelerates, and has predictably accelerated for decades, so the world could be noticeably different when you graduate. This article has a cool interface to learn about the probability of different jobs becoming automated, and this one explains the topic in more general depth. Be mindful that you don’t have to pursue the careers least likely to be automated only, but rather have an understanding of the skill-sets involved so that you don’t find yourself becoming obsolete.

So here’s a quick summary:

  • Possible Advantages: saving money, self-educating at a faster pace than a degree program, developing a project portfolio on your own
  • Possible Disadvantages: large number of projected jobs that will require degree, higher chance of unemployment, difficulties in career advancement, not having the social and developmental benefits of college atmosphere

6 Factors to Help Choose the Right University

The passage to college is a sacred tradition passed down through generations of young adults, and maybe one that you’ll soon witness first-hand. It’s marked by curiosity, freedom, and inevitably, a dose of angst. If you’ve decided to pursue college, then you’ll want to prepare yourself by choosing the right school for you. Don’t choose the right school for your friends or parents, but rather for yourself. Your future self will thank you.

The following is a list, in no particular order, of the most important factors to consider when picking out a university. You might get overwhelmed with that pile of university brochures sitting on your desk, but with some deep thought and research, you’ll soon be able to find that diamond-in-the-rough that will shape your next four years and the rest of your life.

As you’ll begin to see, each factor is deeply intertwined with all the others.  A shift in one can change the whole picture, so don’t analyze any of these factors in isolation.  

Cost

More so than any other consideration, tuition costs can be a quantifiable barrier to attending a school. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year was about $33,480 at private colleges, $9,650 for state residents at public colleges, and $24,930 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. That marks a wide range, with Ivy league and other expensive schools topping over $50-60k. After four years, the total tuition difference between schools could be as much as $150k or more.

To put that into a long-term perspective, the average college graduate in 2017 has $37,172 in debt, which is up 6% from last year. And the tuition that you’ll be paying is likely higher, because the average per-year increase hovers between 2-4%.

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These high costs may deter you from entering college completely, but they do offer new experiences, connections, and other aspects discussed later. In any case, you should at least speak with your parents to determine your financial options. If you qualify, you may be able to receive need-based or merit-based scholarships.

Ranking

A school’s ranking, especially on US News & World Report, is an indicator of the strength of the faculty, student retention rate, undergraduate academic reputation, and other variables that are applied to a comparison calculation. These rankings are by no means definitive, and don’t always provide an accurate judgment of the school’s education. However, they are useful as a basic reference, and the specific school rankings (such as the School of Engineering or Medicine) can be a better estimator of the education quality than overall ranking.

If you’re a competitive high-schooler, then choosing a school based on its prestige is likely on your mind. This pertains especially to Ivy League institutions, which are well-known for their extensive history and successful graduate pool. Prestige is by no means a bad factor to consider, but it may cloud your judgment. For example, if you are sure about studying engineering and want a world-class education, Ivy Leagues may not be the best option. They specialize far more in the pure sciences and humanities, and don’t offer as many project-team or engineering-workshop opportunities. We’ll dive more into choosing schools for specific majors in the next section.

Major

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 80% of college students change their major at least once. This isn’t surprising, since you are only 18 or so when entering, and don’t know a lot about yourself or the scope of the career options available to you at that age. The reason that a major is important when choosing a school is because, as mentioned, certain schools have specialties that outweigh their lacking in rank. But the trade-off is that the school may not offer other options of study if you reconsider. Consequently, it’s in your best interest to have an idea of the top 3 majors or subject-matters that appeal to you, and proceed from there.

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When contemplating a major, keep in mind that you do know some of your academic inclinations from your childhood and high school years, which can point you in the right direction. Most importantly, consider the job opportunities for that major, or related ones, that would be available when graduating. For example, a biology degree is valuable when on a pre-medical route, but less versatile than a computer science or business degree in case you change career plans.

Choosing a major, and even a career, can be discussed at length for hours. So I won’t get into it here. But I will say this: a college major does not pigeonhole you into a specific career path. It’s merely your general focus of study for a small period of your life. You’re always free to change it, and can always teach yourself new skills through extracurriculars or on your own.

Location

A school’s location will affect your ability to stay close to familiar people, tuition costs, climate, and social life. For example, a school that’s closer to home might speak to your desire to be close to family and high school friends, as well as save on tuition. One that’s farther away could mean that you just want a 180-degree shift in environment.

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Whatever the case, you might find it difficult to move away from home, and even more so to make a decision about where you’re going to stay for four years. Just keep in mind that the move is temporary; you’ll likely be able to visit home periodically, and you’ll mature from the experience either way.

Social Life & Extracurriculars

Even if you’re not into the partying lifestyle, a school’s social life will impact the people you meet and how you spend your free time. It will probably play just as much of a role in your development and enjoyment of college as your major. So it’s worth thinking about. To get an idea of a school’s social life, you can usually do a quick Google search, or consult websites like this one: https://colleges.niche.com/rankings/best-student-life/. Niche rank schools across the globe based on student life and other factors. Another way to research this topic is to consider the location of the school, which we’ll also get into later. For instance, a rural or suburban location changes the students’ interactions with each other and might lead to a more cohesive student body than a city location.

Extracurriculars are key when expanding your skill-set beyond your major, and can be valuable in generating a portfolio of projects. A strong project background is becoming increasingly more important for career recruiting, and can even be more important than the GPA you achieve. This is especially true for engineering and computer science majors. By researching the school’s team project opportunities, hospitals nearby for research, or local connections with businesses, you can get a better idea of what to explore outside of school.

Admissions Criteria

While searching for schools and converging upon your top choices, you should keep in mind the school’s selectiveness and the required application materials.

The school’s selectiveness plays a role in determining if you can make the cut or not. Getting rejected from a school isn’t as big of a deal as many of your peers may make it out to be, but it is a big deal when you don’t have other options. As a result, having a back-up school that you would be happy attending is useful for maintaining your sanity during the decision process.  

All schools accept both the ACT and SAT, but some might require Subject Tests as well. You should research the scores you need for certain schools, or the test dates that you can take them. The website you’re on now provides ample knowledge and resources on these tests, so I won’t get into it in this article.

For your easy perusal, the following is a quick summary of each aforementioned factor:

  • Cost: Be aware of your current financial situation and the predicted payoff of a certain major
  • Ranking: While national rankings definitely matter, don’t get overly caught up in small differences in positions; also look for rankings of specific programs within universities if possible
  • Major: No matter what, do two things: QUESTION YOURSELF & RESEARCH; research the opportunities available for that field, and then select a major for both subject-matter interest and realistic career opportunities
  • Location: Be mindful of a location's strong impact on a school's social environment
  • Social Life & Extracurriculars: This will play just as much of a role in your development as the education
  • Admissions: Know what tests are required, and the likelihood of getting into the school; have backup options

 


Q & A: When the unit price of orange was reduced by $3.00, the number of oranges bought for $180.00 increased by 5. Find the present price per orange?

Here's how to solve this problem. If x represents the unit price, x - 3 will represent the reduced unit price. We will let y represent the number of oranges purchased. We can now create two equations (system of equations):

180/x = y

180/(x - 3) = y + 5

The parts on the left will yield the number of oranges purchased. The first equation will get the original number of oranges purchased (y), and the second equation will get the number after the price reduction (y + 5). Using substitution to solve for x, we take 180/x, which equals y, and plug it into the second equation’s y variable. This gets us the following single variable equation:

180/(x - 3) = 180/x + 5

Next, multiply both sides by (x - 3):

180 = [180(x -3)]/x + 5(x - 3)

180 = (180x - 540)/x + 5x - 15

180 = 180 - 540/x + 5x - 15

Then multiply both sides by x (to remove the last x in a denominator):

180x = 180x - 540 + 5x^2 - 15x

Subtract both sides by 180x, and we have the following quadratic equation:

5x^2 - 15x - 540 = 0

Divide both sides by 5:

x^2 - 3x - 108 = 0

Factor:

(x - 12)(x + 9) = 0

This means that x either equals 12 or -9. Since a negative price can be thrown out, we see that the original price, x, must have been $12. That means the new price (i.e. the reduced price, x - 3) must be $9 per orange.

We can verify this by showing that 180/12 = 15 oranges purchased, and 180/9 = 20 oranges purchased, which indeed means 5 more oranges can be bought.

Accordingly, we now see that the new price per orange is indeed $9.00.


Math Jeopardy: a personal story of unparalleled classroom engagement

It was February of 2016. It had been about two and a half years since my precipitous departure from the world of patent law. Times had been tough along the way, but I had finally found a sincere and authentic groove with respect to one-on-one tutoring. I was now fully comfortable and confident with respect to the tutor-student dynamic, and my understanding of all pertinent math concepts had reached a new level. Math instruction had become second nature. Moreover, my time was nearly fully booked with eager students across the Los Angeles area. In addition to my many private tutoring clients, I had just acquired a new homeschool student that needed math tutelage for an hour every morning from 8:15 to 9:15 am. While the student was less than thrilled to be learning math, it was a fascinating challenge to deliver a full-fledged 2nd grade math curriculum from A to Z. It was extremely tough to charge the sessions with energy and enthusiasm as my new pupil’s obstinacy was uncanny, but it was an impediment that I embraced as a learning opportunity.

Right around the time that I began my stint with the homeschool student, a local private elementary institution brimming with bright and enthusiastic students asked if I would be interested in taking over the fourth grade math class. I was quite intrigued to say the least. Since the beginning of my career in education, it had never been my goal to become a classroom teacher. But after mulling over the opportunity for a few days, I realized that the position would come with some major upsides for me. Firstly, this would be my inaugural classroom experience, and although I had logged loads of hours teaching math one-on-one, explaining mathematical principles to a class would be a brand new journey replete with lessons and wisdom along the way. Secondly, it was a terrific opportunity to learn from the many seasoned teachers at the school. The only issue was that the class was being held from 9:00 am to 10:15 am, a temporal conflict with my current schedule. I anticipated that this would be an unsolvable problem; lucky for me, however, my homeschooling client was easy going about rescheduling. Just like that, my fate as a substitute fourth grade math teacher had been sealed.

I couldn’t believe how eager the children were to learn and get ahead. I had several students plowing far beyond the pace of the class on Aleks, the school’s primary online math platform, because they simply found the process intrinsically rewarding. As a result of the incredible energy and motivation the children possessed, teaching the class felt like a breeze. Despite the students’ passion and zeal for math, I was constantly trying to figure out ways to inject a bit of added excitement into the lessons to maintain a high level of engagement. For example, we would occasionally play math oriented games to reinforce arithmetic fluency like “Around the World,” a frenzied one-on-one showdown to see who could answer mental multiplication problems the fastest. When the math curriculum was weaved into games, it seemed that the class was especially alive.

That’s when I decided to take gamification to the next level. I sought to fuse my favorite TV game show with a review session for an upcoming math test. Growing up, my family would religiously watch the Jeopardy game show while eating dinner. We would play alongside the contestants, racing each other to nail each question. My mom’s expertise would shine through anytime the topics required medical knowledge; my dad was especially adept at answering math and engineering based questions. My sister and I seemed to come out on top whenever answers required a bit of pop culture knowledge. Regardless of who racked up more imaginary points, it was a great mental workout and just plain fun.

Now, when we talk about using Jeopardy as a vehicle for learning in the classroom, I am obviously not the clever inventor of that concept. I played Jeopardy games in class during my middle school and high school years as well. Hordes of teachers across the country use this game routinely to mix up the classroom dynamic and allow kids to learn while engaging in some friendly competition. It was now my turn to implement this timeless and incredibly fun trivia game.

One Saturday afternoon, after recording a number of videos for a soon-to-be-released standardized test prep course on Udemy (an online learning platform), I finally decided to make good on my internal promise to put together a math Jeopardy game. But I didn’t want to just write a bunch of questions; instead, I wanted to replicate the feel of the actual game show. I intended to use PowerPoint, the classroom smartboard, and a school podium to engender an authentic experience for the kids.

My first thought was to create a PowerPoint template myself that resembled the actual Jeopardy game. But, as I just stated, I knew I wasn’t the first teacher to use Jeopardy. Accordingly, as any good efficiency hacker might do, I trawled the web for premade Jeopardy PowerPoint templates. Lo and behold, I came across a treasure trove of well-designed and interactive layouts. The cream of the crop, in my opinion, was unearthed at http://www.edtechnetwork.com/powerpoint.html. The presentation template was clean, simple, adjustable, and fully functional. Oh, and I forgot the best part… it was free!

I spent the weekend modifying the slides for my purposes and created a total of 25 different questions based on topics we had covered in class. The questions were spread across the following five categories: (1) mental math, (2) decimals and fractions, (3) conversion, (4) area and volume, and (5) data analysis.

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In addition, I made one Final Jeopardy question that would be answered at the end of the game. Once everything had been completed, I went to sleep and braced myself for the reaction of my students. Fourth graders are pure of heart in the sense that their thoughts will not be masked to spare my feelings; if they liked the game, they would say so. If not, well, that would be made quite clear as well.

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The next day, I showed up to class a bit early so that I could make sure all of the audiovisual technology was working smoothly. Once I was certain that we would experience no technical snafus, I broke the news: the class would be participating in a team-based math Jeopardy game...  

To my relief, the kids were ecstatic! I was pumped as well, but I had to make sure that the enthusiasm didn’t devolve into frenetic chaos. I quickly divided the class into two teams and disseminated the rules of the game. Yes, this was a derivative form of Jeopardy, but my version of the game had some substantial tweaks that merited a quick explanation. Here are the rules as I presented them to the class:

  1. The class will be divided into two teams
  2. One member from each team will step up to the podium at a time
  3. Turns will alternate from one team to the next regardless of answers or score
  4. The team member who is at the podium will have one chance during his team’s turn to select and answer a question; if he is correct, his team will be awarded the points related to the question; if he is incorrect, the other student who is at the podium from the opposing team will have a chance to steal
  5. If a student is able to steal a question, he still gets to take his next turn
  6. Students must answer each question individually without help from other team members; the two exceptions to this are for Daily Doubles and Final Jeopardy
  7. Daily Doubles, when selected, allow teams to make a wager up to the amount of points they currently have; there is no penalty for an incorrect answer; teams may collaborate to come up with an answer; if a team answers incorrectly, the opposing team may collaborate and steal
  8. For Mental Math questions, students may not use whiteboards or paper to make calculations
  9. Final Jeopardy questions will require a wager up to the amount of the points the teams currently have; if a team answers incorrectly, the points wagered will be subtracted from the current score; teams may collaborate to come up with an answer
  10. Absolutely no talking is permitted while students are attempting to answer a question

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Ignoring the rules meant a swift consequence: being taken out of the game. Since no one wanted that to happen, the students ended up behaving very nicely. We jumped right into gameplay, and the level of engagement was astounding. I saw students focusing, trying, and working harder than ever. Moreover, it seemed as though everyone was having a blast! The students knew that the winning team would get a trip to a local cafe during the following week, so they were quite eager to secure the win. When a victorious team finally emerged, the students showed great sportsmanship. The winners were gracious, showing respect to their diligent competitors. In sum, it was a massive success.

Word spread throughout the school that my math class had gotten to play math Jeopardy. Fourth graders from other math sections were constantly asking if they could partake as well. I spoke with the other teachers, and before I knew it, we had another Jeopardy bout on the calendar. But this time, I wanted to make it more memorable. So, using my video production knowledge, I decided to record the whole event using two cameras and a couple of remote microphones. The outcome was fantastic! I ended up spending two weeks editing down the entire hour long game into 15 minutes of action packed excitement. I then distributed the video to all of the parents so that they could see exactly what we were doing in class. Thereafter, I got some really enthusiastic emails from parents saying how fun it was to watch their kids in action. I wish I could show the video to all of you, but unfortunately I don’t have permission to share the footage outside of the school community. 

After the second Jeopardy game, I got even more requests to play yet again. Not wanting to disappoint the youngsters, I decided to get the game going one last time for the entire fourth grade class. Like the previous two times, it started with great success. Everyone was getting involved and I couldn’t have been more pleased. But then something unfortunate happened. As the game progressed, the kids got a bit overzealous. As much as I enjoyed watching the students get so enmeshed with a math related activity, I was sad to see the intensity turn negative. There were even accusations (which were untrue) about students surreptitiously using calculators to find answers. One of my students ended up in tears because the environment became slightly hostile after the final results were announced. At that point, we immediately stopped everything to have a 15 minute conversation with the kids about competition and sportsmanship. We emphasized that the most important part about playing a team-based game was to maintain composure. Winning and losing is more or less immaterial; it’s the process of playing and competing that is ultimately the most valuable.

The major takeaway from this experience is that I need to set the tone more clearly at the onset of the game the next time around. I will make sure to deliver a detailed speech at the beginning of the class period about the importance of good sportsmanship throughout the game. Folks that fail to abide by this general principle will face immediate ejection.

All in all, it was an incredible experience. I plan to make use of this activity again next year for my 6th grade class. Moreover, I encourage any teachers out there to try this activity for yourself. It’s not terribly difficult to modify the template, and the game will no doubt be fun as well as educational. If you do plan to give it a go, please drop me a line and let me know how it turns out!


8 tips for superb test preparation

Tests are the measuring sticks of academia. When designed correctly, they can be clean and targeted tools of assessment; when constructed sloppily and without attention to detail, they can evoke feelings of anxiety and concern. As a student, unfortunately, you have little say on how tests are created and administered. Tests are, for the most part, immovable parts of the education system; accordingly, proceed as though you must abide by them no matter their quality or effectiveness. Debating the correctness of a particular answer with your teacher is a last ditch tactic that should be used sparingly to scrape up a few extra points here or there. Your real focus and attention should be devoted to understanding the test format, learning your teacher’s viewpoints (when applicable), and assimilating all of the classroom information across the various streams of educational content.

At the end of the day, teachers and test creators hope that a student’s results on an exam indicate mastery (or lack thereof) over a particular subject area. But this is not the entire story. Tests results not only indicate a general grasp and mastery of a subject matter, but they also tell the tale of test preparation. While some students may initially have a stronger grasp of a subject matter and may even show greater promise with respect to applying new principles, the top scores usually go to the students who comb through the material with a decisive and meticulous study regimen.  In order to boost your chances of a solid score on either a school exam or standardized test, check out these 8 potent tips for test taking success!

  1. Make a study schedule - spreading out the material that you have to study over several days (or several months for major standardized tests) ensures that you are not left to cram the night before. While cramming might work for certain individuals, it is generally a second rate way to prepare for a test. Not only is it less effective with respect to individual unit tests, but it tends to make it more difficult to achieve success on cumulative final exams. Instead of cramming, take the time to set out a workable and relaxed study plan so that you can glide to success with a peaceful mind. Once you design a well tailored study schedule, it is imperative that you stay committed to following it. If you postpone studying on the first day, you will find yourself slowly succumbing to the resistance monster, also known as the procrastination demon. Without a solid stalwart commitment to follow your prospective study schedule, procrastination and cramming are sure to be your default strategy.
  2. Know the format of the test - there are many types of questions that can appear on a test: (a) multiple choice, (b) fill in the blank, (c) essay, (d) short answer, or (e) true or false. Make sure you know what to expect come test day. Once you have determined the format, use those same types of questions during your preparation. If it’s largely a multiple choice test, try answering an assortment of multiple choice sample questions. If the format is an essay, make sure to write out a couple of practice essays on projected test questions.
  3. Know the topics and sources being covered - are you being tested primarily on textbook material or in-class lectures? Should you be looking at supplemental educational videos or excerpts from magazines and books? You need to get a clear picture of precisely what is being reviewed on an exam.  If you are unsure, you can ask your teacher, check the syllabus, or phone a friend (just like on Who Wants to be a Millionaire!).
  4. Practice, practice, practice - simply re-reading your notes and a review guide is not enough. In order to be fully prepared, you need to do practice problems. But even more important than practice problems is checking your work and understanding your mistakes. Each problem you answer incorrectly or incompletely is a golden opportunity to solidify your understanding of a particular concept.
  5. Thoroughly understand the core concepts - the key to getting a great grade is understanding the key concepts and central ideas of a class. Getting an “A” requires more than just memorizing equations or vocabulary words; the onus is on you to understand how to effectively use equations, words, historical anecdotes, or scientific theories across multiple contexts and scenarios.
  6. Create a review guide - one of the best ways to process large amounts of information is by creating a review guide. In law school, students will often create hefty outlines from hundreds of pages of dense reading. These outlines end up being great study tools, but the ultimate value from these outlines is not derived from the finished written products themselves; the true benefits come from the actual process of boiling down massive amounts of information into a concise and comprehensible short form.
  7. Get a good night’s sleep - while pulling an all-nighter might seem like a good choice when preparing for a difficult test, it is actually a terrible idea. Trust me, I know from experience. You will be exhausted in the morning and may have a hard time staying awake during the exam. Moreover, much of the information crammed into your brain during that all-nighter study session will be difficult to apply as your mind will likely be working at a reduced capacity. Granted, there are exceptions to this overarching maxim. For example, if you know absolutely nothing about a particular topic, a hard study session might be the only way you can actually learn and understand the material being tested. But knowing nothing the night before a test is a predicament that most students will hopefully avoid, as it likely means that a student has not kept up whatsoever with assignments and class reading.
  8. Work hard from the get go - the best kind of preparation starts on day one. When you show up each day for class, show up. What do I mean? Pay attention to your teacher, take good notes in class, do your homework, and review all study materials on a regular basis. In the long run, taking 20 minutes a day to study will pay off to a much greater degree than cramming the night before a big test.

What is a "genius?" The 10 highest IQs alive today

Living in Los Angeles has its perks. One of those perks is meeting incredibly talented actors and comedians on the regular. After a brief show at Santa Monica's Westside Comedy Theater, I had the privilege of meeting Neel Nanda, a rising stand up comedian who has had already had a number of specials on Comedy Central. In one of his jokes, Nanda implored audience members to stop calling rappers geniuses. This was of course a tongue in cheek request, but his facetious remark was based on the numerous references to Kanye West as a genius. How could Kanye be considered a genius, Nanda wondered, when a line of his lyrics reads "Leave a pretty girl sad reputation/Start a Fight Club, Brad reputation." Okay. In contrast, Praveen Kumar Gorakavi, a certified child prodigy, derived a mathematical formula for perpetual calendar calculations at age 13 and developed a low cost artificial leg at age 15.  We really have to stop calling rappers geniuses.

But what is Neel really alluding too? Surely we all recognize that Kanye West is a larger than life figure to say the least, achieving musical fame and success at the at the upper most echelons of the entertainment industry. But is he a genius? Well that depends on the definition of the word. The term "genius" is thrown around modern parlance in a cavalier fashion to denote greatness of any kind. When a person writes an excellent book, produces a beautiful song, or solves a difficult math problem, he or she may be referred to as a genius. But is there a concrete rubric we can rely upon to accurately make this assertion? Well, not really. But there is one scale, one metric that is more or less universally accepted as a valid measure of mental horsepower: Intelligence Quotient. Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, is tested in many different ways. The most commonly administered test comes from the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. All of the available tests generally measure basic psychometrics using questions that involve math, verbal abilities, and spatial reasoning. The various raw scores are taken and then measured against folks of similar age. The general score bands and their supposed meanings or classifications are as follows (according to www.wilderdom.com):

  • Above 200: Unmeasurable genius
  • 180 - 200: Highest genius
  • 165 - 179: High genius
  • 140 - 164: Genius
  • 120 - 140: Very superior intelligence
  • 110 - 119: Superior intelligence
  • 90 - 109: Normal or average intelligence
  • 80 - 89: Below average intelligence
  • 70 - 79: Borderline deficiency
  • Under 70: Deficiency

Using these general ranges, we have an actual numerical score that classifies individuals as geniuses. Do you have an IQ above 140? Then you are a certified genius regardless of the works you have produced. While IQ tests may be imperfect in many ways, it seems that they currently offer the best methodology to identify a genius on a relatively stable scale. Want to know what an IQ test question looks like? I'll give you two (courtesy of http://www.free-iqtest.net/):

Which one of the five choices makes the best comparison? PEACH is to HCAEP as 46251 is to:

(A) 25641

(B) 26451

(C) 12654

(D) 51462

(E) 15264

Mary, who is sixteen years old, is four times as old as her brother. How old will Mary be when she is twice as old as her brother?

(A) 20

(B) 24

(C) 25

(D) 26

(E) 28

If you want to know the answers, I'll provide them at the end of the article. In the meantime, let's look at an inspiring list of the 10 highest IQs in the world today.  What I love about this list is that the individuals contained herein work in an array of different fields and specialties. Without further ado, I present you with the modern day IQ dream team.

10. Gary Kasparov (IQ: 190) - Gary is a chess wunderkind and is famous for drawing against a chess supercomputer that calculated over 3 million moves per second. Chess is widely considered one of the most intellectual games on the planet. Accordingly, it is no surprise that one of the champions of the mental sport makes this list of intellectual juggernauts.

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9. Philip Emeagwali (IQ: 190) - Philip is a Nigerian born engineer and scientist. He famously won the Gordon Bell Prize in 1989 for "price-performance in high-performance computing applications, in an oil reservoir modeling calculation using a novel mathematical formulation and implementation." Not too shabby.

emeagwali

8. Marylin vos Savant (IQ: 190) - Marilyn is the writer of a widely read column called "Ask Marylin." She is famous for accepting and solving all sorts of puzzles and riddles sent in from her loyal readers.

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7. Mislav Predavec (IQ: 192) - Mislav is a math professor in Croatia who also owns a prestigious trading company.

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6. Rick Rosner (IQ: 192) - Rick is a pseudo-celebrity of sorts, appearing on several talk shows and game shows, including a short visit on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Rick is well known for practicing and mastering IQ tests by studying myriad practice problems. His past jobs include stints as a dancer and bouncer (among other things).

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5. Christopher Langan (IQ: 195) - Chris is my favorite of the bunch. He comes from a tough background where his intelligence was essentially a bane, the cause of many beatings from fellow classmates who were jealous of his mental prowess. But that all ended when Chris began working out and putting on muscle mass to dissuade his would be assailants. He now bifurcates his time between working on a ranch with his wife and developing his comprehensive model of everything called the Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe. He also worked as a bouncer once upon a time.

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4. Dr. Evangelos Katsioulis (IQ: 198) - Dr. Katsioulis is an esteemed medical doctor, known for his support of gifted individuals in Greece.

Evangelos-Katsioulis

3. Kim Ung-Yong (IQ: 210) - Kim is a civil engineer today, but as a child, he was considered a step ahead of all other child prodigies. At the age of 3, he could read Korean, Japanese, German, and English. Moreover, he was capable of solving complex calculus equations.

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2. Christopher Hirata (IQ: 225) - Chris was invited to work with NASA at the age of 16, and went on to receive his Ph.D in mathematics from Princeton University at the age of 22. He currently teaches astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology.

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1. Terence Tao (IQ: 230) - Terence is the genius of geniuses. He became the youngest full professor at UCLA , and currently works on "harmonic analysis, partial differential equations, additive combinatorics, ergodic Ramsey theory, random matrix theory, and analytic number theory."

Terence-Tao-web

Answers to IQ test questions: E and B.


MCAT checklist

Preparing for the MCAT is a daunting task for any eager university student. There is so much material to cover and memorize in a relatively short period of time.  There are a plethora of online resources and course materials that can help you prepare for the substantive pieces of the test, but I wanted to give all of you future doctors out there a quick list of everything you'll need to know (from a logistical standpoint) for the big test day.  And in case you're wondering, the doctor in the picture above is my sister, Muneera Kapadia. She is a colorectal surgeon at the University of Iowa who took the MCAT some years ago.

Security

When you show up at the test center, it is required that you bring a valid piece of identification. The first and last name on your ID must exactly match the name in your MCAT registration. Middle names and initials are not required for the MCAT, so it is okay if they appear on your ID but not on your registration materials.

An acceptable ID must be current (i.e. cannot be passed the expiration date), issued by a government agency, include a photo of you, include your signature (you will be asked to duplicate it on the test date), and be whole (i.e. there must not be any evidence of tampering, such as clipped corners or punched holes).  There are a few forms of identification that the test center administrator will not accept. These include, but are not limited to, the following: temporary IDs, paper IDs, virtual IDs, employee IDs, school IDs, and any ID that does not fulfill the requirements mentioned above.  When you sign in at the test center, you must present valid ID, have your fingerprints digitally collected, and have a test-day photograph taken.

Location and time

Confirm the date and time of your test day (including local timezone and daylight savings time) so you can be sure that you are showing up at the right time. You should aim to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to your exam time. By being extra punctual, you can be certain that you will be on time even if some last minute delays occur. You should also confirm the current address of your testing center. There is nothing worse than showing up to the wrong place after many months of preparation.

Items allowed in the testing room

When taking the test, you are allowed to have your photo identification and foam earplugs in an unopened container. If you do bring earplugs, they must be presented to the test center administrator for inspection. You will not be allowed to bring your own scratch paper or pencils; the testing center will provide you with both. The testing center will also provide you with a storage space and key for you to keep all of your belongings. If you require an item for a medical condition (i.e. food, drink, insulin pump, crutches, etc.), you can apply for these special accommodations.

Items allowed during exam breaks

During your scheduled breaks, you will have access to food, water, and medication. You cannot leave the testing center or access any notes. You are prohibited from using your cell phone or any other electronic device. Holding or touching an electronic device is considered a violation of MCAT policies and is grounds for immediate dismissal. One important thing to note is that your bag must remain in the provided storage at all times. Accordingly, if you want to access food, water, or medication during your breaks, you should remove the items from your bag when you arrive.

For more information, please go to the American Association of Medical Colleges' website. Good luck!


ACT checklist

 

In order to be successful on the ACT come test day, you need to have all the right tools when you walk into the test center. Bringing the right tools can be just as important as preparing for the ACT exam. For your convenience, I have prepared a comprehensive checklist that will help you make sure that you have everything you need on the big day.

Photo ID & admission ticket

In order to take the exam, you must bring an acceptable form of photo ID along with your admission ticket. If you forget one or both of them, the testing administration will likely not allow you to take the exam. The recommended form of photo ID is your driver’s license or school ID. You can print your admission ticket by logging into your account on the ACT website (http://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/the-act.html).

Pencils and erasers

Make sure you bring at least two pencils to get through the exam. It is recommended that you bring several of them in case one of them breaks or gets too dull. You do not want to waste time during the exam sharpening your pencil. However, you can bring a small hand sharpener in case your test room does not have a sharpener for you to use during the breaks. All pencils must be a soft lead No. 2 pencil, since that is the only kind that the scantron will read. It is important that you bring an additional eraser with you. When you erase a lot, your pencil eraser can break or become full of graphite. As a result, an additional eraser could prove helpful when erasing myriad bubbles without ruining your answer sheet.

Calculator

During the math section of the ACT, you are allowed to use a calculator. However, it must be an ACT approved calculator. Using a non-approved calculator can be grounds for removal from the test center and dismissal of your scores. I recommend that you use a TI-84, as it is acceptable for numerous standardized tests. Sometimes, calculators can malfunction or run out of batteries during the exam. Accordingly, you should bring extra batteries or a backup calculator just in case. Make sure that you store these extra materials under the desk while you take the exam and let your proctor know that you might be switching calculators. This is done so that the proctor can approve the backup calculator.

Clothing

Be sure to wear layers on test day. You can never be certain of the temperature within your particular test center. Accordingly, dress in layers so that you can remove clothes if it gets too warm, or simply keep your multiple clothing layers on if it is a chilly environment.

Watch

Bring an analog watch with you when you take the exam. While some testing rooms do have clocks, it is not guaranteed. Even if your room has a clock, it might be out of view from your particular desk. If you do not own a watch, I recommend borrowing one from a family member or a friend. Helpful tip: use an analog watch and set the hands to 12:00 at the beginning of each section. This will allow you to know exactly how much time you have used without doing any extra math!

Food and drink

The test takes more than four hours to complete. As such, it is highly likely that you will get hungry over the course of the exam. A high-energy snack (i.e. granola bars or protein bars) is an essential piece of your toolkit. You should also bring a bottle of water to make sure that you are hydrated. There is nothing more distracting than taking a test when you are hungry and/or thirsty.


SAT checklist

As the SAT testing date approaches, you have done all you can to prepare for it. You have completed the practice tests with great care, reviewed each section fastidiously, and registered for the next SAT test date. So now what? Now you need to be prepared for test day.  Accordingly, here is a quick rundown of everything you'll need to do in preparation for the big day.

Check your test center

Make sure that there have not been any last minute changes to your exam location due to any test center closings. The College Board posts these closings a few days before each test. During instances of bad weather or power outages, check test center closings on Friday night and on Saturday morning before leaving for the test center.

Print your admission ticket

Your admission ticket is one of the most important materials you need for the exam. Without it, the exam proctors will not let you into the room to take the exam. Make sure that you print it out well in advance of the actual test day. You can sign in to your College Board account by clicking here.

What you MUST bring to the exam

Below is a list of everything you MUST bring to the exam. Failing to do might lead to your dismissal from the test site.  Here it is:

  1. Your admission ticket
  2. Acceptable photo ID (school ID or driver’s license)
  3. At least two No. 2 pencils with erasers
  4. An approved calculator (a TI-84 is recommended, but not required)

For your convenience, here is a link to the list of approved calculators for the SAT: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/taking-the-test/calculator-policy

What you SHOULD bring to the exam

While the following items are not required, they can be immensely helpful for the exam.

  1. A watch (without an audible alarm) will help you see how much time you have left for each section and keep track of time. Helpful tip: Use an analog watch and set the hands to 12:00 at the beginning of each section. That way, you can know exactly how much time you have used without doing any extra math.
  2. An extra calculator in case your primary calculator runs out of battery or malfunctions. You have to ask permission to access any backup equipment, and they cannot be on your desk during the test. A backup can prove immensely helpful and crucial to getting a good score if your primary calculator malfunctions.
  3. A drink or snack can refuel you during the break. You will get one ten-minute break and one five-minute break during the exam to go to the bathroom, drink water, and eat food. During this time, you can refuel and make sure that you are not hungry for the rest of the exam. A hungry stomach will distract you from taking the exam and possibly lower you score.

What you should NOT bring to the exam

Listed below are items that are prohibited.

  1. Any devices that can be used to record, transmit, receive, or play back audio, photographic, text, or video content.
  2. Audio players/recorders, tablets, laptops, notebooks, or any other personal computing devices
  3. Separate timers of any type (so bring a watch to time yourself)
  4. Protractors, compasses, rulers
  5. Highlighters, colored pens, colored pencils
  6. Pamphlets or papers of any kind
  7. Dictionaries or other books (no exceptions, even if English is not your first language)

If you are unsure of anything, be sure to ask the proctors ahead of time or your school counselor.

What if you have prohibited items?
Don’t worry. The test administration staff will collect and hold phones and other prohibited electronic devices during the test administration. Let them know that you have a prohibited device, and they will keep it safely for the duration of the exam. Just make sure that you do not forget to pick it up after the exam. If you are caught using an electronic device or if it makes noise, you can be dismissed and your scores will be canceled. Furthermore, the device can be confiscated and its contents inspected. Be sure to turn off your phone and any alarms you may have set on your watch or phone.