How to Prepare for a Standardized Test: Books, Tutors, or Classes?

To kick things off here with my new column at the Ivey Files, I wanted to share an idea that's been going through my head recently: the idea of efficiency in test preparation.  

As a tutor, I would sometimes get calls from parents who wanted to find out more about what kinds of "services" I offered. More than looking for a specific answer, they seemed to be trying to assess whether I sounded competent.  

Well, having spent many years thinking about the tutoring process, I wanted to answer this question a little more completely and give an idea of what it is a tutor actually does (or is supposed to do).

Designing for Gen Y at School: Give Me Your Wishlist

I'm going to be moderating a panel of architects who specialize in designing the next generation of spaces for university students. Please weigh in with your wishlist, as well as any complaints or thoughts about the current state of your school spaces. Some topics to consider:

  • Technology
  • Dorms/Housing
  • Safety
  • Food
  • Fun
  • Fitness
  • Athletics
  • Performing Arts
  • Religion/Spirituality
  • Classrooms
  • Study spaces

I realize it doesn't even make sense to break these out into separate categories, because Gen Y likes its spaces to be blended, so thoughts on blending are also welcome, and feel free to make up your own categories.

Prepping for the GMAT

Think the top business schools are going to give you the best advice about the MBA application process? Not always.

Recently I went to hear a panel of MBA admissions officers representing some of the highest-ranked business schools in the world, as well as two more regional MBA programs. Most fascinating to me was that the representatives from the top schools had almost nothing interesting or useful to say about the application process, while the most concrete and practical advice came from Suffolk's MBA rep.

Tips for Brand-Spanking-New 1Ls

This time of year I field lots of questions about the secret to success in law school. I don't know that there's a magic secret out there, but I do like these tips from Vikram Amar, professor at UC Hastings:

(I have to love a man who throws around words like "equipoise." Beautiful.)

If all of the above gives you the illusion of control over your law school grades, there's always this.

Yoga for the Mind

Learned about this cool new test prep service based in NYC -- it promises a "holistic" approach to test prep, so you're not just learning how to ace the test (SAT, GMAT, LSAT, etc.), but also learning how to tackle your test anxiety and stress using tools like hypnosis. I haven't ever tried a holistic approach to test prep, but given the number of applicants I hear from who feel absolutely crippled by their test anxiety, I thought I'd share it with you here. Apparently the founder (Bara Sapir) also has a 5-CD course coming out.

More info here.

Interviewing at the Pentagon, Part II (and a Note on Low GPAs)

I recently wrote about a conversation I had had with someone about to interview at the Pentagon.

He emailed me a follow-up after the interview and agreed to let me share:

I had to call the secretary when I arrived at the Pentagon so she could escort me to the office. (Go to the bathroom before you get there because, unless you have the requisite security clearance, your escort cannot let you leave their line of sight. Also, the Pentagon is BIG, so arrive 30 minutes before your appointment. Oh, and you have to bring two forms of picture ID. I was able to bring in my cell phone, no problem.)

Also, two other things I remember my friend [who helped me get the interview] and I talking about…

First, getting a federal job these days is difficult because of the high number of wounded vets coming back from Iraq. For many jobs, there is a point system (70-100) to determine your eligibility. If you are a vet, your get a 5 point bonus; disabled vet, 10 point bonus. Anecdotally: If a disabled vet meets only the minimum qualifications for the job, s/he will get the job before someone who scored a 100 and is not a vet. In a related anecdote (but not exactly the same as that described above), there was an ingtelligence job I applied for in Homeland Security. I scored an 89. The minimum score to be in the category of “best qualified candidates” was 100! And there was a 2nd tier for the vacancy in which the minimum score for the same was 105! Needless to say, I didn’t get a callback for that one.

Second, if an undergraduate wants to get a federal job, it is IMPERATIVE that they keep their GPA above a 3.5. It is VERY DIFFICULT to mask a poor UGPA, even seven years and many life lessons later.

He wrote about the interview in more detail on his own blog (note that the posting, including the posting header, includes some "mature language," in case that determines where you read it). His longer discussion about the GPA issue is very important for others to hear -- many college students have no idea how much a low GPA can come back to bite them many years later, whether they're applying to grad school or a job:

[The interviewer] then started talking about the importance of undergraduate GPA as a predicter of occupational performance in his departments. I started freaking out a little bit inside my head. I got my BA in 2001 with a fairly low GPA--really low...2.84 low. I'm a smart guy, but I never learned how to study in high school where everything was a breeze. Anyway, I had a 3.5 during my last three semesters of undergraduate work, so all my shitty grades came from 2000 and before...that's seven years ago. In fact, one of the reasons I came back to grad school full-time was to reestablsih myself as a serious scholar and professional. I'm about to graduate with my MA in three weeks and I have a 3.87. So, he keeps going on and on about the few times he's broken his own rule about hiring someone with a UGPA lower than 3.5 and how he's regretted it every single time. All I could muster was something to the effect of, "Well, sir, my UGPA is certainly not the best part of my resume." He ended the interview by asking me to send him my transcripts. After a great first two-thirds of the interview, the last third sucked ass. The interview lasted an hour and a half.

I left the Pentagon, dejected in the extreme. I grabbed a bite to eat and did a little shopping therapy at Best Buy. I called my friend who got me the interview and told him everything. I said that I wanted to send my interviewer an e-mail along with my transcripts explaining that I was a VERY different person now, more focused and disciplined. (There's a big difference between being 20 and being 28.) I wanted to have my current professors and employers send him recommendations that proved my UGPA is not reflective of who I am now. My friend said that was a great idea, and that my interviewer might have simply been giving me a test to see how I'd react. In fact, given the entirety of the interview, my friend was fairly confident that he still wants to hire me. So I sent my interviewer that e-mail yesterday, and my professors and employers will be sending him their recommnedation e-mails over the next few days.

Good luck -- keep us posted!

When Did Bar Exams Become So Sexy?

I guess you know the bar exam has arrived as a sexy topic when someone makes a movie about it (Bar Exam, The Movie!). I can't imagine anything more boring than watching a bunch of people agonize over the bar exam. Maybe that's because I've taken two myself: California, reputedly the hardest in the country; and Louisiana, definitely the weirdest in the country. Both were trivial exercises compared to my six-hour Property Law exam given by David Currie. Every other exam I've taken was pretty much a cakewalk in comparison, maybe with the exception of Roman Weil's Financial Accounting exam, which... well, let's just say I did a lot better than I thought I had walking out of that exam.

The bar exam is indeed big-stakes stuff. The practice of law is a government-sanctioned cartel, which means you can't go hang out a shingle or print up your business cards if you haven't jumped through a bunch of cartel-required hoops. One of those is the bar exam, meaning you can't legally practice law without passing it and meeting a bunch of moronic and irrelevant continuing education requirements.

Don't believe me? Here are some topics covered by one of California's approved continuing education providers:

  • "How Far So Far? Advances Women Have Made and Continuing Obstacles"
  • "Substance Abuse Prevention, Detection and Treatment Issues"
  • "Prevent Malpractice -- Learn Google"
  • "Dealing With Difficult People"
  • "Overcoming Procrastination: How to Kick the Habit"

What the general public doesn't know is just how low the baseline is for passing and maintaining one's licensing as a lawyer.

Newsflash: the bar exam is not rocket science. I attended a prep course for my first bar exam, and for my second I skipped the lectures entirely and just read the books for the two weeks before the test. I am not a born test-taker (hate those people!), so I assure you I don't have a magical gift when it comes to these tests aside from some baseline level of intelligence, which you can't teach anyway. What you can't do is take it cold, no matter how smart or great a lawyer you are.

Still, the bar exam prep industry is a big one and is dominated by BAR/BRI. The Business Section of today's NYT has a big article about a federal law suit brought against BAR/BRI in federal court in Los Angeles. The article discusses "just how petty and cutthroat the entire bar review market can be."

There's no reason there should be any meaningful barriers to entry in the bar prep market, particularly in the age of the internet. (And sure enough, those online courses exist.) So I don't understand all the caterwauling about big, bad BAR/BRI. If you don't like them, don't give them your money. You have options. Maybe those young lawyers suing BAR/BRI do in fact need that continuing ed course on how to use Google -- it would have taken them all of two seconds to find a competing course.

Empty-Stomach Intelligence

Interesting blurb in today's New York Times Magazine on empty-stomach intelligence:

Hunger makes the best sauce, goes the maxim. According to researchers at Yale Medical School, it may make quadratic equations and Kant’s categorical imperative go down easier too. The stimulation of hunger, the researchers announced in the March issue of Nature Neuroscience, causes mice to take in information more quickly, and to retain it better — basically, it makes them smarter. And that’s very likely to be true for humans as well.... [Researcher] Horvath says we can use the hormonal discoveries to our cognitive advantage. Facing the LSAT, a final exam or a half-day job interview? Go in mildly hungry, not carbo-loaded for endurance, and snack to maintain that edgy state.