Tips for College Success

Even though I’m a bit late with this one (oops!), it’s never really too late to get organized, get prioritized, and get on track towards achieving academic and all-around success in college. Freshman year of college is an overwhelming time for even the most prepared of young students. The demands and workload are greater, and the accountability systems and oversight are fewer than in high school, so many new students are understandably overwhelmed. Add in the pressure of a new social life with far greater temptations, and college life can seem unmanageable and trying to navigate for new students.

However, with some simple tips (and then putting them into practice!), all students who want to achieve success can. Here is Part 1 of my tips for a successful college career:

1. Get acquainted with your school, program, and dorm

Every school is quite different in terms of how offices are set up, how and what services are provided, how information is disseminated, etc. The more you know, the more you can tap into all of those resources and maximize your experience and tuition dollars. Here’s how:

•       Attend all orientations

•       Walk around campus until you feel like you know it well (use a campus map!)

•       Spend time on the school’s website and platforms (e.g. BlackBoard) that you’ll be using and will be required to navigate effectively

•       Find out about services (career, tutoring/writing, accommodations/disability services, health center, counseling/psych, etc…) and locations of those services

–   Go right away to any offices or services that you need immediately (or know you will need in the future)

–  Many schools have different tutoring centers for different subject areas. Some will have a science specific tutoring center that is separate from writing help, for example. Find out what these services are and where on campus they are located, and don’t wait to go if you need help as appointments are generally required and are usually booked on a first come, first served basis

–   If you have a documented disability, go to your disability services office immediately AND tell your professors right away

2.  Be proactive with academic planning

As I said recently to a college student (who wanted to not make a plan and instead see how things would “pan out”): Panning is not planning! As in, don’t just go through the motions with a wait and see attitude. I’m not suggesting that plans will not change or that all will go according to your plans, but making plans that are real but flexible is a necessary task for academic success. Do the following things:

•       Meet your advisor and get to know her or him right away

•       If your advisor in nonresponsive, follow up via email, phone calls, and then showing up to their office to follow-up.

•       Some academic advisors are very active and participatory and helpful, others frankly are not

•       Go to the head of an office or department (or loop them in) if you are not hearing back or receiving the help you need from an advisor. CC them on emails and show up at the office to speak with someone

•       Take your school’s core requirements ASAP

•       Don’t put off required courses beyond a semester

•       But DO wait to take a specific class if you’re waiting for a specific professor to teach it

•       BUT…Don’t rush to declare a major

•       Take different classes and explore your options. This is the time to do that!

•       Plan smart:

•       Don’t overload your schedule with too many challenging classes in one semester

3. Manage your time

I know, this one’s easily said, but not so easily done for many. However, it’s a worthwhile endeavor as scheduling, planning, and prioritizing are critical for success and a less stressful experience in college and beyond. College is much less structured than high school and there are no parents or teachers to hold you accountable in that way. College assignments are not broken up and checked the way high school assignments and readings are, so it can be easy to fall behind. Find pragmatic, day-to-day strategies such as setting a timer, that work for you. And utilize metacognition and goals to guide you towards intentional, realistic behavior. Some strategies for time management include:

•       Create your own pacing schedule with reading, break up large assignments into smaller ones, and set due dates for yourself

•       Use a planner/calendar religiously

–      Find a system that works for you: get a weekly/monthly planner from the store, use the calendar or an app in your phone or tablet, etc…

–      Always have that calendar with you and check and update it daily

–      If you need more structure to your daily schedule, use an hourly calendar to block out your day

•       Have a long-term and a daily to-do list that you constantly update

–      2x per day is reasonable: morning and evening

•       Be realistic with your time goals and expectations for what you can accomplish

–      If you notice that you have a tendency to underestimate how long projects or tasks will take, take that into account! Add on an extra hour or day (whatever) to your initial estimate

•       Deadlines are real, even if you pretend otherwise!

–      Don’t stick your head in the sand if you find yourself getting behind. It happens, it’s almost expected during freshman year.

–      Do reach out for help- talk to your professor ASAP, reach out to your advisor if needed, and seek help from a tutor or the writing center.

–      I’ve seen students be afraid or ashamed to speak with a professor if an assignment is late, missing, etc. Remember: This happens to most students at some point, so you are not unique or special because of this and no one will remember (or care).

4. Stay organized

Again, easier said than done. But I firmly believe that anyone can stay organized if they’re willing to put aside time each day or week to do so.

•       Go through your school bag 1X each week- file away papers in proper binders/folders, recycle garbage papers, make sure things are neat, clean, and follow an order that makes sense

–      Don’t throw away old work or tests. File them away – just label each file or notebook with the class and semester

•       The syllabus is your main set of guidelines, due dates, and schedule for each class. Use it religiously, bring it with you to every class, and write down ALL changes to the syllabus on the syllabus- because it WILL change

•       Keep your desk/workspace neat. A few times a week, go through all papers and books and again, put them in the correct binder, folder, or recycling bin. Sell back (or donate, if you’re feeling giving) old books that you’re certain you will not need again (I suggest holding on to books relevant for your major)

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve gleaned some practical strategies for college success- comments are welcome! Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I’ll address procrastination, self-advocacy, how to navigate group projects, and more!

Common Core Testing: Should You Opt-Out?

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the Common Core Standards as they have been widely implemented over the last few years. Parents and educators are gravely concerned about the over-standardization of learning and the overemphasis on testing at the expense of learning, and rightly so. This week in New York and elsewhere across the country begins a days-long process of ELA and math testing for students in grades 3-8.

The Common Core Conundrum

Generally speaking, standards in education are necessary but must be flexible and take into account the individual nature of students and their needs. The Common Core Standards were developed largely by politicians and educational publishers, whose interests may not be aligned with those of students and parents. (Read more about the history and development of the Common Core: http://www.usnews.com/news/special-reports/articles/2014/02/27/the-history-of-common-core-state-standards)

The Common Core test questions are often confusing and frankly take tasks that are already slightly complex in nature (such as reading and answering questions, and solving multi-step word problems), and make them more complex to the point of confusion. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been befuddled by some of the questions I’ve seen on the ELA practice exams for NYS, so you can imagine a 7th grader being completely stumped on how to answer questions that are so badly worded that English teachers are having difficulty. I have honestly grappled with the opt-out issue as I so strongly believe in providing students with a high quality, individualized education that’s not rooted in “sameness” or standardization.

The Opt-Out Option

All of this said, I think that the opt-out movement has taken on a life of its own and parents who choose to go this route may be a little misguided and influenced by other interests. Read more about the national opt-out movement: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/03/10/as-students-opt-out-of-common-core-exams-some-say-movement-is-not-about-testing

The Opt-Out Movement in New York and Special Interests

In states such as New York, where proposed teacher evaluations would be based heavily on these test scores, the teachers unions are understandably going after the Common Core and testing, and are widely encouraging parents and students to opt out of the state tests. While I do not support teachers being evaluated and paid based on standardized test scores, I also do not support parents keeping children from taking the tests simply because they are blindly following advice that’s been disseminated by teachers’ unions or other special or political interests (or their neighbors). Check out this piece that discussed in-depth the issues surrounding Common Core and the opt-out movement in New York State: http://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/2015/04/07/opt-movement/25433719/

When to Opt-Out

There are exigent circumstances under which I think it is completely appropriate for a parent to opt-out of their child being tested. I understand and support opting-out in situations where a child may have special needs that are very different from the generalized population. A good example of such a case would be a child with a disability or a language barrier that would markedly impact their ability to take or perform reasonably on such a test or who is not yet receiving accommodations that include alternate assessments. Or, for instance, the case of a child with such extreme testing anxiety that making the test mandatory would actually cause them undue harm or distress.

Testing is a Reality

Beyond these more extreme situations, testing is a reality of life that almost every person in every generation has had to go through at different points in their education, and will continue to have to, even if the Common Core standards do not survive long-term. If students want to go to private school, college, graduate school, or the military, or get certified to be a professional in any number of industries, they will undoubtedly be required to undergo a variety of tests in order to achieve that goal. And on another note, to parents who are opting out simply because they think that their child will not perform well, I say that every child is being held to the same standard here and when a question is badly worded or even incorrect, most students will not do well. It’s not so much about the grades and scores in younger grades; it’s about the experience of taking a test and practicing the many skills (focus, reading, following directions, writing, problem-solving, self-monitoring, time-management, and many more) that students must learn if they are going to consistently perform well on tests.

And as we all know, it is harder to acquire new skills and to feel comfortable in new situations as we age, so by not exposing students to these tests while they are young and the pressure is less, we may be setting them up for disaster in testing situations later on- when it actually counts towards their future. What is the student who opted out now going to do when she must take Regents, APs, and ACTs/SATs in order to gain admission to college? Testing anxiety is an unfortunate reality that many students of all ages face, but it can be greatly mitigated through practice, instruction, and good use of study, testing, and metacognitive strategies. In fact, subjecting students to a barrage of unnecessary tests now may have the unintended but desirable consequence of desensitizing students to these high-pressure testing situations later, so that they can perform better when it truly matters. This is not a defense of the Common Core, rather a practical choice to turn what is a negative aspect of our education system into an opportunity to help students acquire life skills.

Lessons to be Learned from Common Core Testing

The most important point of not opting out is this: Teaching students that “opting-out” of a task or assessment which virtually all of their peers are taking, just because it may be difficult or even a little “unfair”, is a questionable lesson to be teaching our youngsters. Is this going to be a generation of children who, when the going gets tough in life, simply “opt-out”? There is something to be said for teaching lessons of social justice via education and protest, which perhaps many parents think they are doing by opting their children out of testing. And maybe parents who opt-out are accomplishing just that: the beginning of the end of standardized testing. But sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen at all, as we are heading further into an era of standardization of everything and data-driven everything. So in fact, this opting-out movement may accomplish very little at all, while the children who are not participating in the testing may be missing out on an invaluable experience.

Taking a test is not necessarily the most “academic” of experiences or even one that should be so valuable; but it is a worthwhile and necessary experience because we are pragmatists living in the real world, and assessments of all kinds are real. As we all know, tests are necessary to have options in life and in one’s career. Opting-out in the adult world is generally impossible or will result in negative consequences or missed opportunities; doing one’s best, even when the task at hand is not easy or straightforward, is a life lesson that we can always be learning and reinforcing. That’s the teachable moment here: We live in a world that is not set up just for us, so acquiring a certain amount of mental fortitude and perseverance, (in addition to some actual test-taking experience), is invaluable.

How to be a Parent Advocate

Last night I presented a workshop on the topic of “How to Raise a Successful Student” at the Briarcliff Manor Library after which I received particular interest in my advocacy tips and techniques. I’ve also had many conversations over the years with parents who are involved and invested in their child’s academic career, but who don’t necessarily have the proper strategies with which to effectively advocate for their child when it becomes necessary (and it almost always does at some point!). The topic of parent advocacy has long been a passion of mine, as effective parent advocates raise students who are more successful learners. Yet many barriers to participation and advocacy exist and prevent parents from harnessing their full power.

Why Advocate?

Research of the last several decades has shown that parents who advocate for their children and participate in their children’s education to a high degree raise students who perform better in school and achieve greater success. (Read a Research Summary that I authored that goes into greater detail here). It is thus only appropriate that parents, especially of struggling learners, know what is going on in the classroom and what their child is doing in school. Too many parents are “shut out” of the learning process by being inadequately informed of what is being learned, how it is being taught and assessed, how your child is performing, and what you and the school can do to increase student learning.

And many parents seem to be held back by fear of asking too many questions or of “bothering” schools, administrators, and teachers. While I respect and admire the humanity and compassion that parents have for teachers that causes them hesitation prior to sending an email or making a phone call, the reality is that that is part of the job that education professionals sign up for. And good teachers figure out a way to communicate regularly with parents, whether through an e-board or classroom newsletter, blog, or other media, between in-person conferences.

You Are Not the School’s Keeper                                              

As a parent, your first obligation is to your child and family. Parents are not responsible for the well being of the school, rather schools are responsible for the well being of students! As such, you as a parent are entitled to ask as many relevant questions as you need and are also entitled to know what is going on in your child’s classroom and what their learning experiences consist of. Parents of students who attend public schools are paying for their child’s education with their tax dollars while parents of students who attend private school are paying for their child’s education with their tuition dollars. It is only appropriate then, as consumers of education, that parents should be able to know what they are paying for.

“The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil”

If there are specific teachers who you want for your child the following school year, request them! Again, many parents are hesitant to “bother” schools by asserting what they want for their child, be it a specific teacher/classroom, services, or simple answers to questions. This creates a situation in which there are a limited number of vocal parents, with districts generally more willing to acquiesce to those outspoken parents. In my personal and professional experience, parents who ask more questions and are more insistent get better results for their children.

Here is a list of questions that parents of students, specifically in a K-5 classroom, should have answers to or should ask of their school administrators and teachers (or themselves-i.e. Has work been returned?), especially in the case of struggling or underperforming students:

– What is the student’s reading level? Specific areas of weakness?

– What content is being taught in all subject areas?

– What curriculum(s) are being used for each subject?

– How often is student assessed and how? Do assessments vary? (i.e. not just tests)

– Is work being returned in a timely manner with feedback?

– How are any learning challenges addressed? What strategies are being taught in those situations?

– How often is student getting small group time with a teacher for a specific subject (i.e. reading)

– What is/are the classroom routines, rules, and expectations? Systems of management and discipline? I.e. Individual reward chart, whole-class system, etc…

– How is the day structured? How much time spent on each subject and in “specials”?

– How much time for independent reading each day?Guided reading? Shared Reading? Read-alouds?

– How and how often is reading progress monitored and assessed? How often do students confer with their teacher?

– What leveling system for books does the school use? (i.e. Fountas and Pinnell, Lexile, Reading Recovery, etc…)

– How do students learn to check out/pick“ just right” books for themselves?

– How often do students get to go to the library and check out books?

–    What does the mathematics curriculum consist of?

– Are games incorporated into the learning? Technology?

When to Seek Outside Help

Most parents can effectively advocate for their children once they know their goals, the right questions to ask, and their legal rights.  However, families dealing with school districts that are attempting to circumvent the law may need the help of a professional to get the school to adequately serve their children. In those cases, it is a good idea to contact a non-attorney advocate, such as myself, to act on your behalf or in concert with you. In extreme cases, a special education lawyer may be needed, though I have managed to accomplish what lawyers have not been able to, in terms of getting schools to provide accommodations and or services to students and families.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for Part 2 of How to be a Parent Advocate, in which I will describe the exact steps for parents to take when advocating as well as some additional resources! Feel free to post a comment on how you have handled a situation with a school as a parent or an advocate!

The Stigma of Lazy

Parents and other adults who interact regularly with children and teenagers throw around the word “lazy” so often that I think we have collectively forgotten what the word means and connotes to those whom we label as such.  The word lazy is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “unwilling to work or use energy.” I have never met a child in all of my years who fits that definition. Children innately want to work, learn, explore, engage, and be active. Some of the best anecdotal evidence of this can be seen at the beach, where children can be readily observed eagerly shoveling sand, filling and lugging buckets of water, painstakingly sculpting sand creations, practicing swimming skills, and digging holes to reveal different layers of sand, all the while working cooperatively towards their objectives. This is hard work! Yet children naturally gravitate towards such work, which of course goes against the very nature of being “lazy”.

Why, then, do so many loving and well-meaning adults call children lazy on a frequent basis? I suspect that most parents don’t fully realize that they’re essentially “name-calling” when they tell their child that he or she is lazy. Calling another person “lazy” is vague and does not let them know what you want them to do; it does, however, send a powerful message that they are somehow lacking in value, as the word lazy applied in this way carries the connotation of worthlessness. In general, it is more productive to call out behaviors than to make blanket statements about someone’s person or character (i.e. “I think you could make more of an effort to read everyday” vs. “You’re lazy because you don’t read enough”). Read more about the dangers of general name-calling at home here. And sometimes what appears to be “lazy” behavior is masking a student’s challenge in a particular area, and additional support in that area can generally alleviate this struggle.

Research shows that calling children a name, be it “lazy” or “dumb”, is counterproductive and actually can be damaging and stigmatizing. (Read more about the psychology behind the personal and social stigma of lazy at Psychology Today). A more effective and rational route is to instead set reasonable expectations for children, then model and communicate them appropriately.  For instance, if you want your child to read more and spend less time hooked up to a computer or device, do the same yourself! Children love and look up to their parents, and they want to emulate you, so the more you do what you want them to do, the more likely it is that they will do it.

Obviously when we call children (and older students) lazy, what we really mean is: “I think you can spend more time on your homework” or “I wish you would apply yourself more” or “I know you can work harder and produce better quality work” or something to that effect. As adults with extensive vocabularies, we can and should do better by saying what we want children to do (along with modeling expected behaviors) and why, in appropriate and straightforward ways. This also teaches positive and productive communication skills! The other side of this, of course, is that our expectations of children and teens must be reasonable and it is the responsibility of parents and teachers to create opportunities for learning to be fun, stimulating, and interactive, so that children want to learn more. This creates a cycle of positive feedback and reinforcement for learning and can set children up to be lifelong learners.

So next time you catch yourself about to call your child or teenager lazy, stop and think for a minute about what you do want from your child, whether or not it’s reasonable, (and assuming it is) how you can facilitate that task or behavior in a productive way.  And while most parents can accomplish this at home with regards to engaging children in essential academic skill building, in some cases parents need the help of a tutor or coach to help children learn and improve in critical skills such as reading, writing, and math. Older students may benefit from help with organization and time management skills while some may need support in certain academic areas.  With a little thought, effort, and support when needed, all parents can assist their children in becoming activated learners!

The Power of Games

Parents and educators sometimes forget that games are some of the best teaching tools that exist. While no widely agreed-upon definition of game exists, to me a “game”, in its most primitive form, is a teaching tool. Ancient societies used games to teach essential skills to their youth; many of these early games may have focused on developing hand-eye coordination critical for hunting, fighting, or weaving. Games are interactive, multi-sensory, engaging, and often fun. This is why humans have been using games to teach children for millennia.

Yet in our modern times in which we focus heavily on standardization of learning (especially with the new Common Core Standards) and rote, memory based tasks, we seem to be moving away from and forgetting about the great power of games to teach critical reading, math, thinking, and life skills to students.  Educators and parents, especially those struggling to reach disengaged or seemingly unmotivated learners, must remember that games can help students develop many types of skills, from social and interpersonal lessons of cooperation and teamwork to math operations, problem-solving skills, and early literacy development.

I especially like to use games with younger students and find them to be some of the most effective learning tools that exist. Children enjoy the very idea of playing a game; whether it’s rolling dice, picking cards, moving pieces across a board, earning points, moving one’s body, or placing tiles in spaces, the various aspects of playing a game are exciting and interactive. Games require the use of many modalities: players have to manipulate physical parts and pieces, communicate with other players, record data and/or scores, mentally solve problems, and visually keep track of players’ progress, to name a few. I commonly use simple board, card, and dice games to teach and reinforce elementary math concepts and phonics skills; children often become so engaged in the game that they forget that they are learning!

In fact, I do have one very clever 2nd grader who figured out my ploy and recently said to me, “I see what we’re doing. We’re playing a game but we’re still learning reading.” Nothing gets by this one, and how right he was! I asked him if he still thought the game was fun and wanted to continue playing, and he replied in the affirmative!

Many learning games are quick and easy to make up or put together using common household items such as flash cards, dice, a deck of cards, dominoes, paper and pencils. It is simple and easy to turn a boring, rote task, such as memorizing multiplication tables, into a fun and exciting game that will teach and reinforce the same skills. For example, I turn memorizing times tables into the popular game of War by using multiplication flashcards instead of a deck of traditional cards. Here are two websites with additional game ideas to get you started:

http://www.granby.k12.ct.us/uploaded/faculty/wyzika/Dice_and_Card_Games_to_Practice_Math_Facts.pdf

http://www.education.com

While I also like to recommend computer-based educational games for parents to encourage students to play instead of, say, watching TV, one of my favorite aspects of simple, non-computer based games is that they require us to unplug from technology and learn, connect, and have fun in a simpler and more hands-on way.

There are countless word, letter, number, and problem-solving games that will help students acquire essential academic skills, and I imagine it is a lot easier for parents to get their children to sit down and play a game than to sit down and complete a worksheet. So now that summer is upon us, use the power of games to keep learning over break and all year long!

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“Personalized teaching style, depth of knowledge, attentive manner”

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–Nadira B., Scarsdale, NY
“Insightful, inspirational, and enthusiastic professional”

Alex has been working with our 2nd grade daughter for over a few months now, and she has had an amazing, positive impact on her. Alex is knowledgeable, hardworking, and extremely patient with our daughter who has been having some challenges reading. Alex was able to identify our daughter’s weaknesses and help provide the necessary strategies and techniques to help her improve her reading skills. Alex is an excellent tutor who my daughter says “makes reading fun”! She eagerly awaits and looks forward to her sessions with Alex as Alex never fails to have a clever game and fun worksheets for them to work on together. With Alex’s help, our daughter’s confidence has really grown, and her reading has significantly improved –she will actually read aloud now! We are so grateful to have found Alex – she has truly been able to teach our daughter in ways that she can understand and learn. We can’t thank Alex enough for all her hard work, and would highly recommend her. If you’re looking for an intelligent, dedicated and incredibly responsive tutor, look no further!

–Eileen B., Tuckahoe, NY
“Dedicated, professional, reliable”

Alex is an inspiring tutor, full of enthusiasm and knowledge. Her lessons are always personalized and tailored specifically to my daughter’s needs.  My 5th grade daughter always looks forward to meeting with Alex, as Alex always includes activities and games that make learning fun for her. I noticed her increase in confidence and it showed through her improvement in grades. Dedicated, professional, reliable – what more could you ask for! I would highly recommend Alex without any hesitation. Thank you, Alex!

–Jen A., White Plains, NY
“Excellent tutor, very helpful”

Alex worked with me very diligently and helped me with several college supplemental essays. Alex knew exactly what college admissions officers were looking for which helped me include critical information in my essays. Also, I was able to engage in conversation with Alex about how to go about revising my essays. She approaches the essay sentence by sentence and makes sure that the essential question: “so what?” is always answered within the writing. I recommend Alex as a tutor for anyone in need of help for any piece of writing.

–Brian W., Greenwich, CT
“Professional, effective tutor and advocate”

I hired Alex as a tutor and an advocate to help me prepare and receive accommodations for an NASM personal training exam. Alex was critical in helping me successfully study and prepare for the test by teaching me effective study skills and test-taking strategies. Alex was able to get NASM to provide me the full extent of accommodations that I was legally entitled to. She also made sure that the reader for my test was competent and prepared by personally escorting me to the testing center to make sure that they were following the appropriate procedures. I am extremely thankful to Alex for her dedication to my success and for helping me pass the exam.

–AJ Sauer, Tarrytown, NY
“Terrific tutor”

Alex is well prepared and detail-oriented and works hard during the sessions to make sure my son understands what she is working on with him.

–Bonnie Y., Scarsdale, NY
“Professional problem-solver”

My adult brother has been working with Alex for the past few months. She is amazing! I have never known someone in this profession to be so patient, insightful and so good at breaking down challenges into pieces of a puzzle in order to find the best possible solution.

–Andrea Weinberg, New York, NY
“Competent, knowledgeable, and committed”

Alex was able to help me improve my study and test-taking skills and I’m so glad I hired her! I am a nursing student in a competitive program and I felt lost given the vast amount of material that I had to study. Alex helped me use recall strategies like mnemonics to remember difficult terminology for exams. She was also helpful in teaching me metacognitive strategies for focus and self-monitoring during testing. I am especially grateful to Alex for helping me navigate through the difficult “red tape” of my program. She taught me effective self-advocacy techniques so that I was able to attain the outcome I was seeking by being assertive about my rights. I am now much more confident about going into my next semester of school and feel like I have the necessary skills to succeed.

–Sam Kudelka, Pleasantville, NY

TESTIMONIALS