Rachel Erwin is the Director of Exam Prep – English for MEK Review who is currently teaching SAT 1500. She also conducts weekly virtual office hours, where she helps students one-on-one.
The following is an interview between her and our marketing writer:
Working at MEK
Interviewer: What’s your favorite part of teaching at MEK?
Erwin: One of the best parts about teaching at MEK is the students. Our students are incredibly goal driven and focused. They want to learn new skills and improve their scores. It is fun to teach such hard working students.
Another thing that I enjoy about teaching at MEK is that we have one of the best curriculum structures. We develop our curriculum using experience and data, and our materials are designed to be the most effective. This makes it more enjoyable because we know we’re working with the best tools for instruction.
Interviewer: What does your title mean? What are your responsibilities/leadership roles at MEK?
Erwin: For my role as Director of Exam Prep – English, I oversee anything English related for the Exam Prep Department, including the programs, curriculum, students, and teachers for courses like SAT and ACT Prep. Tony Kim oversees the Math side of Exam Prep, and together we run the department. I know the students very well, whether or not I teach them personally. I look at their data and their scores. I talk to their teachers. I like to know how the students are doing in their courses, and I really enjoy knowing every student in the Exam Prep Program, even if they aren’t in one of my classes.
My other title, Director of Teacher and Material Development, means that I oversee all of the teacher training for the Exam Prep Department, High School Exam Prep Department, and MLC (MEK Learning Circles). I also oversee the development of materials for the English Department across all departments from MLC to High School Admissions to Exam Prep. We are always updating our curriculum and materials to be as effective as possible. In all of our courses, we make sure we are picking the best prompts, the best grammar exercises, and the best reading passages. We look for applicable homework, notes, quizzes, tests, and other materials students need in order to learn best in these programs.
Interviewer: What does it take for a student to reach an elite SAT score in the reading/writing section? What type of student improves the most?
Erwin: There is a lot that goes into getting an elite score. The national average score for SAT is usually around the 1000s, which is at the very low end of MEK scores. If a student scores a 1450 or higher on the SAT, they’re generally in the top 1 to 5 percent of test takers, which is the MEK average.
Our students who really want elite scores, meaning students who want a 1500 or higher, need to consider the following when preparing for the SAT.
Number one is time. Some students mistakenly believe that they can “will” themselves into improvement. They falsely believe that taking a lot of practice tests in a short timeframe will get them the score they want, but that’s not how it works. Students need ample time in order to develop the skills necessary to earn their goal score. What students need to realize is that learning, reflecting, and studying takes more time than they think.
Second, if a student wants to earn an elite score, they have to come to class every day ready to engage and participate. They have to take notes, answer questions, and completely believe in the strategies that MEK instructors teach their students. We are teaching students how to get the correct answers 100% of the time.
Specific to the reading and writing section of the SAT, I always stress the importance of studying and reflection. Students must study their previous results and mistakes in order to make improvements for next time.
To make the leap from the high 1400s to the high 1500s requires a lot of self reflection. Self reflection requires students to go back to their previous tests, re-solve problems they answered incorrectly, and diagnose why they got the answer wrong. It’s not about answering the question correctly so much as it’s about understanding the root cause of the mistake. Did the student incorrectly define a vocabulary word? Did the student misuse a strategy? Did the student misunderstand a part of the passage? Only when the student diagnoses where they went wrong will they know what they need to study in order to fix the root cause of the problem.
College Essay Advice
Interviewer: You’re known for really drawing out students’ unique stories in college application essays. What would you say is the secret to a great college essay?
Erwin: Because our MEK students tend to be more informed, they generally know the basics of personal statement writing, such as avoiding cliches.
My students have a tendency to believe that they have nothing unique to say. They believe that because they never walked on the moon or started a fortune 500 company that they don’t have any interesting stories to tell. But what I tell them is that, most of the time, the topic they write about doesn’t matter. What’s important is how the student talks about their topic in their essay.
There are plenty of essay topics that are boring and cliche in one student’s hands, but in another student’s hands these same topics are interesting, unique, and powerful. And the difference between a topic being cliche and boring versus unique and powerful is specificity.
Especially for a personal statement on the Common App, a more specific, narrow story actually makes the essay more memorable. Students should focus on telling one story or impactful moment from their life. Sometimes students want to cram in a variety of stories, which ends up reading like a list of their resume in essay form or an attempt at presenting themselves and their philosophy on life. These almost always make for boring essays.
College essay writing is about picking one narrow moment and using that powerful story to extrapolate all the reasons why the story matters, what it shows about the student and their character, and who they are as a person. These types of essays are infinitely more interesting than the more generic, general essays.
Words of Wisdom for Busy High School Students
Interviewer: When you were in high school, you were salutatorian, Captain of the basketball and volleyball teams, Captain of the Color Guard, you played tennis, were in honors band, volunteered, were officer in student council, the list goes on and on. How did you learn to manage your time and your grades with so many activities? What’s your advice to other busy high schoolers?
Erwin: I went to a high school in Texas. It wasn’t a small school by any means, but the school community definitely encouraged students to participate in multiple activities. I was a member in lots of activities, and much of why I was able to be a member in so many activities is because I prioritized.
At MEK, we emphasize the importance of study and scheduling habits. Sometimes students will attend my office hours so that we can set up a study schedule together. We list out all the activities they have to do in a given week, and together we schedule times between activities where they can spend time studying.
As a busy high school student, the way to reach balance between participating in activities and studying is to create a formal structure and schedule that will help them stay on top of their responsibilities.
For our students at MEK, they also need to schedule in time for rest. A lot of our students burn themselves out. It’s possible to be a part of many different activities in high school and have fun, but some of our students take on too much. Especially in this hectic time of Covid, students must schedule in time to rest and recharge.
Interviewer: What do you like to do outside of MEK?
Erwin: I really enjoy going to different shows and events in New Jersey and New York City. I went to a comedy show the other night. I went to the immersive Van Gogh exhibit, which was really fun.
Interviewer: Any book recommendations for high schoolers or middle schoolers?
Erwin: Read Jane Austen, not only will her novels make you a better English student, but it will also help you on the narrative passages for SAT Prep. Austen tends to be a more challenging author for students. So, if you can get used to reading Jane Austen early on, it will help you with your SAT Prep.
This summer, I recommended my AP Literature students read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It is a book that often shows up on the list of novels for the Literary Argument Essay on the AP Lit exam.
Not only are these recommendations great books and authors, they have the added benefit of preparing students for their future tests.