I Don’t Take Science In School: Can I Still Score Highly In The ACT?



The short answer to this commonly-asked question is YES.

The ‘Science’ section of the ACT actually tests students’ data interpretation skills rather than their knowledge of scientific concepts. It’s true that a basic knowledge of foundational chemistry, physics, and biology is assumed, but any student who has taken science up to a Grade 10 level should have covered the topics in school. At essai, we go back over all of the essential science knowledge in just a few hours of class.

The key to succeeding in the Science section lies in developing an understanding of how to quickly interpret data, learning how to read tables and graphs, and becoming confident with  scientific methodology and experimental design.

Let’s look at an extract from the official ACT practice science section to see how one might tackle the questions WITHOUT using specific scientific factual knowledge:

Paper chromatography can be used to identify metal ions in wastewater. A drop of sample solution is placed on filter paper. The bottom of the paper is set in a solvent that travels up the paper (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1

The solvent carries the ions up the paper. Some ions move faster, and therefore farther than others, resulting in a separation as they move up the paper. The paper is dried, then stained, causing the ions to appear as colored spots. Rf values are calculated for each spot:

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Table 1 shows Rf values for 5 ions. Table 2 shows Rf values from 3 samples of wastewater. The same solvent was used for all ions and samples.

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Table 1 adapted from Thomas McCullough, CSC, and Marissa Curlee, “Qualitative Analysis of Cations Using Paper Chromatography.” ©1993 by the American Chemical Society.

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Note: Samples contain only the metal ions listed in Table 1.

Question 1: The information in Tables 1 and 2 supports the conclusion that Sample 3 contains:

  1. Cu2+ and Cd2+ only.

  2. Co2+ and Hg2+ only.

  3. Ni2+, Co2+, and Cd2+ only.

  4. Ni2+, Cd2+, and Hg2+ only

Answer Explanation: When the drop of wastewater Sample 3 is put on the filter paper and the filter paper is placed in the solvent solution, the ions from the sample travel up the filter paper with Rf values of 0.08, 0.78, and 0.95 (we can see this from the third row of Table 2).
If we cross-reference this information with the Rf of known ions in Table 1 then we can see that the sample must contain Nickel, Cadmium, and Mercury ions. Therefore the correct answer is D.

Question 2: Based on the information in Table 1, which of the following lists the metal ions in order from the fastest to slowest speed with which they moved up the paper?

  1. Hg2+, Cd2+, Cu2+, Co2+, Ni2

  2. Cd2+, Cu2+, Co2+, Hg2+, Ni2+

  3. Ni2+, Hg2+, Co2+, Cu2+, Cd2+

  4. Ni2+, Co2+, Cu2+, Cd2+, Hg2+

Answer Explanation: We know that the metal ion which travels the farthest distance in the set period of time in which the filter paper is placed in the solvent solution is the one which must also be travelling the fastest (remember the Math formula Speed= Distance/Time). To answer this question we look at Table 2, which happens to be ordered in increasing speed of ion travel. We just reverse the order of the table to find the correct answer (which is A).

Question 3:  Based on the information in Table 1, to best identify a metal ion using paper chromatography, one should know the:

  1. spot color for the ion only.

  2. distance the solvent traveled only.

  3. Rf value and spot color for the ion only.

  4. distance the solvent traveled and spot color of the ion only.

Answer Explanation: We start by looking at the data in Table 1 and eliminating options. The answer cannot be A, because some of the ions share the same spot color, therefore we cannot use this feature to differentiate between ions. The answer cannot be B, because the solvent would travel the same distance in all trials. It cannot be D, because that is a combination of the wrong answers A and B, and even having both sets of information would still not enable us to differentiate between ions. Therefore the correct answer must be C. Knowing the Rf value is the crucial piece of information, as it differs for each ion.

Passage and questions taken from: https://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/the-act/test-preparation/science-practice-test-questions.html?page=0&chapter=4#

Special Accommodations for Testing



It’s an accepted fact that each student’s brain works in a different way. And it’s an accepted fact that ‘Standardised Testing’ is designed to test the ‘standard’ student.  So why isn’t it an accepted fact that some students require special accommodations to be able to fulfil their potential in the ACT or SAT?

At essai, we’ve found that there is a real lack of knowledge surrounding the process of applying for and testing with special accommodations. There also seems to be a great deal of unfounded prejudice and rumour being spread amongst students and parents. To counter this, we’ve put together a myth-busting cheatsheet to clarify the process.

Note: This guide is ACT specific – get in touch if you’d like to know more about SAT testing accommodations.

  1. Why might a student need special accommodations?

    • They have significant problems concentrating for even a short period of time

    • They struggle to read or comprehend text

    • Their reading or comprehension speed is very slow

    • They have a medical condition which impacts on their test-taking

    • They have a speech and language processing difficulty

    • Their teachers or tutors have expressed concern in the past

    • They have a visual impairment

    • To see a comprehensive list of the eligibility criteria, see this document published by the ACT, go to: https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/6368-ACT-Policy-for-Documentation-Web.pdf

  2. But what if the student has never received extra time or support at school before?

    • If there is any suggestion that a student might benefit from special testing accommodations, it's essential to undergo an assessment sooner rather than later.

    • Don’t leave it until the last minute; sometimes reports can take a while to produce

    • Simply contact a professional (we recommend the specialists at the London Learning Centre in Vasant Vihar) who will conduct an assessment on the student

  3. How does a student apply for special accommodations?

    1. Apply as early as possible to ensure that the appropriate arrangements can be made

    2. The student must be able to prove their need for accommodations (see the link to the ACT guideline above for a detailed description of the required documentation)

    3. When registering online for the test, the student must select the ‘Testing with Accommodations’ option

    4. Then it will be possible to specify which accommodations are required (different depending on the student’s assessment report). Select "Center-Based Testing" if you the student can take the ACT with 50% extended time in one session via computer-based testing, or select "Special Testing" if the student needs accommodations other than 50% extended time in one session and/or need to take the ACT with paper and pencil

    5. When the registration has been completed, the student will receive an email with information about how to work with their school to arrange the special testing requirements. Be sure to forward this to the appropriate staff member, along with a completed ‘Consent to Release Information to ACT’ form.

    6. The school staff member will have to complete the rest of the application and organisation process. You should receive confirmation of the allowances granted within one month of submitting the request. Be sure to stay in close contact with the school staff member to ensure that everything is running smoothly, and that the deadlines are met.

  4. What does special accommodation actually entail?

    • Rather than taking the test on the official test date, there is a three-week window in which a student with Special Accommodations can arrange to take the test.

    • A student may be given 50% or more extra time, and may have the option to take the test over multiple days

    • If taking the test over one day, the student will have a 15 minute break after the Math test, and a 5 minute break before starting the written section.

    • The student may be allowed to take a pen-and-paper version of the test

    • The student may be authorised to use highlighter pens or other testing aids

  5. But it’s a really long test already, won’t I get too tired if I have extra time?

    • You don’t have to use all your extra time; you can choose to move on early if you are testing in a private setting

    • If you put in enough practice then your stamina will vastly increase

    • You can work slowly and steadily to prevent fatigue

    • IT’S WORTH IT!  It may feel tough at the time, but it can really make a difference to your score (and your future)

  6. Won’t colleges be reluctant to accept students who need special accommodations?

    • None of the colleges will know unless you choose to inform them!

    • All the information you supply to the ACT is strictly confidential

According to the ACT, around 5% of test-takers are provided with some sort of special accommodation. That’s 1 in 20! It DOES NOT mean that there is anything ‘wrong’ with the student, or that they are less intelligent than their peers. It makes no sense at all not to seek assistance if you suspect it might be required. It’s not ‘cheating’: it’s adapting the test remove the invisible hurdles and to make it fair for each student.

What exactly is a Radian?



Ever wondered why we go through all that trouble to convert degrees or radians and vice versa? And what exactly does it mean when we say 1 radian and how did we get there?

Well, a Radian, simply put, is a unit of measure for angles that is based on the radius of a circle. What this means is that if we imagine taking the length of the radius and wrapping it around a circle, the angle that is formed at the centre of the circle by this arc is equal to 1 Radian.

Now most of us are used to using the conversion formula for degrees to radians and vice versa but ever wondered how it came about? It's actually fairly simple. The circumference of a circle is 2 times π times r which means that there are approximately 6.28 Radians in a full circle.

Another way of thinking about this is to imagine you are standing in a circular park and you go for a walk around the outside of the park. You can either calculate this as walking the circumference of the park (which is 6.28 Radians) or walking 360 Degrees around it which in a way is the exact same thing

It is from this relationship that we say 2*π*r = 360 Degrees or that 1 Radian = 180/π Degrees and 1 Degree = π/180 Radians.

The Essai Files: 6. The British School Girls


The British School girls squad – Nooran, Junko, Samara and Asha – prepared for their ACT with us from the summer of 2018. Every class was a 100 mile-per-hour event full of laughs, gossip, Starbucks, and Subways, and the office has seemed eerily quiet since they left. They were  certainly a batch we won’t be forgetting, and so we had to stage a reunion for this special edition of the essai files.

We met in the basement on a rainy Thursday afternoon. There was pizza (but no barbeque sauce- Nooran was upset).

The interview got off to a good start when Junko became the first (and only?!) person to wish Farhad on Valentines Day.

Essai: We should have made this whole interview V-Day themed … let’s at least start by bringing up that iconic Inesh and Samara photograph.

Samara: Haha we still get teased about that. We’re friends!  

Essai: Hmm okay sure *cough*

Essai: Ok, let’s begin: Imagine we’ve just met for the first time. Talk to us about the girl sitting next to you.

Samara:  Junko likes the colour yellow. She’s obsessed with it. Actually she used to hate yellow, then one day everything changed – now she’s even Yellow House Captain! But she’s not a sunshine person on the inside – she’s really dark. The darkness goes deeper than her resting bitch face.

Farhad: Yeah, even I’m scared of Junko.

Asha: Nooran is the opposite – she’s always in black but on the inside she’s a ray of sunshine. That’s probably why they’re best friends. Opposites attract.

Samara: Nooran’s an egg-head. She’s good at breaking down math problems and she’s good at breaking down. Period.

Essai: You are pretty good at having dramatic meltdowns Nooran! Pretty sure you cried in ACT class more than once.

Nooran: I can cry on demand. It’s a talent.

Essai: Maybe one to leave off the resume though. Where do we see Nooran in 10 years time?

Samara: Jail.

Junko: She’ll be a subzi-walla. Or a math professor.

Asha: She’ll have turned into her mom.

Nooran: Shut up. I can see myself doing something related to politics. I’m starting to become more and more interested in the world of social science.

Essai: What about everyone else? Asha has been too quiet so far- as usual!  Let’s talk about her.

Junko:  Asha is really not a centre-of-attention girl. She needs to get to know someone before she opens up.

Essai: We were worried about you when you first started coming to us for class Asha! You barely said a word.

Junko: But by the end she would never shut up!

Samara: Asha underplays herself. She’s probably the most talented one out of all of us – her art is insane. But she won’t tell you about it.

Asha: I’m also pretty good at watching TV. Seven hour series? No problem – one night, done.

*essai is very impressed*

Nooran: I think one of Asha’s best qualities is that she really doesn't care what people think about her. It’s brave.

Junko: I can see her as an artist in the future – or maybe an architect. In Canada. In a big shiny tower-block, sitting in an office with a huge window.

Essai: Who else do you think is destined for greatness?

Nooran: I think Samara will be a CEO – or she’ll lead some sketchy cult. She can be pretty controlling when she wants to be.

Essai: You’re right! If she didn’t want to work in class then she was an expert in re-directing the conversation away from the lesson topic.

Samara is dramatic. Everyone agrees. She’s a leader – Head Girl through and through.

But she’s self destructive. More agreement. essai asks what this means.

Samara: Isn’t everyone self-destructive from time to time? We all do stuff that we know isn’t good for us and that we’ll probably regret. But that’s not really me any more. I mean, I’ll do stupid things like leave my essays to the last minute and get a bad grade, but in general I think I’ve become pretty smart about my decisions.

Essai: What changed?

Samara: In 9th and 10th grade I really didn’t care about my academics. But then I fell in with these girls here, and I guess I was peer-pressured in to studying! It’s probably my competitive nature that motivates me now.

Essai: All you girls are motivated. It’s one of the reasons we liked teaching you so much. It’s actually refreshing (and encouraging) to work with students who are really focused on getting good grades in school. Is that something which comes from the environment at the British School, or elsewhere?

Nooran: I definitely care – probably too much. I’ll admit that I get upset when my teachers don’t give me full marks. But that’s probably my egoistic side coming out.

Junko: It’s something which comes mainly from our families. They all want us to do well; we’ve grown up in environments in which academics were a priority. Not everyone at school cares as much as we do.

Essai: So many of our students want to go in to the world of business, economics, finance … is it something which genuinely interests them or are they just responding to a different sort of familial influence?

Asha: It’s hard to say. Economics is definitely one of the most popular IB subjects though. And it’s true that following your family into business is generally expected in many Delhi families.  But it can be hard to really know what’s going on inside the heads of the other kids at school.

Essai: Why?

The Girls Together:  Because everyone is so fake!

Essai: Fake?

Junko: Sometimes it just seems like school is one big popularity contest. People will tell you one thing to your face, then they’ll bitch about you behind your back to score a point.

Asha: The school elections opened our eyes to the fact that life, and politics, is about getting people to like you. If they like you, they’ll support you, and that’s the only way you’ll be able to exercise power.

Essai: You’ve pretty much summed up politics right there.

Samara: It was actually quite depressing to realise this! I had to really make an effort not to become fake during my election campaign. But the whole process changed my perspective on leadership and friendships more generally. It also made me realised that I forgive people too easily.

Junko and Nooran: She does. She needs to harden her heart a bit more now that she’s in power.

Essai: We’ve really enjoyed having the chance to get to know all these different aspects of your personalities over the past few months. But we really did not know what to expect when you all first turned up! Actually we will happily admit that we used to get a little nervous before your classes. Do you remember what your first impressions of essai were?

*Asha jumps in right away*:  I didn’t like it. I hate reading and we started with reading. I just wasn’t open to it! I didn’t want to do the ACT and my parents made me.

Essai: And then? Did we win you over with our charm and wit?

Asha: Then I decided to give it my best. And I didn’t look back! *laughs*

Junko and Nooran: Our diagnostic was a traumatic experience.  We had plans to go for lunch, then we found out we had to take a 3 hour test! So we weren’t happy.

Nooran: But our first real class was math with Kabir, and we pretty much started liking essai straight away.

Junko: I like the concept at essai because you guys are chilled!


Asha: It means you are the opposite of our other teachers! You’re relaxed.

Samara: We had to work, but we also had conversations. You made an effort to know us and talk to us and make things interesting. I’ll always remember my first class – Farhad tried to explain the Latin root of the word ‘inference’: it comes from a greek word.

Essai: φέρω

Samara: Yes, Ferry. You said to infer meant to ferry across from one bank of meaning to the other.

Essai: Wow. You remember. If I could cry on demand like Nooran, this would be my moment. This even beats the ‘pinnate’ moment, when you pronounced the leaf’s name like ‘pin-ah-tay’.

Samara: That was so funny! And then pinnate became our batch name, and you tried to get all of us to follow your tree-spotting Instagram account.

Essai: Yes! Shout out to @delhitreespotters .

Nooran: essai somehow manages to find a balance of learning and having fun. That’s why it’s different here; that’s why we like hanging out here.

Essai: Even when we confiscated your phones? We remember that Junko was not at all comfortable with that!

Nooran: Junko spends six hours and eleven minutes on her phone each day!

Junko: I just like to stay in touch with everyone! If you DM or snapchat me I’ll reply in seconds.

Nooran and Samara: But she’ll send super long and detailed emails too!

Junko: We love sending emails to one another! The more formal the better.

Nooran: I’ll always remember the email you sent me to tell me you had a boyfriend..

Essai: What? She broke the news in an email?

Nooran: Yes! I still have it! She was so apologetic and serious *She begins to read it out..*

Junko: Hey, I can read out some of your emails too! *Hola Chicas, good afternoon, how have your days been? I’m on my way home from a rather short ACT class. I had physics class this afternoon,  and the highlight of my day was when Miss said “Good girls, good” after our presentation. Actually, that’s quite sad, I should probably find another highlight. Anyway, in basketball Madhav was looking hot in his shorts….*

**rest of emailed redacted**

Essai: Haha that’s brilliant. Thanks for sharing!

Can we finish with a game? You’ve each been sent to a (different) deserted tropical island where you’ll have to live until you are rescued. You can take three songs, one book, and one luxury item with you. What would you choose?

Junko: My tracks would be Sweet Creature (Harry Styles), Better Together (Jack Johnson), and Party in the USA (Miley Cyrus). I’d take Noughts and Crosses (Malorie Blackman) to read, and my luxury item would be a mannequin head  so that I could do hairstyling.

Asha: I can’t choose! I definitely wouldn’t take a book. Apart from my sketchbook. That would be my luxury item – a sketchbook and some art materials.

Samara: I know which songs I’d choose – can I take five? Desi Girl (Dostana), Hall of Fame (Will.I.Am), 90210 (Travis Scott) , You’re Beautiful (James Blunt), and A Team (Ed Sheeran). My book would be Harry Potter – I’d never get sick of that. As a luxury I’d have to take a DVD player so I could watch Yeh Jeevani Hai Deewani  on repeat. I’m obsessed.

Nooran: I think I’d take a book which has been sitting on my shelf for ages and I’ve always wanted to read – Das Kapital. Being on the island would force me to read it! Perhaps I could turn my island into a Marxist paradise. My luxury item would be a notebook and pen so I could write, and my music would be Drive (Oh Wonder), Dark Necessities (Red Hot Chilli Peppers), and Still Feel Like Your Man (John Mayer).

Essai: Not one person would take an essai binder? Not even a practice ACT paper? Wow. Ouch. We’d definitely cover all the cave walls on our desert island with grammar rules and math formulae. That would be a true paradise.





We asked Aatmik to reflect upon his life and learning so far in terms of a colour.  

A: I had a navy-blue childhood. Solid, serious, academic – the colour of my school blazer.

When I look back now I think I probably peaked in fifth grade. It sounds strange, but in elementary school I breezed through classes and topped tests. It was towards the end of middle school when work became more challenging that I gradually lost my motivation and settled into the role of a consistent procrastinator. I never lost the desire to expand my knowledge though, and the stability of my childhood provided the foundations I needed to grow personally and intellectually

E: The picture you’ve painted so far is of a linear, happily uneventful childhood in Delhi. No bumps in the road?

A: Well I guess… wait, actually…. No, it’s nothing. It’s just, when I think about the past few years there was one thing that stands out against the normality.

E: Hold up! That sounds like a story!

A: Hmm, it’s about a girl.

E: This is going to be interview gold Aatmik! The readers need to know what happened.

Aatmik looks embarrassed.

Essai refuses to change the subject.

A: Fine, okay, I’ll tell you the story.

It started when I was in 8th grade at a quizzing tournament.

E: Ahh just like all the best love stories do….

A: I was sitting with my team when I caught sight of a girl in the row in front. I think I almost fell in love with her straight away.

E: A Romeo and Juliet moment?

A: Not exactly, we didn’t get off to the best start! My team was playing pretty competitively, and we kept blocking hints from the quizmaster. This annoyed her, and then in the final round of the competition she challenged the quizmaster from the audience when he accepted my answer of ‘butterfly’ instead of ‘butterfly effect’!

E: So not a heady romantic whirlwind from the off...

A: I found it attractive that she was prepared to call me out on my bullshit – it’s not often people will do that. I knew I’d have to work hard to win her, so my 8th grade self got down to some dedicated social media ‘research’.

E: What was your plan?

A: I wrote rhyming riddles based on her pop-culture interests and posted them anonymously on her Ask.fm profile.

E: Wow. And they say romance is dead.. Maybe the millennials are just re-inventing it. Anyway, did the puzzles prove a success?

A: They definitely impressed her, and eventually I revealed my identity. We started talking on Facebook, and there was an instant connection between us. We had a lot in common, and eventually I managed to convince her that I wasn’t a pompous git (even though I might sometimes act like one) and we became an ‘official’ couple.

E: So it was happy ever after?

A: No, in short. Half a year later her family relocated to Pune, and although we tried to make it work long-distance, she broke up with me in April 2016.

E: That’s devastating! Were you able to move on?

A: It did take me a really long time to get over it. I think that heartbreak can be seen as analogous to a diminishing geometric series – over time it reduces but never disappears completely.

E: Aw thanks for sharing that story! So after this happened it seems like you threw yourself into as many distractions as possible – Debater, quizzer, policy researcher – schoolwork wasn’t enough of a challenge for you?

A: Participating in these extra-curriculars was more of a natural progression of my interests than a conscious choice to expand my activities list. I’ve always paid attention to the newspapers and current affairs, and I think I naturally gravitated towards the quiz team as a place where I could use all the facts and knowledge I’d been chasing throughout my early years. I shot up the ranks of the team pretty quickly, and soon was in a position to learn a lot from the 12th graders I suddenly had access to. With debating, it was more a case of channeling my natural love for a good argument.

E: So aside from getting into arguments for fun, how were your academic interests developing at this point?

A: Up until middle school, I (and my parents) had assumed that science was my ‘thing’ – I was even selected for the IIT track. But my heart was not in it, and when I stopped putting effort into my studies I realised that I wasn’t going to become a scientist, doctor, or engineer. In contrast, literature was becoming increasingly influential in my life. I’d moved on from my early diet of Harry Potter and Enid Blyton and begun to explore the Modernist Western canon – Asimov, Salman Rushdie, the Beat writers. Through these books, my knowledge of the wider world continued to expand, and I became especially interested in US politics.  When I had to pick some APs I chose micro-economics, which I found fascinating, but I still didn’t have any clear idea of what direction I wanted to take my studies in the future.

E: The summer you first came to essai you were in 11th grade and you’d just published your own research paper. Tell us, how exactly does a high-school student turn an interest in economics into a fully-fledged academic report?

A: It started when I participated in a Model United Nations debate on drug policy. I had gotten really into the research, and came across the work of a Harvard professor who advocated the legalization of marijuana. I read a lot of his work, and decided to email him to ask if I could help him with his current projects. He was kind enough to send me his research notes and set me a small assignment related to his latest project. This encouraged me to start writing a research paper about African trade economics, inspired by another MUN conference I’d participated in. I tried emailing various professors to find a collaborator or co-author, but when I received no responses I just wrote the paper on my own.

E: Did this experience give you confidence when it came to write your college application essays?

A: Actually, despite the fact that I’d written a lot before, it was only when I started working with essai that I developed the confidence to put exactly what I wanted to say down on paper. Indian culture is very much oriented towards ‘taking the safe option’, which translates into students being afraid to write anything in their applications which might make them look bad or stand out from the crowd. At essai, I was given the support to find and develop my own ideas, and guided as to how I could make them work as essays. This meant that I was able to very quickly overcome my natural skepticism and begin to enjoy the whole application process.

E: That’s encouraging to hear. Do you think essai can do anything else to help students overcome this societal pressure to conform to a certain mould throughout their application?  

A: I think that essai should start getting students to come in as early as possible – this would allow them to have a greater impact in overcoming any negative influences. Having conversations with students in Grade 9 or even younger would give them perspective about what they really need to do to get into college, and would give them the time to take up new hobbies or sports and really excel at them. It would also allow more time for their social projects to develop and grow in exciting directions.

E: You’ve put a lot of thought in to the direction essai should be taking in the future – but what about your future?

A: Haha.. when it comes to my own future I am very much a pragmatist. I am self-aware enough to recognize that I love good food, high culture, and good art, and so realistically, I’ll need to pursue a career that allows me to enjoy all of this. I do feel the pressure from my family and background to go into a ‘prestigious’ position, but above all else I want to be successful and happy in my career, so I’ll keep my options open and see what happens.

E: Do you see yourself staying in India long-term?

A: Again, I’ll be honest and admit that despite spending my whole life so far in Delhi, I’m not a fan of India. It’s hard to describe exactly why, but I do feel like I need to escape the crowds, chaos, dirt, and pollution.

E: You don’t feel any kind of guilt at leaving your ‘home’ country?

A: I don’t think I should feel guilty about wanting to live in a place which is more aligned to my personal and cultural interests. Maybe it’s something to do with the value of self-centeredness which the Indian education system seems to instill, but I don’t feel a sense of responsibility to stay in India, and I don't think many other people of my generation do either.

E: That’s interesting. I think a lot of other teens would agree with you about this point, and it certainly provides food for thought as we bring this interview to a close. Thank you so much for talking to us, Aatmik – we look forward to following up this interview when you come back and visit us from Princeton!






In this edition of essai files we traverse cinema, music, and education with  AES 12th-grader and former essai student Zeefan Kanwar.

“I don’t know where the ideas for my work come from but I know what my message is. Open your eyes- engage with reality- recognise humanity. Step outside of your materialism and your ego-centrism and start to appreciate everything you’ve got.” Zefaan Kanwar, 2018  

E: Let’s start by talking about when you first got behind the camera. Do you remember the exact moment?

Z: My 10th grade English class. We were told to make a short performance of the scene in Macbeth in which Banquo is killed by the assassins, but I decided to film the scene instead.  No-one else did this, but I loved how using the camera as a tool enabled me to be more creative and put my own twist on Shakespeare. My classmates liked my work, and after that point I didn’t really look back!

E: And what happened next?

Z: My friend Nolan introduced me to Pulp Fiction, and  I was completely blown away by the angles, the lighting, the colours. I can’t describe the way they made me feel. I became hooked on the non-linearity of the narrative, on the way Tarantino messes with the audience’s mind. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar had a similar impact on me- when I left the cinema I knew I wanted to make movies that were capable of provoking such emotion and thought in my audience.

E:  How did you go about trying to achieve this in your early work?

Z: I tried to create content that defied people’s expectations. The first proper short film script I wrote was supposed to be an entry for a competition, but it ended up a 90-page thriller about a guy seeking revenge for his father’s murder. He invites all the suspects to his house and kills them off one by one.

E: Sounds dark! What came next? And did you have any kind of unifying ideas or sources of inspiration at this point?

Z: The next movie I made was a silly piece about a guy hallucinating that he’s at India Gate, when actually he’s just crashing around his own house. At the start there really was no ‘message’ or logic to movies I made- they were very much one-dimensional pieces.  I just wanted to entertain myself, entertain my audience, and ideally mess with their minds a little. It wasn’t until later on that I focused on conveying a message in my work.

E: What message was this? And what brought about the shift in focus for your film-making?

Z: It wasn’t until I started at AES in fifth grade that I realised how much my life was centred around demanding more, the best, always competing. I was humbled when I realised how different my attitudes were to those of my new classmates, and shocked at how self-centred I’d become.. My eyes were opened to the vast inequality in Indian society, and I began to feel more and more committed to delivering this wake-up call to others.

E: One of your short films was created in order to do just that. Tell us about ‘Rahul’.

Z: I had jumped at the chance to participate in a school CAS project in a city slum, but was struggling to come up with a realistic, achievable plan to help improve the lives of the inhabitants. My  school seniors had installed latrines, but I wanted to start a debate about the causes of the problems rather than try to fix the symptoms. Eventually I had the idea that I could use my camera to tell the story of just one boy, and then use (t)his story to spread a bigger message about social inequality - especially educational inequality- in slums across the country.

E: The film is incredibly touching and inspiring, and the cinematography and editing is pretty sophisticated even in this early piece. Did anyone teach you how to create and edit film?

Z: I never had any formal ‘training’ to make movies. I guess I have learnt a lot through experimentation- and also through being incredibly interested in the methods of other directors. I watched a lot of video essays on YouTube- such as the Every Frame a Painting series- where I picked up the language and ideas I needed to get a better understanding of how good movies are made. I find it fascinating to watch documentaries or ‘behind the scenes’ clips featuring movie giants like Kubrick and Tarantino. When I’m watching I try to ‘enter the minds’ of these super-talented directors in order to understand why they made the decisions they did.

E: So would you say you are inspired by big names like these?  

Z: Stanley Kubrick is my biggest influence for sure, and also the director I most look up to. Kubrick doesn’t rely on trends to make his movies a success- he’s brave enough to trust his creative instinct. Also, there are so many different themes and interpretations buried within each of his films that every person can create their own interpretation. These elements combine to make Kubrick’s work both timeless and universal.

E: Most recently you’ve thrown a bit of a curve ball at us with the release of several rap music tracks. We can honestly say we weren’t expecting that! Does this signal a move away from the camera and towards the microphone?

Z: Definitely not- my heart will always be in film production! But at the end of last summer I felt completely creatively drained and needed to take a break. I’d just got back from an internship with a small production company in New York, where I’d had a chaotic and pressured experience directing my own film with a team behind me for the first time. We had problems with the actors, I couldn’t get the shots wanted, and the whole filming process on the streets of the city was very rushed. I learnt a huge amount from the experience, but it totally exhausted me. When I got back to Delhi, a few of my friends were recording music and DJing, and one day I joined in one of their sessions. One thing led to another, and I enjoyed it so much I decided to put together an album. I was really surprised by how popular it became on Spotify! Most of the tracks, like ‘Snake’, are my own experiments with mimicking the typical rap style which is so popular at the moment. .

E: But how does the larger-than-life, rap-star Zefaan coexist with the social-campaigner, down-to-earth  Zefaan? How was it possible for the same guy to create such polar-opposite pieces as Snake and Rahul?

Z: I guess I’m still trying to figure that out myself! But I know that the stereotypical rap music is not the direction my work is going to take from now on. I’ve got the fun, frivolous stuff  out of my system, and I’m ready to get back to spreading my social message. I think my most recent track ‘Alone’- which I created the lyrics and beats for- marks the end of my creative break.

E: What’s the track about?

Z: Being alone.


E: Right.. Well it seems like you’re getting ready to start taking your work seriously as you prepare to leave for college in the summer. Did you get stressed at all during the application process?

Z: I was pretty nervous about getting in to a good college- but then I remembered that no matter what happens I’ll always have my mindset and my health!

E: Haha we like your philosophy! The essai team loved working with you on your film-school applications, mainly because it was clear that you really were passionate about what you were applying for. Did this make it easy for you to write your essays?

Z: I don’t think anyone could say that the essay writing process was ‘easy’, but Nick and Silvio definitely asked me the right questions. The whole process worked so well because they always showed an interest in whatever I was doing, and this made me feel like a ‘real person’ with a real interest in cinema.

E: Was taking the ACT as smooth a process as your college applications? You only came to us for the English section...

Z: Yeah, I’d started my ACT prep somewhere else, but just couldn’t get my English score above a 26. I came to essai for help, and after actually learning about the ‘basics’- like clauses- I jumped straight up to a 31 after one class. I still use so much of the stuff I learnt- like the rules for semicolons!

*Farhad nearly sobs with pride*

E: On that note, it’s time for the colour question. Assign essai a shade!

Z: *Thinks deeply for a long time* Brown. I just feel it.

E: No explanation needed? Okay..! Now, we need to ask you this- if you were going to make a short film about essai, what would you do?

Z: I would make a drama, and Ganesh would be the protagonist. So much potential there...

E: Now there’s a film we want to see! What about if essai were a film- which one would we be?

Z: *Thinks deeply again*. I think you’d be ‘Fitzcarraldo’ - it’s a movie that was made in West-Germany in 1982, about an Irish man who tries to move a steamship over a mountain in order to tap rubber so he can raise enough money to build an opera house in the jungle.

E: So we are equally as determined to do the impossible? Or just foolhardy!?

Z: Hmm maybe a bit of both? Actually, one of my favourite quotes of all time comes from the director of that movie- Werner Herzog. He was talking about the Peruvian jungle in which he shot Fitzcarraldo, but I think it can be understood in the context of the whole world. He said:

“Taking a close look at what's around us there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of... overwhelming and collective murder...We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication... overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order...We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”

E: That’s a wrap! We can’t wait to see what you produce next Zefaan. Good luck.












essai finds Wolfy waiting for us in *her* chair near the front door of the office- earphones in. She’s displaying her ‘Brown Class of 2022’ sticker proudly on her laptop.

E: Let's start with the question everyone wants to know the answer to. How did you become the Wolf? 

W: Farhad caught me listening to Shakira before class and that was that. 

E: And now you're essai's cover girl ! (If you don't get this reference you need to check out our website now)

W: looks embarrassed
Honestly I didn't even realise you were taking photos that day! 

E:  Oh Wolfy! You’ve always been a favourite of ours. But have you always been such a wonderful student?

W: I’m not a model student at school- i’m certainly not the teachers’ pet!  But I’ve always worked hard in my own time. I used to get a sense of self-validation from excelling at school, but over time, and under my parent’s encouragement, that’s turned into a self-motivation to pursue the things I am passionate about. I’ve also had some really inspiring teachers who have played an important role in turning me in to the student I am today.

E: Do you remember any one teacher in particular?

W: I had an English teacher last year who really taught me how to think about literature in a new way. 

E: Tell us more...

W: We read a Manto short story about a father and daughter fleeing post-Partition violence in India, in which the daughter was separated from her father and raped. The father organised a search party, who found his daughter on the side of the road, but she never recovered from the experience and she stopped speaking. When I first read the story I thought that the girl was a weak character. 

E: What made you change your opinion? 

W:  My teacher helped me to see how the girl had dealt with the trauma by separating her mentality from her physicality, and how she was actually representing immense strength. I learnt to appreciate and recognise the complexities of characters in literature in a way I’d never considered before, and this hugely added to my appreciation of the texts I’ve read since. This teacher was also a feminist, someone I really looked up to, and I’ll always remember those classes as the time when I re-learnt how to think.  

E:  You’ve told us how you moved to Delhi in your early teens; that’s an awkward age to make such a big transition. Do you think you’ve settled in over here yet?

W: It was actually when I started school in Delhi that I began to feel as if I was finally coming out of my shell and developing my own personality. Although I’d always done well at school in the past I’d been quite shy and withdrawn, but by Year 9 at the British School I was really flourishing. I won awards for best sportsperson and best all-rounder, which hugely boosted my confidence and motivated me. 

E: But what was it like to attended an international school in what is supposed to be your ‘home’ city? Do you think it has set you apart from the ‘reality’ in some way?

W: I do feel that my international school experience might have put me in a bit of a bubble- a sealed-off space which I’m still trying to figure out how to escape. I adore living in Delhi though- it’s my home and I’ll come back here after college for sure.

E: The Delhi chaos drives us insane sometimes, so it amazes us that a girl who seems as organised and put together as you do can flourish in such an environment! Can you explain it?

W: It sounds strange but I like the chaos, the jams, the horns, the vegetable sellers.  I like to sit in the car and just take the opportunity to move slowly, watch, listen, and absorb my surroundings. This is how I connect with my city.

E: It’s hard to imagine a whirlwind like you ever slowing down! But we admire your style of positive engagement with the city madness. Moving on to talk about us now-  where does essai fit into the educational terrain of Delhi?

W; essai is the closest thing to IB-style education I’ve seen in Delhi- meaning that students are given the opportunity to think creatively and apply their knowledge according to their passions.

E: How did this ethos compare to your expectations? And given that you probably could’ve gotten a good score on the ACT by yourself, why did you stick with us?

W: I just based my expectations on what I’d already been exposed to- I was expecting a high pressure environment where I didn’t necessarily get on with the teachers, but luckily essai blew these expectations out of the water!

E: How so? 

W: essai is relaxed and calm, but smart and motivated at the same time. essai teachers develop a personal relationship with their students- something I didn’t get at school- as they truly want them to succeed. I had a lot of small/ 1-1 classes in which the teachers really broke down the passages and questions for me. I remember one reading class with Farhad and Dilshaan- we were discussing a passage but then somehow got side-tracked into a discussion of the movie ‘Titanic’. This developed into a full-on debate over whether Rose and Jack could have ever had a successful relationship or if it was doomed to fail from the start! I took the role of pessimist- they’d never have bridged the social gulf which separated them.

E: We remember that! Did you ever hit any icebergs on you ACT voyage or was it all plain sailing and pop-culture debates?

W: Actually, the week before I took my first attempt at ACT I freaked out and nearly backed out, but luckily Farhad (who later told me that he had just come out of a massage!) calmed me down by persuading me that I’d worked hard and that the most important thing was just to give it a go. I got a 34 on my first attempt, which I was really pleased with. 

E: And to think you nearly didn’t even give the test! After ACT you came back to essai for your essays. Why couldn’t you stay away?

W: I missed the chilled environment. I wanted to try to do it alone, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t find anything I was passionate enough about to write essays on. When I finally realised that I want to keep my options as wide open as possible, I decided to come back to essai for help.

E: No one can resist the lure of R-19! In the end, were you able to form the narrative you needed for a strong common app and supplements?

W: I worked better in the office than when I was sat at home by myself. I was given the time to think freely and creatively when writing my essays. My favourite counselling moment was during a recent session with Sonali when we sat outside in the winter sunshine drinking green tea, wearing shades, laptops on laps. It really changed my attitude towards the whole process when  Nick told me that you shouldn’t be writing to impress a college- you should be writing for yourself- about you. I ended up writing about my experience of trying to re-assimilate in a country that was supposed to be my home

E: Farhad wanted your essay to be about Top Gun!

W: Oh yes! I used to be so obsessed with it, but now my friends have forbidden me from mentioning the movie because they’re so sick of it.

E:  Top Gun 2 comes out this summer- time to re-start the obsession?? Anyway, it’s time for the fun questions now. First- if you could choose three jobs in the future what would they be?

W: answers very quickly- she must have been expecting this one! They would have to be:  owning a shack in Goa, working for Goldman Sachs, and discovering a living specimen of the megladon! Perhaps not in that order though…

E: Err.. the megladon?

W: It’s a specieis of prehistoric shark- did I mention I’m obsessed with sharks? There are rumours that it still exists today, and I believe it does and that I’ll be the one to prove it. You know that they found the remains of a Great White shark at the bottom of the ocean? Nothing but the megladon could have killed a Great White.

E: struggling keep up with this rush of information and enthusiasm...Woah slow down we can't type that fast!

W: Sorry!  I’m always being told that I speak too quickly… I think it’s because I have so many thoughts in my head and I need to get them out! I guess it can sometimes be a nervous thing too- I tend to overthink things and stress myself out.

E: We love your speed- just as long as you let us catch up with you!
So if essai was an object?

W:  It would be a full moon! It guides you…

E: And it only appears once a month?! What about if we were a food item?

W: I know for sure- Lemon crushed ice. My favourite snack. Chilled out to the max!

E: And a colour?

W :Light blue- it’s such a caring colour.

E: essai blue of course! What about if we were a celebrity?

W: A Celebrity? I would choose Emma Watson. She’s intelligent, interesting, different, fun-  someone I really look up to.

E: We approve of that one. And Emma Watson was also a Brown student! Now we know you’re a big music fan- we have great memories of you in your chair by the door with a song  playing in your earphones. So which songs have been the soundtrack to your ACT/college application experience?

W: Haha great question! I’d narrow it down to Eye of the Tiger, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Little Bird by Annie Lennox , ACDC, and She Wolf of course!

E: And finally, we have asked past interviewees to make a prediction about our future- what’s your prediction?

W: I think essai will continue to expand and eventually become really big- but I just want you to continue to give the same amount of dedication and care to each student who comes to you!

E: Of course we will! Thanks for coming in Wolfy- we can’t wait for you to come back and intern with us this summer.




It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon when Techno drops in to the office for his interview. He explains that he’s just been to visit his NGO partner, and that he’s tired from a night spent live streaming a Miami music festival.

E: Good to see you Techno! We wanted to interview you because you’ve been a part of essai for over two years now- from ACT to counselling to essays- there aren’t many students who know us like you do! Actually- maybe we should be feeling worried about what you’re going to say…

T: I started my ACT prep at a different centre, but I quit after one class. I didn’t get along with the teacher, and I was put in a group even though I was promised a one-on-one. When I came to essai I knew instantly that I was going to like it. I did my diagnostic the morning after a long night (so I was feeling a little worse for wear), and I’m pretty sure that Nick had me figured out right away. He’s the kind of guy who understands what kids are like, and so I knew I could trust him.

E: You definitely seemed to get off to a great start with your ACT prep. Was the experience in line with your expectations?

T: My friends had hyped up the ACT so much- everyone told me how difficult it was- so I was pretty nervous at first. But everything was actually so much easier than I expected, because essai taught me to understand the basic rules and strategies which you can rely on for each section. The chilled atmosphere made me feel like I could be honest and ask questions without being judged. I always felt confident in class and counselling sessions, because I knew that no-one was going to get cross with me for making mistakes or having doubts.

E: So Farhad never told you off in class?

T: Well- he did try to scold me sometimes, but usually he’d just make me laugh instead. We’d always make bets with each other- I think at one point I promised to buy him a Jaguar if I scored over 33.

E: Farhad is still waiting for you to deliver on that bet…

T: Haha. Actually, I think we betted on my score being over 35, and I got a 33, so that means no car! The test went really well but I wasn’t expecting such a good result. I remember when I received the score I couldn’t believe it. I must have opened and shut the website about 5 times- I was jumping with happiness on the street!

 E: If only someone had filmed it…

T: Math was my worst section- probably because I was always late for class. Oh, and I did badly on the essay- I was super tired so decided to skip out the middle paragraphs. I figured they weren’t necessary.

*essai facepalms*

E: Techno we can’t believe you… Let’s move on! With a great ACT score under your belt, you decided to make the transition across the office for your college counselling. Why did you stick at essai, and how was your experience?

T: Well I wasn’t happy with my other counsellor, as I felt that she didn’t have any confidence in my abilities. Luckily Nick agreed to work with me instead, and the transition into counselling felt pretty easy. My relationship with Nick- then later Silvio and Sonali- was very supportive. People at essai didn’t judge me- they helped me to come up with a solution to my problems rather than criticising me.

E: You’re already making moves in the world of music production- how did essai support you with this passion?  

T: I feel like I really grew as a producer whilst I was here. Nick was totally behind me even when my other teachers told me I was wasting my time. He even came to watch me DJing! It was incredible how the essay team managed to perfectly merge my interests in computer science with my love for music in my application essays. It was like they really understood how coding helps me to be a producer, and how music makes me a better coder.

Since I started coming to essai I’ve helped orgaise performances in Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore, Mumbai, and Hyderabad, and I’ve recently released a track and performed live with the 56th ranked DJ in the world.

E: Hey don’t forget about us when you make the big time! What are your ambitions for the future?

T: Well of course I’ll be heading to the US for college.

*Techno gestures proudly at the green and gold acceptance folder he’s placed on the desk*.
 I’m hoping to be a part of the music scene whilst I’m there, and pursue a career in production or with a Start-Up after graduation. Who knows, maybe I’ll even start my own music-tech business?!

E: And what about essai’s future? What do you want us to become?

T: I want it to stay the same. It has grown a lot in the two years I’ve been here, but the new members of the team haven’t changed the atmosphere, and I wouldn’t want that to happen. I really believe that everyone who’s looking for a counsellor/ACT teacher should come to essai!

Disclaimer - essai did not pay or bribe Techno to say this

E: Thanks Techno! Some fun quick fire questions to close. If essai were…

An emoji they’d be: The cool guy shades one. No explanation needed.

A music genre they’d be: Chill House. It’s versatile music- you can work to and it helps you concentrate.

A colour they’d be: Turquoise, because that’s my favourite!



The Essai Files: 1. Virat

This is the first of the Essai Files- a series of interviews with past and current essai students. 

Virat started coming to essai in the Summer of 2016. During his holidays from Marlborough School in the UK, he worked with the team first for his ACT preparation and then on his college applications. We arranged a cross-continental Skype date to find out more about his essai experience...


E: Thanks for agreeing to the interview Virat! Let’s start at the very beginning. Tell us how you first heard about essai.  

V: Essai was recommended to me by someone, but I  remember being reluctant to go in for a first meeting and my diagnostic. I thought I was a strong independent man who don’t need no help- especially not with ACT! But in the end my Mum dragged me in.  

E: And what were your initial expectations?

V: I guess I had this picture in my mind of Nick and Farhad as these two smart young guys with tucked in checked shirts…... unfortunately these expectations were not matched!  

E: Maybe we should buy some checked shirts as a staff uniform… Anyway- think back to your very first day at essai. What was it like?  

V: I remember my diagnostic- I did really well and felt quite surprised. But Silvio intimidated me! He was rocking a beard, looking very wise and mature, with a certain enigmatic, foreign mystique.

E: Wow, Silvio will be inspired to re-grow that beard after reading this!  Now that we are on the topic of counsellors, who would you say is your favourite counselor, and how would you describe him or her in five words?

V: You’re putting me on the spot here! I’m going to have to say Ganesh. Funny, friendly, nice french fries. That’s five words right? But being serious, Sonali 100%- she’s patient, easily distracted, fun, and she let me drink her water once.

E: Okay that was more than 5 words but we’ll let it slide. Let’s jump back to your experience with studying for the ACT. What did you find most challenging?

V: I found the ACT really frustrating - the content wasn’t the biggest problem for me, but it was hard not being able to come into the office for regular classes when I was back at school in the UK. It was great when I was in Delhi though- I’d come for extra classes all the time, and the fact that essai is a fun team of people (and the other students are also good fun) meant that I found the environment relaxed but also focused.

E: We’re all about the fun and the focus here, it’s true. So overall, what did you end up taking from the whole process of essay writing and college applications?

V: Working on my essays at essai was the first time I had had the freedom to write outside of the classroom, and it actually made me realise that it was something that I enjoyed and wanted to do more of in the future. I was surprised at how much fun the process actually was- it was a good opportunity to reflect on the various experiences I’ve had in my life so far, and I think that as I found a narrative to weave them all together I was able to develop a certain degree of self-understanding. I also realised that although I had been reluctant to do the internships, when I looked back on the experience it was clear how invaluable they’d been, and how much I’d learnt. In the end, the editing process was the only painful part of the essay writing!

E: I bet some of our current students are wishing that they had this much love for essays!
Can you think of the single most important thing that essai taught you?

V: Essai taught me that I should believe in myself, and value my talents and traits. I learnt not to think that self-confidence and ambition is bad, or the same as arrogance, and I developed the self-confidence to go after what I wanted.

E: Yes! Every student needs this attitude.
Most memorable moment at essai?

V: There are too many to choose from! Probably getting Sonali coffee. Or maybe Nick and Sonali’s arguments over my essay. Having a cake with candles in the office on my birthday was also a really great memory.

E: That cake was so good… Okay just a few more questions now. Pick one person from essai. Give him/her a colour. Why?

V: I’m picking Farhad- can I give him a coloured item of clothing rather than a colour? It’s got to be the plain, single coloured T-shirt. I just always picture him wearing one.  He needs some graphic tees in his repertoire!

E: Okay we’ll allow that one. Tell us something we don’t know about you.

V: I have a really great fashion sense. Maybe Farhad could take some tips from my wardrobe? (see above).  

E: We’ll suggest that to him. He’ll be thrilled.
Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

V: Hopefully I’ll be travelling the world- trekking through the Grand Canyon or something.

E:Who or what inspires you?

V: Hard question! So many ‘inspirational’ people turn out to be racists or sexual deviants or whatever. I’ll go with Peter Singer. Or Slavoj Zizek.

E: You’ve spent a lot of time in the office over the past few years. Do you have a favourite part?

V: The nook of course! It’s very homely- I love how it was once open and then became its own space.

E: It’s been great chatting to you Virat. Let’s end on this- what are you most excited about for the coming year?


Look out for the next interview in the series...coming soon! 

Welcome to the CUCUverse...

Get ready readers, on December 20th, CUCU- a brand new app developed by members of the essai team- is launching. 

This is the next stage in reading’s evolution: the “Reavolution” 

CUCU is coming

CUCU is coming

The claim that reading is dying, on its deathbed, breathing its last is no great insight. That might be an exaggeration, but the truth is a stone’s throw away. To search for scapegoats such as the world, change, children, and Instagram is easy and might even be correct (or at least part of the story). But what if it’s not the whole story? What if reading is to blame? What if we were to blame for not innovating in the field of reading? For not ‘renovating’!  Bad humor aside, this is our view. This is the view of a team of educators who has conjured up CUCU from the classroom and put it into your phone, into your hands, and now hopefully in your mind.

Our experience in the classroom has taught us a few things. Firstly, that reading ought to be interactive. When our students encountered a reading which their teacher peppered with questions, contextualising facts and vignettes, they not only paid more attention but also became more curious- surely a holy grail of education.

Another thing we have learnt is that 'reading' is not a monolith. Rather, it is a diverse skillset, involving your working memory, vocabulary, critical thinking, ability to contextualise, and speed. If we accept this, then there is no such thing as being a 'bad reader'- you could simply be weak in one of the foundational skills causing the whole castle to collapse! Unfortunately, large class sizes and a lack of diagnostic tools make it impossible for a teacher to figure out the precise stumbling block for each student.

This is a sad situation. When a person falls out of love with reading, it's often because he believes that he is 'not good' at it, or because he is simply not inspired by his reading material. Unfortunately, teachers and parents have stumbled upon the wrong solution: read more. But the CUCU team believes that reading is like a sport- one which can only be enjoyed if you have received the right instruction. If you just keep failing you’re bound to quit. Anyone who has played golf, or yoga for that matter, will empathise with this analogy.

So yes, reading can be understood as a sport. And this is the road that lead us to CUCU. And like all sports, CUCU has an element of competition- a recognition of how cool it is to be a good reader. The CUCU team gets jealous when they meet someone who reads fast, comprehends, remembers, and lets the words and thoughts from a book merge with the words and thoughts of his life. The CUCU leaderboard is intended to reward careful and regular practice - an incentive NOT just to read more, but to read well.

Alright. You get the bigger picture. Onwards. How does CUCU work? Simple. Just choose one of the articles from the cucutheque to get started. The texts, which have been selected to expand your knowledge as well as model top-quality writing, converse with you. In each interaction you will be scored according to your accuracy in answering questions, as well as for your reading pace (yes the clock is ticking- up there in the right corner). You can flip back, but CUCU keeps track of that too, and it will harm your total score.

Although the classic CUCU question is multiple-choice, there’s a variety of forms to keep you on your toes. Furthermore, the questions fall into different categories, and you’ll get a score for each at the end. The Vocabulary questions will test you on the meanings of words in or out of their context, whilst Critical Thinking questions will test you on your general understanding of how the author links facts and arguments to make a whole.  Contextualisation questions aim to measure your general knowledge in the subject area of the article, and Focus questions are paired with your ‘flip-back’ tendency to generate a measure of your ability to immediately recall stuff that you just read (i.e. your “working memory”). Your Speed score comes from how quickly you complete the CUCU, as well as your answers to the questions following the speed reading section that displays only chunks of words at a time, forcing you to really get in the game.

That's it! You're fully prepared to download the app on December 20th and find out what CUCU thinks of your reading skills. Have fun, play safe, and CUCU on!



The Subject Test. Yet another way for universities to gain a more complete image of who you are as an applicant.

Here are the subjects the tests are offered in followed by a few words of wisdom (all the bolded ones are actual options):  

Literature- if you thought the ACT reading was hard, think again…
US History- a curriculum barely touched in Indian schools
World History- a very good option for all non-science students
Math I- pointless (you did this math on the ACT)
Math II- everyone needs to take this
Chemistry- great, if Chemistry is one of your subjects
Biology- great, if Biology is one of your subjects (or you can really mug up)
Physics- great, if Physics is one of your subjects
Languages- no Hindi!

As you may notice, there isn’t an economics or commerce subject test, so for all non-science students, the options become a little limited.

Lucky for you, there is the World History test- a 1-hour test, with 95 multiple choice questions. While it is a long, extensive and fast test, thankfully College Board is aware of this and even getting up to 20 questions wrong will earn you a perfect 800 (35 wrong will get you a 700)! The test covers all historical themes (political and diplomatic, intellectual and cultural, social and economic) from prehistoric times to the present.

The content is not only interesting, but the knowledge is something that transcends beyond just the test and can truly build on your critical reading and comprehension skills. The New York Times just did a study explaining that while comprehension does require a broad vocabulary, equally important is the role of factual knowledge. In addition to being great dinner party conversation (you will surely impress all the Auntie’s), this factual knowledge builds context allowing for comprehension to be much easier!

While the facts may seem daunting (and too many), you should know that this is not only a test of memorisation, but also a test of your ability to think historically and reasonably deduce answers- a key tool for many economists or business leaders.

If Physics, Bio and Chemistry are not your thing, just remember that the World History test is the perfect, and necessary, answer to your SAT Subject Test woes. And it’s an added plus that we teach it here at essai!  

Get in touch for more information on the World History test! 

The Philosophy of the ACT

“I just don’t understand WHY we’re forced to sit through such a challenging test! Can’t the colleges just look at our school grades and reports?”

This was exclaimed just last week by an Essai student in a fit of despair brought on by a particularly fiendish math problem, and it’s a question which is often voiced by teachers and students alike. In order to find some sort of answer, we must delve deep into the ACT’s ‘technical manual’, which contains a detailed justification for the structure and content of the test.

College faculty members were asked which knowledge and skill areas were most important to success in college courses, and also asked to identify which of these areas students should have mastered before embarking on their college careers. The content of the test is the product of this consultation, and the four subjects – English, Math, Reading and Science (which is predominantly data interpretation and analysis) – were chosen because a grasp of their fundamentals is essential for any college-bound student, regardless of their intended programme of study.

The manual states that the underlying principle behind the ACT test is “the belief that student’s preparation for college and the workplace is best assessed by measuring, as directly as possible, the academic skills that they will need to perform college-level work”.

The paper itself is purported to “measure what students are able to do with what they have learned in school”. This means that rather than assessing abstract qualities such as ‘intelligence’ or testing students on their memorisation of specific syllabus content, it aims to facilitate the integration of knowledge and skills from major curriculum areas with information provided in the test. Thus, the focus is placed on determining whether a student is capable of solving problems, grasping implied meanings, draw inferences, and evaluate ideas.

This well-founded rational should certainly provide reassurance to ACT candidates – especially the emphasis that high test scores are not simply a matter of innate ability, but reflect a level of achievement earned through dedicated practice and consistent effort.





3 Books to READ this Diwali Break!

Yes, students, reading can happen over breaks. And yes, it will help your ACT scores and college applications (by increasing your vocabulary, improving your information retention, and sharpening comprehension)!

What more could you want?

Don’t believe us? Read this : https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/college-admissions-playbook/2014/06/02/enhance-summer-sat-act-prep-with-reading-you-enjoy

However, for those of you who do believe us, take a look at these three books that we highly recommend:

1. Moonwalking with Einstein : The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
The book follows a year long journey of Joshua Foer training for the US Memory Championships. Under the guidance of the top "mental athletes", Foer masters ancient techniques to memorise entire speeches and books in a matter of minutes and hours, rather than days.  It draws on cutting-edge research, explaining the tricks of the trade, allowing us to better understand the techniques between human remembering and how we can all improve our own memory! 

Can't remember that last science concept for the ACT? Learn from Josua Foer!

2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
At the age of thirty-six, Paul Kalanithi a neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. The book chronicles Kalanithi's journey from a young, ambitious medical student, into a neurosurgeon at Stanford, to a patient and finally, a new father confronting his own mortality. The author battles questions regarding the challenge of facing death, and what life can mean in such a situation. 

For any of you Atul Gawande fans, the forward is written by him! Read it now! 

3. The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
The book follows the two-worlds of Starr Carter- the poor neighbourhood she was born and raised in and the fancy suburban school she currently attends. When Starr is the sole witness to the shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil, at the hands of a police officer, her world is turned upside down.Khalil’s death becomes a national headline, with people calling him a thug or drug dealer. Protests begin in the community, and local cops begin to intimidate Starr and her family. All everyone wants to know is: what really happened that night? 

Order it here

Get your books today, and celebrate Diwali with pages instead of patakas (haha)! 

(FUN)ctions Part Two- Transformations

Welcome back to our series on functions! In Part Two we're all about transformations...

A transformed function is one which has been altered in a specific way, resulting in a different appearance on the x/y coordinate grid. This could mean being shifted up, down, to the right or left. Functions can also be reflected in the x axis or the y axis. 

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 Look at this example- a visual representation ofwhat happens when you alter a function according to the rules above.


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 ACT Practice

What is relationship between f(x) and g(x) ? 

A. g(x)= f(x+5)
B. g(x)= f(x+3)-5
C. g(x) = f(x-3)-5
D. f(x)= g(x+7)+3 


Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 12.20.55.png


 Answer: To transform f(x) into g(x), the parabola needs to move 3 units to the left, and 5 units down (be careful when reading the axes numbering). So the answer is B.

A Joyfully, Selfish Profile : The Squash Guy

The Squash Guy was a strong science student (low 80s in PCM-CS) at a school with major US student outflow. He was part of his school’s highly selective Computer Science club and had a very strong ACT score (34). The Squash Guy had another important feather in his cap: he was a top-15 ranked Indian squash player with major tournament experience and a glowing recommendation from his coach (who had worked with other US-bound student-athletes from India).

He is a memorable example of pragmatic profile-building through joyful selfishness. He came to us when he was in the middle of Grade 11, wondering if he should leave squash and prioritize his academics. However, the Squash Guy hadn’t participated in any major academic projects, hadn’t attended any summer schools, hadn’t researched with any professors – in short, he didn’t really have any academic profile to build on. We advised the Squash Guy to remember Rule #3: never start from scratch.

We came up with a plan for him to aggressively pursue squash (at the time his ranking was hovering in the mid-20s), and it worked: he played tournaments, improved his ranking, and eventually caught the eye of two serious college programs. The Squash Guy is the perfect example of the practical benefits of simply doing what you love, and doing it as often and as well as you can. This is the best kind of college admissions: at virtually no other time in life will you be pragmatically rewarded for pursuing your passion single-mindedly. The Squash Guy took a risk in electing to follow his love of squash, and he ended up being recruited by Columbia. However, even at other non-sporting colleges his squash still served as an ‘amplifier’ for his school grades (evidenced by his admission to Carnegie Mellon’s highly selective School of Computer Science).

The moral of the story?

Colleges will take it a little easier on you grade-wise if you can prove you’re a Student-plus.

Notes from a Lexicomane: why extending your vocabulary is amongst the best ACT preparation you can do.

If there’s one thing that teachers can agree on, it’s that the majority of high school students do not have a sufficiently broad knowledge of English vocabulary.  Although some blame the ‘dumbing down’ of TV shows and popular media, whilst others lament the decline in reading as a pastime, the fact remains that eloquence is an increasingly rare trait. 

Lack of linguistic breadth is a major hurdle which must be overcome by students hoping to score well in their ACT Reading and English tests. This is owing to the frequency of unfamiliar words which the tests are designed to expose students to, as well as the specific ‘vocabulary-in-context’ questions. 

Here’s an example of the sort of question you are likely to encounter:

“Your index finger is one of the most sensitive regions of the human body, owing to the fact that a large number of nerves are concentrated at the tip”. 

As used in this sentence, the word concentrated most nearly means:
A: extracted
B: paid attention to
C: gathered together
D: directed to one topic

The vey best advice which you can take when it comes to building vocabulary is simply to READ MORE! This may sound simple, and it is, but you need to be sure to read a wide variety of different texts in order to maximise your progress. This means that your reading needs to span genres, cultures and historical periods. Yet you needn’t only focus on reading books- reading journal articles, news items and well-written blogs can be just as beneficial if you are being exposed to new words. 

It is important to ensure that you are not skipping over the words you don’t understand- look them up and write them down! There are numerous dictionary apps which enable quick discovery of definitions and synonyms, as well as allowing you to build up personalised word lists. Many even offer a ‘word of the day’ feature, which may prove invaluable if you want to impress your friends with your magniloquence. If you’re looking for a shortcut to boost your linguistic talents, try downloading the free app ‘vocabulary.com’, which claims to “combines the world’s smartest dictionary with an adaptive learning game that will have you mastering new words in no time.”

Have you got a favourite word? What are your top tips for improving your vocabulary? Comment below to join the discussion…


answer = C
Lexicomane= a person who loves words
Magniloquence= use of impressive vocabulary

(FUN)ction Graphs

Calling all Math students…Could you answer this simple question on function graphs?  

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Correct answer, C.  See the end of this post for the explanation. 

If you got the answer straight away, well done! You’ve clearly given the sine, cosine and tangent functions the attention they deserve. But don’t panic if you got it wrong- you are not alone. The majority of ACT Math students really struggle when faced with this type of question, and this blog post has been created to help you out.  

Learning what the linear graphs of sin, cos and tan look like on the x/y plane is ESSENTIAL.

I repeat- ESSENTIAL.

It’s only once you are secure in this knowledge that you can learn how to transform them (coincidently, our blog topic for next week)! 

Lets start from the beginning…

f(θ)=sin(θ) is known as the sine function: 

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The wave repeats every 2π radians, or every 360° (i.e. it has a period of 360°). It’s maximum y value is 1, and minimum is -1. It crosses the y axis at (0,0).

f(θ)= cos (θ) is the cosine function:

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Just like the sine function, the wave has a period of 360°. It’s maximum y value is 1, and minimum is -1. However, the cosine function crosses the y axis at (0,1). See how it ‘follows’ the sine wave at 90° behind?

 f(θ)= tan(θ) is the tangent function:  

It is not a rising and falling wave like the other two- it’s y values range from negative infinity to positive infinity, and it crosses the y axes once every π radians, or 180°. However, it does pass through the origin, point (0,0), like the sine wave. 

Notice how every 180° there is an x value for which there is no apparent corresponding y value? This is because tan(90°), tan(270°), etc (and tan( π/2), tan(3π/2)) is equal to either positive or negative infinity- meaning that it is is officially undefined.

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Undeniably, it is easiest and fastest just to remember what each function looks like (i.e. the maximum and minimum y values, y-axis intercept, period etc.).
However,  if you forget what any of these functions look like, it is possible to quickly check using your calculator to create a table like the one below. You can then sketch a rough diagram to jolt your memory or clear up any confusion. 

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So now let’s go back to the first question and see how we can use our new knowledge to solve it easily.

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If we look at the sine wave and the cosine wave plotted onto the same x/y plane, we can see that the x value for their first intersection in the POSITIVE x quadrant is 45°. Therefore our answer must be C

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Totally terrible, very bad writing mistake #1


Students love their emphatic adverbs – otherwise known as the completely unnecessary, totally redundant (hah! See what I did there?) usage of the words “very”, “completely”, “extremely” and the likes.  It’s okay – I’m quite guilty of it too.

So, what’s the real issue here? The problem comes in when your writing starts relying almost exclusively on emphatic adverbs for describing things. Consider the following sentences:

The hall was completely silent. 

The hall was so silent, that not a whisper could be heard from the students.

What’s the difference between the two sentences? Not the meaning, because they both convey the same message: the hall was silent. But if I ask you, “how silent was the hall?” the only thing you can say from reading the first sentence is, “completely silent”. The difference, as you probably guessed, is in the quality of description. The second sentence packs a lot more descriptive detail than the first. So, how silent was the hall? Completely silent – not a whisper could be heard from the students. A far more vivid picture than the first! Always remember: effective writing uses emphatic adverbs to increase the effect of (and not in lieu of) a description.

Happy writing, and stay tuned for the totally terrible, very bad writing mistake #2! 

Click here for more information on our counselling services ! 

How much do you know about Beyonce & modifiers?

You may love Beyonce, but did you know that before her solo career she was actually part of a chart-topping R&B group called Destiny’s Child? Fix the following modifier errors to learn about how one of today’s icons got her start:

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, [1] singing was something Beyoncé did from a young age. Her vocal talents were discovered almost accidentally: one day after dance class as a kid, Beyoncé’s instructor was humming a song, and Beyoncé chimed in with the lyrics, beautifully hitting all the high-pitched notes. Not long after, Beyoncé began competing in local singing competitions. Joined by childhood friends Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, and three other young girls, [2] Girl’s Tyme formed as a group with Beyoncé. The group traveled from Texas to California to compete on Star Search, a national television show. Unfortunately, however, Girl’s Tyme did not win.

Motivated to succeed in the music world, [3] giving up was not an option. Eventually, their hard work payed off. In 1996, the group signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and became known as Destiny’s Child. With hits like “Say My Name,” “Bills, Bills, Bills,” and “Jumpin Jumpin,” [4] success came quickly to the group in the R&B world.

However, success didn’t come without setbacks. Unhappy with the group’s management, [5] quitting felt like the only option for two of the group’s members, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett. Destiny’s Child was thrust into the entertainment spotlight with Beyoncé largely at the center of the negative media attention. Consequently, Beyoncé fell into depression, and the group struggled for a brief period.

After regaining some stability and some shuffling in group members, Destiny’s Child was composed of three women: Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams. As one of the most successful R&B groups of its time, [6] many chart-topping albums were made by Destiny’s Child, like Survivor, and the group went on to win multiple Grammy awards.

Finally in 2001, the group announced that they would be taking a hiatus so that the members could pursue individual singing careers.


1. The modifier in this sentence is “Born and raised in Houston, Texas”, which describes, or modifies, Beyonce. Thus, “Beyonce” must immediately follow the modifier and the comma. A correct version of the bold portion could read Beyonce grew up singing and dancing. 

2. Everything preceding the comma in this sentence describes a person. Our hint is the word ‘joined’. Someone must be joined by the names listed, and in this case that someone is Beyonce. Thus, again, her name must follow the comma. A correct version of the bold portion could read Beyonce became a member of the singing group Girls Tyme.

3. As it reads, this sentences gives the impression that “giving up” was motivated to succeed in the music world, which obviously doesn’t make sense. A better version of the sentence might read Motivated to succeed in the music world, the group didn’t give up.

4. The modifier in this sentence is describing Destiny’s Child, so Destiny’s Child must immediately follow the comma. The bold portion could instead read Destiny’s Child quickly became successful in the R&B world.

5. The bold portion should begin with whoever was upset with the group’s management. It should then read two of the group’s members, LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett, quit the group.

6. The modifier here is clearly referring to Destiny’s Child, so the bold portion should read Destiny’s Child made many chart-topping albums, like Survivor,.

Student Spotlight: The Math Girl

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A highly accomplished student with outstanding grades at a high school which had limited US student outflow. In many ways, she was something of an academic prodigy: she took her first AP test when she was 14 and cleared the SAT with a 2250 when she was 15. That summer, she attended SUMac – a highly selective math camp at Stanford – and subsequently embarked on a major research project with an IIT professor, using Graph Theory to model traffic flow in Delhi for improved emergency response time, founded her school Math Club and started an independent math magazine. Additionally, she participated in a substantial internship with Barclays Bank, founded and led her own NGO “Leap of Faith” working with education and job training initiatives in a small village, and was a talented painter, flautist, and national-level badminton player. 

This student did many things right. She demonstrated a specialised academic passion while managing to participate an impressive array of verifiable extracurricular activities (exemplifying what it means to be a student-plus). but, mostly, she made her own structure to pursue her love of math at an increasingly high level. It is very difficult to do this well (particularly for academics). Most students would only have gotten excellent grades, taken AP tests, and crack the SAT. However, this student demonstrated curiosity and resourcefulness in having independent research options to continue following her love of mathematics.

The Math Girl was unique in that her academic strength and her social service strength were almost identically (very) strong – which is why, when we were helping her decide how to frame her Common App essay, we ended up feeling that her best bet would be to combine these two outstanding aspects of her profile into a coherent whole. Math and social service isn’t something that usually go together, and we found this duality fascinating. Evidently, so did Stanford – as she not only got in via ED, but received a handwritten note about her essays from the Dean of Admissions.