When I started working as a professional tutor, I was fresh out of college with few qualifications other than high test scores and some volunteer experience. I struggled with tutoring my first few students — I didn’t feel comfortable giving them assignments and I struggled to figure out how best to use our lesson time.
But after years of tutoring, I became thoroughly familiar with the ins and outs of the whole process. I've drawn on my hard-earned knowledge to create this guide laying out the key steps to helping someone excel at the SAT, so that you know where to start when tutoring your own student or child. A big part of being a great tutor is being properly prepared — these seven steps will set you on the right path to raising your student's score:
- Determine the challenges you'll face
- Learn about the test
- Set a score goal
- Gather materials
- Make a study plan
- Teach the big picture
- Analyze weaknesses
Step 1: Identify Challenges
Before you get started with a student you need to make sure you're genuinely going to be able to help your student and determine if there will be any special challenges you'll face.
Make Sure You're Qualified
Don’t assume that because you’re older than your student, you automatically know more about the test than she does. You probably took the SAT at least five years ago, while she took it a few months ago. If you want to be an effective tutor, you'll have to take the time to really understand the SAT (see the next step for more on how to do so).
Think of it this way: you won’t be able to explain why an answer is wrong to your student if you don’t understand it yourself. Worse, you won’t be able to figure out why your student is missing the question in the first place.
A good rule of thumb is that you should be scoring at least 4 points higher than your student. If she's already high-scoring you’ll want to be at or near perfect.
Motivating Your Student
One of the biggest challenges of tutoring is convincing your student to put in the work needed to improve. The single biggest key to raising standardized test scores is practice. Part of your job is convincing your student to put in the work to raise her score. If your student is struggling to motivate, try discussing the tangible benefits of a higher SAT score with her.
Motivating your student can be especially challenging if you’re working with a family member or friend. This kind of tutoring generally works best when the student is still quite young or is independently motivated and simply coming to you for extra help.
Step 2: Study the Test
As I mentioned above, in order to be a helpful tutor, you have to know the material you're tutoring: that means learning as much as you can about the SAT.
Learn the Format
Though it may not seem important, you should start by making sure that you understand the basics of the SAT: how long it is, how many questions it has, and what the different sections are.
Keep in mind that the SAT has changed quite a bit over the past decade, so even if you think you know it well from taking it in high school, make sure to review the current version of the test.
It’s important to know exactly what your student can expect to see on the SAT. You need to have a solid grasp on both the different question formats and the material covered by the test — check out our guides to what's actually on each section of the test if you have questions.
Understand the SAT's Unique Logic
The SAT is very different from the kinds of tests students take in their classes. You’ll need to help your student understand these differences and how to use them to her advantage.
First of all, remember that the SAT is overwhelmingly a multiple-choice test: it doesn’t matter how your student gets the right answer, just that she does. There are a lot of helpful strategies and shortcuts that can help students get to the answer more quickly.
Another key point to remember is that SAT questions often include traps meant to trip up the test taker. Work with your student to help her practice reading questions carefully and resisting making assumptions about what she thinks a question should be asking.
Finally, never forget that the SAT is standardized: no matter how there is only ever one right answer and it is indisputably correct. Make sure you can explain not just why an answer is correct but why the other choices are wrong.
Before you can be an effective teacher, you have to study up on the material yourself.
Step 3: Set Goals
Once you feel prepared, it's time to get started with your student, which means you need to establish exactly what she's hoping to get out of tutoring. You'll need to ask her about her personal aims and the schools she's considering applying to so you can help her determine an appropriate score goal.
Determining a Score Goal
It’s easy to assume that you just want to get your student’s score as possible, but it’s better to have a specific score in mind. Not every student needs a 2400 and setting an achievable goal gives your student something concrete to work towards.
What that score is will depend on what grade your student is in and what schools or programs she wants to apply to. Assuming your student is a junior or senior applying to colleges, you can use our method, which is based on the SAT scores colleges expect from applicants, to calculate a target.
Narrowing Your Focus (If Necessary)
Keep in mind that your student may need to focus specifically on raising her score on one or two sections. A particularly low score on one section (especially math or reading) can count against an application, and some schools and programs have a cut off score for certain sections.
Another consideration is whether schools superscore, i.e. count only the highest score on each section. If your student is only applying to schools that superscore and already has a solid score on one of the sections, she may want to focus primarily on the others.
Step 4: Gather Great Resources
Before you get started with tutoring, you need to make sure you have high-quality practice materials to use with your student. When practice questions have errors or look nothing like the the questions on the actual SAT, students end up confused or frustrated and, worse, lose some of their trust in you.
Let's go through where you can find some of the most helpful resources for both the current and new 2016 SATs.
The best practice materials are official ones, since practicing with real tests will give your student the best idea of what to expect on test day. You want to find and use as many of these as possible.
- Free old official practice tests
- Free practice test and questions for the new 2016 SAT
- The Official SAT Study Guide, currently $8.09 on Amazon
Practicing with real SATs is the best way to learn the format and logic of the test, but your student may still need some extra help with strategies for the most effective ways to approach the different types of questions. The following resources can help you find the most effective strategies for your student to take.
- SAT Prep Black Book by Mike Barrett
- PrepScholar's Ultimate SAT Study Guide
- 21 Top SAT Tips
- Alternative practice materials
Another vital part of studying for the SAT is reviewing the content it tests. The following books and guides can help you review key concepts from each of the three sections with your student.
- The Critical Reader, by Erica Meltzer
- Other SAT Reading prep books
- PrepScholar's Ultimate SAT Reading Study Guide
- The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar, by Erica Meltzer
- Other SAT Writing Books
- PrepScholar's Complete SAT Writing Study Guide
- PrepScholar's Guide to the SAT Essay
Step 5: Lay Out a Plan
As a tutor, one of your most important roles is making sure your student stays on track. Let's go over some ways you can help your student meet her goals by her test date.
Set a Schedule
It’s vital that you have a set schedule for tutoring. Without one, it’s easy for students to procrastinate and fall behind.
Start by determining when your student will take the test and then plan out how you’re going to cover everything between now and then. Generally speaking, students should shoot for roughly 40 hours of prep, although that time will be split between tutoring and independent work.
Try to set a specific time for your lesson each week. I prefer to meet with students once a week, but if you're on a tight schedule you can certainly do twice a week. With more than two lessons per week, most students will quickly get burned out and frustrated.
Before you start, spend some time determining what your student needs the most help with. If she’s taken the test before, take a look at her scores. Then, if possible, have her take a full practice test before you get started. Going over it together will help you see why she's missing questions and allow you to focus your efforts on the strategies and content review that will be most helpful for her.
From there you can plan out what order you’ll cover the material in. I usually start with a student’s weakest areas and then work through everything until I get to her strongest, revisiting the early concepts occasionally to review.
As I mentioned above, practice is key to improvement on the SAT. You’ll need to give your student practice questions to do or content to review between lessons. Ideally, you’ll also want to have them complete at least three full official practice SATs that simulate actual testing conditions.
If you’re a parent or sibling rather than a professional tutor, you probably won't be able to convince your student to do extra homework. Instead, try setting aside an extra time during the week for them to study on their own.
Step 6: Teach the Big Picture
When students sign up for tutoring, they often expect to learn tricks that help them instantly raise their scores. There aren’t really any such simple tricks, but there are helpful strategies that, when used consistently, can make a big difference in students’ scores.
You may also need to provide content review for your student, depending on their strengths and weaknesses.
The following resources offer ideas for specific strategies you can use with your student (most of which are also included in the more overall guides from the previous section).
- How to read SAT Reading passages: This guide explains the reading passage approach that we recommend for most students — have your student try it and then tweak the approach as needed.
- How not to run out of time on SAT Reading: Timing can be a big struggle on SAT reading. This guide will give you ideas on how to help your student pace herself.
- #1 secret of SAT Reading: The SAT Reading often seems more complicated than it is. This guide will help you and your student understand the logic of the test.
- 21 must-know formulas: Although the SAT provides test takers with some basic geometry formulas, there are other formulas your student will need to know.
- How not to run out of time on SAT Math: For advice on how to help your student get through all the question on the math sections efficiently, check out this guide.
- How to plug in answers: Make sure your student understands the most efficient way to plug-and-chug, especially if she struggles with solving algebra questions quickly.
- How to plug in numbers: This strategy will help your student approach questions that ask about abstract variables and unknown quantities.
- Secret to SAT writing: The SAT Writing section has its own unique quirks. Make sure you understand them so you can help your student adjust her approach accordingly.
- How to approach SAT Writing passages: All of the SAT writing questions are presented in context. That means your student needs a strategy for tackling the passages!
Step 7: Analyze Mistakes
SAT questions follow certain patterns, and the best way to get a feel for the style of the questions is to do a lot of practice. As such, regularly practicing with real SAT questions is one of the most important part of studying for the test, and as a tutor you should assign a lot of official practice questions.
However, it's not enough to simply give some practice passages to your student, you also need to carefully review the questions she misses. Don’t stop at saying, "B is the right answer" — really dig in and help your student understand why she got the question wrong and how she can avoid missing similar ones in the future. This process is key to helping your student improve and why it's so important that you understand the test yourself.
For more details on how to effectively go over missed questions, take a look at our guide to reviewing mistakes.
(Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ/Flickr)
Review: 3 Key Tutoring Tips
The steps above offer a general outline to becoming an effective tutor: what exactly you cover and how you work on it will depend a lot on you and your student. Nonetheless, there are a few big picture ideas that every tutor should keep in mind.
Your student will know if you’re not invested in the tutoring process: don't try to bluff your way through with a vague recollection of taking the SAT in high school — it won't work. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the test and work up an individualized improvement plan for your student. The more you know about the test the better you'll be able to understand your student's unique needs and the more effective you'll be as a tutor.
Focus on Motivation
Students who don't put in the work don't improve — it's as simple as that. As such, a big part of your role as a tutor is to set expectations and encourage your student to study and practice. In some cases, motivating your student will be simple (I've had students who actually requested extra homework), but in others you will need to really emphasize why the practice is important and how it will help your student reach her goals.
Remember that the SAT Is a Standardized Test
Always keep in mind that the SAT tests the same simple rules over and over again, just in slightly different ways. Really knowing the test will be your greatest asset as a tutor.
Even if you're just starting out, and aren't that familiar with the test yet, you can use the fact that the SAT is standardized to your advantage. Go over official tests carefully and look for patterns in the questions. Remember that because the test is standardized there is only ever one indisputably correct answer. Help your student understand both what will and what won't be covered by the test.
Are you not sure whether your student should be studying for the current SAT or the new 2016 version? Read our complete explanation of which students should study for which test.
Finally, if your student needs help with other parts of the college application process, take a look at our guides to researching colleges, writing about extracurriculars, and crafting a personal statement.
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Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.