Tutors are an investment in both time and money. Just because someone calls themselves a “SAT tutoring expert” doesn’t automatically confer the skills of that title upon them. (If it did, I would have become a master dinosaur expert by age 4.)
Bad or ineffective tutors can actually hurt you and your potential SAT/ACT test score in two ways:
1) Financially: bad tutoring takes away from your budget and limits the resources you can spend to recoup your loss.
2) Time-wise: the time you spend on ineffective tutoring takes away from the time you could be spending better elsewhere.
So what makes a tutor effective? In this article, I’ll go over the key qualities of the best SAT/ACT tutors.
1: The Most Effective Tutors Have Taken The Test…And Aced It.
It may seem obvious, but one of the most important things to look for in a tutor is someone who has aced the test you are studying for, whether it is the ACT or SAT. A tutor who has read up on the SAT/ACT is not the same as a tutor who has taken the test and gotten a 99th percentile score. This is true regardless of your own level – a tutor who scored a 2400 (or 1600 on the new SAT) or a 36 on the SAT or ACT is almost always better than a tutor who got a 2000 (or a 1300 on the new SAT) or a 30, even if you yourself have a target score of 1500 or 21.
Scoring in the 99th percentile on the SAT/ACT takes more than just being smart and knowing the material – you have to know the tricks of the test. In fact, the reason test prep is necessary is that the tests AREN’T just testing knowledge or aptitude – they’re testing how good you are at taking the test. If you don’t realize this, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how good you are at math, critical reading, writing, or science – you can still get tripped up by the test.
If only test prep were this easy.
An example of a little known strategy that can make a big difference: if you’re a 600 scorer on the SAT, you should skip the hardest 25% of questions and only answer the easier ones (for more tips on how to improve froma 600 SAT score, click here). Knowing about and using this strategy has nothing to do with being inherently smart – it has to do with knowing the way the SAT is constructed. In general, the best proof that a tutor truly knows the test is if they've gotten a perfect or near-perfect score on it.
But this alone isn't enough...
2: The Most Effective Tutors Are Experts At Teaching The Material
Just because someone is an effective tutor in other areas does not necessarily mean they will be an effective SAT/ACT tutor.
Why? Because you need familiarity with teaching the specific test material in order to be able to explain the way the tests will try to trick you and strategies you can use to counteract that. Just because a tutor knows what the tricks are doesn’t necessarily mean that he can explain it well. This aspect of tutoring is so important, we've divided it up further into the specifics of what expert tutors provide.
Tutoring that's completely customized to your weaknesses
The best tutors know how to tailor their teaching approach to each student’s needs, especially when it comes to teaching people who don’t think about things the way they do. At PrepScholar, this involves using the Socratic method, where the tutors are working WITH, not teaching AT, students.
Take the following sample ACT Math question:
A bad tutor might approach the problem this way: "Here’s how you solve the question. It’s an isoceles right triangle, so you know the most reduced Pythagorean triplet you’re going to use is 1, 1, √2. Since the two sides that are equal are 10 ft long, the hypotenuse must be 10√2 feet long. Does this make sense?"
If you're the student, you're going to feel pressured to answer “yes,” even if you doesn’t fully understand. The tutor isn’t assessing your understanding at each step, which prevents him from understanding where you need help.
Here's an example of what a GOOD tutor would do, illustrated by a series of questions:
- "What answer did you choose? Why did you do this?"
- "What is the question asking for?"
- "What information does the question give you? What more information do you need to get to the answer?"
- "Great - so you know that in an isosceles right triangle, the sides are the same. How would you figure out the length of AC?"
- "Let's review the new points that we learned just now."
Notice that a good tutor examines the student's thinking at every step and makes no assumptions about how the student's thinking about the problem.
This process is critical to good teaching: two students who miss this question may miss it for entirely different reasons. One student might have forgotten what an isosceles right triangle means. Another might have known this, but forgotten the Pythagorean theorem.
A good tutor will identify the exact weaknesses of his student and create custom strategies to overcome these weaknesses. When you interview a tutor, you should figure out whether the tutor is capable of this style of teaching (more tips on vetting tutors here).
Effective use of tutoring time
Most tutors will waste your time and money. Someone who just sits there watching you do practice tests isn’t a tutor – that's basically nothing more than a babysitter, or a source of radiant heat. During the session, this is deceiving because it seems like you're learning a lot, but the reality is that the tutor is missing major weaknesses.
In contrast, a good tutor will accurately diagnose your weaknesses and prioritize the biggest gains to your score.
Excelling on tests like the SAT and ACT requires mastery of skills at different levels:
- Behavior: are you motivated to study for the test? Do you review your mistakes correctly? Do you have the right attitude toward the test?
- Test Strategy: do you know how to budget your time in each section? Do you understand the best skipping strategy for your goals? Do you know how to attack each type of question?
- Test Content: where are your weaknesses in all the different subjects on the test? How do we make sure you have the right resources to improve these weaknesses?
A great tutor will constantly be assessing these weaknesses and structuring tutoring sessions around where you can make the biggest point gains. This type of teaching requires mastery of the test as well as deep insight into student weaknesses.
That's why as part of PrepScholar tutoring, we equip our tutors with technology to analyze student weaknesses across the entire test. Your tutor will have access to every homework problem completed before the session, so the tutor will come prepared with lesson plans designed to improve your score fastest.
Comprehensive test prep guidance
Good tutors know it’s not just about what you do in the tutoring session. For every hour you meet with a tutor, you might spend 10 hours on your homework.
Therefore, a good tutor's influence is not limited to just the teaching session - it extends across your entire prep program.
The best tutors will do much more than answer your questions during tutoring sessions. They'll help you stay motivated to study. They'll show you the most effective way to review missed questions, and they'll increase the effectiveness of your study time outside of tutoring session.
When you work with a tutor, your tutor should be able to plan a complete study program and assign specific sets of homework. The tutor should be able to justify exactly why that homework is assigned, and why that's the best thing for the student to improve the score.
Not a PrepScholar Tutors-recommended use of study time.
3. The Most Effective Tutors Come Recommended by Trustworthy Sources
But wait, just because someone says they have experience teaching and aced the test doesn’t mean it’s true!
This is where quality control and recommendations come in. For tutors, this often comes via word of mouth: you hear about people you know who had good (or bad) experiences with a tutor or tutoring service. Another way to prescreen for quality tutoring is by going through an organization with a reputation for excellence in SAT/ACT tutoring. Quick plug: check out the PrepScholar tutoring site for a great example of tutors who are pre-screened to be effective teachers.
So How Do I Find An Effective Tutor?
When you’re looking for a tutor, you need to approach it like a job interview...except YOU are the interviewer. Why? Because you are making sure the tutor is the right person for the job of tutoring you to reach your maximum potential.
It’s easy to be intimidated by potential tutors because they seem so knowledgeable, charismatic, or authoritative. Just because they will be teaching you, though, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to ask them questions and make sure they are the best tutor possible for you. In fact, it makes it all the more important that you find an effective, expert, and reputable tutor.
The most recent analogy in my own life was at the beginning of grad school, when I was trying to decide on the right composition teacher. I was a little (okay, a lot) in awe of how much each of the three teachers I was choosing between knew, but I ultimately had to make sure that the professor I chose was going to be able to teach me what I needed to learn to be a better composer.
To help you out in your quest for the right tutor, we’ve come up with this handy worksheet, containing a list of questions to ask any potential tutor (and space for you to write in the tutors’ answers). Click here to download it, or click the image below.
The Bottom Line
To sum it all up, here are the main attributes to look for in a tutor:
- They’ve taken the test and scored in the 99th percentile, so they know how to ace the SAT/ACT.
- They have expertise in tutoring effectively for the SAT/ACT.
- They have references from reputable sources.
I hope these guidelines were clear and informative. You are now ready to go forth and shop for the right tutor for you!
Find out more on how to find the best tutor for YOU here.
Interested in online tutoring? We offer a variety of online tutoring packages right here at PrepScholar.
If you want to read more about what each package entails, co-founder Fred Zhang goes into detail about each option in this article.
Questions about our tutoring programs? Contact us through our website.
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.