I spent four years as a test-prep tutor, working with students on all aspects of the ACT and SAT. When I started out, I knew how to take the tests, but I wasn't that good at teaching them. Over the years, however, I've learned a lot about how to be an effective teacher, and it's largely not about the kinds of tips and tricks you might expect.
This guide will give you all the tools you need to guide your student through the ACT prep process. Just follow these six steps:
- Set a Goal
- Learn the Test
- Use the Best Resources
- Make a Plan
- Teach the Strategies
- Dissect Mistakes
Step 1: Determine Your Goals and Challenges
This step will vary a lot depending on who you are and who your student is. If you're a parent, sibling or friend, you'll need to determine whether you're qualified to teach this student and what challenges you'll face. If you're a professional or volunteer tutor, you'll want to focus more on the student's own score goals.
Are You Qualified?
In order to be an effective tutor, you need to be better at the material than your student. If you struggle to explain questions they miss it will undermine her confidence in you, and if you don't really understand the material you won't be able to diagnose what your student's weaknesses are.
A good rule of thumb is that you should be scoring at least 4 points higher than your student. If she is already high-scoring you’ll want to be at or near perfect. If you are not academically-minded or were always bad at standardized tests, don’t try to teach them to someone else.
Your student has to want to improve. It’s impossible to raise your score on the ACT without doing a lot of practice, so you aren’t going to be able to be an effective tutor unless your student is also invested in the process.
Encouraging a student to participate in the learning process can be especially tricky if she's a friend or family member. One of my biggest challenges as tutor was working with my cousin. Because we didn’t have the usual student-tutor relationship, it was harder for me to motivate her and hold her to account when she didn’t complete the work that I assigned.
Setting a Score Goal
Having a goal to work towards is an important motivational tool, so make sure to discuss with your student what score she's hoping to reach. Don’t just assume she needs a 36, since she almost certainly doesn’t.
Your student’s goal will depend on what she needs the score for. The score she’ll need as a middle schooler to get into summer programs is very different from what she’ll need as a senior to get into Columbia. Moreover, what score she needs to get into college will depend on where she wants to go. Look into the score ranges at schools she’s interested in to help determine what score she should shoot for.
Another consideration is whether your student needs to raise her score as a whole or simply increase her score on one of the 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. Again, it's important to understand what she's planning to use the score for in order to determine what her goal will be.
Setting a specific goal (and having a reason for it) will help your student stay focused.
Step 2: Familiarize Yourself with the ACT
You can’t be an effective teacher if you don’t know anything about the ACT. If you aren't accustomed to tutoring—especially if you applied to college before smartphones were invented—you'll need to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the test.
A good first step is to try taking a practice ACT: doing so will help you understand your own strengths and weaknesses as well as how the ACT is formatted and what kinds of skills it tests. I've included some key reminders about what you need to know if you aren't familiar with the test below.
Remember that the ACT Is Different from the SAT
The ACT’s popularity is relatively recent and somewhat location dependent. If you applied to college before 2000 or you went to high school in a state on the east or west coast (rather than in the Midwest or a mountain state), you probably took the SAT.
Though both are standardized tests, the current ACT is very different than the older versions of the SAT. For starters, it has English and science sections in addition to the math and reading ones. It also asks different types of questions about slightly different material—for example, there are no vocab questions on the ACT, but there are trigonometry ones.
If you're going to tutor the ACT, make sure you know the ACT—don't just assume it's the same as the SAT you took 10 years ago.
Know the Format of the ACT
It sounds silly, but it’s important make sure you understand what the ACT actually looks like and what kind of questions it asks. The ACT is very different from the type of test students take in high school and you need to understand the test's unique logic and format in order to guide your student to a higher score.
For example, let’s say your student has a low math score, and you know he really struggles with logarithms. You might decide that you should focus on studying logarithms and really practice that skill. This plan sounds logical enough, but it would actually waste a lot of time because the ACT has at most one logarithm question per test. Unless your student is already scoring a 33 or above on the math, studying logarithms is not an effective use of time.
Let's consider another case: your student is having a hard time with the science section. You might think that it will be helpful to review the science your student has learned in school: go over osmosis and electromagnetism. But the science section doesn't actually test knowledge—it's about reading graphs. Studying science topics won't help your student at all.
If you aren't sure what the ACT actually tests, you can use the following guides to learn about what’s on each section:
Step 3: Gather the Best Resources
If there was one lesson I learned as a tutor, it was that bad materials make it very difficult to tutor effectively. When practice questions have errors or look nothing like the the questions on the actual ACT, students end up confused or frustrated and, worse, lose some of their trust in you.
To avoid these issues, the best plan is to use official practice materials whenever possible and, if necessary, supplement them with high quality books.
Official Practice Tests
Official ACTs will be the backbone of any tutoring program. Practicing with real tests will give students the best idea of what to expect on test day.
Best General Books
Though The Real ACT Guide provides a lot of great practice material, it doesn't include much in the way of strategies or content review. As such, you'll likely need other materials as supplements (though it will depend on your approach as a tutor and the strengths and weaknesses of your student).
One great resource is the ACT Black Book by Mike Barret. This book lays out how to think effectively about the test and can really help students understand how the ACT is different from the tests they take in school. It includes some of the best strategies, but it also lacks math and English content review, which many students will need.
For more info about these books and others, check out our round-up of the best ACT prep books and our list of best books for intensive ACT study. You might also consider taking a look at our free online ACT guides, including the 5 strategies you must be using and how to get a 36.
Best Section Books
If your student needs particular help on one of the sections, consider getting a book specific to that topic. There are fewer of these specialized options for the ACT than there are for the SAT, but there are still some great options.
We also have free guides to each section, which include some of the best, most comprehensive info anywhere.
- Our complete guide to the best ACT English books can help you pick out the best option for your student.
- Our Ultimate Guide to ACT English
- We recommend Richard Corn's Ultimate Guide to the Math ACT for most students.
- Our Complete Guide to ACT Math
- For reading, we generally recommend Erica Meltzer's Complete ACT Reading.
- Our Ultimate Prep Guide to ACT Reading
- There aren't any really great ACT Science books, though Barron's ACT 36 can be helpful for high scoring students.
- Our Complete Guide to ACT Science
Good resources are worth their weight in gold (not literally).
Step 4: Make a Plan
Once you know your goals and have the materials you need, sit down with your student and work up a full plan for how you're going to get her to the score she needs by the test date she's signed up for.
ACT prep is one of the easiest things to procrastinate—because it's spread out over such a long period, it's easy to put off until the very last minute—but studying is most effective when it occurs over months, not days.
As a tutor, one of your most important roles is making sure your student stays on track. Let's go over some ways to achieve that.
Establish a Schedule
First, figure out when your student is going to take the test. Then plan out what needs to get done between now and then: most students benefit from roughly 40 hours of studying—it will depend on the student how much of that is tutoring and how much is independent work, but all students should take at least three full practice tests.
Set a specific time for your lesson each week. I generally 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.
If you're working with a student who you only see that one time each week, then you'll need to give homework, either extra practice questions or material review, depending on the student's needs and weaknesses.
As a parent or sibling, you probably won't be able to convince your student to do extra homework, so instead set aside an extra time during the week for them to study on their own.
When deciding how to approach the material, it's helpful to have a system: are you going to tackle one section at a time? Break them up into individual skills and mix things up a bit? Have your student practice each type of question and home in on what's tripping him up about it? Each of these approaches can work—it really depends on how your student learns best.
Then decide where you're going to start. I like to begin by tackling a student's weakest sections, because that's often where they have the most room for improvement. But every student is different. Some may only need to raise a specific section score. Some may already know a lot about the ACT and mostly need to review the material it tests. Others will need you to start with the very basics like format and scoring.
ACT prep is easy to put off and avoid, but it’s impossible for students to improve without dedicated practice. A big part of your job as a tutor is keeping your student motivated.
Talk to your student about how much work she'll need to do and when it needs to be completed. Remind her why the ACT is important. Hold her to your schedule.
Ideally, your plan will be less complicated than this one.
Step 5: Discuss Strategies
So far I've talked mostly about the big picture of how to set up an successful student-tutor relationship, but now I want to go into a bit more depth about how to be a really effective teacher of the material.
To succeed on the ACT, students need to have a systematic approach to each section. These overall strategies are often what students expect to learn when they start tutoring, and although they aren't the be all, end all of learning about the ACT, these kinds of tips are still important.
Below are some guides to key strategies for each section to get you thinking about the types of ideas you might want to cover. You'll also want to diagnose any content weaknesses for English and math.
- How to approach the English passages: This guide explains the best methods for reading the ACT English passages—have your student try each and determine which works best for her.
- 5 critical concepts: This article covers a number of general ACT English strategies like using grammar rules (not your ear) to determine the answer and not rushing through the questions.
- What's actually covered on ACT English: Go over this list with your student to help determine if there are any topics she's especially unfamiliar with.
- How not to run out of time on ACT Math: The math section includes a lot of questions, and students will need to move quickly. This guide offers tips to help students manage time effectively.
- 31 must know formulas: Unlike the SAT, the ACT doesn't provide the formulas you need to know. This list lays out all the formulas your student needs to memorize to ace the ACT math.
- How to plug in answers: Make sure your student understands the most efficient way to plug-and-chug.
- How to plug in numbers: This strategy will help your student approach questions that ask about abstract variables and unknown quantities.
- How to read the passages: It's vital that students have a plan for efficiently reading the passages. This guide outlines the most effective methods.
- The #1 rule for ACT Reading: A common mistake students make on ACT Reading is overthinking the questions. This guide explains why that will give you the wrong answer.
- How to stop running out of time on ACT Reading: Time management is one of the trickiest parts of the ACT reading—this guide can help with it.
- ACT Science isn't really about science: This article explains how students can use the fact that ACT Science is really a reading test to their advantage.
- How to approach the science passages: As with English and reading, students must know how to approach the passages systematically—this guide explains the most effective way to do so.
Step 6: Dissect Mistakes
ACT questions follow certain patterns: look at enough tests and you'll see that the test writers ask the same kind of questions over and over again. The best way to get a feel for the style of those questions is to do a lot of practice, so as I mentioned above you should have your students regularly practice with real ACT questions.
Of course, it's not enough to simply assign the work, you also need to discuss the questions your student misses. Your role as a tutor isn't just to say, "B is the right answer"—it's to help your student understand why they got the question wrong and how they can avoid missing similar ones in the future.
For more details on how to effectively go over missed questions, take a look at our guide to reviewing mistakes.
The keys to unlocking your student's potential.
Review: 3 Key Tutoring Tips
The specifics of what you cover and how you work on it will depend a lot on you and your student, but there are a few big picture ideas that every tutor should keep in mind.
Students take their cues from you. If you aren't on top of the material and don't seem to have a plan, they'll pick up on your lack of preparation and feel less confident in your knowledge.
Make sure you have a clear plan for everything you're going to cover, since this will help you feel prepared as well as giving you the chance to prepare for lessons ahead of time. However, leave yourself some extra time for reviewing tricky topics and answering your student's questions. It's impossible to predict exactly what students will need help with, and it's important to be responsive to their concerns.
Motivation is Key
I can't overstate the importance of practice: students won't improve if they don't put the work in. As such, it's vital that you motivate your student to do the work you assign. In some cases, this will be easy (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.
They Don't Call It a Standardized Test for Nothing
As a tutor, I've found that my greatest strength is an encyclopedic knowledge of the ACT. The test includes the same kinds of questions again and again, so once you really know the different styles of questions and different topics they cover you can explain just about any permutation.
I gained this knowledge over years of tutoring, but even if you're just starting out, you can use the fact that the ACT 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.
I've listed tons of helpful resources throughout this article. If you're looking for more ACT prep content, you can also explore all of our posts using the topics listed in the right column.
If the test is just around the corner and you're pressed for time, make sure to go over these last-minute study tips with your student.
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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.