SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Is Online Tutoring As Good As In-Person Tutoring For The SAT/ACT?


You know you want tutoring...but what kind of tutoring should you go for? How can you really figure out if online tutoring is as good as in-person tutoring? You asked for it, you got it: a side-by-side comparison of online tutoring and in-person tutoring. And by side-by-side, I mean listed vertically, one after the other.

I’ll go into where each method excels…and where each method falls short.


feature image credit: decisions by Impact Hub, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.


A Quick Definition: What Do I Mean By Online Tutoring?

Different people and programs have different definitions of what online tutoring is, so I wanted to quickly define the term as it pertains to this article (and PrepScholar in general). When I write about online tutoring, I mean one-on-one tutoring that is delivered over the internet, often with both tutor and student using a webcam. More advanced tutors, like the ones we have at PrepScholar, use whiteboard software (computer programs that approximate an actual whiteboard) or overhead cameras to show work.


What’s Good About In-Person Tutoring?

As much as we at PrepScholar believe that online tutoring is effective (after all, we have a whole program built around it), there are definitely advantages to in-person tutoring.


Explanations Are Easier

For some questions, it's just easier for tutors to be able to go over them in person with the student. This is especially true if a student is having trouble understanding how to go about answering a question.

Imagine you're stuck on an ACT Science question that requires referencing multiple graphs. If your tutor is not there in person, she can try to assist you by painting a word picture of what you might want to consider (What are the two graphs measuring? What information do you need from graph A and what information do you need from graph B to answer the problem? Where in the graph is that information located? What calculations do you have to do in order to get this information?), and you can, similarly, explain your thought process back to her in words.

The problem with this: It's not the most efficient use of tutoring time. For one thing, when you encounter a tricky SAT or ACT question on test day, you're not going to have the luxury of talking it out. For another, while actually putting your thoughts into words can allow your tutor to understand your thought process, having to say things like "Okay, so I know sides AC and BD are parallel, and that angle ACB is 90, and that angle FGA is 47, so in order to find out angle GAB I need to subtract FGA and CAB from 180" is way more time consuming than just showing your tutor what you mean on paper, in person.


Reading The Student's Mood And Emotions Is Easier

Face to face, it’s easier for a tutor to get a sense of a student’s mood and personality. Why does this matter? Because a good tutor will change the way she tutors, depending on the particular student's personality and mood, which in turn creates a better tutoring relationship.

For instance, if a tutor has a student who's feeling frustrated with a particular subject, she needs to encourage him and change up her approach. If her student is happy with the progress that he's made, then the tutor will use this to motivate and stimulate further prep.

The reverse is true as well—it’s easier for students to get a sense of the tutor’s personality and intent when they are talking in person. As I have experienced in my own life, while humor is an effective learning tool, it doesn't always come across when people are not face to face; a tutor's deadpan description of a weirdly worded question as "I mean, I don't know why you wouldn't understand this question, it's so clear" might come across to a student as "hey, my tutor thinks I'm stupid" if student and tutor are not in the same locale.


Physical Presence

Some students benefit from someone being there to look over their shoulder physically as well as metaphorically. It might make you feel more motivated to have someone there, either because it means that there’s someone to whom you are accountable or just so you don't feel like you're alone in your test prep.


What’s Bad About In-Person Tutoring?

While there are things to like about in-person tutoring, there are also some serious downsides.


Fewer Options for High-Quality Tutors

In person tutoring limits you to people who are in physical proximity to you. As I discuss in my article on online tutoring, if you’re in a top education city like New York or Boston, that might be just fine; if not, though, your choices are more limited.

Think about it this way—is the best restaurant that’s within 25 miles of you also the best restaurant in the entire country? In the world? Probably not (if it is, I want to know where you live so I can try out the restaurant).


Travel Time

Transit time is a big downside to in person tutoring. Unless you live in the same building as your tutor, there’s going to be time spent in transit.

If it’s you traveling, then you’re spending extra time to get to and from tutoring, money to travel, and so on—this raises the actual cost of tutoring.

If it’s your tutor who has to travel, she has to build into her tutoring rates the cost of her traveling and the money she loses by traveling rather than tutoring, so you the student also end up paying more.

Transit times can in fact raise the cost of tutoring by over 50%—imagine that a tutor has to travel 1 hour for every 2 hours of tutoring, for example: her hourly rate will effectively be 50% higher just so she can cover her costs and time.


What’s Good About Online Tutoring?

Since PrepScholar has its own online tutoring program, it probably comes as no surprise that we think that online tutoring has a lot of positive things going for it.


More Options for High Quality Tutors

In contrast to in-person tutoring, online tutoring allows you to gain access to the best tutors around the country, not just those who are located nearest to you (unfortunately, we haven’t come up with a solution for the "access to the best restaurant" problem yet).

This can make a huge difference in results: a mediocre tutor, through bad advice and incomplete study planning assistance, can lead to your score staying the same or even decreasing. By contrast, getting a high quality tutor, even for a short amount of time, can drastically increase your score. How? High quality tutors will help you create a comprehensive study plan, so that even when you're not in tutoring sessions, you still know exactly how and what you should be studying.

What do I mean by a comprehensive study plan? First, the tutor will help you identify your target score and what level you are currently at, so you can get a sense of how much you have to improve in order to meet your goals.

Next, a high quality tutor will identify your weaknesses—for instance, if you have no idea how to go about writing a good SAT essay—and address them through focused teaching and practice questions, assigned for you to do on your own time. If you don't have good resources for practice tests or for learning a particular subject area, your tutor will either provide you with these resources or guide you in acquiring them on your own.

Finally, your tutor will help you work out a timeline for your studying based around when you are planning on taking the SAT/ACT and your current progress. If you're acing every question on noun/verb agreement, but having particular trouble with parallel construction, your tutor will update your study plan to reflect a focus on the areas with which you are struggling, so that you're not wasting time studying things you excel at.

By getting tutoring online, you can access the best tutors available within your budget—not just the ones who happen to live close to you.


No Travel Time there's no wasting your time in travel, or paying a higher rate for actual tutoring because you also have to cover the costs of your tutor coming to you. This means you can get a similar quality tutor for 30% cheaper than your local tutor, just because the tutor saves so much on transit costs.


body_timeandmoney.jpgTime & Money by Delwin Steven Campbell, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original

Yes, I am saying time is money.


Convenient And Flexible

If you have an internet connection (and, ideally, a webcam), you can get tutored—end of story. Also, since you don't have to leave home (unless you have to go elsewhere to get internet), online tutoring allows for more flexibility when it comes to scheduling (no need to factor in transit time or have to worry that since it's Sunday, no tutoring is available).


What’s Bad About Online Tutoring?

Despite our belief in the efficacy of online tutoring, there are still some areas in-person tutoring has an advantage in; of course, a good online tutor will compensate for these, but it's still good to be aware of these problem points.


Explanations Are Harder

Yeah, it’s going to be harder to go over questions together if the tutor and student aren’t in the same room, particularly if answering the question requires a lot of steps, like solving an advanced algebra problem.

BUT: Online tutors can still use whiteboard programs or an overhead camera to make it possible for the tutor and the student to show each other their work.


More Difficult To Assess Mood

It can be harder for tutors to get a read on how students are feeling if they’re not in the same physical location.

BUT: online tutors can use a webcam, and a capable and experienced tutor will be able to tell, even though a webcam.


body_moodring.jpgMoodring2.jpg by Alkivar, used under Public Domain.

Online tutors are far superior to mood rings when it comes to deciphering how a student is feeling.


So Where Does This Leave Me?

As you can see from above, even in areas that online tutor is lacking there are ways to remedy these issues. But will online tutoring be as good as in person tutoring for you, specifically? At PrepScholar, believe the answer to this question is yes: online tutoring is a net positive when compared to in-person tutoring.

To determine whether online or in-person tutoring is right for you, go through the pros and cons for each method. Which are features are less important, and which you can’t do without? Which are negative points that are deal breakers and which are you’re willing to put up with?

You can even do this in a quantitative manner. Make a chart with two columns, one for Online Tutoring and one for In Person tutoring. Go over the lists of pros and cons above and assign each method of tutoring +1 for positive aspects that matter to you and -1 for negative aspects, then see which side has the higher score.

And of course, don’t forget to read our article on finding the best tutor for you.


What’s Next?

Want more specifics on what makes an effective tutor? Click here for a step-by-step guide on finding the best SAT/ACT tutor for you!

If you liked this article, you might also be interested in reading more about how much SAT/ACT tutoring should cost.

Not sure which prep method is right for you? Compare methods of test prep with our free ebook.



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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

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.

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