Should I Hire A Tutor Or Study For The SAT/ACT On My Own?


Your number two pencils are sharpened; you have functioning erasers at the ready and tissues for when you can’t stop the tears. That’s right. You’re gearing up to study for the SAT/ACT.

Except…how do you actually go about studying for the SAT/ACT? Do you need a tutor, or can you just do it on your own?

We cover this topic pretty thoroughly in our free booklets on comparing methods of test prep for the SAT and ACT, so this article will just give you a brief rundown of when it’s worth it to hire a tutor.

feature image credit: Lady Mary Fairfax with her Tutor, 1647 by Lisby, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

In general, if you want to succeed on the SAT or ACT, you must have all of the following five components.


#1: Motivation and Accountability

Finding the motivation to study for the SAT/ACT can be...problematic. I mean, your score doesn’t directly impact your high school education (unless your school uses it for something), and test prep isn’t as interesting as YouTube or TikTok or watching a drop of rain run down a window and join up with other raindrops.

If you aren’t motivated, you won’t make progress in your test prep. A vague reason that you just give lip service to, like “I know I probably need to study so I can get a good enough score get into the school I want,” won’t do you any good.

You need reasons to study that will actually motivate you. Because it’s the strength of the motivation that matters, not the loftiness of the reason, “I want to beat my older sibling’s score on the SAT” is just as valid a motivator for test prep as “I want to do well on the SAT so I’m guaranteed a scholarship to a state school.”

Accountability may play a role in your motivation, if you find that you are most motivated to succeed if you have people counting on you who you don’t want to disappoint. Maybe you’ll care if a friend or a sibling shames you for not doing work like you said you would (not that I speak from experience), or if your parents are disappointed in you for failing to improve your test scores (as long as this is also something YOU care about). Bottom line: you need to find a source (or multiple sources) of motivation that work(s) for YOU.

IF you have problems finding the motivation to study on your own, without anyone holding you accountable for studying, THEN a tutor may be helpful for you.


#2: Strong Study Plan

Students who succeed on the SAT/ACT go into prep with a structured study plan. When you’re just studying on your own, it can be hard to stay organized in your studying.

The first step to forming a high-level study plan is to know where you currently stand and where you want to be on test day. Take a timed practice test under realistic conditions to get a sense of how you are scoring now.

Next, what is your target score? We have two articles about this, one for the SAT and one for the ACT, but to summarize:

  • List the schools you want to apply to
  • Search online to find their average SAT/ACT scores
  • Take the average of all the averages to get your target test score.

Once you know your current score and your target test score, you will have a better idea of what it's going to take to get there. A structured study plan will be able to answer all of the following questions.

  • When am I taking the SAT/ACT? How long do I have to prepare before test day?
  • How many hours will I study each week?
  • What material do I need to cover?
  • What resources will I use? Should I use books or a complete prep program?
  • When do I take practice tests?
  • How will I know how to adjust my plan according to my progress?

I'm going to use a fictional student named Aaron to answer these questions. Aaron recently took a practice SAT and scored a 1000 and has six months to reach his target score of 1250. He and his tutor have assessed his weak areas and discovered that Aaron has serious content weaknesses across all of SAT Math and some smaller issues with the Critical Reading and Writing sections. Aaron's study plan looks something like this:

  • Months 1-3: 1 hour every other week with tutor, 3 hours a week otherwise focusing on weaknesses in SAT Math. Practice tests every three weeks.
  • Months 4-5: 1 hour every other week with tutor, 6-7 hours a week outside of tutoring sessions drilling weaknesses in Math, Critical Reading, and Writing and reviewing missed questions, using books and materials hand-selected by the tutor; practice tests every other week.
  • Month 6: 1 hour every other week with tutor, 9-10 hours a week outside of tutoring sessions working on remaining weaknesses that the tutor has identified by drilling with actual practice questions, practicing reading comprehension by finding interesting articles in the New York Times and analyzing them; practice tests every week, increasing in frequency as the test draws nigh.

Because Aaron sticks to his study plan, he bumps his Math score from 400 to 630 and his overall SAT score from 1000 to 1260, meeting his target goal.

If he had not had this study plan, even if he had gotten focused help on the Math section a month before the test, it's unlikely that he would have been able to improve as much as he did, both in Math and across the board.

So IF you have problems structuring your study time, THEN a tutor may be helpful for you.


#3: Excellent Study Resources

Being motivated with a plan won’t do you any good if you don’t have good resources for your test prep. It is extremely important to use actual SAT/ACT practice tests when you study, not other test prep company’s materials, since only the questions that will test you in the same way the real test does are...questions from an official test. Luckily, there are a bunch of free practice tests available online for the SAT and the ACT.

What if there’s a topic you just don’t understand? Let’s make up an example and say I never really understood probability in class, but somehow managed to fake my way through it. Suddenly, I’m faced with the SAT or ACT, which questions you on probability in really weird ways.

To address this, I could try going through back through notes or borrowing old textbooks, prep material from other people. But what if I don’t have any good notes or materials to begin with? Not only this, textbooks and class notes aren't the best way to prep for the tests since they're so different. What if I’m not good at teaching material to myself?

My best bet would be to find a tutor who has a good reputation for teaching SAT Math, and get focused instruction on improving my knowledge of probability.

IF you don't know what the best resources available to target your weaknesses are, THEN you would definitely benefit from time with the right tutor.


#4: Effective Way To Learn From Your Mistakes

One of the mistakes many people have when they study for the SAT/ACT is failing to thoroughly review the questions they miss.

A thorough review involves more than a halfhearted “Oh, I see. I got this wrong because I was careless.” In order for going over your errors to actually help you, you need to dig deep into why exactly you missed the question.

Where were you careless? Did you make the mistake because you were rushing? If so, why were you low on time? What are concrete ways you can avoid making this mistake in the future? If you’re thinking that you’d love to read an entire article about the best way to review your mistakes, then you are in luck.

IF you have trouble going over your mistakes and figuring out what in particular you did wrong (and concrete ways to avoid it in the future), THEN hiring a high quality tutor will be helpful.


body_bourgaisadia.jpgBourgai Sadia by sebastien Delcoigne, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

Don’t speed past your mistakes.


#5: Ability To Measure Progress

In order to successfully prepare for the SAT/ACT, you need a way to measure your progress as you study, and be able to adapt your study plan accordingly. This is the area I have the most trouble in—it’s tempting to keep doing the same things over and over, but after a certain point those things may no longer be helping you boost your score.

So how do you measure progress? When beginning your test prep, you should take a timed, full-length practice test and score it; alternatively, if you've already taken the test once recently, you can use that as your starting point. As you proceed through your test prep, continue to take timed practice tests at regular intervals, spaced according to how much time you have to study. For instance, if you're preparing for the SAT over the course of two months, start out by taking a practice test at the end of each week of prep for the first month.

Why is taking timed practice tests so important to your test prep? It's the only way, short of taking the actual SAT or ACT, to see how you're doing under realistic conditions. If you don’t know if you’re doing better than before on the test, it's impossible to know if your studying is effective...or if you're just wasting your time. By periodically checking your score on practice tests, you'll be able to see if you are improving, and if you need to be improving more quickly to meet your goals (or if you're doing just fine).

Let's extend the example of a student who takes four practice tests in the first month of her studying. He started out with an ACT composite score of 24, and his goal is to improve to a 30; however, after a month of studying a couple of hours a week, his practice test composite is holding steady at 26. If this student wants to meet his goal, he's going to need to adapt his studying method. In this case, a tutor would be helpful because she would be able to identify the ways in which the student should adapt his studying method to reach his target score, whether this is by increasing the amount of time he studies or changing the specifics of how he reviews questions he's messed up on.

IF you’re not really sure how to measure your progress, or how you can adapt your test prep as you improve, THEN you might find a tutor helpful.


No Sweat, I’ve Got This Without A Tutor

If you are confident that you take care of the following on your own:

  1. Motivation and Accountability: You have a reason or multiple reasons to study that are actually important to you.
  2. Strong Study Plan: You know your target score and the amount of time you have to study and are able to use that to plan out your test prep in a schedule that you can stick to.
  3. Good Resources: You have the right material to study, or you have the ability to acquire it.
  4. Effective Ways to Learn From Your Mistakes: You are expert at picking apart your mistakes,  seeing exactly where you went wrong, and finding solutions to avoid these mistakes in the future.
  5. Ability to Measure Progress: You know what your starting point is and that you need to take timed practice tests along the way as yardsticks against which to asses your progress.

...then absolutely go for it—you don't need a tutor to do well, or even get a perfect score, on the SAT or ACT. As I can personally attest, working smart and working hard will get you most places when it comes to test prep.

Storytime: When I was a senior in college, I was under the impression that I might want to go to grad school for psychology, and so I knew I had to take the GRE Psychology Subject Test. I didn't have the funds or time for a tutor, and there wasn't really a test prep course out there that I knew of. Instead, I studied with a friend for about an hour a day, every day, for the six weeks leading up to the test. We both scored exceptionally well, and my friend now has her doctorate in psychology.

So I don't want to suggest that you MUST have a tutor to do well on the SAT/ACT. But if you feel like you need help on one of the above key components, you should consider it.


Uh Oh…I’m Not So Sure I Can Do This On My Own

If you’re worried about even one of those 5 areas, however, you might want to consider getting yourself some assistance to maximize your score. The more areas you struggle with, the more a high quality tutor will help.

On the other hand, if you’re not entirely sure that you want to go with a tutor, a test prep program, like PrepScholar’s automated drilling platform, is a good compromise. You get motivation, a personalized study plan that focuses on your weaknesses, materials, and a way to measure progress, but pay less and miss out on the one-on-one attention.


What’s Next?

Wait, what is it that tutors actually do during SAT/ACT tutoring, anyway? I’ve got the answers to your tutoring questions!

Sounds good so far, but should I be doing online tutoring? Find out more about online SAT/ACT tutoring (including pros and cons) here.

How do you find the right tutor for you? Reading this article is a good start (although since I wrote it, I might be a little bit biased).



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About the Author
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Laura Staffaroni

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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