SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

What Do Tutors Actually Do During SAT/ACT Tutoring?


You’ve heard of this strange, mysterious thing called “SAT/ACT Tutoring.” Okay, maybe it's not all that mysterious to you, but it was a cipher to me when I was in high school. Was SAT tutoring like homework, but with supervision? Why should I waste my precious free time with a tutor when I could just do everything myself? What actually happens during SAT/ACT tutoring?

In this article, I'm going to talk about what we at PrepScholar believe the best tutors do during the course of SAT/ACT tutoring. These are the best practices that we employ to get our industry-leading results.

This is in no way a guarantee that every tutor will follow every one of these guidelines, of course, but it gives you an idea of what to look for. We will answer all the questions I had as a confused high schooler…and more! As a bonus feature, I’ve included things that good tutors should absolutely NOT do during ACT/SAT tutoring sessions, so that if you encounter them, you can run in the other direction.

feature image credit: Tapping a Pencil by Rennett Stowe, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.


Effective Tutors Will…Set Tangible Goals For You

Imagine if (or, possibly, remember when) you had a teacher who treated the first day of school like a normal day and jumped right in, with no introduction or explanation of what you would cover in the class. It’s very disorienting. The best tutors will have a study arc in mind and structure both your studying and their tutoring accordingly.


What To Expect

During your first tutoring session, your tutor should talk with you about your college goals and about your target goals. What do I mean by target goals? Your target test score for the SAT/ACT should be within the 25-75 percentile range of test scores at your target schools (read here for more on how to calculate your target score, or just use our simple worksheet for the SAT or the ACT).

Once you have a target score to aim for, you can calculate the difference between your current test score and where you need to be to get into the colleges you want to attend. Having tangible goals like this gives you real ways of measuring your progress.

Let's run through a concrete example. It's the winter of your junior year. You have a solid 4.0 GPA, but you took the PSAT in October and got a combined score of 1280, with a 390 on Reading, 360 on Writing, and 530 on Math. You've looked at the target scores for your dream school, NYU, and know that the score range on the old SAT is 1900-2190, and that students who score over 1410 on the new SAT have the best chance of getting in. This means you definitely need to increase your combined SAT score by at least 140 points (optimally 160 + for the best chance). And now you need a plan to reach this personal goal.

Tutors SHOULD NOT: think that every student should aim for a 1600 or a 36.

While most people can achieve a perfect score with a lot of hard work, if that’s not your goal, it shouldn’t be your tutor’s goal. Your tutor should be helping you set reasonable expectations for yourself, not imposing even more pressure.


Perfection Isn't Reality by La Melodie, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.


Think that going through all these calculations is planning way too far in advance? Check out our article on scheduling and planning your SAT/ACT studying.


Effective Tutors Will…Help You Structure Your Studying

In addition to discussing your college and score goals, tutors can also assist you in plotting out your studying schedule. When it comes to prepping for the SAT or ACT, do you have problems with motivation and accountability? That's totally understandable - high school is really busy, test prep is just one more added burden, and it's not like you're accountable to teachers or school if you do poorly. The last thing you need is a scowling tutor glowering at you because you didn't meet their unreasonably high expectations.


What To Expect

Your tutor will help you establish a long-term study plan. What might this look like?

To continue with the example from before: You and your tutor have already discussed your target score of 1420 on the SAT, and your target increase of 160+ points. You tell your tutor that you do well in school, but didn't bother studying for the PSAT because you can't just see the point in doing test prep - after all, GPA is the most important thing for college admissions, right? You're not planning on taking the SAT for another eight weeks so how much work do you really need to do?

Rather than accusing you of being a slacker, a good tutor will help you build a solid study plan. Given your target score, she will suggest a minimum of 40 hours of prep, not including tutoring; when spread out over 8 weeks, that only comes out to 5 hours a week of work, which isn't quite as intimidating as you'd expected. Your tutor also assigns you to take 3 full-length practice tests at weeks 2, 4, and 6 so you can track your growth over time. Depending on your individual situation, you will figure out how many tutoring sessions you should schedule in addition to your own studying (see the chart at the bottom of this page for how this might work at PrepScholar). Then, for the very last week, your tutor will have a custom plan to build your confidence and reduce stress to get the maximum score on test date.

Tutors SHOULD NOT: give you one-size-fits-all strict studying plan and tell you if you can’t stick to it, then there is no hope for you.


Effective Tutors Will…Identify and Address Content Weaknesses

One of the main reasons students seek out tutors is when they have issues with understanding test content. Being able to explain the test material in a clear fashion is an integral part of good tutoring. In order to explain, however, a good tutor will need to know what YOUR thinking process is, so that she can explain content in ways that make sense to YOU. Below are some of the questions a tutor might ask to help her figure out how best to help you:

  • "Walk me through how you would answer this question. What do you do first?"
  • "Okay, so 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?"
  • "Let's review the new points that we learned just now."

In a tutoring session, because you're the only student in the class, your tutor can focus on meeting your needs, rather than on meeting the needs of a 35+ people.

Tutors SHOULD NOT: just read out the solutions in the back of the practice test (no, not even if they use funny voices). If that's all you want, then stick to the practice tests and pass on hiring someone else.


Effective Tutors Will…Give You Suggestions on How to Approach Problems

Tutors can not only suggest novel approaches and strategies for grappling with questions, but can, at the same time, help you with issues such as time management on the test and careless errors.

I'll use the following sample problem to show you what I mean.


Maybe you don't remember how to solve quadratic equations, or you panic and don't recognize that this is what the question is asking you to do. You decide to plug in the possible answers, but because this takes so much time you rush your math and do weird things with negative numbers, so you end up choosing incorrect answer.

A bad tutor might try to "help" you this way: "So it's a quadratic equation, right? You solve for x and then you choose the right answer. Make sure you don't forget about the negatives at the end. Got it?"

Not only are you going feel pressured to answer "yes" no matter what, part of that explanation doesn't even make sense. And it doesn't help you because your problem was threefold: not knowing how to approach the problem, careless errors, and time management. The above answer helped with exactly NONE of those issues.

A good tutor might take this approach: "There are several ways to answer this question. Let's go over each of them, step by step.

Approach 1: Plug in the numbers - the smart way

Okay, I see that two of the answers have 3 in them, so I'll start with that because if 3's wrong, then I can eliminate those answers right away.

2((3)2) + 6(3) = 36

2(9) +18 = 36

36 = 36 okay, 3 works, so eliminate H J K, leaving F or G. -12 seems like it would be too big but I'll try it anyway.

2((-12)2) + 6(-12) = 36

2(144) -72 = 36

288-72 = 36 hahaha NOPE. so the answer must be...G. I'll say that for now and come back if I have time to check -6 in the equation.

So even if you do panic and forget how to solve a quadratic equation, there are strategies to make sure that plugging in the numbers isn't a time suck, and that the time pressure doesn't cause you to make a careless mistake.

Now, let's go over how I'd go answering the question if I recognized that it was a quadratic equation.

Approach 2: Solve the quadratic equation

Ah, good ol' quadratic equations. Let me put it in the normal form first:

2x2 + 6x - 36 = 0 that's better. Hmm...I want to reduce this to make it easier to deal with.

x2 + 3x - 18 = 0 okay time to FOIL this problem ahahahaha stop it, self, you're wasting time.

(x + 6)(x - 3) = 0

x = -6 or x = 3, which is G for great! answer: achieved

This explanation is comprehensive, with tips for dealing with careless errors and time management seamlessly integrated into the explanation of two alternate approaches to the question.


What To Expect

Along with explanations of specific approaches and strategies, tutors may even choose to supplement their advice with great resources like articles on the best way to review missed questions (why no, I do not have any shame when it comes to promoting my own articles, why do you ask?).

Tutors SHOULD NOT: force you to answer questions using one particular strategy. While there are lists of best study practices and best ways to approach certain questions out there, that doesn't mean that you MUST use a particular strategy. You need to learn in a way that will make sense to YOU.


How Can a Tutor Help You Excel?

So tutoring’s been demystified - hurray! Next step: what do you do with all this information?

Think back through your own studying process with the above points in mind and take stock. Do you have weaknesses in content, structuring study, approaching problems, or admitting that you are human and have limitations? NB: If you are not actually human, tutors may not be able to help you.

What areas could a tutor help you in? Here's a quick and dirty checklist - modify it at will for your own personal use.


Click on the image above to download our "What Do You Need A Tutor To Help You With?" checklist.

Now when you look for a tutor, you will be able to tell him or her exactly what you are looking for AND will be able to eliminate any tutors who don’t cover the area you need help with. For instance, if you really need someone to help you structure your studying, rather than someone to help you with content and explanations of questions, you should not go with a tutor who only has experience with teaching specific content (like grammar or algebra); instead, go with someone who has strong skills in teaching study organization.


In Conclusion

What happens in tutoring...does not stay in tutoring. Why? Because you can take what a good tutor shows you and use it to influence the rest of your test prep.

If someone gets a time machine that can send blog posts through time, it would be super helpful if that someone would send this article back to my high school self. Luckily, for you, no time travel is necessary. All you have to do is read this article, download the checklist, and then move on to what lies ahead.


What’s Next?

Now that you know more about what SAT/ACT tutoring involves, is it right for you? Find out if you should get an SAT/ACT tutor with this guide.

If you liked this article, be sure to follow it up with what makes an effective ACT/SAT Tutor.

Is online tutoring better or worse than in-person tutoring? Discover if online tutoring is a good fit for you with this article.


Want to get serious about improving your SAT/ACT score? Our tutoring service is designed to be the most effective in the nation. We hire the best tutors from across the country. This is then paired with our exclusive online drilling program that gives your tutor complete insight into your progress to design the most effective sessions. Think about what improving 160 points on your SAT, or 4 points on your ACT, can do for you. Learn more about tutoring now:

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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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