It’s no secret that the SAT/ACT test prep industry is saturated. With literally thousands of companies and even more tutors out there, how can you possibly decide who to trust?
Word of mouth? Years of experience? Testimonials? Whomever you happen to resonate with? Or does test prep feel like a commodity service, so you’re just looking for the cheapest price?
Having worked for four other SAT/ACT prep agencies for many years (and even being promoted to Director of Instruction, which meant I was developing the curriculum and had a major say in hiring other tutors) before I decided to cut ties and dedicate myself wholly to own test prep and college admissions firm, Young Prodigy, I’ve seen the spectrum of tutors and companies over the past 12 years.
I’ve seen firsthand what makes a true SAT/ACT “lifer” (a consummate professional or master) versus a novice tutor.
But it’s difficult to tell the difference when all the surface qualifications sound similar: graduated from a top university, earned top SAT/ACT scores him/herself, personable, relatable, and patient.
When you ask your network, you’re probably just hearing a bunch of vague comments: “Oh, he’s great! He helped my daughter improve 270 points.” or “He’s so patient, experienced, and attentive!” or “He really connected with my son and helped motivate him, so we ended up with an excellent score and getting into Stanford!”
But were you able to truly pinpoint anything specific about what makes a particular tutor better than another? What SPECIFICALLY makes a tutor exceptional?
What if there were a way to somehow know whether a tutor not only deeply understands the SAT/ACT content but also knows how to effectively teach students (two totally different skills)?
The following 8 questions will help you gain that specific insight to properly vet any potential SAT/ACT tutor or company.
- What else do you do besides teach the SAT/ACT?
The vast majority of SAT/ACT tutors are part-time dabblers. They’re usually young college graduates who are just beginning to dip their toes into the workforce, so SAT/ACT tutoring is just a side-gig for them. SAT/ACT isn’t their passion, their dream, or even their livelihood.
They’re usually just doing it because it’s easy to get hired, the work hours are flexible, and the pay is decent for a new grad. But these tutors dream of a different career, whether that’s in Hollywood (there are SO MANY aspiring actors/actresses, directors, and screenwriters who work as part-time SAT/ACT tutors), the business start-up world, the medical field, or all sorts of other industries.
It’s a true rarity if you can find an SAT/ACT tutor who specializes in these tests, someone who helps students ace the SAT/ACT all day long as his/her legitimate full-time job and passion.
Typically, such dedicated SAT/ACT masters don’t stay long at the standard tutoring mills (the ones with huge marketing budgets and hire dozens or even hundreds of tutors, with high tutor churn rates).
That’s because once an SAT/ACT tutor reaches this stage of experience, there’s virtually no good reason to stay employed under another firm. The company usually milks every bit of expertise and good will out of these master tutors, while taking 70% or more of the cut!
It’s true–most companies pay their tutors just a miniscule percentage of the fees collected, even though it’s the tutor who’s doing the bulk of the work and building the company’s reputation. The best tutors often even end up generating their OWN referrals for their company, yet the company still takes a huge cut.
And this is why the LARGER the company, the WORSE the quality generally becomes. There’s an extreme shortage of master SAT/ACT tutors, and those masters see little incentive to stay under these large companies because of unfair pay distribution and limited growth potential.
Combine the fact that typical tutors only stay in the SAT/ACT industry for a few years (just until they find their footing in their real career) with the quick exit of master tutors who are being exploited by their test prep companies, and you have a recipe for incredibly fast tutor turnover, which leaves only the inexperienced tutors to help you prepare for one of the most important tests you’ll take.
Takeaway: look for an SAT/ACT who specializes in these tests as their FULL-TIME JOB! That will ensure you’re being mentored by someone who knows all the ins and outs of the SAT/ACT, has thousands of hours of experience to understand different student types, and the dedication to continually keep up-to-date on these evolving tests and constantly improve his/her teaching skills.
- How many hours have you been teaching the SAT/ACT, and how many students have personally instructed (for these specific tests)?
Don’t just ask how many years the tutor has taught the test because the way most test prep companies are structured is to hire as many tutors as possible, giving each tutor only a small amount of hours per week. Even some of the biggest test prep companies do this (I know because I worked for them) because they know that tutors come and go.
Once the tutor’s real dream career takes off, he or she quits the part-time SAT/ACT gig. By hiring so many tutors, these companies ensure they’ll always have someone on hand to tutor you. And by hiring their tutors as independent contractors or part-time hourly employees, these companies can afford to keep hundreds of tutors on staff because they only need to pay the tutors when they actually work (unlike salaried employees).
A tutor could have worked for 5+ years yet barely gained more than a couple hundred hours of SAT/ACT tutoring experience. And the more spread out his or her hours are, the less opportunity the tutor has had to reinforce and improve his/her tutoring skills. Instead, the tutor ends up wasting time re-learning the SAT/ACT concepts and teaching skills because the tutor is so rusty when his/her last student was too long ago.
During the holiday parties at these big tutoring companies, all of the tutors I chatted with shared that they weren’t getting as many hours as promised, so they were all looking for other jobs. And yet, even when the current tutors weren’t being given enough hours, the company continued to hire even MORE tutors, creating a never-ending cycle and supply of inexperienced tutors.
The typical SAT/ACT tutor has under 200 hours of SAT/ACT teaching experience. But a master SAT/ACT should have at least 10,000+ hours. The top tutors even have 15,000 or 20,000+ hours.
Also ask how many students the tutor has personally prepared for the SAT/ACT. And large group classes don’t count! A company can easily cram 30-50 students in a classroom, all led by just one or two instructors. But that means the instructors are teaching according to a set curriculum. They aren’t learning to adapt their learning styles to different students and their specific ways of thinking. They aren’t learning to understand the strange line of reasoning many students have because teaching a large class doesn’t provide the feedback that 1-on-1 instruction provides.
Most tutors can barely claim 50 students (if that) in their entire SAT/ACT career. Master tutors have probably lost count of how many students they’ve tutored the SAT/ACT 1-on-1, but it should be well over 1,000 if not multiple thousands of students.
Some tutors like to claim they have X number of hours or X students, but they’re including general academic students (for things like general math, English, science). Those students/hours don’t count because the SAT and ACT are hyper specific tests that test concepts in distinctive ways that aren’t AT ALL like the concepts taught in normal school classes.
The only way to prepare students well for the SAT/ACT is to teach specifically for the SAT/ACT. Cross-training doesn’t work! That’s why you see so many A students in math absolutely bombing the SAT/ACT Math section, or so many A students in English getting destroyed by the SAT/ACT Reading section.
Takeaway: make sure your tutor has taught over 1,000 SAT/ACT students 1-on-1 (not in group settings) and that he or she has at least 10,000 hours of experience. The number of years matters far less than the actual number of tutoring hours.
- Has the SAT and/or ACT changed in recent years? If so, which test has changed, and what were those specific changes?
Ask the actual tutor these questions, not the sales director or company owner. The SAT/ACT have changed in both obvious and subtle ways over the years. In March 2016, the SAT was completely redesigned, but most people know that. What’s less known is that the new SAT was originally released with four official practice tests, but the concepts tested and the frequency of each concept began to shift as more and more practice tests were released. The ACT also underwent its own slew of largely unannounced changes.
If your SAT/ACT tutor does not know that both the SAT and ACT have changed even in just the last few years alone and cannot tell you SPECIFICALLY what has changed, then watch out! This tutor hasn’t kept up-to-date, so you’re going to be learning OUTDATED strategies and concepts that are barely tested anymore, while missing out on learning crucial NEW concepts that were recently added. The test format and grading has even changed several times!
For instance, the ACT Math has been creeping up in difficulty with utterly new concepts (largely Algebra 2) that were NEVER tested before for decades. The ACT Essay not only revised its grading rubric but also changed its grading scale! The ACT Science switched from 7 science passages to 6, and ACT Reading suddenly introduced dual-passages one day without ever announcing it beforehand. The SAT Writing & Grammar portion has shifted towards more difficult rhetoric questions, while its Math portion has de-emphasized previously heavily tested concepts on more recent tests.
There are many more subtle changes like these that only the most dedicated of SAT/ACT tutors will keep track of and change their curriculum to reflect the most updated version of the tests.
Takeaway: get a tutor who can tell you the exact changes that have recently occurred on both the SAT/ACT. Don’t just have them tell you that the tests have changed (because anyone can make such a vague statement). Have them give you specific examples of what concepts have changed, which exact concepts have been added or de-emphasized, etc. Listen carefully for SPECIFICS.
- Have you ever written your own SAT/ACT books, materials, curriculum, or worksheets? What about creating SAT/ACT videos?
Part-time SAT/ACT tutors who are only doing the job to bide their time until their actual career takes off won’t dedicate the effort and hundreds of hours to write or develop their own curriculum. They just take whatever workbook, binder, or lecture materials their company provides and run with those.
These tutors are not expected to do more, not paid to do more, and don’t want to do more. To these tutors, teaching the SAT/ACT is just a side-job, so their heart is not in researching every detail about these tests and creating and updating their teaching materials to be the best out there.
But master SAT/ACT tutors know there is an absolute dearth of quality SAT/ACT material available. Master tutors have read all the best books (which are NEVER written by the big box companies, but by passionate independent tutors who were looking to fill the gap), so they know which books to recommend. But even then, there’s still a huge gap, so the best tutors will go out of their way to create custom SAT/ACT strategy guides, worksheets, videos, and more for their students.
When the best SAT books only provide a dozen or so questions on a particular concept, it’s often not enough! And when big box test prep publishers create questions that don’t even reflect the actual patterns, traps, concepts, and difficulty levels of the real SAT/ACT, then those books are utterly useless!
Takeaway: make sure that your tutor not only knows the best SAT/ACT books out there (hint: it’s none of the big box publishers, so RUN if they recommend any of those books) but has also developed his/her own specific SAT/ACT curriculum and questions. I’ve recorded hundreds of hours of SAT/ACT videos and written over 500 pages of SAT/ACT guides. I’m even currently developing custom SAT/ACT software to help students further prepare for these tests.
The level of research, dedication, and time that goes into creating all of this is excruciating, so it takes an extraordinary level of attention and commitment to create top-notch SAT/ACT material.
- What’s your philosophy on or approach for teaching the SAT/ACT?
Every tutor has an approach, but most have never carefully considered WHY they approach it that way. The typical tutor just follows whatever his or her company told him to do — follow the curriculum binder. Most tutors and companies will say they will help you pinpoint your specific weaknesses, but they struggle to explain HOW they will design a custom plan for you that targets your particular sticking points.
Instead of personalization, some companies even pride themselves on how many practice tests or problems they offer. If they do, then that’s a HUGE red flag that they don’t know how to provide EFFICIENT or OPTIMIZED test prep, so they just dump more hours of practice on students. But like I’ve long stated, more practice does NOT make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect.
Ask HOW your tutor teaches and WHY he teaches that way–does he just have a student do a practice test, then explains to the student how to do the questions the student got wrong? How does the tutor ensure the student actually understands and remembers how to do the question?
Or does the tutor have the student explain his/her own thought process to not only force the student to articulate his/her thinking, but also identify the student’s particular logical patterns and flaws? Does the tutor focus on asking the student guiding questions, rather than providing the solution right away? Does the tutor insist on a particular approach to solving the question, or is he actively looking to see what the student did right and only interjecting when there’s a mistake? That way the student doesn’t have to learn a brand new set of steps from scratch (the tutor’s preferred way) when the student’s method was correct 80% of the way and only needed minor adjustment.
My personal philosophy is my Bruce Lee Framework, which was inspired by the famous Bruce Lee quote, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” In short, practicing the dozens of SAT/ACT concepts haphazardly just a few times will never help you achieve mastery. Instead, we must go DEEP into each individual concept to understand all of its tricks, traps, and variations.
Takeaway: Listen for whether your tutor mentions that he/she makes the students engage in active learning, which is the complete opposite of simply explaining the solution to the student (who merely listens passively). The vast majority of tutors teach through passive learning because it’s 10x easier to just explain how to solve a question (which is essentially teaching on autopilot for the tutor) than to actually teach by listening to the student’s own line of reasoning (which requires attentive observation and personalized responses from the tutor).
Passive learning fails to activate the student’s brain circuitry responsible for remembering something long-term, since humans only remember a mere 20% of what they hear.
- Can you give us the contact information of 5+ students/families you have prepared for the SAT/ACT that you would feel comfortable having us contact right now this very second?
Master tutors are proud of their record, so they should be able to easily pull up several former students on their phones or from their email inbox. If not, then the tutor likely only has mediocre results, so they’re afraid that if you (the client) gets to speak to an actual former student, you’re going to be disappointed with the less than glowing reviews.
Takeaway: ask for referrals and pay attention to how the tutor reacts.
- What’s your average score improvement?
While SAT/ACT tutors are only responsible for half of this — the other half lies with the student and how much effort he/she puts into applying and practicing the strategies — a track record is important. According to an official study by the ETS, the average score improvement on the SAT is only about 60 or 70 points. That’d be around 2 or 3 points on the ACT.
A master tutor should be able to improve you FAR MORE than that. My average hovers around 200+ points on the new SAT and 5+ points on the ACT. And it’s not uncommon for my students to see even more than that…300+ points SAT improvement or 7-9 points on the ACT. It shouldn’t need to take years either (or even 1 year).
Don’t just ask for a tutor’s RECORD score improvement because anyone might be lucky to find that amazing student. Ask for the tutor’s AVERAGE score improvement.
Takeaway: don’t hire any tutor whose average score improvement on the SAT is less than 150 points or less than 4 points on the ACT. A master tutor who truly knows what he or she is doing should be able to regularly help students achieve these score improvements, if not more.
- What makes you better than other SAT/ACT tutors?
This is a vague and uncomfortable question for most tutors because they know there’s nothing truly special about them. They don’t have a good answer because they provide “commodity tutoring,” believing that as long as they generally know the material, they can teach it well. But the truth is, knowing how to score high on the SAT/ACT yourself is wildly different than being able to help someone else score high.
That old saying “Those who can’t do…teach” is such a myth. Doing something yourself is 100x easier than teaching another person to achieve the same. It takes a far deeper level of understanding and skill to adapt to the wide range of logical reasoning students might present — some completely flawed, some ingeniously clever. Calling a tutor competent just for correctly solving the question is like celebrating a driving instructor for passing his own driving test. There’s nothing special about it!
So when you ask what makes the tutor better, if all they can muster is something about their experience, their track record, their relatability, and their knowledge of the test, press them for tangible specifics.
Takeaway: Figure out if there’s anything that SPECIFICALLY makes the tutor stand out. Can the tutor prove to you that he or she knows the intricacies of the test by providing specific examples or insights? Can the tutor explain a unique teaching process and why he or she subscribes to this approach? Can the tutor provide you multiple referrals on demand? Does the tutor coach the SAT/ACT full-time with tens of thousands of hours of experience and thousands of former students? Has the tutor developed his or her own personal SAT/ACT guides, curriculum, videos, worksheets, or materials?
SAT/ACT prep is a largely unregulated industry, but that doesn’t mean you need to go in blind or with your fingers crossed. You deserve an extraordinary SAT/ACT mentor, so I hope these 8 questions will help you find your perfect match.
If you’re interested in working with me personally, I offer 1-on-1 SAT/ACT prep year-round. I’m also soon opening up SAT Ascension, my small group (10-15 students maximum) SAT summer intensive (100 hours of optimized prep). Just shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for the details and tell me the greatest struggle you’re facing when it comes to the SAT/ACT.
P.S. Already done with your SAT/ACT? Coronavirus cancelled your summer plans? Want to do something spectacular to do during summer to truly impress colleges? Then I’ve got something special cooking for you too to help you make the most of your summer and stand out as an irresistible student. I’m still working on it, but I’ll announce it in a few weeks. Send me a reply at email@example.com if you’re curious, just so I can gauge who’s interested in college admissions mentoring.