Is Your Tutor Right For You?

Every parent wants to do the absolute best for their teenager.  But just like the college process itself, the prospect of getting help with it can be chaotic, overwhelming, and confusing. There are so many different kinds of help—different scope, different credentials, and, of course, different price tags. So how do you choose? Well, the first step in choosing the right SAT or ACT tutor for your high-schooler is to know what it is you’re looking for!

You see, test prep tutors can come in two general varieties: 1) the Expert, and 2) the Service Provider.

The Expert does more than just go over parabolas: she will guide your whole family through the test prep process. She will create an overall plan with you; tell YOU what’s necessary to achieve your goals; help you pick the test that best showcases your teenager's strengths; keep you updated about SAT/ACT news; manage the entire test prep schedule, making sure you’re registered for the correct test dates and that your son or daughter “peaks” on test day; and ease tension between you and your high schooler by taking “nagging” off your plate and keeping everyone on the same page. In short, the Expert is a mentor, a coach, and a guide…in addition to being really smart.

The Expert brings a lot to the table—but not every parent wants that. Some prefer the Service Provider. This is someone who will come in and do what you tell them to do. YOU, the parent (or really self-directed student) are in charge, calling the shots—directing them to “work on the ACT essay” today, “go over the SAT practice test” next time, or “drill ratios” forever and ever. If we were building a house, when you work with the Service Provider YOU would be the general contractor—making the plan, deciding what needs to get done and when—and this type of tutor would be the painter who “paints the left wall orange” on the day you tell them to.

Both have pros and cons. And there is no “right” or “wrong”—just be clear about what it is you’re looking for.

But besides selecting what type of role you desire your SAT or ACT tutor to have, there are a series of traits that I believe make or break the process. Keep your eyes peeled for these characteristics regardless of which way you go (though, admittedly, they occur more often in the Expert than in the Service Provider):


1) Generally Smart

This goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. Whoever is tutoring your son or daughter for the SAT or ACT needs to be intelligent enough to have done well herself. A tutor can’t begin to teach material if he doesn’t know it himself. 


2) Knows the Test(s)

It’s not enough, however, to be “really smart” and “know how to work through the problems” on the SAT or ACT. Your tutor needs to know the tests specifically. In standardized testing, the whole is more than the sum of the grammar topics. The SAT and ACT have different rhythms, different feels, and different strategies that work. You tutor should specialize in the SAT and ACT and not be a “Jack of all tutoring.” They should know all the possible “tips and tricks” out there for both the tests.


3) Has a Profound Understanding of All the Concepts on the SAT and ACT

Though “tips and tricks” can be great at bumping a low score up to an average one, nothing beats truly understanding the overarching math, grammar, reading, and science concepts. In fact, you’ll never get a top score without a deeper knowledge of the big picture. Thus, your SAT or ACT tutor needs to have this broader knowledge as well, or who the heck is going to teach it to your high schooler?


4) Communicates Effectively

You can understand all the concepts, fact, and “tips and tricks” ever, but they will do absolutely no good if your tutor can’t successfully express these ideas in a way that makes perfect sense to your son or daughter. This means your tutor needs to have a knack for breaking down complex information in a way that clicks and is easily digestible.


5) Speaks Your Language—AND Your High-Schooler's

Your tutor should speak both “teenager” and “adult” fluently. This is absolutely CRUCIAL. You’ll never get anywhere in the student-tutor relationship if your tutor doesn’t relate to, and earn the respect of, your son or daughter. Otherwise, all the most helpful advice will fall on deaf ears and rolling eyes. At the same time, your tutor needs to communicate effectively with YOU, the parent. You need to respect what he or she has to say.


6) Is Mentally Flexible

One of the hallmarks of communicating effectively with both parent and student is to make sure to meet your listener where she is and speak her language. In the case of the SAT or ACT, this means being able to explain a question or problem in multiple ways and even drawing analogies that relate personally to the student—whether that means relating everything to Ariana Grande, baseball, or acting. This also means putting yourself in the student’s shoes mentally, and explaining the easiest/fastest way for that particular student to solve the problem. This is quite a tall order, mainly because it requires that your tutor…


7) Has High Emotional Intelligence

Not only must your tutor be able to intuit the inner churnings of your high-schooler’s thought processes to correct the line of thinking, but he or she needs to know how hard to push.  Sometimes, a student needs inspiration. Sometimes, a student needs to be soothed, to quell his or her anxiety. Yet other times, a tutor needs to call out the student on flagrant excuses and BS. And more importantly, the tutor needs the wisdom to know when to do what.


8) Has Her Eye on the Prize

While the first seven attributes may sound like fun and games (joking!), the ultimate goal of all this prep work is a target SAT or ACT score! Your tutor needs to both be goal-focused and have excellent time management skills. Your tutor should always bring you back to how far you’ve come and where you still need to go. That said, they need to understand what will get you there: do you REALLY need spend a session learning matrices, or will you get the score you need by skipping it and focusing on algebraic manipulation instead? Are you at such a high end of the bellcurve that you MUST understand the concepts, or will a simple trick or shortcut suffice for what you need?


9) Stays Abreast of SAT, ACT, and Common App updates

The lay of the test prep and college prep land is always changing, and the last thing you want is to discover that your tutor doesn’t know the ACT essay has a new prompt or that the SAT now does score choice! (I watched this happen a couple years ago, and kindly informed the head tutor of a prestigious tutoring company of the ACT essay update—of which he was not aware—before he saw his next student.) Your tutor should update YOU on the latest advancements and announcements, not the other way around. Because your tutor should be...


10) Constantly Learning/Researching/Improving

Your SAT or ACT tutor should be a life-long learner who wants to share the best information and strategies possible for these tests. That means researching new materials and test-prep books, sussing out the very best and latest testing strategies, and constantly honing her craft as a teacher, coach, and mentor. 


I know which kind of tutor I am, and by now, you probably do too. I'm the Expert. 

That's not the kind of tutor every family wants or needs...and that's okay. But hopefully these criteria give you a sense of what you're looking for when you seek out the help you're looking for. And if expertise IS what you're looking for—if you want someone who can make a sound plan of attack and manage that process while teaching your teenager complex material and testing skills—then get in touch and let me help make your life (and college process) easier.