High School 2 College

January 24, 2011

Is SAT Tutoring Worth It?

I recently saw an SAT course advertised. The course ran for several Sundays and each session was four hours long.  I gulped.  I could never sit still and pay attention to ANYTHING for four hours!  How could any parents expect their student to focus on something as unappealing as the SATs for four hours?

The ad went on to say that their instructor (they were careful not to say that it was a certified teacher, mind you) was very popular but if your student didn’t do well, he or she could take it again for free.  Well, if it didn’t work the first time, why would you submit your student to it again?

I went to the place where the course was being given, about two hours after it started.  I listened at the door.  “Okay, class, any questions about punctuation, then?  No?  Okay, on to question 43.”  Was that snoring I heard or just the clicking of text messaging?

Recently, Princeton Review announced that is going to cease making claims about how much your scores will go up if you take its test prep program.  It’s about time. I feel very strongly that test prep classes are a shameful waste of time and money for most students. Read on for my reasons.

Before you sign up for any course, ask yourself:

What type of prep would be most effective for YOUR child?

  • class
  • small group
  • private
  • on line
  • webcam

By far, the most effective type of help is private one-on-one tutoring. That’s the only kind of tutoring I do, in person if at all possible and via webcam if I’m working with someone long distance. Classes benefit nearly no one.  If you’re very smart and just need a little technique, you’ll be bored to death.  If you need some serious remediation, you won’t be able to get the help you need because the class teacher has to cover certain material whether you understand or not.  And most teenagers are just not going to ask the teacher to explain subject-verb agreement or how to find the next number in a series if the rest of the class is rolling its collective eyes and sighing loudly.

What kind of help do you need?

  • grammar only
  • reading skills
  • test strategy
  • timing/pacing
  • writing essays
  • confidence
  • someone to force you to spend time looking at the test
  • a combination

Some SAT prep centers have the same teachers teach math, reading, and writing. For two years, I taught an SAT class for a local program.  They gave me a manual of how to answer questions.  It said, “Explain problem #1 in the first math section as follows….”  If a kid had a question after that, I was sunk.  I’m not good at math.  My husband is great at math, but he can’t tell a direct object from an indefinite article.  So I only teach what I’m really good at, but I can help you find an outstanding teacher to help you with those subjects I’m not good at.

Furthermore, when I taught that SAT course, like most teachers I taught it twice a year — once in the spring and then again the following fall.  Now I may have up to 34 students a season.  So I teach the SATs 34 times in the spring, and another 34 times in the fall.  I’ve been doing that for 23 years.  I could do the math, but I already admitted I’m not good at that.

How much time do you have before the test?

  • days
  • weeks
  • months
  • years

If you only have days left, see my blog (here and here) for advice on some last-minute things you can do.  If you have a few weeks, get thee to a tutor! If you have months, you can make substantial progress toward your goal of a high score with the right tutor, especially if you’re willing do a little reading or a few math problems on your own.

If you have years before your SATs, congratulations! You’re in an excellent position to achieve top scores.  Read, read, read – read magazines, novels, history books.  Pay attention in math class.  When you get an essay back from a teacher, see that teacher privately after it is graded to ask for specific suggestions on how you could improve next time.  And check in with someone knowledgeable (like me!) about what classes to take, what activities to do, and what summer programs to take to ensure you that colleges will be begging you to go there, waving fists full of money at you.

How much time are you willing to devote to test prep?

  • I signed up for the test
  • I own a book – isn’t that enough?
  • an hour a week
  • 30 minutes daily
  • I’m devoting my life to the SATs

No.  Don’t spend more than an hour or two a week.  Surprised, right? Well, this is only a test.   Actually, it’s a test to see how well you can take this test.  The SATs won’t determine where you go to college.  They won’t tell you if you’ll have a satisfying job, an attractive spouse, healthy children.  The SATs don’t determine much of anything — and I make my living from the SATs.  But colleges do look at scores.  And employers, especially those employing graduates right out of college, can and do ask for SAT scores.  So you want to do as well as you can without going crazy.

Here’s what a really good tutor can do for you.  You need a tutor if you want to:

  • Gain familiarity with the SATs or ACTs
  • Find out which test or tests you should be taking to maximize your chances of getting looked at by a good school
  • Get comfortable and confident going into the test
  • Learn and practice test-taking strategies, including how to answer each type of question, when and how to guess, and how to get a sense of timing during the test
  • Build your reading, writing, and grammar (and/or math) skills, for the test as well as for all future studies
  • Learn how to structure and write a decent essay
  • Get some advice about which colleges might suit you
  • Figure out some possible college majors based on your abilities and interests so you can look for colleges with those majors
  • Plan and write an amazing college essay

Is test prep worth it?  It depends on what you want and what type you get.  Is finding a tutor who can help you through the entire college application and admission process (including those tests) worth it?  That’s what most of my students and their parents tell me.

Wendy Segal

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