Even if you’re an uber-nerd, you’ll probably improve more with a tutor than you will with books or software courses. And most students aren’t uber-nerds. Of course, tutors cost more, so you’ll want to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
Since your choice will be crucial, it is imperative that you do your homework. If you don’t have the patience to do some meticulous research, you are liable to regret it afterward.
Generally, the best recommendations are through word-of-mouth, although it’s obviously better if they come from someone whose opinion you trust, rather than a parent you just met at a school lacrosse game. Still, consider that such a recommender is apt to be unbiased.
In contrast, you can ask a test prep company or tutor for recommendations, but be aware that they will handpick students who had their very best results. You could even end up speaking to the tutor’s nephew.
Check the Web
Nowadays, even a part-time tutor with a year’s experience will generally have some presence on the web. In truth, a large part of what you’ll find will often be written by the companies or tutors themselves. However, see if you can find more than just advertising. For example, if you were considering using Scorebusters, you would want to check out the level of expertise on this blog.
Most of the time, you’ll only find independent reviews for the medium and large companies. Still, a lack of negative reviews can be reassuring.
Interrogate the Tutor/Company
“Interrogate” may be a strong word, but it’s exactly what I mean. It’s your time, money, and hopes that are going to be invested with a tutor, and you have every right to know all about his background. If you get an “I’m not being paid enough to give you more than a few minutes of my time” attitude, you already know you’ve found a turkey – move on to someone else.
If you are dealing with a representative of a company, you should also ask to speak to the prospective tutor.
What information should you be seeking from any of the sources mentioned above? Let’s look at some important factors:
Class vs. Private Tutoring
Unless you absolutely can only afford a class, go with a private tutor! SAT teaching is simply unlike other teaching. The test is unusual, and each student needs to approach it differently. Furthermore, there are important tutoring methods that can maximize the efficiency of the one-on-one setting. However, be aware that many private tutors aren’t very flexible, and aren’t aware of the most effective private tutoring techniques (since many were trained to be classroom teachers, or weren’t trained much at all).
I have no doubt that I would have made a lot more money over the years had I run classrooms. However, a brief experiment with classrooms confirmed how ineffective they were. Still, every semester, droves of families seek them out, seemingly oblivious to the disappointing scores that will result.
My honest opinion is that anyone who tries to tell you that classes are better than private tutoring for the SATs is a bald-faced liar. I can’t imagine a single student whom I’ve ever taught who would have been better off with a class.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t care about cost; ability would be all that mattered. But for all but a few families, price is the most important factor; furthermore, it’s easy information to get, and it helps you narrow down your choices. Here on Long Island, tutors charge anywhere between $20 and $1,000 per hour.
We all want to save money, but naturally, the cheapest tutors tend to be the least effective. At the other extreme, tutors who charge several hundred dollars per hour aren’t necessarily better than the medium-priced ones.
Some companies require you to pay for their entire course up front, while others charge by the lesson (and some compromise between the two).
Salesmanship vs. Teaching Ability
I have long lamented that our legislators are often chosen more for their ability to sell to the American public than their ability to legislate well. Regarding SAT teachers, there is some good news – their ability to sell effectively is often an important skill. After all, their students are teenagers, and they can be particularly challenging to motivate, build self-esteem in, and be convinced to try new techniques. Obviously, I’m not saying you should be impressed by a tutor who has the sales pitch of a cheap huckster. But if you lack supplementary recommendations, don’t be afraid to let a tutor convince you that she’s good at what she does.
However, you can do more than listen to a tutor’s sales pitch. You want to be proactive in asking questions that will let you get an impression of the teacher’s competence. If you have trouble understanding a tutor, how will the student do? As I have opined elsewhere in this blog, many people who can ace the SAT make poor teachers. A good tutor has “inside” knowledge of the test – that is, an appreciation of the motivations of the test developers, and which techniques position their students to do well.
Good tutors are also adept at explaining concepts simply. Even top students don’t want to strain to understand how to use techniques.
As in any field, a good tutor has passion for the job. Some good tutors are more outwardly exuberant than others, but beware the “cold fish.”
Experience is a plus. I believe that I was a good tutor when I began teaching SATs; I know I’m better now. I “read” students better, and I’m more open-minded about trying alternative methods when my favorites aren’t working with a particular student. I’ve also discovered some tricks to the SAT that aren’t in the prep books.
Indeed, I believe that open-mindedness is paramount for an effective SAT teacher. If you’re speaking with a prospective tutor, you could say something like “I heard that it’s good to use Shakespeare as a source for the SAT essay. What do you think?”
“There’s nothing wrong with citing Shakespeare, but it certainly isn’t required” would be a promising answer. But if you hear “I never tell my students to use Shakespeare,” you might consider another tutor.