How to Get the Most out of Your SAT Lessons

There are several ways to study for the SAT. You can learn from books or software, or take a course (online or live). Courses may be given in one-on-one, small group, or large class format.

The purpose of this article is not to debate the relative effectiveness of these different methods, but rather to help you get the most out of whichever one (or combination) you choose.

Before Your Session

Just some common sense advice here: Have your materials ready, be on time, and get yourself mentally prepared.

In fact, a lot of my advice in this article will be common sense. If you’re already following it, fine. Otherwise, remember that common sense is good sense.

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During the Session

If you are learning from a book and/or software, you will likely do your own scheduling and may study in short bursts; otherwise the sessions will be scheduled and longer. In any case, it’s time to get serious. You’re here to learn, so put away your cell phone (after turning it off), mp3 player, Game Boy, or Slinky. No, you don’t learn better while listening to music; you’re just fooling yourself if you think so.

If you’re not traveling to your class, you want a good learning environment: Good lighting, minimal distractions, upright chair, and ample desk space. Snacks are okay if kept to a minimum.

If you’re in a group, try to sit front and center – it’s the best seat in the house. Remember – you are not there to socialize!

Regardless of your method of learning, take good notes. You will be more likely to memorize facts and techniques if you write them down, and you’ll be able to reference them easily later.

SAT prep is a lot different than most school learning. In school, you mostly need to memorize facts and understand concepts. You need to do those things for the SAT also, but most of your focus will be on learning and implementing new techniques.

Most SAT techniques shouldn’t be too hard to understand, but that doesn’t mean you pick up everything on the first try. You may need to reread strategies, or ask your teacher to explain things a different way. Software courses should allow you to go back and repeat important material.

You don’t want to move on until you understand a new technique. If you’re in a classroom and the teacher needs to continue, make a note to review the method later.

Note that this doesn’t mean that you have to be able to use a new technique perfectly, if you only just learned it. For example, plugging in on some math problems is a great technique, but there are several ways to use it and it can take awhile to learn them well.

Important – once you understand a technique, your work is not done. My students learn great techniques all the time, and when they take practice tests, they don’t use them! You need to understand when to use particular techniques, and strive to change your habits and solve in new ways. It’s easy to forget all about a new technique when you’re caught up in trying to understand and/or solve a problem.

That last point explains why many students don’t do well without a live teacher. It’s very hard to change your habits without someone to guide and even push you. If you’re studying on your own, you have to be your own coach. That’s a lot of responsibility, considering you’re already trying hard to be a good student.

After Your Session

Review my earlier article on Study Tips.

If you’re studying at your own pace, you should continue on through the week (or other study period in between practice tests) reviewing, fine-tuning, and repeating. If you’ve had a scheduled lesson, you should now begin that regimen.

Don’t just think “I’ve had my lesson, so all I have to do is complete my practice test.” Reviewing in between your lesson and your test is vital! You should review concepts and techniques that you’ve learned, and then work through a few problems to reinforce your learning. Here, it’s okay to review the same problems you’ve solved earlier, or ones that your instructor showed you how to solve. You’ll encounter plenty of fresh problems on your upcoming test.

If you solve relevant problems from a workbook, you may apply your new techniques improperly, or even use the wrong techniques, which is why it may be better to re-solve old problems. The choice depends on your progress and what kind of student you are.

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Practice Test

Most students should take a full-length practice test after each lesson. After the first 1 – 3 tests, each should be appropriately timed and taken continuously. You can even take tests at your local library to best simulate actual test conditions. Of course, some courses offer proctored practice tests, which you should attend.

You should definitely take tests developed by The College Board. All other tests differ significantly from the real thing.

The sooner you take your practice test after your lesson, the more likely you will remember to use new techniques (and how to use them). If you simply must put off the test until just before the following lesson, be sure to do plenty of review beforehand.

Do not think of taking a practice test as “getting your homework done”! It’s not nearly enough just to complete a practice test – you need to strive to use new techniques as you solve the questions. That’s a lot easier to say than it is to do. After all, the test is challenging enough without having to worry about changing your habits and solving problems differently. But those changes in your approach are what will determine how much you’ll improve.

Obviously, there is more specific advice I could give on this subject. But I don’t want to overwhelm you. Reread this article a few times if you need to, and focus on getting to the point where you’re actually using new techniques. Then watch your scores soar.


How to Choose an SAT Tutor

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.

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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).

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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.

How to Become a Great Student


Okay, chocolate won’t help you become a great student. I just want you to read a little more before you give up and say this article isn’t for you. Because I know what you’re thinking: “I’m no Einstein, so I can never be a great student.”


The truth is, you can become a terrific student if you have average intelligence. You may never invent a hyper-intelligent robot that practices psychology. But you can ace your subjects in high school and college, achieve great success, and be the envy of all your geeky friends. Ready to read on now?


Since no one has invented a machine that can upload knowledge directly to your mind (as in The Matrix film), obviously you will have to put in some work in order to improve yourself as a student. You may be thinking “ugggh,” but I assure you that you don’t need to become an ubergeek to do well. You can still play video games, socialize, play sports, and make a recording with Jay-Z (okay – maybe not that last one).

It’s very easy to develop lazy habits. But it’s easier than you think to reverse them. An improved work ethic is contagious.

Let’s suppose you have an assignment due, or you have to study for a test. You keep putting it off, because you just don’t feel “psyched.” Then the deadline gets close, and you realize it’s now or nothing. You feel crappy about that, and you put in a crappy effort that leads to a lousy grade.

Yuck! In fact, the whole process felt yucky, from the procrastinating to the way you trudged through your work once you did get started. That just reinforces the idea that you’re a poor student.

But all that is psychological! It’s about emotions, not ability. You might not be as smart as everyone in your class, but in your heart you know you could do a decent job if only you “felt like it.”

At some point, you need to change the road you’re on. You can begin with small changes. Do you usually wait until the day before an assignment or test is due to begin working? Resolve to complete one third of your work on the day before that.

Will that change bring about a miracle? – of course not. But you’ll get a better grade, and you’ll feel better about how you got it. Do the same thing two or three times, and the next time you might get started two days early. Eventually, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself. There is an old saying: success breeds success. Once your self-confidence grows, so will your work ethic. You will reach a point where you’re doing a fine job and finishing with time to spare. That becomes addicting.

Me in 2006


I just talked about how improving your work ethic can improve self confidence. In addition, you can work on your confidence directly. During my 35 years of teaching, I have observed that almost all of my students are a good deal smarter than they think. Focus on your strengths.

Many people who appear to be smart are fast. They process information quickly, but no better than you do. Don’t be intimidated because someone can answer a question quicker than you can. It’s the end of the race that matters.

I once read about a tennis player who was quite short. He helped his confidence by taping a sign that said “Taller Than Napoleon” to his bathroom mirror. You don’t need to make a sign; you know what I’m saying.

Study Habits

Read about effective ways to study here. You can read this at another time if you like. Just don’t forget!

Act The Part

If you want to be a better student, you should do things that good students do. Don’t be afraid to talk about academic subjects with your friends because such things aren’t cool. Whatever you have passion for is cool. Your friend who makes fun of you for carrying a book is secretly jealous of you.

If you can, sit up front in class (where would you want to sit at a concert or sporting event?). You can even ask your teacher if you can move. Make a point of talking with your teachers about class material after class, or during extra help sessions. You can even look up related material on the web and use it to impress your teachers.

Many years ago, I visited a friend who was in law school. We played a little street hockey, and headed back to his dorm. The next thing I knew, I was listening to a bunch of law students discuss hypothetical cases, even though it was Sunday. “These guys will succeed,” I thought.


If you have to write a paper, do some research. Also make an outline first. Twenty minutes spent preparing an assignment can save hours of rewriting.


The more you read, the better you will write, and writing is vital for most college subjects. You don’t have to become a bookworm, but make a point of reading more than just what you’re required to. Read what you like, whether it’s sports, romance, etc.

Be the Best You Can

That may sound sappy, but it’s a great philosophy for whatever you do in your life.

Suppose the President is told by an advisor that his approval ratings have slipped. The advisor recommends that the President serve in a soup kitchen to build his PR. I believe that the President would be the best soup-ladler in the kitchen. Politics aside, a winning attitude makes someone President. He wouldn’t think “I run the country, and I’ve got to do this menial chore. This sucks.” Rather, he would think “Right now, I’m a soup-ladler, and I’m here to do my best.”

Right now, you’re a student, and you’re here to do your best.

Which is Better – Online or Live Tutoring?

Online tutoring is relatively new, and many people fear new things. I have tutored several students online for Scorebusters, and I am also tutoring online for The E Tutor, a wonderful new company.

The first time I taught online, my student and I each downloaded a whiteboard program, and I called him from my landline phone (which has a headphones jack) for the audio. Now there are dedicated teaching solutions, which include not only whiteboard and audio, but webcam and media upload (documents, pictures, video clips) functionality.

Simply put, there are pros and cons to both methods of teaching.

Presence of a live tutor

For the most part, this is the greatest factor in favor of live teaching. Many students are reassured by the tutor’s presence, and they may tend to work harder and take the teacher more seriously. It’s also easier for the tutor and student to read each other’s facial expressions and hand gestures. I suppose there are some students who become anxious in the presence of a tutor, but they are the exceptions.

Aristotle tutoring Alexander


Clearly, this factor favors online teaching. There is no commuting time, and either party can connect from multiple locations (anywhere with internet access). If you live in a remote area, without access to quality tutoring, the choice is a no-brainer.

Kids today have grown up with computers. Many students actually concentrate better when viewing a screen. You can use noise-cancelling headphones and microphones to enhance the online experience.

In an online group setting, social distractions are minimized. However, I strongly believe that one-on-one tutoring is the way to go for SAT prep, and I all but refuse to teach even small groups. Groups are better for both teacher and student financially, but given the unusual nature of SAT prep, you get vastly inferior results.


Online tutoring is usually cheaper than live teaching. Neither party has travel costs.

Technical issues

Computers can freeze or crash, internet connection can be lost, and other hardware problems (such as loss of audio) can ensue. However, the technology has been around for awhile, and I’ve found these problems to be infrequent and generally easy to deal with.

Unless homework is scanned and uploaded, the tutor loses access to some information (e.g. how students solve math problems on practice tests).


Some virtual classrooms allow the sessions to be recorded. This can benefit the serious student.

I’ll also point out that online tutors and students don’t share each other’s germs.

My conclusion is that there’s no automatic choice. Each student has to weigh the pros and cons, given her particular needs. In general, my online teaching experience has been very positive with motivated students. But if a student’s work ethic is shaky, or he has special needs, I favor live tutoring.

Study Tips

Naturally, every student is different, so each of you would do best to create your own study regimen. The advice that follows is based on experience and common sense, and I’m sure it’s hardly unique. If you Google “how to study,” you should find other techniques, along with ones that are similar to these.

1) Sleep

This might sound obvious, but an appalling number of high school and college students cheat on their sleep. When I tell my own sons that they’ll learn more efficiently on a full night’s sleep, they protest that they feel fine.

Yet numerous studies have demonstrated that students learn less efficiently if they miss even an hour of sleep. Most adults should sleep for at least seven hours; some need as much as nine. Cheating on your sleep can have other (medical) consequences as well. Don’t mistreat your body for some extra time – it’s just not worth it.

2) Take Breaks

We tend to remember what we learn at the beginning and end of a study period the most. And breaks “recharge your mental batteries.” Just don’t overdo it (study at least 80% of the time you lay out).

3) No Music

…or other distractions. Even professionals disagree on this point. “Music can relax you,” they point out.  But again, studies have shown that we are poor multi-taskers, and we retain more when we study in a quiet environment. Don’t wear an iPod just because “it’s cooler.”


On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with having something to drink handy. Some students reward themselves with a piece of candy after they’ve worked for awhile. Such comforts are often worth the small distractions they carry.

4) Don’t waste time studying what you already know

That sounds quite obvious, yet I find that most students don’t follow this advice. If you need to know the material in a chapter for a test, and you read it over and over, you’re not learning efficiently. Go over the chapter once, and write down what you don’t know as you go. Then do the same with the notes you just made. You’ll end up with a few facts, and be finished in time for dinner.

The same applies to vocabulary, geometry, or almost anything you need to learn. Don’t study hard – study smart, and you’ll feel better about yourself, have more free time, and become a better student.

5) Use Mnemonic Devices to aid retention

Mnemonics are like (legal) steroids for the brain. Suppose you’re trying to remember that “gregarious” means “sociable.” You could repeat that several times and still forget it. But think of a friendly guy named Greg, and you’ll probably remember the word for life.

6) Study soon after class – don’t procrastinate

I was a “last minute crammer” in school, and I thought I was in the minority. Then I learned that nearly all of us tend to put things off. “Deadlines motivate me!” my students protest. But if you study (memorize, solve problems, take practice tests, etc.) shortly after class, you will naturally do it better.

I know most of you will read this, think “good idea,” and put off studying anyway. Be strong! Make a resolution to study early.

7) Write stuff down

I was going to use another word in place of “stuff,” but this is a family-friendly blog. 🙂 You’re more likely to memorize a fact if you write it down yourself. An you’ll become more proficient at a technique if you work though it on your own, rather than only watching your teacher.

I’m not saying you should copy an entire chapter out of a textbook in order to learn it. Instead, follow the procedure in Tip #4.

8 ) To group or not to group

Study groups can be productive, if each member is serious about learning, and if other members’ insights will help you understand the material. But all too often, study groups are merely excuses for social interaction, and actually hurt learning. It’s up to you to make the call.

9) Set up a proper Study Area

Home Office









If you like to study at the library, that’s fine. But you’ll probably do most of your studying at home (perhaps at a dorm room when you’re in college). You want a distraction-free workplace, with good lighting, a comfortable chair in which you can sit upright (and stay awake!), and ample desk space. The comfy couch does not qualify.

Parents – why not help setting up your child’s study area? It’s a win-win.

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10) Sometimes you shouldn’t study

Obviously, you won’t learn very well when you’re tired, angry, depressed, sad, etc. Since you’re resolved not to be a procrastinator, you can wait until you’re well rested and good to go.

If you take your studying seriously, and become better at it, you’ll actually find you enjoy it more. And your scores will love you for it.