Before you take that local SAT course, consider these 5 things.

An audio reading of this blog post by Thomas Meli. Includes additional commentary.

I can completely understand the appeal of a local or school run SAT course.

It is usually taught by teachers with a good reputation, it is cheaper than online tutoring, it is in person so it seems to promise higher engagement, and besides, everyone is talking about it in the community. Surely, something is better than nothing. Besides, they offer a money back guarantee, so there is nothing to lose, right?

Even though I mostly work with freshmen and sophomores so we can have a balanced, fun, and stress-free experience preparing for college, every year I take on a selection of juniors who have gone through a local SAT course and had really bad experiences. Each year, I tend to have one student that decides to leave one of my courses, even after improving 50-100 points, simply because some other agency is making bigger promises. Every time this has happened, the student has reached out weeks before the test, freaking out and wishing they never left. The parents then spent much more money cramming in a ton of sessions before the test, and the results are good, but aren’t what they could have been, and certainly the stress is unnecessary.

While occasionally I hear lukewarm stories of small increases in scores, the average results from these local courses seem to be the same: little to no score increases, bad habits acquired, a lower belief that they can hit their target scores, and none of the deeper issues behind their learning challenges or study habits are addressed.

Let it be said that I am not categorically against school offered SAT programs or local SAT classes. In fact, I know a few tutoring companies and schools that are very good and that I happily endorse: they have full-time SAT tutors on staff, pay them extremely well, and really offer great value for the money. Unfortunately, this is the exception not the rule.

Parents want better information to make a better decision, and this post is to help with that. This post will help you see what an expert sees.

Problem 1: Full-time teachers are not the same as full-time SAT Tutors

I love and support the work of teachers around the world. Teachers are one of the most under-appreciated groups and yet are entrusted with one of the most important jobs in the world: mentoring our youth.

However, when a full-time teacher in mathematics tries to apply what she does in school to the math section of the SAT, it doesn’t always work out and this simple fact must not be brushed over with claims about how good of a teacher they are.

The teacher must not only be a great teacher, but also must have mastered the material itself and be thoroughly familiar with the best practices of the SAT.

Does the teacher know/do the following?

  • Do they know the difference between the SAT and the ACT in terms of timing, strategy, content, and which students will excel at either one or do you get the horrible advice that students should just study both.
  • Have they taken every single official SAT test and can explain each problem in multiple ways and which is the fastest? Most math problems on the SAT can be solved within 20 seconds if you know how to do them. Can they solve them that quickly?
  • Do they know which problems on Khan Academy are ‘really like the test’ and which ones are ‘way harder’ than the actual test to prepare students?
  • Do they know every single SAT reading/writing passage on the Khan Academy, which questions students tend to get wrong and why?
  • Do they teach a step-by-step process to help students of any level?
  • Do they go around and give students 1 on 1 attention, helping them to discover the thought processes that is leading to wrong answers?
  • Do they know how to diagnose the ‘invisible’ problems that often don’t show up as wrong answers on every test?

I consider these the basics. This is what every expert SAT tutor should have as a prerequisite to becoming an SAT tutor. Yet, most people teaching the SAT have a background in the subjects, NOT the SAT itself and that leads to mediocre results.

Full-time teachers that teach the SAT part time on the side are NOT the same as full-time SAT tutors. If you have the choice between a full-time ‘teacher’ who dabbles in the SAT part-time during summers or a full-time SAT tutor that does the SAT all-year round, choose the SAT tutor.

Teachers that are not experts in the SAT often unintentionally share really bad strategies that make students perform worse than they otherwise would. What are those bad strategies and why are they being taught in these local/school SAT courses?

Problem 2: Local classes seem to teach really bad strategies.

If you want a quick barometer for whether a teacher knows the SAT really well or not, you can ask them a few questions and see how they respond.

The easiest one is to ask the teacher if you should read the questions first before reading the passage in the SAT reading section. If they say to read the questions first, no matter how intricate their reasoning seems (“oh, so you know what to look for in advance..right?” No. ) , it is an extremely ineffective approach. Thank them for their time and do not take the class.

Every single high scoring full-time SAT tutor, SAT book, and SAT expert I’ve ever encountered recommends strongly NOT to read the questions first.

Look in any major SAT book (Barron’s, Princeton Review, Kaplan, etc.) and you will notice pages upon pages devoted to telling students NOT to read the questions first. Look at Anthony Green’s SAT website (the $1,000 an hour tutor) and he is adamant about how ineffective this strategy is.

Upon any reflection and practice, it is obvious that reading the questions first is a huge time-waster. It confuses students more than it helps because no student can keep track of 10 questions while reading a complex passage. Annotating the passage is a waste of time because most questions are correct based on the context around the lines and not just the lines themselves. Lastly, it makes the student focus on details in the beginning when they should be focusing on main ideas and ignoring the details until they get to the questions. With this much wrong with it, how is it possible to promote it as a ‘good’ SAT strategy? Why is this so prevalent? Any experience whatsoever shows you it isn’t as effective as reading the passage first for main ideas.

Doing this one thing wrong can mean the difference in 100-200 points because it leads students to not finish in time, get psyched out by getting lost in the details, and confuses them by requiring the impossible (keeping 10 questions in your head at once).

Here are some other red flags you may want to look out for as stereotypically bad strategies taught in SAT courses regularly.

  • Read the questions first in the reading section – as mentioned.
  • Don’t read the passage, just skim it. (This is an ACT strategy, not an SAT strategy)
  • “Underline the lines in the passage where a question mentions particular lines” – major time waster.
  • “Match the answers in the line questions with the inference question before it.” – Even though many beginners do this and get away with it, it is actually really confusing as a first step. See the picture below.

This is an example of “matching answers” first: it makes all answers seem correct

I was recruited to one of these places. I found out first hand why you often don’t find the best tutors at schools or local tutoring businesses

A while back I was recruited to teach a local SAT class with over 20 students in it, but the pay was so low there was no way I was able to put in the amount of time that the students really needed to improve.

Now can an adult with a house and a family to feed take that kind of pay and do an incredible job without feeling depleted?

Most local agencies have to pay huge overhead costs to have brick-and-mortar buildings and therefore need to underpay tutors to get the job done.

If you look at how they recruit, they will often say that no previous experience with the SAT is required on their job applications. Really? How can you become an expert in something with a month of training? These programs tend to attract younger people that don’t need full-time pay or teachers who are looking for extra work over the summer.

This would be OK if these teachers actually gained expertise, but they often don’t. I practiced for over a year on my own, did every official test, went through 20+ SAT books and mastered the materials before I started tutoring the SAT full-time. In the first year, when I was part-time, I charged little and my results were little. I made a lot of mistakes that first year, and I wouldn’t want to pass those on to my students! Yet, this entry level skill is usually passed off as expertise in local courses and schools.

Once an SAT tutor goes full time and commits their career to doing this work, the best SAT tutors usually start their own businesses and often teach from home (online) and the lower quality (or novice) tutors tend to work for agencies or schools part-time. It isn’t universal, and you will always find those great exceptions, but it happens often enough to be aware of it.

Another test for inefficient strategies: do they use the quadratic formula on quadratic questions or do they know the shortcuts?

You can always ask a teacher how they would find the sum of solutions of a quadratic polynomial. Give them this one and watch what they do. If they start using the quadratic formula, stay away!

Problem: Find the sum of the two values of x that satisfy this equation.

You can do this problem in 5 seconds if you know the proper math strategy, but if you use the quadratic formula it could take up to 1 minute or more and the student is more prone to making a mistake along the way.

Of course, students should know the quadratic formula, but there is often a quicker way.

If you see a teacher teach the ineffective strategies mentioned above, that should raise some serious red flags and you should strongly consider looking elsewhere.

Problem 3: Unrealistic promises and poorly managed expectations create failure where success could be.

As an educator, managing expectations is a big part of what I do, both for parents and for students.

If students think that just by attending a course over the summer, they can improve 300 points, they are probably being deluded into a false marketing promise that won’t deliver.

You can’t cram for this test, you have to really learn how to think differently and have to approach the test with a goal to master the material not a goal to simply become familiar with it and hope for a miracle.

Anything over a 150 point gain promise in less than 6-8 months is a not likely to happen during the school year, and anything over 200 points is not likely to happen during the summer alone.

Reasonable estimates are closer to 50-150 point improvements (average being around 80 points) in the school year and 100-200 point improvements (average being around 120 points) in the summer.

I’ve gotten big results like 260 point increases and even 300 point increases, but those results came after 1-2 years of consistent tutoring, not in 3 months.

When I do initial consultations, I don’t just present my best cases to parents, but I present realistic averages and tailor the results that are possible to the student’s skill level and ambition to practice.

I am often not advertising my best results because I know that would create unrealistic expectations unless a student works with me for several years.

These companies are doing the exact opposite – they are only advertising their best results and not sharing the raw data of how the average student is likely to do.

A good teacher should also never blame his results on poor student effort. A great class will be designed so that the majority of the work is done in the class so students can focus on their schoolwork, having a life, and building their resumes during their free time. If you start early enough (sophomore year is recommended), you can have it all and not be stressed.

If you are starting late to the game and need to cram to get into your target schools, the best thing you can do is re-assess your goals to harmonize with your real situation, upgrade your study habits and work habits so you don’t get into situations like this in the future, and consider transferring into your target schools after a year at a slightly less competitive school.

Creating a transfer plan is far wiser and a better result in the long-term than getting disappointed, not getting into your target school, settling for a lower quality school, and never fixing the habits that made this happen in the first place.

As I discuss later in this post, a money-back guarantee is not a reason to pursue a course. You wouldn’t call it a success if you wasted 40 hours of your time, so why is it considered OK to waste 40 hours of your time if you invested money in something first and then got it back?

When students and parents don’t manage their expectations, the kids come back with limiting self-judgements like: “I’m just not good at this.” – “I’m really bad at math” – “I’m really bad at reading.” For any teacher, these words are so hard to hear. Getting good at a subject is nothing but a matter of cultivating good learning habits, study techniques, and skills relevant to that subject that are practiced over time.

When students work with me, I hear the opposite happening: “I’m beginning to understand math for the first time.” “This topic finally makes sense to me.” “I’m reading so much faster and comprehending so much more than I did before.” “My whole perspective on academics has shifted!”

Mastery takes consistent deliberate practice over long periods of time. Anyone telling you something different is selling you into a pipe dream. You haven’t won if you get your money back: The cost is stagnating scores, wasted time, and a poorer mindset.

It should worry any parent or student to know that even the best SAT tutors in the world that charge over $1000 an hour don’t promise 300 point gains. Such a statement is absolute marketing hype and nothing else.

Problem 4: Taking more tests is NOT the answer to score improvements.

Yet another red flag is relying on practice tests for practice. Practice tests do not actually make your skills increase, not even the official CollegeBoard tests. Why?

Simply because CollegeBoard official tests are not designed to be practice material, they are designed to be diagnostic material. The only function these tests have is to show you what you know and what you don’t know – what you are strong in and what you are weak in.

If you take your temperature with 5 different thermometers, and you get slight variations on the same score, would you say that your health is improving because one thermometer gave you a higher reading? Of course not. If you are sick, you need to get more sleep, eat healthy foods, and then improvement comes with time.

Simply doing a ton of practice tests is a great way to feel like you are being productive while wasting a lot of time and not getting anywhere.

So how do you improve? You diagnose your weaknesses and then use deliberate practice to drill your weaknesses until they become strengths. Then, and only then — after you have mastered a certain range of new problem types — it is good to apply your new skills in a real test setting.

The process is simple: drill your weaknesses first, randomize your practice, test after to practice applying to a real test setting, and repeat.

Over the course of my SAT masterclass programs, we go through 700+ pages of problems from various practice books, do 6 full-length practice tests, and do hundreds of more problems on Khan Academy. The practice tests are not the key ingredient here, they are used simply to put it all together, build test-taking stamina, and re-diagnose new weaknesses because not all weaknesses will show up in the first test.

If your class boasts that they take 8 practice tests in 3 months, that is a not an effective studying strategy. 70% of the time should be practicing skills, reviewing older problems until they are mastered, and doing randomized problems in skill sets you are currently strengthening. The class should teach students this process and help them individually to notice what their blocks are. If they don’t, that’s not a good sign.

Problem 5: Class design is not tailored to take individual differences into account.

Everything begins with custom tailoring the instruction to each student. Even though the content of the test is standardized, the road each student takes to become skilled in these areas is wildly individual. The teacher should spend a bit of time getting to know the following:

  • The student’s current aptitude in math and English.
  • The student’s goals for college (target schools, merit scholarships).
  • The amount of time the student has to study.
  • The student’s individual weaknesses and strengths (i.e. is English their second language? Do they have huge gaps in understanding math?)
  • The student’s thought-process and approach to answering each section.

Also, the teacher should individualize the practice so that ‘invisible’ weaknesses can be seen and worked on. In the reading section, an experienced SAT tutor will watch and time a student take that part of the test rigorously.

Tracking student reading times is an essential component of finding their weaknesses, yet almost no teachers in local/school classes do this. The above shows a huge challenge with vocabulary and central idea questions, even if the student gets these correct.

But this is just the beginning. After this, the tutor must get inside the mind of the student and help them track what led them to the wrong answers. They must also do this for questions the student got correct, but was unsure about.

There are also some really important individual challenges students may come up against that need to be diagnosed.

Here are some situations I’ve seen that require a more nuanced, longer-term approach that no ‘class’ can solve without individualized support.

  1. English as a second language students.
  2. Undiagnosed / mild dyslexia.
  3. Years of not understanding math but simply ‘going through the motions.’ and mechanically solving problems.
  4. Years of very poor reading comprehension where the main ideas of passages are misinterpreted and misunderstood.
  5. Extremely weak vocabulary that makes any reading hard.
  6. Years of uncritical thinking.
  7. Very poor study habits.

This kind of support is quite rare, but to me, it is absolutely crucial for helping students create reliable point gains. Classes typically can’t do any diagnosis of this kind because they don’t design the classes to include this kind of support consistently.

In my classes, I make sure that I have time to work with each student each week 1:1 to do this kind of hands-on work with them. If I start to have too many students to do this each week, I start enrolling a new class. I will not sacrifice quality for quantity.

Point gains cannot be promised without knowing the student first. If a tutor doesn’t have a process for assessing the skill levels of a student then they have no right at all to claim they can garauntee any point gain whatsoever, let alone 300+ points!

The point increase itself is often dependent on the student’s schedule, ambition, and current skill level. Does the class or teacher assess these things?

What about online adaptive systems that adjust the difficulty of the questions to the student’s skill level? These are certainly better than nothing, but at this point they ALSO don’t do this kind of analysis I mentioned above. An adaptive question system cannot get inside the head of your student and figure out what assumptions they had or what process led them to the wrong answer.

If a class or teacher doesn’t have any process for analyzing each student individually, it is probably not going to be effective beyond a small ~50 point improvement.

Lastly: A money back garauntee doesn’t mean you used your time wisely.

We all love decisions with low risk. I can relate with parents that like money-back guarantees. A money-back guarantee is a sure-fire way to make a good decision, right? We think: “well, if it doesn’t work, we didn’t lose any money.”

Well maybe, but if your child didn’t get the results they wanted, if they didn’t get into their target school, if they didn’t get a merit scholarship, and if the inefficient study habits they have now continue into college, I can’t really call that a win.

Getting something you don’t want for free is not a bargain.

But the costs go beyond just wasted time and missed opportunities. The students usually feel less confident about their intellectual capacity in general.

It should help us to remember that a money back guarantee is a marketing tool to decrease the perception of risk and increase the likelihood of a purchase.

I offer money back guarantees as well, but I don’t offer them blindly. I’m committed to working with students and families who are a fit for working with me. If I believe it would be more of a fit for a student to work with someone else, I refer them to someone else. This has happened twice since 2016, and were due to the student having challenges I didn’t feel I could help with.

The proper use of a money back guarantee is not just to “disarm” potential buyers, but rather to engage in a process of relationship building and trust that is so solid that the tutor is willing to risk losing money because they believe in their results so much.

Does the class have standards that promote a good learning environment or do they accept anyone who will pay for the class?

I also believe results should be transparent since good tutors will have nothing to hide. By Fall 2019, I am planning on posting my results transparently on this website, so that my successes and failures (and what I learned) are visible to the public. Integrity, honesty, and trust are core values for me, and I want to attract clients that care as much as I do about that rather than believing what sounds nice but simply isn’t true.

In other words, a teacher should be willing to be transparent with you about the real data and results he gets for his students. He should be willing to share the successes, the averages, and the failures and what he learned from them. He should be willing to expose his weaker results and provide explanations for them.

No one is perfect. Behind the world of marketing where everything seems perfect and results are guaranteed is the real world where students do totally unpredictable things (like forgetting a calculator to their SAT). Only experienced SAT tutors will even be able to anticipate these things, because over the years, they’ve seen quite a lot and know what to prepare students for.

This is yet another reason to start early (sophomore / freshmen year). Make your mistakes before they matter.

Conclusion: Do your due diligence – work with someone that is a full-time SAT tutor and has a proven, data-backed record of results you want.

The point of this post is to help you discern the difference between well-intentioned but often ineffective programs for SAT progress and expert-backed SAT tutoring by full-time SAT tutors. Hopefully you now know some patterns of bad teaching that can serve as red flags to help you make a better decision.

There are plenty of awesome full-time SAT tutors out there on Wyzant and Thumbtack and possibly even locally too.

No matter what course of action you take, just make sure the tutor has/does the following things and you should be in good hands:

  • They are a full-time SAT tutor whose financial compensation depends almost entirely on the teacher mastering the test and teaching it really well.
  • They teach time-tested SAT-specific strategies that conform to the consensus of what the most full-time SAT teachers and SAT resources promote.
  • They manage expectations properly. They are not afraid to be honest about how much work or time it would take to achieve big results, and have no problem turning away students or parents that expect the impossible.
  • They have a study plan that primarily focuses on drilling weaknesses and then applying these new skills on realistic testing situations. The student should not take a new SAT until they understand every wrong answer they got on the previous one. The teacher should provide a study space to do that and show the students study techniques to master their areas of weakness.
  • The teacher should provide individualized tutoring to each student even in a class setting, such that the student’s thought processes, ‘invisible’ or ‘subtle’ weaknesses, and whole-test pacing problems become clear. An individualized course of action should be created tailored to that specific student’s goals.

Hopefully, this page helps you feel more empowered to distinguish between an SAT expert, and an SAT novice. May it help you make a decision that empowers you and your family to orient towards your most fulfilling life.

If you found this post useful, feel free to share it with anyone you know in high school that you think could benefit from it and consider scheduling a free 15-minute consultation with me. Together, we’ll help you take a powerful next step in moving towards your goals.

About the author

Founder of Deep Test Prep and full-time SAT tutor. He scores in the 99 percentile in the SAT and averages 100-150 point score gains in 6-8 months. He is committed to unleashing the academic, intellectual, and emotional potential in his students so they can live in alignment with their higher purpose. Tom is a life coach, an academic mentor, and a lifelong learner who feels the most joy when he helps others excel.
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