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Tutoring Philosophy for the SAT and ACT College Entrance Exams

In January of 2007, I decided not to tutor juniors extensively in the spring for either the SAT or ACT but rather wait until the summer between their junior and senior years to prep for the fall tests. I made this decision for the following reasons:

  • I do not want to contribute to the atmosphere of extreme tension and sense of intense competition that the college process has taken on. These are senior tests, not junior tests. The competitive environment has many families convinced that the fall test dates are too late for college admission, when, in fact, the October and November SAT and the September and October ACT can have scores delivered in time for early decision and early action, and the December SAT and ACT work as well for regular admission.
  • Junior year is a tough year academically and students ought to be spending their time doing well in the classes they are taking, as well as participating in their chosen activities and leading a balanced life. I have always told juniors that their classes come first, above studying for these tests. Besides, colleges will think they are under-achievers if their scores are high and their grades are low.
  • My experience with students is that juniors are not yet motivated enough and/or are too busy to spend the time they should devote to practicing between my tutoring sessions. They tend to do a mediocre job, their parents spend lots of money for extensive sessions, and then, when the scores are not up to par, they are all disappointed.
  • There seems to be an amazing amount of brain maturity that occurs in the summer between junior and senior years, especially if students have a good summer when they are able to be outside, loving what they are doing, and when they are able to sleep more.
  • I have had excellent results working with students who prepared minimally, took an SAT and an ACT at a regular testing date in their junior year and then came to me in the summer to prepare more extensively for a fall test of their choice. They are motivated then, as senior year approaches, they are well rested and much less busy, and they are ready and able to buckle down and focus on preparing for the test. Also, by then, they know which test appeals to them more and we can focus on one test, rather than prepare for both.

So, here’s what I will do:

  • I will work with juniors who scored 68’s or higher on the recent PSAT and just need a few sessions to “tweak” their score.
  • I will work with juniors who are being recruited for a Division I sport.
  • I will tutor students who are weak readers to improve their strategic reading and reading for the main idea, helping them with their class work and teaching them skills that will help them on their college prep tests.
  • I will set students up with a vocabulary program that they can do on their own.
  • I will work with students who need some help recognizing grammar issues that are tested.
  • I will work with students in the summer after their junior year, preparing in a concentrated way for six sessions— two times a week for three weeks or three times a week for two weeks— for the test that best suits their style (either the ACT or SAT; they don’t need both).
  • I will work in the fall with seniors who want to improve previous scores.

And here is what your students can do during the junior year to help prepare for these tests:

  • They should be spending their time this year working very hard on their classes, getting the best grades they can and learning the most they can. This is a very big year developmentally.
  • They should learn to study and concentrate for long periods of time with no interruptions. No interruptions means learning to study without texting, phoning or twittering and taking only 5-min. breaks no more often than every half hour. This will help them learn to sustain focus for the 4-hour SAT or ACT.
  • They should work on their vocabulary to become more articulate in their writing and speaking and to improve their reading comprehension. They should become interested in words and look up three words a night from their schoolwork (no more than that, as long as they get the gist of what they are reading). It is good to learn words that they need to know in the context of their own work. They can make flash cards for those words.If they want to be really diligent about this process, they can keep a small notebook of the words they’ve looked up and the sentences they found them in. This way, they will build context around the word and will eventually learn the subtleties of the word so they can use it themselves. I am including below information on an SAT vocabulary web site for more targeted word study, if they can’t find enough words in their homework. For students who need to work on their vocabulary, I recommend that they purchase a dictionary/thesaurus app for their phones, IF they can turn off the texting and phone portions while they read. If they cannot turn it off, they can use a Kindle to look up words. I like Mirriam Webster’s Dictionary/Thesaurus or Oxford’s.The reasons that I recommend the dictionary with a thesaurus are that it’s much easier to remember a one-word definition and students will recognize some synonyms and others will be good vocabulary words for them to learn as well.

SAT Vocabulary Web Site

This site has a terrific list of vocabulary flash cards. These aren’t any old vocab words, but rather ones that the authors found by researching over 60 real SAT exams. They even do studies on how many of their words show up on tests each year.

I would recommend that they consider building their vocabulary OVER TIME, starting now, whether or not they are taking the SATs. The people who get the best jobs in the world are those who communicate the best, no matter what their field is.

Have them work with only three words a day. Post the flashcards around the house—on doorjambs, mirrors, refrigerator door, oven door—then when they pass a card, they quiz themselves. At the end of the week, they should collect all 15 and use one day to review them as a batch, then put them into a ziplock bag for storage.



  • They should learn to read well and strategically. The best way to do that is to read good editorials (from the New York Times, Washington Post, etc.), at least one a week. They should learn to read for the main idea and notice where the details are located and how they support the main idea. They should print the editorials and mark the main ideas, supporting points and points of view with a pencil. It’s best if you read these editorials also, then you can discuss them together at the dinner table. This practice builds great real-life, world context for knowledge young people should have (especially since they will be voting VERY soon!), and it gives them a chance to see how their family members think about different issues and to ask how they formed their opinions. This reading work is also terrific modeling for their own essay writing.

SAT REASONING TEST VERSUS ACT Both of these tests are acceptable by almost all colleges and universities. Students should research the schools they are interested in to be sure of specific requirements. In addition to the SAT Reasoning Test (SAT I) or the ACT, some colleges require or recommend two or three SAT IIs (subject area tests).
​The SAT Reasoning Test is three hours and 45 minutes long and is heavily lopsided toward verbal skills. Three critical reading sections test vocabulary, reading comprehension and analysis. The three writing sections test writing conventions through two multiple-choice sections and a student’s ability to argue a point of view with a 25-minute essay. Lastly, the three math sections test mathematical thinking and reasoning, using math skills through algebra 2 via multiple-choice questions and one section of self-generated answers. In my opinion, this test is fairly “IQ-ish.” Students who have strong vocabularies, like to do puzzles, and can think creatively and “outside the box” do well on the SAT.
​The ACT tests grammar, punctuation and reading comprehension in the two English-related portions, math through pre-calculus, and table/graph/organizational skills in a science section for a total of about three hours and 10 minutes. In addition, ACT has an 30-minute essay section. This test is much more straightforward than the SAT and, provided a student has the appropriate background, an easier test, in my view. However, performance is usually constrained by very tight time limits. Students need to think and move fast and accurately. Those who qualify for extra time on the ACT (because of a documented learning disability) still must deal with “sustainability,” as the test sections are long and repetitive. Students who do not have strong vocabularies and who are linear thinkers tend to like the ACT better than the SAT.

WHEN TO TAKE THESE TESTS I recommend that students take the SAT Reasoning Test once in the spring of their junior year (March, May, or June), so they can get an idea of the kinds of colleges they should start looking at that summer, and once again in the fall of their senior year for their final score to submit to colleges. There is time for a student to take a second run at the tests, if need be. Students who are taking AP or IB exams in May might want to take the SAT Reasoning Test in March.
​Students who will be applying to more competitive colleges, which require or highly recommend SAT Subject Tests, should plan to take those in June of their junior year. If schools specify particular SAT Subject Tests, they usually ask for a math (many colleges will only consider the Math 2, not the Math 1) and one to two other tests of the student’s choice, usually in different fields. Students would be wise to choose subjects that they have just completed and in which they performed well. It can be difficult to meet some colleges’ early decision deadlines if the student waits until fall of the senior year to take SAT Subject Tests.
​All Colorado students will take the ACTs in April for free at their high school. This testing does not include the essay. Most colleges and universities will accept that score, but students who are applying to a college that requires the essay or to any of the military academies should plan to take the ACT again, at a regular, formally assigned venue. Students can take the ACT again in September, October or December of their senior year. In any case, I recommend that juniors take at least one practice ACT in a timed setting before they take the test for the first time.

WHEN TO PREPARE I prefer to work in summer with seniors who had little or no previous preparation before they took the test in the spring of their junior year and who want to improve their scores. October, November, and December test scores should arrive in time for regular admission application deadlines that are mid-January to mid-February, and October and November are fine for most early decision applications.

HOW MANY SESSIONS I tailor my tutoring to each student’s individual needs. For the majority of students with little or no exposure to the test, six sessions seem to work well; I schedule three sessions for two weeks or two session for three weeks. However, I will work with a student as much or as little as he/she desires.

STUDENTS WHO PERFORM THE BEST Students who perform the best after my coaching are those who practice what they have learned in a session with me immediately after the session and those who come to tutoring weekly until finished. After the first session, students can maximize the time spent in sessions if they complete an entire test and correct the practice test at home, before arriving for tutoring.

SAT Subject Test PREPARATION The SAT Subject Tests do not require much preparation, but a student may want to have help deciding which tests to take. I have a copy of each SAT Subject Test and can spend a session coaching students on which tests to take and another going over any practice tests that they have attempted, analyzing any mistakes.

ESSAY HELP I can also assist seniors with their college essays. As a former Assistant Dean of Admissions at Pomona College, I have read many essays. I usually work with a student for two to three sessions. My main thrust is to motivate “stuck” students. I insist on honoring a student’s “voice.”

FEES ​I charge $75/hr. and usually tutor a student for one-hour sessions. It works best for me if students bring a check to each session or pay for the entire 6 sessions in advance.

​In addition, I ask that students purchase either the ACT book with five real practice tests put out by the makers of the test or the College Board SAT prep book which includes 10 real practice tests.

CANCELLATION/ABSENCE POLICIES​ If students forget to come to a session or I am unable to fit another session in at a different time once we have established our schedule, they need to pay me $75 for the hour they missed. And conversely, if I should forget a session (a rare occasion), I will give the student a free session in return.

WHERE I tutor students in my home office in Gunbarrel.

OTHER ACADEMIC TUTORING I also tutor Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, and Pre-calculus well as all levels of French, writing, study skills and homework coaching, and executive functioning/ADD coaching. I charge $60/hr. for this tutoring.

Pam Allen
Pam is retired, but out of deep respect for her contributions to the founding of this group, we keep her profile posted here!
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