Andrew Vickery is a civil engineer by day and math/test prep tutor by night (a modern day Clark Kent perhaps–saving students one at a time).  He is having great success with his students and wanted to share with the readers here at the Tutor Coach how he creates lesson plans for the ACT and SAT.  Andrew walks us through it all, how he schedules, the strategies, and assessments that guide him through the entire tutoring process.  Enjoy!  Adrianne

So, you are a tutor. You are good at what you do. You are helping students succeed in ways they never thought they could. But there's still one nagging issue. You're starting to realize that convincing parents to pay for your services is not always easy. You see the benefits. But it seems like no one else does. It's like you've woken up from the Matrix, and everyone else is still plugged in. Maybe you've also noticed (or maybe you haven't) that parents inherently see the value in test prep tutoring. SAT, ACT, PSAT . . . These standardized tests, whether you like them or not, have measurable, quantifiable results that parents intuitively just “get.” I'm not here to convince you to start tutoring test prep. If test prep is right for you, you will eventually convince yourself that you need to do it. I'm here for those who want to start but don't know how.

  • Are you worried that you don't know enough about the test to teach it?
  • Does it concern you that you haven't taken the test in 10, 20, or 30 years (or ever)?
  • Does it concern you that the test is not even the same as it was when you took it?

Truthfully, none of that matters! Yes, it would help if you had taken the SAT yesterday. But all that would mean is that it would be easier for you to prepare for lessons. It wouldn't matter to your student one way or the other.

Today, I’m going to give you a rundown of the New SAT, and how to teach it to your students. Many of them are frustrated that the crash courses they took didn’t help. (And the parents are frustrated that they wasted all that money.) I’m going to walk you through how I help my students increase their SAT scores by more than 100 points on average (math & reading).

Test Prep Schedule

The number 1 reason students don’t see significant increases in their SAT scores between tests: they wait too late to start studying. I have had too many conversations that go like this:

Parent: My [son or daughter] is taking the SAT in 3 weeks. I wanted to set up some tutoring.

Me: Ok. But you realize that isn’t much time.

Parent: I know. We kind of waited too late.

Me: Just making sure you understand that’s only 3 weeks. You can’t learn it all in that amount of time.

The best way to combat this: a minimum tutoring session requirement. For example, if you require a minimum of 10 sessions for test prep tutoring, you can eliminate those last minute preppers, AND you can actually help the students you do take on.

Now, when you do get your first student, here’s how to structure your time together:

Session 1 – Scheduling, assessment (if necessary), discussion of personal study plan, strategies, some practice (if time allows). Towards the end, I recommend having the student work a few easy problems in the area of their strength using their newly learned strategies. This first meeting will overwhelm them. The confidence they gain right there at the end is going to do more than all the other strategies, etc. that you teach them today.

Session 2 – This is where the real practice begins. Start with their weakest areas (a rising tide lifts all boats). I secretly hate that this is the key. I like for students to work in their strengths.

However, the SAT does not test intelligence (brilliant students get below average scores ALL THE TIME). The SAT tests your ability to take the SAT. That’s it.

Session 3 – Continue to focus on weakest areas.

Session 4 – Continue focusing on weak areas while adding in a very small portion of some of their strengths (to maintain some confidence).

Session 5 – During this session, try to spend proportionate amounts of time on each section of the test. The New SAT is divided into 4 sections (Reading Comprehension – 65 minutes, Sentence Correction – 35 minutes, Math without a calculator – 25 minutes, Math with calculator – 55 minutes). If you are doing one-hour sessions, divide your time up accordingly. Spend approximately 22 minutes on reading comprehension, 11 minutes on sentence correction, 8 minutes on math without a calculator, and 19 minutes on math with a calculator.

Session 6 – If at all possible, schedule this session for a Saturday morning at 8:00 AM, and proctor a full practice test for your student. If you can’t do that, encourage them to do so on their own, and use this session to score/review their practice test.

Session 7 – Refocus efforts based on results of practice test. Focus on weakest areas first (these may or may not have changed).

Session 8 – Continue to focus on weakest areas.

Session 9 – Continue focusing on weak areas while adding in a very small portion of some of their strengths (to maintain some confidence).

Session 10 – If this is the last session, it should be much like session 5. If you are continuing lessons, try to get in at least get the student to commit to another practice test, either with you or on their own.

Test Prep Strategy

Cool. So you mentioned “strategy, personal study plan, assessment.” Never mind the student . . . I’m the one getting overwhelmed. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Let’s take it one step at a time. Next, let’s talk strategy. When I say strategy, I don’t mean how you should teach. Everyone has their own style. That’s what makes you you, and that’s what makes parents choose you. What I mean by strategy is what your students should be doing to answer the questions.

Learning the material is definitely a big part of preparing for any test, and the SAT is no exception. However, not every student has the same set of capabilities. It reminds me of this cartoon where there is a man behind a desk (presumably a member of some board of education) in the middle of a field by a giant, old oak tree, and in front of him are animals standing in line side-by-side. A crow, a monkey, a penguin, an elephant, a fish in a bowl, a seal, and a dog. The man’s instructions to the “class” are as follows: “For a fair evaluation, everybody has to take the same exam: Please climb that tree.”

Strategies for the SAT can come in all shapes and sizes, but they ultimately hinge on one major principle: answer the questions you know how to answer first. For the rest of the questions, use this method. What I am suggesting is not all that different, because frankly, that works. I do also recommend using these strategies even when you think you know the answer. Historically, the SAT has been designed to trick you. The College Board suggests that they are moving away from that, but many of the questions still have what I would consider to be trick answers.

The Strategy Basics

  • Start with this in mind: All the correct answers are right in front of you. You just have to find them.
  • Don’t leave anything blank. There is no longer a penalty for incorrect answers on the multiple choice questions.

Strategy by section

Section 1 – Reading comprehension

  • Read the entire passage, and then begin to answer questions.
  • When answering questions, get your answers directly from the evidence in the passage. Some answer choices may seem right but are not backed up by the passage.
  • When you read each question, DO NOT look at the answer choices. First, attempt to answer, in your own words, before looking at the choices. A great example of this can be found on Practice Test 1 on the College Board’s website. Question #3 states: “As used in line 1 and line 65, ‘directly’ most nearly means.” Look back at lines 1 and 65 and decide what “directly” means in that context. Then look at the answer choices. The choices are “frankly, confidently, without mediation, or with precision.” All of those could be definitions of the word directly. Answering in your own words first while taking evidence from the passage makes the correct answer to this question much more obvious.
  •  Instead of trying to pick the right answer, eliminate wrong answers. Usually this will knock off 2 choices easily, making the task of picking the right one much less daunting.

Section 2 – Sentence Correction

  • This section is officially named “Writing and Language Test,” but I call it “sentence correction” because that’s what it is!
  • The advice is much the same as the reading comprehension section: use evidence in the passage, answer in your own words first (if applicable in this section), and eliminate wrong answers.

Section 3 – Math – NO Calculator

  • Make sure you are not using a calculator when practicing these problems.
  • The advice I give for the math sections is the exact opposite of the reading/writing sections. LOOK AT THE ANSWERS FIRST. The answer choices will give you clues about the problem. If 2 or 3 choices have √3 in them, you might want to keep an eye out for a 30-60-90 triangle. If one of the answer choices is 8 and another is -8, BE CAREFUL!!!
  • If at all possible, plug the answers in. Not all students are vigilant about catching their own errors when performing algebraic operations. Why take that risk? Just plug it in. Take Question #1 from Section 3 on Practice Test 1 from the College Board’s website for example: “If and , what is the value of ?” Sure, that’s easy enough for me to solve. And yes, I teach my students how to do it algebraically so that they can solve any problem like this, but why risk making a careless error? Put 3 in for , and plug each answer choice in for to see which one satisfies the equation.
  • If you can, make up a number! Same section, same test, Question #3: “On Saturday afternoon, Armand sent text messages each hour for 5 hours, and Tyrone sent text messages each hour for 4 hours. Which of the following represents the total number of messages sent by Armand and Tyrone on Saturday afternoon?” Replace & with 2 different numbers (you pick!!!) in both the problem and the answer choices. Now you just see which one gives you the same value.

Let’s say you choose 3 & 5 for & , respectively. That means Armand sent a total of 15 messages and Tyrone sent a total of 20 for a grand total of 35. The answers choices are: . A gives you 135. Nope. B gives you 300. Nope. C gives you 35. YES!

Section 4 – Math – With Calculator

  • Exact same advice as section 3.
  • These questions will only be harder in that they will use decimals/fractions/larger numbers that make it necessary to have a calculator. However, many of these questions are solvable without a calculator.
  • Do NOT purchase a TI-89 or whatever other advanced calculator that you don’t know how to use. The graphing functions would be super useful on this section, but only if you know how to use them. As a sophomore in high school, I achieved a 710 on the math section, and I used a TI-25X Solar Calculator. It wasn’t even powerful enough to need batteries. It had no graphing capabilities. You don’t need a fancy calculator. You need one you can use.

Personal Study Plan & Assessment

To create a personal study plan for your students, you need to know their strengths and weaknesses. You can get this via an assessment. This assessment is not as difficult as it sounds. If the student has taken the SAT before, ask for a copy of their full score report. This report will show you which specific types of questions the student did well on and which ones they struggled with. This is somewhat difficult to translate from the old version to the new version of the SAT, but not unreasonable. To make the example easy to understand, I’ll pretend your student has taken the New SAT.

On the score report, you will get a math score and a reading score. These will be between 200-800 each. You will also see 3 sub-scores for math and 4 sub-scores for reading. The sub-scores for math are titled “Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, & Passport to Advanced Math.” For the reading sections, the sub-scores are titled “Expression of Ideas, Standard English Conventions, Words in Context, and Command of Evidence.” Each of these sub-scores will be based on a particular selection of questions from within their respective questions. For example, let’s stick with the same practice test I’ve been referring to: Practice Test 1 from the College Board’s website. The “Heart of Algebra” sub-score from that test is based on the student’s performance on questions 1; 3-4; 6; 9; 11-12; 18 from Section 3 and questions 4; 8; 10-11; 15-16; 18-19; 28; 31-32 from section 4. Instructions for calculating these scores can also be found at that link.

You can use these sub-scores to determine exactly where to focus within each section. Rather than your student just saying, “I'm bad at math,” you can determine exactly what about the math is difficult for them, and focus your efforts there. Each of the practice tests on the College Board's website has a “Scoring Your Test” guide that tells you which questions belong to which of the sub-score sections. You can use one of the other tests to study those particular questions for the student's weaker sections.

Ultimately, practice is the key. Students must put in the effort to study own their own as well. I do not recommend studying for an hour a day for a month or so before the test. I recommend studying 15-20 minutes per day for 6+ months ahead of time. This method is easier to stick to and actually works better. 10 minutes before school, 10 minutes after. That's not hard to do. Taking a full length practice test is also essential. Like I tell my students: you'd never run a marathon having only ever run sprints. I recommend recreating the test day experience one Saturday morning per month and doing a full length, timed practice test. Even go to the actual test site if possible.

The Verdict

Here's what we discussed:

  1. The tutoring schedule (and the importance of a minimum number of sessions).
  2. The strategy for attacking the test (while understanding that there's no replacement for understanding and truly learning the underlying concepts).
  3. Strategy by sections of the test.
  4. The student's personal study plan.
  5. How to assess students.

A word of fair warning from a friend of mine: Sometimes parents can put tremendous amounts of pressure on their students to perform on these standardized tests. Or the students can put this pressure on themselves. It is my belief (and this is completely anecdotal) that this pressure is usually unintended, but part of your job will be to mitigate that stress and anxiety.

So, are you going to give test prep a shot? It’s not as hard as you might think. Plus, here’s a little secret: I helped one student raise his ACT math score by 5 points. The catch, I have never once taken the ACT.  If you follow the above method, you too can help students raise their scores.

Thanks Andrew for sharing!  I've only tutored for SAT test prep once and we only focused on math.  I couldn't agree more with the advice that Andrew shared.  My student and I were cramming, but here are some resources that helped us and may help you as well.

Quick List of Resources for Test Prep Tutors

The New Math SAT Game Plan by Phillip Keller

This book is packed full of tips for working smarter, not harder during the SAT.  The strategies are easy to learn and will help your student raise their score.  This book was created for the previous SAT tests, but is still valid in teaching math attack skills.  This is an affiliate link.

Andrew Vickery, Math Coach You Tube Channel

The author of this article makes videos on a consistent basis to help students practice for the New SAT.  Be sure to check out his question of the day.

Stellar Scores Recommended Resources

Stacey Howe-Lott of Stellar Scores taught the SAT for years and has a great list of posts about test prep and an entire page featuring her top recommended books to purchase.

Bright Storm

This site has a few free resources, but is mostly paid access to all videos…but I can tell you it is worth paying every cent to help you brush up on skills yourself.  They also have awesome free eBooks, webinars, and more for free.  You'll love it!

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