What Advice Should Test Prep Tutors Give Students?


Baz Luhrmann famously advised the graduating class of 1997 to wear sunscreen in his hit "song" Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen). His point was that all the advice he could muster was based on his own meandering life experiences, but the importance of wearing sunscreen had been thoroughly established by scientists.



There are plenty of lists out there that focus on the most obvious test prep tips for students. They all feature the same usual pieces of advice:

  • Use process of elimination.
  • Don't leave questions blank.
  • Underline important words in the question.  
  • Blah blah blah... 

Mostly, these lists are just content marketing pieces masquerading as actionable advice for students. Tutoring companies pump them out in hopes that they'll catch the eyes of parents, and "nurture" them down the pipeline to a converted sale.

In light of that, we thought we'd take a different approach as we put together a short list of advice for tutors. This is a list of important considerations for tutors to keep in mind as they work with students. This is a list of ways you can help students stay focused on preparing for the SAT despite the swirling craziness of high school life. 

1.  Don't Get Involved.

Don't get involved in students' personal lives beyond the abstract. It's not your job to help your students work up the courage to ask our a girl or decide whether or not to break up with a boyfriend. Remember, the high students spend all day working on these problems. You are actually helping quite a bit by inviting your students to focus their mental energy on SAT or ACT practice materials. 

If you're showing up to tutoring sessions with the same eager anticipation that you feel watching Real Housewives, then you're doing it wrong. You know too much about your student's personal life, and you're indulging high school drama rather than providing a valuable respite from it. 

2.  If You Must Get Involved, Get Help.

Obviously, there are circumstances where you must take action for the safety of a child. Remember, you're working with children.

For more information on how and when to make that determination decision, check out this resource: Child Abuse Identification & Reporting guidelines.  If you do decide that a situation has become unsafe for your student, then, by all means, bring that to the attention of a parent — if appropriate — or a professional mandated reporter.  

Then step back. Way back. This isn't about you.  

3.  Don't Overshare.

It can be tempting to tell students, "I went through something similar." And it's true that sharing your own experiences may offer students some sense of comfort. Even so, it's not a good idea to share too much personal information with your students. To the best of your ability, you should keep the relationship professional even as you offer support. 

On a similar note, it can be tempting to share stories about your glory days in an effort to impress your students or generate buy-in for your course. There's nothing wrong with sharing a story or two about your successes and failures in academics or sports, but that's where you should draw the line. Do not be tempted to share any stories about any trouble you got into back in the day. 

4.  Remember, High School Drama Is Real to Them.

Remember that high school drama is real to them, and it's not the same as it was when you were in high school. Don't be dismissive of the issues that monopolize their attention outside of your sessions. I remember quite vividly how I learned this lesson.  I had been working with a student in the Hollywood Hills for about a month when I arrived at a session to find her near tears.

She had just gotten off the phone with her close friend who was dealing with some really difficult issues at home. She gave a vague description of what had most recently transpired. She never mentioned any names out of respect to her friend. I listened carefully, but as I did I was already planning to tell her that it all sounded like a bunch of nothing. It would blow over in a day or two.

She was convinced that this was different. This was going to ruin everyone's lives and never go away. I told her that it always feels that way at the time but once you've grown up and you have a chance to look back on this... blah blah blah. 

What I didn't understand at the time was the fact that the events she had described would end up playing out on TMZ for months. You might have heard about it: 

So in the end, my student was 100% right. I was completely incapable of wrapping my head around the events taking place in these people's lives. But isn't that always the case? I mean, the lesson is not that her drama was different from other people's in some meaningful way.

Every piece of high school drama feels like it's the end of the world. It always feels like everyone knows everything and they're all judging you. It makes little difference to a high school student whether their humiliation has been seen a few times on Facebook or 10 million times on YouTube. It doesn't matter because, in high school, perception is reality. 

As a tutor, you've probably outgrown this feeling for the most part. It can be difficult to put yourself back in that world. But you must try to remember what it's like. And most of all, you should never be dismissive of your students' feelings.

5.  Help Your Students Enjoy the Process.

Ultimately, studying for the SAT is one of the last stops along the path to college and adulthood. You're in a unique position to frame your students' experience of the process. Do whatever you can to make it fun. Remind them that these are the days they're going to look back on fondly for the most part.

Help them to realize that test prep is in many ways life prep. Ask your student, "If you hate studying for college admissions tests, then why are you convinced you'll enjoy college? You know there's a lot of studying in college, don't you?" Help them to understand that the key is to find value and meaning in the work they're doing.  Help them experience the satisfaction of self-improvement.  Allow them to experience the discomfort of occasional failure.

That's why we structured our printed materials the way we did with lessons comprised of a "challenge" problem, skill builders, and practice problems. Students often struggle with the challenge problems. That's the whole point of a challenge problem, after all.  Then we help them to understand the relevant concepts through the skill builders. Finally, we regain some momentum with the practice problems. It's simple, powerful, test prep. And it's designed to help students get engaged in the process.  

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The thing to remember is that you're not the most important person in their lives, but you've come along at a very important time and you're helping them with a very important task.  Don't take that lightly.   

6.  Share Study Techniques That Work Well for You

I've got a full blog post on this tentatively scheduled for a week or two from now. Be sure to subscribe to this blog to make sure you receive that and other free tools for tutors in your inbox!

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The lyrics to Baz Lurhmann's Everybody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen) were authored by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich in an essay titled "Advice, like youth, is probably just wasted on the young."  You can read the whole thing here.

Matt McCorkle