Many students and parents are overwhelmed at the number of options for test prep -- classes offered by a public school administrator, classes offered by the "Big" prep companies like Kaplan or Princeton Review, smaller classes of 5-8 with smaller organizations, or private/semi-private tutoring by franchises or local small organizations. I have experience teaching classes for Kaplan, and I have also tutored for the past eleven years on a private, semi-private, and small class basis.
If I were the parent trying to select the optimal program for my child, these are the questions I would ask:
1) Who is the teacher/tutor? What are their credentials? How many years of experience do they have with SAT/ACT prep? You will receive more value from a teacher or tutor who has a minimum of three years of experience and has taught or tutored at least 150 students. If you reach out and network with your friends, you will find that by doing a little digging and direct questioning, you will be able to get the best recommendations for successful teachers and tutors through your parent network. Find the parent whose student has been accepted to the college of her choice, and ask about the teacher or tutor your friend's daughter used. If they were happy, they will willingly share names and details.
2) Does the teacher/tutor really care about their students -- are they willing to be kind, patient, but also demand accountability from your student? Will this mentor go the extra mile to provide value for your student? If I have a student who is struggling and not improving fast enough, I will create new materials, look for new resources, and possibly change our techniques for attacking a section. I will provide a written review of my notes with patterns of misses, rules, and reminders. For some students, I will request more analysis and input from the student by having them complete my Goals-Tracking form or providing feedback on a Google doc that we share between our sessions. In a classroom situation, the onus will be on the student to seek out extra time with the teacher.
3) How much emphasis is placed on independent student practice? I have found from my students who previously took classes that there was frequently no accountability for homework in those classes. Many times my students admitted that they would have learned more from the class had they done more homework! My experience has shown that the students who make the most substantial improvements are the ones who dedicate themselves to independent practice. This can happen in a class as well, but the parent needs to understand that she will typically be the person demanding that the homework get completed.
4) Does the class or tutor spend a significant time on reviewing homework questions? I found that as a Kaplan teacher, I was given only 15-20 minutes in a 3-hour class to cover homework; we simply had too much new subject content to cover that precluded additional time on homework review. This is one of the real value areas in tutoring. A tutor can focus a good deal of time on the student homework questions to determine the weaker areas and patterns that call out for more content review and strategic direction.
5) Is the teacher or tutor tracking patterns (taking notes) of the types of misses of your student so that the classes or sessions become devoted to the highest priority score improvement opportunities? This is another of the real value areas of a tutor. Some classes offer mock testing, and some offer personal reviews of the mock tests, perhaps for an additional fee. This would be a wise investment, if offered. Mock testing provides tremendous value for a student. I offer mock testing for my students two weeks prior to each of the more popular SAT and ACT test dates. I find this is the perfect nudge to help bring all the pieces together for the student by test day.
6) What practice materials does the class or tutor offer? Does the teacher or tutor have access to more recent real tests and other practice material than the tests provided in The Official SAT Study Guide (most recent test is 2007) or the Real ACT Prep Guide (most recent test is 2009)? If the answer is "no", I would recommend that a parent continue to look for other options. In addition, the teacher or tutor should be able to recommend top online and retail resources for vocabulary-building and all of the individual sections in the tests when desired.
7) Does the teacher or tutor sit for real SAT and/or ACT tests? This need not be an absolute "must" when you are judging candidates; however, you should appreciate the mentor who takes the time to put herself in the shoes of your student. This mentor will have more empathy for your student and will be able to share observations of some of the nuances experienced in testing. This mentor will also know about some of the recent changes that are appearing in the tests. You can also quiz this mentor about her scores and verify that she is qualified to tutor your student. Although I have not matched Debbie Stier's seven SAT tests in one year, I have taken a total of five SATs and ACTs over the past several years, the most recent of which were the June 2014 ACT and October 2014 SAT. Unlike Debbie, I scored in the 99th percentile for all of my tests. (I am a tutor, after all.)
For those parents who really want to learn more about the SAT and test prep around this test, I strongly recommend reading Debbie Stier's Debbie shares her own observations in selecting classes and tutors. She has summarized key resources in easy-to-find blue boxes in her book; these are the resources which can add value to independent practice. If you are a parent of a teenager, you will relate to this story and you will laugh wholeheartedly with Debbie as she tries to master the SAT and bond with her son.
What observations can you share about how you selected your class, teacher or tutor?
Did you use a personal referral from one of your friends?
Did your guidance counselor or college advisor recommend a program or tutor?