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When should I start studying for a standardized test?

“How many tutoring sessions will my child need?” is the most commonly asked question in a consultation before tutoring begins, and I understand why parents ask. They want to know how much of a commitment they’re making as they schedule sessions in their child’s packed extracurricular lineup.

I wish I could easily say 5 or 10 sessions. Some tutoring companies do. In fact, they encourage parents to buy packages, promising higher scores. But learning how to ace a standardized test is like learning an instrument. It often takes weeks or months to hone the requisite skills. Would you expect to play first chair in a symphony after only five lessons?

Like others at Prime Academics, I consider the whole individual. Everyone comes with different goals, and it is our duty as tutors to honor this uniqueness and adapt. Still, tutoring shouldn’t be an everlasting slog. The start point and end point, along with monthly simulated practice tests, should be established from the beginning. Students feel most motivated when they have tangible goals. Tutors should be in constant contact with parents to ensure that everyone is kept on the same page. I consider four factors when determining a student’s tutoring plan:

(1) The student’s baseline

I need to know how the student's scores before tutoring begins to identify the content gaps. For the SSAT, ISEE, or SHSAT, most students score pretty low initially because these tests are designed to assess upper-level math topics that these students haven’t necessarily reached in school. For the ACT and SAT, students may find most of the content familiar, except the math section’s hardest questions. They also need to review abstruse grammar rules they haven’t seen since 7th grade and learn the best strategies to maximize their scores.

(2) The student's goal score I take my time when consulting with parents so that I can begin to understand my new students right away. What are their strengths and weaknesses? Favorite subjects? Hobbies and passions? Are they excited to start tutoring, or do they need to ease in? Where do they want to go to school? All of these factors are crucial for determining the student’s goal score.

(3) The student’s schedule

How much time does the student realistically have? Students are often encouraged to pursue many different interests, so they may not be able to meet until 8 pm on a weeknight. Sometimes we need to work around games, meets, or rehearsals or have to skip a session, though I do my best to maintain consistency as we work towards their goals. For the ACT and SAT, I recommend starting by the summer before junior year at the latest. For the ISEE, SSAT, and SHSAT, I recommend starting in the spring or summer before 8th grade.

(4) How much effort can the student devote to test preparation?

I have found the more work students do outside of sessions, the more quickly they improve their scores. Targeted homework serves important purposes: to reinforce a lesson from our session, to familiarize a student with the test format, or to build hyper-focus. Despite their busy schedules, I encourage my students to aim for at least 10–15 minutes every day. I adjust how much work is given based on availability, but to prevent a time crunch closer to test day, it’s best to cover the content early and steadily. A relaxed student performs better.

Here are two examples of the four factors at work:

Student 1 started studying for the SSAT in May. His baseline was the 70th percentile, and his goal score was the 85th percentile or above. However, he would be traveling and working at an internship all summer, so he really wouldn’t have the time to study. In the fall, soccer and basketball practice would compete with SSAT study time. I made sure to push for as many weekly sessions as his schedule allowed so that we could maintain progress and consistency. After we adjusted his homework load to make it less daunting, he completed every homework assignment and scored in the 90th percentile. He was accepted to his first choice, Phillips Exeter Academy. We later worked together to prepare him for the SAT, on which he scored a 1550. He was accepted to many schools and chose to go to NYU.

Student 2 started studying for the SSAT in September. Her baseline was the 40th percentile (due to dyslexia), and her goal score was as high as we could reasonably attain in our short time frame. We worked on reading techniques with a specialist and met more frequently because of her learning disability. Her schedule started off relatively light, with just choir after school. But then she landed the lead in her school play and started taking an audition class. Was it more of a time crunch for this student? Yes. But did she rise to the challenge and have the drive and effort to achieve her goal? Also yes. By the end of our sessions, she was scoring in the 75th percentile. I continued to work with her throughout high school, providing her academic support in math, biology, and AP Language and Composition (on which she scored a 5!). We then worked together on her SAT, on which she scored a 1400. She was accepted early decision to Emory and is currently thriving! Let’s determine what your four factors are and let’s get to work!


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