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Private Tutoring vs. Test-Prep: A Personal Juxtaposition

By May 15, 2019July 30th, 2019About Tutoring, Parent Resources

As a rising senior at NYU, I can still vividly remember my SAT prep. It can be difficult to find the most effective test-prep resources and avoid ostensibly “helpful” ones that are actually just financial sinkholes. You may be asking yourself, should I attend a popular test-prep course or hire a private tutor? Having tried both options, I found that I made significantly more progress in four 1-hour sessions from a private SAT tutor over the course of 3 weeks than I did from 40+ hours in a test-prep course.

Why do test-prep classes not work?

Every child comprehends new ideas in different ways, and catering to a child’s individuality goes a long way. I underestimated the importance of this when I attended a test-prep class that my parents had seen a couple of promising advertisements for.

The test-prep center I was in followed a curriculum for a class of 20 students, with only mild adjustments for each student’s strengths and weaknesses. This was quite inefficient and ineffective compared to the private tutor I hired after the course had ended. My private tutor’s only focus during our sessions was me, and he paid much more attention to how I was thinking through problems and what I understood.

This created an jarring juxtaposition — the 1-on-1 setting allowed my tutor to observe my work closely enough to see my thought process and give feedback mid-question, whereas instructors in a test-prep center would only pause for questions occasionally. I found that this ability to answer my questions quickly was vital to increasing my understanding, as waiting 5 minutes for one of the test-prep instructors to finish with others students’ questions often left me pondering confusing thoughts or incorrect concepts and ideas. This left those hindering thoughts time to stick and slowed my progress even more.

My experience with both

With Kaplan tutoring, I saw a 40-point increase in my SAT scores, from 2020 (actual test taken prior to course) to 2060 (Kaplan practice test) by the last day. This could easily have been a coincidence, and it was a shamefully small improvement when I consider the number of hours I spent traveling to and working with Kaplan. Furthermore, the last exam I took at the center could very well have been an easier set of questions–an unfortunate phenomenon you can read more about in Alex Friedman’s article here. With just a few private tutoring sessions, however, I saw a 230-point increase, from 2020 to 2250.

Let’s break down this score difference a little further.

The private tutor was able to take my strengths, math and grammar, and not waste them (like the test-prep course did). The center had me ignore my strengths altogether and focus only on my weaknesses, critical reading and essay writing. It is worth noting that the 40-point increase from Kaplan did not come from my work on the essay or critical reading, but rather a slightly better performance in math and grammar. In fact, the last practice test I took with them saw a 10-point decrease in critical reading from my 2020 score, from 640 to 630.

This was a stark contrast to my private tutor’s approach. While he did hone in on writing and critical reading, he strategically included some math and grammar work in between. Since math was my strong-suit, he drilled me on very particular questions that I was either slow at or got wrong from both the SATs and SAT Math I’s & II’s. The short time we spent on math, combined with the homework assigned specifically for me, led to consistent 800’s in just 2 weeks.

My tutor then assigned a similar mix of SAT grammar and the more difficult LSAT grammar, to challenge my natural aptitude for the subject. This kept my SAT grammar fresh and strengthened my knowledge of the subject, as the LSAT grammar section is even more demanding than the SAT. The grammar rules on the SAT quickly became second nature after this combined practice with LSAT questions–a strategy the test-prep centers would never use.

I also received personalized tips for the quick 25-minute essay section, which were helpful because my writing was strong but very slow. My private tutor helped boost my writing scores from 630 to 790. My math scores increased from 750 to 800, and my critical reading increased by a few points to 660.

Because my tutor was able to make efficient use of our time, and have the sense to cater to my strengths as well as my weaknesses, I saw a combined 50-point increase in my weaker essay and critical reading sections (already more than the entire “improvement” from the prep center), as well as a whopping 180-point increase in math and grammar. I already had a knack for these sections, and only needed some structure and personalized study strategies in order to drastically improve my scores.

Applying what I learned

Often times, I studied for these kinds of tests with the intention to do well only on that particular exam. This made the skills I learned lose applicability on other exams in future subjects. The test-prep centers do just that: prep for the test, and not much else. What I learned from my private tutor, however, produced better and longer-lasting results.

My improvement in the Math section played a significant role in helping me achieve an 800 on my SAT Math II’s. During the private sessions, I received a free prep boost for a test we were not even technically preparing for. This came from the practice material my tutor pulled from the SAT II’s as well as the test-prepping and test-taking strategies I learned from him.

To break down my process for reaching this score, the SAT Math II’s require about 44/50 correct questions to receive an 800 – I started with about 36/50. At the time, I had not taken pre-calculus, which constituted a significant portion of the exam, and I had a lot to catch up on. With the study strategies I learned from my private tutor, I learned how to strengthen my weaknesses and cater to my strengths.

I knew that I could not possibly learn all the material in time for the test. Instead, I focused on getting questions I was familiar with correct 100% of the time, and learning just enough new material to boost my practice scores over 44/50.

Using both the raw knowledge I gained from my private tutor and the personalized prep strategies he used with me, I was able to adapt quickly to a test I was not ready for, and build my way up to an 800 in a smart and realistic way. I aimed for getting a safe 800 rather than a 50/50, which would have been an overload and might have caused me to miss the 44/50 bar by spreading my resources too thin.

Wrapping up

The test-prep center did not help me in any noticeable way, and it cost a significant amount more money and time than my 1-on-1 sessions. With private tutoring, I learned the material I needed, I acquired general strategies that became incredibly useful when preparing for other exams throughout high school and college, and, most importantly, I became an independent learner. I strongly recommend finding a tutor who works well with you. Spare yourself the time and headache of overpriced and sub-par test-prep courses.

Brooklyn Math Tutors works extensively with students who are preparing for tests. If you are interested in our services, do not hesitate to write us at

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Tom Fogle
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