SAT Tutoring Approaches with Manoah Finston

Posted by Julia Holden on 10/24/15 4:00 PM

This week we're spotlighting Manoah Finston, who joined the Cmabridge Coaching team in New York in 2012 as an SAT, SAT II, and subject tutor. He's mentored high school students for over a decade and is sure to give great advice on SAT tutoring approaches. 

What’s helpful about working with a private tutor for the SAT?

Although the SAT might be the mother of all standardized tests, there is nothing standard about how students experience it. Every test-taker approaches the SAT with a different brain, different strengths, different problem areas, different life circumstances, different senses of humor... The value of a private tutor lies in not simply engaging someone to build a relationship with the student, but in having the tutor facilitate the student's relationship with the test. A capable tutor learns how students learn, and then develops a personal strategy that adapts to the unique profile of each student. That degree of attention and care leads to levels of impactful problem solving that can't be found in a book, a video, or a test-prep lecture course.

What’s your overall philosophy to teaching the SAT?

I always begin with a mantra, and I want my students to really commit to what the mantra says: "The SAT is nothing more than a bundle of skills-based questions. The SAT has no surprises. If I master the skills, I will master the test. It is only a test. It does not evaluate any dimension of me as a human being. If I master the skills, I will master the test." Once we're on the same page with the mantra, then we start building skills and stamina.

What’s your approach to teaching the reading section?

A lot of the trouble that students have with SAT reading comprehension comes from reading in an unstructured way. My approach emphasizes strategies for structured reading that improve both comprehension and time-management. I work with students to immediately identify which words in the questions are most important, and how they connect to the most important words and phrases in the passages.

I also work on strategies for optimizing note-taking, quickly summarizing paragraphs, and getting inside the mind of the writer. I also work a lot on assisting students with identifying the differences between implicit and explicit information in the passages, which helps students separate facts from assumptions.

What’s your approach to teaching the writing section?

I spend a lot of time teaching students the fundamentals of English grammar, because I find that they often haven't been sufficiently exposed to this material in school. I want all of my students to be good writers and good grammarians first, and good test-takers second. So we put in the time to develop a strong foundation with proper grammar and elements of style. Then, we use those skills to work through the kinds of sentence errors that recur constantly on the SAT: Singular v. Plural; Confused Antecedent; Subject-Verb Agreement; Independent v. Dependent Clause; Tense Problem; Punctuation Problem. Students can then use these skills for the rest of their lives as confident, capable writers and editors.

What’s your approach to teaching the math section?

I often start by reminding my students that the SAT has a finite number of question types as well as a limited bag of "tricks" and "traps." With this in mind, I review the essentials of mathematics--operations, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, probability and combinatorics. Then, we start working through all of the "tricks" that one might encounter in questions from each area of math. I emphasize that the SAT math section has more to do with pattern recognition and general problem solving than it does with raw mathematical ability: once students are trained to recognize what kind of problem they have and what trick or trap is being deployed, they can easily move towards the right kind of solution. But this is not to suggest that I don't teach my students the actual math underneath it all -- rather, I help them use their math knowledge more strategically.

What’s your approach to teaching the essay?

Writing a good essay comes down to two factors: managing time, and answering the question. As simple as they might seem, these factors give students a world of trouble. I help students understand how to most directly address the essay prompt, while also generating powerful examples and structuring solid arguments. I also work with students on developing organizational strategies for getting their words and ideas down on paper with both speed and precision.

What are the three most important things you think all SAT students should know?

1.) The mantra I shared above.

2.) That the test ends up being an endurance race more than an assessment of any mental ability, and that students should accordingly make sure that they are training their bodies for the SAT as well as their minds: Are they used to waking up that early on a Saturday morning? Have they learned to be comfortable sitting still for that long? Do they have a system for taking micro-breaks in the middle of sections to avoid fatigue? Are they eating and drinking enough at breaks? All of these factors go into a strong performance on test day, beyond the myriad mental and emotional preparations.

3.) It gets better. When this is all done and the score reports are sent, you'll have the rest of your life to never talk about the SAT again.

What’s the most common SAT fear you see among incoming students?

Time and time again, I see students afraid of the test score somehow determining every subsequent aspect of their lives -- where they can apply to college, where they will be accepted, what academic outcomes they will have down the line, what their job prospects will become, how successful they will be... All of this is of course very far off from what the test actually measures, and all of it has very little to do with the test itself. I remind students first and foremost that the SAT is a small part of the college admissions process (and getting smaller!), and that fundamentally, colleges don't want to admit numbers, but real live human beings. I urge students to put away their anxiety about the test swallowing them whole, and instead focus on the holistic application, where they have ample opportunities to reveal just how interesting, multi-dimensional, and not "standard" they really are.

Read Manoah's tutor biography:

Manoah was born in the Bay Area, raised in New Jersey’s endless suburbs, and educated in the Midwest at the University of Chicago.  At UChicago, Manoah earned two honors Bachelor’s degrees in English and French language and literature.  He was admitted into Phi Beta Kappa as a junior and graduated in 2007.  In 2009, after two years of work in the intellectual property world, he entered New York University’s doctoral program in French literature. 

Over the last decade, Manoah has mentored, taught, and tutored many high school, college, and post-college students in fields ranging from SAT and SAT-II prep to French Literature to Political Philosophy.  As an adjunct instructor at New York University, Manoah teaches a variety of undergraduate courses in the humanities in both French and English, a gig he describes as the best job in the world.

When not reading or teaching (in tweed jacket and tie), Manoah can be found rowing, running or cooking.

Looking to work with our SAT tutor Manoah Finston in New York ? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person tutoring in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world. 

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Tags: SAT, Tutors