SAT Tutoring Approaches with Troy

Posted by Troy on 11/20/15 8:30 AM

This week we're spotlighting Troy, who joined the Cambridge Coaching team in Boston as a test prep tutor. He teaches the SAT, SSAT, LSAT, ISEE, and even has experience editing standardized test questions! He's sure to give great advice on SAT tutoring approaches.

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

I think there are three critical advantages to using a private tutor for the SAT.

  1. A class setting, or even a tutor working with a small group of students, necessarily will have to cover a broad range of topics to satisfy the class as a whole. For many students, this means a good portion of the time is wasted on material they already know.
  2. Similarly, over the course of many sessions, only a one on one tutor is going to be able to adequately adapt the scope and pacing of tutoring in order to focus solely on what the student actually needs.
  3. By engaging in one on one work, especially where the student is doing homework in between and coming to session with a list of problems they struggled with, a tutor is able effectively diagnose where a student is at, what underlying content, skills, or strategies are leading to the gaps in understanding as well as what strengths they have, and then address these with the student by modeling how they would approach the problem. A class or small group setting simply can't offer the time, or cognitive resources necessary, from the instructor to attend to each student's strengths and weaknesses this way.

What’s your overall philosophy to teaching the SAT?

As a general, in approaching any subject, the most important aspect for me is understanding where the student I'm working with is at:

What are their strengths?

Where do they need the most help?

In terms of the content they're struggling with:

-How much is timing based? If they had infinite time, how much would performance improve?

-When applicable, how much of their struggle isn't with comprehension, but translating their understanding  into one of the multiple choice answers

-How much of the struggle is with the actual underlying content versus their ability to apply it to the test?

Once this is established, and I'm on the same page with the student and family, and we've set an initial plan for what areas we'll address and over what time period, I think a few strategies in general are key.

First, in thinking about the test:

  1. Establishing an understanding of goals and what it will take to get there: if you want a 700, how many questions can you miss per section? how close are we to that goal?
  2. Related, investing the student in progress as opposed to absolute scores: It's ok if you're starting and scoring below what you want. What's important is to see where and how you're improving, how to keep that up, and then work on tackling the next portion.
  3. On the content, it's important to me to model how I think through and respond to questions so that a student can see what I mean why I say to "try doing X" and develop similar competencies.
  4. Furthermore, the SAT definitely has areas it focuses on, and specific ways of testing. I do not, however, like to sweep these under the rug as 'tricks' to the SAT: certainly, there are strategies to be successful. To me, however, it is more about investing a student in the metacognitive skill of being able to look at the whole test and say: ok, I can learn the underlying values of what this test is often looking for, and learn to identify its quirks and apply this to individual questions, and this is actually a worthwhile higher level thinking skill that I can carry with me to other domains.
  5. Finally, making sure to eliminate answer choices that are obviously wrong and then doing a deep dive to compare the remaining answers.

What’s your approach to teaching the reading section?

First, there's a definite split between vocabulary and the reading passages:

On Vocab:

  1. A lot of this is investing the student in working through a vocab list to build up their base
  2. Making sure student's can read sentences for context, so understanding what words clue to the meaning, as well as context on if they need a word that means the same or *opposite* of contextual clues, and words that key in the relationship between two words when applicable.
  3. On guessing words one doesn't know, making sure to use appropriate vocabulary strategies (root words, prefixes and suffixes)

On Reading:

  1. Making sure a student can differentiate what questions require or are based on direct evidence from the text (and then using the text to eliminate all wrong answer choices as well as back up the correct one), versus which will be based on inferences.
  1. Seeing if the student can accurately answer questions in their own words, and having them think through the answer for themselves, before evaluating the available answer.
  1. When stuck, having students - 

a. reread the relevant sections to see if they missed anything.


b. reread and think about the answer choices to see if they are misinterpreting what they might mean, and if this might make the answer more readily apparent.

What’s your approach to teaching the writing section?

  1. This is the most 'rules' based section, in terms of the existence of discrete (grammar) rules that students may simply not be aware of. So a big focus here diagnostically is seeing what gaps students might have.
  1. Generally, when unsure of an answer, making sure a student is plugging in the answer choice into the full sentence, and mentally reading aloud to ensure they haven't missed any errors.
  1. When stuck, making sure to have a list of triggers for what could go wrong in each type of question or answer choice. For example, if I see a pronoun that is a potential error, then I immediately look to see: does the pronoun match its antecedent, is the pronoun in the right case (subjective or objective), could the antecedent be ambiguous, does the pronoun match other instances of the pronoun's use (was there a switch between 'you' and 'one), and does it match the verb. On harder questions, having this sort of list in mind is very helpful for being able to quickly, and accurately find an error that might otherwise go unnoticed.

What’s your approach to teaching the math section?

  1. Math also has discrete areas of content knowledge (algebra, geometry etc.), and it's important to identify if the student is particularly weak on any and then address.
  1. The biggest issue I see with students is when they approach a problem that they do not know how to tackle. Often times these are the more difficult problems, and they are difficult because there is no obvious equation to write or formula to plug in. My approach to these, and the math section in general, is to encourage students to develop better number sense, and work bottom-up on these problems, as opposed to trying to do a top-down approach.

In particular, getting a student to say:

-ok, i might not know exactly what to do here, but

-i can see the pieces of information provided to me

-i have a list of triggers of what are common sat topics and question types

-i can at least probably guess at how i might synthesize these pieces of information to provide something new and valuable to me

-by seeing what's available to synthesize, i can probably figure out what the problem actually wants me to do, and get to a solution

-if I don't get to a solution immediately, I feel comfortable going back to my initial set of information and brainstorming a new idea.

Being able to do this synthesis, and then look for how it fits into standard concepts of problems, allows for much more flexible thinking and perseverance through difficult problems.

What are some common misconceptions about the SAT?

As noted above, the SAT definitely has some idiosyncracies in the way it tests for knowledge, and some areas it highly overvalues. That said, I think there is an overstated mystique to the SAT, that there are certain silver bullets to improving scores, or tricks to doing well, that just don't exist. Anyone who is willing to put the time in to study can do well on the SAT.

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

  1. The best way to get better is to practice. You'll get a sense of what your strengths and weaknesses are, you'll learn what to watch out for, and you'll feel much more comfortable on the test day.
  1. Focus on what you need help on. Odds are you have less time or energy than you want to study, and while it is good to make sure you don't atrophy in a particular area, and can be a good ego boost occasionally to tackle easy problems, the best strategy to maximize how you do will be to focus on identifying what you struggle with, why, and then practice having to go get past it.
  1. Make sure to take tests under timed conditions, but then also make sure to go back and see how you do without timing. You want to get a sense of how you are actually performing, so you can work on time management, but you also want to distinguish: do i really not get the content, or is my problem that I'm rushed to finish? This will help you study and improve your score immensely.

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

I think the most common fear is that they need special training, or their may be some lack of innate knowledge or skill they can't overcome. In both cases that's simply not the case. The SAT is just a particular type of test for reading, writing, and math, and while some strategies help recognize what exactly is being tested, any student can pick up the content, skills, and mindsets necessary to adjust.

What are the most common test strategy mistakes you see students making in their approach to the test?

I think the most common mistakes I see for each section are-

math: misreading what a question asks for, or not paying attention to all the information given

reading: taking too narrow approach to what an answer choice means, and therefore going with a worse answer, or getting stuck and skipping the question.

writing: reading questions in isolation, as opposed to rereading the sentence as a whole, and missing

How much can I expect to improve?

I think you can expect to find that there are concrete types of problems that you didn't understand before that you will now recognize and be able to tackle, as well as feel more globally comfortable reading all parts of the test for relevant information. This will also mean that you're likely to get quicker in each section as a result. But what this translates to score wise of course will depend on where you're starting and how much time you can put into studying.

How do I get the most out of tutoring?

The more work you can do between sessions, the better, because this let's us find and focus on problems that you actually struggling with. Then we can really dig into what's going wrong, why, and address it. Especially for students on the higher end, it can be helpful to see you work through a problem correctly, it can be a very inefficient use of time when a lot of it is your tutor watching you answer problems correctly.

How much time should I dedicate to studying for the SAT?

This really depends on where you are coming in and what you want your score to be. Figure that out first, and then you can see how much time you need to study and on what basis. But, given the impact the SAT can have, there's no reason to limit yourself- be prepared to study a lot.

What are your thoughts about the new SAT?

As someone who used to design tests, I'm a big fan of the new SAT. I think it is much more in line with the Common Core High School curriculum and covers more relevant skills at an appropriate level of rigor. I think there of course will be some adjustment phase as students get used to this level of rigor, but that it should feel more in line with the type of questions and content they're addressing in schools, and a much better signal for colleges to rely on in applications.

Should I take the ACT or the new SAT?

Trick question: both, see how you do!

Read Troy's tutor biography:

Troy graduated cum laude from Yale, where he received his BA in Ethics, Politics, and Economics. Afterwards, Troy taught middle school math and science in Mississippi as a Teach For America (TFA) Corp Member. After TFA, Troy attended Harvard Law School, graduating cum laude and receiving four dean’s scholar prizes for his course work. While at Harvard Law, Troy spent two years working with a visiting Professor at Harvard’s Safra Center for the Ethics, with whom he co-authored a paper on behavioral ethics approaches to curbing malpractice in pharmaceutical research. Now, Troy works with an education technology startup focusing on helping all students become college ready. 

In addition to teaching middle school math and science with TFA, Troy lead professional development for TFA’s middle school science teachers and also spent a summer training new incoming corp members to become better teachers. Troy has two years experience editing standardized middle school and high school math tests for the Achievement Network, a nonprofit whose diagnostic tests are used by hundreds of schools nation wide. Troy has spent the last year tutoring academic subjects and test prep, including the ISEE, SSAT, ACT, SAT, and LSAT. 

In his spare time, Troy may or may not fiddle around with 6 different methods of making coffee, read copious amounts of food journalism, and play the occasional indie video game on his computer.

Looking to work with our SAT tutor Troy in Boston ? 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