SAT Tutoring Approaches with Zuzanna

Posted by Julia Holden on 11/16/15 9:00 AM

This week we're spotlighting Zuzanna, who joined the Cambridge Coaching team in Boston in 2013 as a writing, language, and SAT tutor. She's also an admissions coach and has mentored many high school students to gain acceptances at their top choice colleges. She's a test expert who's sure to give great advice on SAT tutoring approaches. 

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

There's a lot of SAT prep books out there, and what they do well is give you an overview of the material and give you lots practice questions. They'll even tell you which questions you're getting wrong. What these books cannot do is evaluate your learning style and analyze the kinds of mistakes you're making. This is where a private tutor can be very helpful: It's our job to watch you work and figure out the source of your errors in order to tailor a syllabus to target areas that you need help in, be they directly related to understanding material or more related to developing strategies for answering certain kinds of questions that work for you, not the average Joe. With this kind of support, you maximally benefit from all those practice questions the books give you, rather than cranking through practice test after practice test yet making the same mistakes.

What’s your approach to teaching the reading section?

When I was in high school I actually found this to be the hardest section, so I sympathize with students who struggle with this. But there is a strategy that I've found to be most helpful. Often, you can eliminate two or three of the available answers based on tips you get from SAT prep books: Answers are too extreme, true but don't answer the question, or just obviously wrong. That part is easy. Most students hit a wall when it gets down to choosing between the last two options. Here, I recommend zooming in on the action words. For instance, you might be choosing between an option that says the author is “emphasizing” something versus “giving an example” – go back to the text and figure out which action word best describes the sentence that's being referred to, and that will point you to the correct answer.

What’s your approach to teaching the math section?

I teach the math section like I would tutor any students in math, independent of a standardized test. Sure there's some testing strategy, but that comes in handy for any multiple-choice test. What's more important is the material that we cover, and this either has been or will be part of the student's math curriculum as he or she finishes high school, so it's important that they learn it well. I start bottom-up, reviewing even the most basic concepts and vocab. Yes, vocab – it's not just for the language section. Students can lose silly points if they forget what “integer” means or mix up “quotient” and “product”, so I make sure these words are ingrained in their memories. I also write my own problem sets for them in our early sessions in order to tailor homeworks to concepts I know they're struggling with and need to spend more time on.

What’s your approach to teaching the essay?

I secretly love the essay. The most important part of the essay is structure, and it's actually the easiest! Think of it as having a discussion in which you make a suggestion or put forth your opinion, and your conversation partner says, “Give me three good reasons for why that is the case.” If you can grasp that much, you're already ¾ of the way to a great essay – you've got a strong thesis statement, and you'll develop each of your “three good reasons” in a body paragraph.

What’s the most common SAT fear you see among incoming students? / What are some common misconceptions about the SAT?

All students go into the SAT feeling immense pressure, terribly afraid of this one test that they feel is going to determine the rest of their lives. The stress and fear can really affect performance, so it's crucial to get a sense of perspective about the SAT. Yes, it is an important test and not to be taken lightly, but it is also just one part of your application. Universities are also evaluating three years worth of grades, activities, and leadership. Plus or minus 20 or 30 points on the SAT is not going to make or break your application. And if you take this perspective and decrease stress, you're performance on the SAT is actually going to improve, because your brain is focused on the material rather than on dwelling on the pressure.

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

The most common and unfortunate mistake students make is that they manage their time poorly. In the SAT it is very important to learn how to move past a hard question by marking it and saving it for later – your time is much better spent on the questions you know how to answer. Some students fall into the trap of slaving away over one hard question, and then find themselves in trouble when they realize they've lost so much time that they won't be able to finish the section. Admittedly, skipping around on a test can feel unnatural, but it can really improve performance if done strategically on the SAT.

How much can I expect to improve?

This depends on two things: 1) What your starting point is, and 2) How much time you put into studying for the SAT on your own. If you're a high achieving student that's already scoring well above a 2100, there's only so much room for improvement. You can fill in the gaps in the material where there are any, and from then on just practice enough that you minimize stupid mistakes. If, however, you're starting out with less understanding of the material or less experience with standardized testing, there's probably a lot of progress to be made over the course of a few weeks, as long as you're committed to studying. If you only work hard during our meetings and set aside the SAT all other days of the week, you're hindering your own improvement.

How do I get the most out of tutoring?

Do your homework. As your tutor, I'm not assigning you busy work – I know high school is hard and you have enough to do as it is. When I assign you homework, it's because I know it will help you review what you've learned or practice a given skill, and I'm convinced it will help you improve. If the only time you work all week is when you meet with me, you're limiting the progress you can make.

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

You should plan on spending at least 20-30 minutes on the SAT each day. And I really do mean each day, rather than accumulating 2-3 hours one or two days a week. Daily practice is crucial because it allows you to maintain speed and understanding in solving the problems you're learning how to work with in class. And counter-intuitively, it actually has the added benefit of decreasing pressure: If the SAT is a commonplace, everyday part of your life, it stops being such a big deal. When you finally take the test, you're seeing questions you've dealt with on a regular basis and know exactly what to do.

What are your thoughts about the new SAT?

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I can certainly appreciate that the vocabulary students are tested on in the new SAT is much more reasonable, and the language section does a nice job of checking whether students know how to construct an argument. There's more of an emphasis on appropriate transitions between sentences and considering whether added or deleted information is useful to the discussion. On the other hand, I'm concerned about the passages that are being included from the Global Conversation. Many of these are not from the 21st century, and the writing can be quite old-fashioned. This is an additional and – in my opinion – unnecessary hurdle to add to test, and it really puts some students (including international students, who I work with often) at an additional disadvantage.

Read Zuzanna's tutor biography:

Zuzanna grew up in two countries, having immigrated to the United States from Poland in her early childhood, and now still returning to Poland every summer. She worked hard during high school and was admitted to her dream school for college. After four years that were better than she even imagined, Zuzanna graduated Magna Cum Laude from Columbia University in 2013 with a BA in statistics and linguistics. She will now start the Ph.D. program in linguistics at Harvard, where her research will involve morphology and heritage languages.

Zuzanna loves teaching. As an undergraduate at Columbia, Zuzanna had the rare privilege of serving as a teaching assistant in two departments—statistics and linguistics—both her junior and senior years. Her responsibilities included not just grading homework, but also leading review sessions, hosting office hours, and even occasionally lecturing when the professor couldn't make it to class.  At Cambridge Coaching, Zuzanna works with student of all ages on academic subjects from English to mathematics to Polish, and to help crack the SSAT, PSAT, and SAT.

In her free time, Zuzanna enjoys drawing, swimming, and horseback riding. She has also recently taken up running, inspired by her globe-trotting, marathon-running uncle. She has quickly learned, however, that running is not nearly as easy as everyone makes it look.

Looking to work with our SAT tutor Zuzanna 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