How Much is Enough?

I often get asked how many lessons a student will require to prepare for the SAT/ACT. Let me answer that question by first explaining how test prep companies approach the subject. I worked for a test prep company that touted time for money value. They all do that, mostly by telling how many class hours are included. Let’s take a closer look at that.

The company I worked for provided eight 3-hour classes for a total of 24 hours of test prep. One half of every 3-hour class was devoted to math while the other half was all about the verbal portion of the test. As an English teacher, therefore, I was responsible for eight 90 minute “Verbal” segments, a total of 12 hours. The first four 90 minute classes consisted of information about how the test was structured, the number of questions, of reading passages, of subsections, of grammar and punctuation questions, the types of questions, etc., etc., etc. Strategies were presented to make it easier for the student to answer questions correctly. So the first four 90 minute lessons (6 hours in total) were mostly instruction of what was on the test and about how best to take the test.

The fifth lesson was about the SAT/ACT essay.

The sixth lesson was a review lesson for an up- coming practice test.

The seventh lesson was the practice test.

 The eighth lesson was a review of the practice test taken in lesson 7.

So the core of instruction was in the first four lessons for a total of 6 hours of instructional time. All students attended those classes.

Both the SAT and the ACT essays are optional, so some students didn’t attend the fifth lesson.

The sixth lesson reviewed everything covered up to that time, but it did not introduce new material. Some students skipped this lesson as well, figuring that they could decide for themselves what they most needed to review.

The seventh lesson was the practice test. Numerous practice tests are available online at no charge.

The eighth lesson was a review of the practice test. The free online practice tests include answers and answer explanations, so many students didn’t attend the 7th and 8th sessions.

It should be clear from what I’ve just told you, that what you’re really paying for in the way of “hard core” preparation is 6 hours, 7 1/2 if you want to include the optional essay instruction. Now, I’m not saying that the remaining 4 1/2 hours were a complete waste of time, but the gradually diminishing number of students who attended those last 3-4 classes speaks for itself.

So let’s compare those classes to my classes. I offer four two-hour core classes for a total of eight hours of instruction, 10 hours if the student wants help with the essay. Many students stop there. At the end of the 4th or 5th (essay) lesson, I talk to the student about whether or not they feel that a review lesson is advisable. This is always a mutual decision.

Also, please keep in mind the fact that I only work with students one-on-one. The classes I taught for the test prep company averaged 12-16, with some as large as 25-27. I don’t sign contracts with clients; there is never a “fixed” number of classes. You are charged only by the session, and I usually invoice after every pair of lessons.

One final thought. I sometimes speak to parents who have a mindset that I should keep meeting with their sons and daughters beyond the usual 4-6 lessons because more is always better. This kind of thinking assumes that SAT/ACT tests are content-based, and that the more content we cover, the better the student will be prepared. While adequate content is certainly important-after all, you wouldn’t want a student answering Algebra 2 questions if he/she has never taken Algebra 2- the fact is that both the SAT and the ACT are skills-based tests which measure how effectively you’ve learned rather than just what you’ve learned. Content can sometimes be improved significantly in the short term. Ever cram for a test or pull an all-nighter?

Skills, like reading comprehension, however, improve in the long term, so expecting short-term dramatic improvement rarely happens. That’s why teachers (like me) introduce shortcuts and strategies to help the student use their current skill level more effectively. So is more better? Not necessarily.

When I finish with a student, I always direct them to websites which feature exercises and practice tests, along with answers and answer explanations. I always tell the student that we’ve reached the point where the burden of responsibility shifts from me to the student. I’ve shown the student how to improve. What’s left to do is not learning new strategies, but practicing what he/she has already been taught so that the student achieves a level of comfort when applying what they have learned. I always invite the student to contact me for additional help (at no charge) if practicing brings to light specific problems, like a certain type of question which the student still finds challenging, so that we can review those issues. In the final analysis, then, the student’s performance on the test is usually a combination of the student’s academic background before they started test prep, my instruction, and their personal motivation to improve by both using and practicing.