Tips from an Expert Tutor

The question I am asked the most often after revealing that I’m a professional standardized test tutor is, “How should I study for Test X?” The reply is always invariably a petition for more information such as the materials being used, past testing history, study habits, and anticipated testing schedule, all of which is just a baseline amount of information that I would then use to offer the most basic and topical plan of action. The reason for such a skeletal plan is because of a very simple reason:  every student’s needs are different and if I haven’t spent any time observing a student’s habits and logical process then I can’t say what he or she needs. The effectiveness of tutoring lies in the customization and personalized guidance. A large part of a tutor’s job is identifying where in the process of answering a question, between reading it to choosing the correct answer, is there a disconnect.  The tutor then formulates a way for that particular student to most effectively bridge that gap. With that said, here are three of the most common issues many of my students face across different tests have.


1.            Lacking the fundamental knowledge base that is being tested.

2.            Having difficulty recognizing the topics being tested by the questions.

3.            Executing a strategy for specific question types consistently.


The first issue is usually the easiest to diagnose. This issue is most notable with math questions but can manifest with verbal questions (albeit less alarmingly and thus usually more ignored, unfortunately). My opinion on this issue, shared by the pedagogy of Bell Curves, is that regardless of how much test-taking savvy you have, if you don’t know the base content (e.g. geometry formulas, grammar rules, argument structure, etc.) there is absolutely no way to consistently answer questions correctly. The solution is pretty straightforward  – study the material until you understand the rules and their applications.

The second issue is usually a result from a lack of familiarity with the way a certain test will approach a certain topic. Once you are fairly confident that you know all the relevant rules, but still have an issue knowing what is being tested on particular question types, you most likely have a recognition issue.  I often hear “I don’t know what to do or where to start” from my students.  My approach is usually to focus on that singular skill with identification drills. For example, I had a student who clearly knew his grammar rules and their applications, and if given questions where he knew ahead of time the particular grammar issue being tested, he did fairly well. His accuracy and timing plummeted, however,  when he was given a more complex run of GMAT Sentence Correction questions. So one session, we grabbed a set of 100 questions but did not actually try to answer them. Instead after showing him how a question will telegraph the grammar rule being tested, we spent 20 seconds per question, rapidly scanning the sentence to find tells to identify  the issue. His accuracy increased dramatically. Standardized tests often test rules in a fairly consistent manner and thus are predictable. Identifying all the various iterations on how a test will present a rule and then looking out for those triggers help tremendously here.

The last issue is the most difficult to address. The reason is that there are several different places where a process can fall apart for a student. The most important aspect of doing a set of practice questions is the review after you are done. You need to review all your questions, regardless of whether you get the question right or wrong. You want to be able to pinpoint which parts of the process you succeeded with and which parts not so much. Many times the point at which a student starts making mistakes is where the student deviates from what they were taught to do. It is essential to find the patterns of that deviation so it can be corrected as you continue to practice and refine your strategy.

Another often overlooked part of standardized test preparation is overall strategies across the whole test. These strategies usually deal with pacing and maximizing your scores based on the scoring peculiarities of a certain test. These can only be practiced if you regularly take full length practice exams. I find that a lot of students usually have anxiety about practice exams and will put them off until they decide they think they can do well, which defeats the purpose of a practice exam. A practice exam is a diagnostic tool. If you do not take a practice exam, you cannot diagnose issues with the very important general strategies of the test, most notably pacing. Students who take three or more practice exams for any standardized test gain more score improvements than do students who only take one or two practice exams. The moral of the story, take practice exams regularly and then review them meticulously to isolate areas that you need to work on in a specific question type or content area sense as well as overall performance.

Studying for a standardized test is often much more involved a process than most people’s realize, and goes beyond purchasing one of the myriad books on the market for any specific test and then doing a lot of questions. I often tell my students that this is the most surefire way to be disappointed by the results of their efforts. Constantly reviewing performance and isolating specific areas to work on is the most efficient way to tackle a standardized test and getting the score you want. Good luck!

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