Making the SAT More Approachable for ESL Students

Many students arrive in Irvine from all over the world. In fact, it is no surprise that people move to Orange County. The weather is beautiful and the public school system has a great reputation and our private Orange County tutors make in-home sessions. However, when it comes to the SAT, and other standardized tests, speaking English as a second language can be an issue. Being bilingual is a fantastic skill for college and for life in general and it also looks good on applications. Let’s look at some issues as well as ways to overcome them if you happen to be an ESL student (READ: “8 SAT Essay Tips“).


1. Nuances and “Humor”

I put humor in quotations because nothing about the SAT is really funny but there are several instances in the critical reading section where humor is displayed in Standard American English, and if standard American English happens to be your second language it can be really tricky. Actually, if Standard American English is your first and only language, it can still be really tricky. This is where a tutor comes in handy. Tutors who specialize in the Critical Reading section have read, memorized and learned to love these sections and passages. So, it is a safe bet that your tutor can help with these small yet crucial issues (CLICK: “The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul“).

2. The Dreaded (Now Optional) Essay

SAT and ACT essay graders look for common mistakes in sentence structure and subject verb agreement that are often made by ESL students. I have seen some incredible essays with excellent examples that I know will likely not receive a 5 or 6 (out of 6) score because there are some basic grammar or sentence structure issues. A few hours with an essay specialist can help a lot when it comes to fine tuning the SAT and ACT essay. By the way, the SAT essay is very different from the ACT essay so check out our earlier blog post to learn the differences (READ: “A Timeline Study Guide for the SAT“).

3. Vocab, Vocab and More Vocab

We all know that people don’t use words like supercilious or perfunctory in real life* but words like these appear on the SAT every year. About 1/3 to 1⁄2 of the words on the SAT actually do have some real world usage and will certainly impress your university English professor (you do know that everyone is required to take at least one college level English class, right?). If your English language vocabulary is not at a level that you need to reach your verbal target score, you may find yourself at quite a disadvantage.


Tutors spend a lot of time going over vocab with English only and native speaking students, so ESL students will definitely want a few extra hours with their tutor to focus on this section. Native speakers also have the advantage that they have heard at least some of the SAT vocab words used in real life and, as a result may be able to figure out what the word means in relation to the context. If ‘meaning in context’ is a new term for you, now is a good time to arrange for a private tutor.

*In case you were wondering…

Supercilious means arrogant

Perfunctory means automatic

4. Grammar Errors

I’m not talking about grammar errors that you make yourself but rather the errors that you have to fix in the verbal section. It is very easy for a teacher of English to fix all the little grammar and punctuation errors that are found in the verbal section. They do it every day. Did you know that ‘neither’ goes with ‘nor’, not ‘or’? Did you know that tenses must be consistent throughout a sentence? There is a good chance that you do but can you identify the errors in another’s writing, especially when that ‘other writer’ is a staff member at the SAT? SAT is not a logical test and thus getting good grades on your English homework is really no indication of how well you will score on the test. If you’re scoring 750-800 on both the Writing and Critical Reading sections then you are probably good to go. Actually, if you are scoring that high, you should probably apply to teach SAT. Getting below a 750? Call that Irvine SAT tutor.

5. Math

No, I’m not crazy; math can still be an issue for an ESL student. Of course, numbers are numbers and calculators are calculators but word problems are written in English. Tutors go through math word problems with native English speakers all the time helping them pick out what the question is actually asking for, which words have no meaning and which words are meant to make test-takers confused and frustrated (don’t wait too late and fall behind! Contact us today for one of our excellent Irvine math tutors). Allocate a couple of hours of your tutoring time to dissect these pesky word problems and see how much your score increases (READ: “Use Your Math Intuition“).

Taking standardized tests like the SAT can put bilingual and ESL students at a slight disadvantage but there is no reason why you can’t completely beat the SAT verbal section with the help of a tutor. Work through it and get the score that will get you into that dream school.

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