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SAT and ACT: Specific Tips for Common Problems – Part I

Tips from an Irvine SAT and ACT Tutor: Common Problems

These pieces of advice are more specific to taking the actual tests themselves. If you are looking for general advice about how to study and what materials to use,  read my previous article.

Instead, here I will cover more specific tips that can give you an edge on the test depending on your specific situation. These are common situations that I have found many of my students in when taking the tests, and implementing these tips has great success in helping them remedy their problems. These tips are not universal; you must take practice tests first to evaluate if these will apply to you.

The Essay

For the essay: First-grade essays you’ve written during practice tests using the guidelines and sample essays (or have a private tutor grade your essays for you) and determine where you are at and where you would like to be. If you have a low score looking to bring it closer to average, you need to determine where the problem lies. Three common scenarios I see with these scores are: not writing nearly enough, having very sloppy grammar and sentences, and failing to effectively respond to the prompt.

Of these, the first and third are easiest to remedy. For students who aren’t writing enough, we practice timed writing. Using simpler prompts and shorter time limits, they focus on getting more sentences and ideas onto the page in the time limit. Unfortunately, speed can be a huge problem for many students taking timed standardized tests. And, as unfair as it may be, it negatively affects your score if you can’t write quick enough.

The same strategy can be used if you aren’t answering the prompt effectively. Except, instead of writing many sentences in a short time limit, students should focus on making strong outlines or bullet points on how to answer the prompt. The essay needs to have substance, and that substance needs to be thought of quickly before it can be executed.
Grammar and overall writing issues have less cookie-cutter solutions and vary even more on a case to case basis. It is important to write a lot and have someone to review and correct your mistakes.

If your essay is already good but you are looking for an even better score, you can consider practicing implementing new elements to help improve your essay and make it stand out. This can include proper use of semi-colons and colons, more complex vocabulary words used correctly and appropriately, and varying sentence length and sentence structure throughout your paragraphs.

Stay tuned for part two!

Michael C. is currently a private math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerds in Irvine and Anaheim.

tutor logo Ask A Nerd! SAT Subject Tests All blog entries, with the exception of guest bloggers, are written by Tutor Nerds. Are you an education professional? If so, email us at pr@tutornerds.com for guest blogging and collaborations. We want to make this the best free education resource in SoCal, so feel free to suggest what you would like to see us write.


Tips From an Irvine SAT and ACT Tutor

The SAT and ACT Study Plan: What to Use and Who to Trust


Standardized testing has evolved to become a significant factor in determining students’ options for their educations after high school. The SAT and ACT are at the forefront of these tests that can have an impact on what schools a student gets accepted into and what scholarships they may receive for their education – book your private Irvine SAT tutor today.

Since the SAT and ACT have become so important, many companies have developed books, classes, guides, and other forms of study material to help you get a better score on the tests. With many options available to you at varying levels of cost and commitment, what are your best options? This study plan will briefly discuss what the focus should be on when preparing for these tests to help you optimize your time, avoid being taken advantage of by greedy companies, and (most importantly) maximize your score.

Study with practice tests

First, let’s discuss the best way to begin preparing: practice tests. This cannot be stressed enough. If you are going to be taking a standardized test, you need to familiarize yourself with the exam: the layout, the time limits, the question types, the directions, etc. The first test that students take is almost always their worst because they ran out of time, went to fast, didn’t understand some sections, or got overwhelmed or burnt out by the length of the test. Do not make your first test an official one. Make it a practice one and give yourself time to get used to the test.

Use official resources first

That leads us to who you should trust. You now know that you need to prioritize practice tests to study, but whose practice tests should you use? You’ll find a dozen different practice tests and practice books in the test prep section of the library or bookstore. Some are better than others, and some are outright trying to deceive you. So, who should you use? The official materials. This cannot be stressed enough.

This is a mistake that most students make when they’re preparing for these exams. If you had a test coming up in your science class, would you instead use the textbook your teacher gave you to study or a different one that you found at the store? If your teacher gives you a study guide, do you ignore it and find a different teacher’s study guide from a different class? The people who make the test know and understand what is on the test, and they provide the best resources to study.

The College Board administers the SAT. They offer several printable practice tests for free on their website collegeboard.org in the SAT section. They also offer online tests and prep partnered with Khan Academy, an app for daily practice, and a yearly study book with more practice tests. The practice tests also have answer keys, explanations, and can be scored. For the SAT, use the College Board before going to any third parties.

ACT Inc administers the ACT. They offer free practice multiple choice and writing tests. You can find their website at act.org and specifically their prep material at act.org/the-act/testprep . They also offer an official prep guide, ACT Academy, and online prep. Again, you can find explanations, answers, and scores with the official ACT material. For the ACT, use ACT Inc before going to any third parties.

Third party test prep companies cannot always be trusted. Over the years, I have tutored many students who have come to me with books they have already purchased asking for help. Every time I have done this, I have found questions or material that would never be on an actual SAT/ACT. Someone experienced with the tests should be able to spot these poorly chosen questions quickly, but a confused student would just be wasting their time studying them.

These companies crank out huge numbers of new questions and practice tests every year, but they are not the official test makers. They are not held to the same standard as the College Board or ACT Inc, and they always have some percentage of faulty or unrealistic questions.

Finally, a common tactic these companies employ is to make the material too hard. They make diagnostic tests, sample questions, or the first practice tests harder than they should be (or they score them more harshly than they should). This way, you get a lower score than you expected, and you feel the need to use their material to get better. Then, when you take the real test, you get a higher score than you did on their overly difficult material. Your score went up, so the test prep must have worked, right?

Never trust a score from a third party’s test unless you have also taken an official practice test and received similar results. Just last year I had a student hire me for tutoring the day after he took an SAT practice test and received a score of around 1000. I had him take an official practice test and he “miraculously” scored in the 1200s. I was able to help him improve more from there, but it was not my work that gave him that substantial initial bump. The first score was a lie.

Trust experienced tutors

If you are seeking outside help for your test preparation, you can have great results with someone experienced with the tests and helping students prepare for them – book your private Irvine ACT tutor today. An experienced tutor should have a studying system that is based around a core of taking practice tests regularly (official practice tests ideally) and is tailored to suit your individual needs. There should be an evaluation period where they find your specific problem areas and help you focus on what can be improved.

Every student is unique and no secret strategy will be optimal for every student. Having someone who knows the tests inside and out can accelerate your studying and help you achieve the highest score you’re capable of.

Michael C. is currently a private math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerds in Irvine and Anaheim.

tutor logo Ask A Nerd! SAT Subject Tests All blog entries, with the exception of guest bloggers, are written by Tutor Nerds. Are you an education professional? If so, email us at pr@tutornerds.com for guest blogging and collaborations. We want to make this the best free education resource in SoCal, so feel free to suggest what you would like to see us write.

Using Memory to Study Effectively | TutorNerds | Orange County

Did You Remember to Study?

At this point in your lives, studying is a huge part of your day. It’s a pretty big task to be able to go to school for six hours and then come home and put in an additional two hours or so. If you are also getting ready to apply for college, or are preparing for the SAT or AP (read out post, “Last Minute AP Study Guide”) classes, those two hours can turn into a lot more. Have you ever thought to yourself that there must be an easier way? Unfortunately there is not an easier way, but there is a better way.


Memory plays a substantial role in how much information we need to keep in our minds and the brain takes on the complicated task of determining which information is important and which is not.

Short term, long term and working memory

There are three primary types of memory: Short term, long term and working memory. Short term memory lasts about 7 seconds, so this part of the brain essentially takes a mental note about important elements and stores them for a very short time. So when do we use this magical seven second notepad? Lets’ say you are sitting in that giant classroom on Saturday morning taking your SAT and the proctor has just said “start”. It’s time to get that short term memory rolling. For example, if you are solving for X in your head and you remember that the partial answer is 8 and you have the then divide that by 3, you are using short term memory.


This presents a problem for students who are tired or overworked. Sound familiar? Sleep is the best way to keep the short term memory sharp but you can compensate for fatigue by writing everything down. Temporary short term memory loss can lead to a lot of missed answers that you really knew so take advantage or your pencil and test booklet in order to give yourself the best chance at success.

Long term memory can potentially last forever. Remember when you rode a bike at age six? Now, ten years later you can not only remember riding your bike but you still know how to do it. That’s long term memory. This will come in handy when you’re asked about a book you read in school two years ago; it will take your brain a bit longer, but it’ll get there.

Your Most Valuable Study Partner: Working Memory

That brings us to working memory. Working memory is your best friend and most valuable study partner when it comes to studying and taking tests. Working memory is similar to short term memory but it can store multiple pieces of information in multiple formats. Essentially your memory is multitasking the entire time you are studying, which is why you feel so tired after doing homework. So how can you use your working memory to study more effectively?

Although we don’t entirely know which tricks work for which people just yet, many students will be able to study more effectively by trying these 5 tips:

  1. Write an outline of what you really need to focus on before you start studying. If you have a list of key words or phrases, your brain can search for them while disregarding irrelevant information. The less multitasking your memory has to do, the quicker it can function. Compare it to cleaning your room. How likely are you to find your favorite pair of jeans if your clothes are everywhere? A quick cleaning at the beginning of the week can make each morning easier. The memory can work the same way.
  2. Eliminate distractions. The memory is already working hard when you are studying so do yourself a favor and turn off the TV, turn your phone to silent and close the door to your room if your home gets noisy. Many students find wearing earplugs helpful.
  3. Socialize. That’s right, talk to your friends. I don’t mean talk to them on the phone the night before a big test, but rather just in general. We have to think all the time and use short term memory when we chit chat and it keeps our brains active while we are having fun.
  4. Eat your fruits and veggies and protein too. Healthy food is fuel for our brains and memory. The more energy your brain has to burn, the quicker it can get things done.
  5. Sleep! I bet a lot of you are up until 1 or 2 in the morning finishing homework. 4 or 5 hours of sleep is definitely not enough to keep the memory running at full speed. Try getting a full 8 hours and see if you can get your homework done faster the next afternoon. I bet you’ll be surprised.

tutor logo Getting Your Community Service Credits | TutorNerds | Orange County All blog entries are written by Tutor Nerds. Are you an education professional? If so, email us at info@tutornerds.com for guest blogging and collaborations. We want to make this the best free education resource in SoCal, so feel free to suggest what you would like to see us post about.

One last thing, summer doesn’t mean an end to learning. In today’s competitive world of college admissions, it’s crucial students spend the next few months improving and catching up. What better way to do that than with a private summer tutor? We work with student’s schedules so they can still have fun. Don’t fall victim to the summer slow down!