How to Teach the SAT

It’s funny, really. We ask a lot of our high-school teachers’ qualifications—graduate degrees, certifications, and thorough background knowledge on a subject, to name a few—but what hoops do SAT teachers and tutors have to jump through? The primary qualification you’ll see most prep companies and tutors touting is high scores. There’s no certification, no minimum education; after all, it is the scores that most people care about. And the upshot? Well, a lot of SAT teachers go into lessons with little or no teaching experience.

That was how I got my start teaching, and I’ve known plenty others like me. Personally, I thought that wasn’t such a bad thing. I was happy to dive in headfirst, to find out right away what it means to be at the front of the room. I knew I had something important to say, and I felt like I could connect with my students. After all, I was only a few years past the SAT myself. But I did, like I know so many teachers do, feel a bit lost sometimes. Teaching isn’t an easy job, not if you’re invested in it. And while I won’t go so far as to say teaching the SAT is more difficult than teaching traditional school subjects, it’s absolutely true that it’s a unique thing to teach.


Know Why You’re There

Everybody knows that teachers are there to “make a difference” and “have an impact,” right? It’s trite, but it’s true. As an SAT teacher, you’re in a remarkable position. You can improve the scores of dozens (or hundreds!) of students each year. And we’re talking about tangible results, here. The gap between a 1500 and a 1700 might be the difference between acceptance into a target school or a reach school. Yes, I realize that not every student makes such clear progress, and I know not every teacher is taking on so many students. But even so, this is a special kind of teaching, one that opens the door to some very real job satisfaction: getting to know students, seeing them improve, then hearing about their test results is fantastic.


Make Sure Your Students Know Why They’re There

How many of your students are studying with you by choice? It would be nice if every student cared enough about the test to sign up for lessons and devote their full attention to what you have to say, but that’s not always how it works, is it? If you want your students to listen, you have to show them why they should care beyond just doing what they’re told. Don’t get me wrong—clearly, there are plenty of students out there who do understand the importance of improving their SAT scores and will share your enthusiasm, but you can’t sit back and expect that of everybody. Instead, it’s up to you to get them motivated

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  • Keep putting it in context. Never let students forget that the prep they do now opens doors. This isn’t just homework for the sake of homework, and there’s no such thing as pointless math on the SAT; all the material and practice you go through has a clear, concrete goal attached to it. There’s a carrot dangling on the end of the stick—an awesome carrot.
  • Show you’re invested. The more students feels like you care about their SAT scores, the more they’ll feel like they should care about those scores. Tell them that you care, then prove it. Know how much homework they’ve done. Know how they performed on all of their practice tests. Know their goal scores and their reach schools. Keep copious notes on each student you have and review them as often as you need to.
  • Show them that they can beat the test. Practically speaking, this is different for every student depending on personal strengths and weaknesses, but one way to do it early on is to teach a test strategy (e.g. using the answer choices to your advantage) and have students work through a set of challenging questions entirely with that strategy. Getting a right answer because of a new skill is a fantastic motivator to learn more new skills.

Know What Makes Good Material

If you were just hired by one of the big name prep companies, then you’re going to be stuck with their material, for better or worse. But even then, that doesn’t mean you should be indiscriminately using everything in the book. In pretty much every book other than the official guide, there will be poorly written questions. Recognizing them and avoiding them is key if you don’t want to mislead your students on the feel of the test or, worse, get stuck trying to explain a question that would never show up on the test and is entirely debatable. The worst offenders have entire pages of material you may need to skip in order to keep your lessons on track, helpful, and accurate.

And if you’re teaching privately or otherwise have the liberty of choosing your own material, that’s all the more reason to know which SAT books are best and why they’re the best. A seasoned teacher or tutor will have an arsenal of resources to recommend depending on what’s needed. The book that has the best full-length tests isn’t going to be the same book as the one with the best math explanations or the best vocabulary list.

And what about online help? If you’re restricting yourself to paper-and-ink resources in the information age, you’re doing yourself and your students a major disservice.

Some musts (and they’re all free!):

And there’s plenty more out there. Be voracious. Buy, read, use, and scrutinize everything you can, with blue book questions as your yardstick.


Guide, Don’t Lead

It doesn’t matter whether you’re teaching or tutoring; students learn best when they come to conclusions themselves. This isn’t just about the SAT, clearly, but it’s always important to keep in mind. Keep your students talking and thinking in any way you can. Never let a lesson become a one-way lecture or you risk losing the interest of everybody in the room besides yourself. Dialogue is crucial. (And that means more than just asking yes/no questions!)

And when you are the center of attention, you have to be the most interesting, engaging thing in the room. Tell jokes. Speak with your hands. Smack your hands on tables, jump up and down, laugh out loud, and get excited. The more energy you have, the better, especially if you’re a classroom teacher.


Teach Everything

As an SAT teacher, you tackle some of the trickiest math, grammar, and reading comprehension questions that a high-school student will ever face, and then you need to be able to relay it all in lucid, comprehensive explanations.

Most people will have a favorite part of the test, but bear in mind that you need to adapt to the student’s needs. That might mean spending extra time on your own becoming even better versed in whatever part of the test you least like. A comfort zone is not a good thing. The best SAT teachers are experts on—and enthusiastic about—every part of the test.


Never Settle

There’s so much more to say, but we’re going to keep this as general as possible to keep it short. To teach the SAT well, remember that you will always have room for improvement. Actively learn from your lessons. Constantly question your techniques and materials, try new things, and talk with others in the same boat to learn from their experiences, too.

And don’t stop reading here: keep exploring!



  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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