Tenets of Test Prep


Spend as much time in the test prep industry as Mike Bergin has, and you'll develop strong opinions about teaching, education, and business. This is a platform for teachers to talk test prep.

Mike is the founder of Chariot Learning and creator of the Roots2Words vocabulary program. You might also know him as a nature writer.

Link: More Students Are Taking Both the ACT and SAT

Why, yes it does (if you’re smart about it!)

test prep SAT act

Ask me your test prep questions

How would you recommend a high-school student do solo test prep? Other than going through the study books and practice tests, how should we use our day-to-day school notes? (And just saying, I found your blog via 10,000 birds)

Hi swandeathgurgle. Good question, but you’ve already answered it. If you want to self-prep for the SAT or ACT, you should lean heavily on the Official SAT Study Guide and Real ACT Prep Guide for official practice tests. Take timed tests under simulated test conditions and thoroughly review all questions. If any organizations offer proctored practice tests in your area the way Chariot Learning does in the Rochester, NY area, take advantage of those events.

Also be open to getting some help either at the beginning of your process so you can learn perfect strategies or at the end when you need help getting past a certain level. Imagine if you wanted to learn how to play baseball at a high level… you wouldn’t try to go it alone. Instead, you’d bring in a coach at some point to make your efforts more efficient and effective.

As far as your day-to-day school notes go, I can’t imagine how they’d be useful in prepping for the SAT or ACT. Your high school science, history, literature, and even math classes are preparing you for other exams than the SAT and ACT.  

Test Prep or Subject Tutoring?

Presenting yourself as a teacher or tutor offers little insight into what you actually do on a day-to-day basis. The universe of things that can be taught or tutored is just too vast. But if you are a teacher or tutor, at some point you made a choice (or had one made for you) about what to focus on. Those fortunate souls who control their destinies make these choices on a regular basis. 

One important choice for any independent educator is whether to focus on test preparation or subject tutoring. Test prep and subject tutoring represent two sides of the same coin, but an emphasis on one or the other has a profound impact on how your services will be perceived in the marketplace. If your choice aligns well with what you are great at and what your market wants, you’ll be on the path to success and professional satisfaction. You probably understand the implications of a poor choice ;)

Most tutors and teachers have insight into what they do well and enjoy doing, two very different considerations. But committing to a certain kind of education becomes easier when you understand how your potential students and clients perceive your services. Consider the ways test prep and subject tutoring differ:

If you think the market is saturated with test prep options, look at how pervasive subject tutoring is. Everybody, it seems, is doing it. Subject tutoring is essentially fungible: one Spanish tutor seems just like every other one. This is not to say that a superior subject tutor cannot command a passionate following. But the basic calculus suggests that test prep is perceived to have higher value. How do we know? Because an hour of test prep tutoring can command a significant multiple—from 2x to 20x depending on the providers—of compensation over an hour of subject tutoring.  


At any given moment, so many more students are focused on school subjects than on specific tests that the need for subject tutoring clearly outweighs that for test prep. However, that need can be satisfied by free resources like office hours, afterschool help, peer tutoring, volunteer tutoring, or online resources like Khan Academy.  As long as standardized tests contribute to academic advancement and admissions decisions, the market will need test prep tutors, but society will always need more algebra tutors than SAT Math tutors. The challenge for subject tutors is to cut through the value concerns by establishing a more impressive and consistent return on investment than clients see from less expensive options. 

ADVANTAGE: Subject Tutoring

What is the price of failure in school or on a standardized test? The higher the stakes, the greater the perceived value of supplemental education. When it comes to grades in school, students don’t generally suffer much for earning grades lower than A, 100, or their equivalent. That is, until their performance fails to meet passing standards, at which point they suffer a great deal!

The stakes for test scores plot a similar graph. College admissions tests offer an excellent example for this point. Most students will be able to find a college that will accept them based on (or in spite of) their test scores up to a point. At some unknown but low percentile, students become more likely to find admission in community college or test optional schools.

Standardized tests are generally considered to have higher stakes attached, but providers that offer services to help students who struggle in school tend to do very well in most markets.  


The difference between school grades and test scores become much clearer when considering the rewards for each. What does the upgrade from a B+ to an A- earn a student? Warm congratulations and little else. What does an increase from 80th to 90th percentile on the GMAT earn a prospective MBA? Probably a tangible increase in potential earning power based on access to higher ranked business schools.

Better grades may mean a lot in the grand scheme of things, but higher scores on certain tests lead to clear and compelling rewards that incentivize test takers to invest in performance. 


What are some other reasons to consider focusing on either Test Prep or Subject Tutoring?

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Reblogged from satmemes

Test Prep Code of Ethics

Test prep can be tricky business. Providers need to adhere to the highest codes of ethics for both educators and business people. What exactly does that mean?

Ethical test prep providers do: 

  • cultivate realistic expectations about potential score improvements and the commitment required to achieve them 
  • individualize student programs to the fullest extent allowable in the chosen instructional model 
  • protect their clients’ investments of time and resources by providing their best possible professional counsel 

Ethical test prep providers do NOT: 

  • continue instruction past the point the provider feels the student has received as much benefit as he or she is capable of 
  • manipulate baseline or practice test scores to fabricate score improvements 
  • make unrealistic promises or guarantees 
  • misrepresent their own qualifications, experience, or knowledge 
  • blame students or parents for the provider’s own failings 
  • exacerbate test anxiety 

It should go without saying that ethical test prep providers most certainly do not advise students to cheat or cheat themselves by providing unfair assistance to students during their tests or taking tests for their students!

What else should ethical test prep teachers, tutors, and providers keep in mind when working with clients?

education test prep teaching tutoring ethics

Where Do You Tutor Students?

Living and working in the 21st century privileges us with options previously unthinkable to prior generations. The schoolmarm in that little, red, one-room schoolhouse never in her wildest dreams imagined that she might be able to teach her students in their homes, her home, her favorite coffee shop, or even from the other side of the globe. Then again, she may have felt that her dedicated learning environment perfectly fulfilled her educational ambitions. How about you? In the midst of an unprecedented array of options, do you consciously align your setting with your intended outcomes? Or do you just work where convenient? ;)

Consider all the choices tutors have today:

Working with students in home offers so many tangible advantages that this arrangement shouldn’t just be considered, but actively pursued. Not only do you alleviate the inconvenience of travel time for your student, but, in the case of younger students, you also facilitate a very high level of parent interaction. Plus you may get cookies!

- highest parent interaction
- familiar student environment
- in-home instruction commands a premium
- no facility costs

- transportation can be time-consuming
- transportation can be costly
- home environment may be unsuitable for instruction
- scheduling time for student and parent to be home can be challenging

Some tutors enjoy working amidst all of the comforts of home, as long as they are in their own homes. Creating your own teaching space with all the resources you could want at your fingertips can optimize instruction, while eliminating travel allows for more teaching time. Just make sure you keep your house clean.

- dedicated learning environment
- minimal facility costs
- potential tax benefits
- no travel time

- inconvenient for clients
- neighbors may disapprove
- can seem unprofessional

Making the move to an office or learning center is a signal that you are an established educational professional committed to a long-term relationship with your market. Or it may signal that you like to squander money on nonessential facility costs…

- dedicated learning environment
- very professional
- no travel time

- high facility costs
- long-term economic commitments
- can be inconvenient for clients

A mutually convenient location like a coffee shop or library can offer most of the benefits of your own office with none of the costs. On the other hand, Starbucks on a busy afternoon is as far from a dedicated learning environment as you’ll find. At least the coffee is always good!

- can be convenient for both teacher and student
- may have on-site refreshments

- learning environment may be compromised
- unpredictable
- distracting
- less professional

Working with students live online offers so much in the way of convenience. Unfortunately, much of that value is lost to laggy connections and limited rapport. Capturing the magic of an impactful student-teacher relationship remotely is far tougher than you’d think.

- extremely convenient for both tutor and student
- allows clients to shop based on quality, not geography
- allows tutor to serve larger or more specific markets

- learning environment may be compromised
- often requires tech support
- less professional

Where else do you tutor students?

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