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A sign you’re getting older: you start hearing your friends worry about their kids’ performance on the SAT. They all knew about the usual large-scale test-prep options, but I was curious about finding something on a smaller scale. More personal.

I started with Brian McElroy of McElroy Tutoring in Pacific Beach (619-820-2258; mcelroytutoring.com). He allowed that large companies have an advantage in the scheduling department. “They can, for example, offer a class every three hours on a given day. That’s quite hard for us. But I feel that our tutors have a lot more experience than some of the tutors at the larger companies. I’ve been doing this for over a decade, and our price for classes [$750] is comparable.”

McElroy says he also offers something closer to the real SAT. “Beware of the companies that give a free practice test. Those free tests can be overly difficult. It’s in the company’s best interest for you to get a low score. I’ve had students who took those tests. Their parents were calling me, panicked. I always ask if the test was a real SAT or an in-house test from Princeton Review or Revolution Prep. There are some dirty little secrets in this industry, and one of them is that the big test-prep companies don’t use official SATs for their practice tests, even though the college board that makes the SAT releases a book every year containing ten official tests. The big companies don’t want to pay the board for them, and they can make money selling their own materials.”

At McElroy Tutoring, “We offer ten two-and-a-half hour classes and three proctored, official SAT practice exams. They’re also called diagnostic exams, because we can use them to gauge the student. Typically, you want one at the beginning, one in the middle, and then one at the end.”

McElroy said that the majority of his time is given to private tutoring. “It saves time. You can focus on those areas where a student needs help. It’s also a better solution for students who already have high scores. The group classes are helpful for students in the middle-50th percentile, but once students get to the 80th percentile and above, they will tend to get bored in class. I’m the most expensive, $140 to $195 an hour, because I’ve been doing this for over a decade. But I give a discount if people pay in advance. Also, we offer scholarships on a case-by-case basis, especially for high-achieving students.” Other tutors at McElroy are more affordable, some charging $30 to $40 per hour. “Sometimes,” said McElroy, “you have a student with modest scores who just needs to make them a little better. They don’t need a genius, just someone with experience and patience.” Besides private tutoring, McElroy said, “I do have groups of students [usually no more than eight] who assemble to take a group class.”

Preparation involves “Equal time spent on the three sections of the SAT: critical reading, math, and writing. Maybe a bit more on math and writing, because those are the easiest areas to improve. On the math section, for example, we teach them that if they’re asked to solve for a variable, they can just plug in the possible choices and use arithmetic to solve the question instead of algebra. That saves you a lot of time, and it’s more accurate.” Improvement in the writing section, he said, can be attained by memorizing a set of grammatical rules. “Strategies like that can result in big improvement.”

Next, I called Dr. Cristin McVey at College of My Choice in La Jolla (858-458-5930; collegeofmychoice.com). “I do a lot of private tutoring [$95 for 70 minutes] in SAT and ACT prep, and I help students to write good application essays.” For classes, “I mainly do five two-and-a-half-hour small workshops of six to eight students [$449]. For every type of student, there’s a different type of program that works. A student who is a good classroom learner would probably do fine in a bigger class. But I’m able to personalize things.”

McVey stressed the increasing popularity of the ACT as an alternative entrance-test option. “I think it’s good to take a diagnostic test for both the ACT and the SAT. If you have a student who is good at math and science, then the ACT may be a better fit when applying to college, because it includes a science section. It can be a real advantage.”

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