How to Avoid Bad Tutors, or At Least Know What You’re Getting

Before my schedule started filling so far in advance, about 25% of my students came to me after other tutors failed them. I still work with two or three families a year who’ve had a nightmarish experience with another tutor. Sometimes, the situation was merely a case of an unfortunate mismatch between tutor and student. Usually, though, it was because the family had chosen an incompetent or barely competent tutor.

This series of blog posts is intended to help parents and students avoid wasting time and money on such tutors. How? I’ll present a series of bad tutor types.

From these types, you’ll learn the clear warning signs of a bad tutor. Further, you’ll learn what questions to ask a potential tutor to make certain that you’re finding the best fit.

Of course, many such posts are available on the internet. Two I can recommend. The first is by long-time industry insider Akil Bello, who provides outstanding overall background for choosing a test prep program. (Oddly, the “Teaching Quality” section can be profitably skipped past.) PWN the SAT’s six questions for a potential SAT tutor can be modified pretty easily if you want to evaluate ACT tutors instead.

After thousands of conversations with students and parents, though, I think a more substantive exploration of vetting tutors (and particularly avoiding bad ones) is necessary. Taking my cue from Theophrastus’ inimitable Characters, I think observing bad tutor archetypes will provide families with a helpful way to navigate this area of college applications.

The very worst tutors offer not just one of these archetypes, but rather a combination of them. Indeed, even good tutors sometimes have an off day where they’ll momentarily fall into one of these archetypes. But the horror stories can often be found in some awful admixture of the bad tutor archetypes.

While it might seem obvious that a bad tutor is a bad thing, most families don’t bother worrying about whether a tutor is bad until it’s late in the application process, creating even more stress for students as they attempt a last-minute scramble for better scores (either on their own or with a new tutor they’ve just met). All while trying to write college essays and pass their regular classes, of course. To me, this is insane.

But it isn’t completely a family’s fault when this happens. After all, in the service industries, if you don’t like the service, you don’t go back. Bad service at that restaurant? Nope, not going there again. Think your old accountant stunk last year? Get a new one this year. That’s how we typically approach the service industries, occasionally adding the recommendation of a friend to help our search.

Test prep, though, isn’t typically like that. This is for three primary reasons:

  • You never get the time back.

Parents and students often think in terms of financial cost alone. Yet time cost is equally important. Not least because a year and a half of bad tutoring often costs more than fifteen weeks of good tutoring. And the time lost on regular studies and extracurricular activities is irredeemable.

  • Each kid is different.

We could actually make this analogous to eating out. Let’s say you absolutely loathe burgers, but your friend is adamant that you should try this new restaurant because, wait for it, the burgers. Yeah, you’re not going.

With test prep, some kids need help improving reading skills, others math. Some are stuck scoring 12s, and others are shooting for 36s (ACT scale). Those students have very different needs. Not every tutor (in fact, few) can handle the entire range of needs for every sort of student.

To give a specific example, one that is based on a true tutor horror story, a tutor who can’t understand the difference between a colon and a semicolon is not a good fit for a student struggling with the ACT’s English section or SAT’s Writing and Language section.

There are plenty of tutors who can address most general problems, provided your student and their specific skills align. It’s imperative to figure out that alignment before you invest time and money in a tutor.

  • Confidence is easily lost.

Whether simply demotivating or truly confidence shattering, horror-show tutors can take months to recover from—months that most students don’t have.

Sometimes tutors are demotivating and discouraging because they don’t adjust their instructional approach to the individual student. By this, I don’t mean to reference the misunderstood and mostly debunked pedagogical approach that involves “individual learning styles,” which is a misguided attempt to account for multiple intelligences theory. Rather, I mean adjusting tutorial approaches to the student needing the tutoring—nurturing the ones who need nurturing, motivating the stressed or slacking, and so on. Bad tutors either never adjust or, worse, expect their students to adjust to them.

The adjust-to-me-and-my-approach – which may not even be an approach, as you’ll see – can shatter a student’s confidence, particularly if it’s already weak. Dropping confidence before college applications and college itself is about the last thing a student needs. Thus, considering how a potential tutor might influence a student’s confidence is a more important question than many families realize. (And yes, I’ve seen confident students nearly wrecked by bad tutors before.)

As you’ve probably surmised by now, finding the right tutor for a student involves more than the obvious questions. Now those questions – What do you charge? What is the average improvement? – are essential questions. But knowing the deeper context behind such questions will turn you from neophyte to expert consumer, one ready to navigate the tutor-finding terrain. This series is intended to give you that context so you can ask better questions and better interpret a potential tutor’s responses to them.

Sample questions will appear at the beginning of each terrible-tutor post. This way, you’ll have  them in mind while you read through full context of what those questions are supposed to expose—the warning signs of a bad tutor.

Ready to meet the first nightmare tutor? Here comes The Drill Sergeant!