A Parrot reads from an "E-Z ACT" prep book to an increasingly annoyed student.

The Parrot

How do you avoid the read-aloud-pro Parrot? Here are some questions for finding the plumage of The Parrot:

  • What books or study materials do you use?
  • Did you work for [Company X] if you’re using [Company X’s] materials?
  • Why did you choose these particular study guides or practice materials?
  • Will my student be using any official practice tests?

Few tutors are a worse investment than The Parrot. Many of the other terrible tutoring types – The Washed-Up Teacher, The Never Tester, The Triple Threat – double as The Parrot, making for a twice-as-pointless tutoring experience. But The Parrot is a particular breed of tutoring awfulness, with or without the additional archetypal flaws.

One way to quickly recognize Parrots is from the materials they use. Does your prospective tutor use official ACT and SAT materials, or those of some other publisher – say Barron’s, Kaplan, or Princeton Review? Put briefly: Never work with a tutor who doesn’t use official materials.

Now let’s say your prospective tutor works for one of those companies or used to. That isn’t parroting, but teaching from materials they’ve been semi-steeped in. (Such tutors should still pair them with official ACT and SAT materials, but that’s another matter.) Parrots, though, have never worked for the company whose book they use. No,The Parrot uses Princeton Review’s book, for example, because The Parrot has no individual expertise. Rather, The Parrot repeats back to students what is literally the advice found within the pages of the book.

Often times, The Parrot will never even make use of official practice tests from the ACT or SAT. Oh no, that would demonstrate familiarity with the ACT or SAT. But The Parrot has no such expertise. He or she can only tell you what this generic guide book says, something you could easily (and freely) do for yourself. Indeed, some Parrots haven’t even read the guide they teach from.

That isn’t an exaggeration: I’ve observed multiple ACT and SAT tutors open up to the book’s answer key and explanations to read them aloud to their students. The Parrot’s creaseless book and intrigued look are obvious tells of unfamiliarity. “Let’s see what they say.” Uh… what?

The worst of the Parrots go a step further (or maybe better said, don’t even get off the couch): they tell students to just read the book for guidance. “Follow those strategies.” “Just read what’s in the guide.” As confused students gaze with eyes pleading for guidance, The Parrot intones, “Read the book.” No help for the student will be found here, at least not from the tutor you’re paying to provide that help.

This, then, is The Parrot: The advice of another is suggested, with no idea whether that advice is good or particular to the individual student. You see, some advice is generically true for most students, which is what a study guide attempts to approximate. The Parrot doesn’t know the difference between generally true and specifically applicable for this student. And specifics are precisely what you pay a tutor for. Any idiot can offer inapplicable, generic advice. Unfortunately, The Parrot is that idiot, but one you’re paying for supposed expertise.

The Parrot lurks in all sorts of corners, masquerading as an expert. In one recent example, I received a panicked call from a prestigious private school. They’d run an ACT course in the fall wherein the teacher had guaranteed a two-point improvement, and the teacher had originally advertised a three-point improvement before the school itself changed it to two. Now this ACT prep teacher had been a classroom teacher and been trained by a national ACT prep company (I won’t name which, but it’s received millions in VC funding). So you’d expect expertise. And yet this apparent expert used unofficial materials from a different national company and guaranteed a two-point improvement per student. Meanwhile, that company whose materials this Parrot used only guaranteed a one-point improvement using those exact same materials. That’s right, our ever-industrious Parrot didn’t even know the limits of the materials used. Many of the students did not improve as The Parrot advertised; and, to make matters worse, no plan was in place for the course’s failure. A truly special Parrot!

But this is, in fact, the natural habitat of The Parrot – incompetency after incompetency. And yet, because they use materials from nationally-recognized companies, Parrots appear to be helpful, intelligent tutors.

I should mention that tutors who creatively incorporate materials that others have created aren’t Parrots. For example, I merrily use PWN the SAT’s Math Guide with some of my students because the book is about 90% reflective of what I’d have designed for my own students. Instead of wasting my time recreating what is already an outstanding book – and here I’d note that I’m not suggesting I’d have mirrored every virtue of Mike’s work – I can focus on that remaining 10% (and my long-in-development SAT math app).

Further, Mike and I often make similar points about the SAT math section, but just as children sometimes tune out their parents, students sometimes tune out their tutor’s voice. Thus, I use PWN the SAT: Math Guide to delay students tuning me out and to reinforce core SAT math principles. So used in concert with official SAT or ACT materials and alongside a tutor’s own aids (in my case, handouts, book, apps, and other instruments of torture), non-proprietary resources can be of great benefit. But The Parrot realizes not this benefit, instead relying upon the outside, unofficial resource as the only or supreme guide.

Now you know the difference between how a good tutor uses materials and how The Parrot flutters around aimlessly. Further, rather than paying for a regular “Polly wanna cracker?,” you know how to suss out the inept habits of The Parrot. So let’s avoid that pandemonium.

Want to learn about other tutor types to avoid? Check out the intro to this series as well as my page listing all of the bad tutor types covered so far. If you’re in need of testing tips, you can find some here and even more in Tips from the Top.