Coach or Tutor?

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By Paul Lim | Kaplan SAT & ACT Trainer

Without a doubt, I think most students join SAT test-prep courses to improve their scores.  But even with such a simple goal in mind, the expectations and roles of the students and teachers could be varied and far apart.  Some parents expect the students to learn the materials that they have not learned in school so that they can fill-in these “gaps” in order to score higher.  Others come in with a certain score range in mind and expect the teachers to “train” their children so that they can attain their dream score and go to a dream college or university.  Both are very common and typical expectations, but it’s the confusion and the inter-mixing of these roles that could be problematic.

In the first case, students and parents see the teachers as tutors.  They expect us to teach them the necessary subject areas and the necessary techniques (fill in the gaps) to help them improve their scores.  Once that is done, it is up to the students to get the highest scores that they could attain and the tutor would take little responsibility in the process of achieving that score.  This is just like sending their children to a tutoring center, in which the teachers teach whatever is necessary in order to supplement the deficiencies in school so that the students can achieve a better score in the public exams.  The tutor takes a very “standardized” approach and little responsibility for the results, because they are highly-dependent upon the ability of the students.

However, in the second case, the expectations are much higher.  Everybody has a goal in mind.  Everybody knows what they need to achieve, provided the goal is realistic and achievable.  In this case, the responsibility of the teacher is much heavier and broader.  He not only has to teach the “gaps” to the students, but also has to keep track of the student’s progress, know his weaknesses, and help him to overcome his weaknesses.  This kind of approach takes a lot more personal attention.  In this case, the role of the teacher becomes that of a coach, rather than a tutor.  A coach has to look at all aspects of the student’s life to find areas of improvement, even in the areas of physical health and psychology.  Is the student getting enough rest?  Is he able to focus his attention during the lesson?  Does he have ADHD?  Should the lessons be longer or shorter?  How much homework does he need to do?  How much classwork is appropriate?  These are important aspects of the student’s life that could have a major impact on his score.  And these are best done on a one-to-one basis, rather than in a class.  Because of the more intensive teacher-student interaction, I can observe the student directly in his work so that I can better understand how he goes through the problem-solving process and whether there are mistakes or weaknesses involved in that process.

In some cases, parents like to mix these roles and play the role of a coach.  Or worse, they think they know more than the coach.  They want to decide how many lessons the student need, how long is each lesson, and sometimes, they even want to determine what exercises are to be covered in which lesson.  As I said previously, some parents tend to think that they know more on how to improve SAT scores than I do.  This view is usually misguided, but not uncommon.  Unless they are experts in SAT test-prep, they should leave this role to us and trust us with our expertise and experience, and not to play the coaching role themselves.

Let me end this discussion with a real-life story about Andre Agassi, one of the greatest tennis player of all time.  In his autobiography, Agassi admitted to sending his children to learn and practise under other tennis coaches.  You can imagine how much pressure these coaches have.  But Agassi trusts the coaches, not because they are a better player than himself, but that they have the right expertise and experience to help his children to become a better tennis player.  The same should apply to your SAT test-prep coach.  When parents try to take over the role of a coach, the results are usually less than satisfactory.


Mr. Paul Lim

Kaplan SAT and ACT Trainer

MBA, National University of Singapore

B.Sc., Harvey Mudd College



  • Over 15+ years of experience in teaching SAT and ACT
  • Graduated from a prestigious U.S. college
  • Proven record in helping students achieve a perfect subject section score of 800
  • Author of a book on effective learning strategies for mastering vocabulary

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