F.A.Q. (Frequently Asked Questions)


Which is the better test for my child: SAT or ACT?

            The new SAT will be very similar to the ACT. There is a significant amount of overlap between the two tests—especially in the Math, Grammar, and Reading sections.
            Some minor differences between the two tests:

1.     The ACT has a Science section, which is actually more of a reading test, one that measures how quickly and precisely students can interpret scientific data, as presented in charts and graphs.

2.     The SAT Essay will ask students to read and analyze historical documents—and then synthesize their analyses into one essay.         

            For students who want classroom tutoring:

            I will give your child a diagnostic test, to see which test will be better for your child. The           results of this test can help you decide which class to sign up for—ACT or SAT.



For students who want private (1-on-1) or pairs tutoring:
I will give your child a diagnostic exam. If your child shows a clear preference for one test, it’s better to focus on that test. On the other hand, your child might show no clear preference, and it might take 6 or 7 sessions to decide which test better suits him/her. With private or pairs tutoring, there is more flexibility to explore and decide which right test. There is a significant amount of overlap between the two tests anyway, and in the first 6 or 7 sessions, I teach lessons that apply to both tests.


Some students decide to take both tests—at least for their first exam, in the winter or spring of junior year—to leave their options open. Later—over the summer, say—some of these students focus on only one of the tests. Others end up sending both SAT and ACT scores to colleges, to present the most comprehensive profile.

For students planning to apply for extended-time accommodations:          

            Please read endnote (last page of this letter)[i] 



When should my child begin tutoring?

For the classroom option:

SAT and ACT classes will start in July, September, October, or January. Please refer to the         previous pages.


For private or pairs tutoring:
            Private or pairs-tutoring students have several options. One option is to begin the summer           before junior year and go straight through to the January/March exams. Others begin with 6       to 8 rudimentary sessions over the summer—but then take September and October off, to             focus on junior-year classes and/or fall sports; these students then resume tutoring in           November, and are usually ready for the April or May exams.

When Should My Child Begin Tutoring (cont’d)…Some Special Cases:


1.     Recruited athletes should start tutoring as early as possible—perhaps sophomore year or the summer before junior year—since the vast majority of colleges will require that athletes have all of their testing done by June of junior year.

2.     Students who are within striking distance of the National Merit Scholarship—a combined score of approximately 180 on the 10th grade-PSAT[ii]—might also want to start as early as possible. The reason is that the qualifying test for National Merit is the PSAT that students take in October of junior year.

3.     Accelerated math students (those who have skipped a year of math—and/or will take Calculus junior year) might also want as early as possible. Why? The math section on both the ACT and SAT will cover concepts through Pre-Calculus only, so accelerated math students might want to start early so that they can take the ACT/SAT early—at the beginning of junior year or even the end of sophomore year—while the Pre-Calculus concepts are fresh in their heads. If accelerated math students start tutoring in November of junior year or later, they might have to review too much of the concepts from Pre-Calculus. An “Honors” starting this July is specifically geared toward accelerated math students.



I want private tutoring for my child. Should I choose the 1-hour option or the 1-hour-15 minutes?

            The vast majority of students who choose private tutoring should get tutoring for 1 hour-15 minutes. If the student’s starting scores are high (above 60 per section on the PSAT and above a 27 on the PLAN), then he/she can get by with 1-hour sessions, although longer sessions are safer.




I’m unsure of the best option: private, pairs, or classroom?


            Private (one-on-one) tutoring offers the most individualized teaching and the most comprehensive curriculum. If the student’s starting scores are below 50 per section on the SAT or below 21 on the PLAN, I strongly recommend that students do private tutoring.

            If you’re concerned about costs, may I suggest that you try one of these options:
            A) Start with classroom or pairs tutoring, but switch to private tutoring later. (The summer before senior year or the fall of senior year.)

            B) Start with private tutoring—the shorter, 1-hour option. But keep open the possibility that we might have to switch to longer sessions a couple months before the first test. Please keep in mind, though, that students who start with shorter sessions or with classroom or pairs tutoring often end up taking longer to finish, and so it might be better to do private sessions anyway, to increase the chances that students will be done as soon as possible.

            Also, please keep in mind that the cost of tutoring is an investment in your child’s future, one that equals only a fraction of a year’s tuition at private schools, and only a small fraction of just one year’s college tuition. This investment can make a tremendous difference in college admissions, which affects graduate school admissions, and future job opportunities. Furthermore, often the investment pays for itself. Every year many of my students receive scholarships and grant aid from colleges—often totaling more than $70,000 for all four years. Perhaps most important: although I help with standardized tests, I always re-teach the fundamentals of math, grammar, and reading skills. In the past, students have told me that my classes have also helped them improve in their regular school courses: physics, English, History, and even college mathematics.

What happens after the first SAT/ACT test in the spring of junior year?

            The vast majority of students take these tests 2 or 3 times. Most students continue with tutoring in the fall of senior year or over the summer. A lucky few are done completely. Some students feel comfortable enough with the tests to take them senior year without my guidance. (Or they need only 4 or 5 sessions again in the fall of senior year).




Do you offer mock exams?

            Yes.  I offer mock exams on the weekends. These exams are held at St. Francis College and will be on a staggered schedule: Saturday one week, Sunday the next, then Saturday again, etc.




My child’s school already has an in-house tutoring agency. How are you different from the teachers at the big agencies?

            In general, the franchise agencies hire young teachers, often recent college graduates without significant classroom experience, and ask them to teach from the standardized, “cookie-cutter” script. This model has some advantages and disadvantages. Some of the teaching from the chain agencies can be excellent, but sometimes the teaching can be inconsistent. I believe that the college-admissions tests are too important to be scripted and “farmed out” to recent college graduates. I have almost 20 years’ experience teaching in the classroom: I’ve taught upper-school Pre-Calculus and Geometry;  fifth-form American Literature; sixth-form Expository Writing; and sixth-form Fiction & Poetry—all at a competitive private school in New York City. I’ve also taught English Composition at Boston University and at a local college near Chicago. And of course for many years now I’ve taught standardized tests through Merit Scholars Tutoring.




If my child starts out with tutoring in a pairs or in a class, can my child switch to private later?

            Yes. For pairs and classroom tutoring, I ask that parents pay for the sessions in advance, toward a targeted test date. Each class will have a targeted test date (and test type): for example, “the March SAT or the April ACT class.” After the targeted test date, the student can continue to the next targeted test date. Or switch to other, more individualized tutoring options.



How can you help students with college-application essays?

            I can guide students through the entire process of writing the essay: from initial brainstorming to final draft. Many students, however, just use me as the final editor of essays they’ve worked on previously; one of my strengths is trimming down essays dramatically so that they fit the required length required by colleges. In my twenties I co-edited a book called “Watermark: Vietnamese-American Poetry & Prose” (Asian-American Writers Workshop: 1998)
            The following is an essay that I edited, to help a student get accepted to Columbia.


      STUDENT’S DRAFT: 489 Words

My back was aching. I was limping from pain in my shins and knees. My hands were throbbing from the blisters on my palms. My wrists were sore from the wrist-guards I had to wear. By thirteen, I had been a competitive gymnast for eight years. This sport was my life, four hours a day, five days a week, with meets across the country on many weekends. What I loved about the sport was the adrenaline rush: the jittery nerves before the competitions; the thrill of doing round-off back-handsprings on a four-inch beam, and the satisfaction of sticking a double-layout dismount off the uneven bars.

Although I could beat the boys in my grade in arm wrestling, my body had suffered. My doctors said it was time to quit; they felt that the intensive training was causing too many injuries. When I was barely able to walk after winning two golds and a silver at my Nationals competition, I knew I couldn’t tolerate the pain any longer. I was used to pushing myself beyond my limits. To me, quitting gymnastics meant that I was giving up.

I went to the gym to tell my coach about my decision. I saw my teammates and friends getting ready for practice. I felt jealous, knowing that I would never be in their place again. My eyes started to water as I spoke to my coach. “I knew this was coming,” Ann said, “You’ve been limping around the gym for six months. It’s going to be hard to let you go!” she said as she hugged me. My whole life was going to be different. I felt like I would no longer be special.

I had always loved art, but soon after quitting gymnastics I found myself drawing illustrations, figures, and fashion designs for hours in my new free time after school. I also started drawing and sewing classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology on the weekends. I realized it wasn’t just the intense physical activity that I loved about gymnastics, it was also its beauty and elegance. The movement and lines that the body created while performing difficult routines inspired me to put pencil to paper.

I discovered that repeating a movement until I got it perfectly in gymnastics also applied to my artwork. I find myself redrawing pieces until they are to my exact liking. My line work is completely exaggerated, almost to the point of absurdity, just like the poses I was told to make while saluting the judges, or sticking a landing.  I had a talent for figure drawing, which came naturally after eight years of learning to use and manipulate my body, and watching others do the same.

What I began to understand was that, unlike the constant physical demands of gymnastics, nothing could stop me from creating art. I know I will have art forever, and that it will always reflect my years as a gymnast.



            (Please see edited version on the next page.)



By the time I was thirteen, I had spent eight years as a world-class junior gymnast—a career that amounted to 1,600 days and 12,800 hours in the gym. Gymnastics had occupied my life, four hours a day, five days a week, with meets across the country and on most weekends. What I loved about the sport was the adrenaline rush, the discipline it instilled, and the fact that it inspired me to push myself beyond my limits. By thirteen I had been blessed with two gold medals and one silver at Nationals.

But I had also battered my body. My back ached.  My hands throbbed with blisters. I limped from the pain in my shins and knees. I could barely walk. 

My doctors said it was time to quit. I refused: to me quitting meant giving up. But eventually I knew that I had no choice. I went to the gym to tell my coach. I saw my teammates, who were my life-long friends, getting ready to practice. I felt jealous, and profoundly sad, knowing I would never be in their place again. My eyes started to water as I told my coach. “I knew it,” Ann said. “You’ve been limping for months. It’s going to be hard to let you go!” she said, hugging me.

My whole life was going to be different. I felt that I would no longer be special. Worse, I felt that I had lost my center. In a sense I felt as if I’d lost a pair of limbs. The sense of loss was that intense. I didn’t know what to do with myself, what to do with my days, my weekends, my months. Gymnastics had been my physical guide but, in a sense, my spiritual and artistic guide as well. As melodramatic as it sounds, I felt as if I had lost a part of my soul. I spent a few weeks moping. I was a bit bitter—at my body, at my life, at my Destiny. (I was thirteen after all.)

Eventually, on the advice of my Mom, I took some weekend drawing and sewing classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After school, I found myself drawing illustrations, figures, and fashion designs. Although, on the surface, it seemed that gymnastics was worlds away from my new life, it was, I soon realized, still inside me. Once a passion finds its way inside your heart, it never really leaves. For example, the sense of aesthetics particular to gymnastics—the movement, the line, the color of the team uniforms—has parallels in the fashion world. Furthermore, I discovered that repeating a movement until I got it perfectly in gymnastics also applied to my artwork. I found myself redrawing pieces until they were to my exact liking. And my line work in drawing was completely exaggerated, almost to the point of absurdity, just like the poses I made in gymnastics while saluting the judges or sticking a landing. By the end of the class, I discovered that I had a talent for figure drawing, which probably came naturally after I had spent eights years sculpting my body for gymnastics.

Now I want to study art and fashion design in college, with a possible future career in fashion.  What I’ve come to understand was that, unlike the human body, which can be frail and fragile and finite, nothing can stop me from loving and creating art. I know that I will have art forever, and that it will always reflect my love of gymnastics.

When I was told that I had to quit gymnastics, I felt as if something inside me had died. What I didn’t realize was that what had died were my youth and immaturity, and in their place would bloom wisdom and maturity.


[i] The SAT vs. ACT decision could hinge on which test will grant your child extended-time. Ideally, both tests will grant him/her extended-time. But if only one test does so—historically, the SAT is more lenient in terms of approving extended-time—then your child is most likely better off focusing on the test for which he/she has been approved for extended-time. Please know that the two exams are separate, rival corporations; so if your child already has been granted extended-time by one test, you still have to apply for accommodations with the other test.

[ii] The PSAT score is given as a “Selection Index” on your child’s PSAT score report, which was given to the students this past December.